Prompts

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On collisions.

Published October 25, 2016 by mandileighbean

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #31: Ben Jackson, husband and father of three, is killed on a car accident. Write about this event and how it affects the lives of the following characters:

  • Ben’s wife
  • Ben’s business partner
  • a police officer who was at the scene of the accident
  • Ben’s youngest child

 

By all accounts, Ben Jackson was a good man. He loved his family very much, and he showed up to work with a smile everyday. Ben never complained; he had nothing to complain about, really, and he knew it was all wasted breath. Ben Jackson had never intended to waste any breath as he fully understood how precious such breaths were. So when Ben breathed his last, when his breaths were brutally cut short, it was certainly not of his own volition.

He never even saw the other car coming.

But why would he? No one ever really looks for the car speeding through a red light; the car just comes, as careless and reckless as any harbinger of death would be. That might be melodramatic – it was no sullen, hooded figure gliding just above the pavement  with a sickle clutched in a bony hand. It had been a kid; a simple, pimply kid who was too busy sending text messages in the group chat and making plans for a Friday night he was certain would come to look up. So confident in his immortality as only the young are, he assumed the car in front of him had disappeared from his stolen glances at the road because the traffic light had changed color from red to green. In reality, the car had made a legal right on red, but the teen driver wasn’t really paying attention. He accelerated forward the way young, inexperienced drivers are apt to do – in sudden, scary bursts – and in just a moment more, he slammed into the side of Ben Jackson’s car, right into the driver’s door.

Ben’s affordable Kia Rio folded like a cheap suit and a jagged piece of metal from the poorly constructed door (later, no one would mention the recall at the service because to do so would be impertinent) severed his femoral artery. He bled out in just four minutes, just before the paramedics arrived.

Officer Bobby Gillis, responding to the scene, was unnerved by the lack of carnage for a crash with a fatality. The teen’s car had managed to travel unscathed to the far side of the relatively busy intersection before he collided with the deceased, a Mr. Ben Jackson. Officer Bobby Gillis was slightly bent at the waist, looking in through an open window at Ben Jackson’s face. The face was peaceful, like the man could be sleeping instead of being dead. Office Bobby Gillis released a deep breath and straightened up, looking across the way for his partner. Once he showed up, the pair would travel to the deceased’s home and notify the next of kin. Officer Bobby Gillis swallowed hard and ran a trembling hand across the back of his neck a few times. He needed to get his mind right, to focus on the task at hand, which in essence was to break someone’s heart, some undeserving stranger who as of yet had no idea a loved one was gone, dead and gone. His face felt tingly and he knew he must be pale, and he shut his eyes tight against the vision of the peaceful dead man that would haunt him at night for months to come.

Imagine if Officer Bobby Gillis knew what a great guy Ben Jackson was. How harder would the tragedy have landed on the officer if he knew Ben Jackson was on the road during the workday to pick up lunch for his colleagues, his treat? No good deed goes unpunished, and for a generous lunch, Ben Jackson had paid with his life. What a sick joke.

But neither Officer Bobby Gillis nor his partner knew the intimate details of Ben Jackson’s life and as such, both were better composed as they climbed wooden, creaking steps to a front door of a home that looked like every other home in the neighborhood. There was nothing remarkable about it, nothing to alert anyone to the fact that someone inside had been marked for death. Officer Bobby Gillis continued to grapple with his existential crisis until he noticed the toys in the yard and the small bikes in the driveway. His stomach flipped over and for a moment, just a moment, he debated running back to the cruiser and locking the doors. He’d rather avoid the whole, ugly mess.

But his partner had already knocked.

When the door opened, a gorgeous blonde with legs for miles answered the door. She was smiling, but it didn’t quite meet her big, baby doll eyes. Officer Bobby Gillis chalked it up to being uncomfortable and confused, which was how most pedestrians felt when the law came knocking on their door. Officer Bobby Gillis’ partner asked if the children were home.

“Just my youngest,” said the beautiful woman. “Jimmy and Josie are at school.” Her face paled considerably but somehow remained radiant. Officer Bobby Gillis credited contoured makeup. “Is everything okay? Did something happen to my children?”

The partner answered that no, nothing happened to the children and that they were safe. Then he asked if they could come in. Though the woman gave no response, she opened the front door wider and stepped back, which was as good an invitation as any. The officers crossed the threshold, softly shutting the door behind them, and followed the beautiful woman into the kitchen. She shakily sat in a chair, watching with impossibly wide eyes as the officers seated themselves opposite her.

Officer Bobby Gillis let his partner do all the talking.

And as the partner explained the tragedy, the beautiful woman didn’t make a sound. She blinked those big, baby doll eyes a lot, blinked them until a few tears rolled down her cheeks. Officer Bobby Gillis credited shock for the muted reaction, and considered that quite possibly, this woman was doing her best to keep it together for the little one that was somewhere inside the home. Officer Bobby Gillis and his partner offered expected but genuine condolences and then excused themselves. Once outside, Officer Bobby Gillis said, “Well, that sucked.” His partner agreed and Officer Bobby Gillis said, “That’s the absolute worst part of this job, man.”

Inside, the beautiful woman was still sitting at the table. Her name was Lisa and she had been married to Ben Jackson for ten years. They had known each other in high school, but waited a few years after they graduated college to get serious. It was a safe bet for Lisa, a sure thing; he was making money as a financial adviser and Lisa had never been any good at anything, not skilled enough to have a career. She also was never any good with money, so she had been content to be taken care of (financially, at the very least). That is, she had been content.

Phil Evans, Ben’s business partner, came walking out of the bedroom from down the hallway, tucking his expensive button-down shirt into his equally expensive pants. “Who was that?” he asked.

“The police,” Lisa said. Her voice was flat. “Ben’s dead. There was a car accident.” She blinked. “He didn’t make it. He’s dead.” She blinked again. In a moment more, those big, baby doll eyes landed on Phil.

Phil collapsed into the chair recently vacated by Officer Bobby Gillis. His eyebrows were scrunched up, like he was confused and trying to solve some exceedingly frustrating problem. “What?” he asked, even though he had heard Lisa perfectly. He didn’t know what else to say – what was there to say? – and he was buying time, time to think and figure it out.

“Ben’s dead,” Lisa repeated. Her voice cracked and tears came easier now. “Ben’s dead.”

Phil covered his face with his hands. “Shit,” he breathed. His breath was tremulous, speeding up and slowing down in a jerky kind of pattern that typically signaled tears. He didn’t want to cry in front of Lisa, didn’t feel he had the right to mourn Ben’s passing in Ben’s house. Phil’s recent sense of decency was odd and ill-timed, as he had just slept with Ben’s wife and had been doing so for months. “Lisa, I-”

Down the hall, Jeremy was softly crying. He was just waking up from his afternoon nap and rather than sit across from Phil and face the physical manifestation of everything that was wrong with her, Lisa hurried down the hall.

In her absence, Phil found himself able to cry.

death_in_the_hood

On hearing and personal normalcy.

Published September 28, 2016 by mandileighbean

Round of applause, please; I’m actually posting weekly! Granted this is the first time it has happened, but it’s all about the baby steps, right? It’s all about doing the work.

So without further self-aggrandizing glory, or further do, here’s this week’s writing prompt. I’d like to thank Cristina Hartmann who wrote a beautiful, poignant article on her deaf experience. Her willingness to be so honest and so personal helped me through writer’s block and taught me to be open-minded through validating the idea that there is a common human experience no matter the extenuating circumstances.

Enjoy.

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #29: A deaf woman undergoes a surgical procedure that enables her to hear for the first time.

The surgery had been an absolute success, one worthy of being documented in some elite medical journal that was never actually read but given a prestigious place on a bookshelf of some pretentious professional. But Monica had no idea that she was a medical marvel; not yet, anyway. She was still floating somewhere in the dark ether of anesthesia, blissfully unaware of the momentous, tragic changes in her life that had occurred while she was sleeping peacefully.

Monica had been born deaf, an innocent victim of her mother’s sins. Monica’s mom had been a pretty heavy drug user in the very beginning of her pregnancy and though her daughter had been the reason she finally got clean, it was too little too late. The damage was done and in her youngest years, Monica was constantly shushed so that the toddler wouldn’t make noise at inappropriate times. How was Monica to know she was even making sounds, let alone when she was being shushed? The kid couldn’t hear, couldn’t hear a damn thing, and so Monica struggled to learn American Sign Language. Doing so allowed Monica to meet many, many different people and in her important, formative years, she signed with adults, and that early exposure to maturity and a cynic sort of wisdom only vaguely hidden behind smiles that didn’t quite meet the eyes (because she was still a child after all) indelibly shaped Monica’s personality. She had always been an old soul – polite, conservative and comfortable even in the strange solitude that came with being unable to hear.

Being comfortable wasn’t always synonymous with being complacent, so when Monica had been referred to the Cochlear Implant Center, she continued on that journey to meet with an audiologist, and when her medical history had been sufficiently reviewed and all the necessary medical tests had been conducted, Monica willingly moved on to the last phase, which involved a psychiatric evaluation. In the end, all had been golden and she was approved for cochlear implant surgery.

Monica remembered her hands twitching nervously as the surgeon explained the procedure. She thought it was nice he wanted her to be informed, but Monica was letting most of it simply fall away. She was too nervous to concern herself with the details of the surgery because it wasn’t the impending incision that troubled her; it was the aftermath. She had been relieved to discover that she would still be unable to hear like a hearing person, and that the implant could be turned off so that Monica could effectively be deaf again. The thing Monica hated most about being deaf was that it was not her choice; taking a wide view of the thing, Monica supposed you could say it had been her mother’s choice, but unwittingly so. Either way, Monica liked the idea that being able to hear was her choice, very much her choice. If she longed for the familiar soothing and peaceful silence she had lived in for so long, Monica could go there any time she liked. That thought had calmed her enough to go ahead with the procedure.

Surprisingly, the surgery was no big deal; Monica learned that the majority of patients go home the same day, and that the surgery only lasted between two to three hours. After minimal hair shaving and a small incision (the aerated bone behind her ear had to be removed so the device could be implanted), she’d go home and remove the dressings the next day, standing in front of her bathroom mirror, breathing deeply and listening hard for anything, anything at all.

What a change it would be; good or bad, it would certainly be different.

So as far as anyone was concerned, Monica should have been on her way home. But her shit luck reared its ugly head once more, and there had been a minor complication. The procedure had caused facial nerve stimulation, and they wanted to keep Monica longer (overnight) for observation, to make sure the damage wasn’t permanent. The surgeon would tell her, with an overly enthusiastic smile and tone to let her know her optimism should not in any way shape or form be deterred, when she woke from the anesthesia but even that was taking longer than it should. A surgeon couldn’t be expected to wait around all day, could he? Certainly not; time to wait around was not a luxury in the business of saving lives.

Monica was therefore all alone when she began to stir. Well, all alone if one discounted her roommate, which it seemed most people did. He was a young man essentially being kept comfortable until he inevitably kicked the bucket. The car accident had ravaged his insides; so much vital stuff had been bruised and was bleeding and it was just a God awful mess. The next of kin had been alerted, but there wasn’t enough time (was there ever) and that poor young man was going to die alone and he was going to do so in a matter of moments.

“I’m so scared,” he breathed. It took a lot, to make noise, to push enough air through his throat to vibrate his vocal chords. It was a lot of work, a lot of effort, but it had to be done. Everyone deserves to have a final say, and he was going to have him, goddammit.

Monica’s eyes shot open. She heard it; she heard it. It startled her awake, the husky voice wracked with pain and despair, but it was the only voice she had ever heard. She was hearing. She was smiling and tears were freely pouring. She hadn’t processed what the voice said exactly, but for now, it was enough that it had been audible.

“It’s not fair,” the voice croaked. “I didn’t do anything wrong, man. I was wearing my seatbelt. I was sober.” There was a deep, shuddering breath. “How can there be nothing that they can do? How can this be it?” The voice broke near the end, cracked into a million desperate shards that had nowhere to land, nothing to shatter against.

The voice asked questions Monica was unable to answer, not only because she didn’t know how to intellectually, but because she didn’t know how to physically. She had years of speech therapy to go before she’d be able to effectively communicate without using her hands. Any sound she attempted now would be unsettling at best, impossible for the man suffering beside her to discern. Her smile had faded, had done so quickly, and something akin to indescribable sorrow had contorted her features to something decidedly less than beautiful.

“It’s karma,” the man said. He waited a moment, for an absolution perhaps. Maybe he was waiting for a kind soul to argue otherwise, but there was nothing. “It has to be karma,” he continued. “I knew she was drunk but she was smiling and laughing and I never heard no.” There was sharp intake of breath. “I swear to God, she never told me no. She never asked me to stop. I was young and…” his voice trailed off. Monica didn’t think he would speak again, and she was okay with that. She didn’t like playing priest in this warped confessional. How could the first voice she ever heard belong to a dying man, a dying man that felt the need to confess the worst thing he’d ever done? If he wanted to talk about what was unfair, Monica was game.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he sobbed. “I don’t want to die.”

Monica shut her eyes tight, letting the tears roll freely. What else could she do?

 

deafness

On films and blood and TV and Twitter.

Published September 23, 2016 by mandileighbean

I know I’ve said this so many times that it’s actually starting to lose meaning, but I promise that my focus is going to be on my writing career from this moment on. You won’t believe me, but that’s okay. I mean it this time, I swear.

And I have evidence to prove it … sort of. There’s an actor named Eric Balfour (see image below.)

He was in TV shows like “24,” “Six Feet Under,” and most recently, “Haven” (which I really freaking loved and highly recommend. It’s currently on Netflix, so you’re welcome). I binge watched “Haven” over the summer – because I was a teacher on summer vacation who was broke – and fell in love with his character and with his physicality as an actor; he’s like really tall and his movements should be awkward seeing as how he’s mostly composed of limbs, but his movements are deliberate and graceful. It’s almost fascinating to watch him do anything, especially interact with other actors.

If you haven’t noticed, when I like something, I really, really like something. I go all in, man. So now that I liked this actor named Eric Balfour, I started following him on Twitter. When I watched the series finale of “Haven,” I directed a Tweet to him about how I thought his character got a raw deal (no spoilers, I promise). He liked my tweet. He read my tweet, and then he liked it.

So when he asked for book recommendations that would make great television series that hadn’t been optioned yet, I tweeted the title of my book (Her Beautiful Monster). He liked that tweet, too. He read that tweet too, and then he liked it. He liked another tweet. This was insanity. I took it as a sign from the universe that this was a chance, one of those crazy moments that could be the opportunity of a lifetime, the beginning of a fairytale. It could also be nothing, but hey – you have to be in to win it, right?

Being so emboldened or empowered or what have you, I sent him a direct message through Twitter, telling this actor a little bit more about my book. He read the message. He read the message and he wrote back.

HE READ THE MESSAGE AND HE WROTE BACK.

This Hollywood actor who owes me absolutely nothing, who has no idea as to who I am or what my intentions are or anything like that, took the time to respond to my self-indulgent message to tell me he would look at my book and wished me luck in my career.

That’s something. Even if all this comes to nothing, it’s something. And I am forever grateful.

In other writing news, Martin Sisters Publishing is interested in publishing my second novel, Moody Blue. I’m just waiting on the contract and once that happens, prepare for a marketing blitz.

Because this is my focus now; writing. So, here’s a weekly writing prompt. Enjoy, and pleasepleasePLEASE let me know what you think.

WRITING PROMPT #28: “He makes films. I didn’t ask what kind.”

 

Amy spit blood onto the cold, concrete floor beneath her bare feet. She still had that tell-tale coppery taste in her mouth, so she knew that she was still bleeding even without the help of a mirror. Amy thought it made sense that she was still bleeding because she was still sore as hell. Her head was pounding at the very base of her skull – she assumed that had happened when he had shoved her in the van. As  a matter of fact, despite the ache in her skull that slowed her thinking, Amy was sure she’d slammed her head twice, slammed her head against the metal door after the brutal, hard shove inside the van, and then her skull crashed against the metal floor when she lost her footing completely and fell flat on her back. Megan had been tossed in next and had landed on Amy. The air rushed from Amy and it felt like insult had been added to injury. Amy turned to survey Megan now.

Megan was still out cold. She hadn’t been able to stop screaming. The hysteria and desperation seemed to be keeping her mouth open, her throat raw and lungs filled because Megan just kept screaming until the butt of the 9mm made contact with the right side of her face. Blood dripped from Megan’s wound like water from a tricky faucet, splashing on the floor in a rhythm so reliable it was almost comforting. Amy eyed Megan’s slumped position in the metal folding chair and knew there was no way she was comfortable. When Megan woke up, she’d be stiff, sore and essentially useless should the opportunity to escape present itself. Amy knew such thinking was a pipe dream as her eyes acknowledged the itchy rope used to tie Megan’s legs to the legs of the chair and to tie Megan’s wrists together behind her back. Amy was similarly secured, but still she twitched her shoulder and wrists with foolish optimism, like maybe the ropes would suddenly be loose. But Amy had no such luck – never did, really and never would seeing as how she’d likely die in the barren room with the concrete floor.

But Amy didn’t want to die alone. Amy wanted to have a fighting chance, and she wanted one for Megan, too.

“Megan,” Amy called in a harsh whisper. Megan didn’t move. “Megan,” Amy tried again, this time a little louder. Amy had to be careful – she wanted to be loud enough to wake Megan but quiet enough to keep from getting the attention of the sick fuck who abducted them. After calling Megan’s name a second time, Amy listened hard for running footsteps or creaky doors or any sure sign that someone was coming. Amy listened so hard she didn’t allow herself to breathe. When the only discernable sound was the steady drip of Megan’s blood, Amy started calling out to Megan again and again, louder each time until finally Megan’s eyes fluttered open and she groaned in discomfort.

“Fuck,” was all Megan had to offer.

“You’re telling me,” Amy said as she snorted humorless laughter through her nose.

There was a beat of silence. And then another. Then there were soft sniffles. Amy raised her splitting, throbbing head to eye Megan. She was crying quietly. “I’m sorry,” she said between gasps of air.

Amy swallowed hard. “It’s not your fault.”

“Yes it is!” Megan suddenly roared. Amy flinched, but stayed quiet. “It’s my fault because I know this guy.” She was openly sobbing now, being loud and sloppily confessing to an unknown betrayal. “He said he needed actresses at this house party we were both at, and I was drunk so I signed us up.”

“Actresses for what?” Amy asked. She was confused and her battered brain was refusing to cooperate, to make heads or tails of any of it.

“He makes films. I didn’t ask what kind,” Megan said, breaking and sobbing some more. Her cries were pitiful and awful and terrible and worse than the silence. For a grotesque moment, Amy wished the sick fuck would rush in and punch Megan right in the mouth so Amy would at least be spared the howls of desperation of her best friend as they inched closer to death. Was there ever a worse soundtrack for a death scene?

“Maybe you should have,” Amy said. She locked eyes with her best friend. Megan stopped crying, shocked into silence by Amy’s attitude. How could she be sarcastic at a time like this? How could Amy be anything but terrified? Anger was bubbling up to Megan’s surface until Amy offered her a smile. It was queasy and horrible, stained with blood and pain, but it was just so fucking Amy. Megan smiled in spite of herself, eternally glad that if the end was nigh, she’d face it with her best friend, with the realest girl she knew.

On choosing.

Published November 22, 2015 by mandileighbean

The night before last, before falling into bed at 2 am, I went to put my retainers in like a responsible girl. I actually left the cozy comfort of my warm bed to do so, and the bottom retainer fell into the toilet while it was flushing. My life is a seemingly endless string of moments of karmic retribution. The next day, I dropped a roll of garbage bags down the basement stairs and despite physically contorting myself to prevent it, the bags unrolled across the disgusting basement floor.

WRITING PROMPT #27: Unexpectedly, the U.S. government outlaws smoking, with very little resistance from the tobacco industry.

Will turned the long, smooth cigarette over in his fingers mindlessly, without thought. He could be fined heavily, possibly even jailed depending on how zealous the officer was, for merely possessing the cigarette. It did not matter that it was not lit. It did not matter that it was not missing from a pack; it was just one, one that he had found rolling about in the glove compartment of his car. He had been looking for the cheap pair of plastic sunglasses normally stowed there, as the setting sun had been burning brilliantly and he couldn’t see if the stoplight was red or yellow, or even green. He hadn’t been able to see much of anything against the powerful rays, so he pulled over. There he continued to sit, stupefied by the presence of the contraband.

Where had it come from? Will hadn’t smoked in years, had quit long before it was illegal to light up. Besides, the cigarette in question wasn’t even his brand – he had smoked the short ones. The cigarette was definitely a 100, probably from the pack that had once featured a fearless, hyper masculine cowboy on its front. But no one had borrowed his car recently, and he knew no one who smoked, so again – where had the cigarette come from? He seriously pondered in the question in his old convertible. It was going to stop starting any day now, and then he’d be shit out of luck. The top was down partly because the weather was gorgeous, but mostly because it was stuck and wouldn’t go up. If the car did continue to start, if the engine continued to turn over, then all it would take would be one rainy day to end his means of transportation. Such was life, Will supposed. Everyone was one rainy day from calling it quits.

Cars whizzed by him on the freeway, completely unperturbed his presence in the shoulder. There were no craned necks, no one slowing down to try and figure out why he had stopped, no kind passersby asking if they could be of any assistance. Will was alone. In a world filled with all kinds of people, Will was alone. Blurred faces passed him by at seventy miles per hour by the car load, and he was lonely. It seemed terribly unfair and it was with such a realization that Will decided he was going to smoke one of the last cigarettes in America, consequences be damned.

When cigarettes had first been outlawed, there was essentially no protests or backlash or anything. The search and seizures of the nicotine products went smoothly and without incident.  Everyone seemed to think outlawing cigarettes was rational, made sense, and had no consequences, really. As time passed, however, cigarettes became something nostalgic, which returned to them their air of sophistication and personality. Perhaps that was why the tobacco industry had done nothing to fight the proposed law. Maybe those executives knew it was just a matter of time before humans forgot and once again began to choose exactly what was worst for them. Will had always found cigarettes appealing because to inhale carcinogens and poisons was daring and fearless in a way. What kind of person would risk such serious illness for a few minutes of-of what? Of pleasure? Of coolness? What was it that cigarettes gave people? He wasn’t sure he could put it in words. He wasn’t sure he could adequately describe it, but Will knew he missed being able to choose. So what if the choice was nonsensical, irrational and potentially harmful? It was still his choice to make, wasn’t it? How could that kind of freedom be illegal?

Will dug in the glove box for a lighter and lit up.

smoking

 

On the inability to stop questioning.

Published August 11, 2015 by mandileighbean

I’ve just finished Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN.
WARNING: Spoilers abound.

I was determined to hate this book. I didn’t agree with how the novel started, what with Jem dead and gone. I was treating it as a sequel rather than its own masterpiece, which it assuredly is, and was being stupid and small. I was behaving much in the same way Jean Louise was, confident in a supreme intelligence that nothing and no one could surprise me because I know it all inside out. But Jean Louise did not know her father as a human, did not know all the delicate intricacies of her hometown. She needed to see Atticus as a human being, with flaws (which boil down to opinions other than her own), just as the reader did. Lee is a masterful storyteller because she discreetly forces you along Jean Louise’s journey and does so flawlessly. Her revelations become the readers’ revelations and another invaluable lesson is imparted to a generation; that you can love someone and disagree with them, that parents are still people, and that we never, ever stop learning or growing. Beautifully written, perfectly executed; well done.

I cursed myself for starting the novel, firmly believing that there is information not worth knowing. I lumped this novel in with such information, but the pain that comes from realizations and revelations is how human beings grow. Though knowledge can come with a terrible cost at times, I suppose it’s up to each individual to decide when enough is enough. There is no hard and fast rule for when ignorance becomes bliss. Furthermore, I think that’s a lesson we all learn in time, in our own terribly painful way.

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #26: “While at a family reunion, a teenage brother and sister find an old suitcase filled with money under their uncle’s bed.”

The car slowly rolled to a halt at the end of the long, meandering driveway. The gravel crunched beneath the tires in a finite, satisfying way. David didn’t move. In no way did he acknowledge the end of the journey. He left his ear buds in, music blaring, and his forehead remained against the cool glass of the car window. His eyes were wide open but unfocused so that his vision was blurred and doubled in a disorienting way. David could have stayed that way for hours and hours, long after the sun sank down and disappeared, but his twin sister gave his arm an affectionate pinch. It didn’t hurt or anything, but it was enough to snap him out of it and bring him back to reality. He carelessly yanked his ear buds out and turned to face Savannah. “C’mon bud,” she said. She was smiling, but it was small and too sad to be sweet. David decided it was horrible and would have preferred Savannah to frown, or wail, or scream – anything else. “We’re here. We’ve got to get our stuff from the back,” she instructed. She turned away and climbed down from the family SUV. He mumbled “okay” pointlessly – no one was listening – and climbed down himself.
David hopped down and looked at his feet, comfortably clad in athletic slides and tube socks. Savannah was always giving him grief for that particular fashion choice, but David didn’t understand her frustration or her condemnation. He didn’t dress any differently than anyone else on the baseball team. Now that he thought about it, he realized his conformity was most likely the point of contention concerning his wardrobe. Currently, one side of Savannah’s head was shaved and the remaining locks were long and pink, a bright pink. As David moved to stand beside his twin sister, he surveyed her torn, black leggings, stained shirt featuring some band that had called it quits long before the Newbury twins were born, and the silver hoop stuck through her right nostril. Savannah was a rebel without a cause, to be sure. The hand that reached for a pink backpack of imitation leather featured fingernails adorned with chipped, black nail polish. David had never bothered to observe his other half, had never bothered to ask what it all was for. Death, he supposed, had that effect on some people.
Savannah felt David’s eyes upon her. Belongings secured in her grasp, she turned to face. “Why don’t you take a picture? It’ll last longer,” she said in a husky, laboring tone in her best imitation of a dumb, schoolyard bully. As she passed to enter her aunt’s massive and impressive log cabin with wonderfully modern and convenient amenities, she playfully slammed her shoulder into David’s. It caused him to rock back on his heels and he started to chase after Savannah, which caused her to shriek and scurry inside.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” David called after her. He offered the world a satisfied smile as he reached in for his own black duffle bag.

Later, David stood in the doorway of a bedroom on the third floor, the top floor of the cabin without counting the attic. He was to sleep in this room while his family stayed with Aunt Cheryl, who had just lost her husband. Uncle Doug had been killed in a rare attempted carjacking in town, a small town that was half an hour from the cabin, a small town whose name was only known, and not even cherished, by the locals. It was bizarre and tragic set of events, of circumstances, but wasn’t that always the way with death? If its patterns were readily, easily identifiable and thereby predictable, then the problem of the lack of longevity in humans would be solved. But David was not one for deep, philosophical thoughts, nor was he prone to entertaining existential crises. He shook his head and stepped into the room.
It felt weird, like the air was heavier or something equally irrational and beyond explanation or articulation. Savannah’s fashionable backpack rested atop the twin bed farthest from the door and nearest to the adjoining bathroom. The other bed straight ahead and against the breathtaking, full length windows, would be his. It had always been that way; all the innumerable visits to Cheryl and Doug’s cabin had begun in this exact same way. It was familiar yet not. The room was decidedly different, but not in any way that would make sense to anyone but David. He sighed.
It was nearly eight o’clock, but it was mid-July, so the room was filled with glorious, burning natural light courtesy of the giant windows. It should have been beautiful, but David only blinked once and turned away. He returned to the dark, cool, carpeted hallway and threw his duffle bag carelessly. It landed in the center of the room. David left it, hurrying downstairs to the muted sounds of idle conversation passed among grieving family members.
David moved to stand behind his mother, his sister, and his aunt. They were standing in a peculiarly straight row, looking out the tall, wide, sliding glass doors. David fell in line, took his place beside his sister, and tried to match their gaze. Though the lawn was a massive series of rolling hills, there was nothing of particular interest, nothing he hadn’t seen before. There were the cows and goats and donkeys and horses, moving slowly, grazing calmly, like this was a day like any other, as if the human who brought out the hay three times a day wasn’t dead and cold and gone. David thought it was a curse to be a sentient being. “What are we looking at?” David asked Savannah discreetly through the corner of a clenched jaw.
“Dad,” she answered, in the same discreet fashion. “He’s just been standing out there, staring. He’s been like this for at least ten minutes.”
David turned to his sister, concerned. “Shouldn’t someone go out there and check on him?”
“I’ll go out there in a minute or two,” answered Mom. Both David and Savannah whipped their heads in their mother’s direction, surprised she had overheard, had eavesdropped and then given herself away by responding. She had not turned to face her children but had remained stoic and still with her eyes locked on her husband. “He’s grieving for his brother, guys. There’s no right or wrong way to do that.” It wasn’t an admonishment or anything, it was just a statement, a fact there was no arguing with. In the same cool, matter-of-fact fashion with which she spoke, Mom slid the doors open, stepped out and slid them shut behind her. For a few moments, the remaining family members watched her progress, felt their breath catch in their throats when Mom stepped a few feet behind her husband and called out to him. He didn’t turn, though. He didn’t respond in any sort of fashion they could readily observe. The husband and wife stayed like that for endless, unbearable minutes. Eventually, Mom moved towards Dad and slipped an arm around his shoulders. It was seconds before he crumbled into her embrace. He was sobbing openly, and it seemed indecent to watch, so his children turned away. They showed their backs to the windows and doors, to all the glass.
Savannah wiped at her eyes soundlessly. David nudged her shoulder with his. “It’ll be okay,” David said. He sounded lame. Savannah was the one who gave comfort, handled situations and convinced David he’d survive. Though they were twins, separated by mere minutes, Savannah had always seemed older, wiser. But now, in the face of seeing her father cry for the first time, she was speechless. She had nothing to offer. Savannah could only nod.
Suddenly, Aunt Cheryl spoke. She said, “I didn’t think it was possible to miss someone so much like that. Huh.” Aunt Cheryl seemed thoughtful, genuinely intrigued by the extravagant, dramatic display of human emotion going on just outside her doors. She busied herself in the kitchen, presumably preparing for a late, supplementary dinner, a second evening meal. David and Savannah exchanged perplexed looks. David didn’t know what was worse, watching his dad weep like a woman outside, or watching his aunt be cold and distant inside, seemingly unmoved by the passing of her husband. David tugged on Savannah’s sleeve and jerked his head to the side, indicating that they should leave and go upstairs. She nodded and followed her brother.

The next day dawned clear and bright. When David padded downstairs in bare feet, he discovered the adults showered, dressed, and heading out.

“What’s up?” David asked.
“We have to head out for a while to handle arrangements,” Mom answered delicately. “There’s cereal and milk for breakfast.”
David nodded. “Anything we can do to help, Ma?”
She smiled warmly and grabbed her only son by his shoulders. “Just make sure you don’t make a mess, okay? Help your aunt out and clean up a little.”
David nodded again. Mom kissed him on the cheek and the adults headed out the door. David set about pouring himself some cereal and was joined by his sister some time later.
The pair cleaned the kitchen, hung around outside, traversed back inside, and watched mindless television. Savannah chucked the remote without warning onto the opposite couch, only narrowly missing David. “We should be celebrating Uncle Doug’s memory, not just sitting here.”
David sighed. “How?” He was used to Savannah’s penchant for sentimentality and dramatics. He’d entertain her today, seeing as how they really was nothing else to do.
“I don’t know,” Savannah admitted with an air of defeat. She thought for a few moments in silence and then said, “We could watch home movies.”
The nostalgia appealed to David and he smiled. “That’s not a bad idea.” He climbed to his feet. “Where do you think Aunt Cheryl keeps them?”
Savannah climbed to her feet and shrugged. “No clue, but let’s look around.”
David hesitated. “Mom told me not to make a mess.”
“We’ll clean up after ourselves,” Savannah laughed. She shook her head at her brother’s momentary lapse in common sense. She hurried upstairs and David followed close behind. She explained that something personal, like home movies, would most likely be in a personal space, like a shared bedroom. David tried to explain his trepidation, how it was weird for him to be in his aunt’s bedroom for many different reasons (including but not limited to relation, gender, age and so on and so forth), but Savannah dismissed her brother’s misgivings with her presence. She assured him it was fine, and advised him to look in the closet and on shelves but not in drawers or cabinets; she’d handle that. The pair commenced searching, coming up with nothing interesting until Savannah released an excited shout.
David turned to his sister, who was spread on her stomach on the floor, peering and reaching underneath the bed. “What are you doing?” he hissed, as if there was anyone home who could hear them. He felt like this was a violation. Why would she look under the bed, anyway? Who kept home movies there? But Savannah was insistent and in just a moment more, she was sliding an antique-looking suitcase out from under the bed.
“How cool is this? It looks like it’s from the 1800s!”
“You should put it back,” David warned. It was cool, for sure, but he was positive there was some reason it was hidden beneath the bed, and David firmly believed ignorance is bliss.
“Why would she keep something this great where no one could see it or appreciate it? Maybe it’s got something awesome in it!”
“Grow up,” David sneered. “The home movies aren’t in there, so put it back, and let’s go up to the attic.”
But Savannah wasn’t listening. She was opening the suitcase and when she did, she screamed. David dropped to his knees. The young siblings were looking at thousands of dollars. Neither had seen so much in person. Both longed to reach out and touch it, to hold it and pretend it was theirs, all theirs. Savannah looked at David with wide eyes. “Why the hell would Aunt Cheryl have all this cash under her bed? Why isn’t it in a bank?”
David shrugged. “Maybe the crash of ’29 left her rattled.”
“She’s not that old, stupid,” Savannah snorted. Her amusement faded. “This is weird. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Then put it back and let’s look in the attic, like I said,” David offered, climbing to his feet. Savannah carefully closed the suitcase and slid it under the bed. In the attic, they found a couple of dusty shoeboxes with ancient VHS tapes. They hurried down stairs, hoping they’d be able to find a VCR. They were just about to resume their earlier positions on the couches when the doorbell rang. David hurried to answer the door, Savannah in tow.
The opened door revealed two intimidating-looking men in expensive suits. They wore identical, humorless expressions. The one on the left grunted and asked, “Is Cheryl Paton home?”
David frowned. “I’m afraid she’s not. She’s at the funeral home with my parents, making some last arrangements for my uncle. Can I help you?”
The man dug in his coat pocket. “Just tell her we stopped by and give her this card, okay? We want to talk to her about her husband.” He handed over an average-looking business card and looked at David from over his mirror sunglasses. “Have a good day, kid.”
“Thanks,” David said. “You too,” he called as he shut the door. With Savannah breathing down his neck, the pair read the name on the card. Detective Joseph Stanton, it said. What did the cops want with Aunt Cheryl? Maybe they’d made some progress on the case, found the assholes who tried to take his car?
“Think this has anything to do with the money upstairs?” Savannah asked.
Inexplicable chills ran along David’s spine. “Shut up,” he growled, shoving the card in his back pocket. “Help me find a VCR.”

Over another dinner that evening, David handed his aunt the business card. “Some detectives stopped by the house today, Aunt Cheryl. He asked me to give you this card and tell you he wanted to talk to you about your husband.”
Cheryl snatched the card from David’s hand. It surprised David, the urgency of it, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. She didn’t say thank you or anything. Cheryl got up and left the room. The extended family was left to its own devices. “That was weird,” David said.
“Yeah, and we found an old suitcase filled with tons of money under her bed while we were looking for the home movies,” Savannah whispered excitedly, looking from Dad to Mom and back again. “What’s that about, huh?”
Dad slammed his fists on the table, eliciting a shriek from Savannah and stunned silence from Dad. He pushed his chair back and away from the table, wood sliding against wood, and stormed from the room. Mom calmly wiped her mouth with her napkin and followed. Savannah turned to David.
“What the hell?” he mouthed.

The next day dawned clear and bright. David awoke to screaming and shouting. He bolted up in bed, flung the bedclothes far from him, and took off. He ran towards the source of all the noise, ran downstairs to find his mom and dad and sister pacing in the kitchen.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong?” David was panicked.
“Cheryl’s gone,” Savannah said. “So is the money. So are her clothes. She just up and vanished.”
David was in disbelief. He asked Savannah to repeat what she had said when Detective Joseph Stanton strolled in. “What money?” he asked.
David looked to Savannah, terror-stricken.

On changing.

Published July 9, 2015 by mandileighbean

“If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have gotten to me sooner.”

“She doesn’t even take it out on people when she’s having a bad day; that’s character.”

I have an appointment on Friday to have my hair cut and colored. It’s going to be a dramatic change, but I feel like that is what the summer is for. I also plan on getting my first – maybe my only – tattoo before returning to school.

My friend Christine and I traveled to used bookstores in Manasquan and Belmar. The one in Belmar featured a truly amazing woman working the register. Christine mentioned that I was a writer and the woman asked some follow-up questions. She told me about Belmar’s BookCon and asked me to e-mail her. It’d be one hell of an opportunity to network and market myself. The only issue is that she wants current releases, but my first novel came out three years ago, and my second has yet to find a home. I sent her an e-mail anyway, because if I’ve learned anything it’s that you always have to try. She said she’d let me know and I want to be optimistic, but I also want to have realistic expectations – boy, that would be a first.

I spent the holiday weekend with family in Pennsylvania. It was incredibly relaxing to disconnect from reality. The first day, Dad and I went into the tiny, one stoplight town for some bags of ice. We ended up purchasing delicious soft serve ice cream. We sat together and the back of the flatbed, watching some locals play softball. The weather was gorgeous and it was a perfect snapshot of small town life. Dad said he’d only ever ate ice cream in the bed of a truck with one other girl and it wasn’t even Mom. It was quite the moment until Dad made me feel like we were dating.

The parade was rained out, but I was still able to see fireworks between the trees and above the mountains surrounding my aunt’s farm. I couldn’t remember the last time I sat and watched fireworks. I loved hearing the soft, faded pops in the distance.

Weekly Writing Prompt #24: “An army private learns that he has to go back for a second tour.”

truckbeach

Cory had parked his battered pickup truck in an utterly deserted parking lot along the shore. He was surprised by how empty it was. It wasn’t too late, barely even dusk. The sky was a wonderful shade of orange and everyone was missing it. Cory had made a resolution to not miss anything upon returning home two years ago from a year’s deployment in Iraq. He’d walked off his job at a store selling auto parts in a dying town. He’d driven across the country with his best friend, sleeping on rooftops and somehow living those cliched adventures Hollywood constantly chronicles, and returned home smiling. He’d visited with family members he hadn’t seen in years and years, but had been kind and thoughtful enough to keep in touch while he served overseas. It had been a pleasant 730 days back on American soil, but Cory was restless. He was plagued with a persistent urge to move, to never be settled. Cory knew he could rest when he was dead, and so he would, but only then.

And that was why Cory had been relieved when he learned that he was going to Afghanistan for a second tour. He sat in his truck with the windows rolled down, listening to the waves crash against the shore. It was a soothing sound and it was constant. Cory reasoned it might be soothing because it was constant; very few things in life were that way. He was reflecting upon his reaction, trying to rationalize it, understand it as an outsider might try to understand it, as someone who had never served and could never possibly understand might try. Cory drained the can of cheap beer he’d been drinking. All this thinking, this extraneous use of one of the most important organs in his body, required hydration. He needed to stay hydrated because he needed to keep thinking, needed to figure out a way to explain this to her mother without her falling to the kitchen floor in convulsing sobs. Suddenly frustrated, Cory chucked the can out of the open window, then slammed his palms against the steering wheel, flattening them. He exhaled deeply.

Cory supposed he was fortunate there was only one woman in his life he had to consider, had to disappoint and devastate. He was too young to be married, too young for a lot of things, but not too young to die apparently. Cory didn’t believe that, but he was anticipating his mother’s arguments. His dad might have understood, could have possibly been an ally, but he had left some time ago, had walked out a long time ago. It wasn’t something Cory thought about much, so he was surprised he was thinking of that now. His mood shifted from frustrated to simply exhausted. Cory ran his cracked hands along his haggard face and kept breathing.

He cracked open another beer. The constant waves that Cory had found soothing so recently now irritated and annoyed him. He turned the key back in the ignition and switched on the radio to some mind-numbing soft rock station. He left it playing low as a background noise, as a distraction. He didn’t want to get stuck inside his own head, but he guessed he should have thought about that before he isolated himself in his old pickup truck that was so old the engine was embarrassingly loud. People could hear him coming from miles away. But then again, that made sense because Cory had never been talented at deception, had never been good at hiding things. When his commander told him he was going to be redeployed, he barely hid the smile on his face, could hardly contain his excitement. Cory was ready to go, ready to return. Cory knew that sounded strange, utterly inconceivable, but he had people over there, he left people over there.

The truth of the matter was that Cory had two families he would kill for, and be killed for. Both were small and close knit. They were equal that way, but the one at home was safe and would be okay. The other one, the one overseas, needed him. It was simple for Cory – they needed him and so he would go. Sure he was scared; hell, he was terrified, would be crazy not to be. But he wanted to go back. At home, he felt useless. There was a definite lack of adrenaline in his day to day routine, and he realized that being a soldier on active duty during wartime was like an addiction. Politicians vying for election would pontificate about the nobility and patriotism of sacrificing all for one’s country, and that was all well and good – Cory did not disagree – but war was bad. Horrible and horrendous things happened, but he would go back. He was returning without hesitation. He wouldn’t say it was because of something noble like patriotic duty, but he would argue that it was more than that. It was partly the addiction to adrenaline, partly the strong desire to stop feeling restless, and partly something else, something Cory was unable to explain.

Other soldiers would get it. Other soldiers would definitely get it. He remembered one mission, a snatch and grab gone awry, where a wounded soldier being transported on a gurney, most likely fatally wounded, had sat up and returned fire upon the enemy. Cory thought that was so cool, that a dying man’s last moments were spent doing his utmost to protect his brothers in arms. Cory wanted to be like that.

Things were bad over there. Enemy combatants were using American equipment to kill American soldiers. Now Cory didn’t have much of a mind for politics, would never willingly enter into a debate, and while some found that ironic or disappointing or whatever, Cory knew it wasn’t about that, about the politicians back home. It wasn’t about anyone back home, really, no matter what Hollywood or CNN tried to sell the American people. Soldiers kept fighting because of the guys to their left and because of the guys to their right. Brotherhood and loyalty called him back.

He thought about his buddy, John. They had just come back in from patrol. They all assumed they were safe, back on base. The atmosphere was relaxed and the squadron had gathered at a picnic table. John had just finished telling some hilarious and wildly exaggerated story from boot camp. He was drinking soda from one of those classic glass bottles, so with laughter surrounding him, John raised the bottle to wet his whistle so he could continue entertaining. That was John’s thing – never serious, always on. It eased the tension and though they claimed it was obnoxious and knew it was just John’s defense mechanism for the anomaly that was life as a soldier, his buddies greatly appreciated it. So they all watched John drink from that bottle with admiration gleaming in their eyes.

So they all saw the sniper’s bullet enter the bottom of the bottle. The glass shattered into thousands of shards, exploded. They flinched, some faces were cut, but they didn’t exactly look away, so they saw the bullet exit through the top of John’s skull.

Cory missed John. He missed everyone he had served with, those surviving and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. That’s why he was ready to go back, that’s why he would go back – always, no matter when he was asked. He would forever fight for the guy to his right, and the guy to his left.

That’s what he would try to explain to his mother.

Three U.S. soldiers pay their respects to their fallen comrades after a service held Saturday at the Iraqi National Parade Field to honor eight soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division and three journalists who lost thier lives during the U.S.-led war against Iraq.  A helmet, rifle and pair of boots represented each soldier while three helmets marked "press" on the front represented the journalists lost during the war.

 

 

On seeking salvation from loneliness.

Published June 30, 2015 by mandileighbean

I know I need to update this blog more than once a month. My writing is becoming stale; my literary muscle is in a state of atrophy due to lack of use. I have no excuse.

I wonder how many writers believed themselves to be prophetic. I don’t mean in the pretentious sense, but in a way that can be validated, where predictions are not obvious or bluntly stated, but hidden beneath authentic literary merit. I mean in the way where plot and reality align too much to be mere coincidence. This topic has piqued my interest as of late because the ending of my second novel Moody Blue – which has yet to find either a literary agent or publisher for representation – ends in nearly the exact same way the real life source of inspiration is ending. It knocked me on my ass, to be sure, and I’m sure this post, with its assertion that I’m some kind of prophet, that all of this is a way to make it romantically tragic instead of just melodramatic and sad. Rather than admit I was fooled and manipulated, it’s grander to say I knew someone so well that I saw what was coming and used it in my writing to heal the wounds. I suppose it was more like seeing the approach of headlights and stepping into the middle of the street anyway because a beautiful, brooding man is on the other side, smiling seductively. As I stepped into the road, I knew that I was never, ever going to reach my desired destination, that I’d end up alone and as so much carnage that others will drive over without much notice, but I did it anyway because that smile made me believe things were changing, and that I just might make it. That smile became an all-purpose excuse for all the stupid, selfish, asinine things I did.

“This is my least favorite life, the one where I am out of my mind. The one where you’re just out of reach. The one where I stay and you fly.” 

But I suppose I’ll be okay.  

“I’m never alone. I’m alone all the time.”

I lead a very lonely life. I used to be ashamed to admit it, but I once heard that some are meant to be happy, while others are mean to be great. Thus, my only means of survival, of staying both sane and optimistic, are believing that everything happens for a reason, and that this is my path, for better or for worse. I must entertain the possibility that where I am destined to end up may not be warm and bright with smiling faces. I might have to be cold and alone to be great, to fulfill my potential. Maybe all the tragedy I’ve spent romanticizing for so long is all mine to keep.

Hell, even Gatsby knew he could only climb alone.

Writing Prompt #23: The figure in a famous painting begins communicating with an art museum patron.

The museum was clearing out. The few presumably pretentious patrons were shuffling towards the exits in shiny, expensive shoes that reflected their pinched faces of their respective owners. They all looked so important, raising the collars of impressive and fashionable coats against the cold, sharp February winds raging outside. The ladies adjusted their gloves to better cover and protect their delicate wrists against the bitter cold, while the gentlemen held the doors open, allowing the ladies to pass through with strong and protective hands on the smalls of their backs. Once outside, facing the elements, these fine, cultured gentlemen enveloped their classy, educated ladies in their arms and together, the pairs scurried to remarkably expensive vehicles, a Lexus there, a Mercedes Benz here, and a few BMWs for good measure. It seemed that everyone at the art gallery was impossibly intelligent, filthy rich, and happily in love. They did not rage against the dying of the light as the sun’s last rays burned bright and fierce through the large picture windows that surrounded the art gallery. It seemed that all were perfectly content to go gentle into the good night because they were not alone. They loved and were loved, and that was all that mattered.

Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to Olivia because she was alone – single and bitter – on Valentine’s Day. After all, wasn’t there some saying about everything looking like a nail when one feels like a hammer?

It had been foolish to venture out into public on the absolute worst of manufactured holidays. Olivia knew her day would be one long and agonizing observation of all kinds of public displays of affection, ranging from sweet (the elderly man who did his best to straighten his fingers gnarled with arthritis only to entwine them with his wife’s as they rode the bus to the city) to obnoxious (the sweaty, nervous-looking man who coordinated a lame, disappointing flash mob as means of proposing to a doughy woman too stupid to know any better and readily accepted) to grotesque (the teenage couple mauling each other while waiting in line at the local coffee shop, covering themselves in each other’s DNA in the disgusting way that only adolescents can). Begrudgingly, Olivia would admit it was the masochist within her that encouraged and eventually convinced her to journey to the art gallery. Later, when the pain began to subside and she was safe in her home, in sweatpants with wine and Chinese food that had been delivered some time ago, she could realize that being surrounded by affection was a good thing, nearly tangible evidence of its existence, that it was real and could happen to anyone at any time; she only needed to be patient. But in all honesty, her reason for going to the art gallery was not so romantic or noble, but just desperate and obvious. She only went there because there was a chance – a good chance, a fighting chance – that Scott would be there.

He had taken her there on several occasions, holding doors open and bundling her against the cold.

That had ended some weeks ago, but Olivia was a fool, the worst kind of fool who believes chance encounters could be manufactured, who believes hope comes from an ever-replenished spring and who believes chances are unlimited. She had convinced herself that if Scott saw her again, he’d believe it was fate and he’d give her a few precious moments to make her case as to why they belonged together. Olivia flat-out refused to believe Scott could feel or think any way other than the way she wanted – needed? – him to and on her best days, she could claim a romantic optimism, but more often than not, she knew better. It was pathetic and desperate.

Olivia had arrived at the gallery upon opening. She made herself comfortable, draping her coat over her arms crossed casually over her chest and meandering through the aisles slowly, languidly, always thinking, thinking, thinking. She had purchased lunch in their adjoining cafe, unwilling to leave the premises because she knew with a supernatural certainty that the moment she did, Scott would arrive and her last chance would be blown. Olivia didn’t eat much, but thoroughly enjoyed the complimentary wine and cheese despite the glowering looks from the supervising employee who quickly realized Olivia was only loitering and taking more than her fair share. The employee was able to remain smug because he rightly assumed that Olivia was a fraud, a dopey woman who probably couldn’t name a single artists featured in the gallery’s collection, let alone the title of one of the masterpieces.

And that was all true; Olivia didn’t know anything about art. So there she was, alone in an art gallery five minutes before closing, standing before some oil painting with tears in her eyes. Scott had not appeared, had not wrapped her in his arms, had not made everything okay. “Oh my God,” she said to no one at all. “I am so, so stupid.” Her voice cracked, broke, and the tears began to fall freely. “He doesn’t miss me, does he?” she asked, but there was no one there to answer, especially not Scott.

The painting before Olivia was of a young man in riding clothes, posing in some wild-looking garden. He had dark features and a very serious expression. The painting was generic and unremarkable, and Olivia found it all so fitting. What better place for her to have an emotional breakdown than in front of a random painting? Only truly great women could sob before the Mona Lisa.

Olivia released a shuddering breath. “I loved him. I loved him very much, and I should have made sure he knew that.” She wiped at her nose. “I just tried so hard to be cool, to not cling to him, to finally be the one who wasn’t so obviously at the mercy of the other person in the relationship. I wanted power and control more than I wanted him.” She sobbed. “But that was wrong, and I was wrong. I guess he mistook all that for indifference, thought I didn’t care, and now he’s gone.” She rubbed her eyes, smearing mascara and eyeliner without so much as a passing thought to her appearance. “I just wanted things to work out this time, this one time. I wanted it to be different. But here I am!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands before her and allowing her coat to fall to the marble floor. Her tone was now cold, sarcastic. “I’m alone on Valentine’s Day and I’ll probably die this way.” Ashamed and suddenly overwhelmed by self-pity, Olivia covered her face with her hands. She cried against her palms, unintelligibly begging for some divine intervention, for salvation from loneliness. She cursed Scott and his new girlfriend (which Olivia assumed he must have – what else kept someone busy on Valentine’s Day?) and then cursed herself for cursing Scott, for being petty and stupid. She berated herself into some state of composure, then allowed her hands to fall to her sides. Once more, she faced the painting.

A guttural scream exploded from her lips and reverberated back to her from the empty aisles as a terrifying sound, so Olivia knew she had to make it stop lest she scared anyone else. She clasped her hands over her mouth and stared with wide, petrified eyes at the painting that had changed, that had most certainly changed, that had definitely changed. The young man featured front and center had turned, had somehow shifted to directly face Olivia. His expression had drastically softened, like he was sympathetic to her pathetic whimpering. In his right hand was a dark red rose. Olivia could easily and readily identify which bush it had come from.

Olivia looked about wildly, curious if her outburst had attracted any attention at all. No one appeared to be rushing over. There were no strangers nearby to validate the impossible event she had just witnessed. Should she call someone over? Would she be believed? Would anyone else see what she was seeing? She returned her gaze to the painting.

Olivia thought she was going to vomit and then pass out, simply keel over. The painting had changed again.

The young man was smiling kindly, very kindly, in a way that almost calmed Olivia, who was on the verge of becoming hysterical. His arms were spread wide, as if he were offering her something. Guided by an unfamiliar instinct, Olivia looked at the floor beneath the painting. There lay the dark red rose the young man had been holding.

Slowly, breathing deeply, Olivia bent to retrieve the rose. The stem was covered in thorns, real enough that Olivia pricked her pointer finger and it began to bleed. The petals were soft and the fragrance was strong. It made Olivia smile. In spite of the lunacy, the sheer insanity of it all, Olivia smiled. She looked to the young man in the painting to thank him, but the expression of gratitude died on her lips. The painting was as it was before, as it should be. Olivia gasped. It was so bizarre that she was transfixed, unable to look away. She reached out her free hands, the one not holding the rose, to touch the painting, to ascertain if it was real, or if there might be some technological trickery at work.

A throat cleared itself behind her.

Nearly screaming aloud again, Olivia wheeled around to find the employee who had been so stingy with the wine and cheese standing behind her. “Ma’am, don’t touch the paintings,” he instructed in a bored tone of voice. “Also, we’re closing now. You’re going to have to leave.”

“Oh, oh, okay,” Olivia mumbled, pale and confused. The employee, seemingly oblivious to Olivia’s distress, turned away. He trotted down the hall, and Olivia scooped up her coat, careful not to lay eyes on the painting in case it changed again, in which chase she would have a heart attack and die. She hurried to the exit, but not before she mumbled a hurried and terribly confused, “thank you.”

The young man in the painting smiled but there was no one there to see it.

hc single valentine's day

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