25 Mar


Above the farmhouse down on Highway C, a raincloud hovers perpetually. Old Mrs. Montgomery, who has lived there for as long as anyone can remember, falls asleep every night to the pitter patter of the rain. When she ventures into town for groceries or a haircut, she is met with a respectful silence from the villagers.

Mrs. Montgomery knows they talk about her. She sees them point and whisper. But, of course, they’re all perfectly cordial. They bag her groceries with care and tip their hats and say good morning, Mrs. Montgomery. They know, as does she, that the very livelihood of the village depends on that perpetual raincloud above the Montgomery house. The water from her roof gathers into a river that runs into town. Along the way, it irrigates the crops, keeps the livestock healthy, and powers the mills.

Here’s what the villagers don’t know: Mrs. Montgomery used to live elsewhere. Her husband was a fisherman, and he came home each night, smelling of sea salt and fish guts. He snored while he slept; it sounded like waves crashing on the beach. He was a hard worker; he made good money.

But then the storm hit. The high winds whipped the sea into a frenzy. It rained without end. When the empty boat washed up on shore, Mrs. Montgomery vowed never to gaze upon the sea again. She didn’t want to face the killer of her dreams. So she moved inland.

The storm followed her. It lost some strength as it crested the mountaintops. It shrank when it crossed the desert. But eventually, it settled on the prairie with Mrs. Montgomery and refused to leave. When something sticks around for that long, you have to come to peace with it. Even if it scares you.

Every once in a while, as Mrs. Montgomery is drifting off to sleep, she imagines her husband snoring. She dreams that he lives with her still, here in this prairie house. She dreams that he wakes early and fishes the river of rain. He sells his fish in town, greeting the villagers with a smile. When she wakes to an empty bed, in the disorientation of early morning, the dream seems true. She storms out of bed, mad at him for leaving without waking her.

Down the stairs she runs, and when she steps out the front door, she shouts, “Get back here!” Only the waves of prairie grass respond, shushing her with their plaintive whispers. In the distance, smoke from a few chimneys curls skyward from the village. She looks up at her raincloud and clutches the collar of her blouse. “I’m sorry,” she says out loud. “Forgive me.” She goes back inside.

18 Jan


Alvaro stood near the pedestrian bridge on the Avenida 10 de Agosto. Barely anyone noticed him. Cars whizzed by on the big, busy road. Drops of milky water fell from the bridge beams. Exactly three cats had crossed the bridge, and Alvaro was waiting for the fourth. Four cats never cross the bridge in one day, the older boys had told him.

Grabbing a stick from the sidewalk, Alvaro tapped out a reggaeton beat on the hollow metal pillar; no one paid him any attention. He’d been counting the cats for days now. In this neighborhood, he’d seen at least 15. Junior had told him not to believe the big boys; they were just messing with him because he was motherless. Kids can be cruel like that.

Let them laugh, Alvaro thought. Murderers. No one was going to talk him out of counting cats. One of these days, he’d see the fourth one. Perhaps he’d have to stay here all day, waiting by the dirty pillars of the bridge, inhaling the clouds of black smoke that spewed from the red and white buses that labored up the road; perhaps he’d have to keep begging food from strangers, to sleep in the shadows of the bridge and befriend its spray-painted pillars while he waited for whichever came first — the fourth cat, or his father, who left and said he was going to the sky to find Mami and bring her back from the place where she lived now, higher than the top of Cotopaxi.

Quechua graffiti on the bridge beams — mostly misspelled and mixed with Spanish — proclaimed the injustice of the city and its crooked politicians. Rats, it called them: ratas, ukucha. She appeared from behind him, the fourth cat. Taking a tentative step onto the stairs, she peered back at Alvaro and meowed at him three times. Under the bridge, Alvaro stood speechless and breathless at what he thought he’d heard: “mijo,” she’d said — my son. Venturing forth, Alvaro extended a tender hand toward the cat, noticing the patch of white on her chest that looked like the snow-capped top of Cotopaxi. Whether or not she’d cross the bridge to the other side mattered no longer; he only wanted to touch her. But the moment was over too soon when some passer-by with a job to go to climbed the stairs and scared the little cat off the steps.

Years have passed since then, and though he has sometimes seen that same cat lurking in the shadows, following him around the city, he has never touched her, never heard her speak his name. Zig-zagging across the busy streets, digging through the trash, and crying for remembered milk, Alvaro has become a cat himself.

The above was another exercise from my MFA residency. The objective: write a 26 sentence story. It has to be in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order. One sentence has to be one word long; one sentence has to be 100 words long. You can substitute some other letter for x or z but not both.

14 Jan

First Kill

I’m at my first residency for Pacific University’s MFA and enjoying it thoroughly. We’ve gotten a few writing exercises that force us to stretch our writing boundaries a little. Below is the result of one of them.

Somewhere in the woods, a twig cracked. Ryan held his breath. He lifted the gun and waited. And when he heard another crack coming from the west edge of the forest, he scanned the trees for any sign of movement. He heard leaves rustling, an unmistakeable shuffle and pause, shuffle and pause. Snow was beginning to fall, the first one of the year, and it was coming down in icy flakes that crinkled against the papered forest floor. He could smell the snow, smell the decaying leaves and his father’s minty aftershave, probably lingering on his jacket from the other day, when they were out here together practicing their sighting from atop the tree stand. Ryan tucked the butt of the gun against his shoulder, rested his cheek on its cold metal barrel, and felt for the safety. He tickled it but didn’t turn it off yet.

The leaves rustled again, a slow, punctuated wishing noise that came to another full stop. Only deer move like that. Especially in late November when the trees and shrubs are bare of their foliage. They’re scrounging — that’s the word his dad had used — trying to find anything to fill their empty stomachs. They eat the stems of honeysuckle and hemlock, sumac and poplar. They don’t look up. They never look up. And Ryan knew this was true because he’d seen them walk right underneath the tree stand just the other week, before the season had begun.

He peered through the scope, but kept his left eye open; sometimes, they’re not where you think they are. He flicked the safety off. “You’ve got two triggers. Safety’s your first one,” Dad had said. Halfway there. Any second now, the deer might emerge from between the trees. In the woods like this, sometimes you only see a sliver of its body. But sometimes that’s all you need.

He touched the trigger. “Be patient,” Dad had said. He felt his pulse beating hard against the steel barrel. He had to calm down, but in order to do so, he to put out of his mind what it would mean if he got his first kill alone in the back woods. It could actually happen!

And then it was happening. As the icy snow was slicing into his cheeks and casting a ghoulish haze over the leafless woods, he heard the periodic shuffle, saw the body emerge, its light brown fur appearing in the narrow column between the parallel trees. He exhaled, tightened his hold on the trigger, lined the crosshairs on what little body he could see, and fired.

The animal dropped. The forest resounded with the crack of the gunshot, an echoing snap in an empty space. Every shot is the shot heard round the world, the clap of Thor’s thunder. Every shot struggles to take ownership of the future, to be the God of gods. Ryan emptied his lungs of breath, releasing into the air a cloud of vapor like the saunas of Old Scandinavia. He’d done it! Dad would be so proud.

But then he heard Dad, his shrill whistle cutting through the forest like the icy snow. He was shouting something. Something that had the vague rhythm of the cardinals that would begin to sing on warm days in March; a rising pitch followed by a sharp descending tone. At first it sounded like “Rye en. Rye en.” But as Ryan’s adrenaline-induced breaths slowed and the vapor of respiration dissipated, he heard his father’s calls, which were not for him but for their labrador retriever, Lacey. “La-cey! La-cey!”

Panic rushed through him. He squinted into the misty forest, peered again through his rifle scope at the fallen body obscured by trees. Lacey had rested her head on his lap, had greeted him after school with enthusiastic kisses, had interrupted his impromptu games of soccer in the yard. Had he shot Lacey?

Dad’s footsteps became audible; his blaze orange coat cut through the dim woods. Ryan froze, waited for the world to fall, considered leaning forward and letting himself tumble from the tree stand.

But then Dad’s voice cut through the air. “Holy shit! You did it, boy! You got one!”

Lacey came running from the paddocks, panting in that way that made her seem to be smiling.

He had done it. He had pulled a trigger, taken a life. And for a brief second, he had felt united to the forest in some inexplicable way, bound to his kill by some wordless pact. But he had pulled a trigger. And as his dad informed Lacey that the boy was now a man, Ryan saw how helpless he really was.

09 Oct

Spoiler Alert: The Man by the Side of the Road

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Man by the Side of the Road” is part thirteen. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

Of course, that wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t. So I told him he needed to take this trip alone.


I didn’t answer for fear I’d say the wrong thing. If David didn’t take that burning bus north, would I never meet the pregnant, kiss-blowing love of my life? How fragile were these things?

David grabbed my hand — a gesture almost too tender to take. “Oh, no. He told you, didn’t he? Something happens on your next bus trip?”

David’s voice trembled a little, his sympathy towards me palpable. And when I looked in his watery eyes, it felt like I was looking at my own son. I had to give him some hope. So I lied. “Yeah. You need to stay away from me.”

He held my gaze for a long time. A little too long. I thought maybe he saw through me. But then he offered me one last gulp of his water bottle. “I guess I couldn’t break you out of prison after all.”

Buses were leaving for Belize with surprising regularity. We bought separate tickets north. Mine left ten minutes after his.

“You know,” David said, just before embarking, “the old man was a liar.”

“You mean Abuelo?” I thought he might be referring to his own father.

“Yeah. He told you some version of the future. But there’s a good chance it was a lie.”

“I doubt it, but yeah, it’s possible.”

That’s when he patted me on the back. “Doubt is a wonderful thing,” he said. And I saw him no more.

Later, after the explosion and the black plume of smoke, and an hour or two spent on the side of the road, the flavored ice man made another pass. He was dressed in a ridiculous blue jumpsuit with a matching bandana over his mouth and a large, straw sombrero, so I didn’t get a good look at him. But he was about David’s size, and though he said nothing to me, his shouts of “Helados! Helados!” as he walked down the roadside sounded familiar.

He couldn’t have been David, of course. It’s nearly impossible. I know in my gut that David’s gone.

But I hope I’m wrong.