Speakeasy #166 | Grandfather’s Advice

He taught me how to read people’s eyes.

Brown for sorrows,
Blue for gold,
Hazel for gallows,
Green for lies told.

I didn’t understand until I was older, coming home on the heels of heartbreak.

“What color were ‘is eyes?” Grandfather asked.

“Brown,” I sobbed, but understood.

My friends thought it was crazy advice.

“Only sadness, riches, death, and deception – what about love?”

“Not for me.”

It could never be that simple.

I met him at the pool, his lean mahogany body slicing through the water next to me.

“You’re fast,” he said when he got out. He wore sleek black swim shorts and goggles with mirrored lenses. The reflection of my towel-wrapped figure stared back at me.

“So are you,” I smiled. My prayer was one word: Blue.

The goggles slipped over his head.

Hazel.

When I emerged from the locker room, he was waiting for me. We walked through campus together. His name was Demetrius, but everyone called him Meter. Studying to be an architect, he pulled out a notebook with things that inspire him: lots of Stanley Kubrick sets and Frank Lloyd Wright, and a surprising M. C. Escher print with a waterfall and steps and layers. He has a flair for the dramatic and innovative, the type of design that would inspire someone to stand still and appreciate a building.

“I never got your name,” Meter said. His hazel eyes mocked me with their happiness. My stomach flipped, and I’ wasn’t sure if it was because of my attraction or my fear of the fate those golden eyes foretold.

“Delaney,” I said. “My friends call me Lane.”

“Meter and Lane, meeting at a pool,” he chuckled. “I better give you this.”

He jotted his phone number on a page in his notebook, and with a gentle tear it separated and I found myself staring at it, taking it, and writing my own number on the now-damaged page.

Meter called me that night. And the next. And the next.

Now we’re swimming by day, dating by night, and I wait for Death.

I feel like I’m wading into the water by Grandfather’s house, where the bank is soft and the river calm. When I leave the ground behind, the river surges around me and I have to stand strong and solid to keep from slipping and floating away in the strong current. I’m like a rock planted, forcing the water to flow around me, but time may loosen and free me.

“Hazel for gallows,” my roommate sing-songs when Meter comes by to study. She sashays out of the room on a cloud of perfume and “I told you so” glances.

“Is she…okay?” Meter tips his head back and mimes pouring one back. I can’t laugh. I have to tell him.

“It was something my Grandfather said about eye color,” I reply.

“You have one of those, too?” Meter says. “My grandmother had a thing with hair color.

“Red is shallow,
Brown is fun,
Blonde is fallow,
Black’s the one.”

“That can’t be true!” I laugh. My hair is like autumn leaves.

“Neither is your grandfather’s rhyme,” Meter kisses me slow and soft. “I love you, Lane. Even if you’re shallow.”

“I love you, Meter,” I say and blink back happy tears.

In the morning, my mother calls. I listen to her as I fight back sobs and scribble times and instructions. I sit on my bed and cry. Meter arrives, worried I missed our daily swim. He sees my face and the shaky scrawl on the notepad. He pulls me into a hug and I am silent as he packs my suitcase, escorts me to the student parking lot, drives to his dorm, and comes back with his duffel bag.

I sob the four-hour drive from school to home, and the only smile I see when I get there is from my mom, realizing that this man I love has taken great pains to get me here.

My eyes are red and puffy on the day of the wake. Meter holds me up as I walk to the coffin.

I’m not prepared for it: his supine state, the fancy suit, his pale cold skin. Worse is the picture of him, ringed by memorial flowers. He’s young and handsome, full of life and so different from the man I knew, with milky eyes and liver spots, hunchbacked and hobbling.

That’s when I notice Grandfather’s eyes were green.

This piece was written for the speakeasy #166 challenge. Word count is 740, under the 750-word max. As always, feedback is appreciated!

Speakeasy #157 | A Winter Spell

Winter seemed reluctant to release its hold. Outside Fern saw tree branches heavy with ice. Indented snow marked the narrow path to the forest. She could not see it, but beyond the gate she knew it wound like a labyrinth around the trees. It connected with several other roads, but in the dark, in the winter, a lone traveler might get lost. Fern was there to help them.

A wolf howled in the distance, and Fern burrowed into her thick blanket. The glow of the fire made her drowsy, but she had work to do. She took a long swallow of the bitter coffee, her lip cutting on the chipped edge. Fern tasted iron and dark, peaty earth as she stared at the portfolio. Fern traced the outline of her favorite, a child curled into a pod.

“I asked for you,” the old woman had said when Fern stumbled out of the forest, dazed and half-mad from wandering alone. Fern did not remember anything before her twelfth birthday. She had no other family, no other past. She was born in the woods, claimed only by the old woman.

“I asked for you,” the old woman had said, like she had made some pact to bring Fern forth as her own. The old woman did not live long enough to teach Fern. She had to find the magic on her own, which made it both more special and dangerous. She caught glimpses of it dancing in the trees, saw it shine from the corner of her eyes. Fern found incantations spilling out of her when she chopped wood. Spells sparked from her when she set her traps. Each place she walked was sacred.

Still, she echoed her predecessor’s sentiments. Fern wanted company. It was not enough to hear a pack of wolves in the distance or command birds with her whistle. Fern longed for conversation.

The potion was easy to make. Fern danced around the cottage with a fire piled high and a cauldron full of iridescent liquid. When it was finished, the potion was a soft periwinkle shade that smelled like cinnamon and sugar. Fern drank a cup of it every day until she scraped the bottom.

That is when the children came.

At first, it was just a sickly one every few weeks. They were already dead by the time they arrived, corpses still in motion. Fern did what she could, but each one died in the night. Fern made a pyre and shed tears for them all. She managed a few names, or scraps of ones – “Bas” and “Liesel” were her favorites – but it made no difference. They were all hers to burn or bury. She asked for them. She mourned for them.

On the last day of winter, Fern threw off her covers, ready to put an end to her experiment.

A little girl in furs picked at the congealed potion in the cauldron. When she saw Fern, she shrieked.

The little girl was frightened, Fern thought. She survived the forest and found this place, and I startled her.

“It’s okay,” Fern said in a soothing voice. “You’re okay. I will keep you safe.”

The girl looked better than the ones before her: bright, rosy cheeks and soft blonde waves, curious gray eyes that flitted between Fern and the door.

“I won’t hurt you,” Fern whispered. “I promise.”

“Are you a witch?” The little girl asked.

“No,” Fern laughed. “I am a lonely woman, stranded in the forest. My name is Fern.”

“Oh,” the little girl replied. “We got lost, too. My name is Margaret.”

“We?” Fern asked. “Are there more of you?”

“My brother,” Margaret replied. “He wanted to look around outside, but I was too cold. I was supposed to stay by the fence, but it looked so warm and smelled so nice, and I had to come inside.”

Outside. Fern sucked in her breath. What would the boy see? What would he understand? He would see pyres and old bones, a shed with trinkets and toys, small shoes and torn cloaks. He would not understand.

“Run, Greta!” The boy’s voice carried over the wind. The girl’s gray eyes grew wide and scared, and she darted to the door.

“No, you don’t understand!” Fern cried. “I asked for you!”

This piece was written for the speakeasy #157 challenge. Word count is 714, under the 750-word max. As always, feedback is appreciated!

Speakeasy #144 | That Girl

EXHIBIT M: Excerpt from Lacey Bennet’s Journal, May 20th, 2013

Nobody wants to be “that girl” – unless “that” is the only memorable thing about you, the only thing keeping you from being just “girl.”

I cling to the labels, no matter what they are. “Slut,” “skank,” and the big c-word are pretty common, and thus totally unimaginative. I mean, can’t you cut a woman down with something a little more bold? At least Joss Whedon used “quim.”

Anyway, C’s wedding. It was straight off Pinterest in the best way possible. It was gorgeous – I mean, g-o-r-geous. C showed a rare amount of restraint for a DIY bride with a Pinterest addiction, but she managed to pull in the burlap without it feeling like a sack race and use Mason jars without conjuring up images of moonshine. We had a lot of mimosas getting ready, but that’s what bridesmaids do, right? And no one said anything when I spilled the teensiest bit on the MOH’s “special” dress, but maybe everyone was still tipsy then or MAYBE everyone was tired of the MOH being the bridezilla of this shindig. Either way, point – Lacey!!!

So, the ceremony was love this and commitment that. Oh my LAWD, I thought I was gonna lose it when MOH busted out the serenade. I looked over and T had the same “holy shit, is she for real?” look on his face and then we both blushed and looked away because of course we did, and suddenly nothing was as funny anymore.

The reception. So many champagne toasts that I lost count but found the hiccups. HA.

I slipped away for some fresh air after the cake. The DJ had moved away from good songs and was a slave to requests, playing some Elton John cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Seriously?

Anyway, I guess T needed some fresh air, too, because he came up behind me and said “Hey, Lacey.” He was so quiet that I jumped and spilled champagne all over the front of my dress. He offered to help me clean it up, and that’s how we ended up in my hotel room, frantic and totally wrong.

(Frantic + totally wrong = best kind of passion?!?)

After it was over, we shared a joint. The scent hung over us, illegal and illicit and so good.

“I thought you were gonna forget all this? Turn over a new leaf?” I said to him.

“Some things can’t be forgotten.” T’s words hung between us, and I kissed him for too long and then we both knew it was time to part. T slipped on his tux, cut so well it made him look like a Greek god (Adonis?).

Nobody wants to be the bridesmaid who sleeps with the groom on his wedding night – unless the groom loves you and not your sister.

This piece was written for the speakeasy #144 challenge. Word count is 475, under the 750-word max. As always, feedback is appreciated!

Update, 1/18/14: This piece took 3rd place, as well as the Editors’ Pick! Thanks, everyone 🙂

Speakeasy #138 | Rites of Passage

The bowl lay overturned on the floor, a rough crack running down one side. Paige could see the damage illuminated with the light from her iPhone, set dimmer than she normally preferred.

“Double-damn!” She swore under her breath. Paige picked up the bowl, avoiding the jagged edge that threatened to cut her finger and make her bleed like a stuck pig.

With more care than before, Paige placed each item in the bowl as if they were part of a sacred ritual – which, when she thought about it, they kind of were.

Paige stood and breathed a sigh of relief. This had been a minor setback, but she could still finish close to schedule.

The light clicked on, flooding the room with light. In the mirror’s reflection, Paige saw her older sister Shelby. Her thick blonde hair was piled in a messy style, and she wore an oversized Dartmouth hoodie over American Apparel leggings. A shit-eating grin completed the ensemble.

“What’re you doing, sis?” Shelby goaded. Paige stared back at her. Maybe if she didn’t move, her sister wouldn’t see her. It worked in Jurassic Park. Kind of.

“Honestly, you are such a child sometimes,” Shelby walked over and looked into the bowl.

“Technically I’m a child all the time,” Paige managed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Shelby rifled through the bowl. “Are you sneaking out?”

“Yes?” Paige squeaked. Shelby pulled her into her room, a monstrosity of unfolded laundry and books. Her new laptop, a gift to celebrate her early admission to college, glowed faintly on her Ikea desk.

“Are you going to drink?” Shelby asked.

Paige shook her head, her lip involuntarily curling at the thought of the one sip of lukewarm Miller Light she had after Homecoming. Gross.

“Drugs?” Shelby’s face grew concerned, then softened when Paige emphatically shook her head.

“You’re not going to have sex, are you?” Shelby’s voice hinted at resigned melancholy, desperation, and admiration. Paige shook her head at that one, too, but made the mistake of looking away and blushing.

“You’re meeting a boy!” Shelby said, her voice echoing the sing-song taunting of their younger petty sibling rivalries.

“Don’t you dare tell Mom and Dad!” Paige begged. “It’s nothing. Cameron Jones is doing a movie night and he invited me and a few other people. His parents are out-of-town, but his aunt will be there, so it’s not even like we’ll be able to get into any trouble even if we wanted to!”

“But Mom and Dad said no – no parents, not happening,” Shelby said, summarizing one of Saul and Peggy Beckett’s many rules for their two teenage daughters. “I get it, sis. Look, if you’re being safe – and it sounds like you are – then I’ll help you.”

“But you’re a dork!” Paige regretted the words as soon as they escaped. She wanted to tuck them away, avoid the embarrassment of telling her sister what she thought. Paige flushed crimson, but Shelby giggled. She began to take make-up out of the bowl, placing Paige’s selections on her stark white desk: highlighting pearls, an eye makeup palette, and a staggering three lip glosses. Oh, the indecisive excesses of youth, Shelby thought.

“I’m a dork, which means I’m smart, which means I figured out how to avoid getting caught sneaking out way before you did,” Shelby countered. “It also means I have the patience to research and work my cute butt off where you might otherwise give up. I’ve learned some tricks that won’t impress Dartmouth but might impress you. Hand me that eyeliner.”

“What’re you gonna do with it?” Paige took it out of the bowl, nervous.

“Sis, I’m gonna give you winged liner like you wouldn’t believe.”

This piece was written for the speakeasy #138 challenge. Word count is 616, under the 750-word max. As always, feedback is appreciated!

Speakeasy #137 | Crazy Pasta

We didn’t know how we were going to spend Thanksgiving.

Dad called Mom the weekend before and I didn’t hear everything, just a few bits and pieces:

‘I thought you wanted him to spend the holiday -‘

‘No, we can’t just -‘

‘- being a total -‘

There was a lot of yelling, and then quiet, and then sobs, low and hard and pained. Dad emerged with a blotchy face and a too-large smile that didn’t fit right on his face.

“Looks like it’s just us, sport!” He said. “We’ll get everything Wednesday afternoon when I pick you up from school. Start thinking about your perfect Thanksgiving dinner.”

I didn’t want to tell him that it would mean Mom would come back and make it, and Aunt Linda and the cousins would come, too; that Dad and I would play football in the front yard.

“Anything?” I asked. I tried to smile but I bet it was a too-large smile, too, because Dad looked a little sad.

“Anything I can make!” He laughed.

When he picked me up on Wednesday, Miss Little asked him how he was doing and what our plans were, and if she could have places set for us. I spoke before Dad could answer.

“No,” I said, “we’re having a special Thanksgiving! Whatever I want!”

“Oh,” Miss Little gave Dad’s arm a squeeze and although their voices were low I could hear her say something about “keeping a brave face,” which seemed silly since it wasn’t baseball season.

When we went to the store, we were the only ones buying ingredients for pasta. Dad let me pick out crazy shapes with weird names I couldn’t pronounce.

On Thanksgiving Day, Dad swore and got mad because he realized we didn’t have any garlic powder. Then he started to cry and he sat down at the table and kept sayng he was sorry, and I kept asking why. He stayed silent for a while before answering, “Because you can’t make good pasta without garlic, sport.”

We went to a bunch of different stores until we found one still open. We bought the garlic powder and headed back home. He locked the doors when we got in the car, and he never does that. At the first stop light, a woman with a big coat crossed in front of us. We drove for a couple seconds and then Dad did a big turn in the street, which he said I should never do but was okay this time because there wasn’t anyone else around. He pulled up next to the woman and got out of the car. I rolled down the window to listen.

“Hi,” he said. The woman stared at him and he stuck out his hand. “I’m Jason. My son and I are having a small Thanksgiving – ”

“Special Thanksgiving!” I corrected.

“- a special Thanksgiving. Just pasta – ”

“Crazy pasta!” I called out.

“Just crazy pasta,” Dad said. “Would you like to join us?”

“Not dressed for Thanksgiving dinner, even with crazy pasta.” The woman smiled at us.

“Uh, my wife, she – she isn’t spending Thanksgiving with us. Got plenty of old clothes.”

“Oh,” the woman looked scared and angry, “I see. No thank you, sir.”

“No – I didn’t mean that!” Dad looked back at me and his face was red.

“Got plenty of clothes,” the woman nodded, “and plenty of space at your table, sounds like.”

“Yes ma’am!” I said. She came over to me and looked me over. Her eyes got sad.

“Your Daddy’s a kind man,” she said as she got in the car.

We spent Thanksgiving with Rita, who was really funny and told made-up stories about trolls under bridges and dragons in caves. We all had three servings of the pasta and then Dad brought out a surprise chocolate cake with something Rita called “confetti frosting.” We watched a movie where Iron Man threw a turkey at a lady. Rita slept in our guest bedroom, but didn’t want to listen to Dad’s bedtime story.

In the morning, Rita was gone. She left a note but Dad wouldn’t let me read it, even though he always let me try to read anything I wanted.

From that day forward, every time I drove past that street corner, I thought of her.

This piece was written for the speakeasy #137 challenge. Word count is 711, just under the 750-word max. As always, feedback is appreciated!

Speakeasy #135 | Like, Comment, Share

Cara couldn’t sleep. She tried watching TV and reading, but her mind wandered. She tossed and turned restlessly for another hour. The aging clock radio taunted her with 12:27, 12:28, 12:29…

Cara slipped out of bed. She grabbed a water bottle from the pantry and made her way to the home office. Cara turned on the dim light – she really should replace those two burnt-out bulbs – and made her way over to the thing she tried to avoid all night.

A stack of file folders on the corner of the desk mocked her. Cara placed the water bottle on top and switched on the computer. The glowing screen comforted her, then made her stomach turn.

For twenty minutes, Cara looked up Thanksgiving recipes. When she couldn’t wait any longer, she opened a new tab and typed the web address, then her login information. The familiar blue and white theme soothed her, although anxiety simmered. Wrong, a voice inside her yelled. Cara responded by scrolling the mouse.

She skimmed past links to other content, pausing briefly to look at her neighbor’s latest “dog shaming” photo. When would Veronica learn making signs and taking pictures didn’t count as “dog training”?

Cara rolled her eyes at her niece’s daily “teen melodrama” status update, though at least this one was less on the offensive side: OHHHHHHH MY GOSH!!! that commercial came on with the animals and that sad song!! I WILL REMEMBER YOU, DOGS!!! gonna go volunteer at the shelter this weekend with the gurlz.

Cara clicked the thumbs up icon and continued scrolling.

She’d made a deal with herself months ago. Only ten minutes of browsing her News Feed. No searching; that didn’t count. After ten minutes, she had to sign off. Rules, order, boundaries. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant idea.

At six minutes, she paused to read a college friend’s post: God blessed our family again today with news I’m IN REMISSION!!! Thanking Him and my amazing support system, especially my chubby hubby, the girls, and Dr. Stevens!

Cara didn’t even know about the cancer. She made a mental note to order a bright, happy bouquet.

At seven minutes, she stifled a laugh at a coworker’s status update: Bro’s care package arrived today. Con: a very upset roommate who had lots of questions about the leather chaps, blue paint, and denim shorts. Pro: Arrested Development marathon!

At eight minutes, Cara experienced a mixture of relief and misery.

At nine minutes, she felt her anxiety boil over.

At nine minutes and twenty-three seconds, give or take, divine intervention rewarded Cara.

Even though he was reduced to pixels on a screen, Mitchell Harris looked just as handsome as he had in high school. Cara heard about too many reunions gone wrong, where the high school hunk turned out to be an obese has-been or a deadbeat dad. Sometimes the guy turned out to be normal, average, and boring when he wasn’t blessed with a jersey. Cara thought of them as the Samsons of former jocks: powerless and stripped of glory.

Mitchell was different. Cara still saw the focus in his eyes, that drive others found so inspiring. From the pictures he’d posted before, Cara knew he remained active and healthy – she could picture the football uniform fitting as snugly now as it had decades ago.

The status update was short and sweet: Reboot The X-Files. Discuss.

Cara closed her eyes and let the information settle into her, like a stone sinking to the bottom of pond. She swallowed and deleted her browsing history, then quit the program. Cara clicked on an icon on her desktop, navigating through a series of folders until she arrived at a plain Word document labeled “cross stitch ideas.”

The document contained three separate lists with bullet points. Cara glanced over the six pages of “MH Likes” and mostly ignored the four pages of “MH Dislikes.” The last list, “MH ???” spanned only three pages. Cara added “X-Files” to the end.

Only three years until the 25th high school reunion.

A wave of exhaustion crashed over her. Cara gave in to a well-overdue yawn, so large it made her eyes water. She turned out the light and trudged back to bed. Cool sheets enveloped her, but mumbling interrupted Cara’s serenity. A renewed sense of guilt gnawed at her.

“Nothing, sweetheart. Go back to sleep,” Cara replied to her husband.

This piece was written for the speakeasy #135 challenge. Word count is 740, just under the 750-word max. As always, feedback is appreciated!

Speakeasy #134 | Dawn

She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. The air was cold in Laura’s lungs, and standing around dawdling wouldn’t make it any warmer. Only thing that’d get her warm would be the cup of coffee Mama would pour when she got inside.

Dawn better illuminated the farmhouse: its peeling paint, once as bright and hopeful as a blue jay’s plumage; its wraparound porch, with split, splintered wood and creaking steps; its dull gray shutters, slats loose and hinges crooked. Inside, Laura’s mother would be sitting by her father; Laura’s father would consider getting up and would see the flag, carefully folded and loud in the spartan room. Laura’s father would not respond, but would instead roll over and weep into the pillow.

Laura cursed, seeing the gate to the road came unlatched in the night. Nothing was breached, but the barrier was broken all the same. She strode across the yard, the sound of her boots interrupting the quiet melancholy of the morning. She swung the gate and prepared to latch it when she had a vision.

She walked down the road. Laura did not say goodbye to her mother or father. She did not ask for permission to leave, so she was not met with her mother’s pleas that her father ‘cannot lose another.’ Laura did not have to make the distinction that college and death are different, which also meant she did feel the sharp slap, the severed thread of mother striking child.

Laura stood at Sam’s grave. She wept, but she said ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye,’ which were the only things she had not yet said. She knocked on her calculus teacher’s door, and Ms. Cook listened. She gave Laura money from a worn envelope she pulled from a sack of flour, and she packed a small bag with clothes she saved for the church’s annual clothing drive. Ms. Cook drove her to the city, and Laura took her first and last overnight train trip. She did not sleep, but she always had a winner when people exchanged travel stories.

College administration could not allow Laura to start in the fall, but helped her find a part-time job and housing until spring semester started. Laura waited tables and came home smelling like hot oil, soy sauce, and fortune cookies. It was a better smell than chicken shit and slop.

Laura studied mathematics and garnered a reputation for her quiet tenacity. One of the few women in her classes, she was sought after just as much for her patience and drive as she was for her natural beauty. When men told her she looked wholesome, like the ‘girl next door,’ she lost interest.

Princeton offered her a spot in its graduate program. She had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant and led an introductory logic discussion on Tuesday mornings. A young woman approached her after class for help with one of the more difficult proofs. After an hour, the student almost had a grasp on it when another TA burst in, a thick tome tucked under his arm. He apologized, and Laura spoke with him long enough to learn his name was Theo and his discussion section of Intro to British Lit met in the same room an hour after hers.

The next week, Laura lingered to grade papers. Theo arrived thirty minutes early.

For their first date, he took her to a terrible adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with full-frontal male nudity. He apologized profusely after, and she kissed him in the rain.

For their eleventh date, they rode into New York City. On the train, Laura told him about her overnight trip. Theo laughed and said, ‘I love you!’ Laura said she loved him as well, and that night she took him to a pan-Asian restaurant and made him try sushi and dim-sum and cold noodles with a sweet, spicy sauce. Theo did not hate it.

They lost count of their dates, and Theo invited her for holidays with his family in Boston. She fit in, and following Christmas Eve dinner he told her he wanted to have tea, just the two of them. He brought a full tray to the guest bedroom and his hands couldn’t stop shaking. When Laura opened the lid of the tan box, an engagement ring glistened.

Laura shook her head. She latched the gate and walked back to the farmhouse.

This piece was written for the speakeasy #134 challenge. Word count is 741, right under the 750-word max. As always, feedback is appreciated!