At first glance, I would have described her smile as mysterious or haunting, but it was her eyes that made me think that. They were tunnels of ice-blue light ringed in shadow, arresting and unsettling in the way they gauged the depth and breadth of my soul. They were eyes that ferreted out pretenses and unearthed jealously-kept secrets.
Her eyes were haunting, yes, but her smile was self-satisfied.
I saw her in the underground subway tunnel, propped against the hand rail. The tunnel was empty, save us, and I had to pass her to catch the late train home. The incongruity of her there, small, alone, and seemingly fragile, slowed my approach. I was far bigger than she. I could have easily dashed her to the ground, broken her into jagged shards, but she raised my hackles and stilled my steps. Every instinct recoiled as if she were a snake or poisonous spider.
A red sign, cut in a saw-blade semicircle, was held above her head:
The words FREE and PLEASE, hastily scribbled in ballpoint pen, had been doubled back on and scribbled over: FREE PLEASE
There was something about the configuration of the words and the emphasis on the first two I didn’t like. A cold finger played down my spine and jangled discordant notes sang along my subconscious.
The woman’s steady gaze held mine as I stood, transfixed.
The one corner of her mouth, quirked just slightly upward, seemed to curl further in amusement. I see you, the smile implied, I know you.
The woman was blond, her hair pulled back into a bun or ponytail in the back; I couldn’t tell. Young. No older than thirty. Attractive in the slight, sickly, wan way of Eastern European models. The longer we stared at each other, the more I began to notice the yellowish-green hue surrounding her right eye. The less that coloring seemed a shadowed hollow. The more it revealed itself the remnants of a healing bruise.
Despite my every nerve clamoring warnings over this encounter, I leaned slightly forward to better take in the shadows of her face. Were the shadows to the right of her nose and along her cheek bruises as well? Were there stains of fingerprints below her right ear, riding her throat?
How could this fragile creature challenge me with that small, patient, curl of the lip? How could she brazenly hold my gaze and mock me with her Mona Lisa smirk? My gaze jerked back up. Her eyes were diamond bores, drilling past a polished marble exterior, deep into my psyche. I could feel them reverberating deeper, growing closer and closer to my darkest core.
I recoiled from the small pastel portrait sketch leaned up against the handrail and fled the tunnel toward the sound of an approaching train. At the platform I flung the catalogue I’d been holding into a nearby wastebasket and wiped that same shaking palm across my sweat-greased face.
The pages rustled open to a page visited most often as hot air rushed into the tunnel. The same delicate, blond Eastern European woman, her face circled in my red Sharpie, seemed to wink as the pages of Alone Angels fluttered wildly. I’d ripped off the mailing address from the front of the catalogue, but I’d missed my title and first name in my haste. ‘Dr. Haart’ flashed on the front.
Flutter. She winked. Flutter. Dr. Haart. Flutter. She winked. Flutter. Dr. Haart.
The train screeched to a stop and I, Dr. Haart Jekyll, fled into it, away from the accusatory stare and knowing smile of my chosen bride.
I wrote this in response to a post in Art Abandonment, a Facebook group I belong to. It was shared from another Facebook group called Weird Second Hand Finds that just need to be shared.
Maybe I haven’t written in a while and I needed to lance that growing boil or maybe this subject’s face just spoke to me, but the story came almost fully realized as soon as I saw it.
I pay for this account and haven’t written a god-blessed thing in, let me just check my calendar . . . . forever.
So I’m posting some creative thing I’ve done lately so I don’t feel like a money-wasting failure.
Hark the frozen words,
held to Winter’s frigid breast,
whispering Spring’s thaw.
A carpet of leaves
Limned with late November frost:
This was written in 2016 as a prompt challenge. The first sentence is the prompt. And, in case you want to hear what ran through my mind (in a loop) while writing the story, it was this:
Not the Words of One Who Kneels
“I’m going to disappoint you. But you know that already.” I winked, flashed my winning smile, and finalized the contract with a flourish. The weight of the silver pen gouged the paper as I dotted the ‘i’ in Iscariot. It was clearly a quality writing implement. I slipped it into my suit pocket, leaned across the desk and extended my hand. “I appreciate the opportunity and am really looking forward to working with everyone.”
That was then, and this is now.
Looking back, I see I wasn’t the best fit for my team, but working with them also wasn’t as difficult as I’d originally anticipated. In any group, there will be some back-biting – some head-butting. There was squabbling over who was most loyal, the most dedicated. You can’t work and travel with the same people without tempers flaring now and then. And, at the end of the day, everyone in the group was a hundred percent behind the product. The marketing was flawless because they truly believed in it.
Jaded as I can be, so did I.
The boss’ son was my immediate supervisor. That can be a real headache too, but this guy was cool. Okay, maybe a little over-earnest and definitely too idealistic. More “crunchy granola” than I usually care for. But likeable, definitely likeable. And don’t get me wrong, he had some impressive leadership qualities. We would have followed him anywhere.
This part is going to sound ungrateful, and I don’t mean it to be, but our budget was laughable. As treasurer, I happen to know this company’s resources are off the charts. Which is why it rubbed me the wrong way we weren’t treated better.
Everything from the transportation to the meals and accommodations was handled poorly. We operated on a shoestring budget. Less than a shoestring. It wasn’t just maddening, it was disrespectful.
I say this because our project was huge—a game changer. When so much hung in the balance, to be treated like that was insulting. And I want to make it clear that, at heart, I’m a humble man. When I say my part in this project was pivotal, I’m not bragging, just stating fact.
They knew my potential when they hired me. You’d think, based on that, they’d have taken the time to listen to some new ideas I had. Ideas about extending the availability of the product, raising its visibility beyond the regional level.
You can imagine my frustration when my calls to corporate were systematically ignored.
They only saw potential in a shock and awe approach. Saturate a small market with a limited edition release, then pull it and let word and demand spread before a second release. In a way, it felt like the company had set us all up for failure. Like they were cheating the consumer.
In the end, I did what I was hired to do. I signed the contract, after all. Judas Iscariot is nothing if not a man of his word.
I’m not with that company anymore. People assume I went to work for the rival, but I didn’t. Despite the bad press I got, I’m a man of honor. When I quit, I took myself completely out of the workforce.
I’m in limbo, so to speak—and to tell you the truth, after all I went through, I don’t have the heart for corporate life anymore.
What sticks with me, though—what I can’t get past—is how my supervisor got screwed in all this. Yes, we were hired to be the fall guys for this debacle, but it was his father who sent down the order. His father who set it all in motion.
Even now, this is what sticks in my craw. I ask you, how can a Father do that to his Son?
A writing group challenge from January of 2016. There were a series of Photoshopped photos offered. I chose the one above and wrote a story about it.
Over The Threshold
I met Sue on the playground when I was in second grade. People might argue that children don’t understand love, but I was smitten at first sight. She was in first grade and small for her age. She stood on the edge of the group dressed in a pair of hand-me-down overalls with her hair in pigtails and her eyes as big and dark as a fawn’s.
Her father owned the dairy farm that supplied us and a neighboring town with milk and cream. They didn’t get into town much and Sue was shy. I’d never met a stranger and, with some persistence, I got her to talk to me.
All through elementary and middle school, I carried Sue’s books home for her. Sure, I got ribbed by some of my pals, but that didn’t bother me none. Not when I could stand, touching shoulders, and listen to her quietly recount the names of the newborn kittens that climbed over their mother in the warm, afternoon sunlight. I missed games of relievo and stickball to join Sue at the pond and let tadpoles swim in the bowl of our hands. I once suggested we keep them in a jar, but Sue wouldn’t hear of it. They would miss their mothers, she reasoned. On days when we both were set loose from chores, we’d trek across the fields until the grass gave way to sand and the wind grew sharp with salt. We’d laugh into the bright blue sky and throw bread scraps to the gulls.
In high school, everyone knew Sue was my girl. It wasn’t any surprise when we announced at the end of her senior year we were going to marry. Sue helped her father with the farm most days after school, but most nights she owned she’d been working on her wedding dress. Sue could sew so straight and small, people swore it was neater than any machine. I knew she’d be a vision.
The day we stood up together, Sue carried white and pink roses. The white matched the pure brilliance of her dress and the pink matched the blush in her beautiful cheeks. My brother snapped our photo outside the church. In it, Sue’s captured smile was the small, self-contained curve she shared with the public. It was only when we were alone she allowed her demure smiles to bloom into laughter. I was looking forward to getting her alone. To making her laugh and to kissing her smiling mouth.
We couldn’t afford much. I was working for my father in the family’s general store and he said we could have the small space above it if we moved the stock out. It seemed like paradise to us. So did the overnight honeymoon we were taking. It was only to a bed and breakfast a half hour away on the coast, but we were giddy at the idea.
I borrowed my father’s car for the trip. It was old and rusted with piebald tires and an engine that started with a croupy cough. With Sue in it, it was transformed like Cinderella’s coach into something magical. I could barely keep my eyes off of her, she was that radiant.
I could blame the tires and the sand. I could blame Sue’s musical laughter and the flash of her bright smile, but the fact remains that it was my fault. I was too relaxed. I strayed too close to the edge of the road. The front, passenger side tire mired in the soft, sandy shoulder and ripped the wheel from my hand. Before I could react, we were rolling down the embankment.
The sky. Scrub grass. The ocean. They spun outside the car windows in a confusing blur. Sue flew into me and then tumbled past me. I reached for her, but her veil swept across my palm and was gone. When the car hit the water I remember thinking the sound was like a baseball hitting a bat, then my world went dark.
They never found Sue. They think the weight of her dress and veil would have tangled her up and dragged her under. That the current carried her away.
There hasn’t been a night since that I haven’t dreamt of her. Beautiful and ethereal on the ocean floor. Her gown swaying around her. Cupping her hands to allow tiny fish to swim into the bowl of her palms. Waiting patiently for me to carry her over the threshold.
I don’t think she’ll have to wait much longer.
This was written in June of 2016 from prompts I’m hazy about – I think striped shorts or bathrobes might have been the prompt — or perhaps it simply had to include three boys.
The Boys Who Matched
The boys wore open bathrobes and striped shorts. The three of them stood at the prow of our boat, Pam’s Promise, solemn and silent.
Ben, the youngest, stood a head shorter than his brothers. His hair had bleached from mouse brown to blond over the summer. He was as dark as a berry from running through summer days on sturdy legs.
Nate, our middle boy was still growing. He was rawboned, all sharp angles and insatiable hunger. He was a locust swarm at the table and never left it fully sated.
The eldest, Matt, teetered on the precipice of manhood. He had the muscled build of a gymnast and stood taller than me by an inch, now. Matt was our quiet one. For all his physical power, he was a poet and philosopher.
Their mother had loved to dress the boys in matching outfits. Her sturdy Singer machine had buzzed through their infancy and childhood. When they’d been small, they hadn’t cared. One outfit was as good as the next as long as they could ride a bike or climb a tree in it. Once Matt had hit twelve, though, that had changed. He’d stubbornly refused to continue.
It was after the Foster boy had taunted him at a birthday party that things changed. Matt hadn’t yelled or slammed doors to make his point; he’d simply announced he was done with it and then dug in his heels. Matt’s brothers had always taken his cue and had quickly followed suit. They’d begun to grow up — to become individuals.
The bathrobes were a gift from their mother that past Christmas. Her last shopping trip.
All were downy white, but each had the boys’ initials embroidered on them in a different color: Matt’s in navy, Nate’s in hunter green, and Ben’s in maroon. On a whim, I’d bought the shorts from L. L. Bean a few weeks before. I thought Pam would like that.
My own shorts hung low on my hips. I’d lost weight, along with my wife, in the last six months. We’d always talked about dieting together. This hadn’t been the way we’d planned.
The full weight of her rested in the urn seated in the captain’s chair behind me.
At the end, she’d hardly weighed more than the insubstantial ashes inside. The cancer had been a rapacious flame, first burning away the fifteen pounds she lamented she’d gained since our marriage. Then it had greedily consumed the remaining weight of her slight frame along with her spirit and laughter.
I dropped anchor and stepped up to join our boys. The boat rose and fell in gentle waves like the soft lullabies Pam used to sing when she rocked our fretful babies through fevered nights.
When the sun finally broke over the horizon and painted the water orange and red, I unscrewed the lid of the urn. A soft, mournful note sounded in the mouth of the vessel as a breeze caught and stirred her ashes.
Pam had loved the ocean. I had promised her the boat and I had promised her we’d grow old sailing it together.
I had only been able to keep one of those promises.
The boys gathered handfuls of their mother with care and cast her into the waves — watched gravely as she dusted, then dissolve into them. I released the last of her along with the dreams of our future together.
We each threw flowers from the garden, Pam’s second love.
Ben threw a handful of dandelions. They floated in the water like miniature suns: bright, resilient, and hopeful. Nate threw a wealth of sumptuous birds of paradise: long, slim, and elegant. Matt threw Queen Anne’s lace: lacy, wild and complex.
Into the water I launched a corsage of stephanotis, the delicate, white flowers that had made up Pam’s bridal bouquet.
Their fragrance clung to my hands long after we left her final resting place.
Written for a Flash Felon Crime challenge (2016). A tattoo had to be part of the story.
Ushi No Toki Mairi
There were witnesses the evening Dom’s first tattoo was stolen. Startled gasps and the mounting buzz of conversation from the audience alerted him to its theft. He followed their collective gaze and looked down at his arm in time to witness it happen.
Below his rolled shirtsleeve, the design unwound like pulled thread. Thin skeins rose an inch above the sinew of his forearm. There, they fractured into a swarm of black specks and scattered.
Start to finish, it disappeared in just under a minute.
The guitar slipped through Dom’s lax grip, slid off the curve of his thigh, and hit the stage with a discordant twang.
The noise startled him back to awareness and he ended the jam session abruptly to hurry home. Alone on the couch, he studied the Taylor acoustic for damage and wracked his brain for a possible explanation.
The guitar was an antique, manufactured in 2025. It was more than just an instrument, it was a treasure. As his tattoo had been.
He checked his forearm again in hopes he’d experienced a sort of waking nightmare. The tattoo hadn’t been some machine-applied, Insta-ink piece of shit. It had been designed, drawn, and handcrafted by the last of the Masters.
It was not a dream. It was gone.
Dom cut the engine of his vintage Harley and plugged the bike in to charge. He crossed the small lot to a row of storefronts where one window display scrolled a loop of available tattoo styles. He recognized one of his Polka Trash designs from the early days of his apprenticeship. At the door, Dom pushed the call button and waited.
“Sumi Skin,” a voice intoned.
He was buzzed into a brightly lit room. Animated posters depicted skin art both classic and modern. Booths bristled with hi-tech tattooing robotics.
“Dominic, good to see you!” The owner was a wiry man in his late fifties. They shook hands and traded casual pleasantries before the man asked, “So, you slumming or shopping?”
“Neither, Larry. I’ve got a question. The software on these.” Dominic thrust his chin toward the nearest booth where a woman reclined in the chair, her skirt hiked up to bare one thigh. A maze of criss-crossing robotic arms zipped across her skin. “I know it can recall a piece of art if the canvas defaults on payments, but have you ever heard of a classic being repossessed?”
Larry shook his head. “No way. The nanotechnology was still young back then. It only embedded the Master’s signature and time stamp. Hand-stitched ink precedes the recall coding.”
“What about art theft? Any classics reported stolen?”
“Can’t happen. Same rules apply. Thieves can use hacked recall programs to steal ink, but only on the machine tats. Once the government got their greedy fingers in the pot, everything changed. One day it was the Board of Health inspecting operations, the next, you had to buy your machines from government-approved contractors.”
Dom ignored the curiosity in his old colleague’s eyes. He was there for answers, not to give explanations. “Hey, speaking of Masters, you seen Old Shuko lately?”
“About four months ago when I heard the diagnosis, I stopped in see him. You?”
“I’ve been busy. He still at home?”
“Yeah. Relatives are keeping him comfortable for now.”
“Maybe I’ll stop in.”
“You should. He trained you. You were close. He’d want to see you.”
The second tattoo, also one of Old Shoku’s, disappeared while Dom was en route to visit the retired artist. Dom noticed the movement in his peripheral and a glance in the rearview proved his fears true.
Dom slapped a hand to his neck in an attempt to prevent its disappearance. The ink flew from his palm, en masse, when he lifted it a minute later. Smudged but still recognizable, the raven’s wings seemed to flap as the wind caught the ink and pulled it out the window.
Dom slammed his palm against the steering wheel three times before he regained control. He pulled to the shoulder, ran a hand over the leather grip of the oiled, wood wheel and exhaled slowly. Beating on one of his classic cars wouldn’t solve the problem. Seeing Old Shoku might.
He pulled back onto the road and continued toward his Master’s house.
Once inside Shoku’s foyer, he hesitated. He recognized the woman who’d answered the door. Dom had slept with a lot of women—it was the nature of the music business—but this one was recent and had left an impression. She was exotic, a fusion of Asian and Haitian as he recalled. He remembered her brandied voice murmuring strange but alluring words into his ear.
She was more than simply beautiful; she was arresting. High cheekbones were sculpted into the perfect oval of her face. The only makeup she wore, black eyeliner on her upper lid, accentuated the natural, feline slant of her eyes.
“What are you doing here?” He felt off balance. Unsettled. He didn’t like it.
“I’m here to take care of my grandfather.” She gestured for him to follow her. The house was so quiet as they passed through it, a clock in the hallway sounded like a metronome.
“Old Shoku is your grandfather?” He clenched his jaw. He needed to shut up, stop asking questions, and let her explain herself. He was surprised to see her again, yet she seemed completely unfazed by his presence – almost as if she’d expected him.
She didn’t answer. Instead, she led him into the living room. From behind the bar, she gestured for him to sit. No sooner had he done so, a smoke gray cat appeared and jumped up to sit next to him.
When Shoku’s granddaughter rejoined him in the cozy sitting area, she handed him a scotch, neat, and sipped from her own. A Siamese jumped into her lap and she stroked one hand across its back. It blinked at him with slow concentration. He didn’t speak. Instead, he waited, resolved to appear collected.
“You’re not seeing my grandfather today or any other day. He’s sick. Too sick to be bothered by you.”
“Do you know who I am?” He blurted the cliché, chagrined he’d resorted to it even as it left his mouth. She had gotten under his skin the night they’d slept together. She was getting under it now. Not cool.
“I know who you think you are. You think I slept with you because you’re a musician. A star.” The last bit rode from her mouth with slow derision. She smiled as another cat leapt up onto his couch to study him.
“You think you have history with my grandfather because you tattooed a little, years ago, before you realized you were too lazy and greedy to be an honorable artist.” Her lips pursed into a moue of contempt as she slowly crossed her long legs. “You think you have some claim to his time because you apprenticed under him. Because he trusted you once.”
She took a sip of scotch. Over the rim of the glass, she studied his reaction. When he struggled to formulate a response, she continued to bat at him in a smooth, modulated voice. “You think because you have a modicum of talent and good looks, you deserve the best. Your antique guitars. Your rooftop apartment. Your classic cars.” A slow smile curled her lips. “Women like me.”
He sat forward on the couch. “What are you talking about?”
The hall clock resonated through the house. She continued to regard him without blinking. “The other night when we were together, did I come?”
Dom shook his head at the unexpected question. “What?”
“You couldn’t say, could you? Because you don’t care. People are just vehicles—” she waved one hand in a lazy circle “—transportation to get you where you want to be. You can’t be bothered to give. You’re only concerned with what you can take.”
“You want to know if I know who you are?” She leaned forward and purred her response. “I know. You’re a thief. You think you deserved a Master’s art, so you stole it.”
Dom’s mouth was dry. The mouthful of scotch he gulped went down the wrong pipe. It stung his throat and his eyes watered in commiseration.
“You’re crazy.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “You can’t steal a tattoo. Old Shoku gave them to me because he wanted to.”
Two black cats appeared out of nowhere to slink toward him in perfect synchronicity. He flinched with surprised unease.
“My grandfather gave them to you because you fooled him,” she answered. “Made a fool of him — a man who lived for honor.
He wasted time training you, grooming you to take over his life’s work and, finally, hand you his legacy. You made him believe he had a mosuko. A pitit gason.” At Dom’s blank look, she curled her lip and translated to English. “A son.”
She tsked to the black cats and they leapt to sit on either side of her. “But once you got what you wanted—those three tattoos — you lost interest. You took off and never looked back. Never contacted him again. Like the women you sleep with. Like everyone you use and discard.”
Dom felt cornered. Unsteady. Off-balance and out-of-control. No one got the upper hand with him. “You dug your nails into me,” Dom growled. “You loved it!”
Her head fell back and her teeth flashed as laughter gurgled from the well of her throat. Anger reddened his cheeks and he surged to his feet. She met his flashing eyes with calm and implacable derision.
“Of course that’s what stuck with you, unubore otoko.” No trace of laughter remained in her tone. She raised her hands and wiggled her sharp, manicured nails. “Hai, I scratched you. But not from pleasure. You think you fucked me, but I fucked you, vòlè. I embedded nanocode beneath your skin. Nanocode I started writing when I was sixteen—the year you shamed my grandfather.”
He took a step toward her, his arm raised, but something in her eyes—and the eyes of the cats—stopped him.
“The code was to retrieve what you stole.” She dropped her hands and smirked as she leaned back and stretched her arms along the back of the couch. “The skin I took was to punish you for carelessly discarding a position many would treasure. I used it to cook up a little fusion for you — a bit of Japanese ushi no toki mairi seasoned with some Haitian vodou.”
She snapped her fingers and a slow tickle grew between his shoulder blades where the last of Old Shoku’s masterpieces lay.
“It’s fitting you chose a rat for your last tattoo.” Her eyes thinned to slits.
Dom’s head grew light and the ceiling stretched high above him. The last thing he tried to do before he hit the floor was plead his innocence, but he couldn’t seem to make his mouth work. All he managed was a squeak.
The cats closed in.
- mosuko – Japanese for ‘son’.
- pitit gason – Haitan Creole for ‘son’.
- unubore otoko – Japanese for ‘conceited man’.
- Hai – Japanese for ‘yes’ (formal).
- vòlè – Haitan Creole for ‘thief’.
- ushi no toki mairi – Literal: “ox-hour shrine-visit” refers to a prescribed method of laying a curse upon a target that is traditional to Japan.
- vodou – Haitan Creole for ‘voodoo’.