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

Mayday! Mayday! Writer’s Block is Going Down!

We’ve all heard the saying, “April Showers Bring May Flowers,” right?

Well, my April showers started at the end of April last year. After finishing my A-Z theme of Grandma’s 26 Husbands—26 Unusual Deaths (which you guys really seemed to love), I descended into a nasty case of chronic writer’s block. In hindsight, I believe I had become obsessed with topping 26 Husbands. The series had become so popular, and I wanted to continue that popularity with something even better. Unfortunately my perfectionism was at its peak also, and eventually I crashed, flipped over, rammed into a tree, exploded, and burned.

My posting became erratic, and eventually I disappeared from blogging altogether. I couldn’t force myself to write. Everything my pen produced was total rubbish (according to editor bitch), and if my writer’s block relented enough for me to start a new project, it came back with a vengeance so catastrophic, I was never able to finish.

But that all changed this year. If last year’s A to Z Challenge put me in this crud, then this year’s A to Z Challenge would get me out of it, and that’s just what it did.

This year’s A to Z Challenge was all about planning for NaNoWriMo, another project I’ve unfortunately never been able to finish. For 26 days—yes, 26 days—(some days were harder than others, but I stuck in there), I wrote outlines, character sketches, and back stories. I brainstormed on themes, conflicts, subplots, stakes, and resolutions. Last night, I finished—yes, finished—with my zealous “Z” post, and I only want to continue. It may be be the end of the April A to Z Challenge, but it’s just the beginning for me. I still have a novel to write, and I’ve never felt so prepared for NaNoWriMo in my life!

But it’s not just NaNoWriMo, I feel reinvigorated to write any and everything! Writer’s block, hear me roar!

The end of April marked not only the end of the A to Z Challenge, but also the end of National Poetry Month, which means that May is . . .

Short Story Month!

Ahh, short stories, my first love. I’ve been writing them since I was old enough to write, been reading them for even longer. I haven’t written a new short story to submit to literary magazines in a long time. Speaking of submitting to literary magazines, I haven’t submitted anything to a magazine since 2015 (yikes)! So in honor of Short Story Month, I’ve challenged myself to keep this writing buzz going and write a complete short story that I hope to submit to some magazines and get back on my publishing journey. I’m giving myself a whole month to write just one story (probably between 3,000 and 5,000 words), which is plenty of time to produce something great! I’ll be posting weekly updates on my story status for you guys just to assure you that I won’t let writer’s block win, but in the meantime I have a couple of treats for you.

Also for May, I will be participating in the short story a day writing challenge. Each day, I’ll post a micro fiction tale between 100 and 300 words. There is an optional prompt, but I can’t guarantee I’ll stick to it; it just depends on how the prompt inspires me that day.

I also want to exercise my poetic pen (since I didn’t get a chance to during NaPoWriMo in April) and jump back into #frapalymo, which is now called #frapalywo. If you’re unfamiliar with #frapalymo/#frapalywo, it’s a German poetry writing challenge, translated Frau (Miss) Paulchen’s Lyric (Poetry) Month/Week. It’s usually held every May and November, but it looks like she’s changed the May challenge to a series of week-long prompts (the first one was back in February) leading up to the big shebang in November, which I won’t be able to participate in because of NaNoWriMo, but I can still do the week-long challenges. This first week of May, the prompt is “noise.” So stay tuned for seven days of NOISY POETRY!

It looks like I have a lot to do for May, so why am I still talking? I’d better get started—we’re halfway through the day already! I’ll be back soon with a new story for Short Story A Day May. Writer’s block won’t hold me down!

Z is for… [Z]ealous Interviewer #AtoZChallenge

I’m feeling quite zealous today. Why? Because it’s April 30, and I’ve made it to the end of the A to Z Challenge without burning out. That deserves an applause!

I’m also excited to be starting on my novel, Lost Boy very soon. While I’m reserving the actual writing of the novel for NaNoWriMo in November, these next six months will consist of more planning, outlining, character sketching, and possibly a few more changes to the plot as things come together, and also a change in title (because I’m still not settled on “Lost Boy”).

I also hope to do more research so that the novel sounds as realistic as possible, because if there is one thing I cannot stand about the Christian fiction genre of today, it’s that the plots are so unbelievable, and the characters are more like caricatures.

One phase of my research will be interviews. Right now, my focus is on interviewing one of my fellow church members who’s in the prison ministry From Leslie’s character sketch, we know that she is very active in the church, including going out to the county jail to minister with the prison ministry. Unfortunately, I know nothing about prison ministries, so it’s time for a little investigation.

I’ve already contacted the church member about interviewing her. Now it’s time to put together some interview questions. Here are a few that I may ask in my interview.

  • How long have you been in the jail/prison ministry?
  • How often do you visit the jail?
  • When you visit the jail, do you go as a group? Do you need specific paperwork or documentation to enter?
  • Is there certain dress requirements you must meet before entering? Types of clothing, shoes, hats, purses? Will they let you bring your Bible? Are you searched/patted down? Do you go through a metal detector?
  • Where do you go to witness to the inmates? The cells? a chapel? Is there a common meeting area with many tables similar to a cafeteria? Are you separated from regular jail visitation?
  • Are you restricted in the types inmates you visit. For example, do you see people who have been convicted of violent crimes like rape or murder?
  • Do you talk to the inmates individually or do you stand before a group and minister?
  • What do you say to the inmates? Do you talk about them, how they ended up behind bars? How do you transition into talking about Jesus?
  • What major points in the Gospel do you like to hit on when talking with the inmates? Does the message change depending on the crime?
  • Are the inmates generally welcoming?
  • Do people get saved?

These are all the questions I have so far. Do you have any suggestions? What questions do you think I should ask?

I’m hoping that some of the answers I get to these questions will help me write an inspiring revival at the end of the novel, but if not, I’ll have great material to work with for one of my subplots.

And . . . that’s it for the A to Z Challenge! I’m glad I decided to participate after all. It has truly helped me get over my writer’s block. Not only do I have a new novel in the works, but I feel my mojo coming back. I’m eager to dive back into writing more poetry and short stories, and I’m even more zealous to return to the many flash fiction challenges I loved so much. So stay tuned! More to come soon!

—Nortina

Y is for… [Y]oke #AtoZChallenge

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
(Matthew 11:28-30)

 

I remember when the boys were little, their father built them a treehouse. Nothing fancy, just a few wood boards nailed together on the lower branches of one of the sycamores in the backyard.

Tony and Gregory could barely hide there excitement, planning to camp out under the stars that very night. I watched the three of them outside from the kitchen window. Tony stood at the foot of the ladder as Antonio worked, handing a new plank board up to him as he finished hammering the first.

Gregory, on the other hand, was in the tree, sitting on the branch by his father’s shoulders. The leaves nearly covered his whole body, but for his legs swinging in the air. I was surprised to see him up there at all, since he had always been afraid of heights. During our annual Fourth of July cookout at Mama’s house, when it was time to view the fireworks from the roof, Gregory would catch a sudden spell of vertigo, and someone would always have to stay on ground with him to watch the show.

But there was no fear in him that day. Maybe it was the reassurance that his father was right there to reach out his arm and catch him in one scoop if he were to slip.

After the treehouse was finished, the three of them took my grandmother’s patch quilt, torn and ragged from years of use, and a couple pillows for a makeshift bed on the boards. They spent the night outside in their boys only clubhouse. Occasionally, I crept out to the tree to check on them. Antonio lay in the middle, arms draped over the shoulders of both boys, pulling them into him and away from the edge of the treehouse floor, protecting them from falling in their sleep.

I always regretted not taking a picture of that moment. But I stood in the backyard for several minutes that night, watching them sleep, overwhelmed by the peace of night, the chirping symphony of crickets, the breeze ruffling through the leaves like a curtain of timbrels. I was so in love with my family in that moment. If there were room, I would’ve climbed that tree and joined them, laying across the planks at their feet.

The next morning, I got up early to cook breakfast for them. Country ham steak with hash browns and eggs—fried over easy for Antonio, scrambled for the boys. They cleaned their plates. “The best breakfast I ever had!” Gregory exclaimed. He was such an overenthusiastic child. Between bites, they talked of their night in the treehouse, identifying the constellations, storytelling by moonlight, how they wanted to do it all again. And they did. The next weekend, and the weekend after that. It became ritual. Antonio and the boys would sleep in the treehouse, and I would cook Gregory’s favorite breakfast for them in the morning. We did this until the boys eventually grew too old for treehouse sleepovers with their dad.

And after a while, the wood planks wore away, became part of the tree, abandoned.

When Antonio died, Gregory went back to that treehouse. He rose early in the morning, just before the sun. I heard the chime of the back door when it opened and sat up to watch his legs dangle from the lower branch of the tree. He stayed out there for only an hour, said nothing when he came back inside, and I never brought it up. But the second morning he left for the treehouse, I rushed to the kitchen, had warm ham steak, hash browns and scrambled eggs waiting for him in the kitchen table when he returned.

Only a simple gesture, and I did it just once, for he never went to the old treehouse again. Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t enough to keep him. I look out the kitchen window now, the leaves out back overgrown, weighing the limbs down, concealing the splintered treehouse floor, but I imagine I’ll see a shoe drop from the heights, a skinny child’s leg the color of bark, swinging back and forth.

—Nortina


I struggled with a topic for today. I’ve written so much about Lost Boy, it seems, that I have run out of things to say! Finally, I settled on another kind of character sketch for Leslie (and Gregory). Also, read this post for an explanation for the opening scripture. Only one more day left of the A to Z Challenge. I think I have one last post left in me…

 

X is for… [Χ]ριστός #AtoZChallenge

I got nothing. A big fat ZERO. There just aren’t enough “X” letters in the English alphabet. The dictionary agrees with me too.

My writer’s thesaurus skipped the letter “X” entirely, jumping from “W” straight to “Y,” and when I attempted to look up some words in a dated Webster’s Dictionary I found at work (labeled, “Best Reference Source 1989” by the American Library Association), it had one word, one word, for “X”: Xmas. That’s not even a freaking word! All it does is cross Christ out of Christmas. Of course, the dictionary had an elaborate definition for why the “X” is not meant to offend but to educate, apparently derived from the Greek letter chi (X), which is the first letter in Χριστός, which translated means Christos. So in fact, the “X” stands for Christ, not against Him.

Yea, yea, so you expect me to believe that everyone who says, “Merry Xmas!” is an expert on Greek language? Nah, I don’t think Leslie’s buying that excuse either.

But, since we’re here, let’s talk about Leslie, and her Christian foundation, and how on earth she’s going to bring her wayward sons back to her, and more importantly, back to Christ.

We’re down to the last three (and arguably the hardest) letters in the A to Z Challenge, and I’m getting a little anxious because I still don’t have a definitive ending to Lost Boy. I took a brief moment to revisit my outline, hoping to spark some inspiration—and laughing at how much has changed already since posting it (for example, Detective Maye has been reduced to a secondary character, and Gio, Clara, and Bethel are all out).

For today’s purposes, I want to focus on the Falling Action and how it can lead to a resolution. So what’s happening…

  • Leslie visits the scene of the crime
  • Leslie confronts Jacqui
  • Maye bails out Gregory

Already the last scene has to change, since Maye is no longer a main character, but there’s opportunity for me to add layers to the other two scenes. Eventually, I want to bring all the characters back together for a final intervention, or showdown, if you will. I think it will start with Leslie retracing Gregory’s steps, going to the gas station, talking with the bank teller who gave him the money. When she stops by Jacqui’s trailer, another character, whom she doesn’t expect, will already be there, waiting for her.

Being a member of the jail ministry, Leslie witnesses to complete strangers often. She’s gotten complacent in her message, telling people about the Gospel of Christ with the hope that she’ll probably never see them again.

You have nothing to lose when you’re talking with a stranger. If they reject you, or respond in an offensive matter, you just move on to the next person; you don’t let it affect you, because the goal is not to seek the approval of man, but to save as many souls for Christ as possible. But evangelism starts at home, does it not? What about your own family and friends who are unsaved? Will you pray that the Lord sends forth laborers (Matthew 9:35-38)? Will you be that laborer to reap God’s harvest?

Everyone in Leslie’s circle needs redemption: Will Gregory’s poor choices prevent him from reconciling with his family? Will Tony be able to quench the resonating anger he feels toward his mother and brother? Will Jacqui and Tammi turn from their selfish greed and seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness? Will Kerry learn to forgive? Will Leslie continue to put her hope, faith, and trust in the Lord?

Leslie’s going to need all of her prayer warriors plus the empowering presence of God to fix her family, and it will start in the most unlikeliest of places. A revival is coming to Pleasant’s Edge, a city in exile, but as scripture says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but there is hope, for we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Amen! Let’s hope Leslie can do it!

—Nortina

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!

V is for… [V]iews #AtoZChallenge

Plans change. When you start building, you don’t expect to find an underground river beneath your foundation. When a bride-to-be hires you to design her gown, with intricate lacing and beading, you don’t expect for her to tell you that the wedding is in a week. When you have a novel all planned out and eager to be written for NaNoWriMo (which seems so far away now), you don’t expect to eliminate what you thought could have been a main character—and certainly a co-narrator—along with their subsequent subplots.

But that’s exactly what I did.

The editor bitch in me has awoken (I knew it was time), and she’s itching to make some changes. Better to change things now before I start writing. I know all too well how editing a story before it’s even finished can completely derail progress.

So what’s changed?

Reviewing my latest posts, I’ve discovered that Detective Maye isn’t as essential to the plot of the story as I had originally intended. While I won’t ax his character altogether (we still have a “Lost Boy” to find) his part will get significantly reduced to make room for Tony, who’s character grows more and more with each new post.

A few things contributed to this change. First, I’ve barely mentioned Detective Maye since K is for Kindred, and his last dedicated post was I is for Ice Cold, which seems like ages ago. However, what really sealed Maye’s fate was the outline, or more specifically, the fact that if you sneezed, you probably would’ve missed him.

I’ve said before that Lost Boy is a family story, and the outline was an obvious clue of which family I needed to focus on. So I’m not going to force a subplot that simply isn’t there. A good writer (or maybe a better editor) knows when a character has overstayed his welcome. The three scenes that Maye had (without Leslie) didn’t really affect the plot much, and I don’t think they would be missed if I tossed them, so…

Let it gooooo!

I don’t want to completely give up on the Detective Maye character, which I think is very strong on its own, so stay tuned—you make see more of him on this blog in the form of a separate short story or flash fiction.

However, concerning Lost Boy, Maye is now just the cop Leslie enlists to search for Gregory. He won’t have any dedicated chapters, although I will keep the multiple points of view structure (for now), alternating between Leslie and her son Tony. With Leslie and Tony as the narrators (actually, I think I prefer Leslie’s chapters to be in first person, and Tony’s in third), you will get to see the drastic contrast in how the two main characters react to Gregory’s disappearance.

Well, that’s it for today’s post. A short one, I know—I’m just relieved to post it at a reasonable hour for once. I haven’t decided what “W” is going to be about. I’m debating between a post on potential research interview questions for Leslie’s prison ministry (which is currently still a plot point until editor bitch decides otherwise), or another backstory on Tony. What’s your view? Which do you prefer?

By the way, if you’re wondering if anything else will change with the novel between now and NaNoWriMo, the answer is a definite YES. I still need a real title!

Until tomorrow, A to Z-ers!