Tag Archive: short stories


Bonded by Blood

I’ve saved this story for last because I believe that it best personifies my goals as a writer.  This is a fantasy story with a protagonist that I consider both interesting and twisted.  Whether this is my best short story or not is difficult to say, but it is probably my favorite of these five. 

 

Bonded by Blood

 

The market smelled different than usual.  While the stale breads and sour cheeses enriched the streets with a welcome hint of familiarity, the finest aroma was in short supply.  I pushed through the crowd and stepped up to the clearing in front of the tonic shop.  There was always a clearing in front of the tonic shop.  I leaned against the support beam and looked back at the pudgy little proprietor in his stained apron.  In all my visits to the market I’d never seen him make a sale.  Nor had he ever shooed me away.  Part of me wanted to eat him, if only for his own sake.  But the skin was too oily and the meat too fatty.  I needed something fresh and palatable.

 

I kept an eye over the crowd and inhaled the warm summer air.  I could smell one of them.  The aroma was faint at first, but with each breath the scent grew stronger.  Like cherries, rain, peppermint, and every pleasant thing woven into one sense-tickling incarnation.  She walked towards me.  Long golden hair and a little pink dress too formal for a pit like this.  Her eyes flickered towards mine.  Pale green like the lake on an autumn day.  My favorite flavor. 

 

She brushed passed my overcoat and stopped at a nearby jewelry booth.  My forehead started to sweat and I could feel my heart thumping.  I scooped up a vial of tonic and unplugged the cork.  The reek of wood alcohol and lavender flushed her from my sinuses, but I kept her visage safely in my peripherals. 

 

She slipped a silver ring over her finger and admired its shine from every angle.  A ray of sunlight caught her in the eye and she smiled, placing it carefully back upon the rack.  clasped the tonic in my palm as she turned away from the shop, heading towards my favorite little side street.  “The deer trap” I called it.  It was the quickest way from one side of the market district to the other, but too dark and narrow to have any shops of its own. 

 

I tossed the shopkeeper a coin over my shoulder.  I heard it clink against the ground. 

 

I followed her, watching each step; praying she would make that turn.  Every third breath I inhaled from the tonic to keep my wits.  She stopped and turned towards the deer trap.  I began to salivate.  This was it.  I followed her under the shade of the towering gray warehouses and under the eyes of no one.  I knew every alley.  Every unspeakable little crevice.  Every dry lump of soil waiting to nest a fresh pile of bones.  I licked my lips and slipped the glove off my left hand.  My nails started to itch.

 

She froze. 

 

And then I froze.  She turned and looked at me with those pale green eyes.  A smile crept onto her face and she opened her mouth. 

 

“Lantern.”

 

I felt a sharp point sticking into the small of my back and I raised both my hands.  A hard, gravelly voice tickled my ear.  “Don’t move mate or I’ll stick the blade so deep you’ll be able to read the inscription.”

 

“Easy now,” I said.  The man smelled like rotting meat and horse manure.  How did I miss him before?  “Take anything you want.  I’m not looking for trouble.”

 

“Yeah, well you better be worth our while.  I saw you waste coin on that pee-water tonic.”

 

“You were tracking me that long, huh?”

 

“I could tell I had you the moment I saw your eyes,” the woman said.  “A free bit of advice.”

 

I felt the man’s meaty paw grasp my wrist.  “What the hell is this?  Jen, you gotta come see.  He’s got claws or something.”

 

So her name was Jen.  I expected something longer and with a “v.” 

 

“Shut up, Reggie.  That doesn’t make any sense,” Jen said. 

 

“No, this guy’s some sorta freak.  He’s got these big long fingernails.”

 

“Please, just take my money and go.”  I clasped the tonic tightly in my right hand. 

 

“I don’t think so.”  Reggie pulled back his blade.  “I’d be doing the world a favor to get rid of a freak like you.”

 

I clenched my teeth and threw the tonic over my shoulder.  Judging from Reggie’s delicious scream it hit him right in the eyes.

 

I turned around and extended the claws on my left hand.  He swung his sword heavily and with the desperation of a dying possum.  I ducked, but the blade clipped my hat and sent it spiraling to the dirt.  My horns exposed, I butted him in the face with my forehead.

 

“W-what are you?”  He dabbed at his lip and checked it for blood.  There wasn’t any yet.

 

I thrust my hand into Reggie’s chest.  The claws plunged through his sternum like butter and I smiled as warm blood pooled up in my palm.  I looked up at his face and bit a healthy chunk from his cheek before letting him drop.  Too chewy.  An insult to the refined palate.  I spit it out and turned to the young woman.

 

“Are you a demon?”  Her legs shook as I grabbed my hat and slipped it atop my head.

 

“No need to be alarmed.”  I approached rhythmically like a snake; arms folded, watching her every breath.  “I promise this won’t hurt.”   

 

“Stay back you foul thing.”  She pulled a small bow from behind her back with an arrow already loaded.  She drew the string.  A snake’s head was tied to the front of the arrow; its mouth agape.  Fangs pointing straight at me. 

 

I stopped to wipe the blood off my mouth and lick my fingers clean.  A nice blend of salty and savory.

 

“So now what?”  I waited to see if she’d struggle at keeping the string taut.

 

“Now you tell me what the hell you are.  And then I shoot you anyway.”

 

“I fail to see the upside.”  I smiled.  “But like so many of you humans I do love talking about myself.”

 

“Stop playing games.  This venom kills demons.”

 

“Then you already decided what I am.”

 

“Demons attack town from time to time but they do it in groups.”  Her arm started to shake.  We both inched forward.  “You’re not like the others.  They sprout from the ground.  They don’t talk or wear clothes.”

 

I sighed.  “A demon walks into a bar.  As you so eloquently pointed out, she’s not wearing any clothes.  Three drunken men tie her to a barstool and indulge every one of their darkest carnal desires.  A few months pass.”

 

“So you’re the punch line.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

I opened my palms and watched her eyes.  I thought I could catch her off guard with a quick charge, but she let the arrow fly before I took a second step.  I had half a snake head embedded in my chest before I could look down.  It burned like hell and put a hole in my coat the size of a copper.  I wrapped my hands around the arrow shaft and pulled it out.  A nice, crunchy sting.  The wounds weren’t too deep but I could feel the cool bite of poison spreading across my chest.

 

I planted my feet and licked my lips.  Nothing left to lose.  Jen would make a lovely last meal.  She still smelled sweet, but more of a sticky-caramel sweet.  The type of sweet that rots your teeth and doesn’t sit well in the morning.

 

Good thing I didn’t have morning to worry about. 

 

I tore across the street and grabbed her by that silky golden hair of hers.  I swung her around and held her by the forearms.  She gasped and flailed with her limbs, but I held on.. 

 

“Let me go.  I can get you the antidote.”

 

“Antidote?  Don’t take me for a fool.”  My grip loosened slightly. 

 

“I keep it in small vials at a nearby storehouse.  In case of an accident.”

 

“I think you’re lying.”

 

“No, but there’s not much time.  If you kill me, you’ll die too.”

 

I released her and she tumbled to the ground.  I watched her sit in the dirt, wondering what it would be like to eat a woman in her own storehouse; antidote in one hand, her heart in the other.

 

She stood up and dusted off her dress.  I expected her to run.  She should have run.  But she backed away slowly, watching my eyes to make sure I’d follow her. 

 

The ground started to shake and we both froze.  The rumble resonated underneath the road, tickling my heels. 

 

“Demons,” I said.

 

“What?  Where?”

 

I opened my mouth but the flaming holes sprouting from the earth answered for me.  Two gaping wounds peeled open from the ground, firing molten rock and smoke into the air.

 

Jen watched, nearly cowering beside me.  I could feel her body shaking and I could smell her fear.  I had to bite my lip to keep from biting hers.  She tried to run but I grabbed her by the wrist. 

 

“In here.”  I shoved her over a hay bale into one of the dark alleys.  It was a great place to enjoy a meal without being seen.  Anything to buy a few seconds.

 

The first demon crawled out of the hole, grasping the cobblestone road with its claws as those waiting below shoved it towards the surface.  Its tongue drooped as it looked past us towards the marketplace.  Screams began to emanate from the shops.  They grew exponentially and I knew that demon holes were already sprouting up everywhere. 

 

Before long the streets became flooded with men and women attempting to escape from the shops.  They screamed and trampled each other in an orgy of panic, aimlessly heading towards a safe zone that didn’t exist.  Every escape route would soon be sealed by another hungry mouth. 

 

Jen tugged on my sleeve.  “We’ll be trapped in here if they come after us.”

 

“They won’t.”  I pierced my forearm with one of my own claws.  I squeezed out a drop of blood and held it over Jen.  “Drink this.”

 

The demons began picking ruthlessly through the crowds without prejudice.  Their scaly violet skin blended beautifully with the carnage around them.  They cut through flesh like crops during harvest.  Men and women fell in a shower of gore and I stood amazed; envious of their efficiency. 

 

Jen stood up intending to join the crowds in their vain effort.  I grabbed her by the collarbone and slammed her against the adjacent wall hard enough to make her vision fuzzy.  I could smell her adrenaline and it made my stomach groan. 

 

“Let me go.  Please.”

 

“Drink my blood.”  I shoved my dripping arm into her face, smearing a good bit under her nose.  I could see a demon watching us from the corner of my eye.  Staring at my prized possession while saliva oozed from its mouth.  “They won’t be able to detect that you’re human if you drink my blood.”

 

“Why do you care?”

 

“We don’t have time for this.”  The demon approached us, tearing through the streets and pushing aside the half eaten corpses in its way. 

 

She pointed towards it.  “There’s one coming.  Let me go.”

 

“If I let you go it will eat you.  And then I’m going to be very upset that I didn’t eat you first.  Drink my blood.”

 

She grabbed my arm, but it was too late.  The demon tore through the hay bale and reached out for Jen with a filthy claw.  I stepped in front of her and swung at the demon’s face with my left hand.  My nails ripped through its jaw, embedding squarely in its forehead.  I could feel its brain tickling my fingertips.

 

I pulled my hand out, but the nail from my middle finger remained embedded in the creature’s skull.  I looked down at my hand.  It was the first time I’d ever lost a claw.

 

“It’s the poison,” Jen said.

 

I showed her my hand, looking at her between my remaining nails.  “You need to get me that antidote.” 

 

“I will.  Do I still need to drink your blood?” 

 

“Well, I suppose you could drink his.”  I ran my finger along the demon’s jaw and collected a small sample of its dark, viscous blood.  I put it in my mouth.  “It’s a bit bitter though.”

 

Jen shuddered and touched the bottom of my arm with her fingertips.  She bent over slightly and sucked a drop of blood off my wound.  She frowned and soured her face, struggling to swallow it.  I felt insulted.

 

“Did it work?” she asked.

 

Her sweet smell dissipated.  I looked at her and felt no more compelled to eat her than a brick wall.  “Yeah.  It worked.”

 

The demons began dispersing as quickly as they’d arrived.  They left a few remains; mostly bone and sheets of skin.  I strolled through the remains looking for anything of value.  A few torn up pieces of clothing.  Some mangled organ meat.  I picked up an arm and looked over it.  Just bone and a few tendons.  Not even worth biting into.  I tossed it back to the dirt.  “Everyone who didn’t get eaten is safe now.  Except from me.”

 

“I don’t feel any safer.”  Jen peeked around the corner of the building with bloodshot eyes. 

 

“I can’t eat you now, so you’re safe.”  I rummaged through the remaining remnants but nothing left passed for dog food.  “Now take me to the antidote before I lose any more body parts.”

 

She sat on her knees glaring at the dirt as if thinking of a lost love.  I knelt in front of her and lifted her chin with my index finger so she’d meet my eyes.  “I said, take me to the antidote.”

 

She pushed me away and buried her face in her elbow.  “There is no antidote.”

 

My hands began shaking.  I could feel the claw on my index finger starting to loosen.  Not one to be left waiting I yanked it out like a loose tooth with my other hand and tossed it aside.  “So I don’t have much time.”

 

“I thought you’d be dead by now.  I didn’t know it would work so slowly.”

 

“It doesn’t hurt yet.”  I started back towards the marketplace.  I figured maybe there’d still be some good meat back around the open air booths.  Maybe I’d still have a shot at the tonic shop owner.

 

“You’re just going to let me go?”

 

“I can’t eat you.  You’re tainted with demon blood.  You’d taste terrible.”  I walked back to the market.  Blood soaked the ground, but the street was abandoned aside from a few bones.  I sat upon the collapsed pillar of a trinket booth and looked out over the street.  Cheap pendants and chains spread across the ground like golden ooze, sparkling under the sunlight. 

 

A tiny silver ring caught my eye.  Half buried in dirt, the side pointed towards me.  I picked it up and blew off the dust. 

 

“Help me.”

 

I shoved the trinket into my pocket and lifted the midnight blue canvas from the ground behind me.  A shopkeeper laid trapped underneath the pieces of a shattered support beam.  I recognized the charcoal beard and weatherworn face.  His wrinkled hands grasped at the dirt and he looked up at me with desperate eyes. 

 

I knew this man.  He smelled so strongly of pepper and seawater that it permeated his merchandise.  At least it used to.  I couldn’t smell him at all anymore.  I sighed and prepared to take advantage of an easy meal. 

 

I extended my claws.  Another one fell out.  The man reached towards me with a gnarled hand.  “Please, spare me.”

 

I looked at my hand and back at the man.  He didn’t look tasty.  He didn’t even look like food.  I retracted my claws and stood up.

 

“What are you doing, demon?”  Jen snuck up on me and I nearly jumped from my skin.  I didn’t have to turn to see her.  I could hear her pulling the string on her bow again.

 

“I was simply going to eat this man.”

 

“No, you’re going to make him drink your blood.”

 

“What?”  The man and I spoke at the same time.

 

She addressed him.  “He’s a demon.  Drink his blood and other demons won’t recognize you as food.  It worked for me.”

 

I shook my head.  “You’re starting to annoy me, woman.”

 

“Yeah, well you should have killed me when you had the chance.”

 

“Vengeance is more of a human thing.  But I’m starting to see the appeal.” 

 

“Y-you’re a demon?”  The man looked up at me; eyes filled with surprise. 

 

I removed my hat to prove it, but both of my horns fell harmlessly to the ground. 

 

“I don’t want to drink his blood.”  The man struggled to free himself, wincing from the pain in his legs.  He looked at Jen.  “Since you drank his blood, can I not drink yours instead?”

 

I shook my head.  “It doesn’t work that way.  You have to drink the blood of an actual demon.”

 

I reached out and offered the man some of my blood.  He licked it off with an almost apologetic look on his face.  I turned to Jen with my head low.  “They shouldn’t bother him now.”

 

“You’re acting different.  The poison must be getting to you.”

 

“Yeah.”  I watched as the last claw fell off my hand.  My head was swimming.  I couldn’t even identify half the emotions racing through.  “If I’m going to die soon, I think it might be a good idea to immunize as many people as I can before that happens.”

 

“Really?”  Jen tilted head back.  “That’s awfully strange coming from you.”

 

“I’ve never faced death before.  Might as well do something with the last few hours.”

 

“You actually want to help the town?”

 

“I don’t know.  I’m not thinking like myself anymore, but I’d like to do this.  Before the demons come back.”

 

She nodded.  And then she smiled.  I felt bad for ever wanting to eat her.  We helped free the shopkeeper and looked around town for people to inoculate with my blood.  We found dozens of them and I felt contented knowing that I had a chance to meet with each of them.

 

“The best place to go next is the hospital,” Jen said.  “Even uninjured people are probably gathered there to meet up with loved ones.”

 

I swallowed and kept my mouth shut.  I only knew the hospital as a place to get a meal that couldn’t run very fast.  People poured out the doors, crying and holding one another.

 

“Hey, listen up.”  Jen’s voice pierced the whines of the crowd like a spear.  “The demons are eventually going to come back, and when that happens, we need a way to survive it.”

 

“There’s nothing we can do.”  A young man in torn clothing clutched his wounded arm.

 

“There is.”  She pointed to me.  “This is a demon.  He’s going to die soon, but before he does…”

 

“A demon?”  The crowd became restless.  I adjusted the brim of my hat to avoid seeing their eyes.

 

“Listen to me.”  Jen raised her voice.  “Each person here needs to drink just a drop of his blood.  I did it myself and I was spared from the demon attack.”

 

“He doesn’t look like a demon.”

 

“How do we know he won’t attack us?”

 

“I won’t drink the blood of a foul creature.”

 

The crowd noise grew overwhelming.  I tried to protract my claws for protection.  But there were none left.  I’d made a mistake by following Jen this way. 

 

A large man with a patchy beard and a belly as big as a wheelbarrow split through the crowd.  He held the edges of his coat and looked my body up and down.  “I know this demon.  It’s the one who killed my wife about a year ago.”

 

I didn’t know if he was right or wrong.

 

The man glared at me with venom in his eyes.  “He chased her down an alley faster than I could keep up.  I never saw her again.  Never even found her body.”

 

Now I remembered.  My heart started to race.  I took a step back.

 

“He’s going to pay for what he did.  Let’s tie him up.  We’ll march him through town and bleed him dry.” 

 

I reached back with a closed fist and punched the man in the nose.  A satisfying pop rang through the air and I prepared to follow it up with a nice elbow to the chin.  He reeled back and I felt pressure on my arm.  Another human clinging to me like a scab.  I kneed the man in the gut, but before long the others swarmed me.  I gasped and struggled, but the weight of their bodies nearly overpowered the putrid smell of their flesh. 

 

“Don’t fight it,” Jen said.  “If you want to make up for what you did, this is what you’ll have to do.”

 

“I’m not that person anymore.”  They tied my arms behind me so tightly that the ropes dug through my skin.  I couldn’t feel my hands.  “I only want to help.”

 

“You’re dying and delirious.”

 

“No, you don’t understand.  You said that venom is toxic to demons, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Maybe only my demon side is dying.”

 

The men turned me around towards the crowd.  So many faces.  Some of them familiar; most of them not.  The large pot-bellied man approached me holding a dagger as if it were a dinner knife.  He sniffled and spit a glob of bloody phlegm into the dirt as he waved the blade over my face.  His tongue jutted out like a dying eel as he calculated precisely where he wanted to make his cut.  He held it to my head.  I gritted my teeth as he raked the blade slowly across my eyebrows.  The sting sent a cool shiver down between my shoulder blades. 

 

The blood tickled as it ran over my cheek.  People began dabbing it with their fingers, sucking up drops of it without ever looking into my eyes.  I peered out for Jen as they forced me to march.  She stood against the backdrop of a dying sun; cold and indifferent.

 

After the villagers finished marching me through town, they threw me into a filthy jail cell without speaking a word to me.  It smelled like decomposing flesh and I cupped the wound on my forehead, worrying that it might get infected.  I kicked the dust and filth away from one little corner of the cell and slept there by sitting upright against the wall. 

 

The first night passed and then the second.  I spent my time counting bricks and watching the guard.  I wondered what he was thinking.  Every hour or so during the day, the guard would bring in new people to cut me open and drain my blood.  I developed scars across my face and arms, but the cutting didn’t hurt anymore.  I began to look forward to it.  As the days passed, I knew with certainty that the venom wouldn’t kill me. 

 

I stopped pleading with the guards.  They didn’t believe I could ever be human.

 

One afternoon as I was counting the bricks on the wall the door to the cell opened with a hideous creak.  I sighed and rolled up my sleeve.  They hadn’t cut above my elbow yet.  A soft voice called to me.  “How are you?”

 

“Jen?”  She wore a burgundy dress and a warm summer smile.

 

“They’re going to let you go.  Everyone in town has tasted your blood.  I’ve been begging them to release you and they finally agreed.”

 

I didn’t know what to say.  I struggled to my feet and stumbled out of the cell with my head hung low.  I didn’t have the words to thank her but I managed a weak smile.  She patted my back as I smelled the outdoors for the first time.

 

 

I sat outside the café across from Jen as I held a fine red wine from the Tistari province.  It had been three weeks since the humans released me and I finally felt as if they considered me one of their own.  I looked down at my clothes and smiled.  A puffy white shirt and functional grey trousers. 

 

The market was beautiful this time of year and I didn’t know of any place to catch a better view.  I took a sip of my wine and leaned back in the chair.  The flavor was rich and fruity with a hint of cedar. 

 

Or so I was told. 

 

Truthfully, I had no taste for it.  The color reminded me of the days when I could drink human blood and feel invigorated with every drop that hit my tongue.

 

I swirled the glass and felt a light rumble underneath my feet.  I smiled and finished the wine in one solid gulp.  Cracks began to form in the ground around me and soon flaming magma sprouted up all around.

 

“What’s going on?  They’re coming again?”

 

I shrugged.  “It will be a short trip if everyone here truly tasted demon blood.”

 

The fiends erupted from the earth in numbers greater than ever.  I lifted my feet onto the table and watched them tear through humans as they cried for mercy.  It was a joyous feast for the ears. 

 

“You said your blood would save us.”  Jen stood up in front of me, tears welling in her eyes. 

 

“I said that demon blood would save you.”  I smiled, noticing the big violet demon reaching up behind her.  “I’m no longer a demon.  I’m a human just like you.”

 

Her blood spattered across my face as she was torn into giblets before my eyes.  I licked a drop off my chin and promptly wiped it from my tongue.  Not quite the taste that I remembered.  Still, with all the new human emotions and experiences stretched out before me, I think I liked vengeance best of all.

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Life in an Anthill

I wrote this story about a year and a half ago.  It was my first legitimate attempt at using first-person perspective, and to date, the only story I’ve written that wouldn’t be classified as “genre fiction.”  

I’ve had trouble marketing this story, but despite its shortcomings, I’m happy with the attempt, and I believe that I did a number of things right, even if it ultimately falls flat at certain points.   One editor in particular expressed some very kind words about the story.  They understood exactly what I was trying to say and do, and that proved to me that this story does have value, even if it’s not for everyone.  I will continue posting one story a day for the next few days, culminating with a fantasy piece that my wife thinks is of professional quality.  I hope you enjoy this, and as always, I appreciate the interest in my work.

 

Life in an Ant Hill

I felt a lump in my throat the size of Wisconsin as I pulled up to the parking space.  Gilbert’s white Mazda sat in the spot I usually took right in front of the door.  I parked nearby in my little green fiat. 

When I opened the car door an old geography textbook fell onto the pavement.  It was stained with sticky cola and bits of napkin, so I picked it up carefully with my thumb and index finger.  The big blue globe on the cover stared back at me and I frowned.  No matter how many different people, countries and cultures I could pick out on the map, nothing outside the pinprick representing Vallejo, California meant a damn thing in my life.  I tossed the book into the trashcan.   

I hated college almost as much as the salty smell of french fries and cooking oil.  The same aroma that made me hungry as a high school freshman now smelled like a three-hundred dollar paycheck and Monday-Tuesday weekends. 

I looked at the clock on my cell phone and realized I could be nineteen minutes late if I hurried.  Since that sounded better than twenty I butted the door open with my shoulder and walked in.

Susie was the first person I saw, but she seemed even more repelled by my presence than usual.  She wore glasses thick enough to spot Pluto on a cloudy night, but that didn’t stop her from squinting up at the order screen to avoid eye contact.  “Hey Greg, don’t clock in.  Gilbert wants to see you in his office.”

Don’t clock in.  Three terrible words that I’d become familiar with in my few working years.  I gritted my teeth and tried to brush the chip crumbs off my uniform.  They stayed stuck in the cotton mesh and wouldn’t budge.  I shook my head and marched to the back.  I prepared a phony grin and opened the door.  Gilbert looked up from his game of Minesweeper and motioned to the chair in front of his desk.  “Sit down, Greg.”

I sat and looked up at Gilbert’s chin.  My chair sunk down like it was pitted in quicksand and I felt like a child sitting at the adult dinner table for the first time.  Gilbert switched off his monitor and lounged back with his fingers intertwined.  “I thought I talked to you about coming in late like this.”

“I’m sorry sir.” I couldn’t tell if I was being sarcastic or not.  “I don’t have any excuses, but I promise that it won’t happen again.”

“That’s not good enough.  We need reliable employees who want to be here.” 

I turned away and tried to imagine the neanderthal who would enjoy coming in and flipping burgers for a living.  “I do enjoy being here and I’m a hard worker.  I’m good with the customers.  You know how hard it is to get people who stick around here.  I’ve been working for a couple months and four or five people have quit since then.”

“I know, but I’ve given you too many chances as it is.  I can’t stand around waiting for you to start caring.  You don’t keep your uniform clean.  You don’t shave regularly.”

“Well, maybe if you’re basing all that on today, but-“

“I’m sorry Greg.  I think you’re a good guy, but I’m going to have to let you go.”  The words grabbed my heart and I felt my jaw go limp. 

“Okay.”  It was all I could think to say.  I looked into the eyes of the junior college student who had just ended my career and I turned around.  I left the room with my body numb to the activity all around me.  The boisterous sounds of the restaurant blended together like the white noise of a waterfall rushing in the distance.  By the time I started my ignition, I already felt a little better.  At least I wouldn’t have to go to work for a while.

I tried blasting the radio, but the songs were all too crappy and mainstream so I turned it off and sang an old Offspring song about road rage.  I planned my entire day out in my head. A quick call to my friend Justin followed by leftover pizza and a limitless Halo 3 play session.  That was it.  By the time I got to my apartment and threw my body onto the couch I felt absolutely liberated.  I dialed Justin’s number.

“Hey, what are you calling me so early for?” he sounded groggy and hung over. 

“It’s almost eleven.”  I smiled and switched the phone to my other ear.  “Did you have a late night?”

“I went to bed around six.  What’s going on?”

“It’s time to celebrate.”  I raised my voice and feigned excitement.  “Gilbert surprised me with an early retirement today.”

“Dude, I’m too tired for the stupid word play.  Are you saying you got fired?” 

“Yeah.  You wanna hang out?”

“I’d rather sleep.”  After a long silence I could hear Justin’s labored breathing on the other end.  It resembled snoring and I wondered if I should shout into the earpiece.  “Give me a minute to get ready.  I’ll meet you at the little cafe next to my house.”

I frowned and thought about the Saturday crowds strutting in with their laptops and turtlenecks.  “Can we do the comic book store?  I’m less intimidated by nerds and low lighting.”

“If I’m going to be up right now, it’s gotta be either the café or that coffee shop you hate.”

“Café it is.  I’ll meet you there.”  I hung up and searched around the apartment for something decent to wear.  Most of my clothes were lying in piles and I couldn’t really tell what was clean.  I sniffed a black Metallica shirt.  Nothing but stale deodorant with a hint of cheap cologne.  I threw it on along with a pair of sunglasses and a beanie. 

The cafe was only a couple blocks away, but one glance down the sidewalk and I knew I had to drive.  A middle aged hipster and his idiot dog blocked off the entire sidewalk and I wasn’t interested in conspicuously stepping around them through the dewy grass. 

The drive wasn’t long and Justin was already sitting in the corner.  I avoided eye contact with the girl at the front but she called to me anyway.

“Hey, how’s it going today?”  Her overly bubbly greeting drilled itself into my skull and I turned my head towards her Siren call.  Long blond hair and a smile so sickeningly sweet that I expected to see strawberry syrup pouring out her ears. 

“Good.  Just here to meet a friend.”  I walked away too quickly for her to respond and then scooted into the booth across from Justin.  “You got here quick.”

“I had to rush to keep from falling back asleep.  So what happened?”

I shrugged and started fidgeting with one of the sugar packets on the table.  “I don’t know.  I got there late one too many times I guess.”

“How are you going to pay your rent?”  Justin took another sip and looked up with bloodshot eyes.  I detected a hint of schadenfreude in his voice. 

“Rent’s going to be tough.  I should probably find another job.”

“Well, you could always move back in with your parents.  It sucks, but it’s kept me from working.”

“I’m not moving in with my parents.”  I chuckled and tore the sugar packet open.  “I could probably tolerate it, but they’d be miserable.  I bet when they find out I got fired they’ll offer to pay my rent for me just to avoid the possibility.”

“They’d do that?”

I shrugged and poured the sugar into my mouth.  “Probably.  They have money.”

“Man, I’m so jealous of you.”  Justin finished off his coffee and stood up to get another.  “My parents are close to broke, but even if they had money I don’t think they’d just give it to me.  Damn.  Just thinking about sitting around and doing nothing.  That’s pretty much the dream life.” 

As Justin got back in line to grab another coffee his last sentence stuck with me.  I felt haunted by the realization that what he said was true.  The best existence I could hope for would be sitting around playing video games while simultaneously avoiding human interaction.  I rested my head on the table until Justin got back with his beverage.

“So you never really had any ambition to do anything?” I asked.

“What, for work?” Justin sat down and blew on his coffee.  He looked a bit puzzled.

“Yeah.  I mean you can’t live with your parents forever.”

“I kind of wanted to get into business for a while but I changed my mind when I started taking classes.  At this point I think my best chance is winning the lottery.” 

“It’s just weird,” I said.  I looked down at the table wishing I had my own mug as a distraction.  “We were both okay students in high school.  What happened?”

“I don’t think about it too much.  I’ll get myself together and go back to school eventually.  Things will fall into place.” 

I shook my head and thumbed through the remaining sugar packets.  “I don’t think so.  I used to want to go to Africa and join one of those humanitarian programs.  I failed one cultural geography class before I realized that I kind of hate people and would be better off spending my time drinking beer and watching football.”

“Sort of a religious awakening for you, huh?”

I began wondering why I’d agreed to meet here.  I looked around for a quieter place to sit, but a man in the back of the kitchen immediately caught my eye.  He couldn’t have been a day younger than sixty and he was gripping a mop and working harder than I had at my very best.  It didn’t even seem to bother him that he was surrounded by privileged little yuppie kids only working to supplement their five-hundred dollar allowances.

“Why is that guy doing this?” I asked as I watched him.

“I don’t know.  Everybody needs to work.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, but isn’t there a point that you just give up?  I don’t understand the drive to keep going for this guy.  Why is he putting that much effort into such a meaningless task?  This guy is at the back end of his life and yet he keeps going, just existing because he can.  His entire legacy will be that he was a janitor for this crappy little cafe.”

 “He’s probably got family to take care of.  My dad never made much money but he still worked hard because of me and my mom.  That’s just life man.”

I ignored the fact that the dude who’d never worked a day in his life was lecturing me about responsibility.  With my eyes glued to the janitor I tried to convince myself that people have to make their own meanings in life and that it was all good for the species.  The more I watched though the less I bought it. 

Justin reached around his back like there was a spider loose in his shirt.  “Hold on a second.  I’ve got a call.” 

I flashed back to my days in school and wondered if I could do it again.  I remembered my professor’s meticulously trimmed goatee and his bottle of Vitamin Water far better than the lessons.  The other students would always raise their hands to discuss topics that they knew little about.  As stupid as high school students but twice as opinionated.  No, I wasn’t going to go back to that. 

I turned to Justin but he was still on the phone.  He had a sour look on his face as he plugged one ear and zoned in on the phone conversation.  I decided to head to the bathroom read any new graffiti in the stalls.  It would be healthy to get my daily dose of reading. 

Before I scooted all the way out of the booth, Justin stood up and turned his phone off.  “I’ve gotta go.  My dad’s in the hospital.  It sounds like he had a stroke.” 

I nodded but I couldn’t think of the right courtesy response.  I bit my tongue when I saw a tear rolling down Justin’s face.  It was barely distinguishable but in his case it may as well have been a tsunami.  I swallowed and picked my brain for a response.  “I’m sorry.  Do you need a ride?”

Justin shook his head.  “Nah, the bus goes right by here.”

“Yeah.”  I held my hand to my chin.  That sounded reasonable enough and it meant I wouldn’t have to do anything.  I started to turn around but I remembered the stale smell of body odor that always permeated the public buses.  Not to mention the clientele. I sighed.  “Well, I’ve got nothing to do.  Do you want a ride maybe?”

Justin sniffled and nodded.  “Okay.  If you’re sure.”

“Yeah.  I need to get out of here anyway.” I shuffled for my keys secretly hoping that I wouldn’t find them.  I led Justin out to my car while wondering how much gas this would cost me and where I would find a parking space.  The silence during the car ride was as awkward and excruciating as a Carrot Top concert and I found myself working hard to keep from whistling.

We got to the hospital and the nurse directed us to Justin’s father’s room.  His mom was already there, looking into the old man’s eyes while she held his hand and whispered to him.  I recited movie dialogue in my head to keep from hearing her and I looked up at the television.  Nascar.  All things considered I was willing to give it a chance.  I saw Justin hugging his mother out of the corner of my eye and I wondered if I’d be safe to leave. 

“You don’t have to stay,” Justin said.  “My mom can give me a ride.”

I nodded and swallowed.  “Okay, I’ll see you later.”

I felt a small measure of relief knowing that I could go home, but my eyes wandered to Justin’s father and my legs stopped dead as if cemented to the ground.  He wasn’t that old.  Just a twinkle in his eye away from fishing with his buddies.  I could see my own father in his withering eyes.  I could see myself.  I’m not sure why I did it, but I walked up to Justin and stood next to him.

“He’s done a lot for us,” Justin said.  “I don’t know how we’re going to pay all the medical bills.” 

The tears ran down his Justin’s face freely and I couldn’t help but feel like an asshole.  Justin’s father was just like the old janitor.  A man who worked hard for his family but had nothing to show for it.  I felt bad for being so critical when I had accomplished so little in my own life.  Less than either of them.  I stepped back and turned towards the door.

“You heading out?” Justin asked.

“Yeah, as long as you don’t need anything.  I hope your dad gets better.”

I grabbed the doorknob but I didn’t feel right leaving.  Justin turned to his mother.  “I’m sorry that I’ve waited so long to start looking for work.  I’ll get a job to help pay for everything.”

“That would really help the family,” Justin’s mother said.  “It’s going to be difficult for a while.”

It was weird to see Justin vulnerable and even weirder to see him caring about something.  I felt a knot forming in my throat.  “Do you maybe want to start taking classes with me?  I can look some up online.  It might be easier if we’re both in it together.”

Justin turned to me with his head down low.  “I don’t think I can afford it right now.  I just want to spend some time with my dad and then maybe we can take classes next summer.  I need to work everything out in my head.”

I nodded and looked down at the father.  I think he could see me too, and I know he could feel his family beside him.  I didn’t really know what to say so I waved awkwardly and left the room. 

By the time I got back to my car I already felt a little better.  If I wanted, I could go home and play video games until my eyes glazed over and I started attracting flies.  Somehow it just didn’t feel right. Every time something bad happened I found a way to escape.  Maybe it was time to stop being so passive and cynical.  The new semester of school was set to start and if I hurried I could go register for classes.  I put my foot on the gas and began the drive towards the registration office.  Life is too short to wish away.     

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