Fifth

Photo by Daniel Bowman

Photo by Daniel Bowman

Orange is his favorite color, five his favorite number. Winter—though he knows he will get punched for even thinking it—is his favorite season. This winter, with blizzards every Monday, has been a bit nuts even for him, but he knows this is an anomaly, that we’ll be back to snowmen and sledding soon enough.

When he looks at the doorframe to his house, splintered into a half-dozen pieces by the falling ice he has no ladder to remove, he does not despair. He knows that all frozen things must thaw. And he knows that all solid things must fall, even houses. Families.

He likes winter because it is honest, because it occupies that space between death (autumn) and life (spring), because it occupies that space without certainty, without clarity, without any promises good or bad.

He also likes winter because he can put on his orange jacket, pull the hood up over his head and tight around his face, and because he was born on a winter day, just like this one, the fifth of a month that is forever marching toward life and certainty and all that jazz, but which is still rooted in the chaos of snowflakes falling from the sky, falling to wherever chance takes them. Chance, and the wind, and so many other things.

Falling, then piling, then melting. Then falling again.

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Fourth

Photo by Dave Meier

Photo by Dave Meier

She is the kind of girl who would never have acknowledged his existence, back in the day. But now, now that he is wrinkled and gray and round in the middle—now that he is not threat, in other words, and not an option—now she sits on the other side of his desk and talks absentmindedly of the race she will run this summer. She smiles with abandon, a perfect set of straight white teeth, save for the snaggletooth, which reminds him of someone from long ago, someone who had acknowledged him and later came to regret it.

He is a man who fixates on things. In the picture she shows him of last year’s race, he cannot stop staring at the splotches of blue paint on her tan thighs, the green paint spattered across her flushed face, the pink paint in her brown hair.

“People throw it at you,” she explains, “as you run the race. It’s all about diversity.”

“Must take forever to wash off,” he says.

“Nah,” she says, waving dismissively at him. “Besides,” she says, “if it does take a bit longer than usual, isn’t that the point?”

He smiles at her. She smiles back.

They turn to the subject of her paper, the one he has just graded, and she takes in his recitation of his written feedback while chewing on the end of a pencil and nodding. She writes nothing down, but he doesn’t fault her for this. He’s not really say anything of interest, anything he hasn’t said more eloquently in writing. He is unfocused. Or, rather, he is focused, but on the wrong thing: he is still thinking about paint-spattered thighs.

She collects her bag and thanks him for his time. On her way out the door, she pauses, looks back over her shoulder, and gives him one last smile.

The girl with the snaggletooth from back in the day, she smiled at him once. And he’d written her a love letter in return. It wasn’t the first time he overreacted to a simple kindness, this love-starved lad, and it wasn’t the last. They never spoke again, though, he and the snaggletoothed girl. He didn’t blame her. How could he? He may not have known it then, but he knew it now, after many hours spent looking in the mirror and searching for the right word.

Creep.

He was a creep, and he always would be. Good for them, he thought, for seeing that earlier than he had. Good for them for keeping a safe distance.

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

Third

Photo by Kaley Dykstra

Photo by Kaley Dykstra

Chained to her desk, to her empty bank account, to the children who look to her every day for the answers she isn’t sure she has. Chained to the old machines they have saddled her with, with their broken sprockets and their outdated widgets. Chained, she struggles through each day, the shackles rubbing her wrists and ankles raw.

But, though the key sits in her pocket, she will not free herself from these burdens. The cloudy spots in the woodwork of her desk remind her of the lunches she let sit too long, their heat gone by the time they reached her tongue. The pencils in her mug, nothing but erasers and the last bits of graphite. The mug itself, chipped on the side where she always sips, the gold of her alma mater’s logo flaking away. All of it reminds her.

When the assistant, the college kid here to learn the ropes and ease her load, when the college kid looks stunned by her candor, by the answers she isn’t afraid to give, she does not feel guilty. The kid should know what he is getting himself into. She didn’t.

She wonders if she would have made a different choice. But then, then one of her students brings her a piece of paper and a crooked smile (too many teeth on one side, too few on the other). On the paper is scrawled the misspelled, grammatically horrifying tale of a mermaid who wants to swim to the ocean beyond this one. ‘The ocean beyond this one,’ she reads aloud to the college kid, and the two of them smile at each other.

The chains are still there. And yet, for a moment, they don’t weigh the same.

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

Second

The two men stood on the first of the two peaks, their eyes fixed on the thick scarf of fog wrapped around the mountain still ahead of them. The first man looked to the second, his cheeks nearly as red as his eyes, and the second man nodded. They would keep on keeping on.

Up into the clouds they climbed, up along the same ridge their ancestors had walked in search of the gods. Up into the clouds they climbed, in search of something far less holy than those who had come before. Up they went, with sheets of instructions folded in their back pockets, directions on how to get higher than high, to reach beyond where the mountain took them.

At the top, amongst other bodies with other leaflets, they took their jackets off, and then their shirts. Then, everything else. When they were naked and shivering, they fought. They wrestled each other to the ground and rolled around in the snow. Whenever one of them got the upper hand, he used this advantage to claw at the eyes of the man whose chest he straddled. This didn’t last long. Sensing the end, the weakened man found new strength, a second wind.

All around them, the men who had fought before sat watching. Or, well, they would have watched, if they still had eyes to see. And they would have listened, if they still had ears to hear.

The two men fought until one no longer fought, no longer moved. And then the victor—the survivor—he fell to the ground, his body so hot that the snow burned him with cold. He felt with his fingers for the place where his eyes used to be, his ears. Then he remembered what instructions said to do.

He breathed in, then out. In, then out. Until there was no difference between the two. Until he was neither in nor out. Until he simply was.

And then wasn’t.

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

First

Photo by Chris Davis

Photo by Chris Davis

Out into the sunset they go. And tomorrow morning, from the sunrise, they will return. Boat upon boat upon boat makes its way out of the harbor and into the deep water, pushing past where the last of the ice is beginning to crack and budge.

In the wake of each vessel swim fierce creatures, undeterred by the cold, chasing these machines to adventure, to frivolity. On deck, we passengers point at the things in the water, the ones who stayed behind when our ancestors crawled out onto the beaches of the world. We point and smile from the safety of the deck, and then we wave. The merfolk wave back.

Soon, soon we are out on the open sea. We carouse and we dance beneath more stars than we have ever imagined possible, more stars than we have seen since winter forced us back to our bright lights and our big cities, where the stars stand no chance in the sky above. There are more stars still, if only we have the courage to keep going, to push past the places where our own lights end. Soon, we say, as we wrap ourselves in blankets. Soon.

But, for now, this will do. The ice recedes, and in the sky the sun bleeds into the blue.

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

Proof

Photo by Ales Krivec

Photo by Ales Krivec

Snow’s piled high as the top of the wooden fence, an intruder that won’t be kept out, that can’t be told to get off your lawn, old man.

You sit on your porch, in a throne carved by your red plastic shovel, and you drink a Budweiser while you watch the man with the clipboard trudge down the middle of the street. His black pants are splattered with gray-white dirt up to his knees, and his shoes look so filthy even a trip back in time to your father’s shoeshine stand—the most beloved in the city, and don’t you forget it—could not save them now.

The man with the clipboard pauses and stares at a snowbank that has been formed and shaped around an unmoved jalopy. He produces a phone from his pocket and holds it at arm’s length, taking a picture of himself in front of the strange sight. And then he moves on, typing out a message with his reddened thumbs in this bitter cold. You want to yell at him, like you yell at your grandchildren, to put on some goddamned gloves, but you don’t. These kids today, they need to prove they were here. They need evidence. The brains between their ears, those things aren’t good enough, not anymore. A brain is no longer admissible in the court of public opinion.

You remember a time when you walked across the city, with your sisters and your little brother, pushing through mile after mile to reach the home of your nearest relations. This was the day after your mother put her head in the oven, and you heard the cops were coming to split up the family. You remember looking back at your siblings, huddled in their rags, then looking past them for the footprints you'd left behind. But it was still snowing, snowing hard, and the footprints were gone.

But you knew where you'd been, and that was good enough.

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Homophones

Photo by Fré Sonneveld

Photo by Fré Sonneveld

I see the sea, and the sea sees me.

When I told the sexton and the sexton tolled the bell, I married Mary and we were well.

And merry, of course.

But it did not last for Mary and I, for Mary and I, though we saw eye to eye, could never hear what was here in this here to be heard when the herd came on home from the place where they roam. Or, rather, we could each hear a thing, but not the same thing, and that was the thing that ended the thing.

When someone spoke the sentence true, Mary wasn’t merry like me or like you. She scowled when she heard all those words said aloud and she said such a thing ought not be allowed.

It was nonsense to her, this bit about bison. I tried to convince her, way more than twice, son. But she wouldn’t listen, and now, yes, she roams, speaking the sentence from here until Rome:

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

Again

Photo by Melody Sy

Photo by Melody Sy

When I am old, I want to live in a house that looks as decrepit as I feel, in the middle of a jungle that’s been growing since long before I was born. I want its walls to be a mix of gray and white, to be weathered by life and nature on both the inside and the out, as I will be.

I want to collect the rain water that pours in during monsoon season in an array of worn cast iron pots and pans. I want animals to crawl in through the glassless windows, on vines that hang from their beds to mine. I want them to watch me while I’m sleeping, ready to eat me when I’m gone, to return me to the circle of life like in that movie about lions that made me weep, once upon a time.

I want to be alone, punished for all those years of worrying about dying when I should have been worried about living, or not worrying at all. I want to lie there, on the second floor, my face pressed into the crack between two floor boards, looking down at the place where my children and my grandchildren once played, before my bitterness and anger drove them away for good. I want to cry so hard I hallucinate, like that time when I yelled so loud and hard about football that I saw stars. I want to cry so hard that I see the children again. Maybe the wife, too.

And then I want to close my eyes and begin again.

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

Hurts

The goat rests on the small girl’s lap as she plucks briars from the back of his neck. He’d managed to rid himself of the rest with a frantic roll through the weeds, but these last few just would not come loose. And so, he has gone to the place where the girl plays, and he has leapt over another row of bushes, chancing further aggravation in the hope she will set him free.

She is patient, this girl, the only one her little brother will sit still for on Sundays when it is time to comb his angry mop of tangled blonde hair, and she pulls the briars from the goat’s fur with the same diligence. If there is a choice between yanking a hair and pricking her finger, she will bleed before hurting him.

Years from now, when she has crossed the ocean and made her way to America, when she has married the mechanic who will only make love to her after he has made love to the bottle, she will remember the goat in the weeds. She will remember to stroke the hair of the man who has done what is expected of him, even as he cries into the warmth of her bosom. She will work her fingers across his scalp inch by inch, rubbing and scratching, rubbing and scratching, until every hurt is gone, until he—like the goat—is staring into the middle distance, unsure of how he got here, but thankful just the same.

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

Flat Water

A boat on flat water, tied up in an empty canal—that, right there, is the saddest thing I ever done seen.

A boat wants to be free; she wants to roam. But, not only that, she wants the waves. We don’t, the men what pilot her, but the boat herself, she craves the challenge of climbing a slope of water tall as a mountain. She yearns to prove herself, to come back right side up after going under, to do the sorts of things no other boat has ever done.

She doesn’t need a port to rest in, for she doesn’t need to rest. It’s we men who need the comforts of a warm bed and a hot supper. She, the boat, she don’t want her sails tucked away. She don’t want her decks empty and silent. What she wants is a belly full of rum, a crew as crazy as she is, and an open sea before her.

Let her loose, says I. See what she can do.

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.