Below are the various flash fiction pieces I’ve put up on this site. While I am most definitely a long form writer, I honestly do enjoy the challenge of putting together tiny stories. Although this kind of writing started mostly as a practice exercise for me, it has come to be an interesting — and very different — creative outlet from my usual.
A quick reminder: I’m a lazy slacker, so I use the terms “flash fiction” and “microfiction” pretty much interchangeably. When I create one of these pieces, I set myself a word-count maximum that is generally 200-300 words, but can be up to 500. I then take a single thought, image or inspiration and give myself one hour to write, edit and post it. One hour, that’s it. That … err … that ain’t a lot of time to a guy who takes nine or ten months to conceive, prepare and write a novel-length story…and that’s why I love the challenge of doing these.
“Unfucking A Life”
We’re all broken.
I don’t know much, but that I understand.
Some of us just hide better how we’re fucked up.
For years, I did.
Then the booze and pills took over again. They took over as much as they had in the first place.
My memory burned: a face, and the quiet whisper of a voice I couldn’t quite hear. But the eyes…those eyes always remained.
Emotion and memory, words and reality. That face said more than any book I’d ever read.
Just how do you get it all back?
The trigger was the loudest sound I’d ever heard.
The rain poured down, plastered hair to head.
It wasn’t enough. Not enough to wash away the pain; not enough to change a life.
The cold iron pressed, made its mark.
A breath…two…it was time.
“I almost didn’t find you,” she said, “I’m sorry I’m late.”
He did look up, then. Only one thing did he see: those eyes. The eyes that encompassed his life.
“You’re not late,” he breathed. The rain was unnoticed, now.
A hand on his head. Fingers through his hair, trailing the warmth and strength so long missed.
He closed his eyes.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Desperation and hopelessness. The bitter taste of failure. It was supposed to be better than this.
Wearing a cap and gown, he was told it would be better.
When he put the ring on her finger, he thought it would be better.
When he signed the divorce papers, he hoped it would be better.
When the layoff notice came, he prayed it could be better.
In the news, he heard all about how it was better. Better, he knew, for someone else. For everyone else.
It was supposed to be better than this.
“Crossing the Line”
Dozens of tattoos, Agwe had. Every single one was a memory, a moment in his life. And with every one, he’d felt the pain of the needle and ink as it marked his flesh. Drunk or sober, every tattoo was a memory that included the suffering of its creation.
Except this one.
This one was different.
For this one, he’d sweated and worked. He’d suffered and been shaved. He’d been covered in oil and sludge. He’d kissed the Chief’s belly. He’d earned his citizenship in King Neptune’s court.
The outline of the turtle on his arm was simple: incomplete and basic.
He remembered sitting on his bunk, remembered the hard-won pint of moonshine he’d paid to Schwartzie to memorialize the crossing.
The klaxon sounded, then, in his memory. The pounding of feet, the sprint from his bunk to the gun.
A plane…grey and green and far too fast.
The noise, and the flame. The frantic scrambling for Schwartzie’s arm.
His tattoo would never be finished, now.
He’s falling apart. He’s late, and he hates it — late because the work never stops, and because the traffic is nothing but worse. The stress makes him reach for a cigarette, even as he stomps the accelerator.
This is too important to be late.
The car’s controls are worked like a maestro. If he’s late, he’s ruined.
A screech of the tires, and a winded sprint up the stairs. His heart hammers as he runs.
He bursts through the door, flustered and sweaty and mouthing apologies. The others simply shake their heads — his foibles are well known.
The job at hand is thrust at him, a package to be unwrapped and tended to.
He hesitates, afraid. Afraid to touch, afraid to commit. The “what ifs” wrack him, the visions of everything that could go wrong. But the package won’t wait. Not for him, not for anyone.
A twitch of his fingers and the wrappings are pushed aside.
The eyes open, tired and confused…oh so confused.
He is frozen, dominated.
Those blue eyes hint at everything in the world: at commitment, and at the pitfalls and emotions to come.
The eyes close, and he is released.
“Welcome, son,” he whispers.
“Someone Else’s Skin”
Every movement was awkward and uncomfortable. Nothing felt right, nothing felt like it should. I stared and studied throughout my morning routine, but the face in the mirror stayed a stranger. It was close to my own, but not close enough.
More minutes, and more routine, and my clothes didn’t fit right. They hung and they clung, in all the wrong places. They were clothes for someone else…for that face I saw in the mirror.
The face that wasn’t me.
Time in the car gave more time to wonder, and to fear. Who the hell was I?
I stepped through a door, then, and strange faces smiled and called greetings. Faces I didn’t know, in a place I didn’t recognize. Dread grew and I feared I had lost everything.
The wrong face, the wrong clothes…the only thing that felt the same was me, but a me that was shrunken and hidden. I was a beaten thing, I realized, hiding from harm and danger. And from loss.
I was right, I had lost everything. Everything but me.
To wear someone else’s skin, to be someone else… Was I hiding, or had I finally surrendered? Had I finally accepted “better than nothing”?
Was I the stranger, and that stranger’s skin the real truth?
A return greeting for all those strange faces — a smile, even — and the answer began to terrify me.
They say the dark is oppressive, that it carries fear and danger.
Not when the dark is your friend, I say. Not when the dark hides the dangers. The dark has been my friend since the day I was born.
The sound of feet and we all moved, we all pushed and crawled deeper into the dark. The sound of a voice and that crawl became a sprinting brawl — the dark was about to end.
A heaving body next to me, all breath and sweat and fear. There were no words. There could be no words, the dark was about to end.
An iron rattle, and a creaking, and the dark was shattered by that demon we all feared, by the light. The world disappeared behind that light, behind that which made us blind and helpless.
Words, then, from that body next to me, “No! Not me!”
I cracked an eye and saw the shape we all so feared, saw the huge silhouette with reaching hands.
That body next to me continued to scream, even as it was pulled away by those hands. I don’t know why, but I stood. I stood and kicked at the silhouette. I came only to its waist, but still I kicked. Still I tried to stop the disappearance of yet one more of us from the dark.
One of those hated hands lashed out, sent me reeling. I stumbled and fell. I don’t know if my tears were for the screaming voice I had not been able to save, or for myself. All I knew was that I would be next. All I knew was that, after years alone in the dark, I would be next.
I wanted to see her again; I needed to see her again. It had been a year, and never had we gone so long without seeing each other.
I still loved her. That hadn’t changed, and never would, but the vagaries of life and circumstance had changed everything else.
Today, we would see each other. Today I would feel again that rush of warmth and comfort. Today would make the last year seem but a blink.
I watched and I watched. The sun climbed the sky, turned and started to descend, and still she hadn’t come. There was nothing I could do but wait. She would come. I loved her, I knew she would come.
There…there she was. She had come!
I wanted to jump up, wanted to gather her in my arms once again. I wanted the years to have disappeared, to have everything back the way it used to be.
Against the green of the grass her dark dress stood out, highlighted the flowers filling her arms.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. The years fell away, and that longed-for warmth and comfort overwhelmed me — she had come!
Tears stained her cheeks as she laid the flowers at my feet.
I wanted to move. I tried to move, to touch her cheek, to stroke her hair…but I was rooted, immobile. No matter how much I needed to touch her, I couldn’t move.
“Happy anniversary, my love,” she whispered. A sob, then, and her voice broke, “God, I miss you…”
“Past the Breakers”
The boy was afraid of the waves. He’d always been afraid of the waves, and always would be, he thought. His brothers swam and played out in the waves, tried to draw him, but his faltering legs refused to move deeper into the sea.
What if I fall? he thought. What if the water gets me?
Water to his ankles…warm sand and even warmer sun…all the comfort of other kids, and their parents, close around him. There was safety where he was, even if that safety lacked the daring of his brothers.
He ran and played in the shallows, but always with the soundtrack of those familiar voices shouting and calling, “Come out with us! You can handle the waves, that’s where the fun is!”
Tears, then, of frustration and fear…and of anger. If he never left the shallows, how would he know if the waves truly were fun? How would he know if he could ever overcome them? How would he know?
Water to his knees, then to his hips, and a wave knocked him down. A spit of salty water and he climbed to his feet, anger pushing the fear far behind him. Soon, his feet left the sand and he was swimming, ducking under the waves as they broke above him, then surfacing for a gasp of air.
His brothers had been right! It wasn’t just fun, it was exhilarating, and he threw everything he had into his frolicking battle with the sea. He felt tremendous, he felt…powerful. A look around and he realized he’d done it, he’d swum father than any of his brothers! He felt like he could do anything.
A moment more and that excitement faded as quickly as it had come. There were no more waves to battle. There was no more exhilaration, nor excitement. There was no more anger. There was just fear, and an incomprehensible sense of loss.
The voices calling to him from the shore were tiny and incomprehensible, too distant to hear. His arms were beginning to numb, and his legs wouldn’t kick properly. He was exhausted, he discovered. Although the waves were gone, the ocean still moved, and with every heave the waters washed over him, higher and higher.
He heard a voice, then, barely. One single voice, that of a brother, “…he’s too far out…”
Too far out.
Another heave of the sea, and he slipped under.
The voices called and called, the shouts turning to shrieks and cries, but nothing could penetrate the sea.
There was no sky, only clouds. There was no sun, no light, only clouds, leaden and grey.
There was a path for me to follow, ahead, but it was faint and intermittent, nothing more than the barest bit of game trail.
I was lost. Again.
The trail meandered, as they so often will, and the sky offered no help. All I had were the unfamiliar hills and the bowl of trees and rocks in which I stood. A place I had never seen. The last familiar ground was too far behind to turn back, the last landmark a fading memory, and the way ahead even more uncertain.
I had nothing to steer by, nothing to guide me, nothing of comfort or care. All I had was me, and a lifetime of being lost.
I walked, then. The game trail came and went, a distant friend visited only in passing. My feet followed instead that lifetime of being lost, followed the path of experience and memory. When everything ahead is strange and dangerous, that is what you trust: experience and memory.
When you fall down a hole, people say, you stop digging. When you get lost, you stop walking and wait for help.
There is no help, no one coming to save you. You put one foot in front of the other and walk, from one tree, one hill, to the next. I put one foot in front of the other, then, and walked…from one tree, one hill, to the next.
The clouds hung lower and lower, the sky grew ever more threatening and cold. My one friend, that faint trail, disappeared and still I walked. My only survival was in walking, in progress. To stop was to die. I knew that. From long experience I knew that.
No food, little water, my energy fading, I knew the next hill would be the last. I couldn’t climb another. Being lost had finally caught up with me.
The sky grew brighter, even as I climbed. The clouds began to thin, the sun to return. I stood at the crest, then. I stood at the crest and stared. The sun had moved, the world had shifted, and what lay before my feet was…unexpected.
The world hadn’t moved, the sun hadn’t shifted, I had.
What lay ahead was a valley I knew well, the trailhead where I had begun so many days before. I stood and stared, more lost and confused than I had been in the mountains themselves.
I was home, I was safe.
I turned around and began walking to the next valley.
“Good For Nothing”
A scream, then, as background to the sound of fist hitting flesh. Over and over, that sound.
She clutched at his arm, tried to stop the jackhammer blows.
Her voice became a whimpering cry, just short of despair, “Stop…oh God, please stop!”
The face on the floor…it wasn’t much of a face. Not anymore. Not after the rain of blows. She pulled at the arm, tried to pin the blood-spattered hand to her chest.
The arm jerked and pulled, then the other looked at her. That face was hard, had nothing in it but rage and murder when he looked at her. He stopped pulling, then, and his eyes…melted. Pain came, and helplessness, to replace the rage.
“This fucker…he hurt you!” he cried. A child, wailing at the universe.
Sirens and yells in the distance. In the distance, but coming nearer.
A touch to his face, and a tear, then the sirens were on top of them.
Shouts and thuds and a whirl of chaotic violence and both were on the ground. Rough, gloved hands cuffed them, searched them. She felt her wallet taken, knew the cops had everything…
The hands holding her relaxed — a bit — and a voice, harsh and hoarse, spat, “Fuckin’ good-for-nothin’ kids…”
”Written in Stone”
His hands clenched. The hands that had never held a weapon, the fingers that had never pulled a trigger.
He felt the fear, then…the muscle-clenching, bone-breaking fear that all-but consumes your soul. He who had never before felt true fear.
His body refused to move. The muscles refused to obey and the joints to move. He wanted nothing more than to cry, to curl up and sob in his mother’s arms.
Small, he felt, and insignificant. Part of the tears came from that — oh, yes, did they come from that — but only part. The rest? The rest came from debt…from debt and from gratitude.
Once again, he read those words. The words that had brought true perspective, the words written in stone:
“Here rests in Honored Glory
A Soldier known but to God”
“A Hundred Years Ago”
Who the hell am I to judge those who have come before? Who the hell am I to judge those who lived lives so different, in times more alien than any far planet?
A picture it was that drove me. A picture, and discussions about the triumphs and failures of a man who has been nothing more to me than a handful of stories told by relatives already old and fading to my far-younger eyes. The picture of a man who has never been real to me.
Now, his ghost is whispering in the background. He is speaking and trying to teach, but I have to strain to hear.
I carry the burdens of his sins. We all carry those burdens, the ones from our ancestors. The burden of their debts in the economy, in the environment, in our society. But I — we — carry also their victories, and their hard-won wisdom.
The picture I’ve been looking at is simple. There is one of me, in much the same pose. That similarity may have been nothing more than happenstance, but it changed me. A hundred years ago, in a time so different, among people so different, across a gulf of far more than just years, our faces look the same. Our bodies look the same. What else is the same?
There he stood, his newborn child in his arms. He was trying to look stern, I think, trying to be the epitome of the distant, uncaring father…but you can see it in his eyes, the love. You can see just how much that tiny child changed the world for him.
I look down, even as I write this, as I try to calm the squirming and squiggling, and I can’t help but think, “Just like me.”
“A Night Like This”
The music was deafening, the room chaos. The bodies were sweaty and heaving, pressed into intimacy on every side. Blue hair, brown eyes, barely clad in just the right ways, the girl in his arms was a beautiful stranger.
He had no business with her, not in any world he understood. Not on any night…except this night, this carnival of light and sound and lust. On a night like this, outside lives — normal lives — died with barely a whimper, and many sins were born.
Dances and kisses, that was their language. Words, even whispered ones, were pointless. Caresses and passion said more than words ever could, anyway. More booze, even a few pills, as the night developed, and the carnival of light and sound turned into a full-blown riot.
He’d had far too many nights predictable and boring. But not this night, he vowed. On this night he would finally live. This was one night that would not end like all the others. A night like this would end only in fire.
In the restroom, then, packed tightly into a single stall. For once his surroundings meant nothing. For once — for this night, at least — he had life itself in his arms. His life — his real life, his “wonderful” life — meant nothing in the fire of that embrace.
“How was your weekend?” his friends asked, on Monday, in their cubicles grey and drab and oh-so-normal.
“Oh, you know,” he replied, “the usual.”
“A Good Nap, Ruined”
The meal was exactly what he wanted…what he needed. Oh, it had been far too much work to get it all ready — not to mention the godawful mess it had left that he was pretty sure would never come clean — but sometimes you just had to spoil yourself. Others he knew, they preferred to always eat what was neat and easy, but where was the fun and satisfaction in that?
A nap, he wanted. An hour or two just to let the summer sun and that big meal work their magic on him. There had been a lot of walking that morning; a lot of clambering over downed trees, a lot of hills and valleys, a lot of wandering and exploring in that special place.
His nap, however, just would not come. There was too much noise, too much activity. What the hell happening over there? Naps were the best part of the day, and now his was being ruined by the thoughtless and careless.
A stretch and a curse, then, and a pause for a last bite from the scattered remains of his lunch, then he began to walk, and to investigate.
Shit, more noise…yelling and chaos, now.
Drowsiness turned to irritation, and to impatience, and he began to yell at the rude bastards who wouldn’t let him relax, who wouldn’t afford him the simple courtesy of some peace and quiet.
The one in the flowered dress — the big one who looked so soft and sweet — turned to the one next to her, asked, “Can’t you stop him eating that? It was just a baby!”
The other, the one in green, just shook his head, even as he continued to stare, “Bears have to eat, too.”
“Is This Heaven?”
A sharp note, the glass shattering. A deeper note, then, the screech of metal. The smell of rubber, a hint of engine fluids, the smell of blood…
The delicate tinkle of all the little bits and pieces falling to the ground around me.
No time for even a blink, then it all changed. The colors were gone, the reds and blacks and greens replaced by blacks and whites.
I stood, on legs that shouldn’t have been able to stand. I stood and looked to the door to my right, the door that was opening with just the barest hint of a creak. No other sound in that place, not even my heart. Just the creak of the door.
He was my height, the one that stepped through that door. My height, and the hint of my features in his face.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, a sad note under that voice. “I’ve been waiting, but I never thought it would this soon.”
Confusion, then. Worse than any drink, than any drug, my mind spun and wandered and refused to focus.
“Who…? What…?” I stuttered.
He smiled, and I could see…something. Love? Peace? Fulfillment? It was all there. It wasn’t mine, but it was there, and I could feel the edges of it. I should know that face, I thought. It was the memory of a friend, lost in time. It was family, long forgotten.
“Come with me,” he said, holding out his hand, “and I’ll explain everything.”
“What the hell is this?” I hesitated, my voice faltering and failing.
I stood unmoving, frozen and afraid. Unable to move, to be honest. I didn’t understand the feelings that were coming, the feelings I hadn’t felt for…decades.
“Come with me,” he replied. “It’s time to come home, Dad.”
His mind was working overtime. The ideas were there, the characters were there. Most importantly, the words were there.
They were there, like a class of sugared-up fifth graders are there. The ideas and characters, the words themselves, were jumping and falling all over themselves. The big words were beating up the little words, while the cute words were causing havoc among the ugly ones…
The cursor blinked at him and the blank screen stared accusingly. He had to write something.
For all the emotion and thought pent up inside, the blinking and staring continued.
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
Okay, that’s no way to start a story. Even he knew that. Almost as bad as starting with your character waking from a deep sleep.
“Call me Ishmael..”
Type…delete. Type…delete. Type…delete.
He stared back, thinking “Fuck you, screen!” On his feet, then, and he didn’t sit again until he had a full drink in his hand. Maybe the whiskey would help.
He searched his past, his present and his future. He thought of all the words he had written over the years…and of all the words yet to come. He wrestled and fought his thoughts even as he forced his fingers once again onto the keys.
This time…this time the words would come. He would make them come!
“His mind was working overtime…”
They sat there, inert and dead, metallic cysts erupting from the crumbling asphalt. The rust was there, already, and the cobwebs. A deer poked her head from behind one as I passed, curious if I was fried or foe.
A call in the middling distance, the chittering of squirrels. Of voices and humanity there were none. No sound, no evidence. Nothing.
I was hungry. I had no food, and little water, but I was hungry. You had to keep moving if you were hungry, had to find the food that may be lurking ahead…had to, even more, keep ahead of the greater hunger coming behind you.
The creak of fading hinges and a door winked like some obscene blind eye in the building ahead of me. It hung crazily on its remaining hinge, clinging desperately to life with a last, futile fingernail.
I went to ease it open, then. I went to enter, then I saw the sign. “We’re closed for the health of our employees” it said, the paper sun-bleached and rotting. I turned and returned to the street, started to walk again.
A newspaper fluttered by, the words faded and barely legible. It could change nothing — certainly not for me — but from curiosity I chased it down in the failing breeze. “…open by Easter…” the words said. That was all I could read, but it was enough.
I cursed and threw it aside, returned to my slow walk down that street, listening for any sound of life.
The carpet wibbled and wobbled. The chairs jumped out in an effort to tangle my feet. The door tried to run away, and to fool me as to how far away it truly was.
A hand on my shoulder, guiding and helping. I think it was to help and guide; the pressure and the push were unmistakable guidance.
The snow grabbed at my feet, froze my ankles.
The sidewalk betrayed me, tried to trip me. A convenient tree helped me, however. Its branches bare, it still offered its trunk to help me stay on my feet.
From that tree a bench called, then a light post.
People talk about the world as a frightening place, violent and chaotic. Nonsense. I found the world helpful and wonderful…all except for that damned sidewalk. That sidewalk was just screwed up.
A turn off the main street, then, and the snow bit again at my ankles. My feet started to go numb, and my breath to come in short gasps.
Still, however, the trees and light posts — fewer, now — offered their support and help. Still I fought the betrayal of the sidewalk, and of the street itself. Still the snow clutched and grabbed and froze…on my hands and arms now, too.
A moment to sit, to force the sidewalk to crawl back into its proper orientation, and I saw it…I saw the light.
Light is good. Light means warmth, and stability. Light means, in oh-so-many ways, home. I wanted that light. I needed that light. But it was far…
I don’t know how long it took. I don’t know many betrayals I fought, just as I don’t remember how many tried to help. All I remember is that light growing closer, that warmth starting to reach for me.
The snow froze my hands again, after one last attack from the street. I fought that attack, however. I fought with everything I had. And I won.
I reached for the door — reached for the light — and it opened!
Another hand, then, pulling me inside.
“Goddamit, not again…” that hand sighed.
“But I Have”
The sun baked, hurt his head. The sweat had given up an hour ago, too tired and hot to flow any longer. The pain had fled, too, thankfully. Now the sun’s burns were just a nuisance…one he knew he would pay for soon enough.
The buildings offered no shade, not with the sun directly overhead. He wandered anyway. He wandered the town’s central plaza and stared, searching for some sense of welcome. For some sense of home.
“Can I help you find something?” She asked, all solicitude and friendliness.
It always had been a friendly place, this.
Can you help me find it all again? he thought. Can you help me find who I used to be? Who I am now?
“No, thanks. Just…remembering. The place has changed since I lived here,” he answered with his own smile.
“Was it long ago that you lived here?”
“A couple of years.”
She looked puzzled, then. “It can’t have changed too much…”
He sighed and turned, started to walk away. A look back and he answered, “But I have.”
“Who Are You?”
A screaming crowd in a full arena. All the cries for more echoing and drowning out the world itself. All the warmth and affirmation. All the love.
He remembered it all. He remembered the goals. He remembered the cheers.
He remembered when everyone knew his name.
Now, no one knew it.
He remembered, also, that last game. He remembered the boos. He remembered the catcalls for more.
The whiskey went down unnoticed. Just as the pills had gone down unnoticed.
The crowd wanted more. He tried, as he always had. He tried to give more. Tried to be what he once was.
He tried, and he failed.
But still, the crowd wanted more.
He, too, wanted more.
Another handful of pills. Another swallow of booze.
Everyone wanted more. Everyone wanted what he could never again be.
Even as the numbness came, he could remember the crowd…
He could remember the cheers, could remember the emotion…
He could remember the autographs, and the cheers…
Just as he could remember the time — just a few hours ago — when the kid had looked at him and asked, “Who are you?”
“You can’t go alone, it’s just not safe,” the old man said to the younger.
That young man’s answer was hesitant and uncertain, “I figured this time of year would be okay…”
At a small table nearby, I couldn’t help but hear. Those words, the concern of one generation for another, were all-too familiar. I could hear the words, but barely. As if they were coming from a thousand miles away….or a thousand years.
I could hear the words, but the memories were far louder.
My face was wet, the taste of salt bitter on my tongue. I stood there, exhausted by the fight and ready to quit. I was ready to quit, but I couldn’t. I was in far too deep to stop. I had to see it through.
I shuddered at that sound — jumped, almost — and another shot of adrenaline shot through my system.
“It’s just not safe…” she had said to me.
“This time of year, it’s fine,” I had answered.
Another Crack! More wet and salt on my face.
Ruffling and rustling, then, almost as loud. A slight twist of the wheel and the rustling stopped, leaving just the howl of the wind and the roar of the water.
I hadn’t thought we would make it through, my boat and I. The wave was so tall, and the one sail I had up so small.
Over the top we went, however, and the spray drenched me with yet more salty water.
I laughed, then. I laughed and I roared and I lived.
Safe? No, it wasn’t safe, I thought as I looked at that kid. It wasn’t safe, I wanted to say to him, but life isn’t supposed to be safe.
I was taught to play the game. More than that, I was taught to win. At everything. He demanded that, and more, did my dad. Oh, I didn’t win much — not when he was involved — but all those losses just defined me in his eyes. Weak. A loser. Not like him.
The walk down the hall, then, was tough.
It had taken years to get there. Years to find myself, to find my own pride. Years to escape that shadow. The physical shadow had gone first, but the emotional…that one took a lot longer.
The call had come earlier that morning. There had never been a voice mail I more wanted to ignore. Never been a moment I more wanted to escape.
My steps echoed. The lights flickered fitfully, never quite turning all the way on. The smell was antiseptic and the air cold. Every step dragged like a lost soul fighting the river’s pull.
The room was worse.
In that room lay a broken thing. A thing I didn’t know. A thing I couldn’t know.
He had come home to die, my dad.
When I stepped through the door, I felt ten years old again. I was going to be reminded again of failure, and of weakness.
“I’ve tried to do this for years…” his voice was weak, barely a whisper.
I stood back, ready to protect myself. Ready to fight, or to run.
I had never seen him cry before.
“At My Door”
Howling in the night. The cries of conflict. The cries of mating and socialization, too. The cries, also, of loneliness. The cries, in fact, of those who have a lot to say.
I sat on the porch and listened to those cries. My cigar lay on the railing, as half-forgotten as the glass of whiskey at my elbow.
I had no time for such, the appurtenances of civilization; the cries were too much. The wolves were there, at my door.
For too long I had ignored them. For too long I had tried to live as folks told me I should. And, for too long, I had failed.
Oh, there had moments of success; moments of highs to beat any endorphin or drug. But also there had been lows; the lows of pain and loss. The lows that not even your family wants to hear about.
For far too long those lows had drowned out what was important, in fact.
A stumble, it took. A tripping fall into a brook, and a string of curse words to make the universe itself blush. I had looked up, then…
I had looked up into the blue, blue eyes of a wolf…
A shake of her head — as frustrated with me as I was with myself, I guessed — and she turned and walked away.
No queen on her throne had half the presence of that wolf. Animals, we call them. Animals who will break their own bodies to help their packmates escape bonds we would find inescapable. Animals who, in no uncertain terms, put the good of the pack’s children ahead of their own. Animals who, when you get right down to it, have more humanity than do we.
I sat there, then, and listened to those cries.
I listened, and I thought back over my life. I thought back over the years and decades, over the opportunities lost and the roads not taken. I thought, also, of all those lost along the way.
A drag on the cigar, then, and a deep gulp of the whiskey, and I joined the howling. I had lost, too…
Shit, did he hurt. Two hours of pushing hard, two hours of sprints and hits, two hours of sweat and exhaustion…why do it?
Why do it?
He asked himself that every single morning, now. He hadn’t asked it as a kid, when his mom would get him up for practice. He hadn’t asked it in college, either, when the other students Would all praise him for the last game. He hadn’t it asked it then, but he had to ask now.
His friends from school, they had all gone on to jobs. Cars and condos and real lives. Him? He had three roommates in a rented two-bedroom, a place that didn’t even have his name on the lease.
A last chance, then, to impress the team. A last chance to keep his place on the ice…and to keep the apartment that the team provided.
When he’d arrived that morning, it had been there, that which he most feared: a note on his locker.
“You’re on the bubble. As of now, I ain’t gonna keep you,” the coach had said at the meeting.
He had spent thousands Just to get himself to training camp. Had spent countless hours working the phone to friends and acquaintances just to get the invitation, and now he wouldn’t make it.
A last hour on the ice. A last hit of water before that hour’s scrimmage, and he felt the coach’s eyes. Oh, he knew the guy was watching the others, the ones who would get the contract offers, but still he felt those eyes. Felt the disdain.
He felt the shame, too. He had never failed before.
“Last chance!” the coach yelled to the milling players. “Play your way on to the roster, or go home!”
A whistle to start the scrimmage.
Broke and soon-to-be-unemployed, what did he have to lose? His resume had nothing on it, nothing but the blood and sweat and tears of a life of 5:00am practices and late night games. How did you sell HR departments on bruises and concussions and pain As a job skill?
Fuck it, he thought, nothin’ left to lose.
He stood under the shower, after, and tried to soak away the blood and bruises from the scrimmage. Every hit, every shot, every play, had been his last. He would go home to his parents, broke and ashamed.
He would apply for that job at the call center and give up the dream he had had since he was five. He would turn into that bitter, drunk guy that every local rink has, the one bitching about the pro career he never had.
After the shower, he wasn’t even surprised when he saw the note on his locker. His gut still clenched, and his body shook, but that was shame and panic and desperation, not surprise.
Up the stairs, then, and into the coach’s cramped office. An office that stank of old gear and mildew and hours-long bus rides up and down the east coast.
He didn’t say a word, just sat in the one chair and stared at the folder that sat on the desk, his death warrant waiting to be signed. He flipped it open without saying a word. What was there to say?
The papers inside, they meant nothing. The words meant nothing. They couldn’t penetrate the fog.
“I told you to be ready to go,” the coach said, with no preamble, nothing to soften the sting. “Practice starts in the gym at 6:00 Monday morning. Sign the fucking contract and get your ass out of here.”
His hands were still shaking as he signed.