To Rewind Time

I remember that he’s married now, so I ask about his wife.

“Pregnant,” he says.

I wait for details, but he only adds, “Very pregnant.”

Out of decency, I think to congratulate him, recite some drivel about how happy I am for him, how I wish him nothing but the best—all lies.

“How’ve you been?” he asks. Such a generic question, but there’s a hint of genuine concern in his voice, as if he’s picked up on my misery—I make no effort to hid it, and he had always been empathetic toward my feelings, even when he was the cause of my grief.

I look up into his eyes, and their weariness makes me feel safe. Reason would convince me that his visible tiredness is because of a demanding wife who, big with child, has driven him to take extra shifts—ringing up chips and smokes for night owls and runaways like me being less strenuous than whatever hormonal crisis is unfolding at home—but I hold onto hope that seeing me again for the first time in five years has brought him to hate his own life, as I do mine.

“I’m being stalked by my boyfriend,” I tell him.

He laughs at what he thinks is an obvious joke, and a customer I don’t hear approach from behind taps my shoulder. It startles me so that a current of electricity shoots through me, surging underneath my skin, and it’s as if I’ve literally jumped out of my own body. I drop my bag of nabs along with the gallon bottled water onto the floor, hitting my big toe, and bite my tongue to keep from crying out.

“Excuse me, ma’am, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he says. He bends down to help me, but I push him away and quickly gather my things— I’ve stayed too long anyway. What good will it do me to explain to an ex, happily married, that I’ve continued making bad choices, even after he was gone? I’d be giving Craig more time to find me and force me back into his bed. I’ve wasted enough time; I must leave.

But I make the mistake of turning back before I exit the door, and he stares at me as he takes cash from the other customer. And I am still frozen by the door when the man rushes past, and we are again left alone in this silent gas station, save for the hum of the coolers on the back wall, there to let us know we are still being watched.

“Why don’t you call the police?” he asks.

I’ve tried. Even amid campaigns to end domestic violence, to look for the signs, pay close attention to the most subtle, they don’t believe me. The absence of physical scars doesn’t help, and the fact that they know Craig further discredits my case.

“He is the police,” I say.

“Damn.” He drums the tips of his fingers against the counter. I notice the nails are clipped too close to his skin, and I wonder if he still makes a habit of chewing them. He turns his head toward the short-circuit television, which displays the security cam footage in the store, and I step back, just out of shot, as another customer walks in, drawing the cool air outside with a draft. The bell above the door jingles, and I look down at the time on my wrist watch. Fifteen minutes and counting.

“Hey.” He comes from behind the counter, and in two strides he is right on top of me. I forget how tall he is—almost seven feet. He towers over me. I remember how he frightened me at times, even more when we argued. Now his eyes show a fierce anger, the deep amber in his irises pops out as in those of a predator, and all I want to do is faint into his arms like a damsel.

“I get off at eleven. Will you wait?” he asks.

I know I shouldn’t, and it’s selfish of me to keep him from his growing family, to worry him with my own feeble problems, especially when I’ve done this to myself, but his breath on my lips drowns me. My eyes roll closed, and I imagine how different my life would be if five years ago I had only said those four simple words he was desperate to hear come back to him as he cradled the velvet box behind his back: “I love you too.”

—Nortina


We’ve finally reached the last day Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt sought to mock me. In attempt to write a story about a writer, I decided to write a story about a writer who couldn’t think of anything to write, and . . . well, I couldn’t think of anything to write. So I went back to an earlier story, and added to it. I’ve decided this will be the story I write for literary magazine submission (since the other one didn’t come together like I had hoped). I hope you enjoyed all of these short stories. Some were harder to write than others. Expect a reflection and “What next?” post to come soon!

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For the Sake of Humanity

Johnny hears the bells ringing, the booming whistle of the locomotive, and he races out of the house to the backyard, where the railroad plows right down the center and the grass and weeds have grown as tall as his hips.

“They’re here! We’re saved!” he shouts.

Sasha listens from the kitchen sink. She drops his plate into the soapy water, and using a wash rag, scrubs at the burnt goat cheese stuck to the bottom.

It’s been like this for months now. Johnny running out to greet rescue that will never come. People don’t exist anymore, at least not on this end of the tracks, not since the bomb.

She’s never even seen a train before in her life, except for pictures in books. And she regrets ever teaching him to read, because now those stories that fill the dusty bookshelves of his mother’s four by four closet-sized library flood his mind with ideas that they aren’t the only two people left in the world, that there are big cities and metropolises crowded with millions of people, that there are police departments, and fire departments, and army, and navy, and pararescue, and federal bureaus, and they are all out there desperately searching for them to bring them back to society.

Sasha was optimistic like that once. Until one day Johnny’s mother took her out onto the tracks, and they walked hours, until sundown, and there was nothing for miles, nothing but the brown overgrown grass, no sign of human life other than the rundown shack where they lived.

“Where did everyone go?” Sasha asked. She was too young to remember the bomb, but she remembered the chaos, the crime, the absence of government. She remembered watching a man stab her mother three times in the neck before stealing the worthless three dollars she’d stuffed in her bra. She remembered wandering onto Johnny and his mother’s farm delirious after going two days, three nights without food and water.

She will forever be grateful to Johnny’s mother for giving her shelter, although she knew the woman had other motives, motives she finally made clear on her deathbed when she made Sasha promise that when Johnny was old enough, she would be more than just an adoptive mother to him.

Sasha is nine years older than Johnny. When she first arrived on the farm she was fifteen and had just started her period amid all the anarchy, terrified of men and what they could do to her. When Johnny’s mother saw the blood on the back of her skirt, she must have thought of the future, of the possibility that Sasha and Johnny could be the only man and woman left, on this part of the earth at least, and that it was their responsibility to repopulate, the fate of human existence in their hands.

Sasha looks out the kitchen window. Johnny is standing on the rail platform waving his arms over his head for his imaginary train. He turns fourteen tomorrow. To her, he’s still a child, but he’s capable now, and she knows he’s curious. A few nights she’s woken up with him in her bed, his hands fumbling in his pants.

But is she ready?

She dries her hand on the apron tied around her waist. She made the old woman a promise, no matter how uncomfortable it makes her feel, Sasha owes this to her after everything she’s done to help her.

But she has to be sure that she and Johnny are the only humans left. So tomorrow she’ll take him down the train tracks, just as his mother had shown her, but this time they’ll go farther, as far as they have to. She’ll pack up enough food to last them days, weeks even. She won’t give up until she’s confident they are humanity’s only option.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a Hansel and Gretel story, and while I thought I would skip out on this prompt, after reading Julie Duffy’s tips on the “Hansel and Gretel” story structure, I realize this story sounds more like Hansel and Gretel than anything I would have ever come up with if I had consciously tried to write it exactly. Don’t you love when that happens?

Feelings

“Marry me,” she says.

I stare up at her from my hospital bed. If not for the morphine, I would half believe what I see is true. But then she touches my leg, and I feel nothing.

I try to say her name, “Shelia,” but my voice is raspy, my throat dry, as if I haven’t had a drink in days. I swallow and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. “Water.” It can’t be above a whisper, but she looks up and our eyes meet.

“You’re awake!” She turns and calls for a nurse, then drops to her knees. She scoops up and kisses my hand at my side over and over. I’m relieved to at least feel her soft, moist lips on my skin. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she repeats, and again she says, “Marry me,” but I’m still confused why she’s here, why we’re both here.

The nurse enters and says, “Mr. Boston, how are we feeling today?”

I shake my head. I can say nothing else.

“Do you remember being in a car accident?”

It’s foggy to me, but I do remember Shelia. I remember leaving the baseball game together after the fireworks show. I was mesmerized by how her eyes lit up the night, more even than the bursting kaleidoscope in the sky, and even though I should have been focused on the road and the stopped car in front of me—its break lights reflected in her olive skin—I wanted to lean over and kiss her, this girl I’ve loved since I was eleven, and tell her everything I ever felt, confess that I couldn’t be satisfied with just a friendship anymore, because I loved her too damn much to watch her give her heart to another man who could never treat her like the treasure she was, not like I could.

And now I wake up to her voice pleading, “Marry me,” and in my head I scream yes, yes, a thousand times, yes, even thought my lips don’t move.

“Can you feel that?” she asks. My heart beating through my chest? Of course I can, but she’s referring to the nurse who stands at the foot of the bed, the covers pulled back to my ankles. She pinches my big toe between her index finger and thumb and wiggles it around, but if I weren’t watching her I never would have registered that she was even in the room.

I close my eyes and pretend this isn’t my new reality, that I’m not paralyzed  from the waist down. But if this is just a dream I’ve woken into, then that means my love for Shelia continues unrequited, and somehow that seems like the bigger nightmare, so I open my eyes, the tears trailing down. Shelia is crying too. She leans down and kisses me on the cheek, so close to my mouth that my bottom lip tingles, and it’s the only feeling I could ever want.

Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write an ugly duckling story, but after receiving absolutely no inspiration from the prompt and spending all day writing, erasing, writing, erasing, I turned on the TV, and a man was saying he woke up in the hospital (after being run over by a train— ouch!) to a woman he never even dated asking him to marry him… And they got married! So this is my story. 🙂

Divine Drought

We pray for rain. For three days, we go without food, no water. We spend the nights on the floor of the sanctuary, the dust of the ground layering our knees.

We didn’t fast by choice. Circumstances led to this. With the city shut down, grocery stores were looted, we had no power for miles, and no running water. The church garden struggled to feed the remnants of our congregation. Pastor John dug up the corn crop last Tuesday. It was brown like smoking tobacco. The tomatoes and cucumbers blossomed, then died, before becoming vegetables. The soil was arid like sand.

“Do you think this is the end of the world?” Jessie whispers.

“Shhhh!” Mother Jones is in the front pew with the pastor and his associates. We can see the wrinkled, cellulite skin of her thighs underneath he rolled up skirt. She prefers to pray in silence so she can concentrate on what she wants to petition to the Lord, and she’s easily distracted and fumbles over her words when other people are talking. She must hate Sister Teresa right now. She circles the sanctuary, shouting her pray aloud.

“We ask you to send the rain, God!” she screams, her South Georgian accent coming out strong. “Shower down on us as you did the manna for the children of Israel.”

“Does she have to be so loud, though?” I say.

“She wants to make sure God hears her.”

“The whole continent can hear her.” We both snicker into the cushion of the pew, and again Mother Jones shhh’s us.

My stomach rumbles, and I lick my lips thinking about what I could eat. Juicy sweet apples to quench my thirst and my hunger. The crisp pop of them when I sink my teeth into the skin, and the liquid drains down my chin. The sour Granny Smith, the succulent Fiji, the classic Red Delicious.

“I’m so hungry I could eat a cow,” Jessie says.

“Just put me in a pool full of apple juice and ham sandwiches.”

“Eww, then the bread would get soggy!”

We laugh out loud. Mama reaches over and slaps my hand, and we fold our arms and bow our heads and mumble incoherently like the men in the pews behind us and Pastor John standing at the podium. Speaking in tongues, they call it. I wonder if it’s because their tongues roll like an Indian war cry.

At the end of the three days, I can confidently tell Mama I’m starved to death. I feel my ribs through my shirt, and my stomach is flat and sunken in above my belly button. Jessie and I sneak to the bathroom to suck on soft peppermints she had stashed in her fanny pack. We’ve managed to stretch them the whole week. It’s enough to suppress the sting of hunger, at least for now, until we can go outside and see our prayers answered in the form of gray, cloud-covered skies, of torrential rain pouring down, of the ground soaked through in puddles.

But when Pastor John opens the double doors to the church, the heat pushes him back, and the sun is blinding from spending three days in candlelight.

“So does this mean there is no God?” Jessie asks.

“Hush with that blasphemy!” Mother Jones pops her on the behind, and I shield mine with my hands just in case she feels moved to punish me too for talking all through her prayers.

“There is a plan and purpose for everything.” Pastor John says to the stiff, stifled air outside. “But we can only keep praying.” He closes the doors, flinging us back into darkness. The melted down candles a poor substitute for the blaring sun.

“What about the children?” Mama says.

Pastor John looks from the side of his eyes at one of his associates. A silent conversation exchanges between them. Then the associate pastor nods, spins around towards the stairwell, he snatches off the flash light hanging on a hook next to the door, and stretches out his arm to push in the horizontal door handle but stalls momentarily, the door too heavy for the strength that remains in his arms. He uses his body weight to force the door open, then jogs downstairs, the floor vibrating underneath our feet.

“We’ll ration out the bottled water in the basement,” Pastor John says. “Women and children first. But everyone will still fast food.”

“Do you have any more peppermints?” I whisper to Jessie.

She shakes her head. “That was the last one.”

The mint has melted down to a flat disc on my tongue. No use in spitting it out and saving it for another day. I don’t know if I can survive an extended fast. Already I can’t stand on my own. I curl my fingers inside the waistband of Mama’s skirt and hold myself up, leaning my shoulders against her hip. I wish she would pick me up. I feel myself regressing the longer I go without eating. First my legs will go out and I’ll have to resort to crawling around. Next I’ll be too weak to speak, and if we ever get food again, it’ll be too late; my muscles will have forgotten how to pick up a fork, how to move my arm back and forth from a plate to my mouth, how to chew and swallow.

“It’d be better if it was the end of the world,” Jessie whispers. “Maybe we’d die quicker.”

Mama takes my hand and leads me back to our pew. We bend down, press our foreheads against clasped hands, and begin praying again. But I know rain won’t be enough, and water won’t hold us. So Jessie and I agree it’ll be easier just to pray for death.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a Cinderella story, but isn’t there enough “Cinderella stories” on ABC Family (or Freeform)? But I do like the story arc of trying to find happiness, and failing, so here’s a story about trying and failing, and then finally accepting the reality of one’s situation.

Watermelon Season

I dreamt I ran him over, and the white women from work watched. Their eyes sought to spite me. I screamed to get help, but no one moved. “You’ll burn in hell for this, witch,” the woman in the center sneered. Her face grew redder with the inflection in her voice.

Looking in the rearview mirror, I see his blond hair first, combed to the right side of his head, the sides buzzed off. He stands behind my trunk, and I think about my dream, how I stood before a lynch mob as he lay dying. I’m tempted to shift the gear in reverse, fulfill the prophesy and accept my fate, but I take the key out of the ignition, shoulder my purse, and step out.

“Hey,” he says, waving both hands.

I nod, glance over my shoulder at the eight-floor office building looming over the parking lot.

“So do you have any plans for the weekend?”

I shrug. A car pulls into the empty space beside me. It’s the woman from my dream. Her brunette hair is chopped short and curled inside up to her ear. She cuts her eyes at me, and I quickly look down at my feet.

“Well, if you’re not busy, I was wondering if you wanted to go to the watermelon patch.”

“Seriously?”

He shakes his head, and his hair shuffles to the front of his face. He smiles, but I don’t smile back, and the loud door slam to the right turns our attention to the woman spying us over the top of her car.

I step closer, and whisper so she can’t hear. “Because I’m black, you think I like watermelon.”

“No, no!” His eyes widen. He backs up and instinctively looks to the woman, who still stares. She’s barely taller than her own car; she has to stand on her toes to watch us. I wish she’d go inside already. My throat tightens at the thought of her lassoing a noose around my neck and stringing me up onto the branches of one of the magnolias lining the walkway.

“It’s watermelon season. My uncle owns a watermelon patch. I like watermelon. I thought…”

“You thought what?”

The woman finally leaves us, but not before casting a scolding look in my direction. She must be content that he’s in no danger. He’s completed his job in offending me, and now I will leave too, scurry off to my tiny cubicle in the back of the office, segregated from the rest of them, and do my work silently as I’m told.

When the woman is out of earshot, he shoves his hands into his pockets and sighs. “I’m trying to ask you out on a date. Obviously I’m not doing a good job of it.”

I watch him as he looks everywhere but at me, and I wonder if he too is thinking of the consequences of my saying yes, if he’s dreamt of my death by his hand, of a mob of angry black women shooting curses, taking off belts, breaking off switches with which to whip him—the same weapons his people used to beat their souls down into the ground.

“We don’t have to go to the watermelon patch. We could do something different, like the movies, or dinner—what kinds of food do you like? I just wanted to do something different, something out of the box. You’re special, you’re different. I just wanted to do something nice for you.”

“Just be quiet.”

He instantly shuts his mouth, midsentence, and I lean against my side mirror. He waits for my answer, but I’m lost for words. My mind is stuck on “You’re special, you’re different.” Does he refer to my blackness? And again, I fear this proposal will only lead to our demise, that I will again be reminded of what we are. I am black, and he is white, and the world will always hate us for what we mean together, for what we are about to do.

And so I tell him, “I like watermelons too.”

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a non-traditional love story

 

A Mother Still

When she returned home from the hospital, she locked her doors and lay in the bed alone. She didn’t move; she couldn’t, the pain was too great. She felt as if pieces of her had been ripped out from the inside—they had. She felt she was hemorrhaging enough blood for two persons—She was.

When she bled through her pad, she didn’t attempt to change it. She couldn’t if she wanted. She was too sore to roll over onto her stomach—empty and full at the same time—slide one leg off the edge of the bed, and then the other, crouch onto the floor and then pull herself up, take one step, and then another to the bathroom too far away.

She couldn’t imagine sitting on the toilet, wincing under the ache of the muscles in her thighs and abdomen pulled tight, looking down between her thighs into the bowl of the commode and seeing remnants of a life swirling and blending with urine and water. To see it caught up in the fibers of a maxipad clung to her skin, like a nightmare trapped in the dreamcatcher’s net. To feel drops trickle down her legs when she stood and slowly dragged forever filthy clothing back over her hips.

She curled around the pill bottle clutched in her fist. Prescription pain medicine strong enough for her to become addicted to after the physical pain had left her, but the emotional trauma still remained. She hacked up saliva and mucus from the back of her mouth and used it to push two down her throat. She lay on her back, watching the ceiling spin overhead. When she closed her eyes, she dreamt of drowning, of splashing to the surface gasping for air, and tiny little hands, stubby little fingers, dunking her head back under.

She woke choking, unable to breathe, and when she looked up, she thought she saw eyes, narrowed and burrowing. She sat up. Through the pain, she crawled to the other end of the bed, to her purse hanging over the bedpost, and retrieved a pen from the front pocket. Lying back, she wrote upside down, crooked letters on he stomach, below her navel, against her throbbing womb, in red ink.

Believe me, I loved
you—Before Winter’s smitten
death—And even still.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a story in the form of a series of letters. This haibun is the result of how I was inspired by the prompt—my “series of letters” coming together to form the melancholic haiku at the end of the story. 

Drifting

Still no tug on the line. Rick takes a swig of water from his bottle, sloshes it in his mouth and swallows. We’ve been drifting four days now. If we don’t catch anything tonight, we’ll live, but our water supply is dwindling. Rick spits another mouthful into the ocean.

My mouth is parched. The salt in the air further dehydrates me. The sunburn on the back of my neck stings like I’ve been scraped with sandpaper, but I must reserve my water. My bottle is a quarter full, but it is more that what he has.

From the stern on the opposite end, Rick eyes the plastic bottle between my legs, licks his lips. “Lemme have a sip.”

My line suddenly starts to spin, and I snatch up the rod and reel it in, but it fights me, pulls me and the boat further out to sea. I take my eye off Rick for just a moment, when the head of the giant grouper breaks the surface, and he dives over to my side, nearly tipping the boat, and guzzles my water, every last drop.

Now we have three days.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a prose sonnet: a story 14 sentences long. My favorite sonnet form is the Petrarchan sonnet, so this is a short story based loosely on that structure. And no, it is not a love story—not all sonnets are about love, obviously. 😉

 

Widow

She stares at the blaze reflected in the pond.

“What have I done?”

Emergency personnel will arrive soon. A fire of that size can’t go on unnoticed. She needs to disappear.

She cups her hands, sinks them beneath the surface, and splashes water on her face to wipe away the soot, but she feels she’s only smudged it deeper into the soft tissue of her skin, darkening her complexion to that of a solider in camouflage deployed to the South Asian jungle. He aims his rifle at the half-naked boy holding the grenade and debates whether to shoot, or let them both die.

She coughs into her arm, a dry, raspy cough that constricts her lungs. Smoke inhalation from staying inside too long, lingering by the crib in the nursery. She could’ve at least taken the baby. It never asked to be here, but then, it never asked to stay either.

And it was so much easier to escape without the burden of having to quell a crying child.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a story with a hidden message. This is kind of a stretch, but I would say my hidden message is “between the lines,” meaning let the reader figure it out. What did our protagonist do that would force her to run away, and can you speculate why she did it?  By the way, the title is also a clue. 😉

A Town Called Oceanview | Part 2

Continued from “Lost” …

Introductions

“Welcome! Welcome!” an elderly woman approaching them called. She was wearing wool socks, no shoes, and a pink floral dress—or it could’ve even been a nightgown, for her massive bosom hiked it up high enough that it became indecent for someone her age to wear a dress that short in public.

She looked older than death itself; her face covered in wrinkles, her eyelids sagging low over her eyes—it was a wonder she could even see—her gray hair frayed and stringy, thinning at the temples and behind her ears. She was barely taller than five feet and morbidly obese, at least three hundred pounds or more. Her skin was a dark, leathery brown, as if she had spent too many years tanning in the sun, and it folded in ripples down her arms and legs. As round as she was, she reminded him more of an English bulldog than anything remotely human.

And yet, even on swollen feet that clumped against the hardwood floor like cinder blocks—shoes probably didn’t fit her anyway—she still moved at an unbelievably fast pace and had her thick arms wrapped around his neck in a tight bear hug before he could get out of dodge.

He hugged her back, not to be rude, though he wasn’t sure of the occasion. Did he know this woman? Grandmother? Great-grandmother, perhaps? Or was it common practice to embrace a total stranger upon greeting in this mysterious town called Oceanview? He strained to catch a clarifying glace at the girl next to him, who had been so captivated by the painting and the story of the lost fishing vessel.

“Oh, I see you’ve already met Bess,” the old woman said after she released him. Bess was a stark contrast to the old woman. She towered over her, and almost met him at eye level. Her ivory skin pulled tightly over her bones. She wore a white tank top, and her broad shoulders poked so far out they looked as if they would pierce right through the skin. Despite looking thin and frail, there was still a ray of light behind her eyes, and her sunshine gold hair cascaded down her back in waves.

“I hope your trip wasn’t too painful?” The woman was saying.

He raised an eyebrow. “Painful, ma’am?”

“Birdy, I don’t think he remembers,” Bess whispered.

“Remembers what?”

“No matter.” The woman clasped her hands together, and a low echo reverberated off the walls. The room had amazing acoustics; he suspected it once was a gymnasium before being converted into what he could only assume was a visitors center. “Sometimes it’s easier to forget.  Like my husband used to say: The ‘how’ is not always important, it’s the ‘what you do with it’ that takes the cake.”

“That’s an interesting phrase,” he said.

“Thank you. I’ve really come to cherish it in my old age, especially when dealing with some of the more distressing realities of life that I can’t control.” She was silent for a moment, and she and Bess exchanged tight-lipped looks in front of him. They seemed to be having a conversation solely with their eyes. Bess’s eyes widened, her brows arched, as if pleading to say something, to share some secret information that would help get his head out of this fog that only seemed to get worse with the women’s vague revelations. However, “Birdy” stood firm. She squinted her eyes and furrowed her brows as if scolding Bess for being so naive. Then she turned to him with a wide grin he would have mistaken for genuine if he hadn’t just witnessed the tense staring contest.

“By the way, my name is Lady Byrd, but you can call me Birdy.” She stretched out her hand to shake his, and he willingly took it, but when he opened his mouth to introduce himself, he froze.

He hadn’t the slightest clue who he was.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt was kind of . . . meh . . . Anyone else feeling a little uninspired by these last few prompts? I decided to deviate today, to regain that energy and enthusiasm I had at the beginning of the challenge. Ok, ok, let me stop complaining. Knowing me, I’ll probably end up writing that “list” story anyway, just because my mind won’t stop trying to figure out how to turn such a lame prompt into an interesting story. It will most likely come to me in the middle of the night like most of my stories. Until then, I hope you enjoyed part two of Oceanview! 

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…