This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig instructs us to use the Random Cocktail Generator to come up with the title for our next 1,000-word piece. I got “Brutal Hammer,” which sounds like a completely disgusting drink (half French red wine and half vodka, mixed in an old fashioned glass and then slammed) but sparked a whole slew of ideas for a short story. I went in what I hope is an unexpected direction, and the story turned into a little YA/coming of age piece.
I’d been trying to get into the Honeys for weeks. It’s never easy being the new kid in town, but since we’d moved a dozen times in my sixteen years, I’d gotten pretty good at figuring out who to hook up with, and the Honeys were the most popular girls in school. I didn’t particularly care for them, actually, because they seemed too focused on looking down their noses at people, but I knew that getting accepted by the in crowd was the only way to survive high school when you were an outsider.
I’d been thrilled when Beth, the leader of the Honeys, invited me to go check out a carnival in town. When I showed up, though, I realized why they’d invited me.
“Oh look, girls, here comes Cissy,” Beth said, her eyes scanning me from head to toe. A few of the girls snickered. I tried to ignore it.
“Hey, Beth,” I said, trying to sound casual. I’d never been into fashion, but I’d tried to make an effort today. I’d worn my favorite blouse and pulled my hair back into a ponytail, trying to emulate the Honeys’ look, but my non-designer jeans and scuffed sandals were definitely sub-par. I made a mental note to upgrade my wardrobe. “What’s up?”
“You, hopefully,” Beth sneered. “Gillian tells me you want to join the Honeys.” Gillian peeked out from behind Beth and smiled. She was the one member of the Honeys that I genuinely liked.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” I said.
“I’ll bet you would,” Beth said, which set off another round of snickering. “But we don’t just let anyone in. You have to prove yourself worthy.”
“Prove it how?” I said. Something told me this could be bad.
Beth gestured toward a ride towering over the midway. “By riding the Brutal Hammer.”
I hate carnival rides, especially ones with names like The Brutal Hammer. I’ve hated them ever since I got stuck on The Zipper with my little brother, who puked all over me about ten seconds into the ride. The operator was too busy looking at his Hustler to notice my pleas to stop the ride, so I endured the longest three minutes of my life covered in half-digested cotton candy and corn dog.
The Brutal Hammer looked like a bunch of dryer drums rolling on a flat track, which then tilted straight up and down. Not only would I be somersaulting horizontally, but spinning vertically as well. As we walked toward it, I knew I was in trouble. No one getting off that ride looked well, and the screams and groans sounded more like people being tortured than kids having fun.
“You know, spinning rides aren’t really my thing.”
“Why am I not surprised. Your name is Cissy, after all. It figures you’d be chicken.”
“I’m not chicken, I just don’t like rides that spin. How about if I ride the Mega Wheel or the Tornado Coaster instead?”
“Sure, if you want to. But the Honeys are riding the Brutal Hammer, so if you want to be one of us, you have to ride it too.”
I’d been willing to do almost anything to be accepted into the Honeys, but now that almost anything involved this, I wasn’t so sure. If I puked, I’d never live it down, but I might still be admitted into the gang. If I refused to ride, though, any chance I had would be gone.
Gillian came out from behind Beth. “It’s okay. I’ll ride with you,” she whispered, leaning in close.
Surely I could stand this for a couple of minutes. How long could the ride be anyway? “Okay, let’s do this,” I said, hoping I sounded brave. Beth flashed a look at Gillian and then marched to the front of the line. We all paired off and loaded into our drums, and I was relieved to find my seat puke-free. I sat facing Gillian, our knees touching. She reached out and took my hand as the ride operator latched the door.
“It’ll be okay, Cissy,” she said. “Try closing your eyes if you start to get sick.” I nodded, too nervous to speak. My hands were shaking as I pretended to look over the midway, embarrassed to make eye contact. She gave my hand a little squeeze as the ride fired up and I closed my eyes, feeling myself roll backward. Gillian squealed as we flipped over, but it was such a happy sound that I smiled in spite of myself.
“I can do this,” I chanted in my head, willing the ride to be over. Then the track started rising and the drum began to lurch crazily.
Gillian was really shrieking with delight now, but I found it oddly comforting. I was hardly even surprised when she pulled me toward her and pressed her lips to mine. I kissed her back, hard, caught up in the dizziness, the spinning, holding on to the one thing that felt good in the chaos around me. She smiled against my lips and opened her mouth slightly, our tongues touching tentatively at first. She tasted of vanilla lip gloss and I clung to her, cupping her head with both hands, pressing as much of my body as I could against her. We seemed to kiss forever and I didn’t care if everyone could see us making out as we tumbled ass over tea kettle.
She pulled back as the ride began to slow, and I opened my eyes to see her smiling in that shy way of hers. As the ride stopped she sat back against the headrest and said, “You did it, Cissy! You survived the Brutal Hammer!” The ride operator opened the door and unfastened our seat belts, offering us his hand as we climbed down. I felt pretty wobbly, but I wasn’t sure whether that was from the ride or from Gillian’s kisses.
That’s when I heard the puking, and I looked over to see Beth, head over a trash can, dry heaving for all she was worth. There were splotches of puke all over her and her ride partner. Suddenly, it didn’t matter whether or not I was accepted into the Honeys. It didn’t matter whether I was one of the cool kids or whether the other girls liked me. All that mattered was what Gillian thought.
She caught my eye and took my hand again, giving it another little squeeze. I squeezed back and we turned, walking away from the Honeys.
“Can I buy you a soda or something?” I said as we left the midway.
“I’d like that,” she said.
Now wait a minute, you may be saying. Didn’t you write a Part II to this story last week? You can’t write a Part III to the same story! That’s cheating!
And you would be correct, except that Helen Espinosa wrote a Part II to lisboeta1’s original Part I, so I’m opting to continue their story. See what I did there? Clever, eh?
And now, I give you Part III to “Love Story,” in which things get weird …
Part I (by lisboeta1)
Holy crap! It’s him, I heard my inner voice yell out. I was sitting in a small booth in my favorite coffee shop doing what I do best; drinking coffee and reading. As my eyes wondered from the pages of the book to the crowd gathering by the registers I saw him. He hadn’t changed much in the last twenty years. If anything he seemed to have improved like a good wine. I noticed that he was even taller than the last time I had seen him all those years ago. Thick blondish curly hair still framed his handsome face and his slanted almond-shaped eyes looked just like I remembered them. Not the skinny, slightly awkward young man he had been at 18, his well-toned arms and chest now stretched the black plain t-shirt he was wearing. He had obviously just come from the gym, sweatpants hanging low on his tight hips and sneakers on his feet. A smile crept up to my lips; I remembered him saying that his mom used to tell him that when he died he would die standing up because of his giant feet. God! I remembered our conversations as it was only yesterday.
My eyes went to his hands, big and masculine, and a shiver went through me. I remember well the feeling of those hands on my body. I was so young back then. Still, I was about two years older than him, an “older woman”. For all sense of purpose I was an adult but I still fell hard for the young man he was then. The first time I laid eyes on him, walking across the hotel atrium, I was lost. My heart fluttered every time I saw him and my legs turned to Jell-O every time we spoke. Ours was a whirlwind romance that lasted a few days but left a soft spot in my heart for 20 years. I always thought of James as the one who got away. And now, there he was, a mere few feet away from me, and my heart was doing that familiar flip-floppy thing it had always done in his presence. What was he doing here? More to the point; what was I going to do?
Part II (by Helen Espinosa)
As it turned out, I didn’t need to do anything at all. Before I could even begin to think whether it was a good idea or not to walk up to him, our eyes met and a slow smile spread across his face as recognition dawned in his eyes. My heart picked up speed inside my chest and my face felt hot as the blood rushed to it. God, I hated that! I hated the fact that I couldn’t control the blush as it flamed across my face in what I knew was a bright red color.
I put my head down as he started walking in my direction, trying to get the color under control. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so they became a tight knot in my lap that grew tighter the closer he got to the booth. I look like an idiot just sitting here. I stood up and lifted my head to meet his eyes once again, startled at how close he was and that he was still getting closer. My eyebrows lifted as he walked right up to me and put his arms around me like we were old friends.
“Oh my God, Liz! It really is you!” He leaned back, his hands holding my upper arms as he took a long look at me that did nothing to help the heat in my face.
“Hi James.” I sounded so awkward.
“Where have you been all these years? What happened to you?”
“Me? I seem to recall it was you who disappeared.” I said it with a smile but watched as something flitted across his eyes and it looked like he was going to say something but he dropped his hands instead and cleared his throat. What was that about?
He finally said, “I can’t believe it’s you after all these years. How have you been?”
“I’m good, just, you know. I don’t know.” I didn’t know where my eyes should go, so I looked down and shuffled my feet. My eyes landed on my coffee sitting on the table and the book beside it. I gestured towards it with my hand. “This is my favorite place for coffee and a book.” I glanced back up at him and caught him smiling at me.
“That’s one of the things I remember best about you. You always had a book. It’s nice to see that some things don’t change.”
“Can you stay a while? Catch up? I can buy you some coffee…” The words trailed away as I realized how dumb I sounded. God, I was so nervous. I wanted the shaky feeling in my stomach to settle down so I could breathe.
“Damn, Liz, I wish I could. I’ve gotta get showered and get to work. Rain check?” He really looked like he meant it and I almost couldn’t believe my ears. He wanted to see me again? My face went back to flaming just as I thought it had settled down. I couldn’t trust my voice so I just nodded my head.
“Well, uh…” Now he was the one stammering and shuffling his feet.
“Do you… Can I give you my number?” There. I said it. I wanted to see him again, but I knew that if he walked away without leaving me with something, I would probably never see him again. I never thought of our city as a big one, but if he lived here and we hadn’t run across each other in twenty years, who knew how long it would be before we crossed paths again, if ever.
“Of course! Geez, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.” He let out a short laugh as he reached into his sweat pants. He pulled out his cell phone and punched on the screen a few times then actually held it out to me.
“Here, put it in my phone.”
When I reached for it, our hands grazed slightly and a bolt of electricity jumped from his hand to mine and sent my heart racing again. I looked into his eyes and the world seemed to spin. Could it really be that after all these years he still felt the same way? I wasn’t getting any answers staring into his eyes like a love-struck fool, so I gently took the phone and dialed my number into it. I slowly handed it back to him, suddenly struck dumb, not knowing what to do next.
“Is it okay if I dial it so you have mine?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s perfect, actually.”
I heard my phone buzzing behind me and reached over to click the ignore button. As I looked back at James, I realized he was leaning in again. I didn’t know if my senses could take another hug at this point, but I didn’t want to refuse either, so I hugged him back, trying to keep the tingling under control.
“It was really great to see you, Liz. I almost hate to leave,” he said as he pulled back for a second time in less than five minutes.
“Yeah, I know the feeling.”
We stood there for a few minutes more in an awkward silence that hung suspended between us. I didn’t know what else to do so I said, “Take care of yourself, James.”
He smiled again, “You too, Liz. I’ll call you.” And then he turned and walked away.
My entire body was wobbly and I fell back into the booth with a loud swoosh and sat staring at my now cold coffee. Could I even hold out hope that he would call me? Did I even dare to invest my heart in something that had lasted only two days twenty years ago? The crazy thing was, I’m not sure my heart was giving me a choice. It was still beating so fast and I knew that if he didn’t call or text or something, I would be heartbroken all over again.
Part III (by me)
I didn’t know what to do next, so I gathered my things and headed out the door. I thumbed my phone as I picked it up, intent on saving James’ number before I lost the only connection I had to him.
I walked back to my condo. It was time to stop mooning over James, but I didn’t know how I was going to concentrate when all I could think about was our last encounter – his hands on my body, his lips hot against mine, his skin silvered in the pre-dawn light.
I let myself in, trudging upstairs to drop my bag and slip off my shoes, when my phone rang. My heart lurched as James’ name flashed across my screen. I stared at it, afraid to answer and afraid not to. Could he really be calling me? Was it a misdial? I took a deep breath and answered just before it rolled over into voicemail.
“Hi Liz, it’s James. Oh, wait, you already knew that.” He laughed and I did too, relieved that it really was him and that he was just as nervous as I was.
“Yes, your name came up on my phone.”
“Oh, of course. Look, this is going to sound crazy, but can I see you?”
“Yes, I’d like that.” He was asking me out on a date! He really did want to see me again.
“Great! What are you doing?”
“Right now? I thought you had to get to work.” A tiny alarm went off in the back of my mind. Something wasn’t quite right.
“I, uh, just called in and cleared my calendar for the day. I … I just really need to see you, to talk to you.”
“Wow, um, okay.” I desperately wanted to see him again and to find out why he’d disappeared, but I was also wary. This was moving really fast.
“Where are you? Do you want to meet back at the coffee shop?”
“Actually, I’m parked outside your condo complex. Can I come up?”
“What? Did you follow me?” Now I was really confused and more than a little nervous.
“Yeah, but I’m not some creepy stalker, I swear! I just … I made a stupid mistake when I left without saying goodbye, and now that I have another chance, I’m not going to screw up again. Please just let me apologize to you and to explain why I did it. If you don’t want to see me after that, I promise to never bother you again.”
He sounded terribly sincere and more than a little desperate. And although my head screamed out that it was a really bad idea to let James in, my heart wouldn’t listen.
“Um, okay, sure.”
“Great! Can you buzz me in?”
“Oh, yes, of course.” I tried to steady my breath as I hurried downstairs to punch the code on the alarm panel. “I’m in #101, nearest the gate.”
“I know,” he said, which gave me another moment’s hesitation, but I pushed the thought from my mind and opened the door to see James already standing there, one hand poised to knock. He was still in his sweat pants and t-shirt, and he looked both sheepish and relieved. Any doubts I’d had about letting him in slipped away.
“Come in,” I said. “Sorry about the mess.” He glancing up and down the corridor before closing the door and locking the deadbolt. Again, my mind chirped out a warning, but I ignored it as I started up the stairs, James following behind me. When we got to the top, we stood facing each other, then started to speak at the same time.
“Liz, I …”
“Well, should we sit …”
We both chuckled and he insisted that I go first. “Do you want to sit down?”
“Yes, that’d be great.” We sat on the sofa and he took both my hands in his. They were warm and strong, just as I remembered.
“Liz, I want to apologize. I never should’ve left you without saying goodbye. I have always regretted it.”
“I figured you just weren’t that into me,” I said. I was surprised at the flash of bitterness I felt. He’d broken my heart and although I’d told myself that I’d moved on, I realized that I’d never really gotten over it. “I thought we had something. I thought you were different, but we were both so young …”
“I was a fool and I’m sorry,” he said. “Please believe me when I tell you that I have cherished the memories of our few days together for all these years. Now that I’ve found you again, I intend to make it up to you, if you’ll let me.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had dreamed about this moment for years, but now that it was happening, it felt surreal.
“Why did you leave without saying goodbye?”
He seemed to weigh his options before continuing. “I … had to leave. I had a prior commitment.”
“And you couldn’t even leave me a note or something?” I didn’t want to be angry, but the words spilled out along with tears I thought I’d cried out years ago.
James leaned close, tenderly cupping my jaw in his hand so that my eyes met his. The pain I saw reflected there mirrored my own.
“Liz, I am so sorry. I … it was …” He struggled to find the words, finally blurting out, “I was engaged to be married and I didn’t want to break your heart.”
“Too late!” I tried to swallow the bitterness in my voice, but it seeped out anyway. “So, I was the last big fling as a swinging single, huh? You cheated on your fiance to get with me? Was I worth it?”
“No, please, you don’t understand.” I’d pulled away from his grasp but he caught my face again, turning me to face him and look into his eyes once more.
“Where is your wife now? Or were you hoping to have another fling with me?” I moved to the window, looking out at nothing, still feeling betrayed.
I turned to look at him, and although he was facing me, his gaze was a million miles away. “And, for the record, we never got married. I … got cold feet … and she killed herself … on our wedding day … at least that’s what the paper said.”
“Oh, my god …”
“It was an arranged marriage. We hardly knew each other. I didn’t have anything against her, but I wasn’t ready to get married. I didn’t want to do it, but I had … an obligation …”
I didn’t know what to say. As I moved back to the sofa, he stood to face me as if seeing me for the first time.
“Liz, you’re the only one who can save me. Will you help me?”
Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge for this week has us writing the first 1000 words of a four-part story. Here is my offering for Part One.
I noticed her almost as soon as we boarded the train. It was hard not to. She was arguing with the conductor, trying to convince him to let her change seats on the train. She had an accent that seemed familiar but I couldn’t quite place – something Middle Eastern, I guessed, but she certainly didn’t look the part. She looked like a significant portion of the women I’d seen when I lived in L.A. – too thin, too tight, too tan, too highlighted, too made up, too gaudy. A woman somewhere between 40 and 70 but desperately trying to pass for 25. She had a pair of oversized sunglasses on in a feeble attempt to cover up a huge bruise and scar just under her left eye and I wondered if she’d “had some work done” or had been involved in something more sinister. But then I got distracted by the conductor asking for my seat assignment ticket, meeting my seat mate (when you’re part of a group of three, someone always ends up sitting with a stranger), and generally settling in for an 8+ hour train ride. I noticed that the woman walked past my seat several times en route to the Lounge Car or the Cafe Car or the bathroom or somewhere, but didn’t think too much about her until we went to the Dining Car for lunch.
For some reason, Amtrak insists on filling up each table in the dining car before seating people at another table. Put another way, there are only four-seat tables available, and if there are less than four in your party, you will be sharing a table with someone else. (Why they do this is a mystery to me, especially when at least half of the tables were empty while we were in there, but I digress.) As we arrived for our lunch reservation, the server said, “There are three of you? You’ll be sitting here,” and pointed us to a table already occupied by the lady in the sunglasses. She wasn’t happy to have to share her table, and I could tell that she and our server had already gone around a bit before we got there, so my husband, my son and I sat down and I braced myself for an unpleasant experience. I sat next to her, which seemed the proper thing to do, and before we had hardly settled into our seats, we’d heard about her choice of lunch entree (veggie burger without the bun, because she is on a diet) and her cataract surgery (which is why she was wearing sunglasses, too much concealer and a big bandage under her left eye). I decided that the accent was definitely Persian but opted not to ask her about it, and couldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise to do so anyway. We exchanged a few pleasantries and she had a loud cell phone conversation with someone about when and where to pick her up at the Van Nuys station when the water glass she was holding slipped out of her hand and spilled all over the table and between my husband and my son. She began to exclaim and apologize and beg our forgiveness and call for the server, saying “Oh my God, I am so sorry. It was an accident. I will do anything to make it up to you.” I just grabbed the extra napkins and started sopping up the water, telling her it was okay, the guys hadn’t gotten wet, nothing was damaged, they weren’t going to melt, etc., but when I said the words, “I know it was an accident. I forgive you,” her entire demeanor and attitude changed. She stopped mid-sentence, turned to face me, patted my arm and said, “You’re water.” I didn’t know what to say and I wasn’t even sure I’d heard her correctly, so I just smiled. For the rest of the meal, she told us about how her husband had died recently and that she finally had a chance to travel, but had had to come back to the states when her daughter, who was married with two children, had fallen into drug addiction. She kept asking me questions about what she should do about her daughter, but not really wanting answers, so I took that as a sign that I needed to listen. I made sympathetic noises and she just kept patting my arm and saying, “You’re water. You are water.”