Fiction: The Right Thing

Contrary to popular belief, the cafeteria was not a complete animal kingdom. Each table kept to itself. All conversations were focused at the tables. Girls gossiped about the latest celebrity news–something about Beyoncé and her baby. Guys talked about various sports, and arguments would erupt from opposing sides.

Ben didn’t fit into any conversation. He had little care for the celebrity world and sports world. Not to mention that he was relatively unknown to anyone. He wasn’t particularly smart–maybe average. He couldn’t play sports for his life. He dressed like any teenage boy with his t-shirt, sweater, and jeans. He would never admit that his mom still buys his clothes.

It wasn’t that he was a victim to any social injustice. He just…didn’t seem to exist. There was always someone like that. People never glanced at him. Teachers glossed over his name during attendance, without meaning to. He also tended to stumble over his words when reading out loud in literature classes. Add that to his list of problems.

Ben was used to it. In fact, he was sure he’d have to deal with the same thing all his life. His parents always discouraged his pessimistic thinking, but Ben didn’t think it would help to fool himself. A realist, he called himself.

Ben sighed as he pushed around a blob of chili with his fork. Even the food at his high school couldn’t hold his attention. He decided his appetite was done, so he gathered his tray to stand and head over to the trashcans–

–then he heard a crash, and he, startled, emerged from his self-imposed silent bubble.

At the same moment, all talk stopped. Heads turned to see what the sudden commotion was all about. Someone had tripped and her tray had toppled out of her hand and mixes of fruit juice, chili and dessert crumbs crashed to the floor. To make things worse, the girl looked like she had landed in the pile.

The girl’s name was Sara.

Sara was the girl that everyone knew. With her bright hazel eyes, easy fashion sense and involvement with various extracurricular clubs, she was well-liked. Even Ben knew her–and that’s saying something. Ben didn’t like to keep up with profiles of his classmates. Sara was in his U.S. History class and sat in the middle and occasionally answered questions the teacher would ask.

The only thing Ben puzzled over were her friends. They didn’t mesh with Sara; they always seemed to look at her for leadership, but she seemed adamant to not be anything like that. When she wasn’t around, her friends were ravenous and soul-sucking fiends. They liked to target the weak.

Ben heard the girls would steal other girls’ boyfriends without remorse. They’d shoplift for fun. They’d make a meek girl cry for entertainment. Ben hated girls like that. It made Ben feel thankful that he was invisible. Yet, Sara seemed oblivious or maybe she knew about these incidences but didn’t want to do anything.

Ben wondered why an accidental fall and the sound of a cup clattering across the floor always garnered extreme reactions.

The cafeteria roared in laughter. Some boys at the next table yelled, “Nice!” They started to clap their hands like imbeciles. Ben thought they sounded like pigs.

Sara glanced around the room and probably saw what he saw every day–the mocking, the amused and the curious–and she quickly ducked her head. She began gathering her tray together, but Ben know she was probably more worried about her dignity than the mess on the floor.  He couldn’t believe there was no one to help her–not even her friends. He didn’t think her “friends” would be so callous to leave her there, since they always were desperate for her attention.

With only a minute of hesitation, he left his seat and his sneakers squeaked as he trekked over the food pile. Ben bent down, taking the tray from a blushing and embarrassed Sara. He carried it over to his table, mindful of the stares he was receiving.

Ben unzipped his sweater, half sure he might be rejected for his next move. In a moment of silence between the two, he offered her his sweater. Sara glanced down at it, her mouth dropping open slightly.

When she didn’t move, he pressed forward again.

Sara reached over to take it. “Thanks,” she said, gazing up at him in wonder. She slid her arms through the sleeves and zipped it up. The maroon sweater fortunately covered the mess on her shirt. However, her jeans were still covered with lunch food.

With a hand behind his neck, Ben shrugged modestly. He had plenty of sweaters at home and didn’t think he’d miss that one.

Behind him, he heard the snickers of guys and girls–Ben has a crush on Sara!–but he was used to it and ignored it. At least he did something, rather than sit there while she was only a few feet from his table.

Something else–maybe a fart or an undignified burp–took the attention away from the pair, and as quickly as it started, Ben and Sara’s moment was over. The bell rung. Backpacks swung across backs, seats pushed into various directions and chatters rose to the maximum decibel.

Ben, feeling like he had to say something, turned to Sara, who still stood with her hands clasped in front of her, and said, “Well, bye.” After that eloquent response and with reasons unbeknownst to him, Ben turned once more and nearly jogged out of the lunch room.

The next day, the incident had left his mind.

It was towards the end of the day. Ben wasn’t in a good mood, because he just left his history class where they had a test. He didn’t study, obviously, and knew his parents wouldn’t like the grade that was coming. At his lockers, Ben was gathering his books into his backpack, and as he was searching for his Chemistry book, someone tapped him on his shoulder.

He turned and saw Sara there. She gave a little wave, to which he returned with his own awkward one.

“Hey, Ben.”

He tried to hide his surprise at her knowing his name and somehow, he answered, “Hey.”

Sara pushed something towards him, and with one look, Ben saw it was his maroon sweater that he gave to her yesterday.

“Thanks for this, you know.” Ben noticed she had an lilting accent, but it was quiet–like a whisper. He thought it was nice to hear it in her voice, and he missed it yesterday. “Some of the stuff on my shirt got on it…so I washed it.”

“Oh,” Ben said. He smiled slightly, noting how she had folded his sweater in the same way his mom would. “You didn’t have.”

“Yeah, well,” Sara giggled nervously. “I mean, it was the least I could do.” She glanced behind Ben, at his locker, then they locked eyes again. “You’re in my history class, right.” It wasn’t a question.

“Um, yeah,” Ben answered. He then thought it was pathetic how he could even hesitate in such answer. He closed his locker, shouldering his backpack. “So…what’d you think of that test we just had?”

Sara’s eyes widened, and suddenly, Ben realized how easy it was to talk to someone.

Before he knew it, Sara was talking about her fears of failing the class, and there he was, listening attentively, walking beside her down the hallway, the sweater tucked under his arms.

Fiction: Voice

I wrote a quick short story a couple of days ago. I followed a challenge that Figment had posted. Each week, the creative writing site hosts a young adult author who assigns prompts and fun games for online users. This week’s guest was Geoff Herbach. His presence on YouTube is well-known, and he is also the author of young adult novel “Stupid Fast” and the upcoming novel “Nothing Special.”

Herbach recently wrote about how to incorporate personal voice into short stories. I just love the way he explained voice through a video. It’s so much better than reading long blog posts. I can see why young adults would love him. His basic message for writers is that voice should reflect the writer’s personality, not the writer’s idol’s personality.

He also gave us a challenge so that we could develop our voices. The outline that Geoff Herbach had posted are as followed:

1. YOU HAVE A CHARACTER WHO DRIVES.
2. A BIRD HITS THE WINDSHIELD.
3. THE WINDSHIELD CRACKS.
4. YOUR CHARACTER PULLS OVER.
5. THE BIRD IS HOLDING A TINY SCROLL IN ITS LITTLE, DEAD BIRD CLAW.
6. YOUR CHARACTER READS THE SCROLL.
7. IT IS A MESSAGE ADDRESSED TO YOUR CHARACTER!

You’ll see the story below.  I took the plot of a WIP story and used it in this setting.

I had a lot of fun with this. I didn’t even notice that I was writing more than a thousand words!

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I could have taken one of my kitchen knives and stuck it right between Paul’s shoulder blades. I could have emptied our joint bank account and ran his precious Mercedes into a random light pole. I could have driven this crappy Nissan 1997 to the Hamptons and picked up a beach blond guy half my age on the side.

But I’m not in a Lifetime movie. I’m just another woman who has a cheating husband.

I’m nothing special. Obviously. Or else Paul wouldn’t have decided to break my trust.

When Paul came home and planted a perfunctory kiss on me tonight, I instantly knew I needed to leave. Leave before I…I don’t know lost control. ‘Cause right now, I’m past my boiling point.

“Goddamnit!” I shout in my car, assured that no one can hear me in my little bubble of woe.

I need a drink.

Give me liberty, or give my Red Death. Some vodka, peach liqueur…oh yes. Perfect. I need them to drown out the image of Paul and his thing fooling around last afternoon when I came home early for work.

As I reach the end of a scenic Brooklyn block, my eyes stray to the shadowed form of a prostitute showing off her midriff and wearing a red leather skirt as she leans against a blue brick building. She has one leg propped up against the wall and a cig dangling between her cherry lips.

She looks just like my daughter Riley who, by the way, just uploaded an interesting Facebook picture from her 21st birthday. One day I happened to ‘stumble across’ said photo. I told her to take it down.

She unfriended me.

A part of my mind tells me to jet out of the car and wrap a blanket around that girl – who is someone’s girl out there – and give her a cup of steaming milk and chocolate chip cookies. Then another part of my mind imagines the police car that’s parked around here, waiting for any commotion to barge onto the scene. I see myself being slammed against the wall, having the cuffs roughly slapped onto my wrists. As all of this goes down, I’m screaming, “I’m a mother! I’m a mother!”

I shake my head. I place two hands on the wheel. And I stomp on the gas pedal.

No red light. No red light, I repeat to myself. If I stop again, I know I won’t be able to stem the tears building behind my eyes.

I’ll just end up crying in my car, and the teenagers who stop next to me at the red light will cackle at the sight of me.

But, who cares! I am a woman! I am a feminist! I am –

“Mother of – ”

Out of God-freakin’ nowhere, some bird collides with my windshield.

I wrench my steering wheel to the right, trying to avoid the inevitable. My heart stops. I hear the tires screeching and the angry honks of some guy behind me who’s probably late for dinner and doesn’t want to be on his wife’s shit list.

My right tire hits the nearest curb, and I manage to get the rest of the car under control.

I sigh angrily and throw a good punch at the stirring wheel. Now I’ll have to call Animal Control or something to get this shit off my window. I can’t do it myself; that’s disgusting.

“Hey, you all right, lady?” An African-American guy peeks through the window on my side. Behind him, I see a small group of nosy senior citizens gathering across the street.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Can’t say the same for this bird though.”

“You want me to call someone? The ambulance?”

I wave a hand at him. “No. Just…just call the animal guys. No ambulance, though.”

“You sure?”

I do the right thing and censor all profanity that’s flittering through my mind. “Yes. Please.” The man nods at me and assures me that I’ll be okay.

I slowly release myself from the seat belt constraints and gingerly move my legs. Good, they work.

Blowing a few blond strands from my face, I lean closer and check the damage. I spy a small crack that’ll probably take $400 to fix. Great. At least I didn’t crack my neck. Once my blood stops boiling, my shoulders begin to relax and my conscience stops its swearing.

Poor bird, some part of me thinks. It still looks peaceful in death.

Wait.

I press my nose against the window and squint my eyes. Is that…? Really?

I kick my door open and scramble to get near the bird. The guy from before is on his cell, and the crowd is slowly beginning to disperse. No one important died so this accident is nothing to look at, I guess.

Back to the bird. I see that under one of his limp claws, he’s holding some kind of scroll.

“Ew, ew,” I mutter, as I gently pry the bird’s claw open. The bird relents and the scroll rolls into my left palm. It’s small and slightly damp with avian blood, but I ignore my germophobic thoughts and curiosity takes over.

I roll out the paper. I feel like I’m Nicholas Cage.

I read: MOVE ON.

Those words are written in some kind of charcoal that’s rubbing off on my hands. I flip the piece of paper to see if there’s anything on its back, but nothing. No signature. No explanation.

I glance up, checking to see if there’s some creep peeping from his window or rooftop. My eyes catch nothing but laundry dangling from homemade lines and one wrinkly man who’s slumbering away on a cemented porch.

“Shit,” I mumble, dropping the slip onto the oil-drenched road. I glance back at the innocent bird who couldn’t have known what was coming.

Okay, I’m officially creeped out. Who cares about Animal Control? I roll up a newspaper that was lying on the sidewalk. With a few prods, the bird tumbles over and lands on top a sewage gutter. The rain will wash it away.

“Hey, miss, they’re coming soon,” the cell guy says to me.

“Oh well,” I answer, sliding back into my car.

As I drive away, I glance at my rearview mirror, as if searching for the paper. I can still see the words in my mind.

“Move on,” I whisper. If only it was that easy.

I’m still going to that damn bar.