#ThrowbackThursday Fiction: Undercooked #NaNoWriMo

The turkey was undercooked. Ma planned to roast it overnight, have the whole house smelling like a Thanksgiving feast by morning. But we woke up freezing, a surprise dusting of snow on the lawn, enough to slick the roads, but not enough to delay the holiday traffic.

Tony and Kerry arrived at noon, arguing again, though I’d stopped caring what for. Something about Kerry wanting to move back to Raleigh after Tony just got a promotion. Let her go. She wasn’t the one for him, but Tony married her anyway. He doesn’t listen—he never listens.

Dinner was scheduled for 1:00, but at 2:30, I sat alone by the window, watching for Gregory’s car to pull to the curb. I hadn’t seen him since his birthday a week before Halloween, and it was terrifying to see him then. He looked as if he had grown six inches. His face was fuller, half covered in a thick, coarse beard, but the rest of him was so thin and frail, he almost looked like Tony, a physical characteristic the two brothers never shared. While Tony was the spitting image of his father, both in name and appearance, Gregory favored me—the short, stubby fingers, the flat nose, the extra weight around the stomach and arms. But his arms were toned, muscular, the outline of them seen through the thin, sweat resistant shirt he wore, too cool even for mid-fall.

It was Tammi who texted me they’d be over for dinner. Gregory’s phone was off—he hadn’t paid the bill. Gregory had been missing a lot of bills lately—puzzling because his father and I taught him how to be a good steward over his finances. It was as if all of his upbringing left him the moment he met her. Over and over he asked me for money, a car note here, rent there. Tammi’s parking tickets, which I flat out refused. But I didn’t want to completely abandon him, so I slipped him change when I could. The more I gave, the less I saw of him, and when I realized he only came home for money, I stopped giving all together, and his visits became more infrequent.

Before his birthday, June was the last time I’d seen him. He’d even missed our Fourth of July family cookout in Ma’s backyard. After it got dark, we would climb up Ma’s roof and watch the fireworks shot off from the high school football field while enjoying burnt hotdogs and Carolina burgers with chili and slaw. It had been a family tradition since Antonio, Sr. was alive. No one ever skipped it, rain or shine.

I could hear Ma scrambling in the kitchen. Not much to cook with a twenty pound bird taking up most of the oven, but we had to eat something—it was Thanksgiving after all. With a shrunken menu, the sweet potato casserole, became plain stovetop yams, the mac and cheese from a box, the dressing stuffed inside the turkey to cook them both at the same time, while on the back burners, the greens boiled.

Ma kicked me out of the kitchen shortly after she realized she never turned the oven on last night. “You know you’ve never been a cook,” she said. “You’ll only slow me down.” I was given the assignment to make Tony and Kerry chicken salad sandwiches—the salad already prepared, all I had to do was spread it over the bread—to hold them over to dinner and hopefully to quell their arguing.

And it worked. We had silence for a while . . . until Tammi and her mother showed up.

Without Gregory.

I had never met Jacquelyn. She’d tried to introduce herself several times before—calling to explain why she had allowed my son to live with her and her daughter in their overcrowded trailer, knocking on my door in the middle of the night to tell me she’d kicked them out. The vibrations in her voice told me she was nothing but drama then, and now she was standing right before me expecting a free meal, and she didn’t even bother to bring Gregory with her. And the striking resemblance between her and Tammi—how old was she when she had her? Any stranger would think they were sisters.

“Where’s my son?” I had no interest in shaking hands, fake smiles, or “how do you do’s.” These people overstayed their welcome the second they stepped foot on Ma’s front porch.

“He at work.” Tammi smacked her lips. Her nonchalant attitude quickly got under my skin.

“I was expecting to spend Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I don’t know you.”

Tammi’s mother reached out her hand. “Hi I’m Jacqui—”

“And I don’t care to!” I snapped.

Ma entered, putting the oven mitts she was wearing under her arm. “We may need another hour. That turkey just won’t cook.” When she noticed the tense atmosphere at her front door, she said, “Who’s this?”

“Tammi, and Jacqui,” I cut my eyes at the mother, “decided to invite themselves without Gregory.”

“Where’s Gregory?” Ma asked.

“He had to work,” Jacqui answered.

“On Thanksgiving?”

Jacqui started to say something, but quickly closed her mouth. By the way they shrugged their shoulders, avoided eye contact, it was obvious they were lying. But if he wasn’t at work, where was he?

I heard Tony barge down the hall, and I knew things would quickly escalate with him in the room.

“You know they’re getting married, right?”

“Who?”

Tony pointed to Tammi.

“Yea, we engaged.” Tammi shrugged her shoulders, flashed the small diamond on her left hand.

A ring? He bought her a ring? With what money?

I remembered those times he called, whining that his lights were about to get turned off, that he would be evicted if he didn’t pay rent by the end of the week, that he couldn’t afford to have his car repossessed because then he’d have no way to get to work. Were they all lies? The money I’d been giving him—a little here, a little there—had he been collecting it until he had enough to buy a ring and propose? No, no. Heaven forbid I inherit another lethargic, unappreciative daughter-in-law like Kerry, who had secluded herself away in the dining room to pretend she was crying.

Instinctively, I clawed at Tammi’s hand, snatching off the ring I paid for and a thin layer of skin along with it. She yanked my arm back with one hand— with much more force than her petite frame would lead anyone to believe— and with the other hand, slapped me clear across the face. There was shouting and screaming, and at some point Kerry finally appeared in the kitchen doorway behind Ma.

I felt Tony’s arms around my waist. He and Jacqui pulled Tammi and I apart, and backing up, I tripped over Tony’s size thirteen shoe and hit the side of my back on the back of the couch, re-agitating a muscle I’d pulled a few weeks ago when moving around the furniture in Gregory’s room.

“I ain’t gon stay where I’m not wanted!” Tammi was screaming.

“Then why the fuck are you still here?” Tony yelled.

Suddenly the smoke detector in the kitchen went off, setting off all the others in the house, including the one in the living room right above our heads. The piercing peal silenced us for several seconds.

Ma rushed back into the kitchen, brushing past Kerry. “Jesus, Kerry, you don’t smell my greens burning?” I could hear her in the kitchen stirring the pot, adding water and flicking off the heat to the burner. She grabbed a hand towel and begin flapping it under the detector to clear the smoke.

When the noise finally ceased, I looked directly at Tammi. “You need to leave.”

“Gladly.” She turned around and kicked open the screen door, making a sound like ripped metal and leaving behind a dent in the bottom left corner. Jacqui stayed behind for a brief moment, as if considering an apology, but quickly spun around and followed her daughter to the car. I shut the door behind them and noticed the engagement ring on the floor—it must have fallen out of my hand during the scuffle. I quickly kicked it away. The sight of it disgusted me.

“She’ll be back when she realizes it’s gone,” Kerry mumbled.

“Oh, now you got something to say? Where were you when that bitch was hittin’ my mama?” Tony shouted.

Kerry rolled her eyes and turned away. “I’m not arguing with you, Tony.”

“But you gon listen!” He stormed past me—my throbbing face obviously not too much of a concern—to finish his tirade with Kerry from earlier.

Ma returned from the kitchen, her shoulders hunched. She looked just as defeated as I felt. “Why not Chinese? They’re always open on Thanksgiving. I don’t think I can save this dinner.”

“There’s still the turkey and stuffing.”

“That won’t be for another hour. You know my old stomach has to eat early. I’m feeling lightheaded already.”

I tried to force a smile, but my face was so tight, I probably looked constipated. “Why don’t you sit, and I’ll make us some chicken salad sandwiches.”

“Can we eat them outside? I’m sick of those two yelling, and I need to cool off.”

I nodded and looked back to the window. Eating outside would only make me more anxious about Gregory, wondering if every car that drove by was him. I shook my head. No, there was no sense in waiting for him anymore. He wasn’t coming. And Tammi would surely tell him what happened here. Then, after that, I don’t think he will ever come home.

—Nortina


Happy Throwback Turkey Day! Since we are approaching the homestretch of NaNoWriMo, I thought today’s Thanksgiving Throwback should be a scene from my A to Z planning session earlier this year, featuring characters from my NaNoWriMo novel, Lost Boy.
Originally published April 25, 2017.

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First Date Jitters

Jessica could always tell when seafood wasn’t fresh. It had a distinctly sour smell to it, like it’d spent the last three days thawing on ice in a warm cooler with a broken seal. Jessica wrinkled her nose as soon as they entered the restaurant and plastered a phony smile when Whitmore turned to her for validation. He’d said it was his favorite restaurant to eat, had the best fried catfish in town, and she didn’t want to disappoint him on their first date, despite hating catfish, but the place was rank—like Bradford pear tree blossoms, rank; like wet mutt, rank; like a trash heap that missed garbage collection, rank; like dirty panties tossed in the hamper, rank; like an unclean crotch, rank; like a common area bathroom in an all girls dorm after the residents’ menstrual cycles synced, rank.

Whoever had decorated the interior was obviously an ex-employee of Red Lobster and didn’t give a damn about his job. The walls were covered in a tacky nautical wall paper—complete with images of anchors, sailor hats, compasses, telescopes, and steering helms—and was peeling at corners. There was an eight-foot long fish tank sitting in the middle of lobby, right next to the hostess stand, and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. The water was a murky dark green, and Jessica could barely see the brown shells of the crabs moving around inside, if they were moving at all—they looked dead. She made a note not to order the crab legs—probably best to avoid all shellfish, and she damn sure won’t eat the catfish. She wondered what non-seafood options were on the menu. Every eatery had to have at least two, for those stubborn patrons like her who refused to order seafood at a seafood restaurant. She flipped to land entrees. Fried pork chop with garlic mash, and chicken Alfredo. The only setback about ordering “turf” at a restaurant that served mostly “surf,” the food still tasted like “surf,” because the chicken was cooked in the same pan with the seared fish fillets, the pork chop battered and fried in the same grease as the trout, flounder, and whiting. She settled on the popcorn shrimp, accepting her inevitable fate of mercury poisoning, while Whitmore ordered the catfish.

Unfortunately, it took over an hour for their food to arrive. The kitchen couldn’t have possibly been backed up, but the reality was the restaurant was crowded, overcrowded even; there were people packed in the lobby like sardines waiting on a table. Whitmore had actually called ahead to make reservations. Reservations, for a place like this, which couldn’t have had more that a B+ sanitation rating. But he’d gotten them a good table, despite sitting directly underneath a vent that was blasting cold air, giving her goosebumps across her shoulders. However, they were away from most of the chatter of the larger parties, and thank God out of sight of that horrendous fish tank, where she would certainly lose her appetite.

They used the extended wait time to get to know each other more, though Jessica did most of the talking, babbling on and on about herself while Whitmore listened intently, nodding and laughing at all the right pause points. He was a good listener, which made him even more attractive—that he was intrigued to know every detail about her—but then she started to think he couldn’t hear her, because the couple at the table behind them had three young boys who were kicking, squealing, and rough housing in the booth while the parents ate absently as if they didn’t notice or care. In the few moments when Whitmore spoke, it was as if he were whispering. She asked him more than once to speak up, they weren’t in a library, but he still spoke in a low voice, and she leaned in closer to get a least a fragment of his words.

When the food finally came out, Whitmore dove into his plate, and Jessica hesitated. Her French fries where soggy and a burnt gold color, as if they’d been fried in old grease, or possibly fish grease. No coating of ketchup could save them, but even the ketchup was acidic and watered down. The hushpuppies were fried hard, and the shrimp was more breading than meat and extremely salty. She’d had better meals at Libby Hill.

“How’s your food?” she asked Whitmore when his plate was nearly empty.

She thought he might have said good, but truly she couldn’t hear a thing, and before he could mumble anything else, his mouth full of the last bites of what looked to be dry, overcooked catfish, there was a loud crash and shattering of dishes by the kitchen. A waitress had just dropped her entire ticket on the floor, right at the feet of the six-top she was about to serve, and was on the brink of tears.

Jessica sighed. There was too much chaos in this restaurant, and for the subpar food, it wasn’t worth the trouble. She’d had better dates with worse men, but she wanted to give Whitmore the benefit of the doubt. At least he was trying.

“How about I chose the where for our next date,” she suggested.

Whitmore smiled and nodded, but Jessica suspected he had no idea what she’d just said.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  today’s prompt, “Sumptuous Settings,” asks us to get descriptive, very descriptive, using all five senses…

Peace in Trials

“They keep killing our boys. It’s like a genocide out there!” Stella was saying. Behind her the tea kettle whistled, clouds of steam shooting from its spout. She took the kettle by the handle and poured the boiling water into two mugs already prepped with a teabag, two packets of Splenda, and a lemon wedge.

“Did you hear about the last shooting? He was only seventeen years old. A child!” She slammed her fist down on the table and the water in the mugs rippled.

“Mama, please,” Leslie said. She covered her mug with a saucer to allow the tea to steep.

“I just don’t understand this shoot first ask questions later mentality. You see a black man walking down the street, and you automatically assume he’s dangerous—his presence is life-threatening.” Stella dropped a spoon in her “World’s #1 Grandma” mug and stirred the ingredients together. Leslie remembered the year Tony and Gregory pulled their allowances together to buy the mug for Stella. They were young, around nine and seven. Having just learned there was such thing as a Grandparents Day, they wanted to surprise Stella, the only living grandparent they had left, with a special gift.

Now Tony barely paid rent to his grandmother, and Gregory hadn’t been home in weeks since moving in with Tammi. Leslie wished they were boys again, who still honored and eagerly showed their appreciation for the women who raised them, not like the entitled children of this generation, who lacked any type of respect for authority. Even if the cops did abuse their power, most of those kids deserved a few slaps upside the head.

Stella ladled some of the tea onto her spoon, blew on it, puckered her lips and slurped. She quickly wiped her mouth from the heat, then stood and took another Splenda packet from the spice cabinet. She sprinkled it into her mug and continued with her tirade. “You shoot a boy nine times in the back as he’s running away from you and then try to say you feared for your life. You? Really? While another baby is lying dead in the street? I thought the police were here to protect and serve the people, not execute them.”

“Mama!” Leslie pleaded. She massaged her temples with her middle and index fingers. She didn’t want to hear about any more cop killings. Not with Gregory MIA, not with Tony and his anger issues. Her family was at risk as it was, and with Gregory living in Pleasant’s Edge, where the police could murder without consequence—no one would miss a dead body in Pleasant’s Edge; it was the South Side Chicago of Leiland—Leslie spent most nights wide awake, deep in prayer, chanting in her prayer language for the Lord to keep His angels encamped around her sons for protection.

“You can’t expect an old woman not to worry about these things,” Stella grumbled. She took her mug and walked to the living room, where she sat on the couch by the window, leaving Leslie alone in the kitchen.

Leslie traced the tip of her finger around the rim of her mug. We all worry, she thought, we can’t help but to. Even Stella, who had witnessed the atrocities of Jim Crow and of the Civil Rights era, worries, even more now with a president in office who encourages hate speech. Each day, we become more and more endangered. When will it end? When will the killings, the injustice, the fear and worry all end? She hadn’t had a night of sweet sleep in a long time. It would be nice to get one now, assurance from God that everything happens for a purpose, despite all the uncertainty in their lives. “Jesus, give us peace,” Leslie prayed, “peace from all the troubles of this world. We need it. We need You.” She sipped her tea.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to continue in world-building but from a societal aspect. It was hard to get a story out for this prompt, and I’m not totally in love with this scene, but hey, at least I wrote something. Hopefully this is the end of the novel prompts, because I feel I’ve written all I can write about these characters. If you must know more about my novel in progress, check out my 2017 A to Z Challenge from the beginning here.

On the Other Side

Leslie loved the fresh greenery of Leiland’s street corners. A few years ago, the mayor began a “Beautify Our City” initiative. Every weekend, citizens from all walks of life—the seniors who still had enough pep in their movement to walk and bend without suffering, to the middle-aged and working class, to the high school students looking for extra volunteer hours—they all joined together as one body on assignment, Mayor Richardson heading the brigade, to plant grass, small trees and shrubs, and flowers, including daffodils, lilies, chrysanthemums, lilacs, azaleas, and daisies, along the roadways and on the medians throughout town.

The goal was to make Leiland feel more welcoming to those outside of town, especially travelers coming off Highway 87, where they would often endure miles and miles of gray road, overgrown weeds just off the shoulder, and the noise blocking walls built up behind them—hardly any appealing sight to witness at all apart from the occasional billboard advertising fast food at the next exit. Mayor Richardson had hoped the new vegetation would invite visitors to stay awhile, get to know this quiet, quaint little town, and maybe even decide to make it their permanent place of residence.

Leslie couldn’t say if the population of Leiland actually grew as a result, but she could testify to the initiative being a definite success, at least for her. For she often resolved to walk to places rather than drive just to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the city’s flora, smelling the blossoming azaleas in the cool, early Spring breeze, just in time for annual azalea festival in Wilmington every April.

But today was different. She drove on the outskirts of town and watched out the window as the precious green vegetation of Leiland transitioned to the cool dankness of concrete and red clay, and then she passed the sign: “Welcome to Pleasant’s Edge”; it was anything but pleasant.

She turned to Gregory, who sat next to her in the passenger’s seat. He was quiet most of the ride, only speaking up to direct her where to turn. Leslie tried not to worry about him—what was going on in his personal life, why he had dropped out of college after finishing just one semester—she wanted him to know that no matter what he did, she would always support him; he was her son after all. She only wished he would speak to her more and try not to take Tony’s abuses so personally; his brother’s unfiltered mouth being the only reason Leslie could think of for why Gregory never wanted to stay home.

“You know Tony and Kerry will be moving out soon,” Leslie said. “Your grandmother’s giving them one of her rental homes.”

He said nothing, only rested his elbow on the door handle, put his chin in his hand and continued to look through the window. What was he thinking? Would he even tell her?

Leslie sighed. She’d thought the news would at least get a reaction from him. To know that all the noise of Tony and Kerry arguing, and Tony taking all of his anger and frustrations out on his quiet and reserved little brother would finally cease. Then it would only be Leslie and Gregory left in the house, and they could seize the opportunity to repair their relationship, restore that tightly weaved mother-son bond they once shared when Gregory was a child, before his father passed.

“It’s just up here.” Gregory pointed right of the intersection just ahead, and Leslie turned into a dilapidated trailer park, where the siding on the houses cracked in places and the roofs either slanted or sunk in. On one home she even spotted the clean entry point of a bullet hole in one of windows, the glass cracked in a spider web-like pattern surrounding it. To her right, on the other side of the street, a barbed wire fence stood at about seven feet tall and extended down to just beyond where she could see an end. Posted on the front of the fence, every twenty feet or so, were “No Trespassing—Authorized Personnel Only ” signs. Behind the fence, a mound of gray rubble, just as wide as the fence itself, towered over the neighborhood.

“Please don’t tell me she lives here,” Leslie said as she put the gear in park. She regretted making this drive without first considering where she was taking him. She had been so desperate to get Gregory to trust her again and open up to her that she had been willing to take him to the home of a girlfriend she’d never even met, and it had to be in the worst part of Cumberland county, to further worry her. Pleasant’s Edge wasn’t known for its herbaceous greenery like Leiland, or for its friendly neighbors exchanging pleasantries. Pleasant’s Edge was infested with crime and rampant drug use. More people were dying of gang violence and heroin overdoses in Pleasant’s Edge than in anywhere else in North Carolina, and Leslie had just dropped her youngest son off at its front step. Was he in any of those things also?

“At least tell me this girl’s name,” Leslie said as Gregory opened the door to get out.

“Tammi,” he said. No details on who Tammi was, how they met, how long they’d been seeing each other, if she was a sweet and respectful young lady—though her environment warned that she was anything but. Nothing to give Leslie a clear indication of who she’d just handed her son over to, other than a single name: Tammi.

“Will you call me to come pick you up later?” Leslie asked, but she wanted “later” to be now. She wanted for Gregory to get back in the car and they speed off back to Leiland, back to safety, back to the cover of precious trees and flowers and herbs, symbolizing a city that cared, before he got into any more trouble, which he would surely find here.

“Nah, I’ll have Tammi’s mom take me home.” Gregory slammed the door behind him and crossed in front of the car to the yard of the trailer Leslie had parked in front off.

Leslie started to roll down her window to ask when he thought that would be. She feared it would be another week before she saw him again. Granted he was old enough to make his own decisions now, she wanted to remind him that he still had a home to come back to. He shouldn’t feel obligated to shack up with this girl in poverty as if he had lost everything, including all hope and all dignity.

As he walked up the driveway, she heard something shatter underneath his foot, and he briefly stepped with a limp before regaining his stamina and continuing to the house at a quicker pace to disappear in the darkness behind the open door.

Leslie remained parked in front of the trailer, wondering if anyone from the household would come out to greet her. Was it just Tammi who lived there, or were there others? Did she have roommates? Were her parents the actual homeowners? Leslie knew she couldn’t linger any longer, the indigenous folk would start to suspect something wrong. Already she could see through her rearview mirror, two men in all black, wearing black du-rags tied around their heads, approaching the car. She looked back to the trailer, where the door was now closed, and her eyes fell to the shattered glass on the sidewalk. She floored the gas without thinking, without realizing what she’d just left her son to. She wanted to erase it from her mind, but there was no way she’d be able to rest that night knowing that a broken crack pipe lay just outside the home she had allowed her son to enter.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to shape our characters’ physical world. For this one, we switch back to Leslie and “Lost Boy” to take a glimpse into the stark contrasts between the towns of Leiland and Pleasant’s Edge just next door. To learn more about my novel in progress, “Lost Boy,” read my 2017 A to Z Challenge from the beginning here.

First Impression

He was cute—kind of short, and a little shy, but cute. He handed her a red plastic cup filled with spiked Hawaiian punch and invited her out onto the patio, away from the crowd. It was thirty-eight degrees outside, and an inch of snow dusted the wood floor of the porch, but Jessica followed him outside, without a jacket or sleeves, to escape the noise of the housewarming party. Two more guests had arrived, and her ears were beginning to ring from the twenty separate conversations going on around her, topped by a woman she had yet to identify, who had a hyena’s cackle for a laugh.

Jessica exhaled in relief, watched the steam of her breath dance and swirl above her head in the frigid air. She flung her arms over the banister and laid her face into the damp snow. “Ahhh, peace and quiet,” she said.

“You know, I read somewhere that thick, fluffy snow can actually absorb sound. Something about how the ice crystals in the snowflakes are made up. That’s why it always seems so quiet after a fresh snowfall,” he was babbling. It was adorable how nervous he was.

“What are you, a nerd or something?” Jessica joked.

He stretched out his hand. “Whitmore.” When Jessica only raised an eyebrow, he added, “Ok, I guess the name kind of confirms it.”

Jessica smiled—he has a sense of humor. “Sorry,” she said, “It’s just—that’s not what I heard inside.”

“I can’t imagine what you heard inside. If you could even hear anything at all. By the way, that woman with the obnoxiously loud laugh…”

“Oh my god, who is that?”

“Tonia. She’s the one in the red dress and has long curly hair. She’s my roommate’s girlfriend. That’s who I came with.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry you have to deal with that!” Jessica giggled and took at sip from her cup. Whitmore put his arm over her shoulder, pulled her into him in a bear-like side hug, and laughed into her ear. She wasn’t sure if her actions has invited him in for the close physical contact, but she didn’t push him away either. She settled in against his hip, and they turned toward the closed patio doors and watched the party silently continue inside, everyone’s lips moving but no sound coming out. It was calming.

“So how do you know the new homeowners?” Whitmore asked.

Jessica shrugged. She couldn’t say she knew anyone at the party. She’d come with Alex, but Alex ditched her the second they walked in to go mingle with Rebecca and her guests. Rebecca was purely Alex’s friend. They grew up together, were BFFs in high school, and followed each other to Queens University in Charlotte, where the three of them had attended college. Jessica never liked Rebecca, but she put up with her for Alex’s sake. Truth be told, Jessica thought Rebecca was a sneaky, unapologetic slut, and she stole Jessica’s boyfriend freshman year, the same guy she’d just bought this grandiose, three-story house with, patio, spacious back yard, and five-foot deep swimming pool included.

“Old friends,” Jessica finally answered, but if Whitmore had asked Rebecca’s fiancé, Jonathan, he probably would have said he didn’t know Jessica at all, having forgotten their four expensive dates together as broke college students to the African American Art Museum and Discovery Place in uptown, Scarowinds, and the movie theatre at Concord Mills, where they watched Wolfman and Jessica spent most of the time hiding behind Jonathan’s shoulder. He’d even forgotten their drunken make-out session on Alex’s futon. Jessica couldn’t get out of there fast enough, embarrassment written all over her face. Whitmore had swooped in just in the nick of time to save her.

“I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you are a very beautiful woman.”

It sounded awkward coming out of his mouth, as if he struggled to find the right words, but Jessica accepted the compliment, since most men couldn’t respectfully talk to a woman anyway—“Aye, sexy!” and “You bad!” being their common cat calls, as if that would merit them seven digits.

Would he ask her for her phone number next? She could only expect it.

“So do you live nearby?” he said instead.

“In these uppity ‘burbs?” Jessica rolled her neck sarcastically. “No, I live closer to town.”

They were quiet for several moments. Whitmore bounced his leg, shaking Jessica with him. She was attracted to his shyness—it was a relief from all the entitled men she was used to, who assumed they could con her out of sex without bothering to get to know her or even pursue a relationship. Still, she wished he would just ask her out already, before they missed their window of opportunity. Eventually someone would notice they were missing.

Inside she spotted Alex walking toward the doors. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Where the hell have you been?” They were caught. Whitmore must have seen her too, because he stiffened and quickly removed his arm from around her. Jessica couldn’t help but chuckle; he really was a gentleman. She turned to face him, and his eyes revealed a hint of apprehension.

“Relax,” she purred. She placed her palm on the center of his chest and felt his heart racing.

“Beautiful woman make me nervous,” he said.

“That’s obvious.” She leaned in closer to him, put her lips to his ear. “Find me before you leave,” she said, and swiftly turned around and rejoined Alex, and the noise, and the party. She took one last look over her shoulder. Whitmore remained on the patio. He kept his eyes on his feet, but she noticed a smile slowly creep across his face. She had him. She only hoped he would muster the courage to seek her out after the party. She would gladly write her number down on his palm, slip it into his pocket before anyone saw them.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to  imagine the first meeting between our protagonist and a secondary character. I chose Jessica and Whitmore, because, well, at one point he was a likeable guy, right? Jessica did chose to date him afterall. Unfortunately, when you give a mouse a cookie…

This week of SSAD prompts has really inspired me to bring my first novella, “Love Poetry,” back to life. I’ll talk more in depth about my plans for the story in a later post, but if you want to learn more about the characters, Whitmore, Jessica, Alex, and Bruce, check out my 2015 A to Z novella

Impossible to Refuse

“You did what!” Alex’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. She’d always had wide eyes though, appearing surprised by everything. That day she wore color contacts, which puzzled Jessica because Alex had 20/20 vision and her eyes were already green, thanks to the wide color spectrum of her multiracial heritage.

Jessica shook her head. She needed to focus. This wasn’t about Alex’s eyes, although she wanted to ask if they were drying in the chilly breeze, if it hurt to blink because her eyelids didn’t stretch down far enough. Even now they seemed to be protruding further from her head, as if they were being drawn out the more upset Alex became, similar to the wooden fibber Pinocchio and his lengthening nose.

“He followed me to the bathroom, what was I supposed to say?”

“Uh, ‘Get out!'” Alex rolled her eyes, and they looked as if they would roll right out and onto the grated picnic table. “You know they got laws for that now. Don’t really know how they’ll ever expect to enforce ’em, but the truth of the matter is they’re there. And they’re there to protect stupid women like you from making dumb ass decisions with creepy ass men like Whitmore.”

“I really don’t think that’s what the lawmakers had in mind.”

“Jess!” Alex grabbed the edge of the table and shook it, rattling the silverware on top of their empty plates, the ice in their glasses. “You’re missing the point. You told me you were going to break up with him.”

“It was our two-year anniversary. I couldn’t hurt him like that.”

“Then you lie and tell him you want to remain friends, you don’t accept his marriage proposal!”

It sounded insane hearing it said out loud, but Alex wasn’t there. She couldn’t begin to understand Whitmore’s strategy. She remembered all those nights they’d fought about his need to always be in control. Jessica was a grown woman. She shouldn’t have to check in by text every night to assure him she would answer whenever he called, she shouldn’t have to tell him she loved him a certain number of times before he finally believed her. She didn’t appreciate behind compared to his cheating ex-girlfriend, even down to how they styled their hair.

“If I remind you so much of her, why do you stick around?” she’d demanded.

“Because I love you. Does that mean nothing to you, that I love you? That I want to make us work? That I’ll do anything to make us work?”

And it was the way he always made her feel so guilty. As if he was doing everything right, and she was the one being unreasonable. As if he was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and she was stubbornly ungrateful. As if he was the only boyfriend who cared enough to make sure she was satisfied first when they made love, who would buy her the entire world without her even having to ask, who would grovel and kiss her feet not because he wanted forgiveness for something he did wrong but because he worshiped the ground she walked on. No man would ever love Jessica as desperately as Whitmore loved her, and didn’t she want that? Didn’t all women want to be loved unconditionally, incessantly, adored body, mind, and soul, by the men in their lives?

“Well, he loves me. Is that so bad? And maybe, with more time, I could grow…”

“No! No!” Alex pressed her knuckle against her ears. “I’m not hearing this. I’m not hearing this.” She dropped her hands in her lap. “I mean, dammit, Jessica, did he brainwash you too.” Her dad’s Italian roots were beginning to show. Her voice rose a level higher, became edgier. Once again all eyes were on Jessica’s table. Despite their sitting outside, the traffic from the street across from the café where they’d just had brunch was doing little to drown out their conversation. Alex lifted her hands again and waved them in parallel motion, front to back, side to side, as she spoke. “Whitmore doesn’t love you,” she continued. “He’s obsessed with the idea of loving someone, and you just happen to be the unfortunate girl he’s latched onto.”

“That’s a little much, don’t you think?”

Alex held up five fingers. “Let me finish.”

Jessica shrugged. She tried to ignore the glint shining in her eyes from the sun’s reflection in the diamond jewel on her engagement ring. She rolled it around her finger so that it faced the table and all she saw was the studded band. It was easier to pretend it wasn’t there then.

“When you love someone, you know them,” Alex was saying. “Or at least you make it a point to try to get to know them as much as you can. Whitmore knows nothing about you.”

“How do you figure?”

“First of all, he took you to a fondue restaurant, and you’re lactose intolerant! If Whitmore loved you so much, he would know that cheese, or chocolate, or anything with milk in it makes you gassy as hell. And then he followed you to the bathroom that you just funked up with all your farting to ask you again to marry him? Who does that? No girl wants to get proposed to after she’s just stunk up a bathroom. She wants it to be romantic, memorable. She at least wants to smell fresh! Tell me y’all didn’t have sex too.”

Jessica burst out laughing.

Alex rolled her eyes, which only made Jessica laugh harder at how they were a nudge away from being popped out.

“I’m glad you think this is funny. We’ll see how much you’re laughing when Whitmore decides y’all have to live together. You really think he’ll wait till after the wedding to start on baby Whitney?”

Jessica’s phone buzzed in her purse that was slung across the back of her chair. She twisted around, took it out of the front pocket, and looked down at the screen. It was Whitmore.

Alex smirked. “Speak of the devil.”

Jessica hesitated to answer. She didn’t want to admit to Alex that after she’d told Whitmore yes, he’d given her a key to his apartment too. “We’re building a new life together now. There’s no reason why we should still live separately,” he’d said. And again she couldn’t think of a way to refuse him. She had already accepted his proposal—how could she be ready to spend the rest of her live with him, forever and ever, if she wasn’t willing to come home to his bed now?

“Where are you?” He spoke through his nose. A sign he had grown impatient. Impatient of what? Had she not passed his ultimate test?

“Just having brunch with Alex.” She could hear him sigh on the other end. He never liked Alex, and she made no secret that she disliked him too and would do everything in her power to break them up. She couldn’t fault Alex for that. She was only looking out for her best friend. She only wanted what was best for Jessica, especially since Jessica hadn’t figured out what “best for her” even meant.

“Are you almost done? I have a surprise for you back at your place.”

Her place? That was right; she had given him a key, contingent on emergencies only, because she didn’t want him to get in the habit of popping over whenever he wanted, even though he did it anyway, because to Whitmore anything was an emergency. Jessica tried to feign excitement in her voice anyway. “What kind of surprise?”

“You’ll just have to see when you get here. Don’t keep me waiting. Love you, beautiful.”

Jessica hung up the phone, then clutched it in her fist and groaned when she realized she didn’t say I love you back. She would pay for that when she got home. Perhaps Whitmore would be too eager to show her the surprise to even let her slip up bother him. After all, they were engaged to be married now; Whitmore could finally be satisfied with the love she was willing to give him, not all-consuming like his but enough, she hoped.

Jessica’s stomach began to bubble again, and the food she’d just woofed down—overly sweet strawberry pancakes with cream cheese filling— rose at the back of her esophagus. It was unlikely Whitmore would ever relent his controlling love over her. If anything, now that he had her sealed, he would get worse.

“Rushing home to daddy?” Alex asked as Jessica gathered her things.

“Stop,” Jessica said.

“I just want you to be happy, Jess. Can you honestly say that he makes you happy.”

“Name one couple you know that’s actually genuinely happy in their marriage,” Jessica snapped. People doing get married to be happy, and if they do, they have a lot to turn. Marriage doesn’t guarantee happiness, or fulfillment, or even freedom. They were both products of divorced parents; they knew full well.

“Just do me a favor.” Alex took the pen from the bill booklet the waitress had left on the table and scribbled a series of numbers on one of her unused napkins. “There’s this guy who works at the station. Great guy, hilarious. You’d love him.” She put the napkin in Jessica’s hand. “Call him when you get over this façade love with Whitmore.”

Jessica blew air through her cheeks, but she nodded, took the napkin and stuffed it away in her purse to forget about it. She didn’t want to alert her friend that she was in too deep, there was no saving her after this.

She took the long route home, but still arrived five minutes earlier than she wanted to. A U-haul truck was backed into a parking spot right outside her apartment. Boxes surrounded the back of the truck, and she wonder which one of her neighbor’s was moving out, until she saw two men carrying her couch into the trailer. She sprang out of the car. Her apartment was open, and Whitmore was standing in the doorway. She ran to him.

“Whitmore, what the hell?” she breathed.

He didn’t answer, only clasped her face in his hands and lowered his head to kiss her. He slipped his tongue between her lips and pushed further into her mouth, their teeth knocking. He stayed there long, steady, rolling his neck as he kissed her. When he finally pulled back, Jessica gagged for air.

“Don’t you have something to tell me?” he asked.

“What?” Jessica said after a series of coughs. She could still taste him, a trail of his saliva sliding down her tongue back to her throat. She swallowed and gagged again when the hint of flat SunDrop rose to her mouth again.

“When we talked on the phone, I think we might have gotten disconnected.” He waited for her to confirm. “I told you I loved you, and…”

“I love you too?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

She couldn’t answer.

“Do you love me?”

No

“Jessica?”

He was starting to whine like a child, and Jessica had to put her foot down. Things were moving too fast. It was like the earth was spinning triple its rotation. She felt dizzy, like she would faint at any moment, but she gathered her composure, tried to remain as level headed as possible—one of them had to be.

“Whitmore, where are you taking all of my things?”

“To my place. Whatever doesn’t fit we’ll put in storage.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Jessica blurted.

“You said your were ready to live with me.”

“I didn’t mean today! I can’t just up and move without giving notice. I still have five month left on my lease.”

“Can’t you sublease? And if not, I’ll just take care of the bill until it’s up. Jessica, I want you with me. I want you all to myself. Don’t you think I deserve that?” He didn’t give her a chance to answer. He kissed her, harder this time. When she tried to break free, he cupped the back of her head and pulled her closer, his larger, wider nose blocked the airways to her nostrils. With his tongue deep inside her mouth again, she had no alternative to breath. He was suffocating her.

He took her arms and put them around his neck. With his lips still locked with hers, all she could do was moan, which sent him the wrong message. He scooped her up, wrapping her legs around his waist and carried her back to the bedroom where only her box spring remained— her mattress, bed frame, and all other furniture, including the clothes that hung in her closet, she presumed, had all been packed away in the U-haul. He laid her down on the box spring and stood over her.

“Whitmore,” she gasped. Her lips felt tender to the touch, almost to the point of blistering.

“Shhhh,” he said, and lowered himself on top of her, locking their lips again so she couldn’t speak.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to write a story in which our protagonist makes the other choice. Picking up where we left off yesterday with Whitmore and Jessica, what if Jessica actually said yes? What if Alex never set Jessica up on a blind date? What if there was never a Bruce to sweep Jessica off her feet and steal her away from Whitmore? How would the story develop then? 

If you want to learn more about the characters, Whitmore, Jessica, and Bruce, check out my 2015 A to Z novella

Love Poetry

“I know how much you love poetry, so I wrote you a poem.” Whitmore bent on one knee and pulled a sheet of paper folded into quarters from his back pocket.

Jessica stared at him. She wondered if she was making a face. He complained that she always made faces when he did something special and romantic. And tonight was special. Tonight was romantic. He’d reserved a table for them at the Melting Pot. A single rose placed on top of the menu greeted her when she sat. Inside the menu, not one entrée was under thirty dollars, yet they still had to cook the food. They were in a side room of the restaurant, separated by a sheer curtain. The area was secluded for lovers only, intimately lit by dim candlelight and shaded wall lamps. Each table sat two, and as the centerpiece, a single burner for the shareable fondue as the appetizer, and the broth to prepare their entrée.

It was their two-year anniversary, and that made her nervous. For the last month, Whitmore had been talking about marriage, about kids. That morning while in bed, he listed off baby girl names—Whitney being his favorite—made plans for how to raise her—dance recitals, beauty pageants. He knew nothing about women, about teaching little girls, yet he wanted one more than anything, while she couldn’t decide if she even wanted to be a mother to his child.

“Whitmore, wait,” Jessica said. Two years. Two years she’s been with him, and for a year and a half it felt more like an obligation. Could she manage another two years, or twenty? A lifetime. Whitmore was manipulative in preserving their relationship, even when he knew that his love for her was much greater than hers for him.

“When the sun sets, I still have light,” he began to recite.

Jessica tried to smile, but her lips were chapped from the cold weather, and under the tension and pull of her curled lips, the dry skin split at the center. She ran her tongue along her bottom lip. She folded it into her mouth and sucked the blood, metallic against her taste buds.

“Because your moon brightens my nights.”

She wanted to laugh. Whitmore hated poetry. It was one of the many things they didn’t have in common. Opposites attract, they say, but sometime she wondered if she and Whitmore were just too incompatible. When they first met at a mutual friend’s housewarming, she’d told him that she wrote poetry as a hobby, and he replied, “Like roses and violets? Seems kind of elementary.” Elementary was the poem he read now. Anyone could rhyme, but where was the compassion? Where was his care in choosing the perfect words to express his feelings?

He never wanted to learn the complexity of true love poetry. She worked as an assistant events coordinator in the downtown art district. They held poetry readings every weekend, for both amateur poets and the contemporary ones who had books published. He turned down her invites to readings, his excuse being he’d forget to snap instead of clap. It was a joke to him, and ultimately his needs were more important that her love for literature and art. When she gave him a translated anthology of her favorite Pablo Neruda poems for Valentine’s Day, he tossed it on the bed without reading the first page, wanting sex instead. It was rough, robotic, just like his poem.

“My precious angel descended from Heaven above…”

Jessica grew more uncomfortable. The room was quiet. Four other couples sat at the surrounding tables, and they all watched. Whitmore loved to make their relationship public. It was easier to get Jessica to bend his way when they had an audience. In public, he was sweet, the perfect gentleman. In public, he gave his girlfriend the world, treated her like a queen. PDA make-out sessions, extended posts of total devotion on social media, poetic restaurant proposals. How could she say no?

“…saved me from the heartache of unrequited love.”

Jessica flinched. He was only using poetry to soften her, to get her to say yes. It only infuriated her, but could she really deny him in front of his audience? For two years she’d been saying yes reluctantly, but this was her life now, and she couldn’t leave it in the hands of his controlling emotional love.

He reached behind his back again and revealed a small velvet box. A gasp escaped the mouth of the woman at the adjacent table, probably expecting a proposal herself, but Jessica sat still.

Would he really do this? Embarrass them both in front of all of these people? Ask for her hand anyway when she had told him she needed at least three years? Force her to commit to him when just that morning, after he’d spent nearly an hour planning for a baby they didn’t have nor were expecting, she had told she wasn’t ready for that next phase in their relationship?

“Jessica Monet Ryan.” He slowly opened the box, a diamond ring enclosed. “Will you marry me?”

On cue, everyone in the room “Awwwed”

Jessica couldn’t stomach it anymore. She shook her head, and Whitmore’s face dropped. “I think I’m going to be sick.” She would use the raw cubed steak as her excuse. She’d skewered it, lowered it into the boiling butter and chive flavored broth, but she didn’t leave it in long enough. It was still redder than she wanted, raw, blood oozing when she bit into it, like her period she was so relived to see soaked through her panties in the bathroom that morning after all of Whitmore’s baby talk. She rose from her seat, stepped over Whitmore, knocking the ring out of the box with her knee. It rattled and spun on the floor, and while Whitmore turned away to find where it landed, she scurried for the exit in pursuit of the bathroom, temporarily  tangling herself in the separating curtain.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to write about the days leading up to the beginning of our novel. Since I did all of that and more during this year’s April A to Z Challenge for my NaNoWriMo novel, “Lost Boy,”  I switched to a novel I haven’t looked at in a couple years. Perhaps you remember Whitmore and Jessica from my 2015 A to Z novella

The Lord Will Keep You

Bacon sizzled and popped in the pan. Leslie hovered over the stovetop, watching the bacon’s translucent pink transition to a deep, crispy red. She forked the strips out of the pan and onto a plate lined with a paper towel to trap the grease.

She cracked half a dozen eggs into a bowl, scrambled them with the same fork she used to flip the bacon, and poured them into the hot pan. She cooked robotically, not fully aware of her own movements, working on muscle memory alone.

She hadn’t slept at all the night before, tossing and turning until almost four in the morning, while next to her Antonio lay completely still but for the rise and fall of his chest under his heavy breathing. She envied how quickly he descended into sweet slumber, mere moments after kissing her goodnight and laying his head down on the pillow.

She had to coax herself into sleep. After hours of fruitless efforts to get comfortable, she clicked on the lamp by the bed and retrieved her Bible from the top drawer of the nightstand. God was keeping her up for a reason, and she desired to know why.

She opened the Bible to her favorite psalm, 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help / My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. / He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber / Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep…

She stopped, prayed, “Lord, why have you kept me awake? Why do you refuse to grant me sleep while you work on my behalf?”

She didn’t expect a response. He rarely answered her prayers, especially when she question His motives. She used to be embarrassed by that. She’d been saved since her undergraduate years in college, nearly three decades, but she had never heard the voice of God.

It was on their second date, when the conversation had turned to salvation and whether or not they both had a relationship with Jesus Christ, that Antonio assured her there was nothing wrong not being able to hear His voice. He doesn’t always speak to you, she remembered him saying. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, like butterflies in your stomach when you talk to your crush. When He wants you to do something, it’s like you get dizzy, and you can almost see yourself doing it in your head. Some would call that a premonition, but it’s not; it’s the Holy Spirit leading you. “That’s how I came to give my life,” he’d told her. “I saw myself walking to the altar even before I did it.”

She waited for that feeling, that vision, to see herself fast asleep, and then to lie back dizzy, pull the covers up to her chin, and actually sleep. But God startled her that night, His voice like thunder filling the room.

“Keep reading.”

And she could hardly keep the Bible steady enough to read, her hands shaking uncontrollably. She laid it across her lap, stuttered through the words as she read aloud. Her ears still rang from hearing him for the first time, and her voice sound minuscule in comparison, like those squeaky little cartoon chipmunks she used to watch on television as a child. But she kept reading as instructed, whispering low to herself the entire psalm, down to the last two verses.

The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul / The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

And as if by the snap of His mighty finger, she was asleep.

Antonio’s cold hands curled around Leslie’s shoulders, jolting her back into the present.

“Morning, beautiful.” He kissed her neck.

She shuddered out of his embrace. “Honey, your hands are like ice.”

“That’s because I don’t have you to keep me warm.” He wrapped his arms around her waist, rocked her side to side, and slipped one hand underneath her blouse to caress her stomach around her belly button. She closed her eyes, rested her head on his shoulder, and he dipped down, lightly pressed his soft lips against hers. After twenty years of marriage he could still swoon her off her feet.

“Ugh, get a room!” Tony said from the kitchen table behind them.

“Watch who you talking to, boy,” Antonio snapped. “And last time I checked, every room in this house belongs to me. Unless you want to start paying the mortgage.”

Leslie hadn’t even noticed the boys were already at the kitchen table waiting to be served their breakfast before school. Tony slumped in his chair. He returned his attention to something on his phone’s screen. Leslie hated they’d even bought him one. He was a teenager, growing more and more distant from his family, and a cell phone only expedited that, but he needed a way to contact them whenever there was an emergency. She was reluctantly forced to compromise. At least she could still control his minutes. Limited text messages and no phone calls after 7 PM.

Next to him Gregory wrote in a thee-subject spiral notebook. Across the page he had written out the multiplication table, up to 20. He had a math test that day, and she was proud to see him studying. She wished Tony would follow his little brother’s example, since he was at the moment failing History.

“Boys, make sure you have everything together for school. Breakfast will be ready in a minute.” Leslie cut the heat off the eye of the stove and stirred the eggs with a whisk. Some of it had begun to stick to the pan, and she sighed in frustration.

“You ok, sweetie? You seem tired,” Antonio said.

“Couldn’t sleep.” She thought to ask him if he had heard anything last night. Those two words God had spoken had been so loud, so clear, but while she could barely contain her heart, pounding through her chest, Antonio didn’t even flinch. The message was meant only for her. If God had wanted her to share it, he would’ve woken Antonio too.

“Here, go sit down. I’ll finish up.”

Leslie couldn’t help but chuckle. Breakfast was ready, all that was left was dividing it onto four plates, but if Antonio thought he was helping, she wouldn’t refuse him. Chivalry was far from dead when it came to their relationship. She only hoped her boys would inherit their father’s same kindness and respect toward women.

She sat next to Gregory and smiled. “Ready for your test?”

He closed his notebook and stuffed it in his bookbag on the floor. “I think so.”

Leslie nodded. “Confidence, sweetie.” She turned to Tony across. “Put that phone away at the breakfast table.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Keep rolling your eyes like that, and they’ll get stuck there.”

He sucked his teeth. “Whatever.”

Leslie stood and was about to reach across the table to pop him in the mouth, but she heard a loud crash behind her. She spun around. Antonio was no longer standing in front of the stove. She rushed around the kitchen island and found him on the floor unconscious, the hot pan on his shoulder next to the oven, the scrambled eggs split all over his chest.

“Oh my god!” She fell to her knees, cradled his head in her lap. She slapped his face repeatedly. “Come on. You’re alright, you’re alright.” She swiped the tears from her cheeks. “No, you’re alright. Come on. Come on!” she pleaded.

“Mom?” Gregory and Tony had followed her. They stood at the corner of the stove next to the fallen frying pan. She looked up at her youngest son, and all her fear transferred into his eyes. They curved downward like almonds and welled up with tears.

She shook her head and pushed his legs back. “Call 9-1-1!”

“I-I don’t—” He looked over his shoulder at his brother behind him.

“Tony!” Leslie screamed. “We gave you that phone for emergencies like this!”

He scrambled to tug his phone out of his front pocket, suddenly tight around his hand. He finally ripped it out but dropped it on the floor. Leslie snatched it up. On her third try, she got the operator—the first two times, her fingers moving too fast, she dialed 9-0-1-1 and 1-1-2-9.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

“Get me an ambulance!” She panted heavily, tried to swallow back the sobs and mucus building at the back of her throat. Her voice faded in and out as she tried to speak, her chest bouncing in rythm with the fluttering of her racing heart. She was too flustered even to remember their address. “It’s my husband,” she stammered

“Ma’am, try to calm down. Can you tell me if he’s breathing?” His voice was steady, smooth. He spoke at the same level as he had when he first answered, not raising even half a decibel. He was probably used to this, trained on how to handle frantic callers like her, deescalating as much as he could over the phone before the police and paramedics arrived.

Leslie squeezed two fingers against Antonio’s neck, but she couldn’t feel a pulse. The phone fell from her ear, and she fell facedown across Antonio’s stiffened chest. “Please, God! Please don’t take him from me!”

And again, He answered her. Two times in under six hours after twenty-seven years of silence.

“Remember what you read.” He was preparing her for what was to come, a trying of her faith in Him, like when He commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Could she trust Him to be her only source after the love of her life was taken away from her? Job tore his clothes, fell prostrate to the floor and worshiped Him when he lost everything. Could she do the same?

The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away…

 No, she couldn’t accept it. “Not this, God. Anything but this!” She prayed unceasingly, knowing He wouldn’t change His mind, but she continued anyway, while Tony and Gregory stood over her, frozen, and watched. Their lives were about to change catastrophically, and while she knew that all things worked together for the good to them that loved Him, in that moment, as she prayed and prayed for Antonio’s healing and deliverance, she wasn’t sure she could say with tenacious zeal that she truly loved God over the man who lay dying in her arms.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt comes from Lisa Cron and asks us to investigate a turning point in our protagonist’s past. This was the perfect opportunity to explore more backstory for my NaNoWriMo novel, “Lost Boy.” Last month, I used the April A to Z Challenge to plan out the novel. If you missed it, read it from the beginning here

W is for… [W]eed Witness #AtoZChallenge

Pop is dead, but I won’t cry. Crying is for sissys and wimps. I ain’t no wimp, and I damn sure ain’t no sissy. Greg can’t even think ’bout Pop without tearing up. I smack him around a bit, tell him to toughen up, we the men of the house now—men don’t cry. But Ma always coming to his rescue, “Stop being so hard on him,” she says, then let him lay in her bed and watch cartoons. “You know he’s sensitive.”

Shit, where was that motherly protection when Pop was taking off his belt, beating me like I just bust the windows with a baseball? Even though I did, and after that, I started hitting toward the neighbor’s brick house across the street.

Me and Pop had an understanding bout discipline. I mess up, I get whipped up. Simple. But when it came time for Greg to get his, Ma always got in the way. Not her baby, she’d say. That’s why the nigga’s such a softy now. I’m just trying to do for him why Ma never let Pop do. Spare the rod, spoil the child, right? Or does that only apply to me?

“Everyone grieves differently,” Grandma says, but Ma out here acting like nothing’s changed. Done gone and join the Jail Witnessing Team at church. Her first trip to the county, she practiced her tactics on me. Guess she figured I’d end up there eventually.

“How long have you been in here?” Holy Spirit filled Ma said to convict me. Start with the general stuff first, ease them into talking ’bout religion.

“Five years.”

“What for?”

“Weed.”

Real Ma came back quick. “You better not be smoking weed, boy.”

“I ain’t.” But she patted me down anyway, another preparation tactic for what we’d both experience in the jail, eventually.

I didn’t bother to tell her they sell weed at the bus stop outside the school—dropouts and repeat seniors who ain’t graduating again. The principal’s called the cops on them twice, but they strategic. They only come out during class changes and dismissal, after the lights on the school zone sign stop flashing.

Sometimes, when I’m walking home from practice, I stop and ask them how much. They tell me I gotta get a grinder to break it up first, and cigars to roll it in. It might be easier for me to get my hands on joint paper, but if I really want to get good and high, I gotta find somebody to buy me cigars—they hold more and better. One kid, nineteen, offered me a gram for a discount and he’d buy me all the stuff I needed. I told him I’d think about it.

After Ma left, I snuck into her room and found her cash stash underneath the jewelry box on her dresser. I took a ten dollar bill, licked the edges and rolled it up into a skinny cylinder. Then I pinched it with my index finger and thumb, brought it to my lips, and breathed in.

“What are you doing?”

I shoved the money in my mouth so fast I nearly choked. Greg’s always creeping up on people. He’s too quiet, like a damn ghost.

“Mind ya business,” I mumbled.

“What’s in your mouth?”

I slid the bill under my tongue. “Get outta here.”

“This is Mama’s room, and I’m telling.”

“No you ain’t.” I mushed the side of his face and pushed him into the wall. The tears were welling up in his eyes before he even hit the floor.

“Stop all that crying, boy!”

“Why you always so mean?”

“Somebody’s gotta be.”

Ma came back sooner than I expected. They wouldn’t let her in ’cause of her shoes. Jails are strict, you can’t just come to visit looking any ol’ kinda way. If she watched Lockup on MSNBC she’d know that.

“Why do you even watch that?” she asked.

I just shrugged. I really don’t know. Something to do, I guess. Figure out how much time I’ll have to do if I ever got caught.

She ain’t notice the money missing. I’m in the clear for now. Monday, I’ll skip Mr. Wilson’s Language Arts class, cut across the lawn of the main building to the stop during class change. I gotta make sure I have a extra dollar fifty for the bus. Then we’ll ride to the nearest gas station to buy the rest of the stuff, and by lunch, I’ll be in the trees.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches, structure planning, plot twists, or in the case of this post, more backstories. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

U is for… [U]ndercooked #AtoZChallenge

The turkey was undercooked. Ma planned to roast it overnight, have the whole house smelling like a Thanksgiving feast by morning. But we woke up freezing, a surprise dusting of snow on the lawn, enough to slick the roads, but not enough to delay the holiday traffic.

Tony and Kerry arrived at noon, arguing again, though I’ve stopped caring what for. Something about Kerry wanting to move back to Raleigh after Tony just got a promotion. Let her go. She’s not the one for him, but Tony married her anyway. He doesn’t listen—he never listens.

Dinner was scheduled for 1:00, but at 2:30, I sat alone by the window, watching for Gregory’s car to pull to the curb. I hadn’t seen him since his birthday on October 24, a week before Halloween, and it was terrifying to see him then. He looked as if he had grown six inches. His face was fuller, half covered in a thick, coarse beard, but the rest of him was so thin and frail, he almost looked like Tony, a physical characteristic the two brothers never shared. While Tony was the spitting image of his father, both in name and appearance, Gregory favored me—the short, stubby fingers, the flat nose, the extra weight around the stomach and arms. But his arms were toned, muscular, the outline of them seen through the thin, sweat resistant short-sleeve shirt he wore, too cool even for mid-fall.

It was Tammi who texted me they’d be over for dinner. Gregory’s phone was off—he hadn’t paid the bill. Gregory had been missing a lot of bills lately—puzzling because his father and I taught him how to be a good steward over his finances. It was as if all of his upbringing left him the moment he met her. Over and over he asked me for money, a car note here, rent there, Tammi’s parking tickets, which I flat out refused. But I didn’t want to completely abandon him, so I slipped him change when I could. The more I gave, the less I saw of him, and when I realized he only came home for money, I stopped giving all together, and his visits became more infrequent.

Before his birthday, June was the last time I’d seen him. He’d even missed our Fourth of July family cookout in Ma’s backyard. After it got dark, we would climb up Ma’s roof and watch the fireworks shot off from the high school football field while enjoying burnt hotdogs and Carolina burgers with chili and slaw. It had been a family tradition since Antonio was alive. No one ever skipped it, rain or shine.

I could hear Ma scrambling in the kitchen. Not much to cook with a twenty pound bird taking up most of the oven, but we had to eat something—it was Thanksgiving after all. With a shrunken menu, the sweet potato casserole, became plain yams, the mac and cheese stovetop, the dressing stuffed inside the turkey to cook them both at the same time, while on the back burners, the greens boiled.

Ma kicked me out of the kitchen shortly after she realized she never turned the oven on last night. “You know you’ve never been a cook,” she said. “You’ll only slow me down.” I was given the assignment to make Tony and Kerry chicken salad sandwiches—the salad already prepared, all I had to do was spread it over the bread—to hold them over to dinner and hopefully to quell their arguing.

And it worked. We had silence for a while . . . until Tammi and her mother showed up, and without Gregory.

I had never met Jacquelyn. She’d tried to introduce herself several times before, calling to explain why she had allowed my son to live with her and her daughter in their overcrowded trailer, knocking on my door in the middle of the night to tell me she’d kicked them out. The vibrations in her voice told me she was nothing but drama then, and now she was standing right before me expecting a free, and she didn’t even bother to bring Gregory with her. And the striking resemblance between her and Tammi—how old was she when she had her? Any stranger would think they were sisters.

“Where’s my son?” I had no interest in shaking hands, fake smiles, or “how do you do’s.” These people overstayed their welcome the second they stepped foot on Ma’s front porch.

“He at work.” Tammi smacked her lips. Her nonchalant attitude quickly got under my skin.

“I was expecting to spend Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I don’t know you.”

Tammi’s mother reached out her hand. “Hi I’m Jacqui—”

“And I don’t care to!” I snapped.

Ma entered, putting the oven mitts she was wearing under her arm. “We may need another hour. That turkey just won’t cook.” When she noticed the tense atmosphere at her front door, she said, “Who’s this?”

“Tammi, and Jacqui,” I cut my eyes at the mother, “decided to invite themselves without Gregory.”

“Where’s Gregory?” Ma asked.

“He had to work,” Jacqui answered.

“On Thanksgiving?”

Jacqui started to say something, but quickly closed her mouth. By the way they shrugged their shoulders, avoided eye contact, it was obvious they were lying. My worried mind went straight to the marathon episodes of Snapped I often watched to fill my Sunday afternoons when I came home from church. It was the worst thing to watch on a Sunday, a holy day of rest. All it did was disrupt my peace. Women taking vengeance into their own hands, taking a life. When Gregory went weeks without calling, I feared the worst. What had they done to him?

I heard Tony barge down the hall, and I knew things would quickly escalate with him in the room.

“You know they’re getting married, right?”

“Who?”

Tony pointed to Tammi.

“Yea, we engaged.” Tammi shrugged her shoulders, flashed the small diamond on her left hand.

A ring. He’d bought her a ring. With what money? I remembered those times he called, whining that his lights were about to get turned off, that he would be evicted if he didn’t pay rent by the end of the week, that he couldn’t afford to have his car repossessed because then he’d have no way to get to work. Were they all lies? The money I’d been giving him—a little here, a little there—had he been collecting it until he had enough to buy a ring and propose? No, no. Heaven forbid I inherit another lethargic, unappreciative daughter-in-law like Kerry, who had secluded herself away in the dining room to pretend she was crying.

Instinctively, I clawed at Tammi’s hand, snatching of the ring I paid for and a thin layer of skin along with it. She yanked my arm back with one hand— with much more force than her petite frame would lead anyone to believe— and with the other hand, slapped me clear across the face. There was shouting and screaming, and at some point Kerry finally appeared in the kitchen doorway behind Ma. I could feel Tony’s arms around my waist. He and Jacqui pulled Tammi and I apart, and backing up, I tripped over Tony’s size 13 shoe and hit the side of my back on the back of the couch, re-agitating a muscle I pulled a few weeks ago when moving around the furniture in Gregory’s room.

“I ain’t gon stay where I’m not wanted!” Tammi was screaming.

“Then why the fuck are you still here?” Tony yelled.

Suddenly the smoke detector in the kitchen went off, setting off all the others in the house, including the one in the living room right above the space of floor that separated me from the intruders. The piercing peal silenced us for several seconds.

Ma rushed back into the kitchen, brushing past Kerry. “Jesus, Kerry, you don’t smell my greens burning?” She stirred the pot, added water and flicked off the eye. She grabbed a towel and begin flapping it under the detector to clear the smoke.

When the noise finally ceased, I looked directly at Tammi. “You need to leave.”

“Gladly.” She turned around and kicked open the screen door, making a sound like ripped metal and leaving behind a dent in the bottom left corner. Jacqui stayed behind for a brief moment, as if considering an apology, but quickly spun around and followed her daughter to the car. I shut the door behind them and noticed the engagement ring on the floor; it must have fallen out of my hand during the scuffle. I quickly kicked it away. The sight of it disgusted me.

“She’ll be back when she realizes it’s gone,” Kerry mumbled.

“Oh, now you got something to say? Where were you when that bitch was hittin’ my mama?” Tony shouted.

Kerry rolled her eyes and turned away. “I’m not arguing with you, Tony.”

“But you gon listen!” He stormed past me, my throbbing face obviously not too much of a concern, to finish his tirade with Kerry from earlier.

Ma returned from the kitchen, her shoulders hunched. She looked just as defeated as I felt. “Why not Chinese? They’re always open on Thanksgiving. I don’t think I can save this dinner.”

“There’s still the turkey and stuffing.”

“That won’t be for another hour. You know my old stomach has to eat early. I’m feeling lightheaded already.”

I tried to force a smile, but my face was so tight, I probably looked constipated. “Why don’t you sit, and I’ll make us some chicken salad sandwiches.”

“Can we eat them outside? I’m sick of those two yelling, and I need to cool off.”

I nodded and looked back to the window. Eating outside would only make me more anxious about Gregory, wondering if every car that drove by was him. I shook my head. No, there was no sense in waiting for him anymore. He wasn’t coming. And Tammi would surely tell him what happened here. Then, after that, I don’t think he will ever come home.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches, structure planning, or in the case of this post, more backstories. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!