Friday Favorite: Mothers and Sons

When I created Emily and her son, Max, I never realized how much emotion I felt for her situation.

At half past one in the morning, Emily Brenner heard the door to her apartment creak sharply once, then fade a slow whine as the person fought to make no noise.

She held her breath as she laid in bed, praying for guidance, wondering if a confrontation would do any good this time.

Slow footsteps padded on the carpeting outside her bedroom, a practiced edging around the noisy spots in the floor.

Emily hated this. This tension, this waiting, this nervous energy—it was familiar, and not in a good way.

She swung her covers back and made no effort to be quiet. It was false confidence, she knew, but it got her through the door and into the moonlit hallway.

“Where’ve you been?” she said.

Max was standing in front of his bedroom door, half facing away from her, but she didn’t miss the eye roll. He had a hand thrust into a black nylon backpack she didn’t recognize.

“Out.”

“That’s not an answer.” It was her standard response, usually delivered with an icy practicality that could make even the toughest students surrender and tell her what she wanted to know.

But Max wasn’t her student, and her voice was far from cold. Emily was terrified to push too hard, like their relationship was an already straining rubber band and one quick thrust would send Max shooting off into the world, alone.

So her comments sounded weak, even to her ears. Instead of putting him in his place, she would plead and cajole, hoping for a glimmer of a response, something to show he still needed her—that he still wanted her.

And all she ever got was what she got now: disdainful muttering under his breath, laced with profanity that was only slightly louder.

He was looking to provoke her, she knew.

“Tell me where you were, Max.” Her voice was soft. “It’s one thirty in the morning.”

“I’ve got a watch. Thanks.” He jerked his arm out of the bag, a silver key glinting in his hand. He thrust it into the lock.

That had been a surprise, to come home one day and find he’d installed a deadbolt on his bedroom door. She should have had a locksmith out that night, but he was already furious about his lack of privacy. She left it, thinking maybe he would see that she was trying, that she would give him some freedoms.

Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to stretch that rubber band a bit farther.

This was the third night in a row he’d come home so late.

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” she said.

“Don’t be stupid,” he snapped, his voice full of an adult’s conviction. He swung his head around to look at her. His hair had grown too long, again, and it hung over his eyes. That was her fault: she’d asked him to get a haircut three months ago. “I’m just sick of putting up with this bullshit.”

Me too.

The words came to mind with frightening clarity, but they wouldn’t move to her lips. “I’m worried about—”

“Whatever.”

Then he was through the door and the lock was thrown.

Emily moved to stand there, resting her hands against the wooden panels. She’d done this when he was a baby: stood outside his bedroom door, her ears straining in the late night silence, desperate to hear each breath. She’d been convinced he would stop breathing the instant she failed to listen for it.

Now, fifteen years later, she mourned those moments, when nothing more than the simple sound of his breathing had been reassurance.

He was moving around behind the door. Papers rustled and something heavy slid across the carpet. The bed creaked as he sat down.

Then she heard the fractured notes of a guitar badly out of tune. She hadn’t bought it for him, but it had appeared a month ago—and though she hated to admit it, she was terrified he’d stolen it somewhere. Max had no idea how to play, but he picked at it every night. She assumed he was trying to teach himself.

She could hear his frustration through the notes, as if his fingers put emotion into each pull on the strings.

Emily put her forehead against the door and sighed.

The guitar abruptly went silent. She heard his breathing, quick and angry.

“Jesus, Mom! Go away.”

Emily hesitated.

Then obeyed.

Friday Favorite: A touch of romance

This is from a project that’s currently on hiatus. Emily is a single mother with a troubled teenage son. Gus is a Greek god whose power is in words. She doesn’t know this, of course — she just knows he’s a guy interested in her. After leaving her abusive ex-husband, she’s unsure of any guy.

By the time Gus came through the doorway, she’d drawn her feet up onto the chair.

Her mouth was dry, and she couldn’t even form a question about how their “talk” had gone.

He studied her for a long moment, leaning back against the molding on the archway. “I did not harm your son.”

Of course he could see right through her. She looked away from him, lifting a hand to trace the stem of her glass. “I’m sure you think I’m nuts.”

“No.” He paused. “As you said, your life is complicated.”

Like she hadn’t given him fair warning. She still didn’t look up. “Well. You know where the door is.”

Another pause, longer this time. Then he straightened and stepped into the kitchen. “There is fear in your voice, Emily.”

She snapped her eyes up, uncurling her legs. For a moment, he was standing over her, and instinct almost had her shoving the chair back.

But he was only pulling another chair away from the table, sitting to face her eye-to-eye. His gaze was intense, unflinching. “Are you afraid I will stay, do you think?”

He sat close, his knees almost brushing hers, the way they had in the coffee shop. She swallowed, feeling heat spark on her cheeks.

“Or,” he continued, “are you afraid I will leave?”

There didn’t seem to be a safe answer to that. She wet her lips and hated that her voice sounded rough. “What—what did you say to Max?”

“We traded insults and debated philosophy.”

She scowled, feeling off-balance. “Is that supposed to be a euphemism?”

His eyes were amused. “Quite literal, in fact.”

Was he making fun of her again? She looked down at her fingers, the way her nails were digging into her jeans. His hands were close, resting on his thighs, relaxed, a juxtaposed mirror of her own.

“I’m sorry for what Max said to you,” she said. “Some of it isn’t—it’s not his fault. He’s just—”

“You owe me no apology.” He paused, and his voice was careful, matching the weight of her own. “Does he strike at you often?”

Emily jerked her eyes up. “What? No—that’s just—it’s—” She stopped herself.

Gus was waiting, watching her. It wasn’t challenging, just a level look.

She held her breath.

His eyes seemed to darken, and he leaned in just a bit. “You want to tell me,” he said, and his voice was almost reverent. “I can feel it.”

She grabbed her wine glass from the table and took a long swallow. His closeness, his intensity, it was so unsettling—and not in an altogether unpleasant way. She remembered the quiet strength in his grip when he shook her hand on the street, the connection she’d felt in the coffee shop. She longed to feel his hands, the warmth of his skin against hers.

That was terrifying.

“I just met you, Gus.” He seemed closer somehow, and her cheeks were burning. She was going to choke on her words again. “This is all—it’s so—”

The oven timer went off.

She sprang from her chair, launching herself at the oven, struggling to punch the buttons to silence the buzzer.

You’re being an idiot.

He hadn’t moved, but she could feel the weight of his eyes as she slid a shaky hand into the oven mitt. Somehow she got the roasting pan onto the stove without burning herself.

But when she flung the mitt on the stove and turned, he was right there, standing in front of her.

She sucked in a breath and kept a tight grip on the counter, leaving her back pressed against the edge of the refrigerator.

He was very close, trapping her in that small corner. She could feel the warmth from his body, could catch that faint scent of cinnamon and vanilla. The attraction there was potent, strong enough to pull her forward, to unclench gripping fingers. But she couldn’t ignore his height, the breadth of his shoulders, hating that the very things that would designate a man as a protector could also mean the absolute opposite.

Was this intentional? Did he mean to intimidate?

Or did he mean to draw close, the simple act of a man approaching a woman?

The uncertainty was almost debilitating. With Scott, feeling his grip on her arm or his fist on her jaw was a type of relief she could never explain—it represented an end to the waiting, to this uncertain limbo that only questioned when, not if.

Thinking of Scott cleared her head a bit. She gritted her teeth and searched for the angry words that had kept Gus at arm’s length so far.

“Shh, Emily.” His voice was very soft, and he did not move closer. “Do not seek words you do not mean.”

She shook her head and frowned. “How do you—”

“Would you let me touch you?”

Her breath caught.

Yes.

The word almost escaped, as if one true touch would settle this war in her mind, would put Gus into the appropriate column and eliminate all her tension. But it carried too much risk—allowing one touch simply invited another, and she knew from experience that once she said yes, no might never be heard again.

But he hadn’t moved, hadn’t taken her silent indecision as assent.

He was waiting?

She struggled for words, for coherent thought. “I don’t—you’re asking permission?”

“I am.” His eyes traced the line of her face, and there was warmth there, as sure as running a finger along her cheek. “You shy from my hand, and I thought…if I touched you…perhaps….” His voice trailed off, and his hand lifted, but he did not touch her.

She almost closed her eyes and leaned her face into his hand.

Almost.

“Perhaps?” she whispered.

“Hmm.” He shook his head slightly, looking a bit rueful. “You make me forget my words, Emily, and that is no small thing.”

He was closer now, so if she moved, she’d touch him. She could almost feel his breath on her lips as he spoke, inviting her to close that small distance. Part of her wanted to duck away—but a bigger part wanted to touch his arms, to pull him against her body, to let him whisper secrets against her ear.

If she fell for this man, where would that leave Max?

Her eyes clenched shut, and she turned her face away. She brought her hands up, knowing this refusal would make him try harder, would make him touch her, just to prove he could. “Please, Gus—please just—stop—”

“As you wish.”

Then he was gone, moving so swiftly that she had to open her eyes to keep from stumbling into the empty space, leaving her wondering if she’d imagined the attraction, the intimidation. He was already sitting at the kitchen table, taking a sip from his glass.

And he hadn’t laid a finger on her.

Friday Favorite: Girl Power

This is one of the favorite scenes from one of my works in progress. Yes, Apollo is the real Apollo from Greek mythology. Sarah is dating his son, Jack, who owns a music store in downtown Baltimore. They’re having this conversation on the rooftop deck of Jack’s apartment.

Apollo turned back to her. “So. Where were we?”

She stared at him for the longest moment. “Ah…close to death, I think.”

He looked insulted. “She came nowhere close. Now that war is imminent, their attempts to claim leverage will increase, but as you see, they lack the—”

“That was a female?”

Now he smiled and began to hang his bow across his back. “Had you a weapon and the knowledge, you could have defended yourself.” His tone turned a bit wry. “If you plan to draw blood from us on a regular basis, you should ready yourself for creatures who have been banished to this side.”

Soren killed the various creatures that regularly came after Jack. She’d never seen one attack from above, but it was going to make her think twice before relaxing on the roof again. She shivered, and this time the cold had nothing to do with it. “All the arrows in the world wouldn’t have helped me against that.”

He paused, then his eyes lit with fire. He lifted his bow again. “Try.”

Her breath caught. She felt his challenge in the air.

But still. “You just—you killed that…that thing, and you want me to pretend nothing just happened? What if more come? What if—”

“Every moment is a gift, Sarah.” He raised an eyebrow.

Next time, don’t take so long.

She reached out and grabbed the bow. It was heavier than she’d expected, the wood smooth and worn under her fingers. It felt comfortable in her grip, sturdy. Reliable.

Her thumb ran along the satiny length. She’d never been one of those people who could recognize what kind of wood something was, but this felt solid.

She had no idea what to do with it. The only arrow she’d ever shot had been part of a Fisher Price backyard kit at a neighbor’s barbecue, and the end had been capped in felt, with a plastic bow. She’d been six. The “arrow” had gone maybe four feet.

Had her mother known how to shoot something like this? Had she watched that young Sarah fail at shooting a plastic toy? Had she made a decision to deny Sarah her heritage, her opportunity to learn about her talents at a young age?

Had she been disappointed?

Sarah bit the inside of her cheek, thinking.

Apollo just stood there watching her. Waiting.

He hadn’t given her an arrow, and she didn’t want to ask for one. This was another test, she was sure. She stepped right up to him, reached over his shoulder, and pulled one from the quiver.

His eyes never left hers.

Sarah took a breath and swiveled around, trying to find a suitable target.

A target, she scoffed to herself. You’ll be lucky to fire it off the string.

She turned sideways. The building across the alley was higher than Jack’s roof. Even she couldn’t miss a brick wall, right?

She lifted the bow, trying to manipulate the nock at the end of the arrow to sit against the string, finally settling for letting it rest on her finger. She’d thought it would be easier to do this without looking at him, but now she was painfully aware of his eyes on her, watching her movements, knowing every error.

She drew back her arm, feeling her shoulders tremble.

Hands closed over hers, holding everything in place. “My son would be very displeased if I allowed you to shoot the fingers off your hand.”

“Me too.” Her voice was breathy. He stood close, right behind her, almost pressed against her back. He was warm and smelled like a lazy summer morning, and her body wanted to melt into him.

Focus.

His arms matched hers, his fingers pressing around her knuckles. He was strong; she could feel the muscled edge of his forearms under the bare skin of her own.

“Place this hand here”—he adjusted the hand holding the bow, practically prying her sweaty palm free to reposition it—“and lift your elbow a bit.” He pulled back on her hand, drawing the string with it.

“And,” he added, “we can do better than a brick wall.” He turned, and, being caged by his arms, she had to turn, too. Two blocks away was a billboard advertising internet access.

“There,” said Apollo.

She swallowed, knowing she’d never get it that far. His hands loosened a bit, still resting on hers, but enough that this was her shot.

“Commit to your target, Sarah.” His breath was warm against her cheek. “Anything less and you will fall short.”

She stared at the big C on the sign.

Commit to your target.

She took a breath. Blew it out.

“Fire.”

She opened her hand. The arrow whistled off into the night.

And appeared at the center of that big green C.

“Holy crap.” But then she scowled. “You did that.”

He was already pulling another arrow from his quiver. His voice was quiet. “You are not powerless, Sarah. Again.”

She sighted down the line of the arrow, putting her eyes on the O this time. The string was a heavy pull against her fingers; she could feel the strain in her arm. Like fighting with swords, her body was a part of the motion. She’d never fired a gun, but she imagined it would be nothing like this. Their weapons might be archaic, but there was an intimacy to putting her own strength into a weapon, something she’d never find with her finger on a trigger.

“If Gus intends to paint you as the aggressor,” Apollo said, “what you did cannot be undone. Fire.”

Bulls-eye!

Apollo pulled another arrow. “His power is simple words. They can wound, surely, but steel works so much better.”

More assured, she set the arrow herself this time, but she didn’t draw the bowstring fully. Talking to him was easier now that she had a task, now that she didn’t have to look at him. “You’re really not mad about what happened?”

He laughed, softly, almost under his breath. “Mad? I am furious. He seeks to undermine my House.”

“You think he’ll come after me again?”

“I have no doubt.”

“Why?”

“He could leave no clearer a message. He came alone, with no guardian. He does not see you as a threat. As I said, he thinks you are a pawn, something easily played. He believes he can use you against my House.” His voice gained an edge. “Right now, he can.”

She drew her arm back, pulling the string taut. His hand fell away from hers, and she hesitated, knowing the next shot would be hers alone.

She opened her fingers. The bowstring snapped and the arrow flew. “Tell me what you want me to do.”

With a crack, the billboard split and fractured at the point of impact. She gasped. Her arrow had gone right through.

Apollo smiled. “Make him regret it.”

Friday Favorite: Short Story

I wrote this in high school, almost fifteen years ago. It’s one of the few short stories I was able to put down on paper. It feels very dark when I read it back now, but I think we all have an angsty dark phase when we’re teenagers. I remember showing it to a teacher at my all girls Catholic high school, and he had some interesting comments when he got to the end. Nowadays, no one would bat an eye.

I present it here, full and without any edits.

Choices

Jonathan sat at the Formica table in his yellow and white kitchen. His mother had designed it, and he hated the decor. That feeling went right along with the others he was having as he sat there, staring at his glass. He took a swig, feeling the alcohol burn his throat. Slamming the glass back down on the table, droplets sprayed his wrist. He was sick of his parents. Sick of life in general. In all his sixteen years, he had never felt so uncared for, so unloved. He had no friends, not even people he could consider acquaintances. He took the knife from one of the drawers–yellow handled, of course–and sat back down at the table, contemplating his bare wrist.

He took another swig of the whiskey. He was slowly but surely getting drunk. He’d never before had alcohol to this excess, and his head felt a little fuzzy. He laid the blade against his skin, ready to draw it across the blue veins and pink arteries, prepared for the blood to spew forth. He hoped that it stained the yellow and white tile of the floor.

Just as he started to wonder what he should have been thinking about as he prepared to die, a voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Took you long enough,” the male voice sneered.

Jonathan was so surprised that the knife fell to the tabletop, only nicking his skin slightly.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded, more than a little angry. He’d finally been about to accomplish the deed of killing himself, and here was this stranger, in his house, making stupid remarks. Jonathan sprang out of his chair to face the man.

The guy was Jonathan’s height of six feet, and didn’t appear to be much older than Jonathan’s sixteen years. His hair was sleek and black, pulled back into a ponytail. He wore a red turtleneck with black jeans and a black leather jacket. Around his neck hung a wrought iron skull on a thin chain. His eyes were dead black, which surprised Jonathan. He’d never seen someone with eyes that color.

“I can’t really tell you that,” the man said with a trace of ironic apology in his tone. He added a slight shrug.

Jonathan glared at him. “Well, get the hell out of my house.”

The guy grinned. “What apt phrasing.”

Jonathan stepped around his table, heading for the phone. “I’m calling the cops.”

Suddenly the man was in front of him, and Jonathan stopped in surprise. “And then what are you going to do about killing yourself? I came here just for that reason.”

He was confusing Jonathan. His mind was still fuzzy from the alcohol. “What are you talking about? Who are you?”

He grabbed Jonathan’s shoulders. “I’ve come to take you with me, as soon as you finish what you were about to do.”

“Who are you?” demanded Jonathan, twisting free from his grasp.

“I have too many names to list tonight, and I don’t really feel like bothering. So let’s cut to the chase.”

“Well, tell me one name, and then we’ll chase to the cut,” Jonathan slurred.

The man frowned for a moment, then reached around Jonathan to take the glass from the table. He sniffed the contents. “You’re drunk,” he sighed. He addressed the ceiling. “Does this count?”

It was right then, when the guy started speaking to the ceiling, that Jonathan knew he’d had more than he should have drunk. Maybe he was hallucinating.

Another guy appeared in the kitchen, wearing a white tee shirt and light blue jeans. His hair was short and blond. He frowned at the first guy. “You know it doesn’t. The kid is drunk, and he’s not even dead yet. You’re breaking a lot of rules.”

The black haired guy smiled. “Well, that’s what put me into this line of work in the first place. Fuck the rules.”

The blond sighed. “The profanity is rather unnecessary.”

“Screw you, Mikey. You aren’t supposed to be here. He’s mine.”

He crossed his arms across his chest. “Well, actually, that’s why I’m here. We want him upstairs.” He jerked his head towards the ceiling.

“Well, that’s too damn bad.” The black haired guy laid a hand on Jonathan’s shoulder and forced him into a chair. “You want to go with me, don’t ya, kid?”

“I just wanna know who the hell you are,” mumbled Jonathan. “When did my kitchen become such a happenin’ place?”

The dark haired guy was laughing. “No matter how many times I hear that, it always cracks me up. ‘Who the hell am I?’”

The blond sat in the chair next to Jonathan. “My name is Michael, and this is Lucifer.”

Jonathan stared at the two of them. “Lucifer?” He laughed weakly. “Like the devil. Cool.”

“See?” demanded Lucifer. “Everybody likes my name better. Ha. Hurry up, Jon, let’s get going. I’ve got to pick up a chick in L.A. before midnight.”

“So leave him,” said Michael.

“That’s funny,” simpered Lucifer. “Neither of us gets him since he’s drunk.”

Michael leaned over and kissed Jonathan. It was only a slight kiss, but Jonathan smacked him away.

“Get away from me, you fag!” he hollered, an instant before realizing he no longer felt drunk.

“Now that wasn’t fair,” muttered Lucifer. “Now he’s predisposed to like you better.”

“That’s not true,” replied Michael.

Jonathan stared at the two of them again, this time with a clear mind. “So what you’re telling me is that you are the devil, and you are that angel Michael?”

“In the flesh, so to speak,” agreed Lucifer.

“Precisely,” answered Michael.

“And you’re arguing over my soul?” continued Jonathan.

“I like the intelligent ones,” remarked the devil.

“Yes,” replied Michael.

Jonathan looked at him critically. “Well, now, wait a second. The leader of hell came in person, but God sends a little servant? Hmmm.”

“An excellent point,” agreed Lucifer.

Michael scowled. “The leader of hell had just a few–“

Jonathan shook his head, holding up a hand for silence. “I don’t want to hear it. So, basically, when I commit suicide, one of you takes my soul, and that’s the end of it. But right now, I get to choose?”

“Yes,” answered Michael.

Jonathan looked at Lucifer. “You have any music in hell?”

“Well, duh. Of course. Where do you think all those rock and roll legends who commit suicide go? It’s better there. You decide: Kurt Cobain or Zino the harp player.”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Heaven has better advantages than guys named Zino. Cold air, for one.”

“Get some AC downstairs, and life—or rather, death—is just fine and dandy. There’s even a pool. Cable tv.”

Jonathan looked at Michael. “Care to counter that?”

Michael sighed. “Consider: it’s hell. Do you really want to walk out your front door into a wall of flame?”

Lucifer shrugged when Jonathan turned to him. “Buy an extinguisher. Discount prices next week at Hellingers.”

Jonathan looked back to Michael.

The angel shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. He’s giving you slavery, I’m offering redemption.”

Lucifer snorted. “Spending eternity with that harp choir? He’ll want to commit suicide again.”

“A pool?” Jonathan asked Lucifer. “Olympic sized?”

Lucifer nodded.

“We have everything you could ever want,” said Michael.

Lucifer grinned. “We’re getting Nine Inch Nails in a few years.”

Jonathan looked at Michael. “That’s a tough one to beat. And you’ve got that harp thing working against you.”

Michael looked away. “I’m not going to force you into any decision. It’s completely up to you.”

“We have a lot of teen models,” added Lucifer.

Michael said nothing, but he sighed sadly.

Jonathan considered. He glanced at the knife on the table, then back at the two of them. He hadn’t killed himself yet, so there was nothing to worry about. He stood up, yawning. If this was what suicide was going to lead to, forget it.

“Good night, you guys. Turn off the lights when you leave. I’ll see you in about sixty years.” He started for the stairs.

“What?” asked Michael and Lucifer simultaneously.

“Look, you all-knowing spirits, I’m not going to die, so get over it. And, if you want a bit of advice,” he added to Michael, “don’t go kissing any more guys.”

Friday Favorite: First Kiss

If I remember to do this every Friday, it will be a miracle, but here goes. This is one of my favorite scenes from one of the trunk novels:

“You’re not scary,” she said quietly.

He laughed softly. “I like that you think that.”

She said it again, a little more firmly this time. “You’re not scary.”

He smiled and pressed both hands to her cheeks. His eyes turned intense, darkening despite the streetlamps. For a moment, she thought he might kiss her.

He did not. “You’re cold.”

She shrugged, feeling her cheeks flare under his palms. “Just a little,” she said. “I’m all right.”

“Hmm. Just a little.” His fingers smoothed the hair back from her face, following the strands down along her neck to make her shiver. His hands slid to her shoulders, where they stopped. He gently pulled her forward, and she knew that all this tension and buildup would find some release. He was going to do it.

He did. He kissed her on the forehead, like an older brother.

The letdown socked her in the gut. She looked down, unable to meet his eyes. How silly. Of course he was only fond of her. Hadn’t he just said he wasn’t interested?

He touched her chin, tilted her face up. She tried to keep the disappointment off her face, knowing it was useless, that he probably knew, and she surely looked like a fool.

Rebecca couldn’t read his expression, but his eyes shone like they were amused. “Well,” he said, and stopped.

“What?” she whispered. She didn’t trust her voice.

Christopher smiled. His voice was soft and intimate. “Now, it will be a surprise.”

With that, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.