Flash: Balance Sheet

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

“I’m going to kill him; I’m going to kill them all.”

“Really?” Watching her youngest storm up the wooden steps onto her porch, Daphne Gigante rocked her chair forward to set down her needles on top of her knitting basket. The half-done mint green scarf matched the purple one around Albert’s neck. “Calm down.”

“They disrespected me.” Albert muttered while he paced along the boards. “Ain’t nobody disrespect me.”

“So you are going to kill them all?” Daphne shook her head, considering whether to move the conversation indoors. She glanced up and down the street, placing each vehicle and person into friend or foe status. Everything within three blocks was recognizable. Cops really hated surveillance during the winter; the cars got cold when they couldn’t run the engine for heat without giving themselves away.

“Yep.”

She snorted at that simple statement as he stopped moving, legs spread and fists on his hips facing her and the front door instead of watching the street. “Yeah, that is going to learn them all some lessons.” She adjusted the afghan on her lap, tucking the edges back under. The blanket had moved when she had laid the knitting down.

“Fuck yeah.” Albert sneered in triumph, his black eyes sparkling.

“No it ain’t.” Daphne spat. “Sit yourself down right now son.” She waved at the short stool on her right, not the second rocking chair on her left.

The five foot ten inch nineteen year old glared at his mother before he resumed pacing between the small seating area and the white painted railing.

A Smith and Wesson semi-auto pistol jumped in Daphne’s hands, the light of the laser sight dancing across Albert’s center of mass. “I said sit. Don’t you go speak about respect and disrespect me.” Her voice was a calmly lethal as the weapon.

Albert quickly hunched down on the child stool, struggling with his long legs until they ended up crossed in front of him, half keeping him from toppling off the chair.

“Now you ready to listen or do I need to pound you some sense into your thick skull.” She pantomimed striking his head with the grip.

“I’m listening mom.”

Daphne slipped the gun under the blanket, wiggling a bit because the metal weapon had taken some of the ambient air temperature while out. “Right. You don’t go killing randomly.”

Albert surged up, growling, “It ain’t random.”

“I’m talking here.” The gun reappeared, and this time the red dot aimed at his jean’s zipper.

Albert sat right back down, scooting the stool for a better angle to watch his mother’s face.

Giving him an evil eye, Daphne waited until he stopped moving before tucking the gun away again. “You don’t go killing randomly, you hear me?”

After a couple seconds of silence, Daphne cuffed her son lightly on the ear. “Answer me when I am talking to you boy.”

Albert swallowed before asking, “Now?”, the sneer and gangster confidence long gone.

“When else, smart mouth?” Daphne reached for her knitting, confident in her ability to control the situation now the teen anger had been removed. “Do you hear what I am saying?”

“Don’t kill randomly.”

After arranging everything to restart, she gripped the needles in her left and gently stroked her son’s cheek with her right. “Good. This is why you’re my favorite, aside from being the only one not in prison.”

Clicking needles filled the void in conversation for a moment.

“You kill precisely. Got that?” Daphne said conversationally as she started the next row after glancing up and down the street again.

“Kill precisely.”

“You kill too much and people start expecting it.”

Albert nodded.

“You kill too much and it cheapens the killing.”

His thick eyebrows met. “Are you talking economics?” Watching her watch the street, Albert tried to read something in the bland face of the woman who executed her own husband at the order of the mob boss, ten years before she took the fucker out and fixed the gang to her own extracting standards while he was in high school.

“Yeah, supply and demand shit.” She paused in her knitting to stare into his eyes. “Listen up boy, you kill all the time, and you flood the market. Killing becomes like fast food, cheap and quick and you don’t want that. When you kill you want it to mean something. A gift, only a very nasty gift. Got that?”

“Umm.” Albert tried to break eye contact. He didn’t want her to think he was challenging her. But he couldn’t, until she dropped her gaze to her knitting, then he blinked several times.

“Beat up people all you want. Scare them.” Her calm, mother-knows-best voice continued. “But only kill them when you absolutely got to.”

“Because killing gots to mean something.” Albert hoped he had the right answer.

“That’s my boy.” She paused in her knitting to stroke his cheek again. “Now go get some of your buds and hospitalize those blancwoggs.”

Hopping up, Albert nodded at his mother and strode to the front steps.

The clicking needles stopped when he reached the bottom stairs and turned toward the O’Dare house. “Don’t get caught sweetie.”

Flash: Cannot Be Unseen

Photo by Jiří Wagner on Unsplash

Kai stumbled after Aubrey into the Ferry house out of the January weather. The difference between outdoors and indoors felt nearly physical; the old man had upped the protections on his home since his wife gave birth. Even a welcomed friend like himself needed to beware entering uninvited. Kai shuttered to think what would happen if he violated guest rights.  The old man was a first rate wizard.

Today continued the lessons on friction. For third weekend in a row, Kai spent Saturday in the empty ice rink. Kai was certain avoidance spells were possible, though he had only been a student since Thanksgiving when Aubrey had taken him on. But Kai did not think the spell was used to empty the place; after all, who would spend time in an ice rink in January?

He expected that his mentor would be teaching combustion in the middle of July. The old man was quirky that way … or mean, depending on how one interpreted his actions. Today Kai was leaning toward downright malicious. He was sore from the heavy skates on his feet, sore on his butt from falling, sore in his head from trying to grasp the lessons on how to increase and decrease friction, and frozen throughout.

It didn’t help Aubrey was none the worse for wear after nearly twelve hours of torturing him. Yes, Aubrey looked Kai’s age, with stark black hair and solid muscles like he worked side-by-side with Kai landscaping instead of whatever he did as his day job. But Kai knew that Aubrey had to have pushed himself in the rink today, if only to control Kai’s mistakes. Why couldn’t the old man be a little tired?

Struggling to lift his arms to get out of his jacket, Kai watched as Aubrey raced into the living room where his wife was nursing and someone he had never seen before was standing.

“When did you get in child?” Aubrey asked joyfully as he scooped up a stunning redhead and spun her around. “How did you get away?”  A concerned look crossed his mentor’s face as he slid the girl down his body onto the carpet. “And who did you leave in charge?”

The young woman laughed at his exuberance and replied in an Irish lilt.  “I’ve only been here a few minutes. Mom was just introducing me to the young one. And don’t worry, I’ve left the Trio temporarily in charge. They should be able to keep the peace … among themselves … for a few days.”

Kai watched his mentor look the girl up and down … his daughter? Same strawberry hair and clear white skin, enhanced by a spattering of freckles, as Aubrey’s wife Colleen.  The girl was only a couple inches shorter than Aubrey’s five ten. The girl appeared to be a college freshman, an angelic freshman. Her wispy hair desperately escaping a crown braid creating a halo effect backlit from the kitchen. Her off-the-shoulder white dress had lace insets in all the right places. Less bosom-heavy than the earthy Irish beauty of Colleen, Kai was able to see the girl had inherited Colleen’s coloring and Aubrey’s strong lean frame.

He couldn’t not Look. But Kai did try to talk himself out of it. What is Seen cannot be Unseen. That was the first lesson. Aubrey had found Kai in the middle of his first Seeing; a horrific experience brought on by stupidly trying to fit in at work and joining the guys on a marijuana break. The next month was spent bringing his natural gift under control; the following month has been spent learning friction.

As he hung up his jacket, the nineteen year old closed his eyes and opened his inner one. Turning back to where the conversation was continuing between the old man, his wife and his daughter, Kai slowly opened his eyes and tried to focus only on the girl. He didn’t need to see Aubrey stripped of all the natural assumptions people make so is life more palatable EVER again; that scary shit was firmly cemented into Kai brain for the rest of his life. Kai also had no interest in finding out what could hold its own in marriage to the millennium old magician. He tried to use his recent lessons on focus to look only at the newcomer.

The girl’s hair loosed from its braid to cascade down her back in a riot of curls, a far-deeper red than Colleen’s strawberry. Like staring into the heart of a furnace with blue-white flames dancing out of red-black coals. He could feel the heat sear into his eyes. The crown braid formed into a silver diadem, elegantly wrought like a small ivy branch freshly plucked and turned into ice.

The woman spun as he continued to stare. Her blue eyes were like the blue of volcano lakes, promising the same ice and heat, the same serenity and danger of those isolated paradises. She said something as she stalked towards him, but Kai was focused on Seeing, not hearing. Her fingers stretched into inhuman lengths as they curled around his throat. Her skin was the color of winter ice and summer clouds, the dress falling away into illusion.

Her red lips plumped from unkind hope, curled with merciful despair and he could not resist even has her claws drew blood from his neck. Keeping his green eyes on hers he leaned forward to kiss his life and death. Her eyes spoke her name to his soul, both use and true, as his lips touched hers. Closing his eyes to keep the vision with him for the rest of his meager life he deepened the kiss. He felt her breath escape in surprise and the choking grip lessen.

Unthinking, he turned off his gift that usually took him hours to put back in the box and grabbed the curtain of fire with both hands pulling her naked body against his starving one. His tongue warred for dominance with hers.

(words 1,000 – – originally appearing at Sunday Fun on Breathless Press 1/13/2013 – The original photo was from  Sarah Ann Loreth who retains copyright on her photos, with written permission to reuse. I did not asked for said permission. Published on the first blog on 1/13/2013; republished new blog format 7/9/2017)

Flash: One Bloody Morning

Image courtesy of Rob D at FreeDigitalPhotos.net – Cropped and Color adjusted by Erin Penn

Curtis and Duane watched dawn rise from inside the door of the old county armory as they checked their weapons. Yesterday a bear shambling out of woods had frozen the children in terror, but it continued through the fields, not bothering with the humans or the grain they were nursing in the summer heat. Duane had been closest and debated wasting ammo on the large amount of meat the creature represented, but more likely the shotgun would have angered it and that would have created even more of a problem. The three oldest children who the two elders trusted with spears crouched still, their weapons in hand and ready but also unused. No actual danger existed in those few tense minutes except in everyone’s minds.

Even so, as they expanded their fields to feed the new mouths, their encroachment on nature would continue, and nature, even when man ruled the world, never liked her skirts being pushed back. After oiling his axe and checking it pulled smoothly from his holster, Curtis started the same routine with the blades he carried. The gunner counted the few remaining shells to see if a couple more miraculously appeared in the night and glanced longingly at his pistol. Until someone figured out how to make gunpowder of sufficient quality, his police glock was permanently shelved. Old-style shotguns were more forgiving and, thanks to the southern love of hunting, plenty of ammunition available after civilization fell, to the point some even survived the first madness.

Duane nodded at the more primitive weapons humanity was slowly sliding towards as their primary defense against a planet freed from humanity’s control. “The spears, okay?”

“I looked them over while you got lunch packed.” Curtis hefted a light spears. “One needed the head reset, but the kids have been taking good care of them for once. I wish I could make a bow or that a spear thrower thing you talked about. It can’t be too hard.”

“If only the plague had happened twenty years earlier, before everything went electronic.” Duane chuckled blackly. “I only learned to read to pass the detective exam. It was so easy to have the machines read to you.”

“True that, my friend.” Curtis stared over the close orchards and vegetable gardens at the acreage devoted to grain, his aging eyes crinkling to focus on the distant trees walking toward the edge of their maintainable property. “Working at the recycling plant, I remember when the library books went through. Took us less than a day to clear the mess. We had been promised overtime, but the bosses didn’t need it.”

“I would give my leg for an encyclopedia.”

“Yeah, or for google-glass to work again.”

Duane’s nostrils flared, taking in the clean scents; his ears searched for any sound outside of birds welcoming the sun. “If wishes were horses…”

Curtis nodded, not understanding the reference but he had hear the sentiment enough over the years, and continued considering the trees. The young trees growing in the middle of what used to be a city of nearly 80 thousand made preparing for winter easier ever year as they won against mankind’s fallen monuments. No long trips to the edge of town were needed. It had come to them. “We should chop the trees sooner than later. Doesn’t dry wood burn better than green?”

“Yes, I believe so. We weren’t choking on smoke at the end of winter, not like at the start.” Duane considered, chewing his lip. He hadn’t ever camped before things changed, and the closest he had come to flame was firing up the gas grill at his house. Even after seven years, his lack of manly outdoor activity left holes of knowledge which his grandfather would have laughed at.

Footsteps echoed in the hallway from the dedicated dining area where the children were eating breakfast before another day in the fields. The steps were longer and louder than most of the charges were capable of making but hurried. Yo-yo, the eldest of the children, entered in the foyer area where the men were located at a swift pace just short of running. “Sirs.” His voice cracked, and he stopped at the edge of the painted line, his thin body quivering. Children were not allowed unsupervised in the weapon area.

“What is it?” Curtis growled.

Rocking to one side, Yo-yo swallowed, his newly prominent Adam’s apple bobbing, then coughed to reset his vocals. “Vera’s not coming out of the bathroom.”

“How long has it been?” Duane asked more calmly than Curtis. Curtis had never wanted to be a parent, getting snipped while still in high school as soon as he hit the legal age, and it showed in his dealings with their forty-some charges.

Ducking his head, Yo-yo said muttered, “I think she went in last night.”

Curtis exploded. “What? And you are only telling us now?” Yo-yo’s bowed form shivered.

Putting a hand on Curtis’ shoulder, Duane squeezed hard until Curtis looked at him in anger instead of the child. “Which bathroom, honey? Take us there.”

Yo-yo nodded jerkily, not raising his eyes, and took off on the quick walk toward the stairs for the second floor. No running was the first rule enforced on the survivors. Curtis already pushing fifty way back when and Duane, only thiry-two, weren’t up to chasing the first children Duane had found while searching for supplies all those years ago.

“She says she is dying.”

Duane nearly missed the quiet words in the echoes of their feet on the cement stairs. “She told you this?”

Slightly louder, Yo-yo continued, “Through the door. She won’t let anyone in.” His voice broke through two different octaves, one low and one high.

Curtis grunted as he marched up the steps behind Duane.

“Anything else you can tell me?”

The boy thought a moment before responding to the younger adult. “She’s been acting weird the last couple of days. Screaming at the babies and then crying about it. She even slugged Jasper.”

“Did Jasper need slugging?” Duane’s voice held a smile. Jasper was third eldest of the children, and the only kid over twelve they didn’t trust with a spear.

Yo-yo’s volume reached natural relaxed speaking levels when he replied. “No more than normal. He was just chitters.” The young teen stepped onto the landing before the heavy fire door waiting for the adults to catch up.

Shortly, he led them to the back bathroom next to the old offices they used for storage. Water pressure did not make it up here, even with the pumps some of the Parma Trust managed to spit together for them, but the toilet still flushed and they kept several buckets of water upstairs as a precaution against fires made by candles during the winter months. When the water was freshened, the old water was put in the toilet tanks in the three upstairs bathrooms. The water returned through the gravity-driven pipes when someone did a quick side trip while getting stuff out of storage.

“She’s in here.” Yo-yo whispered.

Duane knocked.

“Go away.” The voice was laced with tears, anger, and pain.

“Vera,” Duane dropped his voice into what he thought of as his baby smoothing tones. “may I come in?”

“No!” She screamed in terror. “Go away. I got the Mumps.”

Curtis yelled back. “You ain’t got the Mumps, girl.”

Duane stared at the older man a moment before suggesting, “Why don’t you get the kids moving? Breakfast has to be done by now.”

“Fine, my friend, it’s your funeral.” Raising his hands, Curtis turned and walked away.

It usually was. Curtis and Duane had found each other during the crazy months after the mumps struck people who had refused to get vaccinated for an “extinct” disease, then mutated with a flu strain and became effectually a new, practically air-borne disease passed easily in fluids like sneezes. In three months humanity dropped from eight billion to a few million at best guess. The pandemic took its share, but human stupidity took more. Immune adults were rare and got rarer as they fought over supplies which will last for years at the new population levels; those that didn’t commit suicide at the first sniffle. At least three countries set off something nuclear before the internet stopped working; America wasn’t the idiot on the block for once and got all of its plants decommissioned safely. The last act of the forty-ninth President was ordering all the nuclear bombs be disassembled. Number fifty-two, the first woman President, two weeks later, confirmed it was done.

Duane waited until Curtis and Yo-yo started down the stairs. “One of these days,” he muttered while no one could hear. He didn’t feel any better. He needed Curtis desperately, and the old man had started rubbing his left arm when he didn’t know Duane was looking.

Knocking again at the door, Duane shook the last of his anger away. He never had any for the children. “Vera, please.”

“Go away.” She moaned from the other side of the door.

“Why do you think you have the Mumps, honey?”

“I’m sick, so sick. And I hurt really bad.”

The door wasn’t lockable, but privacy was priceless when none was available. Leaning a muscular arm against the door frame and resting his forehead against it, Duane talked to the door as gentle as he talked to her when she was seven and he had found her half-starved wandering the street, his second foundling before he had even met Curtis. He ruthlessly cut off the memory of his first foundling, a baby so dehydrated no amount of formula could save, and the next three who succumbed to Mumps a month after he rescued them from a pack of feral dogs. “Lots of things can do that Vera. No one has had Mumps for a long time.”

“We got new people.” She pointed out.

The Trust had gone through and dropped off four more kids at their make-shift orphanage. Humanity connected through a bunch of over-zealous do-gooders, at least in his part of the world. They were helpful enough, as restoring the ancient well setup for the armory witnessed, but they meddled as much as they helped.

“And they are all healthy, honey.”

He didn’t hear anything on the other side in response until the unmistakable sound of vomiting happened. He parsed the sound again. Dry heaves, he thought, if she had been emptying her stomach all night and not come down for breakfast.

“I’m coming in.” He announced and took a step back from the jam to open the door.

“No!” She screamed. “I’m bleeding and everything. You’ll catch it.”

“Bleeding?” He stopped before pushing the door open. “Vera, where are you bleeding?”

“Does it matter?” Her voice shook. Pain filled the cracks between the terror controlling her, but a bit of embarrassment oozed out in the last question.

“Of course it does.” Firmness meant to reassure pushed the words to the small room Vera huddled in.

Two quick words bounced back. “My pee-pee.”

Duane closed his eyes for a moment, then braced his arms and opened the door. The little girl he had raised for the last seven years curled naked on the floor in a fetal position with blood streaked across her thighs, some white cotton cloth was stuffed a water bucket beside her. The toilet had a little yellow tinge from the most recent dry heaves, while the bucket red-tinged water had floats, likely from her first round of vomiting which stuck to the nightshirt she wore in the barracks with the other children. He ran his eyes over her tear-streaked face, searching for any tell-tale swelling, then down her back to her just barely noticeable hips. Hips he had never noticed before.

Fourteen. Little Vera, the oldest of the girls in his care was fourteen.

Yo-yo’s voice change should have told him what would happen soon to Vera and Belle, but he didn’t think, hadn’t remembered. Fighting starvation had driven them so long and delayed things in the children he had long forgotten about. Dropping on the dirty floor beside her, he pulled this daughter of his soul into his lap. She fought him the whole way. “No, no. You can’t get sick. I am sick. No.”

“Yes, yes. Everything is fine.” He cooed back. “You are not sick. Everything is fine.”

She sobbed louder, the fighting only half-hearted.

“It’s normal, honey.” He stroked her black hair, rocking the child. “It’s normal.”

(words 2,084 – first published April 30, 2017)

Flash: Home Cooking Part 1

Book Cover for Honestly


Occurs between chapters 12 and 13 of the novel, Honestly.

“I gots it!” The high pitch of a child vibrated through the apartment door, followed by the thunder of small steps running, and the slow turn of the knob. Troy waited as the door shifted open and a four-year-old appeared in the gap.

Terrell’s eyes popped, the wide whites showing prominently against his summer-darkened black skin. “Mr. Troy, what are you doing here?!”

“Picking you up, Mr. James, if that is acceptable.” Troy smiled down at the little boy.

“In or out, don’t be a cat!” An older female voice carried from deeper in the apartment.

“Oops.” Terrell fell backward against the door, pushing it wider to allow Troy into the living quarters.

Stepping just inside the door, Troy helped Terrell close it as he waited for the other speaker to come into the living room. While waiting, he glanced around trying to get a feel of the person who raised the woman he loved. The walkways between cracked leather furniture were wide and one section, directly in front of the television playing Sesame Street, temporarily strewn with Terrell’s Legos, crayons, coloring pages, and one shoe. Threadbare carpet presented a bigger trip hazard, especially where some of the strings curled together in a mass at the one end of the sofa near a bright, colorful African pattern throw covering the failing leather surface. Four unlit lamps and a ceiling fan-light combo would turn the dingy white walls into bright reflective surfaces in the evening, if she lit them. Kassandra never turned on her lights to save money, and likely the mother followed suit.

Around the television were dozens of photographs of Kassandra from childhood to adulthood, some of them containing a matching woman slowly aging beside her. A few show Kassandra, the woman, and Terrell; in those, the woman’s health clearly has been deteriorating. The picture where a tired Kassandra is triumphily holding a newborn in a hospital bed, Troy would guess the woman to be in her early sixties although Kassandra’s mother should have been only late-forties. Arthritic hands twisted by the enlarged knuckles lay on her daughter’s shoulders, salt-and-pepper hair pulled back from a proud face, just beginning to have laugh lines about the eyes and smiling mouth. The most recent one, taken in this room four short years later, had a Terrell (slightly younger than he knew) reading a book while sitting on his grandmother’s lap. The steel grey hair a sharp contrast against the African throw as she bent over the child to see what he is pointing at; unkind light from the flash added sparkle into the young child’s eyes but turned her laugh lines into crow’s feet and the smile lines around the mouth carved into a permanent painful frown even with the clear enjoyment she experienced in the child’s presence.

No pictures of Terrell’s father appeared anywhere in the room. Nor any crafts or books. The two end tables had water rings etched into the wood by forgotten drinks, nearly all on the table by the throw, but at the moment it held just the remote with the channel search button worn off; the mostly dusted surfaces hid small dirt bunnies behind the lamps where the woman couldn’t reach. The other walls supported a set of windows covered by crumbling venetian blinds, a cross and warped picture of Martin Luther King Jr., and the entry into the kitchen where he could see cracked linoleum and pealing, but clean, cabinets. The woman, aged even further, was maneuvering a walker with bright green tennis balls on its feet from the linoleum to what was left of the carpet.

“You must be Kassie’s new boy.” Premature aging caused by pain added cracks to a strong voice. She nodded his way as she pushed along one of the two well-worn paths in the brown carpet. One went from the sofa to the kitchen, and the other led down a small hall, presumably to the bathroom and bedroom. Neither path led to the front door.

Troy nodded acknowledgment back from the door. “May I come in, Mrs. Carter?” With his head dropped, he studied the floor a moment. The carpet did show a slight wear of the walker going over it. When Kassandra had called and begged him to pick up Terrell because a co-worker didn’t show making pulling a double-shift a requirement at her present slave-wage job, she mentioned her mother arthritis issues meant she couldn’t care for the active child too long. Either Kassandra was in denial of the level of her mother’s disability, or the woman hid it as much as she could. Having dated the down-to-Earth goddess for just over two months, Troy guessed the later. Likely compounded by being too busy and already feeling guilty about asking her mother for help at all.

“Kassie did say you are a polite one.” The woman plopped onto the African throw, moved the walker to the side, pushing against the wad of loose strings, and, when she noticed he hadn’t moved, waved him over. “Come on, come on. Terrell, boy, bring him over.” A welcoming smile of healthy teeth erased ten years of pain from her dark face.

Grabbing his hand, Terrell started pulling Troy into the apartment. “Careful,” he muttered to the enthusiastic child. Even with nearly two years on the prosthesis, having a forty-pound weight actively pulling to the side challenged his ability to balance. Once close enough to be polite, he managed to disengage the boy by saying, “We need to be leaving soon, Mr. James, if you could gather your things.”

“Sure thing.” And the barefoot child rushed down the hall, quickly returning his backpack and throwing himself on the floor where his Legos warred with the crayons.

Smiling gently, sadly, after the ball of energy, Mrs. Carter turned to him. “Won’t you have a seat?” She waved at the separate leather chair. The least worn piece of furniture in the room and only one not facing the television.

“I am afraid not, ma’am.” Troy tapped his left leg. “Getting up and down is a production sometimes, and we do need to be on our way. I am sure you understand.”

Her brown eyes narrowed, dropping a moment to his leg, adding another frown line into the forest surrounding a mouth meant to smile. Kassandra had told her something. Well, it wasn’t a secret and his girlfriend … girlfriend, yea Gods … was breaking him free of the embarrassed shame-filled prison his scars and amputee injury had chained him into.

“Very well.” The flickering TV drew her eyes a moment, where Terrell had stopped moving to watch Grover fly around in a red cape and mask. Mrs. Carter grabbed the remote and turned off the show. When Terrell turned to protest, she raised her eyebrows then dropped her eyes to the task he had lost track of. Once the child returned to stuffing his coloring sheets into the backpack, her attention returned to him. “Can I offer you a drink or something to eat?”

He smiled, shaking his head. And Kassandra teased him about Southern Manners. “No, thank you, Mrs. Carter. I am fine.”

“I’m ready,” reported Terrell, standing.

“Mr. James, I am fairly certain you arrived with two shoes and socks.” Troy scolded lightly. He looked over at the seated woman who joined him in the fun.

“Oh yes, two shoes and his Elmo socks.” Mrs. Carter considered the lonely shoe. “It’s why today was a Sesame Street day.”

Troy nodded. “You wouldn’t want to lose those.”

“Look in the bedroom hon, I think they came off during naptime.”

The four-year-old tore down the hall looking for the rest of his footwear, leaving the backpack and shoe behind.

“Anything else I should look for?” he asked the woman.

She shook her head. “No jacket or hat needed in summer, so we are good.”

Coming back with two socks and two shoes, Terrell dropped to the floor and started pulling them on. Velcro ripped when he tightened the shoes.

“Are we going to the park?” Terrell asked, after standing, the solo shoe unexplained. His eyes went sideways, and he rocked from foot-to-foot. “Mom always takes me to the park to see the puppies and play on the slides after Nana’s.”

“She does not, Terrell Martin Samuel James, and I will not have you lie to this man.” Mrs. Carter’s voice ripped through the room with power.

Troy unconsciously came to attention at the drill sergeant tone, seemingly doubling in size and firmness to the little boy.

“I..I..I am sorry, Mr. Troy.” He started sobbing. “I just want to see the puppies.”

“Lying, even to get what you want, is wrong.” Troy said firmly, his eyes fixed on the bowed head covered in short black curly twists. “You do understand that, Mr. James, correct?”

The bowed head bobbed up and down.

“I’m sorry, Mr. James. I need you to answer me verbally.” The military, while not perfect, raised more than one wayward child and much of its mannerisms worked well during toddler interaction.

The bowed head shook sideways. Clearly verbal was beyond the four-year-old at the moment.

Nana wasn’t haven’t any. “You heard the man. Do you understand lying is bad, Terrell?”

The head snapped sideways. Eyes of two generations met.

Troy wondered if a dominance battled was occurring, or a begging for mercy, or some other telepathic exchange only family can do. Not standing between them, he couldn’t hazard a guess. Eventually Terrell’s eyes shifted away to meet his. Not a dominance battle, the four-year-old would have broken under Mrs. Carter’s will much sooner. The tears on the corners of the eyes were drying. Assurance and confidence, that was the exchange. How many times had his parents instilled those feelings in him with a look? How many times had his father bolstered him with energy and determination since he had come back broken?

“Yes, Mr. Troy.”

He couldn’t leave it at that. Not if he was going to be staying around Kassandra. Terrell needed to understand what would be expected. “Yes, what?”

“What?” Came a confused echo. The four-year-old eyes returned to the older woman, widening to ask for clarification.

“Yes, Mr. Troy, I understand lying is bad.” She supplied him the words and tilted her head, returning the four-year-old back to the conversation with the adult male.

“Yes, Mr. Troy, I understands lying is bad.” Terrell repeated.

“Good.” Troy touched the boy on the shoulder, stopping himself from ruffling the hair. They weren’t that familiar yet, though Troy ached sometimes in worry for the little boy. Every so often they roughhoused while Kassandra was prepping something, but in general, their getting-to-know-each-other dance was slower and more emotionally difficult than the one Kassandra was putting him through. Dewayne might be a total loser, but, as Terrell’s dad, he was in the picture and staying in the picture whatever Troy and Kassandra ended up being, and the child did not need any more confusion on that score. “So, the plan is, we are going back to my place and cook your mom dinner.”

“Cook?” Terrell gasped.

“Yes, cook. I thought your mom would like a nice cooked meal when she got home after all the work she did today.” Terrell wished he could easily kneel to look the child in the eye. Maybe he should have taken up Mrs. Carter on her offer to sit. “I left the bread rising and the vegetables are waiting to be chopped up.”

“Vegetables?” Terrell crinkled his nose while Mrs. Carter laughed.

Clapping her hands in joy on the couch, the woman commented, “Oh, you’ll do. You’ll definitely do.”

Troy quickly glanced her way. “Thank you, ma’am.” Kassandra may be a completely independent woman, but she was also completely committed to her family. “You are invited by the way, if you would like to come.”

Startled the woman’s face froze. “I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to be an imposition. I just-“

Troy interrupted. “My normal Lyft driver specializes in the mobility impaired. I had been planning on taking the bus back, but I could see if she is available. She keeps two child seats in the back of her van so she can run families to doctor offices. Shall I see if she is available?”

“You were planning on cooking for just-“

“A small army. Where I learned to cook.” Troy looked down at the wide-eyed child. “Mr. James, get your bag please.” The boy had dropped it during the chastisement. Crossing the room, Troy carefully knelt beside the sofa arm and walker, and put his hand on her hand where it gripped the tired leather. “My father will be there and love the company of having someone his own age to talk to, and when was the last time you truly got to sit down and talk with your daughter? Do say you will come.”

Black and brown eyes met, both knowing the lie and the gift being offered. Lies are not always bad. Honestly.

Her eyes tried to break away, to find another excuse.

“If you do not come, Kassandra will try to help me clean up.” Troy clasped her hand in both of his. “Please.”

“Well, if only to keep Kassie out of the kitchen.” The tension released from her shoulders and hand, not in defeat but in acceptance and anticipated pleasure.

“Thank you.”

(Words 2,230 – first published 10/1/2017 – put into the unused 1/29/2017 timeslot)

Flash: No More Cheeseburgers

Cheeseburger Stock Art

Image courtesy of Mister GC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Mom, it’s the end of the world!” Gilbert charged into the house, slamming doors behind him, shedding books, backpack, papers, and electronics in his wake from his day of college classes.

His mother looked up at her teenage son from the oven where she just pulled out a sheet of baked French fries. “Of course it is.”

“No, I mean for real! It’s all over the news.”

“Uh-huh.” His mother nodded moving the fries to a serving platter. “Would you like a cheeseburger or hamburger?”

“Why is that even a question?” Gilbert put his hands on the back of a kitchen charge, shaking in his urgency. “A meteor is about to hit Earth!”

“Correction, the meteor will hit Earth in a little over nine months.” His mother tsk’ed. “Please do not exaggerate.”

Blinking at the calm his mother produced, entirely at odds from the explosion of opinions on campus when the news was released a couple hours ago, Gilbert shook his head before whining, “But the world is going to end.”

“But not today or tomorrow, and I am assuming you are hungry now.” His mother nodded to the sizzling burgers. “So tell me, cheese or no cheese.”

“Cheese, please.” Gilbert muttered weakly, pulling out the chair before sitting down. He planted his elbows on the table and buried his head in his hands.

After placing Swiss cheese slices on the ground meat patties and returning the cheese to the refrigerator, Heather brought over fries platter and ketchup. “Where is my kiss?”

Dropping his hands to the table, Gilbert kissed the cheek his mother presented.

“Much better. Now make yourself useful and get out the drinks.” Heather returned to the stove. “I’m your mother, not your waitress.”

“Yes mom.” Gilbert got up again and started setting the table for dinner. “I just don’t understand why you aren’t bothered. The news says there will be anarchy, looting, lawlessness.”

“Well it’s not going to happen in this house.” Heather said firmly. “People who do that are the stupid ones, and you and your sister are not stupid.”

Gilbert’s bushy eyebrows met in a frown while putting the glasses out. “I … what?”

“Oh, for the love of goodness.” Heather pulled the toasted buns from the oven and placed them on the table beside the lettuce leaves, onion slices, and tomatoes. “Anyone who goes the panicked mob route is just asking to die. The president already declared marshal law, and the National Guard has been deployed. She promised to bring on-line the draft for both men and women, and veterans should call in to the nearest post according to their last name.” Sliding the cheeseburger patties on a heated plate, Heather joined her son at the dinner table. “I got to call in at the gadawful hour of three a.m.”

Heather bowed her head and her son followed suit. “Dear Lord, during this time of trouble, please give our leadership the strength and wisdom they need. Give us the endurance and intelligence to be able to help them. Always remind us to look first to you for guidance.” Gilbert winced at the very pointed comment. “And bless this food unto our bodies. In your name, Amen.”

“Amen.” Gilbert echoed before grabbing a warmed bun. “So you are getting called up again?”

“What else did you expect?” Heather squirted some ketchup on her bottom bun, leaving the top of the bun on the serving platter since carbs were her biggest enemies in her ongoing battle of the bulge. “Though it’s likely only for the initial check-ins since hospitals will be a priority staffing issue.” His mother’s nursing career spanned three deployments overseas and half a decade stateside since she quit the army to raise her children after her civilian husband died of cardiac arrest.

“So I don’t even get to see you before it all ends.”

Heather pointed The Finger at her son. “Okay, stop that negativity right there. I raised you better than that. Heck, your father, bless his black heart, raised you better than that. What are the solutions?”

In the middle of biting into the burger when the question was asked, with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and meat juices dripping onto the plate, Gilbert chewed and swallowed before answering. He wasn’t going to risk his ears getting boxed for talking with his mouth full. “The meteor is going to hit the Earth. It’s too big to move. The news says it’s nearly eight kilometers.”

“Try again, that is not a solution.” The military officer grilled her son.

“Whatever.” Gilbert picked up a fry and considered it, slipping into programming mode. “Okay, there are three states to this equation. First we do nothing and continue as we are.”

His mother nodded. “With the minor change of controlling the anarchy and any idiots who use disruption to become petty dictators.”

“Scat, Dad would have loved this.” Gilbert’s dad taught high school history and ran the debate team most of his life, in between serving local political offices and as an adviser for state and military offices wherever they had been stationed.

“Focus.”

“All right, so option two is we try to move the rock and option three is we dig in and make an ark.” Everyone at the college figured the politicians didn’t release the news until they had the ark option all set up for their families and are already hiding underground.

“That is my conclusion as well.” After scooping some more onto her plate, his mother offered her son a half-filled platter. “More fries?”

Gilbert dumped the rest on his plate before smothering them in mayonnaise and ketchup. At nineteen, his appetite still hadn’t found a level between his track and his soccer scholarships and his continuing growth. Six foot would be in the rear view mirror in a few months, if he lived through the end of the world.

Heather steepled her fingers. “So the first step is control the lunacy and the second step is to direct our energies to humanity’s survival. Which option do you prefer?”

“I don’t see how we are going to move that rock, so I guess the ark is the best bet.”

“Hide instead of act.” Heather shook her head. “Well, half of humanity is conservative and half is action, which is how we survived so far. Diana takes more after me and you take more after your dad.”

Gilbert protested. “When action will accomplish nothing, using your brain is the best option. In fact it is always the best option – use the brain before acting. And in this case, the brain says a conservative reaction is best.”

Shaking her hand side to side, Heather responded. “Yes and no.”

“Right. So your turn.” Gilbert started on his second burger.

“Well, first we need to get everyone concentrating on the rock instead of panicking. We can go back to our petty bickering later, just like Africa did once Europe left. I think the U.N. is already working on that, though I expect some of the extremist groups to respond poorly.” Heather’s face hardened. “I also expect the kid gloves will come off and we will stop pussy-footing around with what is ‘humane’ and ‘civilized’ during this time.”

Gilbert smirked a moment, then took great delight and saying a word his mom constantly used on him for the last five years since she returned from overseas. “Focus.”

Heather’s brown eyes sparkled and a wry grin crossed her face before she started speaking again. “The problem with the ark solution is the limited amount of what can be saved. Therefore moving that stupid rock into the sun or at least off orbit is the better option.”

“I realize most of humanity will still die, but that is the trade-off for the ark. It is the more viable solution.” Gilbert tucked the last of the burger in his mouth.

Heather stood up and began to pick up the empty dishes. “There will be no more cheeseburgers.”

“I know that mom, but it’s okay; I’m full.” Gilbert stood up to help her load the dishwasher.

“No, Gilly, what I mean is there will be no more cheeseburgers after the ark. The cows won’t fit.”

Gilbert froze, glass in hand. “No more cheeseburgers?”

“Yeah, even if you get chosen for the ark because of your brains, brawn, genes, and youth, and don’t get all big-head on me, but you would be a prime choice, but cows take up too much landscape to raise so there will be no more cheeseburgers or steak.”

“Well, fuck that. We need to move that rock.”

His mom smiled evilly. “Why don’t you get on internet and get your friends on it. SpaceX has a rocket going up in two days and needs number crunchers to figure out density programs for their sensors. They advertised the crowd sourcing just before you came home.”

(Words 1,478; first published 7/17/2016)