305: A short story

Starring a gender neutral protagonist. In workshops I was asked why the non-binary character, as though being non-binary should be a plot point and not just the reality of a person’s life. I opted not to edit out the NB-Ness of Max. People exist out of the binaries and so do their stories. Enjoy.

Passengers on the 305 stood, crammed shoulder to shoulder, except for those fortunate enough to find a seat. Max always in the third window seat from the back, boarded first and exited last. They had forgotten their headphones at home in their rush to the transit stop. Max usually used this time to catch up on procrastinated reading on the way to class. Today that would be impossible. Reading in a space this crammed with chatty people would be like watching a movie with your eyes closed. All sound track and no comprehension.

            Today’s passengers were the usual mix of students, seniors, and minimum wage earners. The bus was so full at this point Max was surprised when a sticky small boy squeezed through the sardined commuters. The child’s excitement propelled him to the rear window seat—red raincoat a blur. His blue gumboots dripped muddy water on the seat untill little tea coloured pools formed beneath his toes.

            “Mom,” he said. “I can see our house.” 

            “Charlie. Sit down.” His mother appeared, toting a large duffle bag in one hand and a dripping umbrella in the other. Max turned their head to follow the action. The mother simultaneously yanked on her son’s elbow while taking a seat and stowing her belongings between her feet—the way only a mother could. “Sit down before you fall down,” she said. Charlie sat.

            “My bum’s wet,” he said.

            “What’s what you get for climbing on the seat,” she said.

*Next stop Burlington Avenue*

            Traffic didn’t whiz by Max’s window so much a sludge. Cars were bumper to bumper and barely moving as if caught in thick bog mud. Morning rush hour, where no one rushed at all. At this time in the day is seemed to Max that everyone was out of the house three hours before they needed to be anywhere.

*Ding*

            Twelve passengers exited at the main exchange allowing fresh rain laced air to mingle through the stuffy damp interior of the bus. Charlie and his mother remained engaged in some conversation about lady bugs and hot wheels cars. Max stretched a leg out into the aisle for some momentary relief. Traffic lightened as the 305 made its way out of the downtown core towards the university.

            “Wow Mom,” Charlie said from behind Max, his voice very loud, “We’re super-fast.”

            “I won’t say it again. Sit down before you fall down.” The mother’s tone reminded Max of their own mother.

            Max watched the rain pelt the window. Through the droplets, taillights danced like tiny faeries. Vehicles now zipped in and out of traffic, occasionally cut off the bus, but the driver was skilled and barely nudged the breaks. 8:35, Max put their phone back down. Late again. It never matter how early they caught the bus, they were always late, might as well sleep at school.

            Did the smell or the sound come first? Metal on metal snapped biting into one another. Hot acrid smoke filled the bus and people were piled on each other in a heap. A blue boot landed in the seat next to Max. A woman shouted. Glass tangled in Max’s hair, rain water mixed with blood seeped towards the partially opened side door. Whose blood?

            Max searched their own body for signs of injury, beyond strained muscles, they were okay. Where was the blood coming from? Max grabbed the boot and stared blankly for a moment. He stood up and looked for Charlie. Charlie’s mother lay lumped over, her head had hit the cross bar on the seat in front of her, crimson dripping down. She was unconscious, but her shoulders still moved up and down. At least she was breathing.

            “Charlie,” Max said. No response. “Charlie, I have your boot. My name is Max, where are you?” Max heard quiet crying in the chaos, almost like a puppy whimper. Wedged between a seat and the metal rear door guard, Charlie sat curled up in a ball. His knees pulled to his chest, one blue boot and one sock foot, the boy seemed relatively uninjured. “Charlie?” Max said.

            Charlie looked up, tear stains on his face. “She told me not to.”

            “Not to what?” Max said, reaching for the child who reluctantly crawled out inch by inch.

            “Not to stand on the seat.”

            “Charlie, this wasn’t your fault. It was an accident on the street. Some car probably wasn’t looking and crashed in front of the bus.”

            “No.” Charlie puffed, his face turned red, his lip quivered. “That,” he said pointing at his mother who was still unresponsive. “I, I, smashed her.”

            Max crouched down and reached arms out for Charlie. The boy instinctively mirrored the gesture and tucked into Max’s torso. Max closed their arms around the tiny damp body and gave Charlie a gentle squeeze. Charlie’s hair smelled of dirt and rain water. “It’s not your fault Charlie, it was an accident.” In the distance, Max heard the sirens approaching. 

Max stayed with Charlie through the entire ordeal. Close to Max’s chest, Charlie wrapped his legs around his new friend’s waste and rested his face on Max’s shoulder. He remained that way when emergency services arrived. The first responders had set up a tent to keep victims with less threatening injuries out of the rain while they dealt with more serious issues first. 

            “Caucasian woman. Unresponsive. Pulse steady. Breathing Shallow. Ready for transport.”

            “Mommy!” Charlie yelled, as the medics rushed his mother past on a gurney. One of the responders approached Max.

            “Are you family?” She asked. 

            “Charlie is,” Max said, frantic. “I mean, this is her son. Is she going to be okay?”

            “We’re taking her to St. Anthony’s now to assess her injuries. Unfortunately, I don’t have room for the both of you in the ambulance.”

            “How are we supposed to—I don’t even know her name,” Max said. Charlie started to cry. 

            “Where are they taking Mommy?” He asked.

            “To the doctor,” Max said. “Wait!” They shouted at the attendant who had already loaded Charlie’s mother into the ambulance. “How do we get there?”

            “You can either call a taxi or wait for the shuttle. It will take whoever requires non-immediate medical attention to Emergency. Should be her in ten minutes or so.”

            “Charlie, don’t worry. We’ll see your mom again in a few minutes okay.” Max wasn’t sure if that was true. It didn’t look very good. What if this little boy’s mom never woke up? How would they find Charlie’s family? What if Charlie didn’t have any family? 

            “Charlie?”

            “Yeah?” Charlie wiped snot on his bare arm as he sniffed.

            “Do you know your own phone number or address?”

            “Yeah, but sometimes I write my numbers backwards.”

            “That’s okay. Numbers can be tricky.” Max walked back over to the tent where a water station had been set up alongside some chairs and a table. “Let’s get a drink while we wait for our ride. When we get to the doctor’s, I’ll get you a pen and you can write me your address okay?”

            “Okay,” Charlie said. “But, can I have juice instead?”

            Max laughed. This kid should be terrified, and he wants juice.

The hospital was just as crowded as the bus had been, except now Max and Charlie were wedged in between patients with ailments ranging from coughs to cut off fingers. Max, with Charlie still in arms, approached the nurse’s desk.

            “Excuse me,” Max said. 

            “Just a minute,” the nurse said as she typed on the computer. She wore purple scrubs with small lollipops printed all over them. Her name tag said Sarah. “Alright, what can I do for you?”

            “Um, we were on the bus that crashed. This little boy’s mom was brought in. I’m wondering if there’s any information.”

            “Are you family?” Sarah’s face looked kind.

            “No. But Charlie is,” Max said.

            “Unfortunately, I can only release medical information to immediate family members over the age of 18. If you take a seat, I can get someone to come talk with you about Charlie,” Sarah said.

            “Um, sure. Do you have a pen and paper we can borrow?” Max was disappointed but there wasn’t much they could do. Maybe if Charlie could remember his phone number or address Max would be able to notify family.

            “I’ll call you when support arrives,” Sarah said and handed Max a blue ballpoint pen and yellow sticky notes.

            “Thanks.” Max took Charlie and returned to the waiting area. A seat next to a table had cleared. They placed the note pad and pen on the table. 

            “Charlie, can you try and remember your phone number for me?”

            “Okay,” Charlie said. The distraction seemed to electrify the little boy. He was excited and eager to help. He picked up the pen and held it awkwardly in his fist. Max watched over Charlie’s shoulders as he tried to write something legible—his tongue gently pinched between his teeth in concentration. “There!” Charlie smiled and held the note up for inspection.

            “Well done,” Max said, with a fake smile. The numbers barley made any sense. There weren’t even enough to make a complete phone number, but at least Charlie could write the number 4 perfectly.

            “Excuse me,” a voice said.

            Max looked up to see an older woman, maybe fifty, holding a clipboard. “Hello,” Max said.

            “I’m here to ask Charlie some questions,” she said. Max felt concerned. Why did they need to talk to Charlie? He’s just a kid. What could he possibly tell them that they didn’t already know from the grown-ups at the accident?

            “Hi Charlie, my name is Jane. May I ask you about your Mommy?” Jane said.

            “Mommy?” Charlie said, his eyes shining. “Is she okay?”

            “Your Mommy had a bug bump on her head and is with the doctor right now. They are trying their best to fix it. I need to ask you some questions okay?”

            “To help?” Charlie said.

            “Yes. It would be very helpful.” 

            Max didn’t like where this was going, but they barely knew the kid. Surely professionals knew how best to care for a random toddler than a twenty-something stranger.

            “Do you live alone with your Mommy?”

            “No,” Charlie said, “we live with Jack too.”

            “Who is Jack?” Jane said, making notes on her clipboard.

            “Jack is my puppy!” Charlie said, proud of himself.

            “How old are you Charlie?”

            “I’m this many,” he said and held up four fingers.

            “Thank you, Charlie. I’m going to talk to your friend for a minute. We will stay where you can see us, is that okay?”

            “Yep. Can I keep drawing Max?” Charlie said, his eyes big and trusting.

            “Of course.” Max said. Max followed Jane across the seating area just out of earshot from Charlie.

            “I’m with social services,” Jane said. “Do you have any information about Charlie’s extended family? There was no information in Ms. Parson’s personal belongings.”

            Ms. Parsons.Charlie’s last name was Parsons. “Um, no. I’ve never met them before.”

            “Oh, sorry. Charlie just seems to trust you so well. I thought—never mind. Okay then. I’ll take him with me. Thank you, Max, you’re free to go.”

            “Wait. What?”

            “Charlie needs to be placed in care until his family can be located. As soon as you’re cleared by a doctor, you’re free to leave. Thank you so much for your help. This could’ve been much more traumatic for Charlie had he been alone.”

            “Can I sit with him for a little longer?” Max said.

            “A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt I suppose. Tell you what,” Jane said looking at Charlie, “I’ll go make a few calls and pick him up in fifteen minutes.”

            “Thank you. It’s just, I feel like disappearing on him would be hard for him, you know?”

            “I appreciate your kindness. We need more young people like you. See you in fifteen.” Jane walked away. Max watched until she turned the corner and returned to Charlie.

            “Come on Charlie,” Max said.

            “Where’re we going?” Charlie asked.

            “For lunch. We’re going for lunch. Want some McDonald’s?”

            “Yes! Can I have nuggets?”

            “Of course, you can. Quick, we need to hurry,” Max said. There was no way Max was letting Charlie live with strangers. Max just needed to wait for Ms. Parsons to wake up. In the meantime, Charlie could stay with Max. How hard could it be? 

            When the automatic hospital doors opened, the sun felt warm on Max’s face. Charlie stomped his blue gumboots in a puddle. They both laughed.

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Doubt: Watch Me

Doubt is a nasty germ. It creeps in subtly when things are going well and begins to breed in the background. First, it will show up disguised as rational thinking. Should I really be doing this? I know ________ is more qualified at __________ than I am. We begin to compromise. Before long, we avoid the things we once loved—things we know we’ve been good at before—for fear of failure.

I struggled for two weeks to write a short story in October. I am in fourth year of creative writing and have published several stories, poems, and non-fiction pieces. I was long-listed for a prestigious literary competition and have won prizes for my promise in writing. I’ve been paid for not only my own content but to create pieces for others’ websites as well. I’ve been solicited for publication from links I’ve shared on Twitter and been hired out for events due to my creative prowess. All this is true and I still struggle to create.

I’m not trying to humble-brag. If anything, I’m trying to remind myself that I am extremely talented at making something great out of thin air and sheer will power. I have three novels in progress but am terrified to complete them. What if they aren’t good? What if I publish them and only sell ten copies? Worse, what if I publish them and someone expects MORE? Doubt is a jerk.

I say to look doubt right in the face and say watch me.

When I finally buckled down and quit the debilitating habit of self-censoring, I produced a short story in under five hours that is already receiving positive feedback. It’s even spawning the idea for a chapbook of short stories unlike anything that is currently being done. It just might be that accidental best idea I’ve ever had. It was full of typos and a little rushed—I was outrunning doubt after all, and we all know doubt is a marathon runner.

That thing you love, that you miss, but you doubt you’re good enough/brave enough/_________enough to take it on again—it misses you. Tell doubt watch me. You’ll be glad you did.

Fall Semester Challenge: A novel in 91 days.

On the first day, of my last year, of University, our Advance Novel Prof asked us to do some math. MATH. From CREW students. He asked how many days are in September….we all paused and someone, thank God, said “30”. Then he asked how many days were in October, this I knew because Halloween, obviously, “31”. Again he asked how many days were in November, turns out there’s also 30. That gives us 91 days. Then he asked his room full of upper level students if it was possible to write 1000 words a day.

Yea. We do that all the time for assignments, but what was he getting at? Class continues until December 5th, so obviously his questions weren’t for class right? Wrong. Last question, how large is the average novel? 80,000 to 100,000 words. You’re welcome. So, all the math. If we write 1000 words a day, for 91 days, we will have 91,000 words—a novel.

WHAT?! But novels are hard to write, and I never finish them. I get to chapter three and crap the bed, shove it in a drawer, and cry myself to sleep until I have a new idea. The life of an aspiring writer. First assignment, outline (with as little or as much detail as is developed for your current idea) due next class for the entire project. Who is in it? What do they want? What gets in the way? The normal story questions. But over and over again until you can “see” the skeleton of a story. Then the 1000 words a day begins. I’ve started….two days ago. Current word count, 756. After two days. I suck at this. But I’m going to do it.

Want to join me?

A Fun Story from the Archives

If you’re wondering what I’m studying at school, here is one of my assignments from last year. The prompt was “gym”. 
Step On Me

By Cheryl Folland

People encounter, at one time or another, a situation that errs on the impossible side. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, perhaps a visit to Sally’s Gym is just the cure. The lifespan of my people ranges anywhere from six months to five years; it really hinges on how our clients treat us. This is the story of how one client changed everything and saved my life.

 My role is to make champions of ordinary people. This is no easy task. Many of the people that I encounter throughout my day are so steeped in self-loathing they require a medal just for walking through the door. These are my favourite people, the ones who don’t know how amazing they are. See that man over there? Yea, that one. The one with the red shorts, the ‘do you even lift’ t-shirt and that crazy mop of curly brown hair? His name is Carlos. Looking at him, you’d never guess that he used to weigh three hundred pounds. This time last year, he could barely even bench eighty. Oh, look! A new lady. I wonder if she’ll choose me.

 “Thanks for coming in today!” Carlos said.

 Oh! I should mention, Carlos is the personal trainer on the floor today. The thing that sets our gym apart from all those other meathead type places is encouragement. Every staff member is a former fat kid. Every single one. Carlos used to sit in the basement playing World of Warcraft and eating Dominos pizza like he had a death wish. Heart disease you know. Anyway. Now look at him. Tall and lean with a healthy muscle tone. Complete transformation.

 “Why don’t you warm up,” Carlos said. “Start with a ten minute walk at a comfortable pace and I’ll pop back over to help with stretches.”

 “Uh, sure.” said the woman. She grabbed her water bottle and towel and walked towards the treadmills. Noticing one nearest the exit wasn’t in use, she placed her water bottle in the cup holder, put the towel around her neck and pressed the start button.

 “Hello. Please select your workout,” read the screen.

 She pressed quick start and waited for the next prompting.

 “Great choice. So are those Lulu-Lemons,” said the screen.

 “What?” She turned her head back towards Carlos. He was reading something off his clipboard at the front desk. No on else seemed to be caught off guard. “Is this some kind of prank?” she asked.

 “Nope.” This is my favourite part, when they find out about me. I imagine this is the first time something other than her smartphone has spoken to her. She will likely think she is crazy, or tired, or freak out and leave. This happened sometimes. I hope not with her, she has great potential. I better ask her some questions. “Please enter your weight.”

 “Maybe I’m just dreaming,” she said. Pressing the keypad, she entered her weight—two—two—three, enter. “Treadmills don’t have conversation skills.”

 “Thank you for entering your weight.” Now I will make things a little weird and see how she responds. My goodness this is fun! “My name is Stephanie, well it was step-on-me, but I didn’t think that very personable. What’s your name?”

 “Um,” she said. Leaning closer, she whispered, “Nancy.”

 “It’s okay Nancy. All the machines here are thought-enabled. No one thinks you’re crazy. You can relax. Your heart rate is getting high. This is supposed to only be a warm up after all.”

 Nancy let out a breath. “All the machines can talk?” Nancy said. “How come Carlos didn’t say anything about it?”

 “We only want a certain type of clientele. You know, the people who want to change but need the extra push. We are that extra push.”

 “Okay. So, what is it you actually do? I mean, aside from compliments, so far you’re just a treadmill. Right?”

 At this point, I had a choice to make. I can either tell her what Sally’s Gym does or I can ease her mind. Normally, we are encouraged to let the clients believe that we are artificial intelligence programmed to anticipate and respond to various inputs mimicking human reactions—the reality is much different. You see, I belong to the owners of this planet. Years ago, when the humans’ home was ruined by something they called global warming, they came out here. Finding this planet, with its perfect landscapes—but marred with crazy electrical storms—their scientists had to think of a solution to save their people. Discovering how to harness the electricity from the atmosphere led them to something even greater—my people.

 “I am not a treadmill,” I said.

 “You most certainly are. I am walking on you right now,” she replied.

 “To be accurate, I am merely a personality, a life force, occupying a treadmill.”

 “What? I am so confused,” Nancy said.

 “You have three minutes remaining in this workout. I will tell you as quickly as I can. Only you can decide what to do next.” I proceeded to tell Nancy about my people. I caught her up on the desolation that led to the sending of her people to my planet. Of course, she scoffed—electronics empowered by people?

 “You see it was the only compromise. By inhabiting the energy grid, the storms we used to live in are dissolved—allowing our two peoples to live together. These machines are a few of the ways we can actually interact. This facility, is one of a few where we are testing whether we can bridge the gap, you know, enlighten people.” I said. I waited, with twenty-nice seconds left on her run, for a response.

 Nancy had no idea how to respond. She knew this was a colony and that pollution and consumerism had ruined her parent’s planet; but it never occurred to her that this one belonged to someone else. She finished her warm up and thought about the strange conversation while absently following Carlos through stretches. They moved to the cycles for some cardio. Nancy plugged her headphones in to the cycle display.

 “Hello again,” I said.

 “Stephanie, is that you?” Nancy said. “How did you get over here?

 “I told you, my people live in the electricity. I wanted to make sure you were okay after that information dump.”

 “Honestly, I feel like I’m in some weird dream. How can I know this is all real?” Nancy said.

 “I have an idea. See the smartphone port beside the heart rate monitor?” I said. “Plug your phone into the port and I will piggyback onto it. When you wake up tomorrow, and I am still there, you’ll know this is the truth.”

 “What then? I mean, after you come home with me?” Nancy said. “Won’t they notice you’re missing?”

 “Not if we’re very careful,” I said. “Put your phone into the port, when I create a message on your phone, tell Carlos the cycle is broken. He’ll think I’ve died.”

 “You still didn’t answer me. What then?” Nancy said.

 “Then the real adventure begins,” the phone read.

 

A Story about a Cat?

Hey there friends!

I am currently enjoying a rainy weekend away from home and the troubles that lay in that area. I needed to come up with a clever and original story this weekend for next week’s short fiction class.

My friend suggested I write a story about his cat, so I did, and I’d like to share it with you. Hope you have a laugh and a smile.

Francis

 

Today will be the best day. I know what you’re thinking—Francis, you say that every morning when you wake up. Seriously though, I mean it this time. Not only is it my favourite time of year, where the autumn leaves are various shades of fiery goodness, but they cascade in such a way that one cannot help but pounce on them. In my neighbourhood, the weather is a comfortable ten degrees Celsius with a gentle mist. This is magnified by the rejuvenating sleep I was blessed with last night. To accentuate my joy, it’s Saturday, which is the best day of the week.
            After a hearty breakfast of gourmet salmon and herbs prepared by Jack, I will spend today balanced between lounging at the viewing window and enjoying the general splendor of creation. This sounds like I’m lazy, excessively leisure, let me assure you—this is not the case. You see, this weekend I have a house guest. She’s been here once before, and though we did not get off to the best start, I quite enjoy her now. On her first visit, it was clear that her habits would disrupt my daily routine. She caused Jack to stay up later than usual, which delayed my bedtime.
            To understand the significance of this offence, I must explain mine and Jack’s relationship. He is my faithful and loyal companion. Each morning, he prepares my meal and makes sure that I’m doing well emotionally and physically. He’s almost like a personal assistant but we have a deeper connection. You see, in a way, he rescued me from a hard life. If one does not have the right people, it’s very easy to get lost down a dark alley or be attacked in the street—homelessness is a very real problem where I come from. I’m at an advantage over my peers to be so well off and taken care of. Over the years, Jack and I have become family. It makes sense that this unwanted house guest had me on edge when first she arrived.
I’ve been used to the peaceful quiet companionship that Jack and I have; she wanted to chat with me incessantly. She even put her suitcase in one of my favourite places to sit. The nerve! How is one to be hospitable when a guest so clearly disregards boundaries and civil propriety. By the third day, I realized that she was anxious to make a good impression and we stayed up late playing games in the living room. Regardless of her and Jack’s early morning the following day, we laughed and enjoyed one another’s company into the early morning hours.
            This week’s visit was much more acceptable. I greeted her as an old friend, though I’ve only known her a short while. She shared with me her newest purchases and I tried to model them for her—but our sizes are not at all the same. I fancy that I looked adorable in her turquoise snowboarding jacket. Ever the generous guest, she opened up her suitcase and allowed me to revel in its contents. Books, clothes, trinkets and gadgets, all neatly packed into a carry-on bag. I wondered to myself how long she’d be staying with a load like that, and she assured Jack and myself it was just until Sunday afternoon. She would spend today writing stories and scripts whilst I went about my business, but that’s not why she came.
She’d been invited to perform some of her art at a local place of worship. I, myself, do not attend. I don’t much like traveling beyond my neighbourhood. It’s far too much work and the anxiety of myself (and Jack trying to manage my anxiety), is really not worth it. I will get to listen to her practice today. Her musical ability brings me joy as I observe the coming and going of residents through the viewing window. Cars drive alternating in each direction, there’s a man with a wool jacket and a blue umbrella, behind him walks a grandmother with a toddler in a shiny red raincoat. The soundtrack of her soprano voice, accompanied by the brass strings of Jack’s borrowed guitar, lull me somewhere between waking and sleeping. I am content. I stretch and sigh and fall asleep for a short while.
“This is what Saturdays are for.” she says. “Lounging around and being creative.”
Silently, I agree with a sleepy nod and go back to sleep. As long as she continues to play, I rest. In a few hours, Jack will return and regale us of his adventures in town. Until then, this is my peaceful companion. She reminds me that people are not always what they seem. I remind her that neither are cats.

~Cheryl

p.s. Yes, I am the “she” in this story. And this is Francis.img_1515