Listen to an award-winning “dark, twisty” short story

As a writer of novels, I’ve decided recently to stretch myself and further hone my craft through writing short stories. I stumbled on a short story competition hosted by Bibliophone, where the winners would be chosen for narration by a professional narrator. The challenge was to tell a punchy, compelling short story in 1,000 words or less. I sat down with an idea and whittled away at it, then submitted it. Guess what? Yeah, gotta say I love the results. Rebecca Roberts did an insanely good job at bringing the voice of this dark little tale to life. Check it out below

A conversation between a pregnant woman and her husband evolves into something more sinister as the eggs sputter in the skillet.

The Runner: A Short Story of the Rio Olympics 2016

“Are you willing to pay what that dream costs? You know what it costs? Huh?” He slapped Carlito’s hand on the table.


The city of Rio de Janeiro was an ant’s nest, kicked over and lit on fire. At least that was what Carlito Yaozu Chen thought as his school bus waited for the mob of protestors to clear out of the narrow street. They pumped signs in the air with slogans like, “They tore down my house to pave your track,” and, “Don’t close your eyes to the real Rio.” He knew where they had come from.

“Stupid beggars,” Vitor said, returning to his phone to slash another zombie. “Go back to Autodromo!” The rest of the boys around him laughed.

Enrique cracked the window to throw the rind of a guava at them. It tipped the window frame and fluttered down beside the bus.

Carlito had heard there was no more Vila Autodromo. His father told him so because he had been there with the construction crew when they tore it down. Many of these protestors, mothers with babies in their slings, children with no shoes, old men and young men, had spilled out of the new housing projects and favelas they had crammed themselves into when the bulldozers forced them from their homes. An “urban revitalization project” it was called on the billboards. “The Renaissance of Rio,” his father said over five-spice squid fried golden and crispy.

“Fodam,” Carlito said in his husky voice from the seat behind Enrique.

The boys twisted to look at him with gaping mouths. “What did you say?” Vitor asked.

“Fodam,” Carlito repeated, though a little quieter. He made sure to point a chubby finger outside to direct the insult. “If they cannot move up, then they should move out.”

Vitor’s open mouth exploded with laughter. “Fodam!” he yelled, the rest of the boys joining in the obscene chant.

Carlito’s head fizzed with pride. Though his family had lived in Rio for two years, he was still the new boy at his upper middle-class school and wanted badly to fit in. With one unmentionable word, he had risen to become comrades with the most popular kids in class.

“Fodam,” he had heard his dad say to his mom the night before as Isabel, their maid, was cleaning up the table. “If they cannot move up, then they should move out. That is what I did. From my father’s broken down pasteleria in Liberdade to a five star Chinese restaurant, and now we live here in Humaitá, just spitting distance from Copacabana.” He had sold the restaurant and used the money, and some that he’d borrowed, to start his own construction team. They were small, but had gotten many contracts with the city’s building projects leading up to the 2016 Olympics. Of course, his father had never driven the machines, only given the orders, signed the contracts, and kept the books. He was a hard-working man, but his fingernails were always clean.

That is why he did not approve when he saw Carlito run. The boy had been eight years old when he first watched Usain Bolt streak ahead of a pack of racers to snatch the gold medal at the London Olympics. The dark-skinned man’s legs whirled like the machinery of a steam train, but his joy was free like a bird. When he blazed over the finish line, he crossed himself and pointed to the sky. They covered him with the green, black, and yellow flag of Jamaica. His teammates rushed to his side to celebrate, and cameras sparkled around the stadium as though it was the whole universe.

“What do you think?” his older sister, Maria Mei, asked him.

Carlito couldn’t think. He could only see and dream and be, so the next day at lunch, instead of scratching out answers to extra math problems his father had sent to school with him, he walked to the football field and set down his bag. The other kids, native Brazilians with skin the color of cooling magma and the Amarelos, or “Yellows”, all classmates who’d never picked him for any sport, stopped their games long enough to watch him pace over to the goal line. Had he been given his father’s lean body, he may not have drawn any attention. Except for his flat fleet, though, Carlito inherited everything from his mother, a Brazilian who had been the lavandera for the restaurant’s tablecloths when his father met her. She was a hopeful woman with round eyes, round curls, and a round belly. Even she, however, laughed from the kitchen window as she watched Carlito huff up and down the street later that afternoon. He’d heard her.

Showered and still breathing heavy and dripping with sweat, he sat at the kitchen table that night. His father’s thin eyes appraised him, unamused. The muscle in his jaw flexed as he chewed quietly, and Carlito glanced from his mother, still giggling, to his sister. His mother rubbed his head, sweat spraying from his hair. “You’re a dreamer, just like my Papa,” she said.

“Why are you so sweaty? Are you a dog panting over there?” his father asked.

“I am running,” Carlito said. “I am a runner.”

“You’ve never run before,” his father said.

“But I want to now.”

“Why? Why all of a sudden?”

“Because I saw Usain Bolt last night.”

“What is that? A rock and roll band?”

“No, Papai. He’s Jamaican. He won the Olympics, and I saw it!”

His father scowled. “I saw a man put his head in the mouth of a crocodile,” his father said, “but I’m not a fool.”

That night, Carlito went to sleep listening to a stray cat moan outside, repeating to himself, “Mark. Set. Go.” The next morning, and for the months after, he woke and jogged in place as he brushed his teeth, his thick feet slapping against the bathroom tiles. At lunch, he crossed himself, then bent over the patched dirt and grass of the football field and tried not to fall on his face. The skin of his forearm folded past the back of his wrist as he began to quiver. He raised his large buttocks, tilting sideways until he put a foot out and caught himself. “Go!” he shouted in his husky voice. It echoed between the snickers of his classmates while he stumbled over himself to the goal line and back. He counted every step, as he always did. Fifteen was enough. After that, his head started swimming and his legs caught fire inside.

Carlito saved his allowance and bought a new pair of running shoes, Pumas like Bolt’s. He learned the Jamaican national anthem. He chased the neighborhood cats when they crept into his small yard. He ran from his house to the pasteleria on the corner and rewarded himself with a quindim, a ball of egg yolk, coconut, and sugar, to replenish the calories he’d burned. He had earned it. Somehow, he never lost any weight. The doctor said he had a thyroid problem. A year later, he said, “Also asthma.” They gave him an inhaler the color of a robin’s egg.

He told Maria he didn’t care. He would try out for the school track team the next day. He did, but when spots of light pattered down on his vision like raindrops on the windshield of his family’s Mercedes, he stopped. The rest of the boys left him three meters from the starting line, doubled over, his head pounding and lungs heaving.

“I have humored this ridiculous fantasy long enough,” his father declared over wontons one night. “No more running. You’re making a joke out of yourself.”

“No Papai. I want to run,” he pleaded.

“For what?”

“For the freedom of it. For the wind in my hair and the roar of the crowd.” He waved his hands with the words.

His mother bounced quietly in her seat, the smile on her lips almost tearing into laughter.

“Don’t be so thick-skulled,” his father said sternly. “Look at our house, Carlito. We even have a maid,” he motioned to the kitchen where Isabel was washing dishes. “I didn’t work this hard so that you could piss it all away on a daydream. Besides, you have to buy freedom. You heard the doctor, didn’t you? Are you willing to pay what that dream costs? You know what it costs? Huh?” He slapped Carlito’s hand on the table. “Listen to me, son. It costs your life. Let other people run around. You work with this,” he leaned across the table and tapped him hard on the temple.

After that, he made Carlito spend his afternoons sitting with him at the dining table, eating steamed stuffed buns and going over the columns of the restaurant’s yellow ledger. Then, they moved from Liberdade to Humaitá in Rio. That was when Carlito first saw the favelas, small brick homes that grew out of the sides of the hills, climbing one on top of the other until they stood five storeys high and looked like a strong wind could knock them over. That’s where the people lived who had nowhere else to go. His father told him about them.

“Never go in there,” he said. “It is a place with no future. They will take you in there, and we will never see you again.” Every week it seemed like a new massacre was reported in the newspapers. Drug gangs ruled the favelas, and gunshots seemed to count the hours of the day. Words like “Apartheid” were graffitied across the wall that separated them from the sight of the highway, but Carlito was glad for the wall. On that wall were also plastered the posters. “Welcome to Rio. 2016 Olympics.”

“Can we go, Papai?” he asked the day he noticed the first one.

“Of course not,” the man said. “Don’t waste my time with games, Carlito. Watch it on TV after your homework.”

His new school had been much nicer than his last. There were boys and girls from all over the world. Vitor was from Portugal. Zack was American. Gabrielle was an Amarelo like himself. Ever since he’d cursed at the protestors in the bus, they’d let him sit with them at lunch and invited him to play videogames at their houses, even though they still called him “fatso”.

He didn’t run at his new school, remembering the laughter he’d left behind at his old one. Instead, when he felt like it, he got off the bus a block before his house and ran home, careful to stop in his front yard for fifteen minutes in case his father was there and might catch him panting and wheezing in the doorway. After the pounding in his chest and the burning in his cheeks had stopped, he went in, took a cold shower, kissed his mother, and sat down at the dining table to wait for his dad.

His mother knew his secret. She asked his father one night when they thought he was asleep, “What is the harm? Why not let him dream, Feng?”

“He’s a fat boy with duck feet,” his father had said. “He runs from one pasteleria to another. He thinks he can just decide to be a runner and he becomes one? No skill? No training? No discipline? It’s an illusion, and it’s a waste of time when he could be doing something useful. Don’t encourage him, Marta. You’re filling his head with straw when what he really needs is a mind for money.”

What his father had said stung him, but Carlito still didn’t forget about the Olympics. He started saving up his allowance, and even sold a few of his dad’s old trinkets from China. By the month before the games started, he was one hundred short for a ticket. It made him feel guilty, but he crept into his parent’s room one Friday afternoon and unscrewed the lid of their money jar in the closet. Taking out the worn and wrinkled bills, he whispered a promise to pay them back.

Every night after that, he pulled the ticket out of the running shoe he kept it in and held it up to the lamplight, reading the stadium location: Maracanã; event name: Men’s 100 Meter; and stadium section: 107. Then he tucked it back, slid his shoe into the box, and shoved the box under his bed.

“Don’t move my shoe box, okay Bea?” he told their new maid to make sure no one found out. “If you do, I’ll tell my parents you stole money from them and they’ll fire you.” The tired woman flinched for a moment, then nudged past him on her way to clean the bathroom.

On the night before the race, Carlito told his mother that Enrique had asked if he could spend the night. He saw the pitying look on her face, with her round chin rolling up under her lip. She nodded and kissed his forehead, mussing his hair. “Be good, okay?”

He wore his running shoes to school that day, the ticket still stuffed into the front. In class, he slid his toes back and forth over it, slick as a popscicle. He imagined himself standing, screaming “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” with the crowd. Bolt flexed his biceps at the boy, and Carlito flexed his back. Then the bell rang. Carlito’s eyes widened. He clapped his pencil case shut and piled it with his notebook into his bag.

He’d planned his route already. He walked to the bus stop, took the 548 to São Conrado, sitting next to a homeless man with a Bart Simpson t-shirt who eyed him while he sipped a can of Guarana. There he found the bus to Barra and walked over a bridge to board the 301, which wound across the slope of Corcovado, the hunchbacked mountain at the center of the city. To his right, at the top of the mountain, Cristo Redentor held wide open arms to Rio.

“Where are you going?” a nun in a grey habit asked him as he tried to hide himself in the corner between the seat and the door of the bus. Her eyes were cloudy with cataracts.

“To the race,” he answered her in his husky voice.

“Alone?” she asked.

“No,” Carlito said, “with my father.” He pointed to a mustachioed man at the front who was still paying the driver.

“Oh, I see,” the nun said.

Carlito doubted that.

Still, when they began down the hill towards the city, she looked out the window and smiled kindly back at the pale white statue of Christ.


The bus took a corner, and Carlito caught sight of the stadium across the chaotic jumble of a favela that ran down the rest of the slope. It was at that moment that the bus gave one last sputtering cough and died.

“Porre,” the driver yelled, slamming his hands on the wheel and standing up to leave it. The passengers looked at each other for an explanation. A few followed the driver outside and began a conference with him, which turned into a yelling match. Carlito decided he would be better off walking than waiting. The sun was already setting behind the hills to the west.

He tried not to look at the nun, but caught her eye anyway and saw her head swiveling back and forth between him and the man he’d said was his father, now asleep over his folded arms. Her mouth gaped open, and she reached for Carlito, but he tugged away and slid through the door into the pink sunlight before her fingers could close around his sleeve. The nun started up after him, tottering in the aisle of the bus, but by then Carlito had run across the road. He made it onto the sidewalk just dodging a blue truck hauling papayas. The driver blared his horn and skidded. A papaya tumbled over the rail and split open on the ground.

“Vai tomar no cu,” the man yelled at Carlito as it rolled past, which was something his father had said once before his mother slapped him and stopped speaking to him for three days. Carlito stood, heart pumping, a stream of sweat tickling down the base of his spine. He looked at the papaya and took it as good luck. That could have been him. He picked up the half that wasn’t as badly bruised and started to chew on it. Then he noticed the crowd at the front of the bus looking at him. The nun was gesturing wildly from inside. Clutching the papaya to his chest, he clambered through a crack in the wall of the favela.

Inside, he looked up at the jutting corners above him where laundry whipped in the breeze. Hip hop came from an open window, and three boys chased a football across a small pathway from one alley to another. A man in a butcher shop to his left leaned over a bloody counter of dead chickens as he stared, a squadron of flies landing on the chickens like they were aircraft carriers on a red sea.

Carlito gulped. He wanted to climb back through the wall, but could hear the scuff of shoes and voices of the men from the bus approaching. If they found him, he would miss the race. They would take him to the police, and the police would bring him home. He didn’t know what his dad might do. He thought of the disappointment and betrayal that would be written on his face between the bold strokes of anger. Better to get away and sneak back home after the race, or even wait outside school for it to open in the morning and tell them he’d had a great time with his new friends.

He willed his feet into motion and brought the papaya to his mouth as his mind recoiled from the idea that he may never make it to the stadium. He was careful to stay on the far side of the street from any shops or people, his eyes buried in the fruit. It was syrupy sweet and mature. One of the black seeds from the center crunched between his teeth, and he hurried along, afraid that the noise had drawn the attention of the drug gangs.

Carlito was passing on the other side of a cellphone shop when a grey blur bolted out of a doorway. He turned, tingles of fear pricking their way through his body, to see a cat streaking past with a fried fish in its mouth. A little girl came running after it.

“Come back!” she shouted, but her voice was strange. Her brown curls and pink dress bobbed in the wind as her slippers slapped against the street. The cat paused at a drainpipe. It looked back at her, then began to climb. The girl threw up her hands and stomped her foot, shouting “Porra!” at the cat, which disappeared over the rooftop.

Carlito passed her, wanting to so badly get to the stadium and find his seat, to bask in the safety of the halogen lights they would surely be turning on by now, but he heard her whimper and turned to see the tears streaming over her cheeks. She looked at him with large, brown eyes and wiped her nose. “What do you want?” she asked him in that strange way, as though her words were bubbles and her lips couldn’t close around them without popping them. When she motioned with her hands also, he realized she was deaf.

Carlito glanced at his papaya. She noticed it too. He considered giving it to her, but he was hungry. He looked at her, then the papaya, then he turned and walked down the street, licking the sweet juice off the back of his hand and sucking on his fingers. He imagined the grey cat must be doing the same on the roof overhead, but he saw the cat when he came to the bottom of the hill. It still had the fish dangling from its mouth. The fish’s dirty tail dragged on the ground, a crispy, wide eye looking at Carlito for rescue. It was beyond help, he knew. Large flakes of salt clung to its dried scales. Both its top and bottom fin were burnt from the grill. It probably tasted delicious, and Carlito didn’t blame the cat for taking it. Even after finishing the papaya, he was still hungry. In all his plotting, he’d forgotten to plot a snack. If he spent the money wadded up in his pocket, he might not have enough for a ride home.

“Share?” he asked the cat.

Its slitted green eyes glared at him.

“Okay,” Carlito said.

The cat turned its back, whipping the fishtail across a gutter opening, and walked away.

Carlito trodded on. The sunset had faded from the pink and orange clouds, leaving them dull and concrete grey. He caught sight of the stadium again, a silver moon in the chaotic clump of yellow stars that burned from the small shops and condos and fragments of favelas around it. A train streaked in from the east, a meteor coming to rest on the top of the moon.

Thirty minutes later, his feet were aching, his thighs burning, his stomach grumbling, his head swooning, and he had to pee. He wanted to sit down, but he was a long way from the stadium still. He could hear the shallow thump of music, though, and the low drone of an announcer’s voice.


Sound carried well up the hill. It drew the residents of the favela out of their homes like a cookie draws ants from a nest. He passed a family sitting in their doorway looking down at the lights and a table of men drinking over a game of truco. He made sure to stay in the shadows while people strolled down the hill past him and scooters fluttered by in neutral. Another two blocks and he couldn’t hold it any more. He found an alley and listened to a couple arguing while he peed in their flowerpot outside.

When he crept out of the alley, Christ was glowing white against the darkening sky behind him, lit by spotlights at his feet. I saw that, he imagined the statue saying. His mother was religious and was always reminding him that Jesus and the Virgin Mary saw everything he did. His father still made offerings to his ancestors. Carlito didn’t know what to believe, but he blushed anyway and turned his back from that embrace and continued to make his way towards the stadium.

At the bottom of the hill, he stopped and rubbed his throbbing knees while everyone else around him crossed at the intersection. His chest was feeling tight, so he reached into his bag for his inhaler, only it wasn’t there. He wiggled his hand through the folds of the extra shirt, the Jamaican flag he’d bought from a roadside vendor, between the plastic covers of his books and the cold tin of his pencil case. Panic crept up on him and said “Boo” in his ear. He put a hand to his chest, forced himself to breath. His throat was a broken squeeze toy, a high, airy whistle squeaking from his mouth. He closed his eyes and imagined himself walking into the stadium, flooded with light, and finding a seat.

“One zero seven,” Carlito said. He would sit in it, rest, relax, and watch Bolt stamp his footprints across history once again. Maybe he would buy a chicken coxinha. No, he thought as he smelled the pastéis deep-frying in a stand to his right. He would eat now. He pulled the ball of money out of his pocket and counted it, did the math in his head. He didn’t have enough for meat.

“One pastéis, please. Cheese,” he said.

The woman looked at him curiously while she reached into the warmer and pulled the crisp pastry out, sliding it into a brown paper bag and handing it to Carlito. He traded bills with her for clinking coins and turned to the street again when he noticed the little girl in the pink dress standing behind a man on the other side. They stood by a yellow streetlamp under a tangle of electric wires that hummed so loudly Carlito could hear them from where he stood. A bicycle was leaning on the man’s hip as he talked with a cigarette vendor. The girl didn’t notice Carlito, but was looking at the grey cat instead, still dragging the uneaten fish across the street.

He must have very strong jaws, Carlito thought. Then he wondered if it was even a boy cat.

The girl in the pink dress didn’t care about that. She left the back wheel of the bike and raced into the road to catch the cat. It hissed and darted back, dropping the fish in a trail of pieces and disappearing between Carlito’s legs as he held the pastéis frozen in front of his open mouth. The girl beamed a triumphant gap-toothed smile and knelt down to pick up the pieces of the fish when Carlito heard blaring samba music and saw the nose of the blue papaya truck swing into the intersection on their left.

Folded up in the shadow of the wires on the road, Carlito knew the girl was invisible. He shouted at her, but she couldn’t hear him. People turned to see what the boy with the pastéis was yelling about, but the papaya truck didn’t even have its headlights on, so no one noticed the girl.

Carlito was too far away. He watched helplessly from the sidewalk. Then a gunshot up the hill drew everyone’s attention off of him. The drug gangs, Carlito thought, I have to get out of here. He couldn’t look away, though.

He knew he was too slow and too far. He was already out of breath. He was not a runner, but without meaning to, Carlito swiped the pastéis from his head to his chest, then his left to right shoulder, leaving oil and flakes of the crust on his shirt and chin. “Go,” he said to himself. “Go,” huffing into the street.

He was only a fat boy pretending. It was stupid to think that he could just lace up his shoes and call himself Usain Bolt. In all the jogging and fumbling around he had ever done, he’d never felt the wind on his face, only the heat from his wheezing chest.

“Go!” he tried to scream, whether to himself or the girl, he didn’t know, but a crocodile’s jaw clamped shut around his lungs.

He’d never even finished a race.

He stumbled, feeling the last puff of air escape from his nostrils, and reached for the ground. He glanced up as he fell and saw the eyes of the girl staring at him from the shadow. She had the pieces of the fish folded in her hands.

What had been more pathetic? His breasts jiggling like his mother’s when he stomped across the football field or the fact that he’d thought anything would come of it?

The driver sang loudly behind the wheel. Carlito swung his foot under him and braced his belly against it. It drove a croak out of his mouth before he shoved off that back foot and lunged for the girl. One more step.

He remembered what his dad had said. You have to buy a dream.

His chest was an empty cavity, his lungs folded up into his spine like two sheets of his father’s yellow ledger.

You have to earn it with your life.

Eyes bulging, the wind whistled in his ears, and his tongue went dry. He reached for her. She had started up from her crouch, twisting away from him.

You have to pay for it with blood and sweat, and what was in his blood? Coconut milk.

The engine roared deafeningly. Someone shouted. He heard screeching, but felt the molecules on his left side compressing as the grill of the truck flickered golden in the lamplight. Air scraped the back of his throat. A tear leaked out the corner of his eye, cooling in the wind that rushed over his pulsing temple. He slammed into the girl’s back and knocked her past the truck’s blackened headlight.

Carlito smelled diesel. He felt his shoulder crack against the grill and a thousand fireworks go off inside his small, round body. The street spun. Then he was staring up at the sky among the sweet, musky papayas, stars faded by the glow of the living city. Somewhere in the distance, a hushed roar escaped the stadium, and on the hill above, Cristo Redentor held open his arms.


A Free Preview Chapter from Fracture

Fracture, the second novel in the Hindsight Series, is coming out in just a few days. To give you a sneak peak at what’s happening in the novel, I’ve got a free preview chapter here. For those of you who have read Hindsight, this is going to be a little different. Hindsight is a story told from one point of view. Fracture is a continuation of that story, but larger in scope. To tell the story of Fracture, I felt that I needed to split the narrative into multiple points of view. This is one of those points of view, and I hope you enjoy it.


Mark Proctor stepped out of the taxi, buried in a mile of traffic that carved its way into the belly of Lincoln tunnel. Above the tunnel, tail lights moved, giving the impression of blood pulsing through the narrow capillaries of the city’s congested streets. Only, here, where the metaphor could be most aptly applied, the artery was blocked, and the blood stood still, congealing into a shared emotional clot of rage. Horns blared here and there. Cars inched forward, closing the gaps between bumpers in an impotent attempt to find release from the tension. The line of cars had not truly moved for half an hour.

Mark’s hand closed around the handle of his briefcase as he exited the purring taxi. Then he ducked back in for the second bag, a sports-duffel. Leaving the door ajar, he began to walk.

Above, turbines whirled, pushing the fumes of the sitting cars forward, and pulling clean, breathable air in. The smell of exhaust was still thick, however, adding nausea to the anger of those who were unfortunate enough to not have a working air conditioner. Emilio Hernandez was one of those. It was Friday, and he was heading home from NYU to visit his parents in Philadelphia. He knew there was going to be traffic and had wanted to leave earlier, but as he was throwing his last pair of underwear into his suitcase, Amy, his on-and-off girlfriend for the last seven months had barged into his room, splotchy-faced and holding back sobs. Sitting behind the wheel, forehead resting on his hand, sucking down half-liters of carbon monoxide, he replayed the conversation in his head.

“Amy, breathe. What is it?”

She moaned while she held a hand to her mouth and paced around the small apartment. They were classmates in NYU’s pre-med program. She was a freshman, though still young enough to be in high-school. A smart girl, she’d worked hard and graduated early to get a head start on her plan to become a doctor like her father. At least, that’s what she’d told Emilio when they’d been partnered up in lab. He knew that it wasn’t her dream. Her parents had been planning it ever since they’d brought her home from the hospital. Three stillborn children later, it was confirmed: all their hopes and expectations would be pinned on Amy’s shoulder. She was all they had, and they were going to raise her right. They’d even pulled some strings and gotten her an early start shadowing some nurses at a hospital in Jersey. That’s why, when Emilio put his hands on her shoulders and physically stopped her, he knew immediately what had made her so crazy. He saw it in her eyes as she searched his, looking to see if he was the kind of man that she could trust, or if he was the kind of man who left. They weren’t committed. They weren’t even really dating. School didn’t leave time for that. It did, however, leave time for the occasional stress-fueled sex binge. He knew it was wrong—she was still seventeen. That’s why he’d tried to put some distance between them in the past few months. If her parents found out that they’d been sleeping together, they’d have him expelled for sure. That was the least of his worries, though. Seventeen meant statutory rape if Amy’s family pressed charges. He could have denied it before, but now? Now he was looking at prison. That, as much as the idea of all that responsibility, settled a cold, heavy stone right down on his bladder.

“Are you sure?” he asked, hoping this was some kind of joke.

“Seven tests,” she said, eyes never leaving his face.

“Are you sure it’s me?” He felt like a jackass the moment the words came out of his mouth, but, hey, he had to know that this was really his problem.

Amy’s eyes narrowed. She jerked away from him.

“No, Amy, I mean, you know, we haven’t… since… how long has it been?”

“Not long enough,” she glanced away. From the side, she looked even younger. Prison, for sure, Emilio thought.

“What do you want to do?” Getting a girl pregnant should make you feel like a man, right? Then why did he feel so young, so unprepared to handle this?

“What do you mean?” Amy had replied, a tone of anger pulling the last of those words higher.

Amy was raised a strict Presbyterian. Emilio’s family was Roman Catholic, right down to their socks. They both knew there was only one right thing to do. But then again, nothing else about their relationship was right. Why should this be any different?

“If you got rid of it, no one would know. It would be like it never happened.”

“Emilio, why do you keep saying ‘you’?”

“I didn’t mea-”

“This has happened,” she touched her stomach, “and you can’t take it back. This is your baby too, Emilio, and I need you.”

They’d sat there—waited for twenty minutes without saying anything.

“Listen,” he’d said, finally, “I…I need to go. I’m supposed to be on the road right now. I told my mom I was coming home for the weekend. She’s gonna be worried.”


“This just isn’t the right time,” he’d said, as if Amy was asking him to take her dog for a walk.


“What?” he’d breathed out.

“Do you really think that I should get rid of it?”

He looked at her—blonde, short, blue eyes, scared, lost, helpless—and, all of a sudden, he was angry.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I need to go. We’ll talk about it when I get back.”

That’s when she’d started crying, but he couldn’t help it. She was going to cry. She was probably going to cry all weekend. And him? He was going to live in his own version of purgatory until he could figure out what to do. He was thinking about how close to purgatory sitting in rush-hour traffic in the belly of the earth, breathing in all kinds of toxins, while sweating about his whole life going down the drain in front of him actually felt. That’s when the white guy with the dark hair and the expensive grey suit brushed by his open window, knocking his mirror askew.

“Hey!” Emilio called, but when the man didn’t even flinch, he gave up and just leaned out to pull his mirror back into place.

Twenty-two cars ahead of Emilio and one row to the left, Maxwell Howard was on his way home from his retirement party. It had been twelve years later than he would have liked, but just as sweet and freeing as he’d imagined it. He felt so good, he didn’t even mind the traffic. Heck, it was the last time he was going to have to sit in this mess, so he might as well enjoy it. John Coltrane was on the radio, and his wife, Tina, was just waiting for him to get home for a second, and far more romantic, celebration than the one that his colleagues had thrown for him. All that was gonna start with his favorite meal of pot-roast, biscuits and gravy, and a green bean casserole the way that his mother used to make it. Tina had been teasing him all afternoon with pictures of the meal as she prepared it, and a few of her in that silky red nightgown he’d gotten her for Valentine’s day some time ago.

All these years and she’s still got it, he thought to himself. Then, without realizing, he started humming along to Coltrane’s cold, cold horn. He drummed the wheel. “Still got it,” he sang in his thick baritone. “My lady has got it, all of it.” He was no Barry White, but Tina had always called him her very own Teddy Pendergrass. He remembered singing “My Girl” to her on the high-school bleachers down in Birmingham, where they’d both grown up. All those years. Now they had kids and grandkids coming ’round for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They’d grown old together, just like he’d promised her they would. But not so old they couldn’t do for a little more adventure. Maxwell had already booked a Caribbean cruise in honor of the occasion. It was scheduled to leave next Friday. He had picked up the tickets that afternoon on his way home. He was going to surprise Tina with them after dinner.

He glanced sideways to see a little black-haired girl laughing at him from the passenger seat of a white sedan. Her mom, harried to exhaustion by the looks of it, tried to settle her down when she noticed the older man turn their way. She held a palm up to the window and mouthed, “I’m sorry,” opening her lips in big, slow circles.

Maxwell laughed and held up his hand to let her know there was nothing to fuss about. The little girl smiled and giggled, slinking into her seat. When the mother picked up her cellphone to read a text, Maxwell raised his eyebrows and stuck his tongue out at the little girl, playfully. She laughed, bobbed up in her seat and did the same. They carried on like this for a few minutes, while her mom sat oblivious, eyes absorbed in the screen of her cellphone.

“Jayden’s still not home,” the text read in Spanish, “I called Nico, and he said that Jayden didn’t take the bus from school. He saw him spending time with the older boys again.” It was from her mother. This was the second time this month that Jayden hadn’t come home. Annaluis knew what those boys were about, and she’d pleaded with her son to stay away from them. That just seemed to push him farther from her, though. If only his father lived closer. He needed a role model—someone to teach him what it was to be a man—not that Miguel was a man by any measure, but he was better than those boys. Jayden was getting too old for her to just shout at him or even spank him. Soon he’d be completely out of her control. She glanced up from the text to see the older black man in the Cadillac beside them settling back into his seat. Then she noticed her daughter with her face pressed up against the window so that her nose looked like a pig’s as she puffed her cheeks in and out.

“Nina, stop it,” she ordered.

“But mama,” the little girl turned around, “he was doing it first.”

“Don’t lie to me, hija.”

“I’m not lying,” the girl whined.

“You want abuela to pinch your ear?”

“Mama, I’m not lying!” the girl insisted.

“Don’t lie to me, Nina,” Annaluis warned again.

“I promise. I’m not-”

“Sit back,” Annaluis said, “put your seatbelt back on.”

The girl returned her back to the seat, and her mother returned her eyes to the phone. There was no reception, so she couldn’t text back or find out whether Jayden had gotten home yet. She looked anxiously at the glowing red lights stretching far in front of her.

Mark Proctor knelt on the worn, greasy asphalt behind the bumper of a silver Camry. He untied his shoes—brown Ferragamo oxfords with the wingtips. His wife had bought them for him when he’d been promoted in October. Mark had been firing on all cylinders ever since he’d passed the bar, the fact validated by his rise to partner in under six years of working at Williams, Akerman, and Fisk. He was their lead closer with a hand-selected team that had been unstoppable since he’d put them together. A standing ovation—that’s what they’d given him today before he left the office. After months of wooing, advising and schmoozing, he had finally closed on the company’s biggest account yet, securing a hefty bonus for everyone in the office. He hadn’t slept at all the night before, so he’d taken a taxi into work that day, hoping to catch a few minutes in the back-seat. He’d done the same on the ride home, before he woke up in the tunnel.

The fans thrummed above him as his fingers pulled at his laces. Zipping open the duffel, he placed his shoes and socks inside. When his hand emerged from the bag, he was holding a grenade. A long, well-manicured index finger hooked the pin and pulled it out as he depressed the lever. His hazel eyes blinked once while sweat trickled down from his forehead, but his hands didn’t shake. He walked steadily, bare feet flattening onto the asphalt with each step. To his right, he passed a blue BMW convertible with two women, Margaret and Amanda, whose bleached blonde hair was sticking in strands to their faces. They watched him go, eyes running the length of his grey suit before turning to each other with puzzled expressions of laughter. In front of their car was an airport shuttle-van, whose twelve passengers slumped in their seats, sweating and tense with the prospect of missing their various connections.

“How far is Newark Liberty once we’re out of the tunnel?” a husky man with a salt-and-pepper goatee asked the driver.

Mark reached his hand through the open window and dropped the grenade. It thumped on the floor and rolled under the second row seat as he kept walking.

Five of the passengers noticed the man in the grey suit drop something into the van as he passed by. Of those five, only two reached for the handle of the door. The others bent forward to look under their seats for the object. The driver, a forty-three year old man named Scott Nichols, had not been paying attention. His thoughts were on how poor his tips were going to be when he finally dropped these passengers off.

“Give me a sec,” he said. He reached for the radio dial to tune it to the traffic report as the two passengers in the back reached for the door.

“Hey, woa-listen!” he started to say, but the woman on the handle, Sylvia Brown, finally found her voice in her panic and screamed, “Get out!”

Margaret and Amanda were still laughing to themselves about the attractive, barefoot man in the grey suit and how they were inclined to join him when the shuttle-van in front of them exploded. A six-centimeter shard of shrapnel plowed through the BMW’s windshield and into Amanda’s eye, lodging itself in her brain. Margaret looked over at her companion and saw her chin resting on her chest before she felt the blood trickling down her own face. Her ears, ringing with the blast, picked up the muted shrieks of a young woman in the car next to hers. In front of her, the shuttle-van caught fire.

Mark reached back into the duffel and drew out an AKS-74U with an extended magazine. In the black Corolla to his left, Tonya and Michael Jones, a sister and brother visiting New York for the first time looked from the smoking van behind them to see the man in the grey suit striding alongside their car. Mark leveled the barrel of the compact assault rifle at their window and pulled the trigger. A burst of fire sent bullets and shattered glass through Michael’s neck and Tonya’s stomach. He swiveled the gun to his other side, pulling the trigger again as he walked alongside a white SUV with a bumper sticker that read “My Child is an Honor Student” and another that read “McCain 2008”. Ahead of him, a car door opened and a man stepped out to meet another round of fire from Mark’s AK. The man’s body jerked with the bullets, then fell back against the door, leaving it streaked with blood as he slumped to the ground. Inside, his wife screamed her husband’s name. Mark crossed traffic, firing at the driver of a green Ford Focus on his right. Around him, screams erupted as people flung their doors open and climbed over each other to get out of their cars. Mark continued to fire. The sound of the explosion and the bursts of gunfire in the confined space of the tunnel amplified the terror felt by the mob of people as they surged over cars, trampling each other to get out of harms way. Mark placed the smoking assault rifle on the hood of the Focus and reached back into the duffel to bring out a second grenade. The pin dropped into the cuffed hem of his pant leg as he lobbed it into a frenzied mass of people. The explosion rocked the tunnel again. Smoke billowed up and left nearby cars spattered with gore and the asphalt littered with bodies and their missing parts. His fingers closed around the handle of the AK, and he sprayed in the direction of those still running. A man in a pink polo and a woman in a business suit went down with three others. Mark turned and continued up the tunnel.

In his semi, Donny Thompson heard the explosion, the gunfire, and the shrieks behind him. He radioed out, hoping that someone at the front of the tunnel would catch the transmission on his CB and pass the message along. People in the cars around him were climbing over each other, rushing headlong away from the attack. He watched as an elderly couple was pushed to the ground and trampled. Jerking himself out of his seat, he opened the door and dropped to the street. The jolt jarred his back. He fell against the door to the Camry beside him and held himself up as three teenagers shouldered past. Working his way along the corridor of cars, he came to the place where he’d seen the elderly couple disappear. Another man pushed him from behind, and he fell forward, landing on the old man’s back. When he rolled him over, he knew that he was dead. The old man had laid himself on top of his wife to protect her. She was bloodied and dazed, but still alive. Donny picked her up carefully, opening the door of an empty minivan on his right and laying her inside.

“Now, you stay here, okay?” he said, pushing the matted grey hair back off her forehead. “Ambulance will be along any minute.”

He slid the door shut and turned towards the direction of the gunshots. He had never had to use it, but today he was glad for the Sig Sauer P226 he kept strapped to his belt.

Seventeen cars behind Mark Proctor, Emilio sat, gripping the steering wheel of his car. A scattered stream of people shoved their way past his window while the gunfire ahead punctuated their screams. He took five quick breaths and forced himself to let go of the wheel. Throwing his door open, he stepped into the gap between his car and the next. He turned to run, but heard another cry of pain.

“Okay,” he said, and without taking his eyes off the ground, he turned his feet to face the direction of the shots. “Mierda,” he said under his breath as he pushed himself to take a step forward. “Mierda, mierda, mierda,” with every step. Somebody slammed into him, breaking his concentration and throwing him up against the hood of a car. Their eyes, panicked and wide, blazed past. He looked ahead at the van burning and people running between cars. He pulled his eyes down to the next car in front of him and began to walk. When he came close to the burning shuttle-van, he started to scan for the wounded. A family huddled in the Honda Odyssey to his right, whimpering and paralyzed by fear. To his left, the passenger window on a station wagon was gone. The driver’s side was ajar and no one else was in the car. The smell of burning rubber filled his nose and choked him as he approached the burning shuttle-van. His feet crunched over broken glass. Flames climbed out of the van’s windows and licked at the dark smoke that billowed up to the tunnel ceiling, where it was pushed along in a dark river by the turbines overhead. He approached a blue BMW convertible behind the van as the flames kicked higher. The woman in the passenger seat was dead, her eye gouged out by flying debris. The driver moaned. Emilio wiped away the mask of blood that covered her face and saw that she had a shard of metal lodged in her forehead. Blood had clotted around it, which was good, but her face was pale.

“Miss… miss, can you move?” Emilio asked her, checking her for other injuries. Though her eyes were open, she was unresponsive.

The flames of the van brightened and the heat on Emilio’s face intensified. “Miss, I’m going to have to move you,” he said. “It’s not safe here.” He reached inside and opened her door, then undid her seatbelt. Pulling her out of the car and onto her feet seemed to bring her back a little. She supported most of her own weight as he started to walk her to the left, across the lanes of cars to a U-Haul truck. He noticed another woman in the same condition, sitting catatonic in the car beside the blue BMW. Once he laid the first woman safely inside the U-Haul, he went back for the second.

Maxwell saw the man in the grey suit cross into his lane three cars ahead of him. He wasn’t one of the many that day that stayed inside their vehicle in an almost paralytic state of fear. He simply thought that stepping out of the car made you more of a target. He’d hoped the man would just walk by. He didn’t. In the car to his left, the little girl Maxwell had been making faces with screamed. Maxwell watched as the man turned towards the sound and began to walk, firing into cars that were still occupied as he passed. He took aim at the little girl and her mother and pulled the trigger, but his gun seemed to jam. Maxwell threw open his door as the man dropped the weapon and reached in his duffel bag for another. Maxwell tried the handle of the little girl’s car, but it was locked. Looking back, he saw the man in the suit standing barefoot, raising a pistol towards the child…

Read the rest on June 4, when Fracture becomes available on the Amazon store. And be sure to pick up your copy of Hindsight, book 1 in the series, before then. Hindsight will go free again on June 4 to celebrate the launch of Fracture, for those of you who love to binge read. If you just can’t wait, then it’s going for the low price of $2.99 right now.

Love-in-a-Mist: A Christmas Present for You, Dear Reader


I wanted to do something special for you, because with your limited time, you’ve chosen to visit my blog. So here it is, my gift to you this Christmas: an unpublished short story I wrote just a little bit ago called, Love-In-A-Mist. Merry Christmas.


by Owen Banner

Dad’s at it again–mowing the lawn. I smell the grass and hear the quiet whirr of his push-reel mower even through my closed bedroom window. It fogs up with my breath, and I rub my palm over it to clear the fog away, hearing the squeaky rubbery sound of skin on glass. Mom left a month ago, and, since then, Dad’s been out there every couple of days.

It used to be their thing. He’d cut the grass in his riding mower. Mom planted flowers: powdery lavender, sweet white and pink peonies, yellow California poppies that closed up at night, and bright pink azaleas that looked like trumpets bursting open with so much color. Her favorites, though, were the Love-in-a-Mist bushes. They’ve got pale blue stars for flowers with wispy green veins stretching out behind them. She said they were a perfect cottage flower.

A few years ago, at a garage sale, she’d bought a beat-up garden gnome with a red hat, blue pants, and dirt smudged all through his white beard. She always put him right in the middle of the Love-in-a-Mist. It drove Dad nuts. He complained about it every time we grilled out in the backyard.

The gnome’s gone now. Mom must have taken it with her. The peonies are dead. All that’s left of the California poppies are their grey-green leaves and stems.

I can’t see them now, anyway, because it’s nighttime, but I can see the line of freshly cut grass that Dad’s leaving as he walks the imaginary boundary between our yard and our neighbor’s. He’s wearing grey sweatpants and a zip up hoodie because it’s getting colder at night. His white tennis shoes are slick with dew and spattered with blades of grass like bugs on a windshield. Before mom left, he kept his face shaved. Now he’s got a week-old beard climbing up his neck. It’s a lighter brown than the hair on his head–the part of his head that isn’t bald. The beard’s closer to the copper on the rims of the glasses he’s wearing.

Dad passes by the California poppies with his mower singing, to himself, “I can’t go for that. Oh, no can do,” by Hall and Oats, his favorite band. He pushes the mower from one side of the yard to the other, tripping the motion sensor spotlights like he’s on stage at a concert. He passes by the two trees on the right, then doubles back.

When I was born, Dad named me after his dad, Elmer. I don’t know why he did it, because we only see my Grampa at Veteran’s Day and the Fourth of July. The day I was born, though, dad planted an Elm tree in the back yard. Two years later, my mom got pregnant again. “And this time,” she said, “I get to name the baby.” She picked “Ashton” for my brother and planted an Ash tree beside the Elm.

A breeze blows through the branches of those trees and across the yard, knocking the rusty swingset by the fence into motion. We don’t use it anymore, but dad never got around to taking it down. Mom’s ivy geraniums are climbing up the wooden sides of it. Above and behind it, a low rumble starts in the dirty, yellow clouds somewhere over Cincinnati. The blinking red and green lights of an airplane follow the sound out into the sky. I watch the plane climb higher until it disappears again, wondering if Mom’s on it. I look down. Dad’s stopped. He’s watching it too.

I’ve got his light brown hair, but mine’s cut in a straight line a centimeter above my eyebrows. Mom said that Dad had freckles too, like I do, when she first met him. She said, “They just exploded across his face. I thought he was the cutest thing.” She told me that every now and then when she’d come in to kiss me and Ash goodnight. She’d bend over our beds, smelling like lavender and say, “I. Love. You,” tapping us on the nose with each word. But she always said, “Boop” and tapped my brother on the nose a fourth time. Then, she’d give us a kiss and go downstairs, open up a Clive Cussler adventure novel and read until my dad called her to bed.

Her and Dad started fighting about six months ago. They were in the kitchen washing dishes.

“Well, maybe that’s a sign that you should try writing again,” I heard mom say. “I always thought you gave up too early.”

Dad told her to be realistic. “No one’s handing out jobs in this economy, Jo. I’ve got one. I put food on the table, and I like what I do.” His voice sounded stiff.

“No you don’t. You hate it, Todd,” she said back. “It’s a soul sucking, shit-eating job, but you’re just scared that your dad was right and that you aren’t good enough on your own. You hate it, and I hate it, and I hate what it’s done to you–to us.” She stopped. “I can’t do this with you, anymore.”

Dad was quiet. Mom dropped a pot into the sink and pushed out the door to the backyard.

A couple weeks after that, she came home late from the library. She walked in to kiss us goodnight, and there was cigarette smoke mixed with the lavender in the curls of her hair. Mom hated cigarettes. That’s how I knew she was going to leave us.

Ash rustles in his bed behind me. I turn to see if he’s awake, but he’s just rolled over. He’s got my mom’s black hair and creamy white skin. He’s sucking his thumb again. I turn back to the window and catch my own face in its reflection. Ash and I have my dad’s eyes, a dull green that blends into the color of the night-time grass.

“What’s he doing?” Ash says, quietly, from behind me.

I look back over my shoulder to see his eyes open. There’s a wet smear on his pillow where his thumb is resting against it.

“He’s done with the mower,” I say, looking back outside.

Dad leans it on the worn-out picnic table and picks up his garden sheers. We listen to them snipping away under the sound of the cicadas in the trees.

A month ago, I walked by my parent’s room and saw Mom’s suitcase half-packed, lying open on the bed. Clothes, jewelry and a few books were scattered around it. She was in the bathroom, showering. I knew that I couldn’t make her stay–maybe if Ash was there, but he was at soccer practice. And besides, I thought she might be happier if she left. Maybe if her and dad just had some time, she would come back and he would quit his job and write like he always wanted to. I didn’t knock on the door to say “goodbye”. I dug through the suitcase and found the Bon Jovi, Live in L.A. T-shirt that she wore to bed sometimes. I pressed it to my face and smelled the sweet, dreamy lavender on it. Then I put it back at the bottom of the suitcase and went to my room to start my World History report.

The next day she was gone. Ash locked himself in our room and wouldn’t come out for dinner. Dad and I sat downstairs at the table eating some microwaved vegetables and a rotisserie chicken he’d bought at Publix. The only sound between us was our forks punching through peas and clinking against our plates. I slept in Dad’s room that night. He cried in his sleep.

He started mowing the yard the next day. At first it was just every few afternoons, but then it got later. The neighbors called the cops because of the noise, so Dad bought the push-reel mower. Ash and I were in to bed one night, and we heard the rotors on the mower start to flick across the grass. We looked at each other in the darkness.

“What’s wrong with Dad?” he said, his dark hair falling in his eyes.

“Nothing. He just misses Mom,” I said back.

Ash was quiet for a while, then he fell asleep. He started sucking his thumb. I started watching Dad at night. Sometimes he sings. Other times he just talks to himself.

“Something’s wrong with him,” Ash says.


We both listen, and I watch him. He’s cutting the strands of grass that he couldn’t get with the mower. He starts around the legs of the picnic table. Then he clips along where the yard meets Mom’s flower beds. When he’s done, he lays his head sideways on the grass and scans for any blade he missed. He’s still singing, “No can do.”

“He reads mom’s books,” Ash says from over my shoulder again.

“What?” I look at him.

“Last week, I thought I heard someone downstairs, in the living room. I thought mom came back.”

He looks like her, and I wish I did.

“I went down to see if it was her. But it was him. He was sitting in her rocking chair, reading a Cussler novel that he got from the library.”

“Did he see you?” I ask.


We’re both quiet, listening to dad singing to himself outside and the snipping of the garden shears.

“I hate him,” Ash whispers through his teeth. His eyes are full. Tears run sideways over his nose and cheek, down into his pillow.

“She’ll come back,” I say, “for you,” I finish.

He sniffs, wipes his nose and squeezes his eyes shut.

Dad finishes with the sheers and pushes himself to his feet. The front of his sweatpants are wet and stretched out around the knees. He’s stopped singing. Now he’s just talking to himself. I can’t hear much, but every now and then, I catch my mom’s name, “Joanna”. He tucks the sheers under his neck, hitches the waistband up and ties the drawstring tighter. Then he sets the sheers back on the picnic table and grunts as he picks up a bag of mulch. His tennis shoes squeak over to the azaleas. He tips the shiny, white plastic bag and the mulch comes tumbling out. He pours too much, sets the bag down, grabs a handful from around the bush and sprinkles it on the dead peonies nearby. Pretty soon the bag is empty, and the whole yard smells like manure. Dad takes Mom’s spade and kneels down by the bushes, pushing the mulch around till it’s even.

On Monday he planted some Love-in-a-Mist underneath the Ash tree and a few lavenders. I’m getting sleepy while he works his way around to them. I lean my head on the glass, feeling the cool, hard pane press against my face. My eyelids feel like old rags rubbing against my eyes.

A creaking noise wakes me up. I jolt, thinking that Dad’s at the door and he’s caught me with my face against the window. The door’s still closed, though. I look for Ash, but he’s asleep, sucking his thumb again. The creaking is coming from outside, down at the swingset. Dad’s sitting on the swing, nudging himself back and forth with the dirty tips of his tennis shoes. There’s a stray piece of mulch in his beard. His hands are tucked into his sweatshirt. He’s singing “Sarah, Smile”, the part of the song that says, “It’s you and me forever,” and staring at the dirt in front of him. I look to the right and see what he’s done. Under the Ash tree, between the lavenders and the Love-in-a-Mist that he planted on Monday, the garden gnome is standing.

I feel cold at my ribs and pull my elbows in to touch them. I want to wake Ash up, but I can’t take my eyes off of my dad. He creaks back and forth on the swing. The cicadas have died out, so it seems louder. He takes his glasses off. They glint in the spotlights. He rubs them on his sweatshirt, then unzips it, and sets the glasses back on his face. He stands, walking towards the house, and the chains jangle behind him. Still singing, he takes off the sweatshirt and ties it around his waist. He’s wearing mom’s T-shirt, the one that says Bon Jovi, Live in L.A.

If you enjoyed this, consider checking out my novel, Hindsight, available on Amazon for only $0.99 and in the Kindle Owners Lending Library for free.