Jessie shifted uncomfortably in the pew. The heat was getting to her, making her neck itch under her turtleneck. She tugged it, rubbing it back and forth on her itchy neck and pulling it out to let some air in. If only she could step outside for some air but she sat in the middle of the row, a parent on either side. She wasn’t going anywhere without a really good reason.
“Stop fidgeting, Jessie,” her mother hissed, “it’s unbecoming.”
Jessie willed herself still, turning her attention to Pastor Grey. Anything to keep her mind from the itching. It was an unfortunate mistake.
“… living in sin, every day. The Bible says if a man has sexual relations with a man, as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.”
Jessie fidgeted slightly and recieved a warning look from her father.
“Homosexuality is a sin,” Pastor Grey continued, “punishable by death.” He paused for effect, “And yet in the book of Matthew, God welcomes home his lost sheep. To the sinners among us, I warn you, no matter how well you think you can hide, God sees you as you are. Repent before it’s too late. Repent and come home to God’s green pasture. Repent before your sins carry you straight to Hell!”
Did his eyes rest in her for an moment? Jessie arranged her face in what she hoped was an interested look. The church was becoming hotter. Blood was rushing in her ears and reality was slipping into something dreamlike. Please don’t let me pass out, she prayed. If I pass out they’ll know why and they’ll send me away to that horrible camp.
Sure enough, Pastor Grey had gone on to speak about conversion therapy. Jessie concentrated on her breathing and willed her heartbeat to slow. Pastor Grey was reaching a crescendo. He had to be almost done. The ringing in her ears rescinded slightly.
The congregation was standing now and Pastor Grey was striding down the aisle with a look of proud arrogance. Jessie averted her eyes as he passed. She felt her body flush with a mixture of shame and bitter hatred.
The crowd moved slowly towards the exit. Jessie followed her father towards the sunlight streaming in through the open door. The air felt fresher and her body relished the coolness of the mid-winter air as they stepped outside. Finally, she thought, it’sover.
Tomorrow she headed back to college for her final semester. One more semester and she was free. One more semester and she could live honestly, free from parental control. She wasn’t sure she would ever come home again.
There was a flurry of activity, as we made frantic preparations and then… The waiting. Instead of huddling together in one group, we had splintered off into small cliques. Milo and I found our way to a quiet spot by ourselves, as usual.
We slipped into the tiny vestibule behind the altar. He slumped to the wall and slid to the floor with his legs folded to his ches. I followed suit, plopping bedside him with my arms folded on my knees. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so exhausted or afraid.
“Do you think we’re going to die, Milo?”
“I hope they do.” He gestured over his shoulder toward the sanctuary with his thumb.”
“I’m not sorry, Theo. They’ve never been nice to either of us. Death is too good for them.”
“I know but I don’t want to wish it on them. I would rather they are taken alive… They should pay for their crimes in this life.”
“I’d rather the world be rid of them. Ever since…” Milo shuddered and I closed my eyes to block out the memory.” You know. Ever since what they did to you… Last time… I want them to hurt.”
“Shhhh. Milo, don’t… Don’t become them.” I reached for his hand. “We’ll shelter here together, ok? And if… no when we make it out of here, we’ll be able to be together.”
Tears streaked down his cheeks and I reached out with my free hand to wipe them away. It was technically forbidden for us to touch each other this way but we were already basically shunned and mostly ignored. As long as we held up our work detail and didn’t draw too much attention no one would come looking for us. I didn’t mind. It was only in these small stolen moments that we did more than just survive.
He leaned into me and I let go of his hand and put my arms around him, allowing his full, muscular frame to collapse into me. I held him. Comforting Milo was my thing. Keeping me hopeful was his.
“I’m sorry. I meant to hold it together.”
“Theo, I wan…” He trailed off. “Shhhhhhh. Something’s happening…”
From behind the closed door came muffled shouts, screams and bangs. Smoke began to flow under the door jam and I took off my shirt and stuffed it in the crack. There was no other exit. I sat back down, pulled Milo back into my arms and held on to him for dear life but it was no use.
The door flew open and noxious gas filled our lungs. We coughed and sputtered, our fear escalating the effects of the gas. My brain went into full panic. Who was coming? Our guys or good guys?
Two figures entered wearing gas masks and I still didn’t know. I clung to Milo. If this was it, there was at least a small comfort in being together. Milo’s fingers cut into my flesh. His heart was beating so hard my chest felt bruised and sore. We were drooling and snotting all over each other.
I felt arms around my chest, pulling me away from Milo and I fought back, flailing my arms wildly. I couldn’t see at all and could no longer feel him. Eventually, I realized I was no longer in the vestibule or even the sanctuary. I was fully outside, still flailing futily against my unknown assailant.
“Calm down!” My arms were pulled back and I felt cold metal against my wrists, first one, then the other. I struggled and toppled to the ground.
“Noooooooooo! Millllllooooooo!!!! Nooooooo!!!” They had used the cuffs the last time. I wasn’t going down this way.
“Take the cuffs off him! You’re making it worse! You don’t understand!”
It was Milo’s voice. “Millllooooo!!!” I rolled and bucked on the ground, not caring at all for my exposed skin. I was beyond feeling anything. “Help me! Millllooooo! They’re doing it again!! Milo! Help! Please!”
“Take them off! What are you doing? They tortured us in there! Take then off! He didn’t do anything!”
“Stop struggling.” It was another voice, a deep growl. “Stop! I’ll remove the cuffs but you have to calm down.”
“Theo. Do what he says. I’m right here.”
I froze. My chest was filled with panic. I was face down on the sidewalk, half emerged in a puddle, wracked with terrified sobs. I heard, rather than felt, the cuffs release. I didn’t get up. I just pulled my arms up to my head and buried my face in them.
“Theo.” It was the growling voice. I felt a hand on my back. It was gentle now. Calming. “Were you being held against your will?” I tried to nod but could only sob harder.
“Yes. We both were.” Milo’s voice sounded calmer than ever. His matter-of-fact answer was like an lifeline. I grasped it and fought my way back to sanity.
“Are there other victims.” The growling voice must be a police officer.
“No.” I heard Milo answer. “There’s only the two of us left.”
I turned, sat up and met his eyes. “Milo…” It came out barely a whisper.
“It’s ok, Theo. I think we’re safe now.”
“Are you sure?”
“No.” He sat down next to me, put his arm around me and pulled me close. “I’m not sure, but I’m hoping.”
I let myself lean into his familiar warmth. His hope had always been enough for me. It would have to carry both of us now.
“Ok. We’ll talk but only if you keep us safe.”
The cop nodded. “Of course.”
I still wasn’t sure but Milo squeezed my shoulders, reassuringly. “C’mon, Theo. We have to go with them. It’s the only way.”
I nodded. Milo stood, helped me up put his arm back around me and steered me to the car behind the cop. I would be unprepared for what lay ahead… a lifetime of recovery from trauma, always looking over my shoulder. I would often wish I had died in the compound but I would fight my way to my feet again and again, Milo by my side.
Tara climbed the rock face with concentrated ferocity. Her lean and muscular body worked with rote muscle memory, pulling her closer and closer to the ledge on which he waited. Her hands gripped and released, gripped and released, while her legs maintained a steady balance below.
From above, her face could be seen as a mask of concentration. Jason knew that face well. He jokingly called it her Type A face. “Tara,” he’d say, “turn down the intensity, you’re scaring me.” At this moment, however, her death defying climb was terrifying him and the only thing keeping his anxiety in check was her focused look.
He wasn’t like her. Given the choice, he had hiked up the trail, rather than climb the sheer cliff face. He was simultaneously in awe of her fierce courage and terrified by it. In the five months since they had been dating, he’d often wondered if his reserved nature was enough for her bold independence.
He watched as she traversed the final outcropping, her legs dangling dangerously for more moments than his heart could take and the other thought arose-was she too much for him? He was falling in love with this girl and a part of him was sure it would kill him. How many times could his heart leap from his chest before it finally gave out?
This girl… This amazing, intense and possibly certifiable girl was… She mesmerized him and she scared him in the best and worst ways. Why did she always have to cheat death? Couldn’t they just stay in and chill sometimes?
And then it happened… She lost her grip. She dangled for a moment one-handed… Or was it forever? He wasn’t sure. All he knew was his heart stopped beating and the world threatened to implode. His mouth opened to scream but nothing happened. She was already climbing again.
His mouth closed with a click. His heart began to beat again. It beat feverishly, madly but it was beating. He knew in a moment the answer to his puzzle. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t do this anymore. He had to end it before he got in deeper. He would tell her tonight. He would drive her home and drop her off for the last time. It would hurt but… It was the right thing to do.
Tara’s fingers reached the ledge first. Her red and white gloves contrasted the grey rock sharply as she gripped her final handhold of the climb. The rest of her emerged moments later grinning from ear to ear. Her excitement was palpable.
“Did you see that? I nearly lost it. Oh! It was the best climb though! I totally nailed it!”
Jason grinned back in spite of himself. Her excitement was contagious. “You looked great, Babe! I’m so glad I came!”
“Want to climb with me tomorrow? There’s a more technical climb I want to try.”
Leandra clutched her bag to her chest as she meandered through the crowded hallway after her last class. It had taken all of the skills she had acquired over the past three years to navigate her first day at university. She connected to her breath when she felt her anxiety arise. She reminded herself frequently of her progress. She even tried the half-smile technique her therapist suggested. She was tired but also proud and happy at her growing confidence.
Still, though, she was relieved to step out of the building and into the open air. Crowded hallways were definitely not her thing. She smiled into the sunlight and savored the warm breeze as she made her way to the parking lot and got into her car.
Her phone rang as she wound her way through campus traffic and she laughed out loud. He was so predictable. “Hi, Bob.” She didn’t need to look, it was almost always Bob.
“Leandra! You said you’d be done at two, so I waited until 2:15 to call!”
“I was expecting you.”
“So, what?” She knew why he called but she enjoyed keeping him waiting.
“So… How was your first day? Was it awful? Was it wonderful? C’mon, Leandra, I need to know!”
“It was fine.”
“Fine? Just fine? Oh no!!”
“Relax, Bob. Fine is good. It was a good day. I used all of my coping skills and everything went well.”
“Really? You remembered them? Did you try the half-smile technique?”
“Yes! I did and it actually helped.”
“See? I told you it would help.” The phone got quiet for a few minutes and Leandra let the silence draw out. She was used to Bob’s silence. It was where he processed… “Leandra?”
“Do you think I could go to school with you next semester? I mean, if you can do it, maybe I can… ” He fell into silence again. Leandra waited patiently as it lasted almost a full minute. “I think I would like to become a counselor too. I want to help people like us. Do you think I could someday?”
“I think you could, Bob.”
“If you want to sign up for classes in the spring I’ll go with you and maybe we can even take a class together.”
“Oh, Leandra! It would be so much easier with a friend. We are friends aren’t we, Leandra?”
She smiled in spite of herself. “Yes, Bob. You call me five times a day, of course we’re friends.”
“Oh, good. I worry I might get annoying sometimes.”
Leandra burst out laughing. It was true. He was annoying sometimes but he had been so sweet, so persistent, he had worked his way permanently into her heart. “No. You’re pretty good to me. I’m glad you’re my friend.”
“I’m glad too… Hey, Leandra? Can we talk more later tonight? I have to go into group now.”
“I have homework but maybe we can chat when I’m finished.”
“Ok. I’ll call after dinner.”
She hung up, giving their relationship deeper consideration. Bob never asked anything from her. He always celebrated her successes and gently prodded her whenever she lost her way. She was lucky to have found someone like that. Plus he made her smile.
She smiled warmly but pushed the thoughts aside. She wasn’t ready to consider the matter further. She had to get home to her studies. She was a college student now.
Ralph stood over his son’s freshly dug grave wondering at the drymess of his eyes. As the minister intoned prayers, he turned his eyes skyward, in an act of defiance. How could a loving God have let his beautiful boy die in such a meaningless war?
A blood-red sunset met his gaze, the sky a mirror of the battlefield where children fought the wars of men too cowardly to fight themselves. Fuck all of them, he thought, the politicians, the warmongers and God. He hated everything and everyone. He wanted to kill and he wanted to die. He ached with rage, shivering in its intensity…
But a tiny hand slipped into his. A tiny reminder of goodness and light. He looked down at his sweet little girl, too young to understand why her brother was lost forever and something cracked inside of him. His shoulders released and the tears came, hot and heavy. He cried… And he prayed.
The lamp over the bed had been blinking with increasing frequency for the past few hours. Mason had tried turning it off. He even unplugged it but it continued to blink. On… Off… On… Off… On… Off. It was driving him batty.
There must be something wrong with the bulb, he thought, reaching up to unscrew it but the lamp continued to blink on and off. He stared with confusion at the dark bulb in his hand. Did light bulbs work when they weren’t plugged into the lamp? It felt wrong to him somehow. His mistake was to peek under the lampshade.
“Ouch!” He exclaimed, jumping back and rubbing his nose. “What was that for?”
“For not minding your business!” A small, bearded creature, not unlike a tiny lawn gnome (but with orange skin) glared at him over the top of the light shade.
“You’re blinking the lights on and off! And you pinched my nose!”
“You’ll get a lot worse than a pinch next time you trespass on my territory!”
“Your territory!” Mason was outraged. “It’s my lamp! I bought it myself at the flea market!”
“Well, I’ve lived here for five eons. It’s my territory and you can keep your big ugly nose out!”
“Stop blinking the lights on and off and maybe I will.”
The gnome glared. Mason glared back. No one spoke. Mason’s brain was working overtime to make sense of the situation. They hadn’t said anything about a gnome when they sold him the lamp.
“The guy at the store didn’t mention no gnome living in there and I don’t want no gnomes in my house.”
“Well, I’m not a gnome. What’s a gnome anyway?”
“It’s a lawn decoration.”
“You know, for the lawn. Some folks think it’s pretty.”
“Hmmmph. I’m a Fire Troll”
“Mind your business.”
Mason didn’t know what else to say so he said, “Maybe I can just move the lamp to the attic so the blinking won’t bother me.”
“Is it warm?”
“I reckon so. Heat rises.”
“I want my bulb back.”
“What do you need the bulb for? You light up without it.”
“I warned you about minding your business. Do you want another poke in the nose?”
Mason rubbed his nose. It was still tender. He really didn’t want another poke. “Ok. You can have the bulb but you have to live in the attic… And you can’t live in any of my other lamps.”
“What would I want to do that for?”
“I have to pick up the lamp to move it. Don’t poke me.”
“Don’t look under the shade and I won’t.”
The fire troll disappeared back into the shade. Mason replaced the bulb as best as he could without looking, picked up the lamp by the base and carried it to the attic door. He pulled down the string, ascended the ladder and set the offending lamp carefully on the floor in the corner.
The fire troll poked his head back up and looked around. “I guess this is acceptable.”
“Good.” Mason turned to descend the ladder, thought twice, and called back over his shoulder, “Stay away from my other lamps.”
“Don’t worry. I will.” The fire troll answered. Mason thought he heard him mumble something about offspring but he decided he didn’t care if the fire troll had a million babies… As long as they left his lamps alone.
The sound seemed to bounce off the subway tiles and reverberate through the tunnel, amplifying the noise of the crowd tenfold. Brian hated it. It was making his head pound horribly. He pressed on through the throng as quickly as possible. This was the worst part. The pressing of bodies, the heat, the smells… He needed air and space.
Someone shoved from behind and he nearly lost his balance. He was saved only by the woman he bumped in return, who then teetered into the man in front of her. They were like a dominos, he reflected, once one person stumbled, they each had to take their turn.
He mumbled an apology to no one in particular and focused on the cool air now whooshing through the tunnel at intervals. The exit couldn’t be too far away. Sure enough, the final set of stairs loomed ahead. He fought his way up them, hindered by the crowd but making steady progress… Until he tripped in the final step.
He must have hit his head. He woke up to an angel, a cool breeze and spaciousness. He inhaled a great big breath of fresh cool air, letting the relief wash over him.
“How do you feel?” The angel was looking down at him with kind, gentle eyes.
“Am I dead?”
“No. You fell and hit your head. We’re calling for help.”
“Oh. Ok. I’m near the door. The air feels better.”
“Don’t love the subway, huh?” The angel had beautiful eyes.
“No. It’s horrible, hot and crowded… And the noise… I hate it.” He paused while the angel looked around for the paramedics. “I thought you were an angel.”
The angel’s head snapped back to meet Brian’s eyes. “Me? No. I’m Paul. I’m a nurse at St. Luke’s.”
“I’m Brian… You have very kind eyes, Paul the nurse.”
Paul smiled genuinely and reached for Brian’s hand. “I’m glad I was here and I’m happy I met you, even if you had to fall.”
Brian’s heart skipped a beat. He thought he might still be falling. He was pretty sure that was an opening and he took the chance. “My phone is in my right pocket. Please, put your number on it so I can call you when I’m well.”
“Better yet, I’ll put your number on mine so I can call and see how you see doing. Tell me your number and I’ll text you so you’ll have mine also.”
The two men smiled at each other in the midst of the chaos. Something wonderful was about to begin.
Looking in the mirror, Pedra took note of the little wrinkles around her eyes. Had they always been there? She sighed, applied some makeup and tried to smile. To her eyes it looked more like a grimace. Did she really have to go out today?
She did have to. It was her brother’s engagement dinner and he would never forgive her if she didn’t show up. Maybe that would be ok, she thought, pulling on her coat, Evan’s fiancee was… Ugh.
“Pedra, Daaarrrrrling, Evan and I are sooooooo pleased to see you.” Alione’s smile was plastered to her face like a mannaquin’s. “Oh, but you look so tired. Are you getting any rest since Mike left?”
Alione never had any tact for sensitive subjects. She patted Pedra on the head like a puppy with an expression, she clearly thought conveyed sympathy. Pedra dodged the petting, mustered up her own fake smile and replied, “Oh. I’m fine. I just worked late last night.”
“I just thought, maybe an engagement party might be too much for you right now. I’m glad you’re holding up ok and Evan and I are reaaaaallllly happy to see you.”
“Oh, yes. I’m fine. I’m already seeing someone.”
“Really, Darling. Well, I suppose it’s important to get back out there.” Alione waved her arms magnanimously as if to indicate the world at large. “I must say hi to the Hadleys, excuse me, Darling.” She drifted off into the crowd and Pedra turned to her brother.
“Evan, congratulations.” She hugged him more tightly than usual.
“Hey, Sis. Alione and I are really glad you’re here.”
“I know that look and I know how you feel about her but…”
“No, Evan, it’s ok. She’s fine. I’m just maybe not in the best place.”
“I don’t want to discuss it.”
“Ok. Ok. I get you but… You know I’m here for you, right?”
“Thanks, Little Brother, I’m good.”
A look passed between them. Pedra had always been his protector. They both knew she was incapable of leaning on him. He opened his mouth, as if to speak but was quickly interrupted by a new influx of guests. Pedra used the opportunity to head to the bar.
Three hours later, too drunk to drive home, Pedra reluctantly accepted as ride with Evan and Alione. She sat in the back seat behind Evan, mesmerized by the traffic lights, relaxing into the car’s steady warmth and the glow of her buzz.
“Pedra, Darling… ” Alione’s voice sliced through her calm like nails on a chalkboard. “My cousin Tad is single and he was really taken with you.”
“Oh. Ok. Well… I thought you might like to get back out there.”
Pedra’s chest was tight with rage. “Not with any cousin of yours.”
“Pedra… ” Evan’s tone held a warning.
“It’s ok, Evan,” Alione whispered, “I don’t mind. I’m sorry, Pedra, Darling. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Nooooo proooooblem, Alione, Daaaaaaaarllllllling. Set me up with one of your snooty friends and we’ll get married and join a fucking country club. Sounds like a fucking blast.”
“No, Evan! No! If you want to marry a snooty bitch it’s whatever but she can stop trying to interfere in my life!”
“Pedra! Enough! Alione is my fiancee and you are out of line!”
“Fuck!” Pedra kicked at the back of his seat without really making contact but settled back to silent pouting. She didn’t really like it when Evan was upset with her.
They pulled up to the dark house in silence. The inky blackness of the windows sent an icicle of loneliness into her heart. Why the fuck had he left her? She hadn’t had any closure. He didn’t even tell her why… He just left while she was at work.
Her cheeks were wet. She didn’t even realize she had been crying. Evan had turned in his seat and was looking at her with glistening eyes but she was still sore with him, so she opened the door and stumbled towards the porch. She almost made it but her stomach lurched as she reached the bushes and she had to lean over and throw up.
When she was finished she stood, swaying dangerously… And then there was a steadying hand on her elbow. It was Alione. Pedra was too tired to fight. She leaned into Alione’s solid steadiness and allowed her to lead them into the house.
“We’re going to stay here with you,” Alione stated blandly, “Evan and I don’t think you should be alone.”
Pedra nodded, falling back on the couch as Evan took off his coat and sat silently in the chair opposite.
“I’m sorry,” Pedra mumbled.
“Are you?” Alione asked.
“Don’t.” Pedra couldn’t argue anymore.
“No, Pedra, you’re angry with me. I get it. I interfere too much. I talk… Well, I talk like a snob a lot. It’s… It’s how I grew up… And… I set you up with Mike. He was MY college friend. Of course you hate me right now.”
“Not your fault… I don’t hate you. You’re just so… You’re a lot sometimes.”
Alione smiled slightly, “I’m going to get you some aspirin and water, Darling. You rest.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
“She’s good to me, you know.” Evan intoned from his chair. He looked exhausted and Pedra felt a pang of guilt. He probably needed to go home and rest but instead he was staying here with her drunken ass.
“I’m sorry, Evan.”
“If you’re really sorry you’ll make an effort with her.”
“I will. I promise.”
“Promise tomorrow when you’re sober.” Pedra nodded and closed her eyes. “And Pedra,” she opened them again but she could barely see Evan at this point, “You didn’t deserve what Mike did. He is a shitty person and I promise you, Alione was as pissed as anyone.”
Pedra nodded again as Alione came into the room with the aspirin. She put the pills into her mouth and let Alione hold the glass to her lips, drinking until it was empty.
“Better?” Alione asked.
Pedra nodded again. “Alione, will you help me to bed?”
They were amazing to work with and give feedback on every submission which is both unheard of and really really helpful. Also, readers on the site tend to submit feedback, so overall, it’s a great way to improve your writing.
On another note, I let this blog get quiet for a few days, which was something I hoped I wouldn’t have to do but life was overwhelmingly busy for an minute there. I’m hoping to get back to daily microfiction in the next few days.