Archive for the short stories Category


Posted in Novel excerpts, Uncategorized, young adult, Young Adult on September 23, 2016 by tomupton33


Young love has never been this complicated.

Travis MacDuff is an ordinary teenager. His only concern is making his school’s football team, until he meets his new neighbor, a peculiar girl who leads him on a bizarre journey that threatens their lives as well as all life on the planet.

Just Plain Weird is a story about destiny and the triumph of young love over everything.




“Cold, Cold Water”

Posted in short stories, young adult on September 24, 2009 by tomupton33

The old man was a creepy feature in our house that summer. Each morning, after breakfast, my mother would wheel him out onto the landing outside our kitchen door, and there he remained for most of the day.

His eyes were sunk deep into their sockets. He was nearly blind; supposedly he could see only shadows. His nose was bony and hawkish, jutting out from a face that was just a mass of wrinkles. His pale skin appeared paler under the early morning sun, and no matter how warm it was, a heavy afghan lay across his lap and over the arms of his wheelchair. His lips were always parted, and sometimes you could catch a glimpse of his two remaining front teeth. The only time he ever spoke now was to ask for water. “Cold, cold water,” he rasped softly whenever he was thirsty. It never sounded like a request, but an observation, as though he was seeing in his mind some mountain stream whose crystal clear water was babbling through a formation of rocks. He would repeat the words at almost exactly intervals, never certain anybody was close enough to hear.

I was fourteen then, and every time I had to pass him to enter through the kitchen door, my scrotum shrunk slightly, as if the temperature on the landing was hovering just above zero. “Cold, cold water.” His eyelids drooped a bit, so you could see only a sliver of green and white. I knew he couldn’t see me, but the way his eyes appeared made me feel that he wasn’t blind, but that I was invisible.

That was the summer my brother, Ricky, decided to kill the Greek. I never for a moment believed he would actually do it. He had changed quite a bit in the last year; he had developed opinions– on just about everything, it seemed– started to pass judgment on everything and everybody. But he had not changed that much. So when he told me his plans, I was sure that it was all talk.

We sat on out on the back stairs of our house. He was sitting on one of the higher stairs, as though that somehow reflected that he was older than me and therefore ought to be elevated. On the landing the old man loomed over us, a silent sentinel.

“Why would you want to kill him anyway?” I asked.

He took a moment to answer. He looked over the railing at our small backyard, which, no matter how our mother tried to dress up with annuals each year, still managed to appear sad and pitiful.

“It’s just the way it has to be,” he said. “There’s an order to things, and the Greek is out of order.”

I considered this, but it just didn’t make any sense to me. The Greek had bought the neighborhood candy store last year. It was true that he was not as likeable as Mr. Bellini, the old owner who had dispensed candy to the kids and milk and bread to their parents for about a hundred years. He always seemed sullen, walking around in a dirty t-shirt. His black hair was receding and slicked back, and his dark eyes were somewhat protuberant, as though he was always on the verge of losing his temper. He was not the nicest human being, but I couldn’t see that he was worthy of being killed, and I told Ricky as much.

“He beats his wife and daughter, you know,” he said curtly.

“Oh, his daughter…” I said knowingly. Ricky had had a crush on the Greek’s daughter, Lori, since he first laid eyes on her. I couldn’t blame him, really; she was quite pretty, with long wavy dark hair and the kind of face you’d see on a cameo– and her body wasn’t bad, either. For some reason, though, Ricky, lately, had lost interest in her.

“Don’t give me ‘Oh, her daughter’ like you know everything,” he chided me. “She’s aside from the point.”


“Yeah,” he said in a brooding tone.

“You don’t like her anymore?”

“I like her just fine,” he said, but the way he said it led me to believe that what he was saying wasn’t quite the truth.

“But you’re not interested in her anymore,” I pointed out.


“Then you don’t mind if I took a try at her.”

“Yeah, I mind,” he snapped.


“You just stay away from her.”


“Just stay away from her– that’s all,” he said. He stared over the railing again. In the yard birds were swooping down, landing in the lawn and pecking at the grass seed our mother had spread yesterday. It was no wonder why the lawn always had the scruffy look, with tiny bare spots here and there. You just couldn’t put down enough grass seed– there were just too many birds. On the landing the old man started to murmur, “Cold, cold water,” but neither one of us took much notice.

“You know I nearly got her,” Ricky said in a mischievous way.


“Yeah,” he swore.

“What happened?”

A look of disdain passed over his face. “I’m not sure I should say.”

“Well, I’m not going to beg you,” I told him.

“Cold, cold water,” came from the landing above.

Ricky glanced up at the old man, and seemed disgusted.

“We were alone in the Greek’s apartment, right above the store while the Greek was working,” he said.

“And, what, the Greek caught you trying to do his daughter? That why you want to kill him?”

Ricky snorted. “You don’t know nothing,” he said, and sounded just the way adults sound when they’re talking to kids sometimes. “No, he didn’t catch anything.”

“Then what happened?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you, if you just shut up and let me tell you.”

“All right, all right,” I said.

“She started taking off her clothes,” he said slowly, too slowly.


“Yeah, and her body was– perfect– I mean, perfect. You know? She got down to her underwear and then she takes me into her bedroom. So I’m getting excited, you know, like we were really going to do it and somehow that seemed so unreal– like it was a dream. We were going to do it while the Greek was down stairs, right under us, putting price tags on the canned food. So I start getting undressed. She took off his panties, and that was that– I’ll tell you,” he said with great disdain. “She had this– I never seen anything like it. You know, it wasn’t anything like the girls you’d see in the Playboys dad keeps hidden from mom in the back of the closet.” He leaned down closer, and lowered his voice, as though afraid the old man on the landing might hear. “She had this bush– it wasn’t a bush; it was the whole freaking forest, you know. It was totally gross. The hair went almost up to her navel– I’m not kidding. Well, I just couldn’t deal with that. I could never be that horny– no way. It was disgusting. I was totally pissed. It could have been perfect, but she ruined it.” He shook his head, as if he still couldn’t believe it. “You know, I went through a lot of trouble to talk her out of her clothes. You’d think she’d have the decency not to show me something like that, you know. I mean, her old man sells razor blades downstairs. How much trouble would it have been– you know?”

I was confused. “So that’s why you want to kill the Greek?”

“No, no, no, I told you she was aside from the point. I was just telling you what happened, because you asked. Can’t you remember anything?”

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do you want to kill him?”

“Cold, cold water…”

Ricky paused to look up at the look up at the old man.

“Why is he living with us, again?”

“I guess nobody else would take him. Grandma and grandpa are getting too old to take care of him anymore.”

“So we get stuck with him?”

“I guess.”

“See, that’s what I mean about people being out of order. Nobody ought to live that long. A person’s great-grandfather ought to be underground somewhere– not put out on the landing ever day, like… like a potted plant or something. The same thing with the Greek; he’s out of order. Old Mr. Bellini was fine; he really liked the kids. The Greek just pretends. He actually hates the kids. He just takes their money– that’s all. He doesn’t care. He gloms money, and beats his wife and daughter. He doesn’t fit.”

“A lot of people like him,” I pointed out.

“A lot of people have eyes but how many of them see? It’s funny. When you’re a little kid, you accept everything you see, whether it’s good or bad. But you get to a point where you see that some things just aren’t right and that something ought to be done about it. So, yeah, the Greek should die. He should die and his wife should get everything. That would restore order–”

“Cold, cold water–”

Ricky finally lost it. He jumped to his feet, and bellowed toward the kitchen window.

“Ma! Ma! Get out here and water your plant, will you please?”

A moment later, our mother walked out onto the landing with a glass of water. She gave Ricky a sour look– I could hardly blame her– and then she held the glass up to the old man’s wrinkled lips. He slurped the water, which started to run off at the corners of his mouth, and dripped down onto the afghan. When the glass was empty, our mother paused to give Ricky another look of disapproval before going back into the kitchen.

He became moody, then– it seemed he was always getting moody these days. He didn’t say anything more about the Greek.

I wondered why he thought he had to do something about the Greek. I was sure other people saw things that they didn’t think were right, but few people ever did anything about it.

I was sure that it was all just talk, and remained convinced of that, until he actually got a gun.


He showed it to me only once. It was an automatic– a 9mm– and the handle and barrel were covered with tiny scratches, as though it had been dropped many times. After he showed it to me, he hid it some where in his bedroom. After that, I didn’t have to see it again; it was enough to know that it was in the house.

I should have told my parents then, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. I really still didn’t think he would go through with it. His reasoning for wanting to shoot the Greek didn’t seem sound to me, and I was sure that he would see that, too, and forget about the whole thing. So I just kept my mouth shut.

A few days passed, and nothing happened, and then a few weeks, and still nothing happened. Ricky never said another word about the Greek, and I knew that I had been right– he wasn’t going to do anything, after all.

One day my mother took the old man down the stairs, so that he could spend the day on the small patio in the yard. She wheeled him out onto the landing, and then awkwardly turned the wheelchair so that it faced the stairs. She tipped the chair back slightly, which was easily because the old man was so light, and then slowly lowered the chair down the stairs. Every time the large, rubber rimmed wheels hit a stair, there was a low thump and the wood of the stair would creak, as though it was some kind of warning that something unnatural was occurring. She got him out to the patio, and arranged the wheelchair so that it was facing the yard. She seemed irrationally particular about how the wheelchair was positioned, as though she was unaware the old man was blind and was concerned about him having a good view of her flower garden. At lunchtime, she brought him a bowl of apple sauce and spooned it into his mouth. Whenever some of the apple sauce escaped his mouth and slid down his chin, which was often, she scrape it off it the spoon and fed it to him. After she had finished she retreated to the house, and settled herself in the living room to watch soap operas, as she did every day.

Later, with my father home from work, we all sat down at the kitchen table to have dinner. This was always an oddly quiet time for us; nobody ever spoke, and all you could hear was the soft scraping of folks on our plates. Nobody much looked at each other, either, but I noticed, now and then, my parents pause and frown slightly, as if wondering whether all the windows were closed because it had started raining pretty hard outside. All of a sudden my mother shot up from her chair and said something. It came out garbled, but sounded like “Oh, my God!” She raced toward the back door, and I followed her.

The old man was still sitting out on the patio. He was soaking wet by now. His head– so remindful of a baby bird’s, for some reason– was slightly tilted up toward the gray sky as the rain struck his face. His mouth was slightly opened as though he was trying to catch the raindrops.

My mother tugged him back up the stairs. As she wheeled him through the kitchen, I could hear him murmur, “Cold, cold water.” It was hard to tell if he was thirsty or complaining about the rain.

“I can’t do this anymore,” my mother said in dismay.

“He belongs in a nursing home,” my father said, chewing his food, having never left the table.

My mother took the old man into the small bedroom to change his wet clothes, still moaning that she couldn’t take it anymore.

After all the ruckus had died down, I sat down to finish eating. Ricky looked at me. Like our father, he had not left his seat. He said one word: “Soon.”

Ricky was spending a lot of time in his room. There were some days I didn’t even see him. I could hear music playing from his stereo, and sometimes he was watching the small black-and-white television that was atop his dresser. It seemed unhealthy. He barely ever went outside. During previous summers he would seldom be at home; he would go to the park to get into a pick-out baseball game, or hang around the street corner with friends, or just go for a walk– anything to be outside. Now he was content to be holed up in his room, with the door always shut. I could picture him lying there on his unmade bed. He never made his bed. His room was always a mess, with dirty clothes strewn on the floor. Once, my mother swore, she found a pair of sweat socks under his bed that were nearly as stiff as a board, they were so dirty. Sometimes, I could hear the springs of his bed squeaking, and I know he was doing push-ups; he always did push-ups off the floor with his feet atop his bed, lowering his face toward the dirty laundry. Other times, there was no sound at all. Then I’d wonder what he was doing. Was he sleeping or did he have the gun out of its hiding place, looking it over, removing and replacing the clip, thinking about his plan? I could never bring myself to knock on his door. To him that seemed to be the ultimate affront. If somebody did that, he would start screaming at them through the door– even if it was my father, who didn’t like that kind of disrespect and wasn’t shy about telling him that.

One evening I noticed his bedroom door was opened. His dirty clothes almost spilled out into the living room. He was nowhere in the house. My mother told me he’d gone for a walk. I felt like searching the room to see if he’d taken the gun with him. But I wouldn’t have known where to start; his room was such a mess, it might take hours for me to determine if the gun was there.

When I looked at the kitchen clock and saw the time, I knew he had the gun with him. It was almost seven o’clock, the time the Greek closed up for the night. I was struck with the buzzy feeling people get when confronted with something otherworldly. He was actually going to do it. It seemed so unreal, but I knew it was true.

The next day the news was all over the neighbor. Even people who didn’t like the Greek were horrified that he’d been shot dead while closing up the store. Nobody saw who shot the Greek, but there were police cars cruising throughout the area all day long just the same.

The old man sat in his wheelchair in the living room all that day. My mother was afraid that he would catch a chill and develop pneumonia if she put him outside. She fed him his lunch, and then took the car to the store to buy groceries.

I sat on the sofa, and watched cable shows. I tried my best to ignore the old man, but sometimes I couldn’t help looking at him. His sightless eyes seemed to be staring at me. I couldn’t concentrate on what was on the television. I kept wondering what the old man knew, how much he heard and understood– if anything. I was sure he didn’t know that the Greek was dead and that his great-grandson had killed him and that his other great-grandson had known that he was going to do it but didn’t do or say anything to stop him. Beyond that, the old man could have been thinking anything, or nothing.

Ricky wandered out of his room just then. It was almost noon– he was sleeping later every day, it seemed. He was wearing sleeveless shirt that showed off his well-muscles shoulders. His hands were jammed into the pockets of his pants, and he seemed to be in one of his broody moods. He looked at me briefly, and then turned to stare at the old man.

“Somebody ought to put a pillow over his face, really,” Ricky said.

I must have given him a look of disapproval– either that or a look of panic at the idea he might actually do it. I just didn’t know what to expect from him anymore.

He shrugged his thick shoulders. “There’s definitely a quality of life issue here.”

“Don’t even,” I said, disgusted. I felt that he had betrayed a trust by actually killing the Greek. He knew I hadn’t believed he’d do it, and when he actually did do it, he made me his accomplice. I couldn’t say anything now, and he knew that– he wasn’t stupid. I didn’t much like the feeling of being put in that situation.

“The guy had it coming,” he said, as if reading my mind. “Don’t sweat it.”

“I didn’t have anything against the guy,” I said glumly.

“Only because you’re ignorant. You don’t see things right.”

“Yeah, he was out of order, but now he isn‘t, huh? I think he just told you to stay away from his daughter– that’s all.”

He snorted. “Think what you want. I explained to you how things were. I can’t do anything if you don’t understand. Some people are just out of line. Nobody does anything about it, and that’s what causes the world to go wrong. You think it’s right for that old man to still be living and breathing? What’s the point of it?”

“Cold, cold water,” the old man croaked just then.

Ricky smirked. “You hear that?” he said to me, then turned to the old man. “Dry up and die, you old fart.”

“Cold, cold water,” the old man repeated.

Ricky gave me a crooked look.

“Don’t,” I warned him.

“Old people go to sleep, and never wake up. It happens. It’s normal,” he said, and seemed to enjoy my discomfort.

“What happened to you?” I asked sincerely, and would regret even asking.

He shrugged. “I started to understand things, I guess. You know, they try to teach you right from wrong, but they don’t really want you to know. They want to keep you stupid. And you know why? Because they don’t want you to know that half the things they do are wrong. Like last year, when I had to go to summer school. Remember? They were all concerned about my falling behind, and, oh, they were going to help, and they were going to take care of me. Yeah, right. Then when you go, they treat you like you’re stupid. They even call you stupid. What?– is that supposed to help? They just don’t know what they do to kids. Not me, of course– I understand what’s going on; I see their faults. But you take your average kid. He’s trusting and all, and listens to everything he’s told, and believes it, and they end up making him feel he’s not even good enough to go to school. It’s not worth their precious efforts. That’s what they do, every one of those teachers who teach during the summer at school. They tell the parents one thing, and then turn round and treat their kids a whole different way– as though they’re burdens the teachers have to endure. Well, that’s what they get paid for, right? It’s their job. But they can’t just do it; they have to mess with peoples’ minds. I wonder how many kids they ruin every summer, how many kids never get to go where they’re meant to go, because they’ve been discouraged, because they’ve been led to believe they’re hopeless. It’s not right, I’m telling you, it’s not right. If I walked into that school tomorrow morning I shot every one of them in the head, I’d be doing everybody a big favor.”

Long before he finished, I had begun to get a sick feeling in my gut. It wasn’t that he was getting excited as he spoke; he showed no passion at all, in fact, but just spoke in a steady, calm drone. That was the creepiest thing about it, really, the way he said the words as though he was reading off the batting averages of his favorite baseball players.

I knew he meant every word he said. The threat was real. He’d already killed the Greek. He was like a tame animal that tastes blood for the first time, and now he was ruined forever. Every time he passed judgment on somebody now, it would not be enough; he would actually want to do something about it. It was madness. I couldn’t understand how this had happened to him, how he’d had turned into himself and got so twisted up. He wasn’t even like my brother anymore, but some stranger that had invaded the house.

Before he walked back into his room, and shut out the rest of the world, he paused to look at the old man.

“You’re on the list, too, Methuselah,” he said coolly, and then closed the door.

I listened to the hush in the house, then, and wondered what to do.

“Cold, cold water,” I heard the old man say. At the moment they seemed like the saddest words in the world. For a change, I went to the kitchen to get him a glass.


During the following few days, Ricky didn’t mention anything about the school or the teachers or about shooting anybody. He seemed pretty cheery, actually, and whether or nor it was all an act; I had no doubts that he was still dwelling on some new plan.
At night I had dreams about him. I couldn’t rightfully call them nightmares, because they lacked the terror that true nightmares evoked in me. The content of the dreams were disturbing enough, but it presented itself in such a matter-of-fact way that I barely found the dreams disturbing. In one of the dreams Ricky had been wounded by the cops. He was holed up in one of the abandoned factories that were plentiful in our lower-middle class neighborhood. It was bringing him food in a large open room that had once been filled with machinery used in the manufacturing of bicycle parts. Everything appeared in black and white. He was wearing a sleeveless white tee shirt and the large splotch of blood that showed at the side of his stomach appeared in dark gray and not red. The beat-up 9mm poked out from the top of his jeans. He paced around slowly, but not as though in pain, eating a tuna salad sandwich that looked dull and tasteless. Between bits, he droned on how the world was filled with wrong that he planned to make right. He would give his life if he must. He painted himself as some heroic figure on a noble quest. Then, just as the last crumbs fell from his lips, he pulled the 9mm from the front of his pants, aimed at me, and fired. The 9mm bucked in his hand, but made no noise. That was when I’d wake up. I wouldn’t be soaked in sweat. I wouldn’t feel fear or even dread. I wouldn’t feel anything, in fact, as though it all had been of little importance. Maybe I felt this way, I thought, because it all seemed so unreal to me. Maybe Ricky had been right to suggest that I was blind to things that he could see. I suspected I would be better off to go through life so unenlightened.

The Last Long Walk Home

Posted in short stories on September 21, 2009 by tomupton33

John Townes had no hobbies. He had never been much interested in gardening, and assembling jigsaw puzzles usually gave him a headache. Any other hobbies seemed either unappealing or tedious or just plain stupid. So when he retired, he found that he had much time on his hands.

Between lunch and dinner each day, he started to take a walk. At first, this, too, seemed rather pointless. But in time, he learned to enjoy his walks; the exercise kept him fit, and seemed to help his digestion, which had been troublesome at times. It seemed he walked more and more each day, until he was away from the house for two, even three, hours. At first his wife thought that this was a bad idea. What if something happened to him? How would she know? But after he had returned each day, like clockwork before dinner, her worries faded away, and she was actually able to enjoy the peace of not having him around the house, through which he was prone to prowl like a caged animal if he had nothing to occupy him.

One spring day, he was walking down a main street. The sun warmed his back, and a soft breeze played with a wisp of his gray hair.

It was a fine day.

He stopped at a red light at the corner, and waited while cars passed this way and that before him. He wondered that there were so many people and that all of them seemed to have a purpose. And the cars passed in such an orderly way it was hard to imagine that accidents were possible. They were so quiet now– so different from his first car, a Nash.

The light turned green, and he started across the street. He was struck by a strange feeling, then, just before he reached the opposite curb– a sudden feeling of out-of-place-ness– and he stopped in his tracks. He looked around. Nothing was familiar. The small deli on the corner he’d been approaching, the gas station he had just passed– everything seemed foreign. He was still puzzling over it all, when the driver whose path he was blocking blew his horn.

John quickly shuffled to the safety of the sidewalk.

He briefly considered the possibility he had walked too far, that he had crossed over into one of the suburbs.

Whatever the case, he was completely lost and wasn’t sure which way to go. Any direction was as good as any other, he reasoned at length, and so he turned to his right and continued walking.

Sooner or later, he would see something he recognized.






The houses looked all the same– blocks lined with brick bungalows that seemed familiar and strange at the same time.

Draperies in the front windows were drawn shut. His wife would never have that. If the sun were shining brightly, like now, the draperies would always be open. “Let the light in,” she was fond of saying. “After you die, you’re in the darkness for a long, long time.”

At first he was panic-y, but soon he forgot that he seemed to be lost. The act of walking was somehow reassuring. If you’re moving everything is all right; it’s when you’re stopped, like a sitting duck, that you have to worry.

He shuffled along the newly laid sidewalks, murmuring to himself, remembering streets whose walkways were cracked and uneven and the sudden sharp impact of flesh on stone the time he’d fallen and broken his wrist and bloodied his forehead. The memory seemed so new he had to wriggle his wrist to assure himself that it had been a couple years since it had been in a cast.

“Yeah, years ago,” he muttered, and a woman who was watering her front lawn heard him and stared at him as he moved down the street.

Looked like Gene’s mother, that one, he thought of the woman. Oh, gosh, when was it she got killed? Just after the war– that’s right. Hit by a drunk driver. Gene and I were wearing our uniforms at the wake, sure. Heck of a thing– a guy coming back from the war– not home a week yet– seeing what he saw– and thinking everything is going back to normal, then, bam, your mother gets run down. Sad– so very sad.

He thought about the war often these days. Even now he glanced at the clear blue sky, and remembered the times he had seen the bombers, huge, hulking, gray, threading through the wispy white clouds. When the bombs hit the ground, it seemed the entire earth would shake. The tanks used to hop a meter off the ground, and when they fell back down their tracks would be embedded in the earth. Where had that been? Sicily? North Africa? No, that was Sicily, he was sure. North Africa– that was different. It had been hot– so very hot. And the bugs! You had to eat meals with one hand, and swat the bugs away with the other. He had been a cook then, and hadn’t marched much but rode in the cook wagon. He remembered, with great pride, the time he had made whipped cream in the desert so that the guys could eat it with their canned peaches. Imagined that, he thought. Whipped cream in the desert!

He must have said it out loud, too, because man, who had just parked his car at the curb, stopped to stare at him curiously, as though he’d hadn’t quite heard right.

“I made whipped cream,” John said, and the man frowned and shook his head, not understanding. People seemed so stupid these days. It irked John that more and more often people didn’t appeared to understand him. “Oh, mind your own business,” he grumbled at the guy, and continued walking.








He came to another intersection. Small storefronts lined the streets, and people streamed down the sidewalks.

“Well, now we’re getting somewhere,” he said to himself, and though he didn’t recognize any of the stores, he was encouraged by the sight of a large blue object sitting on the sidewalk just off one of the corners. It was a landmark, sure enough, a sign he was going in the right direction.

He walked up to it, placed his hand on the shiny blue surface. It was cold. He looked around, beyond the people passing by, but nothing else looked familiar.

He couldn’t have said how long he stood there like that, but when he looked down, he saw his hand was still resting on the mailbox. He snorted. “Sure,” he muttered, thinking, Of course you know a mailbox. They all look the same, no matter where you go.

Which meant he was no closer to getting home.




After he left the busy shopping district, he decided to stay on the side streets. This was where he lived anyway, right?

The streets here appeared older. The cement of the sidewalks showed many cracks, like starbursts or spider webs. He remembered the old rhyme from when he was a kid– step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. What a horrible thing to say, he now realized, but he couldn’t keep the rhyme from replaying itself in his head.

And he remembered wearing old shorts that showed the skinny legs and scabby knees, and walking down the street trying to avoid all the cracks in the pavement and cobblestones. And he remembered placing an Indian head penny on the rail of the train track, and how the penny was paper thin and smooth after the train rumbled past. And he remembered his mother yelling at him for wasting money that could be spent on food or something around the house. And he remembered the workers laying the tracks for the streetcars…. Yes, he could see it in his mind as though it had happened only yesterday…. The street was all dug up, and all the workers were black, and they were sweating under the sun as they dug, and they were always nice to him when he walked by, pausing in their work to smile at him, or wave, or ask was he going to the ball game? For some reason they always thought he was going to a ball game, although his parents could never spare the money. Well, maybe they were just kidding him– who knew. And he remembered the day he mother said that he couldn’t go outside; all the workers were making trouble because there was a strike. And he didn’t know what a strike was, but it didn’t sound too good, and his mother wouldn’t explain it all. So he sneaked out of the house to see for himself. He was walking to the place where the street was all ripped open, like a giant wound in the ground, when he heard the loud popping. Pop-pop-pop– it echoed through the neighborhood, and then pop-pop-pop again. And he heard the screaming and the yelling, and after a moment one of the workers ran down the street and past him without noticing him. His eyes were wide and wild, and he was holding his hand, and blood was spilling off his fingertips as he ran down the center of the street. And he thought that must be what a strike was– it was where somebody could get struck and hurt, and that had been why his mother hadn’t wanted him to go outside today, so that he wouldn’t get struck. But he couldn’t stay away now. He had to see what was happening. When he reached the work area, the policemen were all over, wearing their dark blue uniforms that were buttoned up the front with shiny brass buttons. They only workers he saw were laying on the ground, bloody lifeless lumps, and then a while later other workers arrived. These workers were white, and they helped the policemen drag the bodies over to the large gouge in the ground and let them fall into it. Then the new workers started to shovel in dirt until the old workers were covered. And the policemen stood by and watched. And the neighbors who had wandered over to see what had happened stood by and watched. And he, little Johnny Townes, who wasn’t supposed to be outside, stood by and watched. And when there was nothing more to see, everybody wandered away. Then next day, the new workers returned and finished filling in the earth, so that the timber could be laid, so that the rails could be put down, so that people could take the street cars to go to work or shopping, so that little kids could flatten pennies on shiny new steel rails.

He wondered that he could remember it all so clearly while his home address now seemed somehow to evade his mind. The only thing he was sure about was that there was a nine in the number– one-oh-nine or one-nineteen– or was it a seven?

The sun was by now starting to set, and the shadows of the trees he passed lay preternaturally long across his path. He felt a stab of pain, realizing he was very late, his dinner was getting cold, and his wife was probably peering through the front window of their house, wondering whether something had happened to him.

Again panic surged inside him, and to make matters worse a police car cruised by slowly. He felt a stab of guilt. Why should he feel that way? He had never in his life done anything illegal, but there it was– the dull knife-edge of guilt grinding away in his gut. He cast a dirty look after the police car, watching its driver craning his neck as he looked in the rearview mirror.

“Ought just leave people to their own business,” he mumbled to himself. “Have to go looking for trouble where there is no trouble at all.”

The police car turned on the cross street ahead and vanished. But John knew it would return– it was just going around the block.

“Well, what’s it all about,” he wondered. “Do I look like a purse-snatcher? If I do, I’m making the worse get-away in the history of crime.”

He tried to walk faster, hoping against all reasoning to elude the police car, which he knew would return.

The squad reappeared before he could even reach the cross street. It crept slowly next to the curb, keeping pace with John.

“John Townes,” the cop called out.

John glanced at him, only briefly but long enough to see that he was young, too young to be a cop, too young to be taken seriously. He kept walking, trying to quicken his pace.

“Oh, come on, John,” the cop whined.

“I don’t know you,” John said, refusing to look toward the squad car. His eyes remained focused on so distant point, and his jaw muscle bulged as though he was trying to crush his dentures together.

“I’m not going anywhere,” the cop assured him.

But John did a convincing job pretending the cop didn’t exist.

“I’m right here with you,” the cop added, the squad car crawling along at a painfully slow pace. “You’re not gonna get away.”

“I didn’t do nothing,” John complained.

“Who said you did anything? Did I say you did anything?”

“Just leave me alone!” John cried, now losing his patience.

When he finally reached the cross street, he had to pause at the corner. It felt as though he had run a mile. A pain flared in his side.

The squad car stopped, too, the cop regarding John with a bored expression.

When John looked toward the squad car, he seemed startled that it was still there.

“Remember me?” the cop asked.

“Oh, go away,” John said.

“John, just get in the car.”

“Why? I didn’t do anything. I’m a law-abiding citizen–”

“Yeah, I know–” the cop tried to calm him.

“–Why, I pay your salary!”

“Oh, you’re the cheap guy,” the cop murmured.

“What?” John demanded. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Get in the car,’” the cop said, trying to make it sound reasonable.

“But I didn’t do anything,” John protested.

“I didn’t say you did anything. I’m not arresting you. I’m just taking you home.”

“I can walk. That’s what I was doing– walking. No law against that.”

“So you know the way? You know where you are, then?”

“Yeah,” John said, but his voice sounded weak, hollow. He stared at the cop, and saw the cockiness on the guy’s face. It wasn’t the kind of cockiness you could take off and put on like a mask, but the kind that was always there, as though the guy had known from birth that he would always be right. John felt like punching the guy in the face.

“So where are you?” he insisted, and seemed to delight that John couldn’t answer. “Just get in the car, John. It’s going to be dark soon– then you would really be lost.”

John tipped his head up to look at the darkening sky.

“I must be late for dinner,” he said fretfully.

“You better get in,” the cop said mildly.

John shuffled round the front of the squad car, and climbed into the passenger seat and awkwardly shut the door.

“You better put on your seatbelt,” the cop suggested.

“Of course I will,” John snapped, already fumbling with the shoulder strap. “Never met a cop than knew how to drive worth a darn. I’m in the death seat, you know,” he said, a bit too loudly, and finally snapped the lock on the safety belt.

The cop started to cruise down the street.

“My meatloaf is probably cold already,” John complained. “Always meatloaf on Tuesday– I look forward to it.”

“It’s Friday, John,” the cop noted.

“Friday? That would be fish– I hate fish. You sure it’s Friday?”


John made a face, and mumbled, “Fish.”

The squad car approached a major intersection that seemed familiar to him.

“Hey, I know where I am, now,” he said, looking ahead at the corner strip mall that had the small store where he had many ties bought vacuum cleaner supplies. “Sure, you have to take a left at the light up here.”

But when they came to the corner the cop turned right.

John was outraged. “Hey, hey, I said left! What’s going on?” he demanded.

“You don’t live that way anymore, John,” the cop said calmly, almost bored.

“I know where I live, and it’s back there,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “What’s your name and badge number?”

The cop almost smiled at the demand. His mouth didn’t move, but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes.

“Mathias. Two-three-oh-four-seven.”

“Mathias, huh? Well, I’m gonna file a report on you, Officer Mathias,” John seethed. He sat icily for a moment, and then his expression softened. “Mathias?” he said, now wondering. “I had a friend named Mathias. Old Jimmy Mathias– I grew up with him. You wouldn’t be any relation, would you?”

The cop nodded.

“You’re not his son. I know that. His son was a nancy boy– you don’t look like a nancy boy.”

Here the cop burst out laughing. When he calmed down, he said, “ No, grandson.”

“Grandson, you say! That’s impossible. Jimmy only had one son,” John said, trying to figure out the discrepancy. “Well, I guess the guy wasn’t a nancy boy, after all…. At least for a little while,” he added, and sounded somewhat annoyed.

“I’m sure my father would appreciate the thought,” the cop said, not unkindly.

John peered out the window, placidly watching the apartment buildings and small storefronts they passed.

“Where are we going again?” he asked, as though it had never been an issue.


“I think you’re going the wrong way,” he said.

“You’re new home,” Mathias said.

“My wife will be worried.”

Mathias glanced over at him. A pained looked passed over his young face.

“Your wife died,” he murmured.

John was about to respond, but whatever he was going to say caught in his throat. His mouth remained slightly opened, and his lower lip quivered. “Dead?” he whispered, as he seemed to start the grieving process over again.

“Nine years ago,” Mathias said. “You remember, don’t you?”

John shook his head vaguely.

“No– well, I don’t know. It seems so unreal somehow.”

“It’ll all come back to you. You’re just having a lapse, is all. You have them from time to time.”

“Yeah, yeah,” John said as though not listening. With a hand gnarled with age and arthritis, he wiped away a tear that was forming in the corner of his eye. He couldn’t remember his wife dying, couldn’t remember her being in a hospital, couldn’t remember a funeral, but, still, something deep inside him told him that it was all true.

Mathias turned down a side street, and after driving a couple blocks, pulled up to a stop at the curb.

John looked around with little interest, looked at the tall old trees that lined the tree, looked at the houses, which were of widely varying styles.

“Why did you stop?” he finally asked.

“This is were you live.”

John peered through the side window at the large frame house. The aluminum siding had once been bright white, but now appeared faded and somewhat gray. The front porch was screened in, and he could see a vague figure, like a wraith, moving around just behind the front door.

“You must be mistaken,” John said. Dread started to flutter in his stomach, a strange, source less dread. “I would never buy a house like that. It looks– shabby. Why, it’s not even brick.”

“It’s your son’s house,” Mathias said.

“Oh, sure,” John said, as if that explained everything.

Just then the front door opened, and a woman stepped onto the stairs. She was wearing jeans and a light blue t-shirt. Her hair had obviously been dyed blond, and looked wild.

“Your daughter-in-law,” Mathias said.

John grunted, staring at the woman, not much liking the looks of her. She looked like a boozer, he thought– the type that lays about the house all day, drinking and not doing any housework.

Two kids, a boy and a girl, about seven- or eight-years-old, squirted past their mother and ran down to the walkway to goggle at the police car.

“Kids?” John muttered. Already he could hear their squalling over any little thing. He knew there had to be some mistake; he couldn’t possibly live under the same roof as a couple kids– no way would he be able to tolerate that!

“Your grandchildren,” Mathias explained. “They’re twins.”

All John could do was release a dejected moan. “They probably trample anything I’d plant in the garden, I bet.”

“They have a nice little basement in-law,” Mathias continued, sensing already the old man’s reluctance to leave the car.

“Basement apartment,” John muttered. “Damp basement– must be wonderful for my arthritis. You’re sure you’re not making a mistake.”

“Positive,” Mathias said. “We’ve been through this before.”

“Have we?”

“More than once.”

“Oh,” John said, the utterance hanging hollow in the hush of the squad car.

“You better go now.”

Mathias watched as John fumbled with the door handle. It was as though he couldn’t get a grip on it, his deformed knuckles not letting him close his hand enough to grip the handle.

Mathias suspected it was just a ruse– an excellent acting job. He had seen his kids do the same; as soon as bedtime arrived, suddenly, inexplicably, doorknobs didn’t work, toothbrushes vanished, and bellyaches began.

“You need a hand with that?” he asked.

“No, no,” John said irritably. “I got it– it’s just stuck a little. You know, a bit tricky. But what do you expect from a city vehicle, huh?”

Mathias watched as the old man struggled out of the squad. As soon as he had shut the door behind him, the two kids rushed toward him, and, each clutching a hand, towed him forward faster than his legs wanted to allow. The old man grumbled and griped something as he was tugged toward the house, but soon he seemed to accept his fate. They guided him down the gangway that led to the white picket gate that opened on a tiny yard. The old man was looking as though fascinated up at the side of the house, at the cracked walkway, at the flowers that bordered the house. Everything must seem new to him now, Mathias figured, the good and the bad, the happy and sad.

After the old man disappeared from sight, Mathias started the squad. Before he pulled away from the curb, he noticed that the woman was still standing on the front stairs. She raised her hand and gave him a weak, embarrassed wave– the way she had every other time he had returned the old man home. Every time there was an unspoken promise that this would be the last time, but it would only be the last time until the next time.

The old man would never have a last long walk home.



Burning Bridges

Posted in short stories on August 19, 2009 by tomupton33

Again I call Sarah Anne, but still the answer was no.

Usually, by now, we would be sitting closely on the bench beneath the tree in the Burnwoods’ front yard. It was a tradition, Sarah Anne once told me, that had gone back generations. Her great-grandfather had planted the tree when he was a boy, and ever since then every couple who had sat under the tree had fallen in love and got married.

I was only seventeen at the time, and knew little about traditions. As far as I could tell there were no traditions in my family, unless you counted my Uncle Jeff, who for many years, stole hubcaps and car stereos. That, as I understood it, however, wasn’t so much a tradition as what was known as “recalcitrant criminal behavior.”

So I bowed to Sarah Anne’s superior knowledge of traditions. I totally believed everything she claimed, which was why it took a full month for her to cajole me to go near the gnarled old tree. It wasn’t that I didn’t like her– I liked her just fine. She was smart but not snobbish about it. She was pretty with long wavy blonde hair and green eyes and a face that could have been the inspiration for cameos. She came from a good old family, which seemed to still mean something to people. It meant little to me, though, other than her parents on a daily basis wore the same clothes my parents wore while going to a wedding or funeral. No, I liked Sarah Anne pretty much, and in the end let her talk me into sitting under that old tree.

On summer nights we would sit out there and hold hands while her mother pretended she wasn’t peeking through the front window at us but a pesky raccoon that often visited the home to scavenge through the garbage, I would kiss her now and then, and she would rest her head on my shoulder. It was all very enjoyable, comforting to know that you weren’t all alone in the universe, as it sometimes seemed when you were a teenager. I don’t think it was love, really, not unless you defined love as only a strong dependency on another’s presence. Whatever it was, it was pleasant enough, and after I kissed her for the last time each night, I would walk home each night warmed by the thought that tomorrow we would be together again.

But when I called on her one day, she said, “No, not tonight.” She said it simply, as though, no, she didn’t care for the Brussels sprouts somebody was trying to pass her at Sunday dinner. To make matters worse, she actually shut the door on me before I could ask why.

So, confused, I started to wander back home. Oddly it was like going to the drug store for cough syrup but finding the store was sold out, leaving you to return empty-handed to home, where you would be sick for the rest of the night.

I passed through town square, and saw a crowd gathered round round the statue of Sterling Oland, the civil war hero after whom our town had been named (Sterling Oland, I believed, had been labeled a hero not because he’d done something to win a war, but rather because he hadn’t done something to lose it.) Since crowds of people usually formed in Oland only at times of disaster, curiosity forced me to see what was happening.

Mayor Lockwood was addressing the people. I stood at the rear of the crowd, and soon learned that he was talking about the Russians. (This was 1961, when all the rich crazy people in California were having bomb shelters built in their back yards.) As in all times of global tension, small-town people turned their attention from pork prices to exaggerated notions of their place in the world. At first I thought the mayor was just exercising his right to free speech, but in a moment I discovered there might actually be a point to what he was saying. He announced gravely that Oland would certainly be a Russian target if hostilities broke out. How could it not be? The railroad cars that passed through Oland County weekly transported titanium west, where it was used to make ICBMs and warplanes. The crowded nodded in agreement, apparently not wondering at what the mayor claimed. They shifted anxiously from one foot to the other. Someone shouted up at the mayor, asking what we could do? The mayor shrugged hopelessly, and you could feel panic grow in the crowd, as though Oland might actually be a prime target, one of the first cities to have its population vaporized. One man suggested that the town obtain a court injunction, but he was shouted down by several others who believed there wasn’t enough time and that the tracks east of town ought to be “disabled,” so that no kind of war materials could pass anywhere near the town. But a shop-owner complained that necessary stock and supplies wouldn’t be able to reach Oland– not by train, anyway, but only by truck and because of those damned teamsters the prices of everything would go up. The mayor suggested that the best way to save Oland from a nuclear holocaust was if the bridge by which the trained crossed the river east of town was somehow destroyed by a natural disaster. Damned the price of tomatoes– at least everyone would be alive. Many people cheered agreement, obviously not realizing it would have to be a mighty co-incidental natural disaster.

I decided they were just spouting off hot air, and that nothing would ever happen to the bridge; the river hadn’t even run over but twice in the last hundred years.

I was about to resuming walking home, when I felt suddenly empty. I had no one to talk to about all this nonsense. If I went home and told my parents, they would have just run down here to support whatever the mayor proposed. Sarah Anne, with whom I discussed everything, was unavailable for some secret reason. That began to rankle me to no end. I felt that she was letting me down, really, and for nothing that I’d done.

I decided to return to her house. I would demand an explanation. I had never wanted to sit with her beneath that old tree from the start, and now that it had worked some magical on me, she was going to start playing games.

When I reached the house, it appeared to be empty. All the lights were out and the family station wagon wasn’t in the driveway. I moved up the cobblestone path, past the tall old tree and toward the front door. It was a long time before she answered my knock, and while I waited I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being avoided.

The door opened a rack, and she peeked out at me with watery blue eyes. It looked as though she’d be crying.

“Richie,” she said, surprised. “What are you doing back.”

“I came to make sure you’re all right,” I lied. I knew now she was up to something.

“Aw, that’s sweet,” she cooed.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“Then why won’t you come out tonight?” I demanded.

“I can’t, Richie,” she said sadly.

“There must be a reason.”

“There is, but I’d rather not say.”


“Please, Richie, don’t bother about it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then?” I asked suspiciously, already sensing the answer.

“I’m not sure,” she said, and she hedged and made a big show how it all was so important to see me again.

“What do you mean?” I think I really started to hate her, then

“Well– maybe in a few days– I don’t know.”

Maybe in a few days! I was outraged

“Please,” she pleaded, “just go home and I’ll call you.” And she quickly shut the door.

I stared at nothing for a moment. It all made such little sense, like playing a cruel joke on someone just because they trust enough to let you do it. I finally turned away to leave.

When I saw the tree, then, anger really flared inside me. It had all been some stupid lie, with me falling for it completely. I suddenly hated that tree and all those who had ever sat under it before Sarah Anne and me– assuming that, too, hadn’t been a lie. My anger took hold of me, then, and I rushed to the rear of the house, behind which was an old tool shed. From inside I took gasoline can that the Burnwoods’ used to fill their lawn mower. I doused the trunk of the tree and the wooden bench with gasoline. When I tossed a lighted match on the bench, there was a low fruuump sound as the blaze flared. The flames slowly rose upward and spread out onto the lower limbs. As I walked away, the fire was burning so brightly I could see Sarah Anne’s horrified face peering through the front window. I saw the tears running down her cheeks, and I felt a delicious sense of satisfaction that I had harmed her as much as she had harmed me.

I started down the road and the cracking of the fire faded behind me. I had not walked far before the Burnwoods’ station wagon slowed down and pulled up next to me. The back of the wagon was filled with grocery bags, and Mrs. Burnwood pushed her face out the side window.

“You see Sarah Anne?” she asked. She was being her usual, pleasant self, and facing her now was difficult; in a short while she would reach her house and discover what I’d done.

“Yeah,” I said meekly.

“It’s too bad you two can’t see each other for a while.”

“Yeah,” I said, acid creeping into my tone, starting to suspect her mother of this sudden separation.

“These things happen now and then.”


“The poor dear is suffering so.”

“Suffering?” I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach.

“Oh, she didn’t tell you, did she? Well, I’m not surprised. She always was sensitive about these things, about what you would think. It’s silly really. When you get older you never think twice, because it’s all so natural. But when you’re young, you want everybody to think you’re perfect.”

“What things are we talking about?”

“I probably shouldn’t tell you. She would just kill me if I said a word. Well, maybe, if you promise not to say anything.”

I promised.

“It’s really silly.”


“She just has the stomach flu.”


“Silly, right? She just didn’t want you to know, let along see her sick– you know, vomiting and such.”

“Oh, vomiting,” I said; it sounded like a good idea at the moment.

“And other things– you know. What did she tell you, anyway?

“She told me not to bother about it.”

“Well, don’t then,” she said cheerfully. “In a couple days, everything will be back to normal.”

She shifted back into drive, and the station wagon headed down the road. I watched after it until it was out of sight. I stood in the middle of the road, not sure what to do. Then I heard the distant explosions, like rumbling thunder that warns of a coming storm, and I realized what had happened. I could see in my mind the fiery ruins of the bridge falling into the river, hissing, steam rising off the water.

“Idiots.” I shouted. “Idiot.”

But no one was around to hear me.

The Wee Handymen

Posted in horror, short stories on August 9, 2009 by tomupton33



Benny had shared the cottage with them for two years now, yet he had never seen their faces. At first he believed they were all in his mind. His heart medicine did that sometimes– made him see and hear things that weren’t there. But then things in the cottage changed, and that was when he knew they were real.

He called them the wee handymen, because they fixed things. He would waken in the morning to discover the broken latch on the back door had been repaired. Or the front picture window that had been cracked in a hail storm would suddenly be new. Or a loose stair leading down into the basement would be tight and freshly painted.

The cottage had been in poor shape when they first arrived. Benny had lived alone for years by now; his wife had died, and his children had long moved on and seemed to have forgotten him. He managed to care for the cottage the best he could– pretty well, if you’d asked him– but then old age, to which he always believed himself immune, crept up on him. After that, both he and the cottage started a slow painful decline. Things fall apart, he’d tell himself, and things wear out– in people and houses alike. Whenever he went through his photo albums–which was more often, the older he got– he would pause at pictures of the cottage when looked newly built, and he experienced the same wistful feeling he had when he saw his likenesses of himself when he was fresh out of high school. And if he’d see a shingle lying in the yard after a heavy storm he thought repairing the roof every bit as unlikely as the doctors repairing his heart.

After they had come, though, everything changed– not just with the cottage. His hope rose to see the cottage again as it once was, and started to believe there might be hope for him, too. What they were doing was sort of a miracle. He’d never bought paint, and there was none around the house, yet the rooms had been painted one by one, drab shades green and tan replaced by bright yellows and soft, soothing blues the color of a cloudless spring afternoon. The outside of the cottage had been re-stucco-ed and painted white. The original woodwork had been stripped, stained, and varnished. New carpets had appeared one morning. So from where had all the material come? It was not all in his mind. He had even asked the mailman to come in one day to confirm that the worn old linoleum in his front hall had been replaced by shiny Italian marble tiles. It had to be a kind of magic they worked, and if they worked it on a house, couldn’t they work it on him?

Each day, when he wakened, he’d said good morning to them, certain that they were always near. He’d shuffle through the cottage in his ancient slippers, searching for any new work that might have been completed during the night. If he found something– that the kitchen cabinets had been replaced, say, or that there was a new medicine cabinet in the bathroom– he praised the workmanship, saying encouraging things, like, “It’s a fine job you boys did last night. Keep up the good work.” If he couldn’t find anything– which wasn’t often– he’d walk about the house fretting, saying, “Boys, boys, don’t tell me you left me now. A day’s work of a day’s pay, you know. You keep this up and I’ll have to lay you off.”

One day Berny looked around the house and saw that no more needed to be done. That was the moment he feared the most– when they had no more to do. Would they leave him then, leave him all alone? The thought was unbearable, he had grown so used to knowing they were around. Even if they never did show themselves or talk to him, it was comforting to know that when he spoke someone might be listening.

He went to the kitchen to make himself a breakfast of scrambled eggs and dry toast. When he sat at the table he had a sudden stabbing pain in his left side. He had had them before, sure, but this was the worst. It would get no better, either; the doctors had warned him his heart was simply wearing out– it was only a matter of time.

He endured the pain until it passed, and then finished his meal.

“Boys, I’ve been wishing there was something you could do for me,” he said, and then listened. He heard nothing, though, not the slightest whisper of footsteps he sometimes heard when he woke in the middle of the night. “Now, boys, I know you can do miracles. I’ve seen what you’ve done with this house. It hasn’t looked so good since Martha– rest her soul– and I first moved in. I’m sure you can do something for this old heart of mine.” He waited, but there no response– not a sound. “Well, I know you can hear me. I’ll just let the matter rest with you. If you see fit to help me, fine– if not, I’ll bear no ill wishes on you.”

Nothing happened after that. Each morning he awoke, he felt the same tire heart beating in his chest. He would sigh heavily, and then put on his robe and slippers and set about his daily routine. Every inch of the cottage looked beautiful and new, but that hardly seemed to matter because he was still old and dying.

“You went and abandoned me, boys, haven’t you?” he would say now, sure that he was alone. “Everybody leaves, I suppose. First the kids grow up and move away, and then Martha… Somebody always gets left behind. That’s natural– like things wearing out and falling apart. Well, I guess, I have the comfort of knowing that once I’m gone, somebody else will get a beautiful house. Whoever it may be, I hope they have kids, kids with good memories.”

About a week later, while retrieving the mail out front, he noticed that the garden had been planted with flowers and that the old plastic garden borders had been replaced by new brick ones. He was again filled with joy and hope. Of course, he thought, how could I have been so stupid. They’ve finished on the house, sure, but still there is the yard. He shambled down the stairs and around the house. He hardly every went outside, except to get the mail and throw out the trash, and he was amazed at the improvements that had been made. The cracked and chipping walkways had been replaced or repaired. All the gardens had been tilled and planted, including the large vegetable garden in the back yard, where he and Martha always grew tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, and radishes. His eyes began to well at the sight of the green breaking through the soil and the little white markers that named which vegetable was going where– just the way Martha and I used to do it, he realized. He saw, too, that the grass was cut and all the edgings done perfectly. The many trees around the house, which shades the cottage well, had all been trimmed. Everything was green and budding under the bright spring sun.

“Boys, boys, you’ve outdone yourselves,” he said, walking about and looking at everything in wonder. If any of his neighbors had heard him, they would surely have thought him crazy– wandering around the yard in his bathrobe and slippers, and talking to somebody who wasn’t there.

He reached the back of the yard, where, in the shade of an ancient oak tree, four beams rose about four feet from the ground. The beams were set in new concrete, and he walked around them, scratching his head.

“Now, what have you got going on here?” he wondered, for he couldn’t imagine what they had in mind. They had never before built anything new– just repaired what had been there. The beams were not spaced far enough for it to be a garage, and besides, berny didn’t own a car– he gave up driving years ago. Maybe a tool shed, but that didn’t make any sense either, since he had to tools to store. “Well, whatever it is,” he said, “you just go on building. You’ve done a damned fine job of sinking the posts.” And he headed back to the cottage to make breakfast.

That night he slept fitfully. At two in the morning he rose to go to the bathroom for the third time, wondering whether his kidneys were starting to go out now. He stopped in the kitchen and paused to look out the window at the dark back yard. He was still puzzling over what they were building out there, and finally he could not resist his curiosity. He went through the back door, and out into the night. The air outside was chilly, and the sky was clear and a-shimmer with stars. The full moon cast an eerie light on everything. As he near the old oak tree, he could see more work had been done. The four posts now held up a rectangular platform that was about eight feet by six feet. What the heck is that supposed to be? he wondered. Maybe a deck?– a deck for me to sit on under the shade of the tree? It seem plausible, although it would be an awfully strange place to build a deck. Certainly a deck seemed more appropriate built onto the back of the house, with a new sliding glass door opening onto the kitchen.

“Well, I suppose you have something in mind,” he murmured as he walked away. “I do hope you’re still considering my request,” he added in a grumble. “One day I’ll not be waking up to find all the fine work you’re doing.” He stopped briefly to see if there would be some response, but there was none, and he went back to bed.

The following morning, he discovered that stairs had been added to the construction. Although he delighted in the craftsmanship of the wooden steps, he was no more enlightened as to what the little fellows were erecting. In ways it did indeed look like a deck, but it was entirely in the wrong place, and also a bit too high. When he climbed onto the deck, he found that one of the thick limbs of the tree was situated directly overhead; if he were to sit on a lawn chair on the deck, he would surely hit his head on the limb every time he stood.

“Nonsense,” she snarled in frustration. “You boys are disappointing me now. You give me a new heart and I’ll show you how to build a deck. Why, look here, it’s why too high, and besides that, it looks like you pieced in the deck itself. Why would you do a thing like that? They should all be long solid boards, the same as you used on the back porch. You just make me young again, and I’ll show you how it‘s done,” he swore, and waited for a reply that never came.

That night he rolled back and forth in bed as he slept, until finally he went to far and fell to the floor, hitting his head on the nightstand leg. He used the edge of the bed to push himself up to his feet, swearing in the darkness. He felt the wetness on his forehead, and knew he was bleeding, and so he swore some more. He swore at being old, at losing his wife, at children who never visited or even called. He swore at being alone. He swore about many things, but mostly he swore at the wee handymen, who, he was convinced, could fix his heart but instead were building some silly thing in the yard.

When he flipped the light switched, he discovered the power was out– and that caused a new spate of curses. He felt his way into the living room, and tripped over something in the dark. He started to fall, his body tensing as he anticipate hitting the floor hard. But then something caught him. It was, in fact, a bunch of somethings: hands, little hands, grabbed him and pushed him back up to his feet. They are real, raced through his mind, as the tiny hands helped him stand.

“Thank you, boys,” he said, when he was again balanced. “I might have hurt myself there– maybe pretty bad.” He turned about to see if he could catch a glimpse of them, but it was too dark.

The little hands, which had remained on him, now began to push. They pushed him forward inexplicably.

“Hey, hey, watch it,” Benny complained. “What do you think you’re doing.”

But he felt the hands, on the backs of his legs and buttocks, shove harder, driving him slowly into the kitchen and toward the back door.

“Hey, cut it out,” Benny cried. “I’m not dressed to go outside. I’ll catch my death, you know?”

But the hands pushed so hard he went crashing through the back door. He was free for a moment, just long enough to trip and tumble down the back stairs and out onto the newly laid patio. The wind was knocked out of him and he could barely breathe.

“What are you doing?” he asked weakly, when he could finally speak at all. He struggled to his feet, and stood there wobbly waiting for an answer that never came. “I don’t get you now. You fix my house for me– fix it like new– and now this…. What?– do you mean to kick me out and kept the place for yourselves? Was that the plan from the start? Well, you can’t do that; I own this house.” He waited for an answer, but there was only the sounds of crickets. “Or did I ask too much of you?” he considered.

The back door opened a bit, but, squinting hard, he could see nothing.

“Was that it?” he asked. “It was too much to expect you to fix my heart? Is it a crime for the dying to wish to live?”

As if in answer, he felt the little hands on him again, grabbing, pushing, stronger than he could imagine. They pushed him toward the back of the yard, and soon his feet were off the ground, and he was being carried as he wailed in protest. All he could see was the black sky filled with stars, and then, as they approached the old oak tree, he saw against the full moon, the shadow of a noose hanging from the limb that hung over what he’d thought was a deck.

Fading Away

Posted in short stories, young adult on July 9, 2009 by tomupton33





My cousin Coralee started it all.

This was during my sophomore year, when Coralee still lived down the street from us and I still had to endure her presence in school each day. She really could be quite annoying.

She was always jumping into something or other. First, when she was younger, it was ballet. Then it was martial arts. Then rock collecting…. No sooner did she get involved in some interest or hobby than she grew bored and jumped to something new. I often suspected she had the attention span of a fruit fly.

Starting sophomore year, she was just recovering from her interest in skateboarding, when she became obsessed with nutrition and fitness.

I was sitting with her in the lunchroom one day, and it was poof, like magic, she was suddenly a health nut. All she had in front of her was a garden salad, with no dressing, and a carton of skim milk, and the attitude that anybody who ate anything more than that was violating the sacred temple of their body.

“What’s that supposed to be?” I asked her.

“My lunch?”

“Yeah, is that what that is?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Where’s the pizza?” I asked.

“No pizza.”

“There’s always pizza.”

“Not anymore,” she said.

“No? What happened?”

“I found out what was in it,” she said. “I found out what was in a lot of things.”

She ate her salad. I ate my enchiladas. I waiting for it, knowing it would come, and sure enough it did.

“You wanna know what’s in those enchiladas?” she asked.

I thought about it for a microsecond, before I said, “No.”

She stared at me, her eyes almost begging me to let her tell me.

“I don’t want to know,” I said, and continued eating.

Finally she could hold it back. She blurted out, “MGA.”



“What’s that?” I asked.

“That’s what’s in your enchiladas.”

“Did I tell you I didn’t want to know?”

“Oh, I thought you were just saying that, but secretly you really wanted to know.”

“No,” I said carefully, as though talking to a three-year-old, which wasn’t far from the truth, “when I say I don’t want to know something I always mean I don’t want to know something.”

“Well, I just had to tell you,” she said.

“No, you did not.”

“Yeah, I did,” she insisted. “It was just too important. It was critical. If you were about to step on a land mine and blow yourself into bloody little bits, I’d have to warn you. I mean, I could never just sit there and say nothing.”

“What land mine?” I asked.

“That enchilada is like a land mine.”

“It is?”


I paused to look at my enchilada, and said, “It doesn’t look like a land mine.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Coralee I almost never do know what you mean. Can I please just eat my lunch?”

“No, no, you can’t,” she said, getting all pushy now. “They put MGA in so it tastes better. My point is, you really don’t know what it tastes like, and the MGA is really bad for you.”

“I don’t feel bad,” I said.

She rolled her eyes, as though she were the one talking to a moron and not the other way around. “Not now. But if you keep eating stuff with MGA in it– you know, in the long run– well, it’s just not good for you.”


“Lisa, trust me on this. I did the research.”

I eyed my enchilada, maybe just a bit suspicious now.

“Why? What could happen?”

“Well…” she started, and got flustered. It was obvious that she didn’t have a clue. “Well, nothing good.”

“For example.”

“I don’t know. That’s the scariest part; nobody knows for sure what could happen. Maybe your uterus will drop out one day. Who knows?”

“What happens to guys, then?” I asked.

“I’m just saying, why take a chance,” she said, getting irritated. “Hey, if you wanna eat the junk, go ahead– what do I care?”

She tried hard to ignore me, then, but I caught her taking sneaky looks at me now and then.

After she finished her salad, she started digging through her purse. She pulled out a small clear plastic pouch that was filled with different pills.

I lunged across the table, trying to cover the tiny pouch with my hand before anybody could see it.

She started at me, wide-eyed with shock.

“What?” she said.

“What are those?”

“Vitamins,” she said. “What do they look like?”

“They look like a whole mess of pills you shouldn’t be carrying around in school.”

“They’re just vitamins,” she scoffed, shoving my hand away. “Nobody can say anything about my taking vitamins.”

I looked around the lunchroom. Everybody was too busy eating or talking or playing with their cubes of green jello to notice Coralee. Really that was one of the good things about her: she was easily over-looked. She could probably strip naked and run up and down the lunch line and hardly anybody would realize what was happening.

Still I couldn’t help being unnerved.

“Look,” she said, and dug out a pill. “This is B-complex. It’s good for infections and your skin.” She set it on the tabletop and dug out another pill. “Vitamin C– good for colds… Vitamin D– good for bones….”

“You got anything that’s good for insanity, because I think you need to pop a few of those. What that one there?” I asked, fascinated because one of the pills was incredibly large. “That humongous white,” I said, pointing at it.

“Amino Acids,” she said.

“You actually swallow that?”

“Yeah, sure, it’ll make me feel better.”

“Not if it gets caught in your throat, I won’t.”

I watched in amazement, as she swallowed the pills one by one.

“And those make you feel better?” I asked.

“Well, not yet, but they will,” she said. “I’m still waiting for the accumulative effect. You wanna try some?” she asked eagerly, again digging to the bottom of her purse.

“Uh, no,” I said.

“It’s no problem. I always have extras.”

“That’s not the point,” I said. The point was that I never involved myself in any of Coralee’s interests, not after the last time. She’d been all enthused about hiking, and talked me into going with her once. It had seemed safe enough, but I ended up stepping in a gopher hole and breaking my ankle. Of course, it wasn’t really her fault, but I’d always taken the experience as a warning. “I just hate taking pills,” I lied, hoping she would accept the lame excuse.

But she just ignored me, as usual, and slid a packet of vitamins at me.

Before I could get her to take them back, she grabbed her lunch tray, muttered something about having to go somewhere before her next class, and left me sitting there, with a small extremely suspicious little baggie in front of me. I was forced to put it in my pocket before anybody noticed and I had to explain everything about how they were just vitamins, vitamins I had never wanted, and how my cousin Coralee was an incredible airhead who, for the most part, was harmless. I doubted that I could make it all sound very convincing.



So, yeah, in the end, I took the vitamins. I was even a little proud that I somehow managed to swallow the gynormous amino acid pill without choking to death on it.

The whole vitamin experience left me feeling rather stupid, though.

I took the pills after I got home that day. I’d completely forget I had them in the pocket of my jeans, when I pulled them out, I almost threw them out. But I was afraid my parents might discover them, and end of thinking that one of their kids was a turning into a pill-popping degenerate. Also, I was somewhat curious. Would these things actually make me feel better? And how? I really didn’t think I needed them. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the way I felt normally. Still I wondered.

I figured it couldn’t do any harm, so I took them.

And absolutely nothing happened.

I waited for a while. I couldn’t say exactly what I expected, but I didn’t feel any different.

So I did my homework, after which I paused for a long moment to try to detect some subtle change in my physical well-being. But nothing.

For the rest of the day, until I finally went to bed, I stopped to assess myself, only to determine that everything was normal.

I fell asleep feeling as stupid as I had ever felt in my life.



The next day, Fate itself seemed to be conspiring with Coralee against me.

I met her as I did every day outside the lunchroom.

As we took our places at the end of the lunch line, I told her straight out, “Look, I don’t want to hear anything about vitamins today, okay?”

“Why, what happened?” she asked.

“Nothing– unless you count me waking up in the middle of the night because I’m belching these nasty belches that smell like rotten eggs.”

“That’s from the B-complex,” she said.

“I don’t care what it’s from. Just– just not a word about vitamins.”

She seemed vaguely hurt, and nodded meekly.

As we started to slide our lunch trays down the stainless steel bars before the lunch counter, Coralee said, “I read somewhere that certain imbalances can cause a person to be grumpy.”

“Yeah,” I snarled, “and so can having an idiot for a cousin.”

I peered through the glass of the counter to see what was being served today. We always had the choice of three entrees. The first large stainless steel tub in the steam table contained some kind of creamy chicken casserole dish that look a lot like vomit. The next tub… a creamy beef dish that looked like vomit. The third tub… charred pieces of some type of meat that actually made the stuff in the first two tubs look good.

I paused for too long as I tried to figure with entrée looked the least gross, because somebody down the line started carping about the detail– some hungry person who didn’t have a clue they were about to lose their appetite.

“That’s all you have?” I asked the white-clad woman behind the counter.

She shrugged and nodded as though she couldn’t care less.

“Pass,” I mumbled, and continued down the line.

“First sensible choice you’ve made,” Coralee said.

“Shut up,” I told her, and grabbed a salad, a piece of corn bread, and a cube of green jello that probably would have bounced like a rubber ball if I dropped it.

I sat across from her at our usual table, and ate my salad. Everything I looked up at her, she appeared satisfied, which I found very annoying.

“Don’t say a word,” I warned her.

“Hey, I didn’t say anything,” she said.

“Keep it that way.”

But in the end she couldn’t. “It’s not a bad thing, you know. Did you really wanna eat any of that– stuff?”

“What was it, anyway?” I had to ask.

“It’s the end of the month. Probably whatever they had left over. No doubt saturated with MGA.”

“Hey, you know, I checked on that,” I said. “The school district forbids the use of MGA in school meals.”

“You think they know?” she asked. “You just don’t understand how the world works.”

“Okay, tell me– tell me how you think the world works.”

“You really wanna know?”

“You’re going to tell me anyway, no matter what I want. So, go ahead, get it over with.”

“Well,” she said, and leaned forward as though about to tell me some dark secret. “The school district gives a contract to a company to provide all the meals. It’s all business. The district doesn’t have actual control over what goes into the food– the company does.”

“And they’re the ones breaking the rules, and putting MGA in all the meals?”

“Sure, so everything tastes better,” Coralee said. “If everything tasted as bad as it looked, nobody would eat anything, and the company would lose its contract.”

“And you know this how?”

“It’s all common sense,” she said. “It’s all about money and cutting cost. Of course the food is going to be bad; the contract went to the lowest bidder.”

For once I though Coralee might actually have a point.

“Believe me,” she went on. “You’re better off with a salad. There’s no reason to put anything in salads, because nobody’s expecting anybody to like them anyway.”

I thought I might be losing my mind, because what she was saying actually seemed to make sense to me.

“Besides,” she said, in an off hand way, “you could stand to lose a few pounds.”

“Huh?” I wasn’t offended; I was genuinely surprised at her remark. My weight wasn’t something I thought about much.

“I’m not saying your fat– exactly,” she said. “But you’re not slim, either.”

“ ‘Slim’ doesn’t run on my side of the family, if you haven’t noticed,” I said stiffly. Every one in my immediate family was not slender. My older brother was stocky, my younger two sisters with chubby, and my parents were– well, I had to admit they were downright fat. I always liked to think of myself as a little chucky, not horribly so, just an little extra weight that really didn’t matter; after all, guys still looked at me in an interested kind of way– well, some guys, anyway.

“How much do you weight?” Coralee asked. She had always been pole thin.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I never weight myself.”

She looked at me as though she couldn’t believe it. “Never?”

“Mom threw out our scale. I get weight at the doctor’s.”

“The same doctor who probably told you it all runs in the family, and you can’t do anything about it.”

“No, he never said that– oh, he might have said that, too.”

“What else did he say?”

“He told me, maybe, if I drink more water.”

“More water!” she snorted. “Just like a doctor. You know what doctors know about nutrition?”


She made a circle with her thumb and finger. “That much– zero, nada. They don’t even teach it in medical school. And, by the way, when a doctor says anything is because of genetics, that means he doesn’t know the real reason.”


“Really,” she promised. “Doctors aren’t as smart as they lead everybody to believe. If they were, nobody would ever get sick. Why do you think they call it a ‘medical practice.’? Doctors practice medicine. They never perform medicine.”

“Yeah,” I said with awe, realizing she was absolutely right.

“How much do you think you weigh?”

“One twenty…five…maybe.”

“And you’re what?– five foot three?” She shook her head. “Too much. And you have to fix that now. If you wait, it’ll just get worse. One day you’ll have to butter your hips to fit through doorways.”

That was a horrifying thought, and in that instant, before I even realized it, I committed myself to one of Coralee’s interests. I promised myself that I would eat better, that I would exercise, and that I would drink more water. It would all be so simple, and how could it ever be a bad thing?



Two weeks later:

I was always tired, from exercising.

I was always hungry, from not eating enough.

I was always running to the bathroom, from all the water I was drinking.

And as far as I could tell, I hadn’t lost a single ounce of weight.


“Well, you know, it might take a little longer,” Coralee suggested.

“I don’t that I have much time,” I said. “Today I fell asleep during an English test, and last week I nearly got run down by a truck while I was jogging. You know, it was a lt safer when I didn’t care what I weighed.’

But Coralee wasn’t listening. She seemed lost in though, as we sat at the lunch table.

“I wonder if you have an inhibited metabolism,” she said.

“Is that something I’m likely to have?” I asked.

“I read somewhere that some people are overweight because they don’t eat enough.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, really.”

“So I can eat again?”

“Well, I wouldn’t pig out. Just eat a lot more vegetables. See what happens.”

“With my luck, I still wont lose weight, and I’ll start looking like the Green Giant.”


But it turned out to be good advice. As soon as I started stuffing my face with vegetables, my weight started to ease down. I had discovered I actually weighed 142 pounds– much higher than I had believed– but within a month I was down to 125. Everything from my waist down slimmed out so much I needed new jeans. And I did feel better, which was the main reason I’d started to watch my diet.

It was all good.

Of course, my parents were a bit mystified. They weren’t used to some one in our house losing weight. But they figured that my new, healthy life-style agreed with me, and that it was for the better.

Coralee, by now, didn’t even care much. Like her previous interests, nutrition and fitness had already given way to a new hobby, rock-climbing.

“We’re in Illinois,” I pointed out to her one day at lunch. “We’re do you go rock climbing in Illinois?– it’s all flat.”

“You’d be surprised,” she said, and rattled off about a dozen nearby locations, before wolfing down a couple beef tacos and a non-diet soda.

“What happened to the nutrition thing?” I asked.

“Didn’t work for me,” she said, chewing her food. “I’m naturally skinny, anyway. But you– wow! Guys are actually looking at you.”

“Guys looked at me before,” I said, somewhat defensive.

“Yeah, the guys nobody wants. Now it’s, like, the hot guys are looking.”

“Go on,” I scoffed.

“No, really, girl. Just keep up whatever you’re doing– seriously. By spring, you’re gonna be smoking. You should get on of those teeny bikinis and started going to the tanning salon. You’re gonna have guys drooling over you.”

“Please, that’s not why I started this,” I said. “I just wanted to feel better, really.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot better with a bunch a guy chasing you around.”

I found the thought embarrassing, but kind of nice, too. Everybody wants to be wanted, maybe that more than anything else in life.

“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking, maybe, of going out for a team.”

She stopped eating and stared at me.

“A team?” she said dully. “You’re kidding.”

“Maybe soccer or volleyball or maybe even cross-country. I kind of like running. It makes me feel good.”

“You’re sick, you know that,” she said. “I send you on the path to gain these new powers, and you’re gonna waste them on sports? You don’t even care about the guys and whether your favorite cousin picks up your leftovers? That’s gratitude for you,” she said, and stood and grabbed her tray. Before she left, she said, “You know, I don’t even know you.”

I couldn’t believe that she was getting all snarky on me. She was actually mad at me. What was with that? It was bizarre. She never got mad at me.

Well, let her be mad, then, I figured. It didn’t make any sense, anyway; she’d been the one who encouraged me. What did she have to be mad about?


Over the following weeks, my weight slowly decreased. As I physically faded away, so did my old life, only to be replaced by a strange new life that I could never feel was really mine.

Half the time when I awoke in the morning, I didn’t feel like myself, the good old Lisa Beaumont, but some stranger into whose skin I had somehow slipped.

Coralee avoided me like the plague. At first, it didn’t seem like a terrible thing, but after a while it didn’t seem natural for her not to be around, jabbering on and on about this or that. I missed her babbling. She could be annoying, sure, but annoying in a comforting way. Now I sit alone in the lunchroom every day, left to realized how few friends I had always had.

Guys who had never before noticed me now began to drift in my direction, sitting at the opposite end of the lunch table. Lose a few pounds and all of a sudden you are visible to people who had never really seen you. How incredibly shallow. Inside I was exactly the same person I had always been, but it seemed people, especially guys, were interested in outsides. I just ignored them and their hedging attempts to talk to me. They probably thought I was stuck-up, but I didn’t care what they thought. Oddly they more I ignored them, the more the tried to talk to me, which annoyed me in a much more annoying way than Coralee had ever been, and that made me miss her even more.

By Christmas vacation, I was down to 109 pounds. The clothes I had worn were all now baggy. My waist was so slim I could see the abdominal muscles I never knew I had. My wrists and ankles seemed too bony, and veins looked like tiny blue worms under the skin of my hands and feet. To me it was pretty gross, but everybody seemed to like the way I looked now– as though before there had been something wrong with me, and nobody had had the heart to mention it.

On Christmas Eve, my aunt and uncle visited my house, as they always did. For them it was a short walk down the street. They brought gifts, but they also brought Coralee. I had no doubt she had made a fuss about even being in the same house with me. It appeared as though she would rather be anywhere else on earth, maybe even in the simmering cone of some active volcano.

After all the food was eaten and the gifts opened, I found myself sitting alone in the living room. The Christmas tree was lit up, with some strings of lights pulsing. The television was showing some sappy old Christmas movie, but thankfully somebody had turned off the sound.

Then Coralee wandered in from the kitchen, where the adults sat drinking coffee and exchanging family gossip.

She flopped down at the opposite end of the sofa. She didn’t say anything. She just sat there, pretending to be interested in the movie, which she couldn’t even hear.

Finally she said, “Hey.”

“Hey,” I said.

“You still mad at me?” she asked.

I looked over at her. “I never was mad at you. You were mad at me.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“Were so,” I said.

And we ended up almost getting into an argument over who had been mad at whom. We stopped and looked at each other, and then broke out laughing. It was so ridiculous.

After our laughter died down, Coralee sat close to me.

“Girl, you’re looking good,” she said.

“I never started it to look good,” I said. “I just wanted to feel better.”

“Whatever, you still look great. I always thought you just had a fat face, but you actually have high cheek bones.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Who knew?”

After a thoughtful pause, she muttered, “I hate you, bitch, an gave me a playful shove, and we cracked up all over again.

“But, seriously,” Coralee said, then, “I don’t think you should push it too far.”

“Oh, I’m not,” I said.

“Because– now don’t get me wrong; I think you’re smokin’– but you look a bit pale.”


“Yeah, but just a bit.”

“I’m not even down to my ideal weigh,” I pointed out.

“Ideal weight? Listen to you,” she said, and sighed. “I shouldn’t have pushed you into all of it. I think I ruined you somehow. Ideal weight. You wouldn’t have ever said anything like that before.”

“It’s all right,” I told her. “It feels great. That’s all I ever wanted.”

“You were happier before I opened my big mouth.”

“I’m still happy.”

“Are you? You seemed pretty miserable.”

“Only because you weren’t talking to me,” I said.



“And that was the only reason.”

“Yeah, why else?”

She seemed satisfied, but still wouldn’t explain why she had got all snarky on me to begin with. “You should just eat regular now, the way you did before, you know? Even if you gain back a couple pounds.”

“I always planned on doing that,” I said.

“You sure?– you sure you’re not, like, obsessing.”

“Yeah,” I said, and to prove it, I made her follow me into the dining room, where the two of us pigged out on leftover cake and homemade Christmas cookies.

All in all, it was the best Christmas I had ever had, despite the fact that the cake and cookies didn’t sit right on my stomach and later I had to go to the bathroom to throw up– yeah, other than that it would have been so perfect.


Some things take on a life of their own. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. Whatever the case, you have no control over what is happening, and that can get pretty scary.

By the time I returned to school, I had been on my old diet for over a week. It didn’t seem, though, that I was gaining back any weight. At first I thought this was a good thing, but then one day, after gym, I weighed myself on the scale in the locker room. I was astonished to discover I’d lost another two pounds! How was that even possible? I’d eaten like this before and never lost an ounce.

Coralee suggested that maybe the scale was wrong, but I didn’t think so.

“I actually feel it,” I said.

She scoffed at me “How can you feel it? That’s impossible. It’s only two pounds.”

“Two pounds on top of thirty-three pounds,” I said.

But she just shook her head. “No way. Everything will go back to normal. Just keep eating like that,” she said, nodding at my lunch tray; I had two chili dogs, French fries, a piece of chocolate cake, and a non-diet soda.

“I’ve been eating like this,” I said. “Shouldn’t it be making a difference already?”

She shrugged. “Maybe your metabolism is all jacked up into high gear. Maybe you should cut back on the running.”

“I already did that. I was up to three miles a day. Now I’m down to one. I don’t want to stop completely, because I sort of like it.”

“Like running? You’re sick, you know that,” she said. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s just gonna take some time to get back to nor–” she stopped, as though struck by a troubling thought. “All the food you’re eating– it is staying down, right?”



“Well, most of it,” I said. 

She groaned.

“I’ve been eating nothing but vegetables and fruit…. My stomach just doesn’t seem used to junk anymore.”

“So you’re not… doing it on purpose.”

“No,” I said. “That’s gross. Why would I do that?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Some people do, you know.”

“Well, not me. It’s doing it all on its own. My stomach’s just a little messed up– it’s getting better.”



“Then I’m sure it’ll be all right,” she said, but didn’t sound to sure.


According to the ideal weight calculator I used, my ideal weight was 103.5 pounds.

When I finally hit that weight, I decided that the calculator had to be wrong. If it was right, the my ideal physical condition was freakishly thin.

My cheeks seemed a bit to hollow, and on some days I woke with dark circles under my eyes. Worse than how I looked, I started to feel bad. I felt drained all the time, and so I had to give up running.

The last few lost pounds changed a lot of things. Guys who had been hovering around, looking for an opening to talk to me, slowly shied away. Everybody gave me odd looks now. At home my parents grew fretful. I probably didn’t even look like their child, but rather some kid they had had pity on and adopted. They insisted I see a doctor, but after he examined me and reviewed my blood tests, he claimed that I was in excellent condition.

Which was hard for me to believe. I didn’t feel in excellent condition; most of the time I felt like a wrung-out wash rag. I couldn’t stop thinking about how Coralee said doctors only practice medicine.

Coralee stopped talking about my weight or vitamins or anything like that. I wasn’t sure whether that was because she felt guilty or because her interest was already waning, giving way to another interest. She was talking an awful lot about needlepoint.

One weekend she rented some movies, and brought them over to my house, so that we could watch them on the big-screen television that was in the basement of our house. She ordered pizza, too, and paid for everything, which told me she was feeling some guilt, because she was extremely cheap and almost never parted with any of her baby-sitting money.

We pigged out on deep-dish pizza, and watched movies. It was a good time, and for a while, I forgot about how I was slowly fading away.

Then she put on the last movie, which was called Thinner, which was based on a Stephen King book. It was about a fat guy who gets cursed by a gypsy and keeps losing weight until he looks like a skeleton.

When I realized what the movie was about, I was horrified.

Coralee! How could you?” I thought it was a cruel joke.

“Honestly, I didn’t know,” she said, and went on the claim she had believed the movie was about a dog.

“A dog?”

“I thought that was the name of the dog.”

“Thinner? Who would name their dog Thinner?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “People name their dogs all kinds of weird things.”

“Don’t you read the boxes when you rent a movie?”


“Just turn it off– turn it off,” I said. I had my eyes half-covered with my hand; I couldn’t bare to look at the screen. I certainly didn’t want to know how the movie ends.

After she turned off the big screen, we sat on the floor and finished the pizza. It was could and lay on my stomach like a brick.

When Coralee spoke again, she asked if I wanted to turn on the stereo. I could tell that she felt pretty bad about the movie. You knew? Maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe out there somewhere somebody would name their dog Thinner.

“No,” I said about the stereo. I didn’t run the risk of hearing some song about bulimia. That just would have been too much.

So we sat in silence and ate.

Our basement was always chilly during the winter, but I still felt warm. I was wearing just an old tee shirt and a pair of cut-off jeans. My legs looked like sticks, and my knees look like large knobs in the branch of an old tree. Beneath my skin you could see the roadmap of blue veins that ran everywhere.

When she thought I didn’t notice, Coralee sneaked looks at me. I caught the pained expression on her face.

I wanted to make her feel better. None of it was her fault; there was no way she could have known what kind of reaction I’d have to a simple change of eating habits. Suddenly me stomach started to churn and make a gurgly sound, and I knew what was about to happen– something I noticed a couple weeks before, something that I thought would cheer her up.

“Hey,” I said. “You want to see something trippy?”


“Watch this.” I lifted my shirt so that she could see my stomach. She winced, and I told her, “No, just keep watching.” And then it happened.

A small ripple ran under my skin from one side of my upper stomach to the other.

I thought it was hilarious, but Coralee’s eyes bugged out in horror.

“What– what was that?” she stammered.

“I’m not sure,” I said “I think it’s the pizza getting digested. Pretty weird, huh?”

“Girl, you need to see a doctor,” she said.

“I did. He said I was perfect now.”

“Well, he never saw that, that’s for sure. No way is that normal.”

“It’s funny, though, isn’t it?” I said.

“No, it’s not funny. Nothing about it is funny,” she cried. She jumped to her feet and began pacing the way she always did whenever she was upset. “I should have kept my big mouth shut. I can’t believe I did this to you–”

“You? You didn’t do anything–” I tried to tell her, but she wasn’t listening.

“Stupid– stupid– stupid–” she hissed, and with each word she cuffed herself in the side of her head so hard that I was afraid she might actually knock herself out.

I tried to stop her, but couldn’t. Everything must have built up inside her over the weeks, and now she just had to get it all out. Finally she flopped down to the floor like a rag doll, and sat their softly crying and sniffling.

I knelt down next to her.

“Coralee, it’s all right,” I said.

“Don’t say that,” she said gravely, too gravely for the situation as I saw it.

“Don’t say what?” I asked.

“Don’t say it’s all right,” she said, and sniffled as though she needed to blow her nose. “That’s an awful thing to say.”

“It’s all right?”

“There, you did it again. I swear,” she said, and balled her hand into a fist, “if you say it again, I’ll punch you right in the head.” And she looked about ready to do it, too.

“I don’t understand what the problem is,” I said, and really didn’t.

“It’s it obvious?” she asked.


“You’re dying,” she said, “and it’s all because of me– me and my big mouth.”

“Dying?” That was ridiculous. Of course, I wasn’t dying. “Coralee, I’m not dying. What would put that in your head?”

She stopped sniffling. “I know what you’re doing,” she said. “And don’t tell me you’re not.”

“Not what?”

“You’re making yourself sick.”

“No, I’m not,” I said, astounded that she would accuse me of such a thing. “I told you before– it’s just that my stomach bothers me sometimes– that’s all. Trust me. I’m not doing that, and I’m not dying.”

“How much do you weigh now, anyway,” she asked, and seemed to dread the answer

“I’m not sure,” I lied. “I haven’t weighed myself in a week.”

“How much?” she asked, totally not believing me.

“It’s not that bad.”

How much?”

I hedged before I told her, “A hundred even.”

“A hundred!”

“But it’ll be all right.”

“How? How’s it gonna be all right?”

“I’ve been watching it really close. It took a lot longer to lose the last couple pounds. My stomach is feeling better. It’s about to stop.”

“Sure, it has to stop,” she said. “You don’t have anything else to lose.”

“It’s be all right,” I promised.

Then she said the strangest thing. “I loved you when you were fat.”

“Uh, I though you said I wasn’t fat.”

“Oh, you were fat,” she assured me. “But that was you. I don’t know why I even had to mention it.”

“It never had anything to do with my weight, anyway. I just wanted to feel better, and I do– even now,” I said.

“Really? You’re not just saying that?”

“No, so stop worrying, because there’s nothing to worry about.


My weight finally bottomed out at 97 pounds, before I slowly regained some of the lost pounds.

By summer I was back to 111 pounds, and it seemed as though that was where my weight would settle. I resumed running, which, even today, I still enjoy. It makes me feel good. Of course, there is always that little letdown after I run, but that only makes me look forward to the next day, when I can run again. I am up to six miles a day, and I am sure that in the fall I will have no trouble making the cross-country team.

Coralee went through three or four more hobbies. Sometimes, I lose track. By summer she was into archery. She tried to get me interested, too, but I begged off; I couldn’t shake off the image of an arrow zipping straight for my forehead as she tried to shoot an apple off my head. This even caused a couple nightmares.

Her family moved away at the beginning of summer. In the fall she will be attending a different school. As annoying as she can be, I will still miss her. If nothing else, she has always been well-meaning. And she really does care, in her own demented sort of way. Sometimes I still laugh to myself at how she actually believed I was sticking my finger down my throat to make myself vomit. I mean… as if…. I still wonder where she got the idea; even I couldn’t picture myself doing something like that. Oh, sure, there were a couple times I did do it. But it was never a habit. My stomach was bothering me and I was going to throw up anyway. I figured I’d just save the time, and get it over with. Also, I felt a little stupid standing and leaning over the toilet, and waiting. So what not?

All that is behind me now, anyway. My weight is fine. My stomach is fine. I’m running six miles a day, and by the fall, I will be up to seven or eight, or maybe even ten. Who knows? All I know is that everything is fine and it’s going to stay that way– really.

For sure. 

Mourning Doves

Posted in short stories, Uncategorized on July 3, 2009 by tomupton33







 Now that spring finally arrived, all Carl wanted to do was plant his vegetable garden. But there would be no garden this year. His wife, Anna, was dying– again, for the third time in the last month. He could hardly go outside and turn over soil and plant his tomatoes and bell peppers while she languished in bed, moaning and clutching her chest with a pudgy hand

It was all his fault. He rued the day he’d convinced her to see a doctor. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; she hadn’t had a check-up in years, and though she appeared strong as a bull, you could never be too careful.

And now– now she was a raving hypochondriac. Carl blamed it on the doctor, too, a mere child just starting his practice, who clued Anna in on all the bad things that might happen at her age. So now she could no longer have a headache without believing it was a stroke. A slight case of heartburn turned into a heart attack– a massive heart attack, never a mild one. Any of the random aches and pains that she experience became the onset of cancer.

Retirement had made him a part-time gardener, but that doctor turned him into a full-time nurse.

He’d try to assure her, but didn’t possess a nurturing nature. “You can’t go on about every little pain,” he’d said. “If God is going to get you, the chances are you won’t feel a thing.” He just could never find the right words. Not only was what he said of no avail, but also it often served to make things worse.

Almost every night she’d waken him because she didn’t believe her heart sounded right. Long after she’d finally fallen asleep, he stayed awake and watched over her and yearned for the days when she was young, before her curly hair had gone white and her body thickened with age. She had been quite lovely, with high cheekbones and sparkling blue eyes free of pain and petty worries. She had been a simple soul then, after moving here from Germany. He recalled a time when she worked a factory and came home in tears. Some of her co-workers had waved to her and called out “hi.” Anna thought they said “hiel” as if she were a Nazi. She would not stop crying until Carl finally calmed her down long enough to explain it to her. Carl could look back now and smile at her naïveté.

During the day, he brought her chicken broth, or hot or cold compresses, or over the counter medicine, depending on the ailment of the day. Sometimes when he looked at her, she didn’t even seem like his wife, the woman he married over fifty years ago. She had become a moaning ghost that had not yet died. He felt that he, too, was becoming a ghost, he hardly ever left the house; he was afraid to leave her alone. What if one of her little aches and pains were a genuine warning sign and he was not there when she suffered some catastrophic event? Now and then he had weak moments during which frustration and anger rose in him and he wished that she would just die and get it over with, but then he would calm himself, would remind himself that she couldn’t help it– that it was just one of those things that are covered in the “for better or for worse” part of the marriage vows.

One morning he brought her a breakfast of scrambled eggs, orange juice and dry toast. He put her pillow behind her back and helped her to prop herself up so that she could eat off the bed tray lain across her lap.

“I set out the patio furniture,” he said. “It’s such a nice day. You want to sit outside awhile? It might do you some good?”

But Anna was claiming symptoms. Today it was her back, a sharp recurring pain that might forewarn a heart attack. “Is it summer yet?” she asked. “Is Kathleen here? I would like to see her one last time.”

Kathleen was their granddaughter. For the past six years she would spend most of her summer vacation with Carl and Anna. Although Carl enjoyed his granddaughter’s presence, he believed it was a trade off of sorts. His son, Richard, hardly ever visited anymore. It was as though he were too busy, and so sent his daughter each summer to stand in for him. Meanwhile Richard and his wife, Holly, whom Carl never liked (no matter how hard Richard worked, how much money he made, she would be right there to spend it)– they could do whatever they wanted without Richard being guilty about ignoring his parents and without the encumbrance of their daughter. Carl tried to convince himself that he was being too cynical by thinking this, but whenever Kathleen visited, he couldn’t dispel the image of Richard and Holly standing on the deck of a boat sailing the Caribbean and sipping glasses of champagne– two lost souls sharing the same middle-life crisis.

This year, though, Carl was especially looking forward to a visit from Kathleen. He was hoping that somehow she would be able to help get Anna back on her feet.

The only escape Carl had now was, as Anna napped peacefully during the afternoon, going down to his workroom in the basement and working on a birdhouse. He was constructing it especially for Purple Martins, with four large pods for nesting. He had failed to entice the martins to their yard twenty years earlier, when he bought a birdhouse and followed all the instructions on how to lure them. He’d sit on the glider on the patio for hours on weekends and on his off-days, a small pair of binoculars at ready for the first sighting. But they never came. He couldn’t understand it. He went over the instructions again and again, and, yes, everything was right. So where were the martins? Finally, frustrated, he decided something must have happened to the martins destined to nest in his birdhouse; maybe they perished in a storm as they migrated up from South American. In the end, the only regular visitors he had were a pair of mourning doves, a jolly couple that dropped in daily to coo and strut around the yard until Carl would grudgingly throw out thistle seed for them. He would call them turkeys, to which Anna would object, saying, “Oh, they’re nice birds. And see how they are always together. You never see one without the other.” “But I almost stepped on one of them,” Carl complained. “They waddle round the yard like they own the place.” “They just feel safe,” Anna said. “They feel at home.”

Throughout that summer they saw the mourning doves every day, and, somewhat to Carl’s annoyance, Anna named them Ballard and Jorn. Carl told her that it sounded more like a law firm than a pair of mourning doves, but she ignored him and assumed the responsibility of putting thistle seed out each day. Toward the end of summer Carl found Anna sitting on the glider on the patio. She was crying hysterically. When he finally calmed her down enough to she could speak, she explained that Ballard was missing. “Something must have happened to her,” Anna said. “And Jorn just sits on the garage roof, calling for her. It’s so sad, so terribly sad; he doesn’t know she’s never coming back. He’ll die of a broken heart.” Carl agreed that it was a sad world for birds, a sadder world yet for people. When Jorn evidentially disappeared, he made Anna promise that she would never again name a wild animal– it just wasn’t worth getting attached to creatures that are doomed from the outset.


Carl watched through the front window when Kathleen arrived. The cab was double-parked, and the driver was removing her suit cases from the trunk.

Carl was annoyed that his son had sent her over in a cab. What?– he couldn’t make the short ride into the city to drop her off, couldn’t even tolerate stopping in for a few minutes to say hello. He never tried to figure out what Anna and he might have done while raising Richard to have led him to now be so disregardful of his parents. He simply stood at the window, pursing his lips and wagging his head in disgust.

His attention finally turned to Kathleen as she stood out by the curb and paid the driver. She seemed different somehow. She was seventeen now and would soon be off to college, but she’d changed in some way during the last ten months, since he’d see her last. Maybe it was in the way she was carrying herself; she seemed to move with more grace, seemed to have acquired a measure of poise. She’d had always been a pretty girl, with blue eyes and long natural blond hair for which other girls would kill, but before she’d always been awkward, as if apologetic for her appearance. She had always stood or sat with her chin slightly lowered, her shoulders sagged forward abjectly.

He opened the front door for her, and watched as she climbed the stairs, a large black suitcase in each hand weighing her down. His bad back prevented him from running down the stairs to help her with the cases. He met her on the landing, though, to relieve her of the luggage. She hugged him around the neck, joyously chiming out, “Gramps,” in a genuine way. That was what he’d always loved most about her: how she’d always naturally, purely conveyed her feelings; there was nothing fake or forced about her– all was sincerity and sweetness, and she had been like that even when a small child; it was difficult at times for Carl to believe Kathleen was actually Richard’s daughter– Richard so gloomy, his feelings lost in shadows.

From the landing, Carl paused to make a show of peering up and down the street, and then asked, “What? No boy friend?” This had been an old quip, carried over every year since the first year Kathleen had spent the summer, when she was eleven.

`Usually she would murmur “No” in an abashed way, but this year she said, “Yeah, but not with me.”

“Yeah?” Carl was surprised.

“Well, yeah.”

“Oh.” He wanted to say that that was great, but it didn’t feel right. So instead he said, “We’ll talk.”

They went into the house, and after Carl put her suitcases in the guest room, they sat down in the kitchen and drank coffee and homemade apple strudel that Carl had made himself from Anna’s old recipe.

When Kathleen asked about Anna, Carl explained that she was sleeping. “She sleeps a lot lately,” he said. “Maybe that’s a blessing.”

“It’s sad,” Kathleen said.

“No, it starts out sad. It gets worse later.” He was going to elaborate, to prepare her for the changes in Anna, but decided not to try. There was no way Kathleen wasn’t going to be shocked; she hadn’t see Anna in nearly a year, and so hadn’t lived through and seen, as Carl had, the day by day, disintegration– to Kathleen it would seem one huge horrendous transformation.

“So you actually do have a boyfriend,” Carl said, deciding a merciful change of subject.

“Yeah.” Here she almost, but not quite, blushed.

“Is he a nice fella?”

“Yeah,” she said, but seemed unwilling to elaborate.

“That’s the most important thing. No matter what school or what jobs or how much money a person has– as long as people have a good heart, everything else pretty much works itself out.” It was a statement of sage advice, the kind of thing he believed was expected of him.

Later Kathleen would go up to check on Anna. When she came back down, Carl was not surprised to see the distraught look on his granddaughter’s face.

“Was she up?” Carl asked.

“No,” Kathleen said. “But even while she’s sleeping, I can see the change. It’s very sad, and sort of scary. How could this have happened?”

“It’s life,” he said, wishing he could believe it was so simple.

Kathleen pursed her lips in determination.

“Well, we’ll see then. We will get her back on her feet,” she said. “I’m sure. You’ll see.”

But Carl already understood she was hoping for the impossible.

For the next two weeks Kathleen brought prepared and brought up all Anna’s meals. The girl would have made a wonderful nurse one day, Carl thought, if she so choose that profession. He watched as Kathleen sat at the edge of the bed, and dutifully spooned soup or broth into Anna’s tremulous mouth, all the while speaking to her of how nice the weather was outside, how bright the sunshine, how gentle the warm breeze, and how the trees stirred in it and seemed to be whispering.

In the evening, while Carl watched a ball game on television in the living room, Kathleen would sit at Anna bedside upstairs. She would read to the old woman. Anna, during her life had no favorite books or stories, but she seemed to enjoy hearing Kathleen read her Grimm’s fairy tales and some short stories by Jack London or Willa Cather.

Though Carl enjoyed Kathleen’s presence in the house, which gave him more free time to work on his birdhouses, he began to notice something. He thought at first that it was his imagination. Being around Kathleen seemed to sap his energy is some way. He’d always believed that if you were old being around young people kept you young. It was a common belief. But he was unsure now. Every time he saw her young face, every time heard her speak of her naïve hopes, he legs weakened and his back began to ache as it usually did in winter, not now in the dead of summer. Though he tried to convince himself that all this was just a product of his rambling old mind, it seemed very real to him.

One day, coming up from his work room, he was frantic to find no one in the house. He rushed out the front door, and mouth agape gazed up and down the street, but neither Kathleen nor Anna was in sight. He went back in the house, to the kitchen, and through the window saw them sitting on the glider in the back yard. Amazingly Anna was smiling and laughing and talking to Kathleen to the same way she had to him over the years. It was a miracle, he thought. It could be nothing but a miracle.

Later that day, to his further astonishment, he watched as Kathleen and Anna walked hand in hand down the street to the small corner store, where they bought ice cream cones, which they had all but finished eating by the time they returned home. He felt foolish now at the thought he’d been having lately about Kathleen; she certainly hadn’t stolen any life from Anna– quite the contrary.

The three of them spent the evening in the back yard. Kathleen and Anna sat on the gilder and watched as Carl erected the pole on which he set the newly finished house for the purple martins.

When he was finished, Anna said to him, “Maybe they will come this time.”

“Yes,” he said, careful not to sound too hopeful.

Whether the purple martins came now was of little importance to him. His heart was warm, looking at Anna, so sure was he that she was returning to health and that they could continue on as they always had over the years.  









That night Anna passed quietly away in her sleep.

At the funeral, three days later, friends assured Carl that it happened that way sometimes: they suddenly seem better, but it only lasts for a short while, and the next thing you know they are gone.

He would try to console Kathleen over the next weeks. The girl was so devastated. Her young hopeful spirit had been shattered. It seemed a shame that she had to learn the hard fact of life that though hope was always good it couldn’t cure everything. It was one of those things that once learned can never be unlearned, and from then on must be tolerated in our memories. He knew Kathleen would never be quite the same, and it saddened him that even that would change.

Richard and Holly attended the funeral, but he barely spoke with them.

In the church and at the cemetery he seemed absorbed as he looked at all their friends and family and wondered that there were so few left. The ones who were looked decidedly older than he had remembered them. The funeral director even had difficulty recruiting six pall bearers from among the guests; not enough of them were able-bodied enough to serve in the capacity– old men with canes, stooped backs, crippled joints, having fought years of disease, tragedy and gravity, all in a slowly losing battle. In the end the funeral director was forced to go to next to the tavern and recruit two young healthy men, compassionate but utter strangers, to carry Anna to her finally resting place.

For the following week silence filled the house, except for the loud ticking of the cuckoo clock in the hallway between the living room and kitchen. Kathleen scarcely left the guest room. Carl waited in the yard for the purple martins to arrive. He sat in the glider and waited and waited, just as he had years ago, but so far had spotted not a one. The metal of the glider feel cold wherever it touched his skin. Sometimes he looked at the blue sky, at the white fluffy clouds slowly moving past. Some of the clouds broke up and seemed to vanish before they ever got anywhere.

One day he suggested to Kathleen that they do something.

“We just can’t mope around here,” he said.

They decided to go for a walk. As the strolled along Kathleen reached across and took his hand. He was amazed how soft and fragile it felt in his own hand, which was large and thick from years of manual work. She seemed, then, to start smiling again. First a tiny shy smile, and soon a toothy charming smile as she spoke of what classes she planned to take when she returned to school in the fall. He listened intently, hardly bothered by the pain that racked his knees each step he took on the sidewalk. His back ached him, too, and now there was a new feeling, a jabbing sensation in the side of his ribs, but none of it matter. He was so pleased to see she was healing.

He was distracted briefly by a distant sound, the faraway warble of a bird. He gazed skyward.

When Kathleen asked what he was looking for, he told her he though he heard a purple martin. Maybe they were finally heading home. It hardly seemed to matter any more.

They came upon the corner store, and decided to go in to buy ice cream cones. As they entered the store, he didn’t let go of her hand. He never noticed the solitary mourning dove they passed, pecking the sidewalk for food in the shade cast by the awning over the front window of the store, nor the tender coo it made as they entered.



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