After Some Small Talk

He sidled up to her at a mutual friend’s party and, after some small talk, asked the question. “So, do you have a boyfriend?”

“No,” she said. “I’m flexible enough I don’t need one.”

He blinked. “Flexible?”

“Yup.” She reached back and up between her shoulderblades. “See? I don’t need help washing or scratching my back.”

“Um. Having someone to clean your back isn’t the only reason to have a boyfriend. What about companionship?”

“I have friends.”

“Uh, intimate companionship.”

“They’re close friends.”

“Yeah, but what about…” he lowered his voice, “sex?”

She leaned in conspiratorially. “I have toys.”

“But is that really enough?” He smirked.

“They’re good toys.”

“Okay, um. What about having someone’s hot bod to look at?” He struck a slight pose.

“Have you heard of the internet? Besides, I have one of my own.” She posed back.

“What about someone to visit you in the hospital?”

“Close friends, remember?”

“Right. Um, someone to tell you how you look in new clothes?”

“Mirrors.”

“A second opinion on decor choices?”

“Mine’s good enough.”

He sighed and leaned against the wall. “I guess you really don’t need a boyfriend.”

“Nope,” she said. “Sounds like you could use one, though.”

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Life Without Him

“If anyone has something to say, please do.” The circle stood quietly for several heartbeats before someone spoke.

“Caleb was one of the most inquisitive minds I knew,” said one. I was moreso, I thought. Who answered his questions after asking them first?

“He was endlessly creative,” said another. “I never knew how he came up with all those ideas.” I knew, I thought. Most of them he took from me. I hoped no one noticed my clenched fists.

A third said, “There was no one more compassionate. The number of times he helped me out of the blue…” She trailed off, sniffling. And afterward, he said such things about you. You wouldn’t be here if you knew half of them. I was trembling, nearly crying with anger. I spoke.

“He was my brother, and… and…” I wanted to lay his falseness bare, expose him. My teeth ground and tears streaked my cheeks. Everyone watched me, their gazes dripping sympathy. Truth would not serve me.

“And he taught me things I would never have learned otherwise.” People nodded. Someone hugged me, and someone else squeezed my hand tight. I swallowed revulsion, tried looking mournful. “I can’t imagine life without him.”

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Faces on a Plane

She looked at me over the back of the airplane seat, her eyes weighing me with all the wisdom of her seven years. I made a face. Those eyes widened and the girl disappeared, only to reappear a moment later and smile when I made a new face.

It became a game. Whenever she popped her head back over the chair she’d look at my next face or show me one of hers. I switched to scary faces. First she pretended to be scared, then she mimicked me. She started simple, but her scary faces soon became sophisticated, even expert.

When it was time to put up seats and trays, I’d just delivered a real fright, something I’d learned after an errant football displaced my jaw. I could tell she was impressed. She looked sidelong at her parents, then gave me the face.

It was all I could do not to scream. I don’t remember clearly, but I think I managed to wave goodbye. It was all I could do to wave goodbye.

I was the last to disembark. I needed to know I wouldn’t see her — see that — again. Except I do, every night in my dreams.

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Today’s Practical Experiment

“So,” said the physics professor, “behind this curtain we have today’s practical experiment. And since we’ve been studying the principles of buoyancy, you might imagine that this is a tank of water.” He pulled a thick rope and the curtains parted. “You’d be right.

“What you might not have expected are the famous artists Marcel Marceau and Charlie Chaplin, here to help demonstrate. Applause, please.” The auditorium of students clapped obediently. “Now, what do you think will happen when they fall into this tank of water? Marie.”

Marie stood. “Chaplin is older — pardon, Mr Chaplin — and thinner, so I’d guess he’s denser, and will reach the bottom first.”

“Okay, anyone else want to venture a guess? Oscar.”

Oscar stood. “Marceau’s wearing tighter clothes, and Chaplin’s are baggier, so Mr Marceau will have less drag. He’ll hit bottom first.”

“Very good,” the professor said. “Show of hands, who agrees with Marie? And who agrees with Oscar? Well, let’s see.” He pulled a lever, dumping both performers into the water. Once the turbulence settled, the two men sank and touched bottom at the same moment.

“You all forgot one of the fundamental principles,” said the professor. “Great mimes sink alike.”

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Always Like This

Jordan screamed as the armor-clad skeleton took Ruby’s jaw off with an axe. Ruby, his mentor, had used that jaw just minutes ago to tell him to pucker up and enjoy the ride. He had no time to think. The abomination advanced on him, swinging its bloody axe. Only tripping backward over an ancient stone bench saved him.

Legs above him on the bench, Jordan flailed madly. He deflected the monster’s axe twice, then he pulled his knees to his chest in time to keep them from being severed when the axe cut deep into the bench.

When the skeleton stepped onto the bench to get closer, Jordan frantically pushed himself away. He must’ve kicked the bench, because the bench fell backward, toppling the skeleton forward. With the creature facedown beside him, Jordan swung his sword full-strength into the back of its neck, severing its spine. It fell still.

He lay there. The cold of the long-abandoned tunnel seeped into his back through the stiff layers of his padded jack. The scent of dust kicked up by the struggle mingled with the rich smell of Ruby’s blood. He wished he had someone to tell him it wasn’t always like this.

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Out on the Bay

“I’ve been working on a boat out on the bay.” I was sharing the bar with a down-to-earth working man, three days’ stubble, worn jeans, a beat-up denim jacket. I didn’t know he was the wrong person to tell.

He grunted. “A pretty little thing?” I laughed.

“Not a chance. Ugly as sin but safe as houses. Looks like Frankenstein’s boat maybe, but she’ll be floating when the trumpets call.”

He smiled. “Sounds like a good boat. Like to go out and get some peace and quiet?”

It was my turn to grunt. “Like anyone can find peace these days. No, my Sanctum — that’s her name — is loaded up with food and fuel, water, ammo, all that.”

He nodded and was quiet long enough for me to worry he could be an informant. Then the guy launched into his own plans, a cabin in the woods someplace, belongs to his cousin. Sounded made up to me.

It probably was. Because when shit met fan and I went to my Sanctum, she was gone. Did he tell the government? Did he wake up and smell the manure before I did, and remember my ugly little boat? Does it matter?

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Ideas Will Come

“Do it.” The woman leaned over the drafting table, looking down at the field of unspoiled white on it and the artist staring at it. She was tall, blonde, and looked endlessly cheerful.

“Not. Helping,” said the artist, a slender woman hunched over the pad, ink on her hands, hair in disarray from hours of worrying it with her hands.

“The only thing stopping you is that you aren’t starting.”

“I can’t start when I don’t have any ideas.”

“If you start, the ideas will come.” The blonde leaned in close and whispered. “That’s the great secret to inspiration. It’s that easy.”

The artist slammed her pen down. “If it’s that easy, why don’t you do it?”

“You silly!” She waved the idea away. “I’m the muse. You’re the artistic genius! Go ahead, start.” Her smile was brilliant and clueless.

The artist stared daggers at her. She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. A long moment later, she picked up her pen and put it to paper.

“That’s it,” cried the muse. “That’s how you do it!” The artist worked furiously, and the muse looked closer. “What a fascinating, hideous monster!” She paused.

“Is that me?”

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Staring Out to Sea

On a rocky spit mired in the deep blue of the ocean and smothered by the unending pale blue of the sky, only a man broke the monotonous beauty. He was still as the stone he sat on, staring out to sea.

Sometimes he thought the ocean spoke to him. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m waiting,” he said. He continued staring into the lazy waves.

The ocean lapped up against the rocks, reaching out to comfort him but never coming close enough. “What are you waiting for?”

The man was silent for a dozen heartbeats. “If I wait here, I’ll be the first to see her when she comes back.”

The ocean had to think about that for a while. A cloud rose on the horizon, a dingy white that looked to be dragging grey clouds behind it. Eventually the ocean said, “This is private property, you know.” The man just nodded, gazing out at the water, never still, never going anywhere.

After another period of silence, the ocean said, “I guess he’s harmless. C’mon, let’s go. If he’s still here tomorrow, we’ll call someone.”

Out on a rocky spit, under a sky darkening with stormclouds, a man waited.

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Nothing Comes Out

My tea grows cold as I watch the black family sitting across the aisle. The hispanic waitress bustles past, and I wonder again if I can ask her to put their bill on my tab. If there’s something I can do to let them know that I don’t agree with what’s happened. I want them to know they aren’t alone.

They probably know that already, but not about me. Lucy apologizes for the delay. I wave it off, and my smile draws a genuine smile from her. That warms me, but I wonder if she’s scared today for herself, or for someone she knows. I want to reassure her that I’m scared for her too, and for those unknown millions who will suffer. I want her to know that my skin isn’t a blank slate for others to write their hate upon.

My food comes. Twice as Lucy passes, I feel the words form in my throat, trapped behind uncertain lips. Then the family gets their check, and it’s too late. I eat quietly, then take my check to the register. I want to say something, commiserate, apologize, but nothing comes out.

I leave an exorbitant tip, and I leave.

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Faces on a Plane

She looked at me over the back of the airplane seat, her eyes weighing me with all the wisdom of her seven years. I made a face. Those eyes widened and the girl disappeared, only to reappear a moment later and smile when I made a new face.

It became a game. Whenever she popped her head back over the chair to look at my next face or show me one of hers. I switched to scary faces. First she pretended to be scared, then she mimicked me. She started simple, but her scary faces soon became sophisticated, even expert.

When it was time to put up seats and trays, I’d just delivered a real fright, something I’d learned after an errant football displaced my jaw. I could tell she was impressed. She looked sidelong at her parents, then gave me the face.

It was all I could do not to scream. I don’t remember clearly, but I think I managed to wave goodbye. It was all I could do to wave goodbye.

I was the last to disembark. I needed to know I wouldn’t see her — see that — again. Except I do, every night in my dreams.

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