Game Night

Game Night

It was game night. In the fifteen years since graduating high school, we’d only cancelled our monthly game night six times. Maybe seven. I couldn’t be sure.  

This month it was at Jena and Dan’s house, and the game was Pictionary. There was always a bit of Charades too because we probably didn’t play it right.   

Jena was a pharmacist, and Dan was a baseball coach. I was a doctor and was supposed to be the most successful. Cheryl and I had the biggest house, but we took turns where to have game night.  

We were in the family room, or something like that. About a nine-foot ceiling, white walls, a TV hanging on one, and decorative art on the others. The couches were a grayish suede. Maybe not suede, but not leather or regular fabric. A dark wooden table that normally sat in the middle had been pushed over under the TV, right next to the gas fireplace which wasn’t on, of course, because it was September.   

My eyes traced the glassy lines that flowed over the stained wood of the coffee table. Some were so dark they looked like oil. Six wine glasses were distinctly placed so everyone knew whose was whose, but instead of wine, cans of coke littered the table because Jamie was going to celebrate six years without a drink come next month. October 5th.  

Jack couldn’t make it, so Jamie and Donna were split up. Jamie on mine and Cheryl’s team. Donna on Jena and Dan’s team.  

Jack was dating someone. He was going to bring her tonight, but ended up not being able to make it. I had been really happy for him at first, but now I didn’t know how to feel.  

What was the score?  

I couldn’t tell, but it was probably the other team winning. All three seemed pretty excited. Even Jena. I wondered if she had any idea.  

It was our turn. I was supposed to up, but I forced a smile and explained I wasn’t feeling all too well. Again.  

Cheryl gazed at me for probably five, maybe six seconds. I watched her from the corner of my eye, and tried to read her expression.  

She went to the center and began drawing. Immediately, Jamie and Dan began calling out terms. It was some kind of flower, but Cheryl wasn’t the best artist. We used to joke about it. The drawing was just a circle with four simple petals. Cheryl probably didn’t know how to draw the exact flower, so began motioning with her hands for us to keep guessing.  

Jamie punched me in the shoulder.   

“You’ve gotta help me man!”  

I forced a smile, and said, “Tulip.”  

“Chrysanthemum, nightshade, orchid, daffodil!” Jena yelled.  

“Rose!” Dan grinned as he said it. It felt like a punch against my stomach.  

“Uhh…” Jamie snapped his fingers with eyes squeezed shut, trying to remember. “Uh, sunflower!” He pointed at Donna.  

“That’s your favorite, right?”   

Donna laughed.   

“Yeah, but not Cheryl’s.”   

Cheryl’s favorite was a hydrangea. Purple.  

She turned quickly and began furiously drawing more flowers. Still laughing, Donna called out, “Hydrangea.”  

Of course she would know. Donna was Cheryl’s best friend. I wondered how much else she knew.  

“Yes!” Cheryl grinned, then the realization dawned on her. “Aw, you’re not on my team!”  

Cheryl was beautiful. Slender limbs, round, hazel eyes, and blonde hair. It wasn’t a natural blonde, but she could pass for being one. She had been blonde when younger, like when we’d met in high school.  

I thought I was handsome, with my brown eyes and curly black hair. Same as in high school when we fell in love. I was a decent height. At least two or three inches taller than her. I felt my nose was too big sometimes though.  

“Okay, okay.” Cheryl picked up another card. She bounced on her toes. “Come on, my team.”  

How could she act so natural? There was a hole in my stomach that I didn’t know was there, and it just grew larger. I took a sip of coke.  

This time, lots of tiny dots and slashes and smiling stick people covered the whiteboard. She glanced my way and discreetly signed something. I think it was confetti or snow, but I looked past her and pretended not to see.  

The phrase was obviously related to a party, like Happy New Year, but everyone thought it was a birthday party, or a snow day, or a parade. Cheryl would’ve drawn a snowman, floats, or a cake if it was any of those.  

They would guess it eventually.  

“Hey, I think we should learn some sign language,” Cheryl had said to me one day around two years ago.   

I had just gotten home from work. I don’t remember how long I’d worked, but twelve-hour shifts could last anywhere between thirteen and sixteen hours on the right night, and it had been one of those nights.  

“Okay.” I’d sat down and held my eyes open as she went through all the different signs she’d learned. 

I made enough money for both of us, so Cheryl was a writer. She did editing and odd jobs but mostly focused her time on stories. I had wondered where she’d found the time to learn sign language. Maybe it was for a character. I should’ve asked.  

She thought it would be helpful on game nights, you know, if we used it sparingly and carefully. She had a smile that was so hard to say no to.  

I took another sip of coke, but my throat was almost too dry to force it down.  

“I’m trying to guess! Maybe if I got some help!” Jamie nudged me again, hard enough to almost make me drop my drink. “Hey, are you okay?”   

The room went quiet, and everyone looked at me. I try to focus only on Jamie, but the expressions of Cheryl and Dan still bled into my vision.  

“Yeah. Just really tired.”  

“He picked up an extra two shifts this week,” Cheryl said. She rubbed her hands against her sides and stared at me, but I blocked out the image of her face before allowing myself to read her expression.  

“Wow. Things at the hospital getting bad, huh.” Jamie’s face was scrunched up with his nose, eyebrows, and lips all wrinkled towards the center, meaning he was either concerned or thinking. Could he see it? Could he tell that something else was wrong?  

I didn’t know what to say, so I took another sip, but the hole in my stomach was so large that I thought I might get sick.  

Jamie was one of my best friends. We weren’t as close as Jack, but we were closer than Dan and I.   

Maybe that was the reason. 

“Hey, we’ll finish this round then end it,” Dan said.  

I stared at the ground between them and tried to watch for how they looked at each other.   

Dan was taller than me by several inches, and he had light brown hair and blue eyes. I thought my face was better-looking, but Dan was definitely more muscular. I didn’t have the time to exercise like I used to.  

They barely looked at each other, nothing more than what would be usual. Maybe. Perhaps they knew I was paying attention.  

“Hey,” Jamie whispered to me, but I shook my head. I couldn’t talk about this. How would I even begin to talk about this?  

“I’m just… dealing with a lot right now.” I tried to force down another sip.  

Jamie shook his head and shrugged.   

“Yeah, I mean. I’m just a foreman. I can’t begin to understand what you have to deal with every day.”  

“You guys, it’s your turn!” Donna elbowed Jamie.  

“Sorry! Sorry, uh…”  

Cheryl had drawn a box. There was a lightning strike and a pair of glasses. She didn’t seem nearly as excited as before.  

“Harry Potter?” Jena asked.  

“Uh… Uh, uh…” Jamie was snapping his fingers furiously, staring boggle-eyed at the drawing, like the answer was on the tip of his tongue. I smiled.  

Cheryl continued to draw, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. I poured more coke into my glass even though it was still half full.  

“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!”  

From the corner of my eye, I could see Dan staring at me. I had figured that in such a situation I would get angry and not be able to contain myself, but instead, the hole in my stomach grew bigger.”  

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?”  

“No, Donna got it,” Cheryl said.  

Everyone stood up and got ready to say their goodbyes and leave. Finally.  

“What’s up with everyone tonight?” Donna laughed as she asked.  

“When old doc’s not himself, there’s no use in meeting. He’s the life of the party.” Jamie grinned. I forced myself to smile.  

We had made our way to the porch, mostly because everyone was following me, and I couldn’t stand to be in that house anymore. I had to get away from those four white walls before I suffocated.  

I almost stepped off the porch when I turned to Jamie and Donna – Jamie had once been an alcoholic, and he ran a team of ragged misfits to any construction site that needed extra help, and Donna was the daycare worker who had gotten let go from her teaching position when the school decided it didn’t have the funds for a music program. They were the ones who should be struggling.  

“You two take care of each other,” I said. Both Dan and Cheryl were out of view, but Jamie stared at me wide-eyed. Donna also had her eyebrows raised.   

I was walking back towards the car when I heard Jamie ask, “Did he watch someone die or something?”  

I smiled.   

One thing Cheryl did do was convince me to give them enough money to put a down payment on a house. Jamie still had no idea, and I hoped he would never find out. I hoped Donna would keep up that lie about the school giving her a boost of unemployment for feeling bad about letting her go. I wanted to give him more money, and I wished I knew of a way possible to do it so that he would never find out, and then he could take Donna on a good vacation. Somewhere like Italy or Greece. That’s where Cheryl and I had gone last summer.  

The drive home was only supposed to be fifteen minutes, but it felt like at least three hours.  

Cheryl kept glancing at me, and I knew she was watching me from the corner of her eye. She was biting her lip because she didn’t want to ask me what was wrong. Maybe because this time, she was afraid of the answer.  

“So, work has been really rough lately,” she said instead.  

I didn’t answer. It hadn’t been a question but an obvious statement that didn’t warrant an answer. Still, the silence between us made the air much denser, until it was nearly impossible to breathe.  

I licked my lips because they were growing increasingly chaff from having to wear that mask all the time at work, and I had been forgetting to put on Chapstick.  

Cheryl stared at me for a long time, and there was this look in her eyes, in the way her mouth was curved, it made the hole inside me swallow up my stomach and press hard against all my other organs until I was struggling for air. I could feel hot tears forming behind my eyes, but I clenched my jaw and focused on the road.  

Going to game night had been a bad idea. A terrible idea. But, I had to see them in the same room together, to see if she looked at him the way she had once looked at me. I had held everything together for an entire week just to make it to tonight.  

And I saw nothing. Nothing on their part slipped.  


Why had it happened?  

I wanted to ask but was terrified of the answer. There was no justification, but surely there had been a reason. What was it?  

Would she even tell me?  

Cheryl was staring out the window now, so my eyes moved from the road to the platinum ring around my finger that reflected in the streetlights as we drove past them.  

Where did I go from here? What did I do? How was I going to explain this to everyone? What would happen to her? Did I care? Should I?  

I didn’t know what to feel, nor did I even know what I wanted to feel.  

A single hot tear slipped out my left eye, but I carefully exhaled and clenched my jaw, determined that no more should escape.  

“So…” My voice didn’t crack. That gave me the strength I needed to continue. “The next game night is supposed to be at my house. When do you think we should tell them it’s cancelled?” 

Photo by Thilak Lees

fiction, Scribbles

Just Another Nurse

Just Another Nurse

I like being with other people, even if I’m not actually with someone. I like to watch people. In a way, it makes me feel like I’m part of their lives. It’s probably a stupid feeling, but it makes me feel important. I am desperate to feel that way sometimes. 

Yesterday Jules told me to stop dating that married doctor, but I hadn’t known he was married. It would make sense why he bothered paying for all those hotel rooms, and never took me home with him, and never stayed the night.  

He didn’t believe me when I told him that I liked sleeping in my car, curled up on my side with a blanket and the seat all the way back like someone was holding me cradled against their chest. He said he wanted me to have a place to go because he felt bad for me sleeping in my car. Once booking my hotel, he always offered to stay with me. Just for a little while. All the signs were obvious, but the aching in my leaden bones was able to drown out all the whispers in my head.  

Brenda said I should keep dating him and tell him to pay off my student loans. 

I tried to call my mom. Twice. Her and my dad are traveling up north in their motorhome after losing their house in the protests. She says they don’t have service very often. It makes sense, and I know she’ll call me back sometime this week.  

I’ve never much liked working twelve-hour shifts. I like it even less now that I have to spend my time bathing people, mopping up accidents, and arguing with addicts about their pain med schedule. I’m just thankful they hired Cathy as my CNA. Without her, I could never survive having twelve patients. That’s double our limit, but the union disbanded. There’s no one checking to make sure they give us masks daily, or to make sure we’re not short-staffed.  

Jules is too scared to explain she has shingles because of what happened to Sarah. Sarah was pregnant and refused to work with patients who had the virus, so they let her go. It was in the name of protecting her health, and they even wrote up a report saying the hospital didn’t need her despite the incoming hordes of patients. 

I close my eyes, and the music washes over me. I don’t know what song this is, and I don’t care. Megan, Jules, and Brenda brought me here. They want to buy me drinks, but I don’t drink. They want me to dance, but I don’t dance. I just want to sit amidst the movement, and watch people, and live out a tiny piece of their lives as the lights flash, and pictures are taken, and videos are made.  

My friends are okay with that because I’m their safe ride home.  

I scroll through my phone, so the man three seats down who keeps glancing at me will think I’m busy and won’t try to talk to me.  

A text comes through from my sister. I had tried to call her five minutes earlier when I was sure the man would slide into the stool next to mine. Instead of returning my call, she texted, Why did you call? I stare at the words lit up on my screen until the notification disappears.  

Yesterday morning I asked the doctor if he was married, and he acted a bit strange. Said he was in the middle of a divorce.  

I went to the bathroom and vomited, then I blocked his number.  

Lunch today had a little buffet because Stanley brought sandwiches, Brenda brought cheese and crackers, Jules brought potato salad, and I brought baked beans. All store bought. We sat spaced out across the nurse’s station. It’s outlawed, especially thanks to the virus, but management wasn’t around.  

We piled the food on paper plates and ate in silence for the first ten minutes before Jeremy told a story of how the old man thought he could bandage one of the patients himself. He used a handful of cotton balls with not even enough wrap to go around the patient’s stomach. Jeremy said it looked like a murder scene with blood squirting out every time the patient moved. We all laughed and shared stories of having the old man‘s patients and how he was so nice but really needed to retire because his practices were as outdated as the days of Regan’s presidency. Megan showed up late with cupcakes for dessert.  

The musician sounds like he has a trace of an accent. I examine his shadowed appearance and try to decide where he’s from and how old he must be.   

Megan is attempting to dance with a dark-haired man. I overhear her giggling over how she hates orthopedics, or orthos as we call them, because they don’t know about anything other than cutting open a knee and tying some ligaments back together. She’s probably had too much to drink because she only talks about work, and a lot of times, it’s enough to make even the most desperate guys squeamish.   

After I blocked the doctor, he showed up that night, tapping on my passenger window. I should’ve parked somewhere else, and I knew that before I pulled in to the parking spot. He said that even if I hated him, he still felt too bad to let me sleep in my car because I am very special to him. In his hand was a bag with sub sandwiches. Dinner. He rode with me to the hotel, and I knew where it was going before he invited himself inside to use the bathroom. Curled up against the cold leather of my suburban doesn’t compare to someone who can hold you close and whisper lies that you are desperate to hear.   

Part of me felt sick, but I brushed it off as having donated plasma that morning. That $50 goes a long way for groceries. 

I will probably stay at Jules’s house tonight. It is the quietest since her divorce, and she has that spare room from where her kids are grown and gone. They all take turns dragging me over to their houses, but I really don’t think the parking garage is that dangerous. I park next to the wall and out of the light where no one can see me huddled under my blanket.  

My old landlady’s name was Jessie. I had just finished working four days in a row, and was a bit delirious when she tried to talk to me about raised rent prices. Sometimes, there’s a buzzing in my brain that dulls everything I hear and mixes up everything I try to say. It’s the same buzz I hear when patients or their families scream at me, and I can’t explain that I have eleven other patients, the doctors won’t answer the phone, and my CNA is hiding in the bathroom with a migraine. So, I just smile, and nod, and process their words as best I can. I do the same with Jessie and never burden her with the knowledge that the new prices mean choosing between my apartment and making my student loan payments.  

Most of my things went in storage. I only need two more months before I can request lower monthly payments. If they don’t raise taxes, I can afford to move back. In the meantime, the hospital has showers, a relatively safe parking garage, several friends with spare couches, and an adulterous doctor.  

The head ortho at our hospital is named Wilkins. Today I shadowed him to take orders. He was training a new doctor who actually had the guts to interrupt him mid-sentence, asking if he should help me first. There was probably a lot that I needed to do. The nurses seemed short-staffed. I probably needed to check on a patient or something. Anything other than follow them around. 

Wilkins laughed. He explained to the new doctor that this was my job. You see, nurses are like dornicks, little rocks used to prop doors open that you never notice or appreciate until there isn’t one around. That’s why he always likes to keep nurses around. 

The new doctor stared at him, stunned. Wilkins glanced at me, as if waiting for me to agree, then explained how when one nurse isn’t around, another can jump in and take over. Like little worker ants that just keep going, and going, and always find a way. So, I didn’t have anywhere that I absolutely had to be. 

I said nothing and walked away.  

The guitar solo washes over the crowd, and everyone sways in the same direction. Brenda grabs my arm and pulls me up, just as the man several seats down stands. He stares after us. We go to the mostly empty floor, and I empty my mind to join her in this awkward, embarrassing dance that makes us both laugh until tears blur my vision. Jules and Megan join us. I have to work tomorrow, but tonight, I don’t have to be a dornick, or a worker ant, or a mistress. I’m not even desperate to feel important.

Photo by Mick Haupt 
Story inspired by my sister, an RN, and her coworkers and friends.

fiction, Publications, Writing Portfolio

Mercury and the Red Shoes

Mercury and the Red Shoes

Only streetlights notice me…  

I close my eyes as the turn comes, and the drums add to the violins and piano.  

I talk in circles  

I remember the day I’d found his song. Sleeping at Last’s songs were basically poetry put to music, and “Mercury” was perfect. I’d listened to the lyrics probably a hundred times.  

I watch for signals… 

My song was apparently Daya’s “Hide Away,” and it was fitting for something Russ would pick out. But the fact that he had actually thought of me. And this song of all others… What could it mean? I was so excited to find him a song. And “Mercury” had been written for him. The real him. But that face he’d given me… My heart had fallen through my feet and shattered on the ground.  

“I don’t see how this is anything like me at all.”  

Like science fiction bending truth…  

He would never see it.   

I tuck my head and bend backwards as far as I can without losing my balance. The bells sound like they’re attached to my ankles because they chime and ding at every footfall.  

He would never understand. He couldn’t see into poetry like me. I didn’t know what he could’ve been expecting when tried to find him a song. He would’ve hated me if I had tried to explain it, so I’d only forced a smile.  

No one can un-ring this bell, un-sound this alarm, un-break my heart new…  

I hold my arabesque for too long, but this music isn’t fully lining up with the music in my head.  

I am desperate, if nothing else…  

I can’t help it. It reminds me too much of Russ’s song, too much for me to not think of it, and just that thought makes my stomach rise to my throat. The violins grow violent, and the bells and piano notes and drums pound against my head. I keep my eyes closed. Maybe I can hide it. The horns shoot straight through my thigh and over my knee, twining around my foot, and out through my toes, and my assemblé goes higher than it ever has before. My eyes open in surprise. I try to focus, but it’s no use. Everytime I close my eyes, I hear the drums and the horns going up and around and around and down into a plié then up again.  

“Did you ever figure out why he enlisted?”  

“He wants to fight.”  

“But there isn’t even a war! Did he say why?”   

“I think he just wants to get away.”   

I hadn’t been able to look Anne in the eye when I’d said it, so I pretended to re-adjust the ribbons on my shoes. I believed what I’d said, even though he’d told me that the real reason was so he could shoot someone, so he would know what it felt like to kill. But, the way he’d said it, with that huge grin and eyes all glazed over. He hadn’t meant it. He just liked to make people hate him.  

“What a jerk. All he cares about is himself. What did his parents say?”   

And he’s so good at it.  

I know, the harder I try, the further I go, only keeps my eyes closed…  

Why? Why? Why?   

My spins grow faster to keep up with the bells and drums, and I can barely breathe. I know that my pirouette is too fast. It doesn’t match the recital music, but I can barely hear that anymore. All I can see is his frozen expression, his wide, perfect smile and his lifeless, hazel eyes.  

I am desperate, if nothing else, in a holding pattern, to find myself…  

I bet if he listened to the song – I mean really listened to it, he would see it. He would understand.  

“You’re just messed up.  

“What’s with you, man? What are you doing?”  

“I feel sorry for everyone who has to put up with you  

“You won’t let people help you! I don’t know what’s happened to you.  

“It’s like you want people to hate you.”  

God knows, I am dissonance, waiting to be swiftly pulled into tune...  

The same smile. The same dead eyes.  

The voices join, and all of the violins and bells and horns and drums and pianos start going over and over again in circles of notes that my mind can’t keep up with. I’m spinning. I’m jumping. I plié then arabesque, but it isn’t high enough! How do I talk to him? How do I tell him? He just has to listen, but he won’t. He won’t listen! He doesn’t want to listen!  

You don’t want to know.”  

“Yes, I do want to know. What is it you think you’ve done?  

“It’s more than just one thingMarrissaI’m just a terrible person, okay? I really am. Let’s just leave it at that.  

“You say that, but I don’t believe you. No one else does either. You just… I don’t know. Everyone’s got something wrong with them. What’ve you done? Tell me one thing that you’ve done.”  

He had laughed and then given me his signature smile. But I never look at his smile. I only look at his eyes.  

I talk in circles. I talk in circles. I watch for signals. For a clue.  


The music stops, and so does my heart.  

It’s coming, but I should’ve known it would come. I turn to meet her glare. Her lips are parted somewhat, and her nose is wrinkled into a snarl. Every line in her face seems carved in the wood of a totem pole face representing death. She’s probably been holding it back for a while.  

Her disgusted expression dissipates with her sigh, but she tries to save face by tucking her head down and squeezing the bridge of her nose.  

“Marrissa… I know that you’re daydreaming, and unless it’s about being as light as a feather on a bed of clouds in front of four thousand people…” She sighs again. When she looks up, I drop my gaze to the floor and try not to bite my lower lip. “You want to be in the recital, don’t you? That’s what these private lessons are for.”  

I could tell by her tone that it was safe to look her in the eye.   

“Yes ma’am.”  

“Ok… Start again!” she snaps, and the music starts up again. “One two, three, turn out! One two three, pirouette!” She continues to orchestrate me with her hands and an occasional exaggerated nod.  

I close my eyes again. I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. I always get my best ideas when dancing.  

But no ideas come to my head. All I can see is the glimpse of his eyes drowning in pain. The moment plays over and over and over again. The drums beat steady beside my heart, and the voices flow through my veins like water. They’re too loose to be blood, and it’s suffocating me. I’m drowning.  

Why Russ? Why? Why? Why? I know I get annoyed, and I’m sorry. But I want you to know that I see through it. I see through all of it, and I know who you really are. (I think I do.) I wish I could tell you everything I tell you in my head. I wish I could explain why “Mercury” is your song. I wish you could see that pushing people away isn’t going to protect them. I see you, Russ. I see you hiding behind your Dorian painting – the one Dorian tried so hard to hide while you put it on display for the world to judge. I can see through your lies. (Can’t I?) Why are you running? Why are you afraid of people caring about you? Why do you think they need to be protected from you? I know that you care about them. You care too much. (And I really don’t think I’m wrong.)  

Once again, I’m pulled back to a humid, summer night. It was dusk, and a little boy took my hand and led me to the back of his uncle’s garden where the honeysuckle vines grew over the bench and faded white archway, nearly hiding our view of the sky, but we didn’t care. We could still crane our necks back and see them through the three limbs. When I glanced at him, I realized he’d been staring at me, even while fireworks lit up the sky. 

“Do you like this place?”   

I remember the tickle in my ear left by his whisper.  

“This is my special place.”  

“Why is it your special place?”  

I don’t remember what his answer was, or even if he did answer. That’s one of the only things I can remember of him, and it’s fading. It’s almost gone.  

“What are you doing, Russ? Why are you acting this way?”  

“Ah, you know.”   

He shrugs. Same smile. Same eyes. But when he moves away, that’s when it’s visible, but by that time, everyone else has already turned away. If only they lingered just a while longer, if only they watched his eyes, they would see in the green and gold mixture that stares back that there’s life. And it’s screaming.   

But a lifeless mask seals it up into a tomb.  

And somehow, all of this mess, is just my attempt to know the worth of my life…  

“Marrissa!” I snap back to the studio where Mrs. Leah is gripping the barre so tightly that her knuckles have turned from a pale Russian dance instructor to an unburied, three day old corpse. “What are you thinking about that’s so important!”  

“A boy.” 

“A boyeeesssshhhhhh” She start’s squeezing the bridge of her nose again. I can feel tiny pins traveling through my thighs and shoulders. Had I actually just said that? She slowly exhales into folded hands, and my face is burning enough to make my entire body start sweating. I brace myself for the lecture over my career and this scholarship and my parents and– 

She claps her hands once, and my gaze snaps back to her face where she’s glaring at me so intensely that I can almost see every vein in the white of her eyes. She painfully stretches a grin while digging and squeezing at her palms with skeleton fingers.   

“Ok,” she manages. “Let’s try this again. Starting from the top.”  

“Um, Mrs. Leah? I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do this today.” 

“Boys.” The way she says it. Curt. With an edge sharper than a switchblade.  

Maybe I shouldn’t do the recital. Not with this music. Her lips are curled, and I rub my hands along the sides of my leotard. They’re cold and damp. I can see her teeth through her lips. How can her skin stretch itself so thin as to make every single bone in her face– 

“Since you’ve already taken up half of my evening, why don’t you enlighten me.” She crosses her arms, and I can feel my heart pounding like a battering ram against my chest. 

“I have a friend… He’s enlisted.” What else could I say? That my childhood best friend and the potential love of my life is ruining every relationship he’s ever had in some sort of self-destructive defense mechanism that pushes away everyone who cares about him?  

“Ugh.” She rolls her eyes, and I almost flinch. I can feel my insides swelling against my ribs. “And why does this concern you? To my knowledge, there’s not even a war.”  

I squeeze my hands together as tight as I can. She’s still glaring at me. Why is she still glaring at me? 

Is there?” 

“No ma’am.” 

“And is he flying off today? Or getting on a plane at this very moment?” 

“…No ma’am.” 

“Alright then.” She starts the music again. It’s the solo “Red Shoes.” The drums pound with a fury, and the violins are screaming with a desperation that moves all the way up their neck until they run out of room for voice. Victoria is dancing as hard as she can with all of her power while she’s grieving. There’s little chance of me getting distracted this time. I don’t have to think of Russ’s song because this is my song. He’d been wrong about “Hide Away.” This was the song – the story – that I could relate to.  

I jump then try not to fall as I have to throw myself in the opposite direction. My thighs and calves want to twitch, and I know that the bandages on my toes have come off. I know that my feet are bleeding, but I won’t stop. I won’t! I won’t think of Russ or his song! Or of “Mercury,” or the sun, or of any of the stars that make me think about wishes and dreams and the future life that I want so badly to have! He doesn’t deserve me! Why should I care about him? He will never care about me. 

I hear it now. The softening. The soft silence that comes after something has been broken, and all the pieces are lying on the ground. Victoria realizes that she’s lost everything, and I want to tell Russ that he’s losing everything. He’s losing me. But he’ll only laugh. He’ll give me that grin, but I’ll see it in his eyes. I’ll see the breakage, and he’ll try to harden himself the way a bone tries to harden after it’s been broken. I know that he loves me. 

“I’m going to marry you one day, Marrissa. I really am.” 

“Then you’re going to have to straighten up.” 

We’d both been laughing, but he’d been looking me straight in the eyes. I could see the life, and it wasn’t screaming. It was dancing. 

Marrissa, you need to let him go.” 

“I truly feel sorry for anyone who ends up with him.” 

He made his mother cry, Marrissa! Do you know what he said to her? When she came over to his apartment just to clean it for him? She was cleaning his apartment for him! And he made her cry!” 

“He made Beatrice cry today. Can you believe that? Nick was furious. Making his sister-in-law cry! He made me cry, too. Over James. Why would he say this stuff? He doesn’t talk like that around you, but one day I’m going to bring you a recording.” 

I realize the music has ended, and I’m lying on the ground where Victoria has fallen into despair and given up. My eyes are burning, but I can hear Mrs. Leah clapping.  

Marrissa, my greatest fear is commitment.” 

“Why would you tell me that, Russ?” 

“I don’t know.” 

He’d shrugged with a laugh, and it had been the fakest, most forced laughter I have ever heard.  

I guess I’ve been laying here too long. Mrs. Leah has taken my hand and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. 

“Well done, Marrissa! I haven’t seen someone dance ‘The Red Shoes’ that well in a long time. Keep this up, and you may get the part of Victoria.” 

“Thank you.” I wipe my nose and eyes. 

“You really got into character, didn’t you? Sometimes bad things happen in life that are really good for our art. Now, if only you could stay focused during the first few songs.” 

Was she trying to comfort me? This was probably the best Mrs. Leah could manage. I look at her and see… a smile? Had I, Marrissa Alexandria, caused the stone-hearted, Russian instructor to smile? 

“During the first sequence – the part you may not have to worry about – you must’ve been daydreaming about a different piece. You were adding your own choreography.” 

“I was?” 

“It wasn’t bad. It just didn’t match the music very well. But you’ll have to cut all that nonsense out if you get a leading role. I think you should dance Victoria at your audition. Then you won’t have to worry so much about the slip ups during the first few songs…”  

I sit down, untie my shoes, and wrench them off. Mrs. Leah continues talking about my solo and the recital and everything that should be consuming my life but isn’t because what I love and what I want don’t fit together. I stare at the bloody wrapping on my feet. That doesn’t make sense. What I want should be what I love. Something inside of me doesn’t make sense, and I don’t know why I would force myself to choose. Russ would never choose me. I’m probably one of the reasons he’s running away. 

I know, the further I go, the harder I try, only keeps my eyes closed. And somehow, I’ve fallen in love with this middle ground, at the cost of my soul… 

Maybe “Mercury” is my song. 

“…and the turn out needs to be a little quicker. You were behind half a beat.” 

“Yes, thank you.” 

“Maybe you can invite this boy to the recital before he gets shipped off.” 

I look up at Mrs. Leah, and I see a smile.  

What if I did invite Russ? He would never come. But, I could try. I’ve never been too afraid to just try. Maybe if he saw me dance Victoria – maybe if he saw me dance period. Has he ever seen me dance? Maybe if I got Victoria, and he came, I could find him in the audience. I could keep my eyes on him, and he would be able to understand when I said with my movements, I don’t want to give up on us. I don’t want to let you go, Russ. Everyone else will let you push them away until you’re left all alone, until you realize what a mistake you’ve made and how it will all be too late then. But, I won’t give up on you. I’ll keep praying and thinking of you every time I hear your song and how you are just messing your life up for God only knows why. And you’ll finally recognize that someone else sees you drowning. But I’m going to do my best to not let you drown, Russ.  

If I stepped aside, released the controls, you would open my eyes… 

Yes, maybe if he sees me dance, he would see what I want to say. Probably not. He couldn’t even understand “Mercury.” Russ can be so stupid sometimes, but maybe if he sees the desperation of Victoria, maybe if he hears that music, and the grief, that powerful grief that tears apart someone’s soul when they lose everything, and nothing is left but broken pieces… Maybe he will feel something too powerful to ignore. 

I smile and nod my head as I walk. Mrs. Leah has gone to her office, and the violins in my head grow louder. 

I’ll go anywhere you want, anywhere you want, anywhere you want me. 

Published in Edify Fiction, Fall 2018
Photo by Adam Littman Davis 




The man looked wild. Gray misty eyes and dark stringy hair that was only out of his face because of an old bandana. He had stubble all over his face and neck, and when he smiled, dimples appeared. I tried to figure out his age, but all I could guess was that it was somewhere between twenty and forty. Somehow he was still handsome. He wore those gloves with the fingerholes cut out and brightly colored clothes that had faded dramatically over time. Or maybe he had bought them like that. He looked like an adventurer, so it hadn’t surprised me when he’d said: 

“I like the wild. That’s the kinda life I want to have.” 

I was tired but wanted to catch the view of the brightly colored clouds outside the window. And then there was the David Livingstone-type stranger sitting next to me reading The Art of War. My eyes kept wandering back and forth between them. These two wonders. 

“You ever read this book?” he asked when I happened to be glancing at him. I had turned to the window just as my face heated up, but I looked back and studied the book cover. I’d seen this book in my college library, but never with this cover. A worn, black leather cover with gold lettering. 


“You’re missing out.” He smiled. That’s when I noticed the dimples. 

He looked like he was trying to go back to reading, but was more interested in the strange woman beside him who kept looking at him. I don’t think I looked disgusted or judgmental. He didn’t seem to take it that way either. I was just curious. 

He closed the book and stared straight ahead for a little while. Then he turned to me. 

“My name’s Steve Harding, but a lot of my friends call me Stev and, I don’t know, I guess I’m just used to hearing it.” 

“Ariel Winster.” 

He grinned. “Hey, I watched a movie about you once. What, did you trade your soul to get some legs?” 

My cheeks turned red. “I have a boyfriend.” 

“What?” He laughed. “You’re a terrible liar. But I’m not hitting on you. Just passing the time getting to know the person stuck next to me.” He cleared his throat then smiled. It was gentler, almost sad looking. “Being a bad liar isn’t a bad thing, because it takes practice to be good at something.” 

I was scooted as close as I could get to the window. It’s not that he freaked me out or he was dirty. He actually had a good smell, like musty cologne. Something that was ancient on purpose. He was just… different, a jarring difference that surpassed anyone else I’d ever encountered. Then he held out his hand. 

“Nice to meet you.” 

I wasn’t too keen on shaking it, but I did anyway. 

“Thank you. You too.” 

“So what brings a city girl out here to Montana anyway?” When I looked at him, he shrugged. “Sorry, you just look like a very eastern-coast-type person.” Then he smiled, like there wasn’t the slightest bit of offense in his words. 

“My friend’s mom died.” 

I had lied. It was my mom, but Steve, or Stev, or whatever, had been wrong. I lied all the time. Not for malice or anything particularly bad. It’s just easier than explaining the truth. 

I had expected his sympathetic smile to appear, but instead, his eyes widened. 

“Oh.” He didn’t seem to know what to say, until he said, “But at least it wasn’t your mom, right?” 

“She was like a mother to me.” I turned away and looked out the window. 

“Sorry, shouldn’t have said that,” he muttered. “I have a bad habit of saying everything that pops into my head.” 

He went quiet. I could feel him staring at me. 

“You okay, Ariel? Do you need a hug?” 

I looked at him. 

“Sorry.” He grinned. “Sometimes people just need a hug. I’m still not hitting on you. Some people might use it for that, but it’s just a basic form of human contact to show other people that you care. That you are there to support them.” He smiled again, but it was that sad smile. 

“Oh. No, I’m fine. But thanks.” 

“Okay, but I’m here if you change your mind.” He propped his knees up on the chair in front of him and unfolded his book. 

I watched him for a minute, then looked back out the window, then back at him. 

“What are you doing out here, Steve… Stev, I mean.” 

He smiled. “We’re taking a bus up to Canada. It’s perfect weather for ice climbing.” 

“Ice climbing?” 

“Yeah, it’s like rock climbing only it’s mountains of ice.” 

“Why?” I asked. He looked at me, and my face burned a bit. “I mean, why do you like doing that? I’m sorry…” I shook my head. “I–” 

“It’s fine.” He laughed. “I’ve been prodding you with questions this whole flight. And I dunno. I guess to prove to myself that I still can. It’s very physically and mentally challenging.” 

And that’s when he said it with a very child-like smile. He liked his life wild. I asked him what that meant. I knew what wild was, but what did he define as wild? What did he want to accomplish by living wild? I don’t know. Maybe I’m too technical, too “by-the-book” to understand, but he laughed. 

“I’m glad you asked. I love when people ask me that.” 

Then he told me about his life. About his time in Peru, getting lost in the forest and being taken in by a poor family who lived in a shack and only owned three chickens. About his time in Honduras, digging wells for villages, herding children by tens to orphanages after the mudslides destroyed their homes. About his time Mozambique and using the burner from his hot air balloon to keep away the lions at night. He talked about his time in India, the bogs with half-buried Hindu statues, and the people who smiled, though they had nothing. He talked about the catacombs in France, the wolves in Russia, and the dialects in China. He talked about the Sea of Trees in Japan where he waited for three days, then found a woman, and talked her out of killing herself. 

I almost didn’t believe him… and then he showed me the pictures. There was the hot air balloon, the well on the western part of Honduras, and the Japanese woman named Hatori Sakura. Her and Stev had their arms around one another. They were both smiling. 

“She was a mother and had lost two of her kids.” 

“That’s awful.” 

“But there was still one left.” 

He looked at me. The ashy somberness of his eyes had flecks of blue and white that reminded me of the sky. 

“It’s kind of selfish really.” He smiled and looked back at the picture. “I wanted to save someone’s life. I mean, not anyone in particular. I just wanted to be responsible for saving them, you know? I wanted to feel the pride that comes with that. That’s the whole reason I went out there.” 

“You still saved her though,” I said quietly. 

“Yeah.” He shrugged. 

I wanted to know how he could afford to travel all these places. Part of me believed that I could be this adventurous hero if I was more than a waitress at a sub shop in Philadelphia who took four to five college classes a semester that drained my income. 

After a few minutes of other people’s muffled voices and a faint creaking from wind turbulence, I stared at the seat in front of me, then at the floor between my feet. I could feel him watching me. 

“You feel better, Ariel?” 


“Okay then.” 

Then he hugged me. It shocked me at first. He hadn’t even asked me if it was okay. But I hugged him back. 

Our flight was almost over. 

“I’m not really from the city. I was born and raised out here. On a farm. But, I never belonged, so I left. I figured I would fit in more in a bigger place. Well, a place with more people.” 

“Yeah, you seem weird.” He grinned. “But like, weird in a good way. Stretched too thin across the continent. You’ll never really find where you belong. There is no place. Does that make sense?” 

“Yeah, kind of.” 

It didn’t. 

But now, the more I think about it, it sort of does. 

“How old are you?” I asked. 


“And you’ve been all over the world?” 

“Well, not all over. After traveling, I realized I’d explored other countries more than my own. That’s why I’ve been home these past two years.” 

“Where are you from?” 

“New York… I know, right? But not the city.” 

“I’d love to travel, but I can’t afford it. Not right now, anyway.” 

“Of course you can. There’s always a way. Maybe not the conventional, or the safest way, but it’s possible.” 

“So you just travel for a living? And help people?” 

“I’m a photographer. Sort of. I explored for the first time when I was nine, and took a camera for the first time when I was twelve. Capturing moments is the reason I live.” 

“You capture the moments for the people who can’t see the world?” 

“No, I capture the moments to encourage other people to see the world.” His smile turned to that sad version. “I’m going to say something, and it’s probably going to offend you. Okay?” 

“Um… okay?” 

“You’re in college, aren’t you?” 


“I would ask why, but I already know the reason.” 

His eyes turned ashy like they had a few times during his stories. My heart started to pound. We were about to land. 

“You go to college because you don’t know of anything else to do. You think it will help you figure out who you are. A few people might have a plan, but they’re the exceptions. Like me. You go to college to discover what life might be like, but all you discover is debt, stress, and people who don’t actually care about you. You want to learn about the world, but all you learn is how to act and think like everyone else in this society. Where does your knowledge of the world come from? From limited perspectives. From books and people who have never seen the world but still get up and talk about it because they have been to college. Ariel?” 

All the blood had drained to my feet. Stev’s face was as grave as his eyes. No child-like laughter any more. Then he smiled, and everything turned a bit gentler. 

“Sorry. Am I being too rude?” 

“No. You’re right.” I swallowed hard and nodded. “You’re right.” 

“You have to go out and discover it for yourself. Think for yourself.” He shrugged and leaned back in his seat. “I know some people have to go to learn how to be a doctor, but even then. Doctors learn when they’re in the field. They learn from real world experience. Not from the books. I’ve talked to doctors. But, I don’t think you’re going to be a doctor, are you.” 

“No.” I was shaking. “But books make you smarter.” 

“Yeah. But those books had to be written by someone who experienced it, or who experienced something profound enough to make them think of it. And trust me, you could never write everything that’s out in the world into a book.” He sighed. “If you don’t have a reason to stay, then go… You like to read, Ariel? You should read about my inspiration. David Livingstone.” 

“Who’s that?” 

“A Scottish explorer who went to Africa to help people. The overseers of his group tried to keep him under their reins, but he wasn’t there to play it safe and stay in one spot. So, he went out into the jungle to find people he could help, and that’s how he discovered Victoria Falls. I’d like to discover a waterfall someday. Or something like that.” 

The flight attendant was talking, and people were getting up and getting their stuff. Stev watched them with glazed eyes. 

“Man, I’m tired,” he muttered. He looked back at me and smiled. “You should come with me sometime.” 


“Exploring. You know, get a taste for it. I promise, if done right, it’s addicting. And it’s not that expensive.” He looked over my face and started laughing. “I’m still not hitting on you. Man, there’s some pretty trashy dudes out there, but I’m not one of them.” 

I could feel the blood rise to my cheeks. 

“I suppose it is getting bad nowadays. Sorry, like I said. No filter.” He pointed to his head and grinned. 

We got our stuff, and we left the plane. It was a small plane. Not much cargo. Not many people. 

Stev started walking with his back to me, and my heart jumped several times to my throat. Was he going to leave without at least saying bye? After hugging me? 

I lost sight of him in the crowd. My stomach wanted to twist itself in knots, but I tried to convince it that he had only been a friendly stranger on a plane. A friendly, weird stranger. But when I walked in, I saw him ordering a coffee. I was determined to say goodbye. To maybe, possibly ask for his number or email. Someway I could contact him. If I ever did decide to travel.  My heart was pounding and my blood was practically frozen, but I needed to do this. 

“Hey Stev?” 

Was Stev too informal? Should I have called him Steve? 

“I used to hate black coffee,” he said, turning before taking a sip. “You want something?” 

“Uh no. I just wanted to say bye. And thanks for showing me the pictures.” 

“Leaving so soon?” He glanced around. “I’ve got another three-hour wait till my bus arrives. It comes with the next flight. I guess that gives me enough time to finish this book you had distracted me from.” He winked. “You might think I’m flirting, but I’m like this with everyone. Even my gram and grandfather.” 

“Gram and grandfather?” 

“Yeah, stark difference, huh? She’s basically what you’d expect for a gram, but he’s super formal. Very businesslike, lawyer-type fellow.” He almost winked again, but I think he stopped himself. “He wanted me to be a lawyer. Said I was bright enough, but I guess I’m more of the photograph and meet new people type of guy.” 

I smiled. 

“Here.” He handed me a folded napkin. It had his phone number. “I was serious about you coming with us some time. If you’re worried about being the only girl, we can try to convince Isaac’s wife to come. Call me after this funeral. I think it would cheer you up too.” 

“I have classes.” 

“So did I at one point. So did my buddy Joe till I convinced him to come with me once.” He laughed. “Just call, and we’ll work something out.” 

“Okay…” I almost told him that it was my mom’s funeral. That my dad had died of cancer when I was twelve. That I hadn’t talked to my sisters since I’d moved away. That I was scared and sad at the same time. “Thanks. I will.” 

I forced a smile, and I walked away, dragging my luggage behind me. I could feel his eyes watching me. Part of me wanted to turn back, but I resisted. 

Instead, I turned on my phone and looked up a picture of David Livingstone. 

Photo by Izzy Gerosa