Drafts Goes Daily Again in September 2015

The author and his elf doppelgänger at Santa's Village, 2015

The author and his elf doppelgänger at Santa's Village, 2015

When I announced back in May that I was scaling my Draft a Day project back to a draft per week, I thought it was a stroke of genius. I thought it would give me more time to write fiction for submission to magazines, more time to polish my novel for pitching to agents, more time for everything else creative in my life.

I was wrong. I have produced no writing this summer, outside of the writing you’ve seen published weekly on Patreon and here on my Website.

Now, part of that — a ginormous part of that — is because my family had to sell our house and move, and part of it (another ginormous chunk) is that I’ve been stay-at-home dad to my two kids this summer, but an even greater problem has been the pressure I’ve put on myself to make each week’s story something special.

When I was writing a draft each day, that was one kind of pressure — the pressure to produce, to write every day — but writing a draft a week was something else entirely. With a whole week to produce each piece, I thought I owed it to my readers to publish something more polished, more considered, more everything.

As I tweeted back in May 2010 and then expanded upon that June, “There will always be stress in life. The trick is to figure out which stresses are worth it in the end.”

The stress of publishing a finished story every week — whatever ‘finished’ might mean — is far different stress from the stress of publishing whatever bit of fiction falls out of my head during a daily warm-up.

And that stress — the stress of the weekly story — it hit me so hard that most weeks, most weeks this summer I didn’t write anything at all.

Many of the stories I published this summer were stories pulled from my novel-in-progress. Others were pieces I’d had sitting around for ages. Only a small percentage of the work published from June through August was new.

That means that I’ve also depleted, for the most part, what few options I had for submitting to magazines. And the option to submit to magazines was, of course, was one of the primary reasons I decided to move to a once-per-week model in the first place.

So, I fucked up. And I’m going back to publishing daily beginning September 1. My Patreon supporters can look forward to their advanced peek on Monday, August 31.

Thanks for your continued support of me and your interest in my work.

The Man You’ll Turn Him Into

Veronica crouched at the foot of the Christmas tree, reaching under its lowest branches for the red metal stand that held the dying fir upright. Pine needles hailed down on her bare arm as she fumbled around for the first screw, her hand scraping against the trunk and slipping into the stand’s soupy reservoir before she finally found it. She turned her face away from the shaking tree, squeezing her eyelids closed and biting softly on her extended tongue, and then, finally, she began to turn the screw.

Her father’s heavy boots clunked along the living room floor. She felt the tree steady when the clunking came to a halt just to her left. And then, she heard his voice admonishing her. “You can’t do that alone, Veronica. The tree’s going to fall on top of you. You’ll get yourself killed.”

“I was just getting it started, Dad.”

“And besides,” he said. “You’re a guest here now. It’s not your responsibility to clean up after your old man anymore.”

Veronica sighed. She moved to the next screw.

“How is Tim?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Robert grunted. “You can’t even speak to the father of your child?” His voice trailed off. Then he grunted again. “What about when you drop Tracy off with him on the weekends? Like yesterday. Did you talk when you dropped her off then?”

Veronica shuffled herself around to the other side of the tree to work on the final screw.

“You don’t even talk then?”

“We talk, Dad. But it’s not exactly what you’d call a conversation.”

Robert sighed. “Where did I go wrong in raising my kids? I mean, the two of you, you just… you seem determined to fuck up every good thing that’s thrown at you.”

“Done,” said Veronica, ignoring him. “You can pull it out now.”

“Oh,” he said. “Okay. You just hold the stand then.”

Robert groaned as he hoisted the tree out of the stand, and Veronica could hear him panting as he leaned it up against the wall.

“Can I help you carry it out?” she asked him.

He looked up at her, then back down at the floor, and then he nodded.

They set the tree down on the curb, in front of his three overflowing garbage barrels, and beside the heap of flattened boxes they’d stuffed into his blue recycling bin. Robert put his arm around her. His glove, sticky with pine sap, clung to the shoulder of her pea coat. “I’m glad you came,” he said. “I do wish you’d brought Tim, but--”

Veronica groaned. “I’m divorcing him, Dad. Please just get over it.”

“But I like Tim. He makes an honest living. And he dotes on Tracy like any good father should.”

“He’s not her father, Dad. Michael is closer to a father than the Runt has ever—”

Robert wrenched his arm away from her and stalked back toward the house. “I hate it when you call Tim that. He is your husband and the father of your—”

“He’s neither, Dad!”

“And Michael? He’s your cousin, not your… not a… and…” Robert trailed off, stopped to center himself, then found his heading again. “Michael is too young to be a father figure. And, besides, he’s getting married, starting a family of his own with…” He trailed off again, his brow furrowing as he searched for her name. “That girl from Maine,” he said.

“Jenna.”

“Jenna,” said Robert. “Sure. So, you can’t count on Michael. And Veronica, you don’t need to,” he said, taking hold of her shoulders. “You’ve got Tim. You tell me: what’s wrong with Tim.”

“I’m not in love with him, Dad.”

He stomped off again, reached down into the high snowbank as he passed it, balled up a clump of the stuff, and hurled it at the garage.

Veronica rolled her eyes and hurried after him.

The roar of the vacuum cleaner greeted her as she came in from the cold. Her mother was in her purple bathrobe, maneuvering the old Dirt Devil around the fireplace, getting it into every corner and crevice. The bathrobe was a plush, furry thing that hadn’t fit her in five years. Lydia’s body, which had never been what one would call trim or fit, at least not in Veronica’s lifetime, had not withered, as Robert’s had, as much as it had expanded. Like the overfull bag of the vacuum cleaner that she handled so deftly, it truly seemed as if she were about to burst.

From the kitchen came Robert’s voice. “Coffee?” he shouted.

“You should buy her a new bathrobe,” Veronica told her father. She took a steaming mug from him. “I mean, if you guys are going to pretend to play house again, why not go the whole nine?”

“You know, when I was running around the damned mall doing the Christmas shopping, I couldn’t think of a damned thing. Not a damned thing.” He sipped from his own mug and peered around the corner. “How could I have forgotten that she needed a new bathrobe?”

Veronica sipped at her coffee, but pushed it away almost as soon as it had touched her lips. One tiny slurp had been enough to scald the tip of her tongue, and it was bitter besides. “Dad,” she asked, setting it down, “could I get some cream and sugar?”

“Did I forget?” he asked, picking up her mug for examination. “Christ, Veronica, I’m sorry about that.”

“It’s okay.”

He set down her mug on the countertop and opened the refrigerator. “Lot on my mind, I guess. You know how that goes, right?”

“I sure do,” she said. “That said, I’m wondering if you’ve been to the doctor lately.”

He scoffed. “I’m not losing my marbles, Veronica.” He pinched open the top of the carton of cream and began to pour. “Tell me when,” he said.

She held up her hand when he’d poured enough. In the living room, the vacuum stopped.

“Vern?” Lydia called. “Robert?”

“In the kitchen, Mum,” Veronica shouted.

Lydia waddled in, smile on her face. She was so much bigger since she’d quit the cigarettes, and Veronica found it an effort not to frown at her. Closing the door on one bad habit had just opened the doors to others. She bought a donut with her morning coffee now, and, at dinnertime, she always made room for dessert. The holidays had been one night after another of pie and cookies and giggled “just one more”s.

“Coffee?” Robert asked, holding up the pot.

Lydia waved a hand at him. “No, no, no. It’s my New Year’s resolution to start losing some of this weight,” she said, rubbing at her belly. “I’ve put my mind to it.”

She reached into the cavernous refrigerator and produced a gallon jug of spring water. Then she took her coffee mug—World’s Best Grandma—down from the rack that hung above the stove, and she filled it to the brim.

Lydia came to the table, and sat beside her ex-husband, an exiled queen taking the throne beside her once and, perhaps, future king. And together, the two of them looked at their daughter, the princess who refused to play out the fairy tale ending they’d written for her, and they began to speak in unison, like some kind of Greek chorus trying to narrate for her how it was going to be. But before they could get a word out, Veronica backed away, dropping her mug into the sink, looking for an exit.

“I’m not going to listen to it,” she said. “I should have known,” she said. “I should have fucking known.”

“Veronica,” said Lydia. “All we’re asking you to do is think of your daughter.’

“Think of Tracy,” said Robert.

“I am thinking of Tracy!” shouted Veronica. “What you want me to do is repeat your mistakes, instead of learn from them.”

“You think it was a mistake for me to stay with your father until you kids were grown up?”

“That wasn’t a mistake,” said Robert. “That’s the way things should be done.”

Veronica growled.

“Who’s going to pay the legal fees?” Robert asked calmly.

“What?” said Veronica.

“Tim knows about you and…” He trailed off, seemingly incapable of saying Desiree’s name. “Tim has evidence of adultery, Veronica. He’ll bring that to court. He’ll use it to win custody.”

“He doesn’t love her,” said Veronica. “He doesn’t want her.”

“He does love her!” shouted Robert. And then, after a breath, he said, in a more measured tone, “And even if he doesn’t, he’ll take her just to spite you.”

“To spite me?” said Veronica. “And that’s the kind of man—”

“That’s the kind of man you’ll turn him into,” said Lydia. “Believe me, Veronica. I know what the scorn of a woman can do to a man.” She squeezed Robert’s hand. “You’re going to break the poor boy to pieces. He does love you.”

“But I don’t love him!” said Veronica. “I’ve said it again and again.”

“Then who do you love?” asked Robert.

“I don’t…” stuttered Veronica. “You know you don’t want me to say her—”

“That’s not allowed!” he shouted as he stood, knocking over his stool. “You can’t… You…” His face was turning red as he struggled to find the words. “Not the both of you,” he said. “You brother, I can’t do anything about him anymore. But you… No, not the both of you.”

“I’ll find the money myself,” said Veronica. “If the Runt wants to make this a war, then Desiree and I will—”

“Stop!” he said.

“Stop what?”

“Don’t say her name in front of me,” said Robert.

“Robert,” said Lydia, wrapping her hands around one of his forearms. “You should calm down.”

“I’m bringing her to Michael’s wedding, Dad. She and I are—”

“You and her are nothing!” he screamed. “And you’ll never be anything. This world won’t let you be. And I—”

“This world, Dad? It’s the year 2000.”

“I won’t let you be!” he shouted. “I want better for you, Veronica. I demand better of you.”

“Can’t you just accept—”

“The day I accept that is the day that I…” He trailed off. “You won’t just be breaking Tim’s heart,” he said. “You’ll be breaking mine, too.”

“That’s not fair, Dad. That’s not what I want to—”

“Love is never fair, Veronica. You should know that by now.”

And with that, he walked away, sliding open the glass door behind him and stepping out onto the deck. Lydia, still in her bathrobe, still in her bare feet, stepped outside to join him.

Veronica watched her mother wrap an arm around her father’s waist. She watched him return the favor. And then she felt sick to her stomach. She turned and headed for her room, itching to pack, dying to get out of there.


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Dust & Bones

Photo by Simeon Muller

Photo by Simeon Muller

Anthony had always been bothered by the hills and valleys of the cemetery, had never been able to reconcile in his mind why the place was not one flat plane of grass. Intellectually, he understood that people were buried in a more crude manner in days gone by, that the earth collapsed around them as their coffins buckled under the weight (or disintegrated thanks to the appetites of the creepy crawlies their burials had displaced), but he wanted all of that reality to be undone. He wanted for it to not be so.

As he stood beneath the oak that shaded his mother’s grave, he looked out across the churchyard toward the small parking lot beyond its wrought iron fence, and he wondered where the boy could be. Anthony squinted. He’d left his glasses in the car, had never gotten used to the things and hated how they stuck to his skin when he sweat, which he was doing today in earnest. Two hands wrapped around the handle of his cane, he was swaying on the spot, and as the bottom of the cane sank ever so slightly into the warm and pliant dirt, Anthony wondered if he should have eaten before coming here. It was early, yes, but it was already a hot one at five in the morning, and the pills that should have drowned in his stomach already were instead wading around down there like children in a kiddie pool, with not enough room or water to do anything but splash and jump and splash some more.

Anthony refocused, casting his glance downward at his mother’s new marker. It was simple stone, a wedge of granite chiseled with the pertinent information and embellished only by an understated floral flourish at each of the four corners. Anthony smiled as he imagined his son’s reaction, as he imagined the boy’s unspoken disappointment that Anthony’s love for symmetry had won out again. He could almost see the boy’s sneer melting awkwardly into a frown, then the slight upward turn of the corners of his lips as he tried to placate his father with a smile he did not have in him.

‘A single corner would have been best,’ the boy would admit when pressed. ‘Or two corners, probably the top left and bottom right, if you had to.’

But where was the boy to say these things, to make Anthony delight in his son’s discomfort? Where was he?

A crunch and crackle of gravel announced the car’s arrival some ten minutes later. Anthony, now leaned up against the oak and dozing, blinked three times before his eyes were right again. And it was only after the third blink that he was sure it was the boy. Or, rather, that it was the boy’s car. For the boy had still not stepped out of it.

The flowers, thought Anthony. As long as he remembered the flowers.

But when the boy emerged from his jalopy, the creak of its rusted door hinges sending a flock flying from the trees overhead, he was empty-handed. He was empty-handed, and Anthony was not surprised. Anthony simply sighed and brushed a hand across the seat of his pants to tidy himself up. He didn’t think the oak had left any evidence of itself upon him, but he sure as shit didn’t want to look the part of the careless old man that his son took him for.

“The flowers?” said Anthony, once the boy was in earshot.

The boy stopped in his tracks, digging his hands into the pockets of his ratty cargo shorts, his shoulders slumping forward in the hooded sweatshirt it was too warm to be wearing.

“Too complicated a request?” said Anthony.

“I forgot,” said the boy, stepping forward, looking at the grave instead of at his father.

“So?” said Anthony. “What do you think?”

The boy sneered, then frowned, then mumbled just clearly enough that Anthony could decipher the garbled mess of syllables: “I think it’s dumb she had to wait this long for a stone.”

“It took a long time to find her,” said Anthony.

At this, the boy finally locked eyes with his father. “She’s buried right beside her parents, man.”

“But no one was sure,” said Anthony. “The church’s records were lost in a fire, and all the extended family remembered was an old yarn about her fighting with her father for a place in the family plot. Nobody could remember how it turned out.”

“Why not just dig her up then?”

“Statutes, limitations,” said Anthony, tapping the cane into the ground for emphasis on each pause. “They wanted signatures from every descendant of the big guy there in the back, in case something was disturbed during the exhumation that shouldn’t have been.”

“Whatever,” said the boy, turning away from Anthony again and refocusing on the stone.

They stared together for a moment before Anthony asked, “Too much embellishment?”

The boy shrugged, grunted.

“I wouldn’t ask,” said Anthony, “if I didn’t want your opinion.”

“You could’ve gone with one,” said the boy. “Or maybe two, maybe like diagonally across from each other.”

Anthony nodded, satisfied at how his prediction had played out. “I wonder what she thinks,” he said.

The boy scoffed. “She don’t think nothing, Dad. She’s dead. Her thinker’s been worm food for seventy-one years.”

“You know what I meant, Tony.”

The boy turned on the spot, waved a dismissive hand at Anthony, and started toward his car.

“Wait a minute,” said Anthony, hobbling along after his son as fast as his cane allowed. “Now wait just a goddamned minute.”

The boy laughed as he opened his car door, the rusty hinge sending another crack echoing across the yard. “Goddamned?” said the boy. “In a churchyard? What, is that like a dozen fucking Hail Marys or some such shit?”

“We’re not,” said Anthony, panting, leaning against the fence, “we’re not Catholic.”

“We,” said the boy, pointing a finger first at Anthony and then at himself, “are not anything. I don’t believe in your invisible friend in the sky.”

“You believed in your grandmother just now,” said Anthony.

“Just now when I talked about her rotten corpse?” said the boy.

“Before that,” said Anthony. “When you were on about how dumb it was that she waited this long for a stone.”

“I’m not having an argument with you!” shouted the boy.

And now it was Anthony’s turn to laugh, which he did.

The boy said nothing until his father had stopped. Then he spat, “Are we going to get some fucking flowers, or not?”


Cruising westbound on 28 in the early morning light, scanning both sides of the road for someplace that might sell flowers at this hour, Tony did his best to absorb his father’s jabs without retaliation; one well-placed comeback would be enough to clean the old man’s clock, after all. And so, Tony kept his eyes on the road and his ears on the low rumble of the exhaust pipe he could only put off fixing for a few days longer. He nodded every once in a while to let his father know he was listening, that some of the wisdom was getting through, but that was about it. Otherwise, he refused, in the parlance of his times, to put up his dukes and get down to it.

Or was that my time? he thought to himself. Pat Benatar? That was ’85, right? When you’re 8, is that your time?

Tony reached for the phone cradled on his dashboard, clicking and holding on the button beneath its touch screen, but before the robot in his phone could answer, his father slapped Tony’s hand away.

“Hey!” said Tony.

“You fiddle with that thing while you’re driving?”

“I fiddle with all sorts of things while I’m driving,” said Tony. “Some of them, I thought you’d rather not see.”

Tony reached for the phone again, and again his father slapped his hand away.

“I’m trying to figure something out,” said Tony.

“Figure out where to get us flowers,” said the old man.

“I’ve got a question that needs answering,” said Tony.

“And what?” said the old man. “Your phone’s going to answer it?”

“She might,” said Tony.

The old man laughed. “Our ancestors named their ships, I named my car, and you, you name your phone.”

“Can I ask her and get this over with?”

“You keep your hands on the wheel,” said the old man. “I’ll push the damned button.”

“Push and hold,” said Tony. “And be quiet.”

The old man did as he was told and the phone’s built-in robot chimed that she was ready to listen.

Tony asked her: “When did ’Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ come out?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw his father scowl, saw the old man about to speak, and so he held a finger to Dad’s lips to shush him.

The phone’s robot chimed again, then said, “Let me think about that.”

“Pat Benatar?” said Tony’s father. “You risk our lives for a question about Pat Benatar.”

“Okay,” said the robot. “Here’s what I found.”

Tony cast his gaze on the screen to see what the answer was, but before he could read what the robot had found, his father was yelling again.

“Eyes on the road,” said the old man. “I’ll read it!” And with that, dear old dad plucked the phone from its holster and held it so close to his face that the robot mistook his schnoz for a finger. The screen lit up, swapping black background for white.

“What did I do?” said the old man.

“You blew your nose with it,” said Tony, shaking his head and flipping on his directional.

“I was trying to read it,” said the old man as Tony pulled onto the shoulder and snatched the phone back.

Tony tried to figure out where his father’s beak had taken them, discerned that it was the detail page for Benatar’s song on Wikipedia, and scanned for the relevant information.

“1980!” he said a moment later. “Well, shit.”

“Shit what?” said the old man.

“When you’re three years old,” said Tony, “is that your time?”

The old man harrumphed the most harrumphed harrumph he had ever harrumphed.

“So no then?” said Tony with a satisfied chuckle, delighted he had gotten under his father’s skin.

“You’ve got it backwards,” said the old man, stone-faced. “Time doesn’t belong to you. You belong to time.”


What they found when they found someplace was a dilapidated convenience store, a pot of withered carnations squeezed in between its slushy machine and its soda fountain. The water in the pot was green, bordering on brown, as filthy as everything else in the godforsaken place.

As the boy filled an enormous plastic cup with diet cola from the fountain, he told Anthony, “There’s nothing here we can plant.”

Flustered, Anthony spat back, “We can’t plant anything!”

“What”

“Haven’t you been listening?” said Anthony. “We’re not allowed to put anything in the ground.”

“So, what, we’re just going to leave a bouquet?”

“Yes,” said Anthony.

“Who are we leaving it for?” asked the boy, fastening a lid to his veritable vat of soda.

Anthony did not dignify this with a response. Instead, he began to rifle through the carnations, looking anything that showed the slightest promise. A single unblemished blossom was all he was after now, anything pure at all.

The boy—and he was still a boy to Anthony, even if the hair sprouting from his ears and the thirty-seven years worth of canyons cut into his rocky face begged to differ—he had never learned to appreciate the unadulterated. Tony was the product of another time, Anthony supposed, but he knew that he himself was also to blame.

In his 40s by the time he’d decided to father a child—or, well, by the time one of his grad students fibbed about her birth control and decided for him—Anthony had always been too tired to truly be a parent. Or busy. And/or. Too busy to play ball and too tired to teach. Too tired from being a teacher. And didn’t that beat all?

At the checkout a few minutes later, the large woman ringing them out admonished the boy, told him he should show his father some more respect. And the dead.

“And you should stop eating all those Ho Hos,” said the boy, waiting for her to deposit their change in his open palm, “but we don’t all do what we should now, do we?”


Back at the gravesite, Tony sipped at his Big Gulp while his father bent a knee to set the flowers down. Despite himself, he did wonder what Old Lady Dorothy would think of the tribute they’d brought for her.

But then he shook his head, for she hadn’t lived long enough to be an old lady, had never really been a Dorothy — “she was a Dottie,” his father had told him — and, besides all that, it was ridiculous that he should be trying to imagine the reaction of someone who died thirty-three years before he had even set foot on the planet.

“Why do you shake your head like that?” asked the old man. “What thought are you trying to suffocate before it begins?”

“That’s a mixed metaphor,” he said.

“What’s a mixed metaphor?”

Tony sighed. “You don’t shake something to suffocate it,” he explained.

The old man grunted, stayed silent for a moment, and then, unable to help himself, said, “You’ll do whatever you can to kill something that makes you uncomfortable.”

“And why shouldn’t I?” said Tony, taking a knee himself and straightening the arrangement of the bouquet to his liking.

“Sometimes,” said the old man, grumbling as he stood up, “being uncomfortable pays dividends.”

Tony stood now too, his own knees cracking as he did. “Maybe,” he said. “Trouble is, I never understood what a dividend was, Dad. Never understood why I might want one.”

The old man looked as if he were about to speak, but then he stopped himself. Then he squinted and shook his head and Tony couldn’t help but smirk in reply.

“You’re busting my chops,” said the old man.

“I thought I was busting your balls,” said Tony. Then, after a moment, sensing that joviality might be the mood of the day, or at least the moment, he added, “Which do you think would hurt more?”

The old man laughed for a good long while, longer than Tony thought his lame joke deserved, but then something caught Dad’s eye and the old man sobered right up. He was staring at the tombstone again.

“She would have agreed with you,” said the old man.

“What?” said Tony.

“She always thought I overdid things,” said Dad, a tear in his eye and something catching in his throat. “She might’ve said it didn’t need any embellishment at all, just a good typeface and the right piece of rock.”

“Dad,” said Tony, touching his father’s shoulder gently, not sure if it was the right thing to do.

“You would’ve liked her,” said the old man. “She was like you. Full of sass, full of — ”

“Shit?” said Tony. “I’m pretty sure you’ve told me more than once that’s what I’m full of.”

“Spirit,” said the old man. “If you’ll forgive the religious connotation.”

Tony squeezed his father’s shoulder now, not caring whether it was right or not. “You need a hug, old man?” he asked.

It took a moment, but the old man nodded. Then he said, “Yes, I think that might be just the ticket.”

And so, Tony wrapped his arms around his father as they stood atop the dust and bones from whence they came, atop the dust where their bones too would soon remain.


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The Touch

Photo from Florida Memory

Photo from Florida Memory

Fat men were hard to come by after the war, and so it was only natural that the first mall to reopen might turn to someone like Ralph. After all, he fit the bill: the white beard, the stocky frame, the globe of his midsection as big as a gas giant. And, if the twinkle in his eye was gone and his flesh a bit more necrotic than most, that was okay. The conditions of the truce encouraged inclusiveness, and what would encourage peace and cooperation between peoples more than Mr. and Mrs. Jones sitting their boy Davy down upon the lap of a creature that had once tried to eat their brains?

Ralph hadn’t been born a zombie, of course. In fact, no one yet knew if procreation between walkers was possible, and the creatures’ assumed infertility one of the key reasons a ceasefire was even possible. No, Ralph had been bitten relatively late in life. Before that, he’d chopped trees in the great north woods, surfing them down the river, through the mountains, and into the great mill cities of the south. He’d been doing it since he was a wee lad, and he’d intended to keep on doing it until his children put him in the ground. That the government had built a Center for Disease Control in secret right along his route, that they had built it and housed things there that were beyond their control—well, that was beyond Ralph’s control. And now, here he was, seated at the center of an abandoned food court in a red suit, a queue of children and their concerned parents lined up before him.

The sunlight that spilled in through the blown-out windows was bright enough to make him squint, but the effect seemed to be positive in the minds of his handlers. The less the public had to stare at his blank white eyes, the better. And when he squinted, he almost looked like he was smiling. His cheeks almost looked rosy.

But, almost being not quite enough, a handler brushed blush onto him to aid the cause. She’d been a beautician before the war, and a mortician ever since, and though the effect of her work was grotesque, nobody really saw it that way anymore. Their whole world was ugly, comically so. And so, she would win prizes for what she had done that day, would be enshrined in halls and museums that would last until the next time that mankind was undone.


There were only two rules Ralph had to follow, which was good, because two instructions were all his infected brain could handle. The first rule was that no part of his flesh could touch the flesh of the children; though the government’s scientists seemed sure that the disease was communicable only through introduction of saliva into the bloodstream through a bite, Ralph was to keep every inch of himself covered. Except his face, of course. Mittens were to be snug and tucked underneath sleeves. Buttons were to be fastened tightly, not a one out of place. And he was not to kiss foreheads, no matter what he had seen in a movie once. Pats on the head—with gloved hands, Ralph!—would have to suffice.

The second rule was that there would be no hugs. No matter how determined the children were to snuggle into that belly of his, to lose themselves in it like the bowl full of jelly it was, he was not to reciprocate. There was evidence that physical contact of that sort ignited some kind of change within walkers. Increased brain activity had been observed in prisoners of war as they grabbed hold of dogs and chimps and other test subjects, increased activity that led straight to fiercer bites than had ever been observed before.

So: no hugs.

Which hadn’t been a problem. Most of the kids, though excited to see the jolly old elf at a distance, wrinkled their nose at Ralph’s malodorous scent once they reached his lap, never managing to make more than a request or two before shuffling off to their parents. It didn’t seem to matter how many melted down Christmas Cookie candles the handlers slathered over him; the odor of the walking dead would not be outdone.

But there was one child who didn’t seem to care, and she was next in line.

Her pig tails neat and even, her dress crisp and clean, Elissa Gardner was determined to hug Santa Claus for what he’d done for her. She’d seen the signs all along the queue. And she’d read them aloud to her mother whenever Mom asked her to, as Mom, exasperated, tried to explain that a hug simply wasn’t an option. But there was no way Elissa was leaving the decaying old mall without wrapping her arms around old Ralph in his red suit. At 8, she was even old enough to suspect that this guy here was not the real deal, but she still felt certain that, were he not the genuine original, he could get the big guy a message. And the message she had, it was a hug.

The handlers were on their headsets, whispering to each other and then nodding, whispering and nodding. They’d had their eyes on Elissa from the start, had watched her point and wrap her arms around herself with a big smile. Ralph, for his part, was still focused on the child in his lap, grunting assent after the first wish and the second, then groaning his best approximation of a ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ as he waved the boy back to his mother.

Then came Elissa.

Or, well, she tried to come. One of the handlers stopped her, crouched down before her and begged for her patience with a smile. Meanwhile, another handler bent at the waist to whisper into Ralph’s ear, “No hugs.”

Ralph grunted, the handlers stepped away, and Elissa came forth.

At first, she did not hug him. She slid up onto his lap and wrinkled her nose as all the others had done before. But then she looked up into his empty eyes and smiled. He looked like one of the heroes from her father’s comic books, the kind whose eyes went white when they were using their superpowers, and she imagined for a moment that his power, his special ability, was connecting his eardrums to set of loudspeakers up at the North Pole. She imagined that whatever she said here would be relayed there, and that made her even happier. Everyone would know, Elissa thought. Everyone would know what she had to say.

One of the handlers said, “Now, tell Santa what you’d like for Christmas.”

“I will,” said Elissa. “But, before I do, I have to thank him.”

Ralph grunted when she paused, just as he’d been trained to do.

“During the war,” said Elissa, “when my daddy was away, when our house was all locked up and everyone told me Christmas wouldn’t come, you still brought me something.

“It was a stuffed elephant, a white one, just like the one my daddy had when he was my age.”

The handlers exchanged glances with Elissa’s mom, who smiled weakly.

“And when daddy never came home,” said Elissa, “it didn’t hurt as much as it was supposed to, because you brought me the elephant.”

There were tears in Elissa’s eyes, and now she opened her arms wide.

“There are no hugs allowed,” said one of the handlers.

“But if you’d like to tell Santa what you—”

“All I want,” said Elissa, wrapping her arms around Ralph, “is a hug. All I want,” she said as she squeezed him round the middle, “is to thank him.”

The handlers of the handlers squawked through their headsets. Let her hug him, they said, so long as he doesn’t hug back.

And so, they waited. They waited, and they sweat, and they watched as Elissa’s mother made her way toward the little girl, mumbling something about it being time to go.

They waited. Elissa’s mother waited.

They waited too long.

Ralph’s arms snapped around the little girl, holding her tight to his body. Three of the handlers ganged up on Ralph, trying to free Elissa, but it was no use. Ralph would not let go, and neither would the little girl.

On the radio, orders came. Guns were unholstered and held to each of Ralph’s temples.

Elissa’s mother screamed. The other parents, hypnotized by the spectacle until this moment, began to gather their children and head for the exit. The impatient ones stepped over the casings of the shattered windows. Some leapt.

On the dais, in his chair, Ralph’s eyes squeezed shut. His head began to hurt, his eyes to sting. Novel sensations were these, not new but nearly forgotten after so much time. Something lurched in his chest, then sputtered to a stop. Then it lurched again and it began to rumble. The rhythm was unsteady at first, but evened out quickly. Heat pulsed outward from that place, something thundering through him, through tubes inside of him.

Veins, he thought. Arteries.

He thought!

Ralph’s eyes shot open. Out of the corners of them, he saw two panicked men shouting, their fingers on triggers. He looked down, his eyes focusing on the perfect part that ran dead-center through the hair atop Elissa’s small head.

“Wait!” Ralph shouted. “You’ll hurt the girl.”

Ralph let her go and watched Elissa’s mother snatch her away, running from the scene.

Around him, he heard the handlers shouting back and forth over their headsets. What had happened? What was to be done?

“Scientists?” said one of them into his headset. “Fuck the scientists! This thing—”

“Not a thing,” said another. “A miracle!”

“All he needed was a hug,” said the last of them. “Is that all that any of them needed?”

Ralph smiled, thinking of which daughter he would call first, wondering how quickly he could get a crew together to head up north and get back to work. “Maybe,” he said.

“Or maybe not,” said the handler to Ralph’s left, the one who pulled the trigger and sent a smattering of Ralph’s reborn brain flying out the other side.

“You asshole!” said the man who believed in miracles. “Now we’ll never know.”

“You want to know?” said the trigger man. “Go hug a zombie. And ho, ho, hope all goes well.”

But the man who believed in miracles slumped to the floor and hugged Ralph instead, pulled the body in the Santa Claus suit to his chest, and hoped—wished—for another miracle to come. He stayed there even as everyone else left, even as the light left—the sun falling from the sky. And he was still there wishing when the night took his body, when the darkness took his heart. He wished until that wish became a hunger, until that hunger devoured him, until devour—those two syllables, that one verb—was all that he was. Then he stood—his eyes white, his skin gray, and his heart stopped—and he began to walk. His faith unrewarded, his love unrequited, he set off in search of something to destroy.

And he wore the hat, the red hat with the white pom-pom on the end. He wore the hat and he grunted. “Ho,” he said. “Ho.”

“Ho.”


I write and publish new fiction and drama once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new material a week in advance.

After All the Kisses Had Failed

Photo by Alejandra Quiroz

That year it was Veronica’s job to deliver the flowers to Grammy’s grave. Everyone else was busy with preparations for her cousin’s wedding and Vern was the one living in the Cape house anyway—the house that had been Grammy and Grampy’s—so it just made sense. But her car was the worst, and there was a snow storm on the way, so she couldn’t wait for Desiree to arrive that evening with her everlasting Honda, and that was how Veronica and her daughter ended up broken down in the parking lot next to the Congregational Church, God’s steeple casting a shadow over her as she took the Lord’s name in vain.

“Mum,” said Tracy. “Am I going to miss school? How am I going to hand out my valentines?”

Veronica laid her head down on the steering wheel.

“Do we have money for a tow truck?” said Tracy.

Veronica cast a glance over at the dozen red roses sitting on the passenger’s seat. Then, she sighed. “Not anymore,” she said.

“How about breakfast?” said Tracy.

Veronica sat up and searched for change. She dug between the car’s seat cushions, plumbed the depths of the glove box, and fished around the cubby next to the cigarette lighter. “We’ve got enough for Dunk’s,” she said.

In his last months, her grandfather had made a request of the family that he called “simple”: every Valentine’s Day, place a dozen red roses on the grave of his late wife, their grandmother. It was a tradition he had begun early in their courtship, that he had continued on with after her death, and that he didn’t want to imagine ending when he was gone.

“But isn’t the snow just going to kill them?” said Tracy as they lay the flowers down.

“Yep,” said Veronica.

In the coffee shop, they ate donuts and drank hot chocolate. Tracy had a jelly and Veronica had a chocolate honey-dipped. There was a song on, coming over the shop’s speakers, and Tracy sang along.

“How do you know the words to this?” said Veronica.

“I don’t know,” said Tracy.

Veronica frowned at her. “You don’t think it’s a little inappropriate?”

“Why?” said Tracy.

“Well, for one, your love doesn’t cost a thing because it’s not for sale yet.”

Tracy sighed, kept singing.

“And for another,” said Veronica, “do you have any idea what ‘all the things’ are ‘that money can’t buy’?”

“Love, mum. Love. That’s what The Beatles say, anyway.”

Veronica smiled. “Well, I’m glad you’ve got taste some of the time.”

They walked back past the car on their way home. Tracy’s music player lay on the back seat. It had been a Christmas gift from the Runt, a costly piece of plastic about the size of a CD player that stored a hundred hours of digital music. Digital. What did that even mean? Veronica wondered, suddenly, how mix tapes would work with a thing like that. In seven or eight years, when boys were trying to woo Tracy, what would they do? Email her a bunch of files? What would they do for liner notes? Type them? Where was the romance in that?

“You want to bring your Nomad with us?” said Veronica.

“Oh my gosh,” said Tracy. “I can’t believe I forgot it.”

The first flakes fell during their walk down Chatham Road, but it wasn’t until they turned onto Deep Hole that things got miserable.

“Those poor flowers,” said Tracy.

“I know,” said Veronica.

“It’s really romantic, though,” said Tracy.

“Sure is,” said Veronica.

“What’s the most romantic thing you ever did for Desiree?”

Veronica smirked and snickered. Leaving the Runt when it made no financial sense to do so, she thought.

“What made no financial sense?” said Tracy.

“Did I just say that out loud?” said Veronica.

“You mumbled something,” said Tracy.

“I guess I’ve never made a real, big romantic gesture,” said Veronica. “Got any suggestions?”

“You should write her a song,” said Tracy. “A really good one.”

At the piano that afternoon, in the cold dark of Grampy’s living room—her living room now, she had to remind herself—Veronica played in circles, searching for the next chord. Each time she came round to it, the place where the bridge should have been, she found herself going back to the beginning. It grated her, this timidness. She had never been this tentative with her guitar, and though it had been ages since she’d sat on this bench and plucked away at the old upright, since those summer days when Grampy would break out his trumpet to accompany her, she couldn’t remember ever being so scared.

She slapped both hands down on the keyboard, her lead foot lowering the boom on the sustain, and she closed her eyes, letting herself be swallowed up by the wall of noise. She leaned her forehead against the rough wood, unpolished for almost a decade now, since before Grampy died. It was cool against her skin and it was only then, as she felt her flesh slip into the piano’s ornamental grooves, that she noticed the sheen of sweat that had covered her. Down the hall, a door slammed open and the hall light flashed on. A pair of feet shuffled toward her.

“That was it!” said Tracy.

“That was it?” said Veronica. “That was garbage.”

“Nuh-uh,” said Tracy. “It was pretty, except for the end. Just needs words.”

Veronica turned to face her daughter, straddling the bench as she did. “The words are the hardest part, Trace. There’s a reason I only do cover songs.”

“What about that one you sang to me when I was a baby?”

“That was one song,” said Veronica. “One song out of ten years worth of trying.”

Tracy gave a heavy sigh, shook her head, and stalked off toward her bedroom again. Once the door slammed shut, Veronica got back to it.

Desiree walked in ten minutes later.

“Hey,” she said. “Why’d you stop playing?”

“I don’t know,” said Veronica.

“That was one of my favorites,” said Desiree. “I haven’t heard you play that in years.”

Veronica lifted an eyebrow at her lover.

“What?” said Desiree. “That was the one you wrote for your brother’s play, right? The one back in high school?”

“You’ve heard that song before?”

“Yes,” said Desiree. “It was the song the troubadour sang to Sleeping Beauty to try and wake her up.”

“After all the kisses had failed,” said Veronica.

Desiree sat down beside her on the bench. “I loved that play so much,” she said.

Veronica set her fingers back on the keyboard, trying to remember the rest of the song.

“I think most people were too dim to figure it out,” said Desiree. “But not me. I got it. And when the princess woke up for that moment, just after the singer had admitted defeat and left. God, that got me every time.”

“Every time?” said Veronica.

“Yeah,” said Desiree. “I went every night the weekend it played.”

Veronica ducked her head. Then she took Desiree’s hand in her own and squeezed.

“What?” said Desiree. “What’s wrong?”

“You don’t have to work at it,” said Veronica. “You don’t have to work at loving me.”

Desiree gave a brief laugh. “And you have to work at loving me?”

Veronica looked up. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “It’s just that... it’s so hard sometimes to do the right thing, to say the right thing. And then I look around at people like you, like my grandfather—as hokey as it was, his roses, they were his thing, and he believed in them, and it worked.”

Desiree worked her hand free of Veronica’s, then placed Veronica’s hands back into their positions on the piano. “Play me the song,” she said.

Veronica shook her head. “I don’t know it. I can’t remember the bridge.”

Desiree hummed the tune. She was off-key, but she got the point across.

“That was it?” said Veronica. “That’s so damned obvious. How did I not—”

Desiree set two fingers to Veronica’s lips. “Just play,” she said.

“But the words,” said Veronica.

“Make them up,” said Desiree. “Those I can’t remember.”

So, Veronica played. She looked out the window, at the snow falling faintly and faintly falling, wondering where those words were from, that turn of phrase. It wasn’t hers, she knew, but she sang it anyway. Always cribbing from somewhere, always propping herself up with the work of someone else. She shook her head, and was about to stop. But then Desiree laid her head upon Vern’s shoulder. And that was enough to keep her going.


I write and publish new fiction and drama once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new material a week in advance.