Excerpt from Latent Infection – Part Three (Horror Short Story)

You can read part one here and part two here.

Over the next few weeks, Cora heard nothing strange in her new home beyond the usual creaks associated with older houses.  With her father gone on the road during the weekdays, he had hired contractors to begin work on the house.

Among the people who were in and out of the house was an exterminator.  He’d set traps and poison down for the rats and mice.  (“Rats and mice!” Marcy had exclaimed, nearly fainting when the infestation was confirmed.)  The bill for the exterminator grew about as fat as the man himself, for Mr. Rue also planted a bug bomb for cockroaches toward what Marcy hoped was the end of his frequent visits.  Cora tried not to snicker when the robust man flirted with her mother.  As for Marcy, she was relieved when Mr. Rue finished up on a Friday evening. Tom pulled into the winding gravel driveway, and she darted out of the house to her knight come to rescue her.  Cora followed at a slower pace.

“Should all be taken care off, but you’ll need to stay outta the place for the next day to let it air out from the bomb,” Mr. Rue informed Tom the moment he stepped out of his car.  His eyes shifted to Marcy and he winked.

Tom shook the man’s hand.  “Thanks a million, Mr. Rue.”  He kissed Marcy and said, “That should take care of the smell, darlin’.”

Marcy stepped closer to Tom, took his hand, and smiled.  “A weekend away will be welcome after all the work we’ve been doing.  More than a day, Mr. Rue.  Now, if you’re all done…”

Tom’s phone beeped, and he reached into his pocket.  “Sorry, gotta take this,” he murmured, stepping away from his wife.

Marcy frowned.

Cora couldn’t agree more about getting away.  The hotel would have WiFi.  She’d used up her month’s allotment of data on her phone, and her signal was weak and the connection slow.

“I told Erin we’d be over at 8:00 to pick her up,” Cora said.  “She hasn’t been to Cedar Point since she was ten.”  She cast her mom a meaningful look.  Erin was the one friend she had in the northeast Ohio farm town, a place she couldn’t yet call home.  She’d met Erin while working at the one screen cinema.

“All right, Cora,” Marcy said, forcing a smile.  “As long as we’re finished up here…”  She tried not to sigh as she glanced at Tom, who was busy tapping away on his phone.

“All good to go, Mrs. Marson,” said Mr. Rue, winking again.  “You’re paid up.  Just let me know if there’s any problems.”

“Yes, we’ll be sure to do just that,” Marcy murmured as the exterminator got into his truck and pulled out.

Tom was suddenly at his wife’s side as he watched the pickup pull out of the driveway.  “Problem, honey bunny?”

“So long as that man’s done with his job, there’s no problem.  Important work stuff?”

“Yep.  Well… Lemme just take a quick shower,” Tom said, tugging at his pants along his groin.  “Ev’rything packed?”

“The car’s loaded,” Marcy said, eyeing Tom with a strange look.  “I’ll do a sweep through the house to make sure.”

Cora followed her parents inside, wishing she could erase the last couple of minutes from her mind.  After wading through drop cloths and dust from sanding, she went upstairs.  Upon reaching the landing, Cora was about to turn to the right like she always did to go to her bedroom, but the air to her left was cool in the August humidity.  She pivoted in that direction.  The hallway was shorter that way and only boasted a single unoccupied bedroom.  But at the end of the hallway rested another door.  

“Just goes to the attic,” Tom told Cora weeks ago.

Cora shrugged it off until that moment.  The chill in the air seemed to brush past her, and she shivered.  Goose bumps covered her arms and exposed neck and shoulders.  She wondered if she ought to change out of her tank top into something with sleeves.  Shaking her head, Cora marched down the corridor with determination and stopped when she came to the attic door.  She tried the handle.  Locked.

With a scoff, she turned away and went to her room to grab her phone before they left this dingy pit of depression.  The attic doorknob jiggled an eighth of an inch, counter-clockwise.


Excerpt from Latent Infection (continued) – Short Story

You can read the first part here.

The first floor had a living room with furniture covered in sheets, the perfect hiding place if Cora had been ten years younger.  When Tom pulled open the heavy dark green drapes covering the large front window that overlooked the front lawn of weeds and overgrown grass, dust particles swarmed in the air for several seconds, causing the family to erupt in fits of coughing.

Marcy glared at her husband as she fanned the air in front of her face.  “It smells like something died in here.”

Tom chuckled.  “Probably just mice…or rats…maybe something larger.”

“Something larger?”  Marcy glanced toward the front door after her eyes shifted about the room.

“We’ll call an exterminator.  Pest removal.  It’s not the end of the world, darlin’.”

Cora rolled her eyes and walked over to the winding staircase.  Spilling out into the front entrance, the wooden balustrade ended with the head of a lion with its mouth open, its canine teeth like vampiric fangs.  She brought a finger tip to one of the teeth and smiled, marvelling at the decor.  Cora swung her head upward to gaze upon a chandelier hanging from the second storey ceiling.  In another time, it would have been beautiful with its thousands of crystal prisms, each an icicle reflecting the artificial light.  She tried the light switch.  Nothing.  

With no interest in exploring the first floor with her annoying parents, Cora took the first step.  The wood shifted and moaned.  With every step, she kept her left hand on the smooth surface of the rail, a security her subconscious desired.  When Cora reached the second floor, she glanced down the steps from the balcony.  The drop was at least fifteen feet — the perfect place for the desperate degenerate to end it all.

The hallway afforded little light, even in the middle of a sunny afternoon.  When Cora flicked the switch, she was awarded with the faint buzz of the old bulbs in the cobweb-laden sconces lining the walls.  Even then, only about half of the sconces worked, their lights flickering, as if protesting having to do the work of illuminating a stale corridor.  

“So the electricity isn’t completely out in this oversized shack,” Cora murmured.

As she walked down the hall, her right hand trailed along the raised contours of the wallpaper — some hideous floral design from at least eighty years earlier.  She stopped when she arrived at the first door.  An easy turn of the tea house doorknob revealed a stagnant room filled with crates.  Cora’s nose wrinkled at the mustiness as she clicked the door shut.  That room would definitely not be hers.  A vision of peering into an off-limits room at the funeral parlor when she was eight surfaced — boxes of bodies.

She tried the next door and discovered the bathroom, which could be rendered charming if cleaned and restored.  A claw foot bathtub sat opposite the door in the oblong room with black and white tiles on the floor.  A pull chain toilet and a pedestal sink covered the wall to the right, both ringed with grime.

Cora left the bathroom door open and proceeded farther down the hall.  She found her room — plenty of space for her bed and dressers.  No leftovers from previous owners and two large windows that let in light.  She could watch the sunset.

Every footstep reverberated across the floorboards and up the walls in Cora’s new bedroom.  Clomp.  Clomp.  Clomp.  Cora stomped on the floor with her sneaker three times just to hear the sound again.  After the echo faded, in the silence of this closed up house, she heard it…

Clomp.  Clomp.  Clomp.

Barely there, like an imprint.  A faded picture.  A vague memory.

Cora’s heart skipped a beat and then sped up.  

She shook her head.  “No,” she whispered.  “Don’t be stupid.”

Yet she dared not stomp her foot again.

Excerpt from Latent Infection (Short Story)

The infection in the house’s rickety bones began as a latent virus.  Buried in the deepest marrow, the first stirrings were creaks, like a joint popping and settling.  Age hid secrets with wrinkles of peeling paint and a history forgotten by a foregone mind.  The disease was dismissed as the consequence of being time-worn, the house a skeleton, a dead thing sealed in a tomb.

Until the Marson family moved in.

“Ain’t she a beauty,” Tom Marson boomed in that Kentucky backroad twang he’d used to charm eighteen-year-old city gal Marcy twenty years earlier.  He removed his ball cap and ran a hand through sweaty, thinning salt and pepper.

“She’s a fixer-up, more likely,” Marcy replied, her pouty lips saturated in the newest striking red her daughter so detested.  She smoothed down her freshly trimmed brown bob.

Cora popped her gum and rolled her eyes.  “It’s a piece of sh–”

The three-storey house was large.  Cora would give it that much, but the faded yellow paint was flaking off in huge chunks on the wooden siding, revealing a non-virgin white underneath.  It reminded her of a stained toilet seat.  Black shutters hung on like a mountain climber clutching the edge of a cliff for dear life.  The roof was balding as much as her father.

“Language, young lady,” Marcy scolded.  She glanced toward her husband in the hope he’d have something to say about their only daughter’s choice of vocabulary.  Ever since getting her license to kill by driving on roads without adult supervision, the entitled child had developed a larger cup size and a fully-loaded arsenal of trucker language.

But Tom was ogling the 1830s house like a scantily-clad pole dancer.  He’d certainly be forking over enough dollar bills for her welfare.

Cora groaned.  She thought she saw something like drool on her dad’s week-long unshaven chin.

“When are you going to have time to fix this dump?” Marcy asked.  “You’re gone five days a week.”

“That’s what weekends are for, honey bunny.”  Tom wrapped a thick arm around his wife and pulled her toward him, planting a juicy one on her cheek.

Maybe in spite of herself, Marcy laughed.

“So are we just gonna stand around here all day, or are we going in?” asked Cora, twirling her purple hair about her finger.  Her middle finger, which was aimed at her parents.

“Let’s check her out,” Tom said.

“How about this, honey?  You can pick any room you like for your bedroom.  It’s a big house.  There are plenty.”  Marcy coated every word like maple sugar candy in the mouth.

“Yeah, whatever.  Sure.”  Cora followed her parents to the front porch.  The railing shook when she went to hold onto it, and when she released it, she nearly stepped into a rotted place on one of the boards.

Tom fiddled with the lock and began swearing under his breath as the July sun beat down on him.  Marcy knew where Cora had picked up her choice words.  The door opened with a sigh, a groan.

They entered.

Two storeys above, the eyes opened.

Excerpt from Arianna

The sky was vibrant orange and pink over the lake as Marc and I sat on his couch.

“You have a million-dollar view,” I said.

“I’d like to think it’s priceless.”

I turned toward him and smiled.  His right arm was draped around me as I sat with my legs pulled up on the cushions.  “I love how your smile is crooked.”

“Is it?”  His grin widened.

“Even more crooked now.”  I leaned in and kissed him.

When we broke apart, he said, “Hmm, I’ll have to do that more often if I know it’ll get a kiss outta you.  Maybe if I frown and play the sad and misunderstood part well, I’ll even get more than a kiss.”

I scoffed and playfully shoved him in the shoulder, causing him to remove his arm from me.  My gesture had been meant in jest, but I’d pulled away enough for Marc to notice.

“Why do you do that?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“Even time I try to get close to you or make a stupid joke about sex, you freak.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m the actor here, not you, Arianna.  I don’t mean to pry, but something’s just…off.  You know I’d never pressure you to do something you don’t want, right?”

“Of course I know that.”  I forced a laugh.  “Maybe I’m just not that physical of a person.”

“Okay.  You are twenty-five, though…a grown woman.  It seems to me we like each other a whole lot, so I’m just trying to understand what’s going on.  I see the way your eyes dash around, like you’re searching for the nearest exit, whenever sex comes up.  Your body tenses under my touch.”

Excerpt from Arianna (WIP)

Friday evening, after closing the book, I went to my familiar place at the vanity and sat.  My tattered journal was now full, so I reached for the paper bag that held a new one.  On the way home from work, I’d taken a detour to a historical part of one of the western suburbs and gone into a stationery shop.  The cute little boutique boasted handmade cards by local artists, prints from area photographers, and a few journals with various artwork on them.  I’d left with a journal whose front looked like one of my great-grandma’s paintings.  It seemed fitting.

Now, as I withdrew the journal from the bag, I held it in my hands like it was a precious treasure.  I opened the journal and brought it to my face, sniffing the unused pages.  How I loved the smell of new books!  It was like opportunity and dreams having a scent.  I set the journal down on the vanity and wrote a poem:

Pictures merely tell the rumor of a half-remembered story,

A book with pages tattered and worn, yellowed with age,

The ink faded and dull, dying to eternity.

Memories fall away like rain dropping down glass,

Fogging the view, warping the truth, and sliding to death.

All is fleeting and passing like a silent train in the night,

But there are no stops but one;

Only the moment of now is the single real thing.

All else is dusty vanity drowning in yesterday’s ashes.

A poem… I titled it “Yesterday’s Ashes” after a moment and reread it several times.  Beyond the window, rain tapped at the glass.  I redirected my focus to the journal.  I hadn’t been thinking as I’d composed the poem, but the tears stinging my eyes spoke of a deep, aching emptiness inside.  That was the past…unreachable, slowly forgotten, and unchangeable.  Time didn’t stop for anyone.  Allow enough time to unravel, and the generations that come lose the connection to their ancestors.

pablo (30)

I closed the journal and moved my hand over the smooth cover.  Then I set it aside and picked up my great-grandfather’s book.  I stood and went into the darkened living room.  Nana had gone to bed hours ago.  Only the ticking of the clock on the mantel greeted me.  Standing in front of the couch, I stared at my great-grandma’s painting.  The book rested over my chest, and my heartbeat was steady up against it…so alive.  These objects were left behind, like impressions in the sand after someone has passed through, but the waves were relentless and soon enough washed away any trace of that passerby.

The longer I stood there, the more my eyes adjusted to the little amount of light in the room.  Details of Great-Grandma’s painting popped out, like the black blob of paint near the bottom right.  Her fury could have been contained in that single splotch, but here it was, seventy-some years after she’d painted it, nothing more than a lingering relic of a woman who had known loss and pain.

And yet…yet I was connected to her.  Connected to my great-grandpa, too, as his words from long ago spoke to me from pages that had been closed for decades.  My tears were steadily flowing down my cheeks now, but I didn’t try to stop them.  Despite their heartache, they had found each other and had created something beautiful.

What was I doing with my life, really?  Was this job, these new relationships, this new haircut, all of it — was it just a mask to cover what was at the root of my problems?  Because I knew, at the core of my put-on smiles and defensive walls, that eight-year-old girl lived.  She was as dirty and used as she felt from the moment those boys changed her life.

Excerpt from WIP Arianna

Read Chapter One 

Chapter Two

Ping!  I raced into my bedroom, still dripping from the shower, trying to keep the towel pulled up around me.  My hands fumbled as I grabbed the phone off the bed, nearly dropping it on the hardwood floor.  It wouldn’t do to break another phone.  If I were smart, I’d invest in a phone case, but that was me — too cheap to buy something practical.  Better to waste my money on hair dye or another piercing, right, Mom?

I slid my index finger across the screen and tapped the notification.  Up popped a message from Brad: Hey babe, whats up?

Relief and annoyance flooded through me in equal parts.  Hey yourself.  Y didnt u txt earlier?

I glared at the screen for the next minute, willing it to give an answer.  It’s crazy how long sixty seconds can feel when you’re doing nothing but waiting and watching the clock.  When no reply came, I sighed and tossed the phone back onto my bed.  It was late — after eleven.  Nana had gone to bed two hours ago and would be up before the rooster — if there were a rooster around here.  

I returned to the bathroom, towel-dried my hair, swept it up in a messy bun, and put on an oversized T-shirt.  Hope at hearing from my nearly nonexistent boyfriend died when the screen remained blank of notifications, so I turned the thing to silent and got into bed.  I was done with today.

I woke to the smell of herbal tea and Nana’s yoga video in the living room.  Groaning, I sat up in bed, and like the slave-to-my-phone that I was, I reached for the infernal thing, only to come away disappointed that there was no message from Brad.  Maybe he was sleeping in.  It was a Sunday, after all, and Sunday morning meant —

“Ari, are you up yet?” came Nana’s chipper voice up the stairs.

“Yeah, I’m up, Nana.”

“Are you coming to church?”

I groaned again.  This habit was becoming old fast.  In only four weeks, it was amazing in a bad way how predictable Sunday mornings had grown.

“No, Nana.  I have to work today, remember?”  And I wasn’t interested in sitting in some hard pew and listening about how God was still at work in the world today.  Church was all fine and dandy for Christmas Eve and Easter, but that was about it.

“Well, all right.  I still don’t like it that the mall is open on Sundays.  When I was your age–”

“Yes, Nana, I know.”  I stepped out into the hallway to find my nana dressed in workout clothes.  Despite her age, she was remarkably flexible and in good shape.  “When you were young, nothing was open on Sundays.”

Nana smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes.  “Well, I’d better finish up and get ready for church if I’m to be on time.  There’s some turkey bacon and egg whites on the stove if you want.  I got them for you.”

“Thanks.”  I sighed as I slid into another pair of black pants and a simple black top.  While we didn’t have uniforms for work, we pretty much had to wear all black.  Accessorizing was the only way around it, but with my hair and my jewelry, I didn’t need to add anything else to my look, whatever I was going for.

I checked my phone again.  Nothing.  

The thought of Nana’s health food turned my stomach, so I did my makeup, went downstairs, and poured a bowl of bran flakes and — ugh — soy milk.  She’d been kind to buy food she thought I’d eat, as she was vegan, but I wanted real bacon and the yolks.  I brewed my own coffee, hoping again that Nana would invest in single-serve machine.  She was only into herbal teas, claiming that caffeine was the antiChrist or something equally ridiculous and dramatic.  I wondered what she would say if she knew I used to smoke until two years ago.  That was one good thing about Brad — he’d convinced me to stop smoking, but it was only because he said it made my breath smell.

The phone followed me wherever I went.  So when it pinged and vibrated as it sat on the kitchen table, I nearly jumped out of my seat.

Sorry babe, was busy with the fam ya no?  N-e-way im back now if ya wanna catch up.  2nite?

I bit my lip.  OK, 2nite works.  Time?

Can u come here?  8ish?

Yeah sure, 8 it is.  C u then.

It was pathetic that I did whatever Brad asked.  Come here, babe.  Okay, let me bend over backwards and do ten flips like an Olympic gymnast.  You want sex 24/7?  Sure, that’s what I’m made for, Brad.  You want real Belgian chocolate from Belgium?  Yep, I’ll just hop on a plane and get you some.

Plane.  I sighed and pushed most of the uneaten cereal away.  Standing, I tossed my phone into my overflowing purse, dumped the cereal down the drain, and left the bowl in the sink.

“Bye, Nana!” I called and was out the door because she could reply.

In the driveway sat my ten-year-old Focus.  I dropped into the driver’s seat and turned the car on, cranked up the radio, and rolled the windows all the way down.  On the drive to work, I mentally bemoaned my broken air conditioning, but every penny earned as the salon receptionist was supposed to go toward beauty school.  Well, wait — the payout.  I could afford to fix the AC after all.  That was something, but I digress.  I was only three months in with both my job and beauty school.  If I stopped and was honest with myself for one minute, I would have to say the future of doing hair was looking less appealing by the day.  When I pulled into the parking lot, I sighed.  Plenty of time to figure out my life, right?  Lots of young people still lived at home or were in college.

The sun was already beating down on me as I left the car in the mostly empty lot and crossed the asphalt to the side entrance.  The mall wouldn’t be opening for another half hour, so at least I could avoid the crowds.  A few elderly people walked the inside of the mall before it opened.  I nodded and smiled politely at a few.  I liked old people.  Most of them were kind like Nana, but even the ones who were grumpy had a certain sort of charm.  I figured they could act however they wanted because they’d lived long enough and had been through enough to do whatever they wished.

When I reached the salon, Gwen scowled at me as she stood behind the desk.  Her eyes shifted to the clock.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re two minutes late.”

“Really?  You care about two freaking minutes?” I wanted to ask.  Instead, I painted on a plastic smile like many of the workers and said, “My apologies, Gwen.  It won’t happen again.”

As I walked past her to punch in, she said, “It better not.  And I had better not see you on your phone again, either, Arianna.”

Or what?  You’ll fire me?

In the back room, I exchanged hellos with a few of the beauticians.  Kelly, a girl about my age, with platinum blonde hair and trendy glasses, said, “Hey, Arianna.  Some of us are thinking of going out for drinks after work.  You wanna join us?”

Kelly was nice, the sort of person who tried to make friends with everyone.  When I gazed at the other girls and the two guys standing around her, I knew I wouldn’t be welcome.  I didn’t fit in with their idea of beauty.

“Thanks,” I said, “but I’ve got a date tonight.”  That wasn’t completely untrue, if you could call going to Brad’s house a date.

“Maybe another time.”  Kelly smiled and looked at the girl next to her — Brandy, I think.

“Yeah, maybe.  I gotta get to the desk.  Gwen, you know…”

Kelly laughed.  “Yeah, don’t I know it.”

As I walked away, I heard the murmurings of the crowd as the door shut.  I took up my place at the front desk and turned on the computer, looking over the appointments for the day.  Summertime and weekends were busy for the salon.  Every hairdresser was booked.  The spa was also packed to the brim.  That didn’t bode well for walk-ins.  I wanted to take down the sign that claimed “Walk-ins Welcome.”  How many times did I need to hear, “What do you mean you can’t fit me in?” or “Why do you say ‘walk-ins welcome’ if it isn’t true?” or  “All I want is a lip wax.  That’ll take five minutes.”

No point in belaboring the reality of the situation.  I pulled out my compact and checked over my makeup and hair.  It wouldn’t do to frighten the customers too much.

Gwen was upon me again.  “You know, Arianna, while we do encourage creativity and differences in style here, I must say that your facial piercings are, shall we say, distracting.”

“Why?  Has somebody complained?”

“Not as such, no, but this alternative look you’ve got going isn’t really the image we wish to project.  I would prefer you remove them.”

“I can’t.  Well, at least not some of them.  They’re too new.  The holes will close up.”

“Are you saying you’re planning on keeping those– those things?”

“So what if I am?”

Gwen leaned on the desk and lowered her voice.  “Look, I know you’ve, um, been through a lot recently, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic, but you can’t keep that face of metal.”

“I thought you just preferred I remove them?”

“This isn’t coming from me.  I don’t care one way or the other if you want to look like a pincushion, but Jeanine herself said it wasn’t appropriate.”

“I see.  And if I don’t remove them?”

“That isn’t up for discussion.”

Gwen turned away, leaving a chilly breeze in her wake.  I glared at the back of her too-perfect figure.  Then the first customer came in, and I had to do my job.  Before I knew it, I was busy checking people in and out, making reminder calls, and answering the phone.  I worked until 5:00 and was glad to be back in the stifling heat in my car a few minutes later.

I turned on the car and down went the windows.  As much as I wanted to sit there and just mentally detox for the next hour, I couldn’t.  Nana would be expecting me for dinner.  Ever since moving in with her, I think she liked having someone to cook for besides herself.  While her tofu creations and endless vegetables weren’t my first choice, I forced the food down every evening.

On the drive home, I passed McDonald’s and Taco Bell.  Both sounded better than whatever tasteless meal was waiting for me at home.  

When I arrived home, Nana was upon me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  “How was work, Ari?”

I waved her off.  “Fine.”

“Anything exciting happen?”

“Not really.”

“You know, talking to you most of the time is like talking to your mother when she was a teenager.  I was lucky to get one or two words out of her whenever she came home from school.”

The words were out of her mouth before she must have realized what she said.  One look at my face, and Nana’s face softened.  “I’m sorry.  Ari, you do look like your mother, though.”

“Do you need any help?”  Distractions worked wonders.

“No, everything’s on the table.”

I dropped into my usual seat.  “You know, Nana, maybe I could do your hair one day soon.  I’m getting decent at dyes.”

Nana chuckled.  “Thanks, but no thanks, dear.  I’ll stick to my natural color.”

I wondered if she thought she would come out with bright red hair like mine, but didn’t push it.  “Well, let me know if you change your mind.”

Nana laughed more.  “I will be sure to do that, but I don’t imagine I’ll be changing my mind, Ari.  Do you have any big plans for tonight?”

“I thought I’d head over to Brad’s house.  He’s back from vacation.”

“Oh?  Where did they go again?”

“Florida.  Some west coast beach.  You know his dad owns that company and goes on a trip every year.  They take the sales guys who had the most sales last year, but Mr. Watson always takes the whole family.”

“Well, tell Bradley I said hello and not to be a stranger.  I wouldn’t mind having him over for more than five minutes.  All I ever see of that boy is the back of his head as he goes out the door or waits outside for you.”

“I’ll do that, Nana.”  

The sad truth was that Brad wanted about as much to do with my nana and her house as a mouse does with a cat.  He hated that she called him “Bradley.”  He certainly wouldn’t touch her cooking.  

We finished up dinner, and I helped Nana clean up.  Once the dishwasher was loaded, I went to my room to change out of my stinky work clothes.  I slipped into a pair of faded jean shorts and a dark red tank top.  Nana was sitting in the living room watching the evening news as I slid into my sandals and kissed her goodbye.

“Don’t wait up for me,” I called and was out the door.

Five minutes later, I pulled into Brad’s driveway — well, his parents’ driveway.  While Nana lived in the same cozy bungalow her mom and dad had owned, Brad’s neighborhood boasted mansions in the true sense.  I parked my dented up, old car in their wrap-around driveway and stepped out to the sound of the fountain spray.  Every bit of landscaping was sculpted and the lawn perfectly manicured.  I guessed if Nana could afford to have someone do her yard, it would look just as nice.  Nice was all it was.  I couldn’t call it beautiful, for it was too perfect.  Just like everything on the outside of that three-storey brick house was too perfect. The mansion hailed back three generations of Watson men.  Brad was supposed to be in the process of being groomed to be the next Mr. Bradley W. Watson and taking over his dad’s company when he retired.  They made golf equipment.

I pushed the doorbell.  Voices inside were arguing, but they were muffled.  Heavy footsteps mixed with lighter, faster ones.  A minute later, one of Brad’s younger sisters, Dora, answered the door.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Hi, Dora.  It’s me, Arianna.  Is Brad around?”

“Arianna?  Wait.”  Dora, who could have been Mandy Snyder’s twin, studied me in the dying sunlight.  “I didn’t recognize you.  What’s up with your hair?”

“Change, Dora.  Change is good.  Now, is Brad there?”

Brad appeared at Dora’s side a second later and bumped her out of the way with his side.  “Move it or lose it, sis.”

Dora scoffed and rolled her eyes.  “Whatever.”  She walked away.

“Sorry about her,” he said, looking at me.

I half-smiled.  “Sure.  Um, can I come in?”

“I thought we’d walk outside.  It’s a nice night.”  Before I could say anything, Brad stepped outside and closed the door.

“Okay,” I said, drawn-out.  

One of the things that annoyed me about Brad was that he made almost all the decisions in our relationship.  He didn’t run anything past me and just assumed I’d be okay with whatever he picked.  I didn’t mind at first, but after two years of this, it was getting tiresome.

I also had a strong hunch that Brad’s family was fighting — with words, but fighting nonetheless.  Sitting in his house wasn’t so perfect.  Most of the time, his two younger sisters, parents, and Brad hardly said two words to each other.  Family meals were uncomfortable affairs whenever I attended.  They had someone to cook for them and serve the food and then clean it up, but I didn’t think anyone could clean up their family’s problems.  Everyone was too busy staring at their phones, or his dad was on a conference call or the computer, usually locked away in his home office.  Mrs. Watson often holed up in her bedroom, where she chain-smoked and binge-watched Netflix.  If she wasn’t in her room, she was out spending the Watson fortune on more stuff they didn’t need.

When the family did interact, voices raised by the decibel within seconds of starting.  I wondered if the only reason Brad’s parents were still married was because of Mr. Watson’s empire and fat checkbook.

“So, uh, how was your trip?” I asked.

Brad snorted.  “Oh, a blast.  Mom pretty much spent the time drinking with the sales guys’ wives or girlfriends while Dad did likewise with his employees.  My sisters laid out on the beach for hours and flirted with a bunch of idiot college guys.”

“What did you do?”

“Had to go with the old man to some of the dinners, just to keep up appearances, you know.  The drinks aren’t bad, but those guys all have their heads so far up my father’s ass, each one’s nose is browner than the one before.”

“Sounds like a good time.”

“My dad’s an idiot.  He thinks I’m gonna follow in his footsteps.”

“You aren’t?”

“Hell no.  Why should I?”

“So, what do you wanna do?”

“I dunno.  We’re young, right?  We’ve got our whole lives ahead of us, Arianna.”

Our whole lives, exactly.  And what was Brad doing with his but milking his parents?  He barely finished college this past spring, taking two extra years to get his degree in business.  He had yet to hold down any sort of job for more than a few weeks.  Most of the time, he just lazed about his house and played games on his phone.  Then, again look at me.  I wasn’t exactly the role model for finishing school with a superior grade point average and taking on the world as a young professional-something or other.  The thing was, I wanted something better with my life, but Brad didn’t seem to care.  It was easy to throw away time and effort when you had all the money in the world.  Yet again, I now had money from the payout from the crash and from my inheritance, but I didn’t know what to do with it.  Brad had been raised with riches.  I was all new money.  But going back to video games…

“You’re a genius when it comes to designing video games, Brad.  Why don’t you do something with that?”

“My parents think it’s a waste of time.  Yeah, maybe I’ll do that, but I’m happy to live at home right now.”

“Really?  You’re happy to live with your family arguing?”

“Well, not really happy about that, but I’ve got a big enough room and my own bathroom.  I can tune them out whenever I wish.  Just slip on my headphones and boom, there ya go.”

“Hmm, well, it seems like it can’t last forever.”

If we were more romantic, we might have been strolling through the Watson gardens holding hands.  Instead, we’d just spent the past few minutes standing next to my car.  Brad’s arms hung loosely at his sides, and mine were crossed over my less than impressive chest.  

“I’m not saying it will.”  Brad looked at me.  I mean, really look at me for the first time since stepping outside.  “What’s the matter?”

I dropped my pretense as a long sigh brought my arms to my sides.  “Why didn’t you text, Brad?  Or call?  It would’ve been nice to hear your voice for maybe five minutes this past week.”

Brad shrugged.  “Busy, you know?  I told you–”

“Yeah, I got the part about having to hang out with Daddy and all his cronies, but what were you doing that was so important that you couldn’t take, I dunno, five seconds to text me a simple ‘Hi, how are you?’”

Now I’d gone and done it.  Brad’s mouth twisted as he narrowed his eyes.  I’d seen that look a hundred times whenever he started up with one of his family members.  I knew what was coming.

“Arianna, what the hell?  I told you I was busy.  It was a week, a lousy, frickin’ week.  What, do you need to keep tabs on me like one of those possessive girlfriends?  You know I hate that.”

“Brad, I never said that.  Don’t put words in my mouth.  But now that you bring it up, I do have to wonder.  You said your sisters were all over a bunch of guys in Florida.  What’s to say you didn’t find some hot girl of your own while you were down there?”

“What?  You’re serious?”  Brad scoffed.  “You’re paranoid, you know that?  Delusional.”

“Actually, I think it’s a completely reasonable thing.  What are we doing here, Brad?  Because I sure the hell don’t know anymore.  It feels like all we ever do is start fighting if I speak up to you.  You want everything your way.  You’ve got your family eating off your pinky finger, and you don’t care at all about what you’re doing to them or with your life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Brad’s face was turning red, aided by the setting sun.

“What it means is, haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve said this past month?  You turned me conveniently off when you went on your trip because you didn’t wanna hear it.  I just lost my parents, Brad!  Have you been living with your head in a hole?”

“God, Arianna, I’m sorry, okay?  What do you want me to do, hold you and let you cry your eyes out?”

“Yes, actually, if that’s what I need.”

“Do you?”

“Well, no, but maybe I did.”

“I went to the funeral.  I was there.”

“Yeah, you were there, but you weren’t there for me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You complained that you had to miss that stupid NBA draft because the funeral fell on the same day, and then you turned your nose up at the food at the dinner afterward.  You kept checking your phone for updates on the draft the whole time.  It was like my parents dying was a freaking inconvenience to you.”

“Jeez, sorry!”  Brad held his hands up.  “I’m not good at that sorta stuff.  You know that.  I hate funerals.”

“Well, no one likes them, but you go to pay your respect.  You show up to support those you care about.  Do you care at all about us anymore?  Because I’ve gotta be honest, I don’t know the last time we even said ‘I love you’ to each other.”

“Is this because I didn’t send you a freakin’ text?”

I groaned, caught between wanting to hit myself in the head or deck Brad.  “It’s more than that, much more.  You’re clueless if you think you have all the time in the world, Bradley.  The way you treat your parents, the way you’re wasting your life — you’re lucky to be able to have parents, to have the time to waste.  You know what it took me to realize that I was throwing my life away?  My parents died, Brad.  They aren’t coming back.  And now I think I’m finally realizing that I can’t just keep going on like I’ve been.  Because…because if I do, I’m gonna die, too.”

“You suicidal or something?”

Tears of frustration leaked from my eyes.  “I’m sorry, Brad, but I just can’t do this anymore.  I didn’t come here tonight thinking it was over, but standing here in front of you now, I know it is.  Whatever girl you date next, be better to her than you were to me.  Don’t just expect her to come running to you whenever you wanna get some.  Take her to the freaking beach to see the sunset.  Buy her cheesy cards and cheap flowers.  Just don’t take her for granted.”

“You breaking up with me?”  Brad sounded incredulous, not the least bit heartbroken.

“Yes, Bradley Watson.  I’m saying goodbye.  You know, Dora noticed my hair.  You didn’t say a word.  You never did, though, did you?  You never noticed me.”

I got into my car and left Brad standing there without looking back.  As I drove away, I hated every tear that fell.  Why was I crying over this?  Brad was no loss.  I had chosen this.  Finally, I had taken control in a relationship that had been falling apart for months.  That should’ve felt liberating, and yet, as I drove away, all I hoped was that Brad felt a tenth of the brokenness I was.

Excerpt from Mile Marker 139

Today I’m sharing with you chapter three of Mile Marker 139.

Read chapter one here and chapter two here.

Chapter Three: Russ Jacobs

His eyelids are growing heavy.  He’s used to lengthy stretches of road and long hours.  When it’s been nearly eleven hours of driving with only two thirty-minute breaks, Russ knows it’s time to turn in.  It doesn’t help that it’s taken him longer than usual to drive the route from New York City.  Between holiday traffic and road construction, it’s added a couple of hours to his route.  He’s always pushing the limits of what’s allowed, but balancing what’s permitted by regulations and getting to his next destination on schedule is an act Russ has been managing for the past fifteen years.

He squints at the road sign.  Twenty-some miles till the next rest stop.  He knows he ought to fit in an eye exam some time between all the road trips, but it’s starting to snow as well.  Visibility would be compromised for anyone.  Damn, he was hoping to beat the snow before stopping.  Every report on the radio stations and chatter from other drivers ahead of him on the road over the CB radio warned him a storm was coming.  He really should know better by now.  

Just stop sooner, Russ.  It’s not that hard, you old idiot.

Russ reaches for the long-cold mug of coffee in the holder, careful to keep his other hand on the wheel.  The truck lurches slightly.  Damn black ice.  Still, he needs something to keep him awake.  The jerking of the cabin is more effective than the ounce of caffeinated beverage left.

As he plants both hands firmly on the wheel, he wonders if he really does have a death wish.  

Concentrate.  You’ll be taking a break for good if you get in an accident and die.

His boss would get on his case if he knew he was driving like this.  On the back of every Todamax Freight truck reads: “How am I driving?  Please call 1-555-TODAMAX.”  

Russ knows he’s got deadlines to make, and the weather isn’t helping.  He wants to push through, but his thirty-nine-year-old body is failing.  He grimaces, thinking about his age.  Brandy is insisting on throwing a party for him.  As much as he loves his younger sister, he hates the idea of that “over the hill” logic that “it’s all downhill from here.”

“You’re halfway to death,” Russ’s lifelong buddy, Ed, joked last time they were together.

If Brandy doesn’t throw the damn party, Ed and his pals will.  Being born on New Year’s Eve is everyone’s excuse to celebrate your birthday.  

Maybe I really do have a death wish, he thinks wryly.  I’m no spring chicken.  Mom always said I had a morbid sense of humor.

Lost in his thoughts, those twenty miles pass like an eighteen-wheeler running over roadkill: easy.  So Russ almost misses his stop.  Snapping out of his woe-is-me-I’m-becoming-an-old-man mentality, Russ takes the exit to the rest area.  As he applies pressure to the brake, the truck slides and wavers on the slush and ice.  Where are the damn road crews when you need them?  Just as he’s about to stop, he sees her too late.  He swears and wills the truck to please stop in time.  It halts.  He releases his white-knuckled grip on the wheel and is out of his cabin in a second.

Expecting to find a body on the ground, Russ breathes a sigh of relief when he sees her standing not five feet from the front of the truck.

“Hey, what the hell do you think you were doin’, lady?” he shouts.  He doesn’t mean to frighten her, but he’s shaken up.

So is she, clearly.  “I-I’m s-sorry,” she mumbles and takes a step, only to lose her balance and fall into the slush.

Russ swears under his breath and comes to her aide.  “It’s not safe out here, lady.  C’mon, in the truck.”

As he helps her us, she tries to pull away.  “No, I’m fine.  Sorry, I–”

“At least let me get you somewhere safe.”  Russ is a big guy — six foot three and two hundred twenty pounds of pure muscle.  He is as gentle as he can be with this waif of a woman, but insistent that she come with him.  As he guides her to the truck, he says, “Don’t worry, lady.  I ain’t gonna hurt you or abduct you if that’s what you’re worried about.”

He opens the passenger door and helps her step up into the cab.  After slamming it shut, Russ gets back in and manoeuvres the semi to the truck rest area in the back.  Once he turns off the engine, he looks her up and down.  Sure that she’s homeless, he asks, “Where are you headed?”


It’s as he suspected.  She’s probably trying to sleep inside the rest stop.  It’s open 24-7 after all, is warm, and has bathrooms.

The snow picks up outside.  

“I’m Russ.”

“And I need to go.”  She tries to open the door, but Russ stills her hand.  

“Wait, are you crazy?  There’s a blizzard out there.  Look, I swear on my grandma’s grave I ain’t gonna hurt you.  I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, not only ‘cause of the weather, but I’m due for a break.  A long break.  At least ten hours, lady.  And in case you’re worried, look around you.  We ain’t exactly alone.”  He motions toward trucks parked on either side of him.

“Well, you could still–”  She shrinks back in her seat, pressed against the window.  “How would they know you aren’t, um, doing something to me in here?”

“Guess you’ll just have to trust me then, lady.  I nearly hit you and am damn glad I didn’t.  What makes you think the first thing I’d do is turn around and rape the woman I practically saved from bein’ made flat as a pancake on the asphalt?”

The woman winces and claws at the handle to open the door.  Russ sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.  “Look, lady, at least tell me your name.  I’m tired and cranky.  Been a long day, and, look, sorry about my tone.  Like I said, long day.”

“I’m, um, Shelley.”  Her voice is scratchy and quiet, like she hardly uses it.  Shelley’s haunted eyes roam the interior of the cabin.  “Won’t it get cold just sitting in here?” she finally asks.

Russ chuckles.  “Nope.  Auxiliary power keeps the cab heated when the engine’s off.”

“It’s, uh…nicer than I’d expect in here.”

Russ can’t help but be amused by her fascination.  He takes off his cap and runs his hands through his thick, dark hair, and replaces it.  “Most don’t really know much about cabs, but it’s fine for what it is.  I spend plenty of time in here.  The bed’s not the same of mine back in New York, but I’m used to it.  Got a fridge, microwave, TV, and Internet.  No bad for a few square feet.”

Shelley seems to relax a bit as she looks around the cabin.  “Do you, um, spend lots of time on the road?”

Russ smiles, then yawns.  “Pretty much my life.  Hey, sorry…just ready to go to sleep.  This storm doesn’t look like it’s gonna let up anytime soon.  You can wait it out in here if you like.”

“Thanks, but I can go inside the center.”

“You kidding me? You’re not even wearing a hat, gloves, nothing.  You’ll freeze out there.”

“It’s not a far walk.”

Russ scrutinizes her.  “You weren’t headed for the building, were you?”

Shelley avoids his gaze, stares at her thin fingers as she picks at a hole in her jeans.

“Sorry.  But you” — he yawns — “you weren’t headed in that direction when I damn near hit you.  You were crossin’ from the car lot to the open area.”

“What’s it matter?”

“It’s after 3:00 in the morning.  There’s a blizzard outside, and you’re hardly dressed to be out in even forty degree weather.  Something don’t add up.”

Shelley frowns, glares.  “I thought you were tired.”

Russ can’t help the big yawn that follows.  “Yeah, I am.  Anyone in their right mind would be beat at this hour.”  He gives her a meaningful look as he takes off his hat and moves to the bed.  Russ lies down, turns on his side away from her.  “Fine.  Do what you want, but I’m getting some shuteye.  Close the door on your way out if you’re crazy enough to leave.”

As sleep claims Russ, his worn-out mind knows Shelley is either insane or dead depressed.  No one roams around outside at this time of night in a snowstorm at a rest stop.

When he wakes at daybreak, Shelley is gone.  But the door is closed.

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