“Not Really” by Pepper O’Brien

You’re sitting on the other side of the bar when I first see you and it’s weird because I’m afraid you’ll know right away who I am, which is ridiculous because we’re a thousand miles away from my town and I’ve grown out my beard and maybe you don’t listen to my music and maybe you wouldn’t care that much anyway.

You’re drinking whiskey. You’re drinking whiskey alone in a bar and I can’t help but feel scared for you. Aren’t you scared that some asshole is going to come by and bother you? Don’t you hear all the same horror stories I do about women getting harassed in bars just like this one? What are you thinking drinking alo – oh. Oh, I see your friend coming back from the bathroom and she orders a club soda. That’s good, at least.

Someone does come by to bother her, though, and you look sad. You’re sad because she’s forgotten about you in favor of her new bothersome potential assailant and I don’t know what upsets me most. Are you okay? You look so sad and I don’t like it. I don’t want to be weird and keep staring, but you look so alone just now gazing dejectedly into your glass and you don’t even look the least bit tipsy.

I can be brave. Can I be brave? It’s hard for me to be brave by myself without a band and a stage and a bunch of people telling me how great I am. I think sometimes that they’re paid to say that or that they just enjoy lying to see what I’ll do. What will I do now, for example? I could say hello. I could sit with you until your friend tires of the nitwit over there in the stupid beanie.

I’m brave. I order you another whiskey and I swear I’m not trying to get you drunk and I have the bartender give it to you because I don’t want you thinking I would ever try to put anything in it. You can send it back if you want and I wouldn’t mind. Maybe you don’t want another drink, and damnit, I shouldn’t have assumed that you would, but you look so sad that I – oh. Oh, okay, you’re smiling at me. The bartender must have told you it was me who sent you the drink. I’m glad I asked what brand it was. I don’t really drink that much.

You’re smiling and you tuck your hair behind your ear and I don’t know what to do. I’m stuck to my chair and I hope you’ve never seen my face anywhere before because I don’t want to fall in love with a fan. I really don’t want to fall in love with a fan because how will I ever be sure that it’s real? There’s no way I would ever know or at least I don’t think that there is. Is there? Please don’t turn out to be a fan. I couldn’t handle the stress of living up to those kinds of expectations. Can’t I just be myself with the pretty girl in the bar? Except I have no idea if myself is what you would like or want or – oh. Oh, you’re coming over now and gosh, you’re so pretty.

“Hi.” That’s all you say at first, just “hi” and what the hell am I supposed to do with that, right? Because as soon as I say “hi” back I’m unoriginal, but I really don’t know any pick up lines and right now I really wish I did, but I don’t and crap, I need to come up with something because now I’m just stuck in my chair staring at you and thinking about how awfully pretty you are and I still haven’t answered your “hi” and now I bet you think I’m crazy. Well, better crazy than famous, right? Right. Okay. So… hi.

You smile your pretty smile and I really want to stare but I’m not a predator and I want you to feel safe and so instead I look at other things. The tequila bottle shaped like a skull, for example, is behind your head and that seems like an okay focal point for the moment. I’ll look at that. Crap. I don’t want you to think that I think you’re boring or that I’m distracted. I’m so not distracted. I can smell your perfume and it’s beautiful and you’re beautiful and wow, your smile is pretty. Hi.

You giggle and I never thought I’d ever hear a giggle as nice as yours and you sit down next to me and you tuck your hair behind your ear again and I’m sure I could ask for a bobby pin if you needed it. Do you need a bobby pin? It would keep your hair in place, right? And maybe if your hair stayed in place I wouldn’t stare quite as much. Yes, I would. I really hope you don’t recognize me because, you know, there’s just a lot going on in my life right now and I just can’t handle falling in love with a fan, okay, so please don’t be one. A fan. Don’t be a fan. Ask me who I am because you have no idea, okay? That’s really just… all I hope to get out of this exchange tonight. I don’t need sex or a date or a kiss or even a conversation lasting longer than a minute or two. I don’t expect any of the things that people told you to be afraid I would expect. My heart’s only desire in this very instant is that you ask my name because you truly don’t know what it is.

“Do you come here a lot?”

Oh. Okay, so… maybe you don’t want to know my name right now or maybe you don’t really care about the name of the guy who bought you a whiskey and that’s fine because you shouldn’t feel pressured to ask my name or anything. I’m totally okay with going on just like this and we share kind of a cool stranger camaraderie, but not like danger strangers. Stranger… never mind. I’m not dangerous, just neurotic, and I really don’t want you to find that out so I can keep being the nameless guy if you want – that’s okay! I don’t mind. Maybe I mind a little, but I’m not going to say that. Is that dishonest? Have I already started things off badly after only saying “hi”? Maybe I should just answer your question.

“Not really.”

That’s a safe answer, right? If I don’t come to this bar all that much, it’s still a safe space for you and I’m not the creepy guy who hangs around in bars all the time, and even if you don’t ever come here, it comes across as sort of nonchalant and laid back, right? I want you to think I’m laid back. No, wait, I don’t, that’s dishonest again, isn’t it? It is. I’m messing this up already and I’ve said exactly three words and paid exactly six dollars for your drink and have asked myself exactly forty-five times whether or not you could possibly recognize me. Not that it matters now. I really want to tell you about myself and not in a way that’s posturing or over the top like beanie dude talking to your friend. You tuck your hair again and really, are you very sure you do not require a bobby pin?

Please ask my name, I really hope you will.

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Hope – a short story by Pepper O’Brien

I had pizza.

Tomorrow, I may have nothing at all, but that day, some kind soul bought me a three dollar slice of plain, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

“Honey?” she’d said, her sweet, concerned, round face peering down at me cautiously. “You eat pizza?”

“Sure do,” I’d told her.

“I don’t have cash, but I’m gonna get you some, okay? You like soda?”

“I…” my eyes welled as I looked up at her. “Yeah. Any kind.”

She walked across the street with a bit of a limp.

Huh. A woman in pain. It just figured that she’d be the first person to look at me all day. I bet it must be nice to see someone who has is worse.

When she came back, I swear I drooled all over myself at the sight of melted cheese.

“Here you go. You keep warm now, alright?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said quickly. “Thank you. Bless you.”

“And you, honey.”

And off she went. I hoped her limp got better. I hoped someone did a kind thing for her. I hoped a lot of things.

None of them were for myself.

“Jack,” I heard someone call. I turned to see Rosco hobbling toward me, his arms laden down with everything he owned.

“Hey, man,” I answered back with a wave.

“I was gonna share a Twinkie with you, but it looks like you’re all set.” Rosco plopped down next to me.

“Appreciate the thought. You want a bite?”

“Wouldn’t mind one. Thanks.”

There were an awful lot of creeps and thieves on the street, but Rosco was one of the good guys and about a year ago he’d decided that I was, too. We’d been looking out for each other every since. I didn’t see him every day, and I had my suspicions he was shooting up again, but there was no point in telling him off. He’d been living like this much longer than I had. I couldn’t lose the only person who ever bothered to check up on me. Maybe that was selfish. Maybe it was just survival.

Rosco handed me back the greasy paper plate that held my pizza and I polished off the rest without a word.

“Hey, where’d you sleep last night?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer. “You weren’t in your usual spot.”

“Nah. Found a new one.” It was exactly the kind of answer that told me he wasn’t going to give up anything more. His quiet way of telling me to butt out.

“Oh,” I said simply, sipping the remainder of my Coke.

“Sandwich fairies oughtta be coming by tonight.”

“Sounds good to me.”

***

That night, I was fast asleep against the base of some statue when a light flashed bright in my eyes.

“Hey, man,” a voice said, “you can’t be out here.”

Fuck. The fucking park patrol. They’d been slacking off a lot lately, so I hadn’t bothered to worry about them.

“Seriously, man, I mean it. You gotta-”

“Yeah, I know. I’m going.” I stood on unsteady feet, gathered my pack and my sleeping bag, and stumbled away. Maybe the bus depot had some room.

I tried to avoid the bus depot, because a lot of unsavory characters hung out around there. You’d think I would have gotten used to them by now, but I wasn’t. I tried to avoid anybody who wanted me selling smack, and I really tried to avoid the ones who wanted me selling my body. Like life hadn’t already dealt me a tough enough hand of cards.

I settled into an empty corner far from the benches. I didn’t mind sleeping sitting up. I’d done it plenty in the Marines.

***

The next night, after a too long, too cold day of sitting on my ass with a piece of cardboard, I lucked out with the dumpster behind the donut place. Hey, there are way worse things than day old bagels, I tell you what.

“Hey, honey, you need some sugar?” I heard from down the alley.

“Can’t afford any sugar tonight, sweetheart, but thanks.”

“Holy… Jack?”

I picked my head up to see who it was. Did I know them?

No fucking way.

“Lance?”

“Whoo! Haven’t heard that name in a while. It’s been Lainey for so long I forgot who knew me back then. Get your fine ass over here, Jackie boy.”

I hadn’t seen Lance Marcusen in years but there was that face – those twinkling eyes and that impish grin. The woman standing with her hand on her hip waiting for me to make my way out of the dark alley where I hid, though, was a happier, more confident person than the kid I’d known.

“Jack, honey, what in the world are you doing here?”

“Looking for food, I guess. What about you, man? I mean…” I fumbled. Thank God she laughed.

“Don’t you worry, baby. Come here. I’ve got plenty at home. It ain’t much but the water’s hot and the microwave works just fine.”

“Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to-”

“Jackie, sweetie, you shush up and get walking.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

***

“Baby, what happened?”

About an hour later, I was as clean as I’d been in weeks and dressed in an old hoodie and some pink polka dot flannel pajama pants. There was even a heaping bowl of cereal in front of me. Lainey had Hot Pockets going in the microwave. She’d taken off her eyelashes, her platform heels, and her sparkling silver corset top. She was sitting on her ottoman in front of me wearing nothing but an embroidered kimono.

“Mom passed. Haven’t heard a peep from Dad since I joined up.”

“When did you get back?” she asked, genuine concern deep in her voice.

“Four months ago.”

“You didn’t call nobody?”

I shrugged. The truth was I hadn’t. I’d been… I didn’t know what. Too embarrassed?

“Well, you’re staying here now.” Lainey clapped her hands together and stood up, making her way back to her small kitchen.

“I can’t let you do that. I’m-”

“Yes, you can and you’re gonna. I ain’t hearing another word about it.”

I didn’t know what to say. So I ate my cereal.

That night, I slept in those polka dot pants. The next day, Lainey and I went grocery shopping and I convinced her to get a bag of apples and some eggs. The rest was total junk, but I let her be.

The day after that, I met her friend Jeanine, who ran a night club and needed a bartender.

It only lasted three months, but that was three months Lainey didn’t pay the rent on her own and I took care of the grocery shopping. She’d never eaten so healthy in her life.

About a week after I quit bartending, I answered a job ad looking for a mechanic. Lainey said she liked having a “hunky grease monkey” for a roommate and I liked the work.

When I’m not fixing cars, I’m keeping homophobic skinheads away from my friend (not that she can’t take care of herself) and searching for Rosco. I ask around plenty, but the streets are funny that way. Either they don’t remember me and think he’s in trouble or they do remember me and think I left him behind.

I hope I find him. I hope I can give him one of Lainey’s Twinkies and a slice of pizza.

Grief – a Short Story by Pepper O’Brien

There really wasn’t anything quite as satisfying as beating bread dough into submission.

Don’t think about it. Don’t go there. Keep it together. 

I chanted silently to myself over and over as I kneaded, the smell of the yeast wafting up to remind me that I was safe, I was home, and I was getting on with my life. I baked every day and made bread twice a week, sometimes more.

This week, all I’d done was bake. I woke up for a batch of muffins. The instant the bowl was clean, a cake was next, then there was buttercream to mix, and then a pie crust to roll out.

I baked for hours until Kyle came to either eat his fill or take away the extra to whomever. I never asked. As long as there was need, I’d keep baking.

Need in myself or need in others to eat, I didn’t pause for long enough to consider.

“Honey,” he said tentatively as I continued to knead.

“There are lady fingers just there and some chouquettes,” I told him. “This needs to prove again, but I’ll have an Angel Food out soon.” I spared a glance for the upside-down tin where the cake was resting before I returned my attention to the dough in front of me.

I didn’t hear my husband’s resigned sigh, but I knew it was there. I could feel it in my bones.

“Okay,” he finally said. “I’ll take care of it.”

You’re okay. Everything’s fine. Don’t think about it. 

***

Late that night, sounds drifted through the house in an uneven pattern. Baseball highlights floated in from the den’s television as my mixer whirred together butter and sugar. Kyle muttered on the phone, the ceiling fan spun in a hum, and cicadas happily sang in the yard. The oven timer beeped. The water ran in the sink. The kitchen radio played bachata. I used to dance as I baked, and I hadn’t quite gotten out of the habit of playing music whenever I had cookies on the brain.

I didn’t dance anymore.

“Terry?”

At first, I didn’t hear him. I was too busy chanting in my head and watching to make sure the chocolate I had melting in the saucepan didn’t burn.

“Terry, baby,” he said again.

“Hm?” I didn’t look up.

“That was your mom.”

I tensed, unsure of why she’d call now.

“Janet’s kids… her students keep sending cards and things. She just wanted to know if you… if you’re interested in taking a look. Or maybe coming for a visit.”

I barely heard what he said after “Janet”. My sister’s name reverberated through my head as I stared at the blade of my mixer.

Janet. Janet. Janet. Janet. Janet. 

I could scream. I could vomit. I could curl in a ball in the corner and refuse to speak to anyone.

I didn’t. I just baked.

“Sweetheart? Maybe you could call your mom back tomorrow. She didn’t sound like she was doing very well-”

He cut himself off before he could say “either”. We both heard it anyway. What he stopped himself from saying, but meant just the same. She’s not doing any better than you are. 

Meaning I wasn’t doing well. Meaning I wasn’t handling my sister’s suicide.

“Kyle.”

My voice rasped from underuse. He probably hadn’t heard me say his name in weeks.

“I can’t…”

“Can’t what, baby?”

I didn’t know what to say. I reached up and turned the mixer off. Suddenly, all the noise in our house seemed to rush to a halt. I no longer heard the sports commentators. I no longer heard the ceiling fan. Kyle must have lowered the radio’s volume when he tried to get my attention. Even the cicadas seemed to hold their breath as I stood in my kitchen and tried to tell my husband what it was I couldn’t do.

“I can’t think about her right now, Kyle.”

“You don’t have to, Terry,” he whispered, never moving from his place by the door. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want, but you’re scaring me.”

That snapped my head up in a hurry. I finally met his eyes.

“You can keep doing this. I’ll bring you all the flour and eggs you want. I’ll keep bringing cookies to work with me. I’ll take your mother’s calls, and I’ll tell all of our friends that you’re doing okay. I promise I will. I’ll do all of it until you bake through every ounce of butter in the state, I swear.”

My eyes filled. My poor, worried husband looked pale and gaunt, barely propping himself against the door jamb.

“If that’s what you need, honey, that’s what I’ll do. But no one knows you like I do. Not your mom, not your brothers, and baby, I’m so sorry to say this, but not even Janet knew you like I do.”

The tears fell because he was right. I knew it and so did he.

“I know every part of you, and I know you’re trying to make yourself feel better. I know you’re trying to forget, because all of this,” he gestured to the counter in front of me, “is something you love.”

He took a step forward and I felt my hands shake.

“I miss my wife,” he said softly. “And I don’t want you to forget. I’ll go along with whatever you want, whatever you need to do, but sweetheart… I’d take years of your anger and your tears and your frustration over a single moment of your reserve. I miss you so much, and I don’t know how to show you anymore.”

Without another word, Kyle turned and walked out of the kitchen. I heard the game highlights come back on. Rubbing my face on my apron, I turned the mixer back on.

***

The next morning, I stepped outside and sat on my front steps with a cup of coffee in my hands, and I waited. I’d woken up to an empty bed. Kyle was probably out for a run, and I wanted him to see me here. I wanted to show him that I could leave the house, that I could behave like a normal person. Or at least pretend to for a time.

It was another ten minutes before I heard the telltale rhythm of his running shoes hitting the sidewalk.

I smiled even though it hurt. I stood even though I didn’t want to. My hands ached for my whisk and my rolling pin. Still I gripped my mug and made my way down the front walk.

Sweating and exhausted, my husband pulled up in front of me.

“Terry?”

“Hey.”

A Very Short Story About the Little Things by Pepper O’Brien

Every morning, right around 11:00, I have… a moment with the FedEx guy.

I estimate he’s not much older than I am and that he works out on his own aside from hauling boxes up and down the stairs to various offices. He strikes me as a dog person, and perhaps someone who owns and rides a bike. I don’t know any of this for sure. We don’t exactly chat.

What I do know is he has a tattoo of a tiger on his arm. I only see it in the summer and only ever half of it as the rest is hidden under the sleeve of his polo shirt.

I also know he likes pizza, because the one time I had pizza and was too hungry to wait until noon to eat lunch, he’d pointed to my plate and simply said “jealous” with a smirk and a longing look in his eye.

I don’t know what his favorite pizza topping might be. I don’t know if he has any other tattoos. I don’t know what his favorite color is, as I have only ever seen him in black and purple.

I do know that every day, he comes right up to my desk, my simple, tidy desk, and shares a moment with me.

Anyway, each morning, he strolls through the office doors with a bright smile and says “morning” before setting down whatever parcel and handing me the keypad for my signature. Each morning, right around 11:00, he does this and looks at me with that handsome smile while I blush and scribble my name with the attached stylus. Sometimes I take longer than I need to handing it back just so I can see his eyes crinkle at the corners.

I smile at him and take his delivery, and he says “thanks so much” and gives me a wink, which (naturally) makes me blush harder.

I’d been at my job for less than a month when I first saw him. He was new, too. I liked that.

“Hey, there,” he’d said, looking right at me, probably because my desk just happened to be the one closest to the door. For the record, none of the packages are ever for me, nor do I ever open them. As soon as he leaves, I walk them right over to Kelly, who works in the very back corner.

“Hi,” I’d replied, a little confused and a little nervous. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to sign for anything at that point. I did it anyway, because when a good-looking guy hands you a keypad and asks for your signature, you give it.

“Last name?” he’d asked, taking his keypad back from me.

“Campbell.”

“Perfect,” he’d said. “Thanks.”

He has never asked for my last name since. He remembered it was Campbell after only one visit. I try not to dwell on that too much, assuming that he perhaps just happens to have an excellent memory. I try not to think it has much (if anything) to do with me.

My moment with the FedEx guy is easily the best part of my workday.

This morning, right around 10:55, I rushed to the bathroom to make sure my hair was okay (yes, I know how that sounds – sue me).

When he strolled into the office five minutes later, though, he didn’t have his usual bright smile. He didn’t look up at me at all. He didn’t say “morning”.

“Morning,” I said brightly, hoping it would be returned.

He looked up quickly and gave me a half-hearted smile. One that didn’t reach his eyes.

“Sign here, please?” He handed me the keypad and I scribbled.

“Sure,” I said, and then, dropping my voice a bit, “um, is everything okay?”

As I handed back the keypad, he looked up again and held my gaze.

“Yeah, thanks. Last name?”

I paused, and let myself stare for a second too long. He cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows, still waiting for an answer. I tried to ignore the sinking feeling as I took in another breath.

“Campbell.”

A (Very Short) Excerpt

I sat crossed-legged on my kitchen counter and let the heat from my mug warm my hands. It was below forty degrees in our apartment, but I tried not to let that bother me too much. At least we had someplace to live.

As I sipped my tea, I heard Jacob curse from the other room. For some reason, my mother’s voice echoed through my head.

“Language,” I reprimanded him. I said it firmly and I made sure he heard me, but I didn’t shout. As a general unspoken rule, Jacob and I did not fight.

He shuffled into the kitchen and pinned me with a look.

“Really?” he asked, his eyebrows disappearing into his hair. It really was getting much too long.

“Really,” I confirmed, holding his gaze. It was was Mom would have done. It ought to work for big sisters, right?

He heaved a sigh and shook his head, looking bemused.

“Yeah, alright,” he agreed as he turned to make his way back toward the living room.

“What are you working on this time?”

“The bookcase,” he told me, holding up the level in his hand. “The shelves are uneven.”

“So?” I asked, and I knew my nose scrunched in confusion. “It’s not like we have anything to put on them.”

“No, but we will someday, won’t we? I don’t want it going on a crooked shelf.”

“Fair enough.”

Jacob wandered back toward his project and I couldn’t help but smile. If there wasn’t something for him to do, he’d invent a task for himself. No one could ever accuse my brother of having idle hands. In the short time since our arrival, he’d managed to replace the windows, right the doors that were falling off their hinges, and retile the small bathroom we shared. One had to admire his sense of industry.

My tea had cooled a bit and I drank it deeply, my focus straying to the window. I saw shapes in the distance that must have been our landlord and his family. While it felt early to me, I knew our neighbors had been awake for hours.

“Sara?” Jacob called.

“Yes?”

“Any idea where a hammer could be? Or maybe a pry bar?”

“Not a clue,” I almost laughed. “You could ask David.”

I listened for my brother’s footfalls as he left the bungalow in search of our friend David. We’d lived here almost three weeks, and while a tiny farmhouse that was probably somewhere near eighty years old and had seen its share of bad winters certainly wasn’t the city apartment Jacob and I had grown up in, it sure felt like home to me.

Ruth had said her cousin’s farm was some version of paradise, what she imagined heaven might be like. While I didn’t really go that far, I could see what she meant by it. It might not have the unicorns and ice cream I’d pictured when I thought of heaven as a child, but it was safe and the people welcomed me. It was much more than we’d had for the past few years.

Mom had gone to Austria in search of some old family friends to stay with. The last thing she told me before she went was that it seemed unfair to be fleeing a place her great-grandmother had herself fled to so long ago, but perhaps that was our cycle. To never have anywhere to belong. I hated the sentiment, but worse than that, I hated that I understood it.

We hadn’t heard from Dad in months. I think that’s what finally convinced my brother it was time to seek refuge.

I didn’t care that it had only been three weeks, and that nothing was certain. I was relieved. We were as off the grid as anyone could get in twenty-first century America, and at least for now, we were safe.

I looked up at the sound of Jacob plodding back into the house triumphantly.

“Got it!” he called.

I smiled into my mug.

“Ours” by Pepper O’Brien

I stand up and stretch, hoping to relieve some of the tension that has collected in my back. A popping sound seems to reverberate up my spine and it feels amazing.

“Ow!” Penny cries in empathy. “Are you okay?”

I smile at my sister as I reach my arms up over my head.

“Yep,” I tell her, “I’m good.”

She rolls her eyes and keeps ripping open boxes.

“More books,” she says. “Bedroom or living room?”

“Depends. What kind of books?”

She peers into the box and pulls out one of my dictionaries, holding it up for me to see.

“Living room, please.”

“This would be a lot easier if you’d labeled the boxes, you know.”

“I hadn’t really planned it out that much, Penny,” I say with a shrug.

She nods and shoves the box of books aside to start on another. Penny is good about not asking questions she knows she won’t like the answer to. She’s also good about listening even when she doesn’t like what she’s hearing. It’s good to have a sister like her in times like this one.

“Pen?”

“Hmm?” She looks up from the next box, which I know is full of linens.

“Michael wasn’t a good guy,” I tell her simply.

“I know.”

“I mean, he was pretty awful toward the end…”

“I know he was, Tally. You don’t have to-”

“Yeah, I do.”

Penny sits back on her heels on the floor of my new apartment’s hallway. She clicks the blade back into the box cutter and waits for me to continue.

Penny has always been good about handling these sort of things.

“He was abusive, and ignored it because I loved him.”

I hadn’t intended for it to come out quite like that, but it’s too late now. The words formed themselves the way they were meant to, I suppose.

“I should have guessed he’d be a good manipulator. That should have been clear a long time ago, but it never occurred to me that he could be that way with someone he said he loved. I guess that was pretty stupid of me to think.”

“No, it’s not,” Penny tells me, her compassion practically bursting through her eyes. “It’s not stupid to think that someone you love loves you back enough not to trick you like that.”

I turn her words over in my head for a moment before I respond.

“I couldn’t tell I was being tricked for over a year, and when I did…”

I pause because I don’t quite know what to say next. The words come anyway.

“When I did, we were so entrenched in each other’s lives. He knew everything about me. All my friends, how to scare me, everything. Staying felt so much safer than leaving.”

Penny stares at me and heaves a heavy breath before sliding over to sit beside me on my new floor.

“Tal?”

“Yeah, Pen?”

“I want to remove his testicles.”

It’s such an unexpected thing for her to say that I can’t help but laugh.

“I mean it,” she says through a smile. “He was awful and should not be allowed to procreate.”

I look at my knees, deciding not to tell her about the pregnancy scare a few years ago that Michael found a way to make my fault despite his consistent disinterest in condoms.

“Tally, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but… how bad did it get?”

“You want to know if he hit me?”

“Yeah.”

I stare at the wall for a moment too long because Penny scoots closer to me and grasps my hand in both of hers.

“Not at first,” I tell her. “That wasn’t his way until I started sticking up for myself. Then he hit.”

“May I kill him?”

“You’re asking for permission?”

“Not really,” she admits. “Just declaring my intentions.”

I smile a little at that.

“So… that’s why the police were there yesterday?”

When Penny helped me collect my things from the old place, a squad car was in the driveway to greet her. Penny, always good about not asking questions she won’t like the answer to, said nothing at the time.

“I got a restraining order. Officer Willis was there to make sure Mike didn’t come home early.”

“You packed fast.”

“To tell you the truth, Pen,” I say with a sigh. “I’d been packing for a while.”

“I thought you said leaving wasn’t planned.”

“It wasn’t. I didn’t wake up last week and decide I’d leave yesterday. But I’d been… ready for it, I guess.”

Penny squeezes my hand and leans her head on my shoulder. I’m really glad I have a sister.

“Now you have something that’s all yours.”

“I suppose I do.”

***

Later that night, I’m propped up in a bed we picked up from a nice college guy who’d posted it on craigslist. The mattress is a little creaky, but it will do fine.

My laptop rests on my thighs and I dutifully delete every photo I can find of Mike. On my hard drive, on Instagram. Everything.

Just as I am going through the ones of us on Facebook, a messenger notification pops up.

John: Hey you. 

It’s John from college. I haven’t talked to John in months, and I know I’m grinning.

Tally: Hey yourself. 

John: I know this is kind of last minute and please don’t feel like you have to, but I’m actually in your neck of the woods. Want to grab a bite? 

I freeze for a moment and read the words on the screen a few more times before my fingers return to the keys.

Tally: WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON THE WEST COAST? 

John: Last minute project! We’re filming in Santa Cruz tomorrow. We just landed and everybody’s exhausted but me. Go figure. 

I laugh a bit at that. John and I were both always nocturnal.

Tally: Where can I meet you? 

John: Could you pick me up? 

He sends me an address and I know immediately that this will be good for me. I’m afraid that Michael will get the bulk of “our” friends in the split. I know he’ll twist it to make himself the victim, although I don’t like that word associated with me either. “Our” friends were always really his anyway. John, though, is gloriously untainted by Michael. John from college and the coffee shop and the movie theater. John, I can trust implicitly.

John, who never scared me, not even a little.

I quickly map the address on my phone and wrack my brain for where I left my shoes.

Tally: I’ll be there in ten. 🙂 

***

I pull around the corner and see John’s lean figure beside a streetlamp. I flash my lights and he looks up, smiling.

“Hey, stranger!” I call out the window. He hops into the passenger’s seat and grins right at me.

“Hey, yourself. Where’s my hug?”

“You’ll get one when we stop, not to worry.”

We catch up, falling into the easy, teasing conversational rhythm we found freshman year, which feels about a million years ago now. John has been working with an independent film company, which I knew. What I didn’t know was that they were picking up a documentary project about an environmentalist group based out of Santa Cruz. He confesses that the idea of a documentary did not excite the rest of the team as it did him, but he managed to convince them anyway.

I tell him about what’s new with the job I’ve had for the last two years. Copywriting might not be the most glamorous thing, but it pays the bills and I make my own schedule. I tell him that I’m starting to get back into painting again. That gets a curious look out of John, who was unaware I’d ever stopped, but he says nothing.

When we find my favorite burger place, I park and hop out. John, on the other side, waiting for me, opens his arms and I practically leap into them, so happy to seem him again. His long, wiry arms wrap all the way around me and I can’t help it. I hide my face in my shoulder.

“Hey,” he says softly. “You okay, Tal?”

“Sure,” I lie.

“You’re bad at that, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. Get a burger in me and I’ll be better.”

“You got it.”

***

An hour later, I’ve effectively poured my heart out and John is fully up to date on all things Tally, including but not limited to the many sordid details of Tally’s unfortunate romantic circumstances. And there are very many.

“Tal…”

“Please don’t tell me that I’m better than that,” I plead. “Please don’t tell me that I should have left sooner. I promise you I know that better than you. I’ve been tough for my parents, I’ve been tough for my sister. I haven’t even cried over it. I’m just exhausted. Please do me the favor of not telling me what I already know.”

John looks at me sadly, but it’s not pity or disappointment. At least, if it is, it doesn’t seem to be directed at me.

“Tal. I was going to say I’m proud of you.”

Okay, that catches me off guard a little.

“Huh?”

“Tally, my father was an abusive alcoholic. You think I don’t understand how hard it is to get out of that kind of situation? I know exactly how brave you had to be. I’m proud of you. You’re a lot tougher than you’re giving yourself credit for.”

And there, suddenly, are the tears. Thank God for John.

“On top of which, I can’t imagine your family holding anything like that against you. Were they-?”

“No, no. They’ve been really great about it, especially Penny. I just…”

“You were looking for someone to judge you. And when they didn’t, you decided to do it yourself.”

John stares at me for a moment, not really expecting a response.

“You’re too sharp for your own good,” I accuse through a watery smile.

“Come here.”

I slide closer to him in the booth and collapse against his side. He wraps an arm around my shoulders and rests the side of his head on top of mine.

“I’m sure plenty of others have offered, but do I have ass kicking to do?”

I chuckle. “No. I really don’t think he was dangerous to anyone but me.”

“Hence the restraining order.”

“Hence,” I agree. “But thank you.”

John and I sit in companionable silence, easily polishing off our remaining french fries. I giggle every time he swallows and I can feel it against the side of my face.

***

The next morning, John texts me to say he’ll be in Santa Cruz for ten days, and can we please get together before he heads back home. I readily agree.

As I unpack my coffee machine, load it up, and make myself comfortable perched on top of the kitchen counter by the window, I can’t help but think about Michael.

This morning, he is probably wondering what happened to his kitchen and how he will make coffee now. He is possibly concerned about the sudden barrenness of the cupboards that once housed my waffle maker and my mixing bowls and my teacups.

He is probably noticing something different about the walls in the hallway, but it will take him a few guesses to realize that I took my photo frames. He is maybe even collecting a little list of all the things I took with me.

What I hope he will ultimately realize is, despite their residence in his home for a short while, everything I took was never his or even ours. All of it was always mine.

“Fine” by Pepper O’Brien

“Ow, fuck!” I shouted the moment the cart made contact with my elbow.

“Shit! Sorry!” Danny said immediately, letting go of the cart and coming to stand next to me. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t even looking.”

“It’s fine,” I told him tightly, my jaw clenched and my eyes watering.

“Are you sure? Do you need ice or something?”

I forced a laugh. “Buy me a drink later and we’ll call it even, okay?”

“I can do that.”

My arm hurt like a bitch, but I couldn’t focus on it for too long. I had work to do. Danny carefully continued on with the cart still muttering apologies and sneaking glances at the bruise already forming on my arm.

I plucked the pencil from behind my ear to jot down a reminder for Nick to check out the popping noise on the far left studio speaker. Reporting the news using only the Internet had its limitations sometimes, but we were certainly profitable enough to afford a replacement speaker. The set we had was secondhand from a theater that had been shut down during the budget cuts. I’d hated to ravage the place for equipment, but it was cheap and we hadn’t had any other options when we first started out.

“What do you think it’s about?” I heard Jen, our new intern, ask someone. She was with us for the summer before going back to finish up her Bachelor’s at Columbia. I almost smirked at the naivete behind her question.

“No idea,” said Mike. “Can’t be good, though.”

“Why do you say that?” I liked Jen fine, but on days like this one, it was hard to appreciate her idealism.

“Hasn’t been good for nearly a year. Five’d get you twenty he’s exploited another legislative loophole.”

I silently agreed and placed that bet with myself. Then I got moving. A presidential address wasn’t new anymore. It didn’t elicit the same adrenaline that it used to. I tried to remember the rush of excitement when I first started covering politics. There was so much to learn and so many intricacies to keep track of. When the president addressed the nation, there had been thrill. Lately, though, all I felt was dread.

***

Fours hours later, Danny and I were down the street at Bobby’s, my favorite dive bar. Billy Joel crooned from the tinny stereo and I could hear the cook shuffling around, putting together baskets of fries. We’d arrived with barely a word between us before I ordered two beers and as many appetizers as I could remember without glancing at a menu.

I stared straight ahead, studying the reflections in the liquor bottles. For a while, neither of us knew quite what to say.

“What am I going to tell my mom?” he asked quietly, slumping in his stool and tracing patterns in the dew of his beer bottle.

I adored Danny’s mother. She owned an art gallery and sent the studio care packages when we couldn’t make it home for holidays. More than once, she’d had pizza delivered when we were editing late into the night.

She taught art classes at a few local colleges. Or did. We’d just found out that all public schools would no longer hire part-time or guest teachers, and that arts classes would be removed completely.

That wasn’t all we’d reported, but it didn’t surprise me that it was all Danny had heard.

“Same I told mine when veteran’s benefits got stripped,” I replied, my gaze still on the bottles lined up along the shelves behind the bar. I knew I’d find his face as broken as mine had been in the beginning, and I couldn’t bear to face it straight on, cowardly as that probably was. “Tell her you love her. Tell her she deserves better, and you’re sorry it happened.”

“Dad got laid off more than two months ago. I don’t know what’s going to happen if… fuck, I don’t know.”

I thought about that for a moment, and I pictured Danny’s family in my mind. His mother’s friendly, open smile. His father’s kind eyes and weathered hands. Slowly, the mental image morphed to look like my own family. I thought about my parents in their dress blues, perfect postures, and the proud angles with which they both held themselves.

“You know what I thought at first?”

Danny turned to face me.

“I thought… what do these clowns even need an opposition party for? An administration like that will discredit themselves just fine on their own.”

Danny nodded solemnly.

“The healthcare reform was one thing – as much as we hated it, we all expected it. But then… that entire first week it just kept tumbling. The employment holds, the gag orders, the suspensions, the budget cuts. He hadn’t even been in office a week and his executive orders were already in the double digits, and there was so much resistance. All those marches, all the protests. I had so much faith in us. That we’d get through to Congress and they’d help us end it. I thought there was no way he’d keep it up.”

The lump that had formed on my elbow where Danny had hit me with the cart throbbed as I spoke.

“I don’t know a single person I went to school with who hasn’t had to pick up second and third jobs in the past ten months,” I said. “Half my friends have fled the country and so many others now have marriage licenses no one will recognize as valid anymore. My brother will probably never finish college now. The world’s biggest con artist silenced every scientist who ever made a damn bit of sense and now he’s strangled the artists. It’s not like we don’t fight back. We fight back. But God, it’s… fucking exhausting.”

Our shared tray of greasy fried food found its way between us on the bar and I picked at a mozzarella stick.

“If your brother needs a place to stay, he can crash at my place,” Danny offered, staring blankly at our food.

“I’ll ask him.”

“Kel?”

“Hmm?”

“What happens when the studio gets shut down?”

A zinging pain shot through me at the thought. I’d put my heart, soul, and every dime I had into that place, and panic had crossed my mind more than once about what would become of it if the witless wonder of the White House ever found a way to dig his claws into it.

“We don’t have to worry about that yet. Worry about the people who are already hurt.”

“You think we’re not hurting?”

Pain spread through me, radiating from my bruised elbow to the rest of my body, gripping my heart and snaking its way up through my spine and into my head.

“Not yet,” I told him, taking another swig of my beer. “We’re fine.”

“YOU” a short story by Pepper O’Brien

HIM

I first see you as you hop out of an Uber. You look so casual, so relaxed, so far from the panic I feel radiating through my veins. You smile as the driver pulls your bag out of the trunk and you practically float through the sliding glass doors toward the check-in desk.

I’m at the kiosk next to yours. I nearly type in the wrong retrieval number because I’m too busy watching your long fingers fly deftly across your screen. Oh, to be that lucky screen.

I am suddenly aware of how conspicuous I must seem to you with my many tattoos and affinity for black. Not a single thing about me suggests subtlety, and I have never minded that before this very second as I take in your soft, sweet features.

Your hair is red. Browner than mine, more muted, but still red.

Your eyes are a watery blue, not bright and not piercing, but calm and soothing, almost gray and almost green at once.

You have a smattering of freckles on your neck and a few on your forehead, but none across your nose and cheeks. I can tell you aren’t wearing any makeup. You don’t seem to mind your freckles, and I feel strangely proud of you.

I notice the colorful case on your iPhone, your pink Nikes, and your well-worn blue jeans. I notice the Starbucks coffee cup in your hand and the red polish on your fingernails. I think to myself immediately that I must seem like riffraff to you, and that bothers me more than I like. The opinion of the girls you remind me of has never mattered to me. I don’t understand why it does now.

After a moment, though, you shift the sleeve of your sweater and I catch a glimpse of ink on your arm. You’re so quick, so casual, that I can’t make out what it is, but I do know a tattoo when I see one. For reasons I can hardly fathom, a glimmer of hope sparks in my chest. We could be more alike than I’d thought.

Your oversized sweater that drapes off your shoulder is black, like mine. You yawn into the crook of your elbow, like I do. You bounce a bit on your toes, refusing to put all of your weight on one foot, and I wonder if you, too, took Mr. Spurlock’s stage movement class.

As you slowly pull your fingers through your hair and it shifts off your neck, I catch a peek at yet another tattoo just behind your ear. This one, I can make out. It’s the tiny outline of a ginkgo leaf. It’s not a lotus flower, it’s not a butterfly, it’s not a star or a rose, and it’s not a fucking infinity sign. A ginkgo leaf has meaning that the typical white girl would not appreciate. A ginkgo leaf must be important to you. You thought long and hard about that leaf, and I’m glad.

You step up to the counter and check your bag, a dark purple rolling suitcase with black handles. I see the letters on the baggage tag (PHL) and silently rejoice. You’re going to Philly and this could not be more perfect.

Maybe we’ll sit near each other. Maybe I can ask you about the book I’m sure you have tucked in your carry-on, and will perhaps actually attempt to read. Maybe you will have trouble sleeping, just like I do, and I can offer you a Tylenol PM. Maybe you are a better flyer than I am and when we take off and I get nervous, you will notice and you will care and you will reassure me somehow. Maybe you will hold my hand and tell me to close my eyes and distract me by telling me about yourself. Maybe I’ll learn about your life; the depth of it, and not this presumptions I’m creating in my head.

I am not a creep, so I don’t allow myself to watch you as you leave the check in desk. I check my bag and try to be as casual as possible as I look up to find your pink Nikes disappear up the escalator. The thrill in my chest remains. I’ll see you on my flight home.

*

HER

I can’t stop thinking of you. The brilliant red of your hair, more ginger than mine. The intricate lines of your tattoo sleeves. I’m jealous of you. You wear everything that’s important to you right on top of your skin. I wish I was brave enough to do the same. The life you wear on your sleeves seems beautiful to me. I’ve placed all my tattoos so carefully. I can hide them if I need to. With my hair down, with a long sleeve, with the right shoes, I can walk into a conference room and no one would know. You can’t do that, and I envy that freedom so much.

I want to know where you are going. I want to know if I will see you in Terminal B. Perhaps I’ll linger at the bookshop near security. Maybe I’ll see you there. I hope I see you somewhere. I find you fascinating and we’ve never made eye contact.

Chugging the last dregs of my Starbucks, I chuck the cup, silently disgusted at my lack of environmentalism. In my hurry to leave this morning, I forgot my travel mug, the one with the colorful sugar skulls I love so much, perhaps the only indication to guys like you that I’m not some basic bitch who subsists only on Starbucks. It’s sitting on my kitchen counter. How stupid.

You are four people behind me in the security line. I mentally add ten minutes to the time I have to race to the bathroom and throw on some perfume and a bit of mascara. I’m unaccustomed to having anyone to impress at the airport. I get to that TSA pre-check in mere moments while you peel off your motorcycle boots and shrug out of your jacket. It’s clear you don’t fly often, and it endears you to me. Are you on vacation? Will you come back to Seattle or is Philly home to you, too? I want to know these things, as well as many others. Do you actually ride a motorcycle? Why the lion on your left arm? Why the bow and arrow on your right? Do I see a dagger? I have a dagger, too! Mine is smaller and simpler than yours, but yours is beautiful, and I want to ask you about it and-

“Ma’am, step through, please.”

And God, not a thing in this world pisses me off more than being called “ma’am”, and now I despise this TSA dude with his beer belly and his stupid frizzy blond hair. Do I look like a fucking “ma’am” to you, asshole? I’m twenty-fucking-seven.

I’m done with security in a heartbeat, and I rush to the bathroom. A quick dust of powder and a swipe of mascara before I take a deep breath and beeline for the bookshop. You’re still in security getting scanned by one of the TSA dudes, and I stare for a moment.

The way you hold yourself, the flex of your arms as you spread them out at your sides. You’re tall and something tells me you definitely know how to handle yourself, but God, you look so adorably out of place. You don’t look surprised to have been pulled aside for additional screening, but you are definitely trying your best to look innocent so they’ll just leave you alone. You look up and seem to be looking for something. After a second, your gaze falls on me, and (oh crap) I’ve never blushed so hard.

I can’t look away because then you’ll know I’m embarrassed to have been caught staring, so (bravely, I think, and I mentally pat myself on the back) I keep staring at you. I could be imagining this, but you seem to soften a little. I think maybe you’re smiling at me, just a quirk of your lips pulling your mouth into a half-grin. You almost don’t hear the agent telling you that you can go, that there is nothing insidious tucked inside your socks.

*

HIM

You were looking at me. Intently, it seemed. Something trips in the middle of my chest, and I know my smirk at your attention has grown into something stupid and giddy. I don’t normally do stupid and giddy. I shrug back into my jacket and pull my boots back on, hoping that you’re still at the bookshop. I want to see your face up close again.

I pull my backpack on and find you near the Biography and Memoir section. You have a copy of Billy Crystal’s memoir in your hand, but you aren’t really paying it any attention. On the one hand, you should. That book is great and the man is a master of storytelling. On the other hand, I hope the reason you aren’t really focused on it is because your attention is subtly on me.

I calmly remind myself that I only have to be brave for the first twenty seconds. After that, the rest will come no matter how nervous I am. I only have to be brave for twenty seconds… at the moment, the book from which I picked that up escapes me. I steel myself against the possibility of rejection and decide to do the brave thing.

I reach across you toward the shelf so that my arm hovers just near your shoulder. I pick up a copy of one of Diane Keaton’s memoirs (I’ve read it already), and momentarily panic about what to say first. I’m distracted. I can catch the smell of your shampoo from here. Something like coconut and something like vanilla. I can’t focus on how to start a conversation with you. To my elation, I needn’t have worried. You speak first, and I try not to stare at your mouth as you tell me, “That one’s great.”

You point to Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, and smile up at me. You’re pretty tall, but your forehead is still only level with my chin, so you have to tilt your head to make eye contact.

“Yeah?” I ask, feeling a little slimy for acting like I don’t already agree. I point to the copy of Still Foolin’ ‘Em in your hands. “So is that one.”

You blush again, and it’s gorgeous.

“I have it, actually,” you admit with a smile. “I’ve read it twice.”

God, you sure are pretty.

“Grabbing a copy for a friend?” I tease you, and I can see that you know I’m teasing you. You smile and you look at me thoughtfully, and my skin feels funny.

“Do you want to grab a coffee with me?” you ask. You look nervous, and you’re giving me the chance to make that go away. I leap for it.

“Yeah,” I tell you quietly, like we have a secret. “I’d like that.”

*

HER

You have perfect hands. No, really. I mean perfect. Strong hands, like you know how to use them. I bet you do your own work on your motorcycle. I bet you know how to build things. I’m pretty handy with a hammer myself, but I bet it comes naturally to you. Never in my life have I asked a man to fix the garbage disposal for me or rehang my front door. I know how to do all of those things on my own, but for some reason, I like the idea of seeing how you would do it.

I like the small callouses on your fingers, and I wonder if you play an instrument. I can’t stare too closely, though, or else it would be weird. I don’t want to be weird around you. I want you to keep looking at me like I’m special.

I know that you’ve already seen me with a Starbucks cup in my hand and I can’t imagine what impression you got from that, so I purposefully steer us toward Dilettante. You, however, seem to lean toward the Starbucks. My eyes widen at you a little and you smirk. I like that we can silently tease each other. We fall into sep next to each other, and I follow you toward the Starbucks.

We stand in line for a minute and I take you in. I like the piercing in your eyebrow and the tiny scar underneath your chin. I wonder for a moment how it got there, but then I notice you studying my face as carefully as I have been studying yours.

“Can I do a medium dark roast?” you ask the guy in the green apron before turning to look down at me.

“Small vanilla blonde with room, please?”

I hand over my ten dollar bill as you are reaching into your back pocket, I assume for the purpose of pulling out the wallet security barely let you get away with.

“Hey-“ you begin to protest, but I smirk cheekily up at you.

“I believe I’m the one who asked you if you wanted to grab a coffee, and I let you pick the place. This means I get to pay.”

That gets a full blown smile out of you and I bask in it.

“That’s the last time you get away with that,” you mutter, nearly blushing as you turn your gaze toward your shoes.

“I appreciate you humoring me.”

You look back up and study me, your head tilting just slightly.

“It’s my pleasure,” you tell me, that softness coming back to your eyes.

A man in a business suit is in line behind us and he clears his throat, none too subtly. I move to the end where other travelers are waiting for their own doses of caffeine and I catch you shoot an annoyed glance at business suit. I think I love you for it.

*

HIM

An hour later, our flight boards, and I’m hoping desperately that whomever is next to you will want my aisle seat. I like the aisle seat, and so do you, but I’ll gladly give mine up to keep talking to you.

*

HER

You swapped your seat with the woman next to me. You’re closer to the window this way, and there’s no one sitting in the seat closest. I know it makes you nervous. I can tell how anxious you are to fly. I kind of like it that you don’t do it often. I’m not sure what that says about us, but I like to think it means I already embrace our differences.

*

HIM

We’re about to take off. You’ve done a really great job keeping me distracted. I like hearing your voice and I try to focus on that rather than the rumbling underneath us.

*

HER

You pinch your eyes shut and grip the armrests. Gently, I pry your left hand away and thread my fingers through yours.

*

HIM

Fuck the plane. You’re here. And you’re touching me.