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She moves through the office of pencil skirts, short shorts and barely-there bottoms, feeling like her very walk is an apology on behalf of women with thick ankles and swaying backsides everywhere. She hugs the files to her chest, hoping they cover what should probably be the least of her worries and tries to hold her head high.

She gets as far as the third cubicle.

Sure that Monica produces a snicker, certain Shelley looks up from her ledgers and giggles, mortified that Terry might’ve just let out one big howl⎯she looks down at her feet.

And walks on.

She endures growing consciousness with every step. Aware that the fabric in her own knee length skirt bunches with every movement, mindful no one wears hose anymore as her own cause her to sweat right through her high-wasted undies, regretful of the tightish blouse she’d questioned herself on twice this morning before eventually locking her apartment door with a sigh.

Today is no different than yesterday or the day before or the day before that. Her clothes never fit right. Never look right. Never, ever, feel right. She doesn’t walk the aisles with the ease the other women do. She doesn’t head in early to stand at the Keurig allowing everyone to acknowledge her new, may as well be painted on, skinny jeans.

Why did she chose an office where every day is Friday?

No, she comes in early to clamber into her chair and hide behind her desk before anyone else gets in. She waits well past much needed bathroom breaks, hoping for a clear coast and sits parched long after everyone else is off to be fed and watered.

“Hey, Dot. Sitting in again?”

Her boss is a tall man⎯thin and wiry, looming over her desk like a flag at full-mast.

“Oh, yeah, I guess. Just finishing these last reports.”

He glances at all the other desks sprinkled with open files, papers askew, clearly nowhere near completion.

“In a dream world, your co-workers would do the same.” He laughs.

“Well, we can’t all be perfect,” she jokes nervously.

She’s good at her job. Gets her work done. She’s thorough, accurate and always on time. She works through her lunch and stays late without complaining. She is perpetually professional and despite what she feels is a less than desirable façade; her appearance is unfailingly tidy.

“So true.” He smiles. “Ah, well I hope you get time to eat at some point today. I wouldn’t want you fading away.”

Her face is a fiery inferno. Fading away? Is he making fun of her now too?

With shaky hands hidden below the desk’s surface, she tries desperately to smooth out the fabric covering her belly. She pulls her body out of its slouch and shifts in her chair.

“No chance,” she replies uneasily. “I’m hardly that fragile.”

Mr. Brig looks her up and down and then directly in the eye.

“Don’t underestimate yourself, Dot.”

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Unearthly quiet fills creeks and crevices. Swings sway loosely in the intermittent wind, their rusty chains straining against the tongue-tied backdrop. They make their way through littered streets, Luna’s fingers loosely curved around Elian’s palm like the branches of a wallowing willow.

 

“My feet are so sore,” she says sadly, stooping to poke a finger down the back of her slack boot.

 

He knows they’re too big, but a good score nonetheless. There they’d been, waiting for him it seemed, on the red and gold foyer rug. He’d swung open the heavy double doors and their soft leather had slouched, making them look half as tall, their laces still strong and intact.

 

He’d found them in a house, clearly once cozy and comforting, now forlorn and deserted. Unable to face a childless life, many had fled the outbreak thrust upon them, running in search of a life restored. Luna had long been wearing sandals that barely clung to her feet and with winter approaching, he’d known that despite the size difference they were meant for her.

 

Anything left behind is fair game as far as he is concerned.

 

They come upon the market with its soaped out windows now caked in dirt. A yellowed newspaper lounges on the cement, lazily waving in the breeze.

 

“Won’t be much in there,” she smiles a little. Her hair, lit by the cold sun, looks like the soft caramel he used to eat.

 

Panic had ensued as missing person reports increased by the day. Hours had dissolved into a myriad of search and rescues, candlelight vigils, prayers and séances. Confusion and chaos became a way to survive and finally, angst and torment, depression and mourning, a way of life.

 

“It’s boarded for a reason.”

 

Elian has always been wise but has had to hone his wits since this all began. He is responsible for Luna and will protect her with his life. However, he needs to ensure it doesn’t come to that. He must remain with her and avoid any risk that might separate them.

 

He walks Luna over to a dormant vending machine and has her lean against it while he checks the perimeter of the market. Once he decides it’s safe, he returns and begins prying off the boards that have been haphazardly slapped over the entryway. They come off easily enough but he feels Luna watching him intently and is again reminded why he needs to maintain his strength.

 

As he wrenches the last board, she is at his side, wiping imaginary sweat from his brow, anything to stop the useless feeling that often overcomes her.

 

She coughs as a billow of grime hits them in the face.

 

On the second day of what they now call The Salvage, Luna’s younger brother and sister had disappeared. Like so many others, gone without a trace. After months of searching and hoping her parents had decided to journey on in pursuit of peace, maybe to the next town, perhaps across the ocean, they didn’t know, but Luna would not go with them.

 

She and Elian had taken over the family home, but were forced to leave when it became overrun with drug-toting squatters. Again, Elian had been wise in realizing it wasn’t worth the fight. He’d had to pull Luna by the arm for miles while she sobbed, devastated her siblings might return to the nightmare she’d left behind.

 

“Normally, I’d say after you, but in this case…” Elian steps inside and bats away the cobwebs that immediately engulf his face.

 

There had been many town meetings in which ideas were thrown about. Terrified mothers worried there’d been a mass killing and the bodies just hadn’t been found. Fathers held their shotguns at the ready, waiting for whoever had taken what wasn’t theirs, to return.

 

It was a long time before sense was made, but bit-by-bit, the town’s people had little choice than to admit the children now gone were conceived without love. They were the ones that had grown from desperation or greed – a marriage that needed repairing or a hole that had to be filled. At times, money had been the motivator or sadly, some were born an appointed whipping post.

 

The women, eager to replace what had been lost, tried to conceive through despair but their loveless attempts were no longer fruitful.

 

Luna follows behind Elian as he clears a path. Once inside, they stop in awe. Canned goods and jars of jellies practically glow on the shelves.

 

Elian opens a package and spreads a thin plastic tablecloth over the dirty floor.

 

“You’re my everything, Luna.” He says watching his wife stroke her pregnant belly.

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Once finished the rigors of publicly posting snippets of a short story, while in the process of writing it, what does one do?

 

Why…torment one’s self further, of course.

 

You must know (RIGHT?) that I just finished what impulsively morphed into a saga of troubled teens, pseudo mothers, absent fathers, confused counselors, hapless husbands, perverted Principals and one maniacal monster.

 

All in a brief 8400 words.

 

I started with my usual – a short shot. The kind you don’t swallow until the end, it’s that quick. And, as often happens, a few rowdies began pounding the bar, demanding more upon reaching the bottom of the glass.

 

And I was gonna shut ‘em down.

 

Secretly, I love it when you ask for more, but work with me.

 

“Ah, stop yer whingin’.” I said. (Hey, no need to freak out. Whinge is an actual word and because I was born in the UK, I’ve decided I’m perfectly welcome to use it) “Lemme me alone, kid. Here’s a lollipop. Go on now, scram.” (This is where I tousle your hair in case you weren’t imagining it already)

 

But Helena was melting ice, leaving a ring of reminders no matter where I laid my hat. Helena, who, in the initial mix, was a Shirley Temple but had poured herself into a Kahlua Mudslide by saga’s close. And sometimes the rowdies are right. Helena did deserve to be wiped up and I tried. Tried, but didn’t succeed and in the end, she was left with cloudy glasses and tarnished brass, unsalted peanuts (!) and sticky tiles. The barmaid’s apron, Helena’s world, was still full of holes, stains and hanging threads.

 

This can happen when we blog a story this way. It comes out differently than it would were we keeping it all to ourselves until the very end. There’s a want to serve. And to do it in a reasonably speedy fashion. Before interest is lost. Before, heaven forbid, characters are forgotten. Before someone steps out for a hit of Espresso due to our long shift changes lulling them to sleep.

 

Real-time readers can alter the way we think. Let’s face it, when writing a novel and stowing it on our computer, we’re aware that it may never get read. Clearly far from the dream, but it is the sometimes delectable fantasy that comes with our false sense of seclusion.

 

There’s the issue of being unable to act on hindsight.

 

No glossy red gumboots and matching raincoat if we’ve previously raved about the blinding hot sun. No right if we’ve already written the wrong. Too late – sold and bought, sprouted and planted. Those are just little things, but you get the idea.

 

During my progression, I found it difficult to write hard truths. Never a good quality to be found in a writer. I’d hesitate, feeling it might be too much for the blogosphere. Too heavy. Too dark. Too sad. Too real.

 

I let likes or lack of, influence my psyche.

 

I rushed to the finish line in a race against me, myself and I.

 

BUT…the positives far outweigh the negatives.

 

I wrote! I wrote 8400 words! With great abandon (for the most part). It was NaNoWriMo’esque and it was freeing. A quantity, not quality sort of liberty. The luxury in knowing I was simply laying a foundation. That I’d be able to return with walls and doors and windows was nothing less than exuberating.

 

And then there’s the feedback. Religious readers of every word, never failing to comment (thanks, mum) are inspiring to say the least. Being told you’ve created vivid imagery and mind-haunting characters…hooking people. It’s all so addictive motivating.

 

I hope your head aches for Helena because that my friends, is the sign of a great night out.

 

Aspirin’s on me.

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*This piece is part of an ongoing short story*

You can read parts one through nineteen HERE!

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Gladys can see what looks like the school Principal standing outside the doorway of the hospital room. He almost looks like he’s on watch – him against whatever dares try and make its way in.

But when she finally makes her way down the long, glossy corridor, Gladys can see that Mr. Anass is anything but on guard. His eyes are moist and his cheeks, slack. His face is so forlorn it immediately brings tears to Gladys’ eyes.

“Good evening, Ms. Harris.”

Gladys can’t help but think that referring to it as good is pushing it.

“Hello, Mr. Anass. I didn’t expect to see you here.”

He looks at the floor.

“Well, school business and everything.”

It’s clear to Gladys that that end of things could have been dealt with elsewhere, would’ve already been taken care of. He has no need to be here. Anass is here because he’s chosen to be.

“Yeah, I guess that puts you in the middle, doesn’t it. I’m sorry about that.”

“No, no. I, uh, am happy to be…” He stops. “Happy is the wrong word. I’m thankful to be of some service.”

“Can I go in?”

“Helena’s in there.” He gestures with his head towards the door behind him. “Under normal circumstances, it’s just immediate family, but since that’s not possible…”

They exchange a glance and Gladys swallows past the lump in her throat before reaching out to push open the dense yellow door.

It’s quiet in the room until a sharp beep from the life support machine pierces the air. Bitty lies still in the bed apart from the small, slow rise and fall of her chest under the delicate, light blue sheet. Her face is bruised and swollen. Her eyes sharp slits, her hands at her sides, cut and battered.

‘Shit,” breathes Gladys.

“She’s in a coma.” Helena whispers.

“What the hell happened?”

“Good evening, Ms. Harris.”

Again, with the good crap.

“My name is Stephanie Statton. We’ve met before. I’m sure you remember. And I’ve called a couple of times as well…left messages on your machine.”

The tall willow of a woman rises from her chair in the dark corner and takes a step towards her, extending her right hand, which Gladys shakes distractedly.

“What is going on? What’s happened to this poor girl? Who is she?”

“My friend.” Helena says dryly. “She’s my only friend.”

“I should explain, Ms. Harris.”

“Damn right, you should explain. You had me thinking it might be my daughter in this bed. Your message was so unclear.”

“I really do apologize. I was…well, I was panicked, quite frankly, but you’re right. I should have left more detail.”

Gladys looks at Helena and her heart swells. She’s okay. Still here. Still hers.

“I happened to be with Helena when the call came in. I knew she and Bettina had become friendly and I thought, considering Helena’s circumstances…and I guess, Bettina’s, that she should come along.”

“Helena’s circumstances?”

Mrs. Statton reaches into her bag and slides Helena’s essay out of one of the pockets.

“This is what I’ve been calling you about. I don’t know how much you’re aware of.”

“Okay,” Gladys lets out a frustrated sigh. “I’m not sure this is the time or the place. This poor girl,” she points towards Bitty’s beaten body, “is obviously fighting for her life.”

“She tried to end her life.” Helena says quietly.

“What? She did this to herself?”

“Well, no.” Mrs. Statton begins to explain. “It’s more complicated than that. Please bear with me. I’m only just piecing it all together myself through what I’m hearing from the police. Bettina has been…”

“Bitty,” Helena croaks. “She’s Bitty. Not Bettina.”

Mrs. Statton takes a breath.

“Yes, you’re right. Bitty has been on her own for some time. She used the address of a house where she dog sits occasionally to register for school, but doesn’t actually live there, we’ve since found out. She lives in a hostel. Pays for it through the dog grooming and I guess, the occasional sitting job.”

“She’s all on her own? No family?”

“Another piece we’re learning.” Mrs. Statton advises. “Her mother threw her out when an Uncle, and that title is questionable, got too close to Betti…Bitty. She never went back.”

“I don’t get it. Why this…now?”

“Her mother.” Helena says, still staring at Bitty.

“Her mother?” Gladys is even more baffled.

“Her mother came looking for her.” Mrs. Statton’s voice is working hard at sounding calm. “The Uncle finally ditched her and she decided Bitty was to blame. But Bitty wasn’t having it and when the mom realized she was being challenged she went off the deep end. Beat her daughter senseless, right there in the hostel room. Apparently slammed her face into the porcelain sink.” Stephanie gives up the battle and her voice breaks. “She took some cash from the room before she left, but what she didn’t realize was that a bottle of Vicodin had fallen out of her purse.”

“She swallowed every pill.” Helena is bent at the waist, twisting her hair, a shadow of a mass forming at her feet.

“God, it’s so awful I can’t even imagine.” Gladys looks from Mrs. Statton to Helena. “But I’m sorry. I still don’t understand the connection with Helena, other than, as you say, they’ve become friendly.”

Mrs. Statton looks to Helena and gets what Gladys deems as permission.

“Ms. Harris, do you know why Helena wears those bracelets?”

Confusion passes over Gladys’ features.

“She likes them? I mean…I know I bought one of them for her at the Dollarama. That one with the crosses. Remember Helena?”

“I remember.” Helena does not look up.

“Ms. Harris, she uses the bracelets to cover a scar. A scar I’m guessing you’re unaware of.”

“A scar? What kind of scar? Helena, what did you do?”

“Nothing. I stopped. I fixed it.” She finally looks away from Bitty and Gladys can see that this is about so much more than bracelets and scars.

“You got stuck with me. You think I don’t know, but I do.”

“Helena, I was never…”

“He left me.” She chokes, her quiet demeanor vanishing. He left me and he left you with me…with no choice.

“There’s always a choice, honey.”

“You drink because of me!” Helena is now pulling hair out by the tufts.

“Helena, I drink because of him. You’re the reason I don’t drink more.”

“Why would you want me? Helena practically screeches. “Why would I stick around for this?” She stands and her arms open at her sides, palms facing the ceiling in defiant question, bracelets swinging with the force of her movement. “You’re not even my mother.”

Mrs. Statton tries to quell the sound of her sharp breath.

The long, vertical scar on the underside of Helena’s wrist becomes visible and no one speaks for a moment. Even in her frenzy, Helena is aware that she and Gladys now share the wound.

Gladys swallows. Her mouth is dry and there is a pounding at her temples, a bellow for alcohol. Her hands shake as she takes the now slightly rumpled documents from her purse.

“I am your mother, Helena. He signed. Today.”

Helena pulls her flannel shirt tight around her chest.

“Signed?”

“I’ve been trying for years. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

What did you want?”

You, honey. When I first met your father, I knew he didn’t really love me. He was using me to raise you after your mother died, but I didn’t care. I loved you and that’s all that mattered to me.”

Helena sniffles, kicks at the hair on the floor and pulls her shirt tighter.

“He ditched you with me. I wasn’t born yesterday.”

“No, he was leaving me and he was going take you. Find someone else. I begged him to let me have you.”

“Then why was it so hard to get him to sign me over?”’

“Oh, sweetheart. I know it’s tough to understand, but the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing. No matter what, it would be difficult to give up your child. To admit that you’re not what’s best for them.”

Helena looks back at Bitty. Her face bruised beyond recognition, the tubes and pumps trailing off the bed, the sucking sounds of machinery replacing her lungs and suddenly she understands.

Like her own scar, Bitty’s tattoo means she’s alive.

~ The End ~

 

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*This piece is part of an ongoing short story*

You can read parts one through seventeen HERE!

The gray, floor length sheers billow with the force of the floor vent below them as Gladys opens the front door. She pauses. Other than the curtains, there’s no movement in the house. No sound. No Helena.

Her heart flaps.

She shouldn’t have been away so long. She should have left more food in the fridge. She shouldn’t have left her to her own devices. Maybe she should have told her where she was going…why she was going. Or better yet, brought Helena with her.

Unsure, she tiptoes to the kitchen counter to set the groceries down. The crumple from the bags scratches against the silence and suddenly, she feels like she’s wearing a buttoned-up raincoat on a hot day. Trapped sweat makes its way down her back as the realization that she must check Helena’s room engulfs her.

Blurry images of a face, glossy-eyed with blue-lined lips, pool at the bottom of Gladys’ spine soaking into the waistband of her jeans. Swills of pills, strewn bottles, creased sheets and dangling fingers wade through her watery mind. Flashes of flowers and cascades of cards, torrents of tears and wallows of whiskey wash over her, muddling at her feet.

She puts the signed papers on the counter beside one of the brown sacs and sits on the cool of the waxy tiles. She’d almost made it. So close only to have it whipped away. In an instant. The reason she’s still here. The reason she still tries. The reason she’s still a Harris, withdrawn.

But she remembers Sharona. Her tale of the policeman and his walkie talkie.

Gladys heaves her heaviness off the floor and flies to the answering machine, fumbling to push the stiff play button with its insistent flashing light.

No, she won’t find Helena in her bed. There will only be the aching, hollow space where she had once been.

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*This piece is part of an ongoing short story*

You can read parts one through sixteen HERE!

Helena sits in the mint colored booth, dressed in a flannel plaid shirt and jeans that most women Mrs. Statton’s age would consider tights. She moves the straw around slowly through her vanilla shake and waits for what she knows is the inevitable question.

“So, how long have you liked reading?”

Helena’s brow instantly furrows. It’s not what she was expecting.

“The first day we met, you said Book Club would be social suicide for you. There’s a difference between that answer and simply saying you’re not into reading.”

Helena’s furrow turns to a blush.

“I dunno. I’ve always liked reading. Since I was little. Probably ever since I could, I guess.”

“I enjoy reading too. It gets me away from my real life crap.”

The word crap, coming from Mrs. Statton, surprises Helena yet again but she recovers quickly.

“Define crap.”

“Well, it’s probably not your idea of crap, but there’s definitely crap.”

Stephanie’s sip leaves a faint strawberry smear on her lower lip, which she licks away instinctively. She’s starting to perspire despite the cool air of the ice cream shop and hopes Helena can’t detect her discomfort.

“Speaking of crap, maybe we should discuss the essay you handed in to Mr. Crawford.”

“Oh, okay. So an F.”

Helena hangs her head, embarrassed at having put herself out there only to receive a failing grade. She should’ve known better. She did know better.

God, no.” Again the counselor is bold, using language not common for school admin. Their eyes meet and Helena has to look away, realizing in the moment, that Mrs. Statton knows everything. Knows all her crap.

“It’s just,” Stephanie plays with her wobbly wedding ring. “When a student writes about something like that, it’s our responsibility to follow up on it.”

Our? Who else has read it?” Helena doesn’t have time to mask her panic-stricken face.

“Well, Mr. Crawford, of course. But when that type of material is passed to me, it’s my duty to bring it to Mr. Anass’ attention as well.”

Helena cringes and her hand flies up to her hair. She’s disliked Anass since shaking his sweaty, flimsy hand in front of the office that first day and has done everything possible to stay off his radar until this. She somehow hadn’t understood the big picture upon handing in her essay and sitting here now, she’s baffled by her own naiveté. Anger surfaces at having brought herself into the forefront, the opposite of where she likes to be.

“I’m sorry,” Stephanie starts to apologize, “I had to. But, I’ve told him I’ll deal with it from…” A shrill chime cuts her off mid-sentence.

“I have to go.” Her face looks pained. “I can drop you…actually, no, I think you should come with me.”

Helena has little choice but to follow behind her counselor, wondering why in the world she’d ever put pen to paper.

“Anyway,” says Stephanie, rushing to get to her car. “I have no choice but to bring your mother into the loop too, but I wanted to talk to you first.”

Her mother. Gladys is the one thing Helena had kept to herself. After all, that wasn’t her crap to tell.

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*This piece is part of an ongoing short story*

You can read parts one through fifteen HERE!

Gladys inhales deeply. Even the measly electronic cig manages to get her blood pumping in her euphoria. Sure she’d had to stoop to a little rub and tug, but what was that compared to what she scored in return? No skin off her nose and certainly nothing she hadn’t resorted to before to get what she wanted out of William.

Her drive home is long and smooth. She dangles her arm out her open window the entire way, while tune after tune has her singing at the top of her lungs.

It isn’t until darkness falls that familiar landmarks start to appear. She flashes left and pulls into a mini-mart close to home. Her mood still light, she decides she’ll bring home mojos and a tub of fudge ice cream – two of Helena’s favorite things.

Entering the market, she dials home hoping to talk to Helena, but has to leave a message instead.

Probably in the shower, she thinks. Where does that kid ever go?

She strolls through the aisles, still humming and putting a little more in her basket than she initially intended. She hasn’t eaten all day. She doesn’t count the coffee and odd nip of whiskey.

Whiskey.

Her last sip had been at the bait shop just before taking care of business with Will. She’d excused herself and crouched on the grody toilet lid in the stunted rotting bathroom, taking not one, but two large burning slugs from her flask. For good measure, she’d swiped some over her hands once back in her car, thinking it couldn’t hurt.

She grabs some potato chips. Salt and vinegar, they both like those. And a few bananas and a tub of yogurt out of guilt.

“Ms. Harris! You’re in late tonight.”

She looks at Sharona, a cashier she usually tries to avoid. Strange girl. Always fishing for gossip and a nosy twit by Gladys’ standards.

“Yeah, I guess it is late, Sharona. Whaddya know?”

“Oh, funny you should ask! I actually did hear something interesting tonight.”

The beeps from her scanner punch the air as she slowly slides each item over it. Gladys can see the ice cream is already starting to melt.

Sharona pauses for encouragement. Sensing none, she manages to muster up the enthusiasm to continue on her own.

“The high school. Some kinda trouble tonight.” She squints at the bag of mojos, frustrated its barcode won’t scan. “Yeah, there was a cop in here earlier. Got the last doughnut and the dregs from the coffee urn just before the deli shut down. Heard the call on his walkie. Cuz he paid at my till, right?”

“Are you asking me?”

She ignores Gladys’ snide snip and types in the crumpled barcode by hand, her nails clicking loudly on the keys.

“Turned it off though, before I could hear the whole thing. Guess I looked too interested.” She raises her over-tweezed eyebrows expecting praise. Confirmation she’d done well.

No longer anxious about her melting ice cream, Gladys pays and rushes to her car, fumbling for the keys.

Why isn’t Helena answering the phone?

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