Flash Fiction

 

Gus on the Bus

A litany of thoughts fill Gus’s head—well-made plans, steps to unfold in the strictest order. The vest he wears, weighted with generosity and kindness, fashioned with skilled and loving hands. Its message sings to him of freedom, embraces his heart in eternal hope.

***

Gus didn’t struggle with the decision to move to DC to attend George Washington University, but it was painful leaving his family. His parents had worked their whole lives to provide him with this opportunity. His father earned a living selling Cadillacs, but currently, SUVs were the hot luxury everyone had to have. It was not by luck that the auto-maker, known for its posh sedans, re-tooled its factories to turn out the same fancy amenities but with a repositioned commanding view. His father made good money so that his mother could remain home to raise the children—three girls and three boys, plus Gus. He was in awe of his mother’s ability to manage the household of nine, keep everyone happy, and still find time to supplement the family’s income as a seamstress. As the oldest sibling, Gus tried his hand at corralling the brood, but never commanded the respect that his mother’s voice always did.

 “Do you belong in there?” she would question her children’s conscience without being able to actually see them from the tiny room where the Singer hummed.

Gus always knew he belonged with his family, but wasn’t very sure where he fit in when he arrived for his first day of classes at GW. Even as midterms approached during his second semester, he was still uncertain. Worrying about an American government exam, Gus agreed to join a study group even though the invitation originated from some of the most vocal in the class. After listening to their stories for the first study hour, he grew to appreciate them, changing his mind about what he had thought was rudeness and attributing their views to the force of their passion, instead. Gus loved his family and what they had done for him, but he knew how to make things better.

***

A gentle nudge from the guy waiting next to him drew Gus back to his task. The guy must have arrived while Gus was deep in thought because he would have noted the dreadful sight. The lightness of the new arrival’s touch was in contradiction with the hardness of his dark silhouette.

“You getting’ on?” the impatient bus driver asked from the open door.

Gus smoothed his outer coat with renewed determination, scolding himself for the momentary lapse in focus. He smiled as he passed the driver and read “Larry” from the name tag on his faded blue uniform.

Larry’s eyes were yellowed and squinted with fatigue, but his teeth glowed white against the contrast of his dark skin. Rough hands and a chipped tooth lent to Larry’s laborious life, but the creases in his uniform were razor sharp, as was the edge to his pencil-thin mustache. Larry shared the strength of faith his wife believed and preached, but it died the day the drunk driver murdered her. However, the pride she’d shown in taking care that Larry looked pressed and presentable continued in spirit. The driver’s seat supported Larry’s stout frame comfortably as he gripped the wheel tightly with both hands.

With a slight nod of his head, Larry acknowledged Gus’s neatly trimmed hair, naturally dark, unlike the odd shade of the guy following behind him. He observed the formality in Gus’s manner, respectfully dressed in a heavy camel coat, the second collar from a vest peaked out to complete the appeal.

“Let’s go. Let’s go,” Larry mumbled awaiting his second fare. What’s he think he is, some sort of ying and yang? he thought to himself about the freakishly contrasted punk.

Sharp angles of the kid’s pitch spiked hair exploded from atop a narrow forehead. A matching pitch dark soul patch stained his pale complexion which, guessing by the coal smudged eyes, was aided by Maybelline or some other such cosmetic. Slightly less black but definitely not gray, his hoodie covered a black and white striped t-shirt and skinny jeans exacerbated an already thin frame. Black leather gloves that might have lent softness and warmth were cut short and exposed slender, boney fingers. The kid extracted a prepaid pass from a wallet secured by a chain to his waist, positioning the card to the sensor. Snickering to himself, Larry questioned the need for security when the kid couldn’t even afford a complete set of gloves or a warmer coat in this chill.

In the wide mirror mounted above the front window, Larry’s eyes followed the punk into the bus. He nodded a second approval at Gus as the young man approached the old woman, a fare from the previous stop.

The woman’s observations as Gus passed reflected those of the driver’s, but a smile never reached her strained wrinkled lips. Like the darkened kid, she wore make-up, but it seemed to be veiled by a thin sheet of crumpled tissue. Everything on the old woman’s face was muted and creviced… sagging and puffy… and shaded, both empty and experienced. She wore a heavy, cool-gray sweater and darker gray skirt that speculated her personality. Matching pearl earrings and necklace that were neither cream nor white draped dully across her severely subdued purple blouse. Supporting the same tone, her thick hose masked the color of her legs and emptied into sturdy black slip-ons adorned with short silver chains.

Her hair, though, was perfectly coiffed and brightly reflected the sunshine streaming in through the bus window.

The woman’s sunken eyes narrowed at the second young man to board the bus. She clasped her pocketbook tighter to her bosom and pushed her discomfort into the hard plastic bench when he slid into the seat in front of her. Her scorn compared him and the girl at the beauty shop, from where she’d just come.

***

“Miss Madge? Let’s get you dolled up,” said the shampoo girl with shocking black hair.

Madge’s focus moved from the magazine to the girl’s forced smile and shifted herself up from the uncomfortably cushioned chair. Madge knew the girls dreaded their turns at the sink with her, but she could care less. Customer service was about what the customer wanted and those young girls never seemed to grasp the idea that they could just shut up to make her happy.

“How have you been this week, Miss Madge?” asked the forced smile as she tilted Madge back in the chair and turned on the water.

“Fine,” complained Madge.

“How’s the temperature?”

“Humph,” replied Madge.

“Oh… um… okay, um good.” The girl was faltering. “Did you…”

“Don’t get my sweater wet,” Madge interrupted whatever delightfully intelligent question the girl intended to ask. Oh glory be, she’ll finally shut up, Madge thought, observing the last semblance of the fake smile.

The only thing that kept Madge returning weekly to the salon was the chance to talk to Rosalyn and her escape under the hair dryer. She first met Rosalyn about seven years ago at the shelter for battered women. Following the suggestion of one of her “friends,” Madge agreed to volunteer. Its intention to resolve Madge’s ill temper failed miserably, but her relationship with Rosalyn established and blossomed.

Her hair freshly cleansed and stinking of coconuts, Madge paced herself behind the girl rushing to release her charge. As she gestured Marge to a chair, the young girl’s “smile” flashed and vanished just as quickly as her retreat.

“Hi Madge,” greeted Rosalyn. The smile was genuine.

“Good afternoon, Rosalyn” replied Madge, returning the expression in kind.

Rosalyn readied the tools of her craft with efficiency and grace. The two ladies chatted about this, about that, but nothing all that important. What pleased Madge most was watching the other woman’s confident gestures. Their conversations never reflected on the past, but Madge’s thoughts always did. Both women had emerged from their abusive marriages, endured only by the strength of their anger. But Madge had never succeeded in happiness or recovering her faith like Rosalyn did.

“That’s the last roller. Let’s move you over to the dryer,” finished Rosalyn.

“You in any hurry?” asked Rosalyn adjusting the dials.

“Not today, sweetie,” replied Madge.

“Good. I’ll use the lowest setting. Takes more time, but your curl will stay longer.”

Hearing about Rosalyn’s week, recounting each morsel of pleasure, no matter how trivial, preserved Madge’s hopefulness—and was likely the only reason Madge slept so peacefully when Rosalyn lowered the hood of the dryer for an hour instead of thirty minutes. Somehow Rosalyn knew that, too.

***

The loud thud of thick booted treads dirtying the bench in front of her returned Madge’s disgust to sculpted barbs.

The punk had shifted in his seat, pushed his back against the window and elevated his legs. Looking beyond the old woman, the kid watched Gus continue toward the back of the bus.

Hopping in the clear, Gus managed to sidestep a red-haired little girl. Her mother’s arm darted out and firmly replaced her next to a second red-haired little girl.

“Sorry,” the woman told Gus.

For a mother of two small children, her face was unnaturally gaunt. Her eyebrows pinched a hard crease between them and forced equally hard lines bridging her forehead above. The peaks of her brow arches framed valleys shaping her eyes and cresting the lower portion with dark circles. Like desolate rivers, duplicate apostrophes etched from her nose to her mouth—a mouth devoid of expression. Her dull hair pulled tightly in a quick ponytail that morning was harried and chaotic.

“I’m hungry,” said one little red-haired girl.

“You said we were almost there,” wailed the other.

***

The mother had thrown on faded jeans and a denim shirt, clean but a wrinkled mess. The coolness of the weather required a jacket which only partially covered the untidiness. The crash from downstairs reminded her that her tennies were next to the couch where she had removed them last night before she fell asleep a mere ten minutes into her program. Grabbing the railing, she nearly slid down the carpeted stairs in her sock-feet.

“Mom! Pattie grabbed the Fruit ‘oops and made me break the dishes,” tattled Tammie.

“You weren’t supposed to have more,” Pattie told her sister. “Mom said.”

“Just leave it,” Mom said running for the shoes.

“Dad’ll get mad,” Pattie tattled, the apple of her father’s eye.

“Yeah,” Tammie agreed with her sister, the apple of her father’s other eye.

Yep, the man’s got two eyes, thought Mom.

“Leave it,” she said returning to the kitchen. “Where’s my keys? Did one of you take my keys?” she said looking at the empty hook on the wall.

“When’s Daddy coming home?” Pattie insisted, grinding the shattered bowl into the linoleum when she got up from the table.

Tammie followed her sister also ignoring the broken pieces and looked at her mother with a questioning expression.

At least they’ve got their shoes on. “Girls get your coats.”

All three grabbed their coats from the coat rack by the door, the mother still frantic for her keys. Concentrating on the last time she had them, she jammed her hands into her coat pocket to discover them there. What she’d also forgotten was that Tammie’s insistent clinging ripped the seam, giving the pocket a dog-eared droop. Both girls reflected the same droop when their mother ignored the question about their father.

“We talked about this,” she said. “He’s not coming home. He lives too far away now.”

“No he doesn’t,” argued Pattie, not knowing where her father lived.

“He wouldn’t leave without me and Pattie and you, Mommy,” reasoned Tammie.

Yes he would. He’d also marry a younger woman and knock her up, praise the Lord! seethed the woman. God’s purpose, ha!

He’d tried to reason with her when he told her he was moving out. “God’s purpose, my ass. Your god must be some sort of whore,” she’d shouted at him. He’d given her the same “God’s purpose” speech when she wasn’t ready to have kids seven years ago—and then again five years ago. She wasn’t sure she wanted one, let alone the two he talked her into. Now she was hurrying them out and locking the front door.

“We’re gonna miss the bus,” she sighed, missing the Honda he took with him more than the man himself.

***

The mother wondered if her children bothered Gus as much as they bothered her these days. She thought he was nice looking. Not that she was attracted to him—just found him attractive. She bet he would make a good father, she mused as he passed. That punk kid he got on with definitely was no good.

Preferring to sit in solitude with his thoughts, Gus slid across the furthest hard plastic bench at the back of the bus and angled his gaze out the window. The bus lurched forward, but none of the passing storefronts that lined the street registered a single consideration. Not even the high-pitched whines from the sad and worn mother’s children could detract Gus from his purpose today. Her suffering would soon end and so would her children’s superficial hunger. He knew how to make things better, he thought, fingering the front of his jacket and feeling the shape of the vest below.

Out the window, Gus read the signs from passing intersections. Constitution Avenue was where the driver would turn next. Gus glanced up front and exchanged another glance with Larry. Gus’s heart thundered under the vest and a tiny gasp released from his knowing smile.

“Are you alright? Are my kids bothering you?” the mother worried, addressing Gus and ready to reign in her kids. But Gus caught her off guard, and she couldn’t help but return his charming smile. The expression colored her features in a stunning transformation.

She must know, thought Gus.

Gus’s expression widened with relief in the belief that God had touched this woman and allowed him to share the wonderment of this moment with another. The near empty bus was to be his passage into Paradise as much as the stage he’d selected at the steps of the White House where Bush would be working in the Oval Office. The president would not witness the blast, but he would feel it—feel it across the South Lawn, The Eclipse—feel it from its place of origin, from Constitution Avenue. Bush’s Christian God was not the only one to bless America.

“Praise Allah!” Gus shouted as he detonated the blast.

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My Sister’s Trying to Kill Me

My sister’s trying to kill me. My mother didn’t believe it, but now she’s begging me to run for safety from the burning house that’s just exploded. She knows my sister did it.

We’re getting away, driving down my street, I don’t know where. My mom suggests my aunt’s. She knows I’ll go there. I’m trying to call for help on my cell, but there’s a game in play. She’s rigged my phone. I can’t escape from the game. I literally can’t get out of it. Brightly colored puff balls float diagonally across the screen. Hot pink. Sunny yellow. Vibrant blue. Their round eyes don’t blink and they’re cut off at the neck, fur-like with a jagged edge. They’re keeping me from three simple numbers.

Frantically hitting buttons, I finally hear a voice in my lap.

“Nine, one, one. What’s your emergency?”

“My house is on fire,” I say as I lift the man’s voice to my ear.

“Is there an-an-anyone in the house?” He’s got a stutter. Can they have stutters? Is he real or also part of the game?

“Is there anyone in the house?” he asks a second time.

“My pets” I reply. I want to go back. It’s too late to go back.

***

I’ve just woken from a dream—really upset. I don’t understand why I’m crying, but I’m sobbing and I can’t stop. I’ve just dreamt an attack from my sister. She lunged at me like an animal, teeth bared, and tried to rip the flesh from the inside of my wrist, but I swatted her away.

I’m awake, I’m safe, but I can’t seem to stop crying.

I haven’t been sleeping well. That’s nothing new. But the dream is. Oh God, I’m afraid to look at the clock. I’ve got an eight a.m. shift. Crap. 2:38.

“Switch,” I whisper. “Switch-a-roo.” Calling any louder and I’m afraid of waking my sister. She’s just moved in and having a hard time of it.

The cat jumps on the bed announcing himself with a tiny “mew.” I think of him anytime someone says they can’t stand cats. They just haven’t met Switch. He’s loving and loyal and always comes when I call him. I’m sure that rubbing the tawny curls on his belly has nothing to do with it.

But he can be territorial. I found him fending for himself in the field behind my house. The neighbor would set his dog after him to chase him from the yard. It’s weird, but he growls and advances on my sister like he’s defending his territory against her. I shoo him away, but it’s weird.

He’s here now and comforting me, pushing his head against my fingers. He even tolerates a momentary hug. He snuggles next to my outstretched arm and we both fall back to sleep.

***

“Mornin’,” I reply to my sister’s greeting. I’m a little surprised she’s up this early, but thankful for the freshly brewed coffee. Wow, and cut-up cantaloupe and strawberries. Not so bad having her around.

The kitchen is open and a nice-sized island divides it from the family room. I swivel upon a bar stool to join her at the kitchen counter, but she moves to the other side to busy herself at the sink. The ceilings are vaulted with a skylight above, but the hour is too early to shed its light. The night light above the stove has yet to expire and a tabletop lamp at the end of the counter lends its glow as well. Neither of us is awake enough for full-on track lighting even though the direction of the beams reflect the surfaces of opaque fronted cabinets.

She’s not been looking so hot, lately. Dark circles frame eyes that seem to have darkened with her luck. She’s paler than I’ve ever noticed, too. But then she doesn’t leave the house much since she lost her job. It’s funny… when we’ve got money, we don’t seem to have the time to do stuff because we’re non-stop working. But when we’ve got the time, well…

“I heard you up last night. Thought I’d make some coffee.”

“Thanks. And the fruit’s nice, too. Sorry I woke you.”

“It’s okay,” she says. “Why were you crying? I heard you call that cat.”

“It was nothing. Just a bad dream.” That cat? A warning growl pulls my gaze to the tiled floor where I scoop up Switch. He struggles and surprises me with a hiss, then bolts out of my arms to pad down the carpeted hall.

“Why do you tolerate that? Get rid of him.”

“He only does that when you’re around.” And we’re right back to normal, me defending myself about one thing or another. But this is different; she loves animals. We’ve always had pets growing up, cats included. She follows Switch down the same hallway, but retreats to a different room and shuts the door.

Damn, I’ve lost her again.

***

My sister has been looking lost, or more accurately, just plain sickly. So, it didn’t surprise me when I woke in the night from her stirring. What surprised me was to hear her come in from outside. As far as I knew, she hadn’t left the house, and sheen and iridescence of her pallor proved it. All along I’m thinking she’s having medical issues, but now I’m trying to re-adjust my assessment while looking at her pink flushed complexion. She’s always been attractive, not exactly pretty, but more of a less formal cute. And now under the hall light I’m confronting rosy-cheeked youth.

“You just getting in?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she defends.

“Oh,” I counter sarcastically.

“I was restless and walked up the street a bit.” She looks a tad nice to be wondering up the street, but she is wearing sneakers, not the heels she normally wears with that outfit.

“You look… better,” I attempt at a compliment. “Maybe you should get out more often,” I caution.

“Yeah,” she smiles. Sincerely this time.

“But go during the day, huh? No matter how nice the neighborhood, it’s just not safe to be wandering in the middle of the night. You’re not invincible.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

She smirks like she’s hiding a secret and scoots off to her room.

What do you mean, maybe I’m right?! Of course, I’m right. Women weren’t superheroes like men. They couldn’t roll up their sleeves, growl and flex their biceps like the lesser sex. We might be able to outmaneuver men in the light, but the darkness is theirs.

The next night is the same. Wake up… hall light flicks on… I smile and question… she smiles her secret and retreats to her room never to emerge all day.

The third night, I seat myself on the front porch rocker to catch her. But catch her what? Getting dropped off by one of her party friends, some stranger? In the driveway, down on the corner?

“What are you doing?” she startles me with that secret grin.

“Waiting for you. Where did you come from?”

“Went for a walk again.”

“But I was watching the street.”

“For what?”

“For you.”

“For me?”

“For you.”

The anger heats up for both of us. She jerks her head away, but not before I catch a flash of her growing canines.

“What the…” I stutter.

The dream. No, can’t be.

My sister whips her face back and assaults me with my dream.

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Can’t Let It See Me

It’s hot. There’s some kind of fire happening in my bed, but it’s the kind you don’t want to be next to. The kind that makes you toss and turn, all sweaty, messin’ up the sheets, but for all the wrong reasons. The pillow next to mine isn’t dented with the weight of a man’s peacefully slumbered expression, but instead serves as placeholder for the other things that accompany me into exhaustion, books for school and my alarm clock, á la Blackberry. One a.m.

The windows just opened to the cool night air, but the stillness in the dark holds tightly to the coolness, refusing its release inside. No matter. Tiredness embraces me.

Until…

The intruding beam skirts the opposite wall, up the framed innocence of the golden girl holding a kitten, cut by the whirl of the ceiling fan before scurrying outside.

OH SHIT! Someone’s creeping around my bedroom window in the dead of night!

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” my Blackberry speaks.

The call for help yanks me from the cloak of darkness, Now illuminated for all to see, I’ve become the source of the menacing light!

Shit! Can’t let it see me. Shit! The windows are open, Shit! Get out of the room!

I want to scream “Someone’s out there!” to the woman on the phone, but I surprisingly still ration it will only cause delay. A self-preserving, protective delusion occurs, a spit-personality, perhaps, but the panic traps deeply inside.

“There’s someone in my backyard with a flashlight,” my composed voice tell her. She records my name, address, and phone number—just the way it should be.

But below the calm veneer I’m afraid of being heard, of being seen. I’m not standing in my darkened sanctuary any longer, but cowering on some elevated plane, ablaze from the floodlights of a hand-held Blackberry exposing my existence for the entire world to see. Standing in the spotlight, oddly enough, only one thing concerns me—the innocuous beam from a flashlight.

Can’t let it see me.

“Can you see who it is?” she asks. “Is a man or a woman?”

How the hell should I know? I can’t go near the windows. But the calm authority, my exterior, politely tells her “no.”

***

 The slivered window at the front door is the only one I’ve been able to approach. It’s a good thing it faces the street. Two cars, two officers. Good, they’ll protect each other. They’ll be safe.

Armed with their own bright night-sticks, they disappear to the sides of the house. The breadth of the living room separates me from the bank of windows on the back wall. Even from this distance I make out their bouncing beams in the yard.

Someone’s gonna jump out at you, I caution as they approach the narrowed path leading into the woods.

Nothing jumped out at them.

The police didn’t find anything, but something was out there.

“Nothing was out there,” he told me on my front step, thankfully ignoring my robe and scattered pair pointing in all directions atop my pony-tailed head. I was a mess, but it wasn’t because of my appearance or even the excuse I told him of wanting to go back to sleep that I excused myself to disappear back inside.

Their cop-car taillights turn the corner signaling the departure of the comforting light. Of course, it’s hours before I can go back to sleep.

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