Sunday 31 March 2024

Sunday Serial, 240 x 70, Gill James,10. Civil Disobedience 29 October 2018, hot milk,

 “I don’t want to switch the light off yet.”  Drat it. Mummy was always interfering. 

“But you need to be up bright and early tomorrow. You like school, don’t you?”

Connor shrugs. “It’s all right when we have ten minutes silent reading at the beginning of the lesson.”  

“So what are you reading now?”

Connor nods. “Did you know that dinosaurs were actually covered in feathers and that the birds we have today are related to them?”

“I didn’t know that. “ Mummy takes the book and looks at it. “This is an interesting book. Did you get it from school?”

“Oh Mummy, don’t you ever listen? Miss Bramble took us all to the library yesterday and we were allowed to take out one book each. She said we could take it home if we wanted to. Oh, and talk to our mummies and daddies about joining the library. We take the book back when we go to the library again next week.  Mummy, can I join the library?”

“Oh, I don’t know. We might not have time to take you every week.”

Connor growled. “It doesn’t cost anything, Mummy. And the books they have are better than the ones at school. “

Mummy sighs.  “We’ll have to see. But for now you must put out your light and go to sleep.”

“All right, Mummy. “

She leans over and switches off his light. She kisses him lightly on the cheek. “Night-night, sweetheart. “

Connor waits until she has gone. He puts his light back on and slides his book from under the covers.  He’d better get on with it if he needs to take it back to the library. 

About the author

Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown.  

She edits CafeLit and writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation.

She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing.


Saturday 30 March 2024

Saturday Sample: Links by Dianne Stadhams, CROCODILES and CHICKENS, still water

To be or not to be?

Man it was sure not a snap decision to be a celebrity. It just sort of fell at my feet – fame was flung and postcards printed. Camera clicks … my enigmatic smile … my perfect jaw line … my glistening orthodontics … a skin to die for … a torso toned and triggered. Guess that makes this dude an icon … in water and on land.

The game begins. Decisions … decisions will have to be taken. Mine or yours? Backwards or forwards? Linear or profile? Who first? What’s best? When’s right?

I’ve heard it all in the last few months and then some. Facts and fantasies of the guide as she shepherds the tourists beside my vantage spot, their eyes agog.

“Do you know his descendents can be traced back 200 million years?”

Dudes the family resemblance is uncanny.

“Did you know his family have been worshipped?”

Fear and respect inspire legends.

“Can you guess his weight? His speed? His vital statistics?”

The banal assumes elevated status.

The golfers are more pragmatic.

“Does he return the golf balls?”

Beware, oh my voyeurs. Myths are rooted in fact. Wisdom has it that my family are guardians of knowledge. Remember to respect that wisdom lest it swallow you whole. Artists have immortalised my family as symbols of sunrise and fertility. My ancestors grabbed the foolish and ate the guilty without a trial.

Ignorance will not protect you from certainty.

Because that’s what we crocodiles do … and have always done … for the last 200 million years … and are likely to keep doing unless you dumb humans kill off the planet.

And just for the record – I’m called Atta Gatta, I’m four metres long, weigh 100 kilograms, and my best time on land is 17 kilometres an hour. Although I am prepared to admit the chance of my running for any longer than five minutes is extremely unlikely. Celebrity dudes like me prefer to pose. Especially as these marketing-savvy, politically-correct, flora-and-fauna-conscious kebabs on two legs at the golf course have constructed a palatial lake as my home away from home.

“Water hazard or what!” those golfers say as if it was an original joke.

Want to get into the water and say it direct?

Golfers and crocodiles have more in common than you might think. Focus is our motto, timing our creed. A golfer locates the target and fixes his gaze, all the while assessing distance, ground covered and potential obstacles to the flight of that ball. Crocodiles target their location and gaze upon their fix … obstacles can be opportunities. A water hazard to a golfer is but a portent to an Atta Gatta.

Golfers and crocodiles admire strength – the golfers to swing and hit their object of desire, crocodiles to grab theirs and run. Our tools of the trade may differ (golfers use clubs and crocs have teeth), but we both know that we have to be precise, measured and accurate to score. Both of us play against ourselves … to win.

Concentrate – one wrong move and it’s splash – but not a birdie!

I first noticed the little girl when she crawled into a clump of bushes beside the water hazard. Brave of the kid, tooth-pick scrappy, limbs with no flesh, tangled curls, big eyes with bigger questions. She carried a chicken with long golden feathers tucked under her scrawny shoulder, its staccato head pecking a 180 degree trail as the kid walked.

Hey feather–brain, the gods look after each other. You are not on my icon list.

But the kid didn’t offer me the bird. She stroked its crested crown and gently massaged its trembling wattle. She lifted its wing and nudged its head under before folding the wing over.  But the kid didn't offer me the bird. She stroked its crested crown, gently massaged its trembling wattle, lifted its wing and nudged its head under.

Is that a yoga approach to fowl calming?

A sort of bird-brain chicken that lost its head but saved its beak. I liked that. Showed respect … even if I wasn’t going to get a chicken wing bite … so to speak.

The girl rocked the chicken like a pendulum. It went silent. So did she. But her eyes stayed fixed on mine. I blinked. Let her know I was watching … and waiting. She blinked back. The chicken kept swinging.

Check, honey, your move.

Crocodile chess is not a game for an amateur. Humans boast that they have their memories. Human brains may be larger and more complex. But we crocs have patience evolved over megatime … DNA coded … watch and wait. We know if we wait long enough you humans become careless. Dangle a limb over the side of a boat to cool in the water. Take your eye of the ball. Forget to check behind you.

Patience is the patron saint of reptiles.

The girl moves closer. The chicken remains silent. I blink – fast.

Her move.

She winks – slowly.

My move.

I leave the starter block. The jaws are tight. I roll twice in the water. The kid tries to scream. The scream becomes a gurgle. Marinated chick-kid equals check-mate!

Uncertain certainty… a sure thing … dead right.

Crocodile tears you call them. Me Me, I put them down to indigestion. Feathers and femurs are an eclectic starter. What’s that adage?

A bird in the bush is worth two … chomp, chomp.

“Hey Graham, knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?” replies Graham, the golfer.

“Chicken,” says his partner.

“Chicken who?” says Graham.

The golfer has lost his ball. He’s convinced it’s not in the water. He heads towards the bushes.

New game started.

“Chick-en the bushes,” says the golfer. They laugh.

Pawn to king dude. Take-away to rook.

A celebrity croc won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Food parcel to check mate. Nothing but death is certain.

So agree crocodiles and golfers.

“You got Marguerite a present yet?” asks Graham.

His partner shakes his head and says, “I need to find something exotic for that arm candy of mine.”

“And expensive,” says Graham. “She’ll expect the unexpected – big time, big bucks.”

“Such as?”

“Diamond-studded handbag made from elephant-scrotum – perfect for your girlfriend.”

“Gross,” comes the reply. “Graham, you’ve got a seriously sick sense of humour!”

Candy is dandy when it don’t make you sick.

Children scream from behind the bushes … the golfers rush forward … a grand finale!

A hole in one you might say!

Friday 29 March 2024

A Portrait in Time by S. Nadja Zajdman, chai served in a tall glass with a twist of lemon

 As a little girl, I was fascinated by a portrait on our living room wall. The elegant woman in the portrait seemed out of place in our shabby apartment.  I loved to look at this portrait which, I later learnt, was an enlargement of a photograph my mother’s sister hid in her underwear during the course of the Second World War.  It contained the profile of a regal-looking lady whose long thick hair was swept back, revealing a swan-shaped neck and bare alabaster shoulders.  The lady had high, wide cheekbones, and a strong, confident jaw.  Pearls hung from her ears, as if in suspended animation, and her almond-shaped eyes stared vacantly into a future she wouldn’t live to see.  While I studied the portrait my mother studied me.        

              “Who is she, Mummy?”

          My mother answered sadly.  “She’s your grandmother.”

          I was shocked.  “She can’t be my grandmother!  Grandmothers are old!”

          The pain in Mummy’s sigh was palpable.  “My mother never got a chance to get old.”  Together we gazed at the portrait, in contemplation.  “Her name was Natalia.  She was my mother.  That makes her your grandmother.”

          “But she doesn’t look like you.”

          Under the spell of her mother’s image my mother’s smile was sudden, and sweet.  “No.  She looks like you.”

          I searched the portrait for a resemblance to my innocent face, and couldn’t find any.  “I don’t look like her!  She’s beautiful, and I’m ugly!”

          “What?!”  Now it was my mother’s turn to be shocked.  “Where did you get such an idea?”

          “Well, when you look at my face you get sad, so I figured it has to be because I’m ugly.”

          Slodka, sweetheart, you can see that when I look at your face, I feel sad?”

          I nodded.  Mummy snapped into alert.  Slodka!  She insisted  “My mother was beautiful, and so are you.  You are beautiful in the same way she was, and when I look at your face I see her beauty in it.  That’s why I feel sad.”

          I forced myself to face my mother’s pain.  “You get sad because you miss her, right?”

          “That’s right.”

          “Then you don’t think I’m ugly?”

          “No no.  Of course not.”

          “But how can I look like your mother when she was a lady, and I’m just a little girl?”

          Slodka,” my mother was adamant.  “My mother is who you are going to look like.”


          In Warsaw on the morning of September 1, 1939, my mother was setting the kitchen table for a celebratory breakfast.  It was Natalia’s forty-sixth birthday.  She had been widowed six months before.  On a wonderfully sunny morning, without a cloud in sight, my mother heard what sounded like a loud storm.  The skies darkened suddenly.  Within an hour the windows of Natalia’s luxury apartment on Krolewska Street were shattered, and she was huddling against a bedroom wall with her two daughters curled under her arms.  The bombardment of Warsaw had begun.  So had the Second World War.  

          September 1, 1939 would prove to be Natalia’s last birthday.  Within a month, Natalia and her children were homeless. Before the end of the year, they would be refugees.  Natalia fell victim to the war’s first epidemic of typhus and, with my mother beside her, died in a Russian-run hospital, at the dawn of 1940, on the evening of New Year’s Day.


          The year I was thirteen, my mother took me to a photography studio to have my picture taken.  Mum put me through this ritual every few years.  Shortly after she made her first trip to Israel, where she discovered relatives on her mother’s side, they presented her with a photograph she hadn’t known existed.  It was a picture of a younger Natalia, as Mum had never known her.  She is facing the camera, with her head tilted to one side.  Her hip-length hair hangs loose.  She wears no jewellery.  Her hands are folded demurely over her crossed knees.  Her mouth is closed, with a mere hint of a smile.  There is a wistful expression in her eyes, which do not look directly into the camera, but look shyly away.

          When Mum came home, she brought this faded and scratched photograph to the same photographer who had recently taken my picture.  He gasped.  The picture of Natalia looked like a painting of the picture the photographer had taken of me.

          The photographer restored and enlarged this picture, though he was unable to remove one large scratch.  It was framed and hung prominently in my parents’ living room, along with the cameo-like portrait of the older Natalia.

          After my mother was widowed and she moved to a smaller apartment, the younger Natalia still claimed a wall in the living room, while the older Natalia-in-profile was positioned over the headboard of my mother’s bed, seeming to gaze down on her sleeping child.  She kept vigil on my mother’s bedroom wall to the end of my mother’s life, and beyond.  My mother did get a chance to get old.  When terminal cancer came for her she met it at home, in her bed, with me beside her.  On the evening of the first snowfall in 2013 the spirits of three women came together; the grandmother who was dead, the mother who was dying, and their memory keeper, who was being left behind.


Today the two portraits of Natalia perch on my walls, along with portraits of my mother and the photograph taken of me when I was thirteen.  When guests come to my apartment the first item they notice is the large portrait of the younger Natalia, which is prominently displayed. 

Invariably they ask, “When was that picture of you taken?” 

 “Shortly after the First World War,” I deadpan, with a mere hint of a smile.   

About the author

 S. Nadja Zajdman is a Canadian author. In 2022 she published the story collection The Memory Keeper (Bridge House Publishing) as well as the memoir I Want You To Be Free. In 2023 Zajdman published a second memoir, Daddy's Remains (MacKenzie Publishing). 
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Thursday 28 March 2024

To Every Thing There Is a Season by Eric Green, cola

Things lately had been going all wrong for Steven Seaman of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He felt frustrated and perplexed that no matter what he tried to do about it he couldn’t right the ship.

   The chain reaction of his sinking ship had started when he was laid off from his job as a manager of a sports store specializing in selling baseball bats, gloves, and uniforms of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

   Then, being cooped up at home with his girlfriend Pat during the country’s coronavirus pandemic had resulted in giving him too much time to obsess about his distressing state of affairs. Only recently had he snapped out of his depression.

   Pat, who at 44 was four years older than Steven, had dumped him during the worst of the Covid-19 epidemic. What made it rough for Steven was that her two teenage children had ridiculed him as a loser and joined their mother who had run off to live with her own mother in Ohio. Pat was actually a good person. Sometimes, however, bad things happen to good people and because they feel overwhelmed or upset, they react negatively to the situation.  

   The situation for Pat was that she too had been laid off from her job as a bartender (and advice giver to the lovelorn) at a sports pub near the Pittsburgh airport and being stuck at home together with Steven every day during the Covid-19 outbreak was too much togetherness. Her parting shot that hurt Steven’s feelings the most was that she deserved somebody better than him. She immediately apologized for saying such a cruel thing. She didn’t really mean it. Maybe not.    

   Now closing in on 40, and already twice divorced, Steven had thought Pat was finally ‘the one,’ a real keeper. She used to say in the 18 months they had been together that he was so intelligent and a joy to be with while he was impressed by her smarts and knowledge about things far and wide, what they called a ‘polymath,’ a person with an extensive range of interests beyond her own little world. Now in her despair about their doomed relationship, she couldn’t help but call him funny as in sick and twisted.

   He resisted the impulse to think he had won retribution when Pat ended up testing positive for Covid-19 and she and her kids all had to be quarantined for fourteen days. Bitter though he thought about her, he was sorry she had gotten sick. He was a guy with a good heart, even in a sometimes-heartless world.     

   One thing he knew that was bad for his health and psyche as he passed into middle age was to keep taking his blood pressure three times in a row, at three different times during the day. On the second and third tries, the reading shot higher probably because he felt pressure to make it go lower.

   The elevated readings were certainly a sign of tension. But they weren’t high enough to necessitate heading to the ER, a dangerous proposition where he figured he’d catch Covid-19 or some other horrible illness from all the other sickly patients waiting for hours on end to be treated in the hospital.

   Steven was a decent 8-handicap golfer. However, he had only been out on the links once during the summer and that was on a 95-degree day when he almost fainted on the 7th hole from heatstroke. It didn’t help that in trying to do the right thing by wearing a mask over his face to ward off Covid made him feel sick, like he was catching a fever.

   His playing partner, Mo Martinez, wasn’t so lucky. On the ninth and final hole, he fell over on his back and cried out for Steven to call an ambulance. As it turned out, Mo had suffered what the doctors called a mild heart attack. To Steven, there was no such thing as a heart attack being mild.

   When after several days Mo was discharged from the hospital, Mo’s wife derided both Steven and him saying they were foolish for playing golf in such hot and humid weather. Especially when Mo was 50 pounds overweight and almost never exercised like the doctor warned he better. What hurt Mo the most, probably resulting from his hospital stay, was ending up testing positive for Covid-19 and both he and his wife had to be quarantined for fourteen days.

   Steven opened his mail and saw a notice from Pittsburgh's Department of Traffic Adjudication that revealed a $100 fine for speeding on the day when he went golfing. Radar had captured him going 36 miles an hour in a 25-mile-an-hour zone. He remembered several drivers tailgating and honking their horns at him for going too slow before whizzing by him on that street probably going over 70 mph. That was one very expensive round of golf Steven played that day.

   Among the items he bought at the supermarket on the same day he got his speeding ticket were two heads of lettuce. When the cashier rang the lettuce up it came to $17.50, Steven said ‘come on, that has to be a mistake.’ The cashier behind his mask said no. That was what the computer registered as the price and the computer couldn’t be wrong.

   Obviously, something was amiss. The store manager, protected from germs and angry customers by wearing what looked to be a spacesuit, was summoned to hear Steven plead that no way two heads of lettuce could cost so much. The manager said he’d ‘look into it.’

   Rather than prolong the argument, Steven said to forget it. He’d survive without lettuce, even if it was supposed to be good for his health. Returning to his car in the grocery parking lot, he noticed its rear bumper was dented. Another driver in the lot had smashed into it. Steven estimated it would take at least $500 to get it repaired.

   When he got home, he felt a pang in his upper left chest, above the heart’s location, but close enough. Was this from too much stress? Or a heart attack? The pain didn’t subside. His doctor advised him to come in for a battery of tests.

   Steven could see that even behind her mask, Kathy, the 30-something nurse in the doctor’s office, was vivacious and beautiful. They got to talking for a spell and Steven asked if perhaps they could have coffee sometime. Maybe even go for throwing a baseball around, as Kathy turned out to be a devoted Pittsburgh Pirates fan who held a season-ticket to their games.

   Divorced herself a few years before and going through some hard times getting over it, she said YES to the date right before the results of Steven’s cardiology tests all came back NEGATIVE. The doctor said his chest pains were probably muscle strain from playing golf that other day. Hopefully the pains wouldn’t last, the doctor said, telling Steven to go enjoy life.

   That weekend Steven and Kathy met for coffee and later played catch outside a local Pittsburgh Starbucks. They truly hit it off. Maybe fate, destiny, karma, or luck, had turned things around for him. And for Kathy. Or as the biblical passage goes, to every thing there is a season.


About the author 

 Eric Green’s free-lance articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and elsewhere. His short story, 'A Disturbing Matter Over Mind', was chosen as the 2023 winner of the Illumination Prize by the Spire Light Journal in Georgia 

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Wednesday 27 March 2024

Shelved, Farriz Mashudi, Mad Hatter’s tea

 IKEA Billy—open, without doors, where on the top shelf your mother might stack childhood favourites: hers as well as yours, where one day you, too, may return (the chances being high, given all they now know, the health-worker says, but that’s best not dwelled upon which your mother would never have wanted, she adds), where the Magic Faraway Tree, the web of Charlotte and Wilbur, and Nancy, not just any Nancy, but Nancy Drew that she’d bought for you when you used to read the Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators, that Jupiter Jones, who was your favourite, who was too clever, too bright, the kind of genius she would have loved to meet and who it’s you who eventually does in the form of the young man her granddaughter brings home only it’s too late for him to meet the bright spark your mother is both present and not.


Dark mahogany, 16th Century—in a university library with 24-hour ingress, its ‘always open’ condition the reasoning your daughter applies for gravitating, too, to where Alice’s white rabbit once led her down that rabbit hole, where the rows of tomes displayed don’t even begin to reveal context nor the miles more stacked underfoot for retrieval, pouring over, for discovering, your own ‘when the penny dropped’ moment when you started to appreciate the value of primary texts (not sources abridged, filtered, nuanced) and to ponder the ramblings and notions lucid and less so of thinkers and Sufis from Aristotle to Rumi; to seek out translations to better comprehend the raft of meaning (heavy, fragile, floatingly illusory, to the certifiably nuts, the incomprehensible); to apply the mined nuggets from life (mum’s, yours, your girl’s), the toughest, if memory serves, coming from that divine school of hard knocks.


The bookcase-full of your mother’s collections—whose works she flits through as she misses whole chapters, entire folders, complete stacks in formulating her own fictions of a life told with current affairs relayed in blurry snatches, a memoir she creates that’s markedly no longer critical but appears guileless, approaches puerile in its leanings, though the selection feels intentional, her picks not exactly innocent yet remain pointed, sharply curated, as the mysteries of the workings of your mother’s mind continue to escape you as much as when you were five as they do now when all she wants to know is: Who are you?


About the author

Farriz Mashudi is a former lawyer, journalist, and blogger, turned writer of fiction and CNF. Malaysian-born, she currently divides her time between the Welsh Borders and the Middle East. 

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Tuesday 26 March 2024

Hafnium by Jim Bates, black coffee


The story so far:

In Chapter One, Gadolinium, we were introduced to Sherry a sixteen-year-old girl who has withdrawn due to the loss of her father in a tragic car accident. Chapter Two, Terbium, we were introduced to Zeke who has been in the child welfare system for six years and is having mental health issues. They both like science a lot. In Chapter Three, Dysprosium, we are introduced to Mary who is one of the mental health professionals caring for Zeke. We are also introduced to her boyfriend Len. In Chapter Four, Holmium, Len, and Mary meet Leroy a homeless person, and befriend him. In Chapter Five, Erbium, Leroy and his pal Riley attempt to rob a store, and the result is better than they could have ever expected. In Chapter Six, Thulium, Leroy and Riley end up going home to Leroy’s parent's farm and are welcomed with open arms. In Chapter Seven, Ytterbium, Riley has returned to Minneapolis and is working at Café Enya where he has an interesting encounter with one of the regular patrons. In Chapter Eight, Lutetium, after leaving the coffee show, Sherry and Zeke are hassled by Zeke’s former drug dealer and later on open up with each other about their past lives.


Fall, 2021

Len closed the chemistry book and looked out the window. He was on the west bank of the University of Minnesota on the third floor of Wilson Library in a little study nook he’d been using off and on for years. He could see the Minnesota weather had taken a turn; a turn for the worse as far as he was concerned. It was the last week in October, and the previous week of warm weather, blue skies, and beautiful fall colors had been booted out unceremoniously by a wicked cold front blasting down from Canada. With it, a wall of heavy grey clouds was building in the west that appeared both ominous and foreboding. If he didn’t know better, it looked like snow was imminent.

Len shivered. He flipped his long ponytail between his shoulders, pulled his red and black checked wool lumberjack shirt tighter, and went back to his textbook. On the chair next to him was his worn, straw cowboy hat. He looked at it with fondness thinking that it’d soon be time to put it away until spring and replace it for winter with his black felt Stetson. Pretty soon, anyway. He’d see if he could wait a while longer. He loved that hat.

It was mid-afternoon and he’d been reading about the element hafnium, number seventy-two on the periodic table. Its name came from Hafnia, Latin for Copenhagen, where the element was first discovered in 1923 by Dirk Costner and Georg von Hevsey. What Len found interesting, and one of the many things that drew him to the study of science, was that the element had been predicted back in 1869 by Dmitri Mendeleev in his report entitled The Periodic Law of the Chemical Elements.

            Mendeleev was a Russian chemist and inventor who formulated the periodic table of elements which, among other things, made it possible for scientists and chemists to search for elements that had previously never been discovered, a fact that Len still found fascinating.

            He smiled, remembering a faded photo he’d seen once in a textbook of the shaggy-haired, bearded man working at his desk. He looked kind of like what Len imagined a mad scientist would look like, and occasionally he wondered what it’d be like to talk to the brilliant Russian, if there wasn’t a language barrier, obviously. It’d be kind of interesting, although Len had the feeling Dmitri Mendeleev would be the one doing most of the talking. The amount of chemistry Len knew you could put in a ten-milliliter beaker and still have plenty of room left over. But he was trying to learn, he really was. Hence the class he was taking, Introduction to Chemistry.

Still thinking about the old Russian, Len was taking a sip from his cup of lukewarm coffee, when, next to him, his phone buzzed. He glanced at it. Mary. Good.

He picked up. “Hi, sweetheart.”

            “Hi. What are you doing?”

            “Reading about hafnium and the periodic table.”

            “Sounds incredibly fascinating,” she joked.

            Len chuckled. “It actually kind of is.”

            Mary laughed. “That’s good to hear.” She paused and then added, “In fact, I must be psychic.”

            “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

            “Well, remember those kids I told you about?”

            “The ones with the mental problems or something.”


             He laughed. “Just kidding.” He could picture her grimacing and shaking her head on the other end of the line. He enjoyed joking with her. It had been a long afternoon of studying and it was nice to take a break and chat. “Yeah, I remember. From some high school. I forget the name.”


            “Yeah, that’s right. Monroe. South Minneapolis. I remember now. You’ve been working with them off and on.” Mary was an RN nurse at Hennepin County Medical. She was assigned to the psychiatric unit and often helped out Doctor Sylvester Gannon, the lead psychologist there. 

            “Yes, those two. Sherry and Zeke.”

            Len glanced outside. Spatters of big raindrops were hitting the glass. Two miles away the skyscrapers in downtown Minneapolis were almost obscured by the low clouds. The wind was picking up sending leaves swirling down the street. People were hurrying to get wherever they needed to get to before the weather got any worse. He glanced at the time. 4 pm. He needed to catch a bus and be at work in northeast Minneapolis in two hours. Hopefully, the storm will have blown through by then. Then again, maybe not. He watched as the wind suddenly gusted so hard it blew over a bicycle chained to a bike rack knocking a few others over in the process. He shook his head. A wet, cold night ahead.

Turning his attention back to Mary, he said, “I remember you mentioning them. What’s up?”

            “They’re giving a report next week. At doctor Gannon’s office.”


            “It’s on some of the elements of the periodic table. Like you’re studying.”

            “Really? Sounds fascinating,” Len joked. Dead silence on the other end of the line. Mary was not amused. He coughed. “Just kidding.” He flipped through his book until he came to a full-blown, two-page layout of the periodic table showing similar groupings of elements presented in various colors. He was still impressed by not only its brilliance but its simplicity. Dmitri Mendeleev was a genius as far as he was concerned. “So, who’ll be there?”

            “Well, doctor Gannon, of course. Me.”

Len chuckled. “Of course.” He loved giving Mary a hard time. They’d been together for over fifteen years, married for the last five. It was a good relationship. “Who else?”

“Their teacher from high school, Mr. Jordan. Adam Young who’s another RN, and another doctor, Larry Owens. He’s a primary care physician who sees Zeke off and on.”

“Big group. What’s the occasion?”

“Last spring Mr. Jordan had his chemistry class do a final assignment before the end of the school year. They had to write reports on various elements of the periodic table.”

Len rolled his eyes remembering years long ago going to school back on the reservation in New Mexico. Not the most pleasant of experiences for a lot of reasons, both inside and outside of class. “I was never a fan of reports.”

“I hear you,” Mary laughed. “Me neither.”

“Or school in general.”

“Yet here you are.”

Len chuckled. “Yep. Here I am.” At Mary’s prompting, fifteen years ago he’d begun taking the occasional class at the University of Minnesota. A few more classes under his belt and he’d be graduating with a bachelor of science degree. Life worked in mysterious ways, and, Len, as far as he was concerned, was glad it did. “Anyway…You were saying.”

“Well, Mr. Science Student, I’d like you to come and listen to these kids. I think you’d get a kick out of them.” She paused. “They’re pretty amazing.”

“How so?”

“Zeke’s been in and out of foster care for six years. His dad is in prison in Stillwater for making and selling meth. He grew up in northern Minnesota and his mom moved Zeke and his two younger sisters down here to Minneapolis to get away from all the drugs his loser of a father was involved in.”

“That’s good. Wise move.”

“Yeah. For a while anyway. But then after two or three years she took off with her boyfriend and left Zeke and his two younger sisters on their own. He was ten at the time.”

Len sat up straight and gasped, immediately focused on what Mary was saying. “Man, that’s horrific.”

“No kidding. They went into The System, you know, for child welfare. His two sisters were adopted right away.”

“But not their brother. This Zeke. Right?”

“Correct. Not a lot of calls for a ten-year-old boy.”

“I’ll bet.”

“He was shuffled from home to home and, of course, began acting out.”

“I saw that a lot growing up, too.”

“On the res?”

“Yeah.” Len glanced out the window, not really seeing much, remembering, instead, being moved into foster care with Bob and Clara Swenson, a nice enough couple in Santa Fe. They had four other kids. All of them were older; all of them enjoyed picking on the four-year-old Len, a skinny Navajo from the Canoncito Reservation west of Albuquerque.

“I know. You told me. It sucks.”

“It does. Big time.” Len was silent for a few moments, saying a quick prayer to Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé, the Creation Deity, for giving him the courage to persevere. He had learned to turn the other cheek if he could and fight if he needed to until finally, he’d graduated from high school. Then he’d joined the army, becoming a skilled mechanic. He’d never looked back. “You say he’s turning things around?”

“Yeah. He was starting to get seriously into drugs, but last year he ended up in Mr. Jordan’s chemistry class and things just fell into place. Zeke liked the teacher. He liked the class. He started to study and apply himself. He started to get straightened out. Quit using. He even met a girl in class.”

“That Sherry person?”


“Interesting.” Mary could almost see him grinning over the phone as he added, “Imagine that: chemistry developing between two kids in a chemistry class.”

Mary laughed. “Absolutely. Ironic and romantic at the same time.

Len grinned, agreeing with her. He liked hearing how people got together. He and Mary had met at a roadside bar in the Mojave Desert. He’d been working nearby doing maintenance on wind turbines for a huge wind farm energy company. She had been traveling with Prairie Wind, the bluegrass band playing there that night. She had been filling in as a waitress and the two of them got to talking. They got on well, and when it was time for the band to leave, it was hard for both of them to say goodbye. But they did. They really didn’t have much choice because Len had his job, and Mary…well Mary really had no alternative.

However, they both felt there was something there and when the van Mary and the band were traveling in hit a deer and crashed in the mountains outside of Tehachapi an hour after the gig, Len found out and went to the hospital. He ended up visiting her every day during her recovery. During that time, they became friends, and when Mary decided to go back to Minnesota to continue her nursing studies, she asked Len to come with her. He’d readily agreed and they’d been together ever since.

He looked outside again. The weather was getting worse. He sipped his coffee. “What’s her story?”

“She was in a car accident six years ago. Her father was driving. He was killed and so was her best friend.”

Len grimaced at the thought. Mary had been severely injured in her accident. That was bad enough, but earlier in his life he’d also lost his best friend Larry Black Feather in a driving accident on the res. Larry had been by himself at the time. It was late at night and he’d been drinking. The cops said he’d been doing over a hundred miles an hour in his old pickup truck when he’d lost control and run off the road. He’d flipped over so many times the truck was almost unrecognizable. Larry? Killed instantly.

“God, that’s rough.” It was. Len had a sudden feeling of empathy for Sherry and the loss of not only her father but her friend as well. “How’s she doing?”

“Well, she was always quiet and withdrawn. After the accident, she became even more so.”

“I can understand why.” He was quiet for a moment, sipping his now cold coffee and thinking how in the blink of an eye everything in life can change. One moment you’re here, next you're gone. Thank goodness Mary was still with him. And Sherry, too, for that matter, even though he didn’t know her. “You say Sherry’s better, though?”

“Yeah. She’s a science geek.” Mary paused a beat and added, “Like you.”

“Funny,” Len said, even though there was a grain of truth to what she said. He really was enjoying his studies. The proof was in the pudding so to speak. After all, he’d been at it for fifteen years.

Mary chuckled. She knew that schoolwork was a struggle for him, but she admired him for sticking with it. Len was that way. If he put his mind to something, it generally got done. He didn’t need to go to college, but, with Mary’s gentle prompting, once he got going, he applied himself wholeheartedly. The fact of the matter was that he liked learning new things.

“Seriously, Sherry is an amazing person. She’s quite smart. She and Zeke get along really well.”

“Two misfits. Sounds like they’ve got a lot in common.”

Mary grinned. “You could say. Anyway, Mr. Jordan has been working with Doctor Gannon to help them along.”

“Jordan seems like a committed teacher.”

“He is. He’s young. Mid-twenties. It’s his first teaching job, and he’s just starting his third year. I’ve met him. He’s a good guy. Wears a ponytail. Like you.”

Len chuckled. “Well, that’s something. Straw cowboy hat, too?”

Mary laughed, “Not that I’ve ever seen.”

Len grinned. It was nice to talk to Mary like they were doing. It didn’t happen too often, with both of them being so busy. Mary worked long hours at the hospital and Len had a fifty-hour-a-week job in northeast Minneapolis at Ripton, a small engine manufacturing plant. Plus, school. He checked the time. Geez. Today was his day off but he’d picked up some extra hours on the evening shift for this week. “Look, I’ve got to get going pretty soon. I need to be at work by six. So, what’s the deal with this project or whatever?”

“Doctor Gannon asked Mr. Jordan to keep working with the two kids and he agreed to help out. So, after the school year ended last spring and over the summer Mr. Jordan had them working on reports based on some of the more obscure elements on the periodic table. They’d do the research and work up the report and then read it to him and Doctor Gannon. Then they’d have a discussion. I sat in a few times. Same with other members of our team.” She paused and then added. “It was fun.”

“I’ll bet,” Len chuckled.

“No, really it was. You’ve got to remember, both these kids could have easily gone downhill. Zeke could be a wasted drug addict and Sherry could be a withdrawn nutcase doodling with a pen on her arm.”

“She didn’t do that!”

Mary grinned. Len could almost see it on the phone. “No,” she said. “But you get my point.”

Len did. “Yeah, I get it.” There were a lot of messed up people in the world. It sounded like Zeke and Sherry were making an effort to move forward and get beyond a bad situation. He was all for it. “They sound pretty remarkable when you put it that way.”

“They are,” Mary said. The tone in her voice shifted as she became more serious.

Len could hear the change. “What’s up?”

“Well, I’ve got a favor to ask of you.”

“No problem. Go ahead. Ask away.”

“I’d like you to come and listen to them with me next week.”

“Listen to two high school kids give a chemistry report?” He scratched the top of his head. “Why?”

Mary was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, I was going to wait to tell you when I saw you again. In person.”

Len suddenly got nervous. “What? Tell me what? Are you pregnant or something?”

Mary laughed. “No. No, it’s nothing like that.”

“Good. Well,” he said, suddenly flustered. “I mean, not good, but… Oh, you know what I mean.” He took a deep breath to calm down and then asked, “Okay, so what is it you wanted to tell me?”

“This will be their last report. Mr. Jordan has started a new school year and is busy with his new students. Sherry and Zeke are doing this as extra credit on the side. They’re seniors and taking physics this year with a different teacher. I told him about you and your studies and he was intrigued. He asked me if I thought you’d be interested in taking over teaching them. Chemistry.”

“What!” Len spat out. He gulped, swallowing hard. Teaching? Him? He felt his heart start racing as beads of sweat broke out on his brow. He was just an engineer at a small manufacturing facility in northeast Minneapolis. He knew nothing about teaching. “I’m…I…I don’t…”

“Look,” Mary said. “I know this is asking a lot. But just think about it, okay? I know you’d be good at it. Remember Leroy?” Leroy was a homeless Afghan war vet Len had tried to befriend years ago when Mary and he had first moved in together.

“Yeah. That didn’t work out too well, though, did it?”

After giving him money and being in touch for a few days, they never heard from him again.

“No, but at least you tried.” Mary paused and then added. “That’s all I’m asking. Just try. Mr. Jordan is available for advice. You’d be working with Doctor Gannon. He’s all for it.”

Len looked out the window and sipped the last of his cold coffee. The rain was falling harder and puddles were forming. He could see the wind whipping up debris on the street. Further along on the main thoroughfare of Cedar Avenue cars were at a standstill. Probably a fender bender somewhere. On a scale of one to ten as far as lousy days were concerned this one would be around a three. It was miserable but at least it wasn’t snowing. It could be a lot worse.

Of course, it could be worse.

Len mentally smacked himself on the forehead. What was his problem? Mary was asking for his help. There were two kids at risk, and she was asking him to step in and do something good and have a positive effect on their lives. Why wouldn’t he do it? Of course, he would. There was no excuse not to.

“When did you say they give their report?”

“A week from tomorrow in the afternoon. Thursday. Four pm. Doctor Gannon’s office.

Len wiped his brow. He was nervous but in a good way. Like the first time out in the desert when he climbed a two-hundred-foot tower to repair his first wind turbine. Terrifying but thrilling, both at the same time. He asked, “So, you’ll be there?”


“Okay. I’ll do it.”

“Yea!! You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.”

Len laughed. “I don’t know about that.”

“You are. And…” he could see her smiling, and it made him happy that she was so happy. “Let me just say, thank you. It means a lot to me. And those kids, they’ll love getting to know you.”

Len took a deep breath and let it out. The picture of old Dmitri the father of the periodic table came into his brain. He grinned.

“Well, they haven’t met me yet, but you know what? I’m kind of looking forward to it.”

“You’ll be great.”

“I don’t know about that, but those two, Sherry and Zeke, kind of remind me of some of the things I went through at their age. I’ll be glad to help.”

“You’re a sweetheart.”

Len laughed. “So are you. But,” he checked the time, “enough for now. I’ve got to get to work. The shift starts at six.”

“It’s raining.”
            “Yeah, I know. I’ve been watching it. The wind is up, too. I’ll take the bus.”

“Okay. See you a little after midnight?”

“Yeah. I’ll take the late bus home. It’s a short shift this week.”

“Okay. Bye. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Len put his textbook in his backpack and shrugged on his fleece-lined Carhartt jacket but not before tucking his ponytail inside. No need for it to be flapping in the wind. Then he hurried out of the library, pulling his straw cowboy hat down tight against the wind. The bus stop was a block away but his cowboy boots kept his feet dry. The sidewalks were wet and so were the streets, however the traffic was moving better now. It was just after 5 pm and starting to get dark. Len sighed. Not the best time to be out. Mary’s shift at the hospital ended at 10 pm and she’d be home when he got there. He was already looking forward to seeing her. They lived in a small, cottage-style home in St. Anthony Village, a small community near the campus. It had a fireplace. He grinned. The temperature was around forty degrees and it was dank and windy out. A fire would be nice on a night like tonight.

He should have been paying better attention.


Spike Freeman and his two buddies, Snake-Eyes Johnson and Lefty Larson were speeding along Cedar Avenue racing to get through the traffic light.

            “Watch out! It’s turning yellow!” Snake-Eyes yelled from the back seat.

            “Hold on.” Spike grinned a nearly toothless grin and gripped the steering wheel tighter. “I’m going for it.”

            All three of the guys were nineteen. All three had been friends their entire lives. In fifth grade, they had started doing drugs and by eighth grade they were selling drugs, making a name for themselves as the go-to guys for purchasing speed in the northeast part of the city. When they weren’t dealing, they liked nothing better than to terrorize young kids and old people, often robbing them of whatever they could get their hands on. Minutes earlier they had grabbed the purse from an old lady just east of downtown Minneapolis and were now heading for Interstate 35W. Traffic was backed up though and they tried a different way. It was backed up too. In desperation, they’d turned onto Cedar Avenue.

            Next to him, Lefty cautioned. “Take it easy, man.”

Spike stomped on the gas. “Here we go!”

From the backseat, Snake-eyes pointed over Spike’s shoulder. “The light’s changing!”

“I know what I’m doing!” Spike yelled as he swerved to avoid all of the people crossing in front of him.

Except that he didn’t.

            The car had bald tires and it slid through the intersection as Spike lost control. He frantically jammed on the brakes and wrenched the steering wheel back and forth. Nothing helped, and the car spun out of control.

Len heard the squeal of rubber skidding along the pavement. He looked up and reacted in an instant. The car was heading right at him. He dove out of the way and was nearly safe but for his right leg being smashed by the spinning car’s rear bumper. He flew through the air and in that instant, he knew that the next few moments could be the last conscious moments of his life. The city lights spun around and around as he twisted in the air. He thought of Mary and her smiling face and how much he loved being with her, and a sense of calm came over him.

Then crashed to the ground and everything went dark.



Much later, a soft voice came to him. “Hi, there, cowboy.” He tried to open his eyes but couldn’t. He was too tired. Where was he? He felt like he was lying a bed. Was he dead or alive? He couldn’t open his eyes. He heard the voice again. “Just rest. I’ll be right here.” He drifted away.

Later, he told Mary, “I guess it could have been worse.”

He was in the recovery room in Hennepin Country Medical Center two floors down from the psychiatric unit where Mary worked. It was three in the morning and Len just waking up. They’d given him a mild anesthetic when they’d set his leg.

Mary hugged him. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
            “How bad is it?”

“Simple fracture. Not too bad, all things considered.”

“God.” Len shook his head and took her hand. “I’m lucky. That car was coming pretty fast.”

Mary hugged him again. “It crashed. Bad. Hit a telephone pole. Killed all three guys.”

“Geez.” Len shook his head. “Man, that’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Mary brushed a loose strand of hair from his face. “Maybe.”

“What do you mean?”

“They were drug dealers.”


“Yeah. Funny thing.”

“Remember those young kids Zeke and Sherry I told you about?”


“The three guys in the car that hit you were the same three guys who had hassled them earlier this summer. Not only were they drug dealers, but they were bullies as well. I remember their names.”

“Oh, man...”

“Yes. They were bad guys.”

“Got what was coming to them, then, I guess.”

“Yeah, I suppose they did.” Mary was quiet for a minute, letting Len rest.

He closed his eyes and then opened them. “Speaking of Zeke and Sherry...”

“We still on for next Thursday?”

“You up for it?”

Len grinned. “You bet. Not right now, but I’m sure I will be by then.”

Mary stroked his hand. “Thank you, but you might have a little trouble moving around.”

“I can get a wheelchair.”

Mary smiled at him. “You’re the best.”

“It’s the least I can do.”

“Why’s that?”

“They sound like good kids.”

“They are.”

“The more I think about it, the more I’m looking forward to it.”

“It’s a date, then.”

Len smiled. “Good.”

They sat quickly for a few minutes until his eyes fluttered shut. Soon, he was asleep.

Mary took his hand and held it, watching as Len dozed. Outside the night was rainy and cold. She shivered and checked the time. Later today they’d leave the hospital and get a cab home. Once there, she’d get Len safely inside, make some soup, and have something warm to eat. When they were finished, she’d build a fire in the fireplace. Then they’d sit together and watch the flames flicker, chat quietly, and put the world outside at bay. For a little while, at least. She smiled. She was looking forward to it.

About the author 

Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. He loves to write! His stories and poems have appeared in over 500 online and print publications. To learn more and to see all of his work, check out his blog at:

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