Health Nut

My friend Ron walks into his kitchen, hooks the tip of his sneaker under the bottom drawer next to the fridge, and flicks it open.

“Dude, have some,” Ron says.

Inside the drawer, I see Chips Ahoy cookies, moon pies, and those Little Debbie wafer bars that I used to beg for in the grocery store but my health-nut parents would never buy. The sugary smell of Halloween hits my nose. I swallow my spit.

Guilt floods my brain. My mother’s voice echoes in my head. “It’s all crap corporations want you to become addicted to.” But I stoop anyway and tear into a wafer bar like a lion into beefsteak. It crackles when I bite into it, and the creaminess of the peanut butter coats my tongue. It is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten.

Still chewing, we go out to the garage to work on our bikes. After a while, Ron’s mom pulls up in her Suburu.

“Hey,” I ask Ron. “Will we get busted for eating the candy?”

He stares at me, then his eyebrows round. “Man, your parents are Nazis… No, she won’t care.”

The car engine turns off and the car door slams. “Hi, Jason.”

“Hi, Mrs. Langley,” I say.

“Do your parents need a refill?” Mrs. Langley sells Shaklee products, a healthy food company that runs like Mary Kay. Once a month or so, my parents have me pick up protein powder, carob bars, and vitamin supplements.

“Nah. We’re good, I think.” My smile feels too big on my face.

I remind myself that I didn’t do anything wrong—people eat sweets every day—but a scene plays out in my mind of Mrs. Langley snitching on me to my parents. Mom would go the “disappointed” route; Dad would encourage me to double my miles on my jog.

I continue smiling, searching Mrs. Langley’s face for my secret. She eventually breaks eye contact to look at her son, then she walks into the house.

Ron pounds my arm. “What was that, weirdo?” he says.

“Dude, if my parents find out, I’ll be hosed.”

“I told you she won’t care. She thinks your parents are too strict, anyway.”

“Okay, okay” I say, but break out into a sweat anyway. We talk about BMX tricks as we ride down the street, but my thoughts stick to that drawer.


A couple weeks later, Dad slips some money in my pocket. “More power packs, some of those quinoa bars, and anything you want, kid.”

When I get to the Langley’s, I knock a few times, but the front door to the bi-level is wide open. “Hello?” I walk in. The house is eerily silent.

I wait in their front room, which is adjacent to their kitchen, whistling and tapping the glass cases filled with trim, white packages of granola and fish oil pills. The drawer in the kitchen calls to me. Before I know it, I am stooped over the open drawer.

When I pick up a box, I tell myself I am only looking. I smell it, then set it aside to pick up the next treat, a box of oatmeal creme pies. My brain flashes back to a day at school when I was eating lunch with Ron. He had opened his lunch bag and grimaced. He chucked an individually-wrapped crème pie on the floor and kicked it across the cafeteria. “Those things are nasty,” he said.

In the Langley’s kitchen, I pull out the creme pies and close the drawer. No one will notice, I tell myself.

“Jason?” Mrs. Langley stands at the bottom of the stairs. She is wearing a pink track suit and her hair is wrapped in a towel. “What are you doing?”

The pursing of her lips tells me she already knows.

“I….” I see myself on her kitchen floor, smelling her kids’ lunch desserts. “I don’t know. I’m so sorry.”

“I think you should leave.”

Without another word, I walk out.

The next morning, our landline rings while I am eating breakfast. My dad answers it. After a series of uh-huhs, he says: “Thanks for telling me, Nancy. I’ll handle it. Bye, now.” He walks over to the refrigerator, stretches, and pulls a box of Girl Scout cookies from a cabinet. He places the box on the kitchen table squarely in front of me.

“We’re not monsters,” he whispers. “Maybe we can compromise on a weekly dessert… you know, to keep you out of jail.”


Image by Bernadette Wurzinger from Pixabay

The Lantern Girl

I heard some scratching and clomping like one of the goats had wandered onto the front porch again. Setting down my knitting, I came outside ready to scold some lazy farm hand, but instead, I found a balled-up little girl, no more than eight, on the settee, pretending she was asleep. I hoped no neighbor had driven past and seen such filth at my door.

She wore a strange shirtwaist: white with blue sleeves attached. I said to her, I said, “You get on now, miss. I know how your kind work. I feed you and the next thing I know twenty of your kin come to my door a-begging. Us proper folk have rough times, too.”

The peculiar girl swept her fine hair from her face, and that’s when I noticed her skin. Right ugly, she was. Her face as blue as the china in my curio and shining bright, too, as if she’d swallowed a dozen torches. After glancing at me, she tucked her head back under her arm.

I stood over her a might longer, and when it was clear she was staying put, I trudged back through the house to fetch a broom. The girl was gone when I came back, though. A skein of green yarn lay where I’d found her. How’d she know I knit?

I searched the house, attic to cellar. I had Cal, the farmhand, rake through the hay in the barn. No sign of her. The rest of my day was spent looking out windows, searching for flashes of blue.

The next morning the girl was back on the porch. Seeing her there was like seeing a ghost.

I said to her, I said, “Thank you for the yarn, young’un,” and she nodded. Then she pointed to the flower bed next to the stoop. The soil showed dark against the rich greens and purples of the azaleas. Not a weed in sight. She held her hands out to me so I could see her chipped fingernails and scratched up fingers. She smiled something fierce and rubbed her belly.

“Well, come in, then,” I mumbled. What else could I have done? The little wretch was thin as a picket.

In the washroom, I poured water into a basin. The girl stared at it. “Go on,” I urged, and when she didn’t move, I said, “are you mute, girl?”

I washed and dried my own hands, then pointed at her. She mimicked my movements, giggling. It was good to hear the sound of a child in the house again. She giggled all the way to the kitchen, where I laid out some cornpone and a tomato. Its red contrasted the blue of her hand.

When we heard footsteps coming up the back stairs, the girl stopped laughing and her eyes widened.

I said to her, I said, “That’s just my farmhand bringing the corn I asked for. You know how to shuck?”

The girl growled and ran to a corner of the room. I could see her tangle of hair peeking above the counter of the hutch. The idea of fleas struck me.

The back door swung open and lanky Cal stood holding a basket.

“Morning, Widow McCrae. Found some right fine ears for you.”

“Thank you, Cal. Put them there.” I looked to the hutch. “Don’t be rude, little miss; say hello to Cal.”

Cal scanned the empty room, while I stepped closer to the hutch. The girl was gone. In her place lay clods of dirt and three of my good knives.

“Where’d she go?” I said, more to myself than to Cal.


“A little girl. Blue. Her skin is blue. I just fed her for doing work.”

Cal gave me a look you’d give a horse that crowed like a rooster. “I’ll check the yard,” he said, scratching his forehead.

Alone in the house again, I noticed the shadows in the room, hiding under the icebox, crouched in the pantry. How did that girl keep jumping in and out without so much as a squeak? I thought as I washed the knives she’d stole and put them back in their drawer. Crumbs still dotted the table, but I had eaten some myself before I found her. My silverware, my china, the envelope of money Louis left me in his will, nothing else was missing, but when I stepped onto the porch a message greeted me.

Green yarn spelled out WILL RETURN in cursive letters across the rug.

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

Underground Monsters

Darren dared me to do it. We were sitting on the porch—Mom didn’t want us to go out into the yard until we knew what had happened—eating apples and talking about the holes.

We’d just gotten up and walked outside to put our bikes away like our Mom had asked when we noticed. Overnight, every single tree had been replaced by a hole in the ground. A perfect pile of leaves circled each hole. Not just in our yard but as far as we could see. The day before, there had been a forest—like a real one with a name—that blocked our view. But we could see everything now. The town, the lake, the school. Not to mention the blinking walls of our neighbors’ houses. I imagined them blushing from the sudden exposure.

“You think it was a machine?” I asked him.

He scanned the horizon. “An army of ’em.”

“No. Couldn’t be. We’d have woke up. Well, you and Mom would have for sure.”

“Maybe the government has developed stealth tractors.”

Shivers jangled my spine. I’d never thought of stealth tractors before. What else was the government doing that I’d never thought of?

“Naw.” I shrugged off my fear. “It was a monster. A picky one who doesn’t like roughage. And they’re going to find it and ask it to spit the trees back out.” I didn’t know who “they” were. I hoped Darren wouldn’t notice.

“That makes no sense, Arnold. We’d have heard breathing or crunching or footsteps or something”

“Makes as much sense as an army of tractors.”

Darren stuck his tongue out at that. He finished his apple and spit the seeds at me. I ran from him and sat on the stairs. A few minutes later, Darren sat next to me. First, we watched the stick figures of neighbors come out of their houses and survey what had happened. Then we watched the birds, frantically gathering on the ground or flying from the eaves of one house to another. I got scared again thinking about what was all missing.

“Gotta be a monster. It ate up all the squirrels and chipmunks, too,” I told Darren.

“All right, smartie. If it’s a monster, it’ll be hungry again, won’t it?”

“Not for a while, I think.”

“Well, but it will, and we’re gonna need to feed it or it will eat our houses, too.”

“Never thought of that.”

“So you gotta distract it by moving these chairs out into the yard.” He pointed to the four Adirondacks sitting back up on the porch. “I dare you.”

We eyed each other for a moment before I took the dare. I was thinking Mom usually wants us in the yard instead of playing video games so she couldn’t get too mad at me. While I was pushing the second chair down the stairs, Darren went inside to watch the news. It didn’t take long for me to move them, heavy as they were. When I was done, I joined Darren on the couch. Trees were gone everywhere. The newscasters were interviewing scientists who all had their theories, some blaming corporations, others blaming environmentalists, but it was clear it was all filler. They knew as much as we did. Our phone rang constantly: neighbors calling to compare notes.

The chairs stayed in the yard, untouched. I’d check them through the front windows every hour or so. I couldn’t rescue them because Mom grounded me for putting them out there in the first place. She still wouldn’t let us out of the house; everyone was afraid the ground was diseased. And Darren wouldn’t rescue them because he said they proved he was the smarter brother.

On the morning of the fourth day, I saw that the chairs had been stacked on top of each other, that the legs of one were growing into the armrests of another. Branches bushy with leaves had sprouted from the planks. Seedlings in their casings shaped like music notes dangled in the breeze. We ran inside to tell Mom. Darren made a point to tell her that moving the chairs was his idea. But she didn’t ground him.

By the end of the day, chairs, dressers, desks, and ottomans decorated every front yard in town. People had even pre-stacked them, though Mom told them we hadn’t done it that way and it had still worked.

Photo by Mikes Photos from Pexels

Early draft.


I had imagined pinks and vermillions, an impossible sunset contained within an industrial warehouse. I had heard the chitter of squirrels and felt spring breezes. But when I awoke to a thump, felt the vibrations through the floor of my Nomad cell, and saw the most beautiful open door I had ever seen, I knew I wasn’t hallucinating.

The forklift carrying my cell headed toward the receiving door of the warehouse. We passed dozens of other people like me, locked inside 5-foot by 5-foot boxes with clear walls called Nomads. All of them were shielding their eyes with their hands from the bright light, watching me. It wasn’t strange that a worker would be moving one of the inmates to another part of the facility.

It was the open door that was strange.

As we approached it, the forklift slowed. The light became so strong I had to cover my eyes, too, but soon I felt warmth on my clothes, my hair. The forklift set me down on a hard surface, and then nothing happened.

Little by little, my vision grew accustomed to the daylight. The worker had dumped my Nomad in the middle of an asphalt patch. I sat there for some time. I did not mind the waiting; it had been so long since I’d seen the Sun.

At dusk, my Nomad expanded. The ceiling raised, and the walls backed away until it had grown to the size of a conventional living room. The wall closest to the warehouse turned a bright cobalt blue and a pristine white couch inflated from a panel in the floor. Pin light eyes dilated in the ceiling. I didn’t believe that the Nomad’s new dimensions were for my own comfort.

A golf cart approached. I recognized its passenger as the Nomad salesman who had captured me. The ends of his mustache curled malevolently and his gilded cloak shone in the fading light. Clasps secured around my ankles before the driver opened the door to the Nomad. I decided not to try to escape yet; I would have one shot, and the two men blocking the only escape meant this wasn’t it.

“You are in the presence of Grun Dolbry, prisoner. Only speak when spoken to.”

And then the salesman was inside. He smelled of pine and of a pomade that reminded me of my grandfather. The driver shut the door behind him.

Dolbry’s eyes leered at me before he spoke. “Prisoner,” he sat on the couch directly opposite me. “Your family has paid for your release.”

A rush of relief flooded me, but I did not show it.

“That’s cause for celebration, yes?” He bent his arm and spoke into a gadget that looked like a watch: “Two cod fillets, green beans with almonds, and a Cabernet. Is that suitable?” His gaze hitched on to my lips.

“I was hoping for steak.”

“Sorry, but that’s not on the menu. Beef shortage because of the drought out East, you know.”

Of course I didn’t know.

A dining table and chairs rose between us, and the man immediately moved to sit. The clasps pulled my ankles forward. The smell of the fresh food made me stumble. I struggled not to faint at my hunger.

“Please sit. I am very pleased to be dining with you tonight. You have made me quite a bit of money.” He cut his fish into pieces, then brought one to his mouth. I tried to ignore the noises he made as he chewed, but the sounds nauseated me. My food remained untouched.

“Of course, where there is a bee, there is a hive,” he smiled, smacked, clicked, glopped. “Carry on with your supper, prisoner. It will be a while before you’ve another. Are you not hungry?”

“You’re not freeing me,” I declared to my plate, then, remembering my plan of escape, I took a large bite of fish. Transfiguration required energy.

“Ah, you’ve discovered your appetite. You women change your mind too quickly.”

My mind focused on barbs, beaks, and wings; I didn’t hear another word he said to me, but I continued eating. Eventually, the man set his napkin down on his plate and walked to the door, and when he finally opened it I felt the feathers prick up on my skin and the clasps slip free of my legs. I was aloft and out the door before the man could react.

The night was as dark as the inside of that warehouse, but I was a dove flying above the tallest oaks. On my way to see my sisters.

Very very early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

The Clockwork Creature

When Robert released the wind-up key, a high, thin whirr filled the laboratory. The silver gears inside the creature’s walnut-sized thorax set into motion its legs—eight jointed levers about two inches long—and pips of steam released from its palpus. Those attached to the front of its thorax reached and those in back pushed across his drafting table.

The clockwork creature’s lunge reminded him of a windy day on Lake Michigan: the red stripes of bathing suits, the yellow of lemon ice, the blue of his little brother’s body floating in the water. Robert and his brothers had noticed him all at once. They breaststroked to where Cecil’s nine-year-old body bobbed and worked together to keep Cecil’s face above water as they dragged him toward safety. Three arms holding, three arms reaching, six legs kicking behind.

Breaking from his daydream, Robert flipped the machine over. An upturned crab. Its rounded chassis wobbled as its legs clawed the air. He watched as its energy slowed and stopped, then he traded his lab coat for a smoking jacket and wandered back into the main house to inquire what meal Mrs. Chambers planned for luncheon.

The thing was still upside down when Robert returned to his laboratory weeks later, but no dust had settled upon it—a rare sign of Mrs. Chambers’s presence. Its arms curled as if to beckon him closer. Turned upright, the creature became a science to him once more, a puzzle to be solved. He found himself humming as he oiled its joints, cleaned the gears with a pipe cleaner, and retightened each screw.

Cecil had also been fastidious. One day Cecil had pulled Robert into father’s study. He had replaced a shelf of Father’s engineering books with a row of empty milk bottles.

“Have you been thirsty?” Robert said with a laugh.

“Look closer,” Cecil whispered. Robert bent down and one of the bottles flashed chartreuse.


Cecil nodded vigorously. “Yes, and Japanese beetles and ash borers and bumblebees. I’m starting a collection.”

His collection.

Robert dropped the screwdriver and before he knew it, he was running through the main house, past his brothers’ laboratories filled with steam-powered printing presses and cannons, and into his father’s study. Freddie and Ambrose popped up at the door asking what had happened. Robert did not answer. He was focused on the bottom-most shelf of milk bottles. Robert pulled a bottle out and saw the specks at the bottom. A low mewl escaped him.

“What in blazes is the matter, Bobby?” Freddie snapped. Ambrose stood silently behind him; the look on his face was granite, except for the caterpillars of his mustache.

Robert held the bottle out to his brothers. “I forgot Cecil’s insects.”

The sun was high on a summer day when Mrs. Chambers entered the laboratory, feather duster in hand. As usual, she began with the sitting area near the fireplace. She was moving Robert’s pipe and writing notebook from a side table when a pair of shoes under the drafting table across the room caught her eye. When the shoes moved, she screamed.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Chambers.”

Mrs. Chambers noticed a smearing of Robert’s words. She spotted several bottles of wine under the table next to him.

“Mister Robert. I’m sorry. I will come back when the room is unoccupied.”

“No!” Robert said. “That is, stay, please.” He crawled out from underneath the table.

Apprehensively, Mrs. Chambers continued to dust. The room was silent, except for his soft humming and an occasional blowing of air into one of his inventions, a small thing with ghastly arms. When she had almost finished her work, Robert spoke again.

“May I show you an invention inspired by our dear Cecil?”

“Of course, sir.”

Robert wound the small contraption, and she watched as it labored across the drafting table like a lame crab. No, that wasn’t the motion. What had she ever seen that moved like that?

“It’s a clockwork spider,” Robert said when he registered the confusion on her face.

“I’ve never seen a spider walk like that, sir. You know best, of course, but shouldn’t the legs be on the sides and not front and back?”

“Of course! Thank you, Mrs. Chambers. It’s not natural. Why hadn’t that occurred to me?”

Mrs. Chambers returned to dusting as Robert began the process of reattaching legs and calibrating them to move side-to-side instead of up and down.

Early draft: constructive criticism welcome.

(photo credit: Pavlofox at

The Girl Who Glowed

When the bell above the door tinkled, Miguel came out of his reverie long enough to say hello to the girl. She was slouching over the time clock in the corner, one hip against the wall. She didn’t seem to want to work today, which was odd because she was usually bouncy. But there had been a lot of work to do lately. Or maybe she sensed what was coming: he couldn’t keep her on the payroll. It wasn’t her fault; he had no choice. Everyone in town said his flowers were the best, but that didn’t get them in his shop. He regretted not listening to his wife’s suggestion of selling online.

“And how was school?” he asked, making her jump. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. Could you start this morning by putting away the shipment?” He pointed to several loosely wrapped bundles lying by the door. The longing he saw in her glance at the packages made his stomach drop. How could he fire someone who loved this place?

Elena nodded, then slipped off her backpack and jacket and set them on the floor. A reminder of how young she still was. He watched as she traded leather gloves for plastic purple ones.

He’d seen her around town before he’d hired her. She walked home from school alone like an automaton, hair pinned back the exact same way, inscrutable look on her face, but when she entered his store she usually came alive. And she was so tidy. Her clothes beamed with cleanliness. He would miss her in the shop, the promise of her confidence with the plants, her little rituals. Maybe he should explain the situation to her and ask if she’d consider becoming a volunteer?

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “It’s good that you’re so neat—I’ve never seen a sixteen year old so fastidious—but just once I’d like to see you walk in with mud on your jeans or something.”

She peered over the work table at him, then she finished bringing the shipment over to the work table.

Who was this strange girl who worked for him? Talking a mile a minute one day and barely making a sound the next.

“You’re quiet today. Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” she said with a grimace on her face. A flash of annoyance? “Guess that biology final has me stressed.”

“You’ll do fine,” Miguel said. He returned to his spreadsheet, willing the numbers to show him how to keep his only employee. It wasn’t possible. Maybe she would agree to work unpaid. Miguel stood from his desk and stretched a moment. Then he walked to where Elena was busy unpacking the wedding order at the work table.

He was surprised to see she had taken off a plastic glove. He had never seen her hands before; they were pink, youthful. Her nails were meticulously filed and shaped, but were free of nail polish. He could swear he saw golden threads coming from her fingertips and into the leaves of the snapdragons. The flowers seemed to stretch and brighten with her touch. The flowers’ bells were pulsing though they were lying flat on the table still. Their color turned from pale pink to fuchsia to magenta. New buds were stacking themselves on the tops of each stem.

“Holy shit,” he found himself saying, and Elena jumped. Her foot connected with her backpack, and she threw her arms out. The moment Miguel caught hold of her arm he felt electricity pulsing through his body. He felt his hair and fingernails grow. His vision blurred when he looked straight ahead but the lines of the cornices around the room were crisp in his periphery.

“Holy shit.” He whipped off his glasses. “Clear as day.”

Miguel and Elena studied each other—both unsure of what to say without sounding crazy— and then Elena picked up the calla lilies and held them out to him. He watched as the supple tails of their single petals drooped lower and more elegantly. She ran to the refrigerated case next. As she touched each plant, he saw a golden aura around the girl. It reminded him of a night long ago, back when he had started dating Marisol, his wife. They had gone to a festival in a municipal park. Three thousand people holding sky lanterns above their faces. The girl glowed like all three thousand of those people at once. She didn’t know it but she had just saved her job.

Writing for YeahWrite. Click the badge above for more fantastic fiction and poetry.


Cal noticed when I walked into the bakery. He wiped his hand on the black sky of his apron, and a shy smile had spread across his face before the doorbell finished chiming. The smears of flour at his hips made me think of sex.

I decided to sit as far from where he was working as possible to test the tether between us. We’d only been dating five weeks, but I found myself wondering if I could resist his gravitational pull?

I placed my laptop on a table and arranged a few sample books for the Fogerty house. But blueprints and furniture catalogs could not compete with the spectacle of Cal in his natural environment. His biceps flexed as he kneaded dough; his large hands shaped and molded small planets of rye bread. His every action seemed risqué. And he knew I was watching him, too. He checked me with his eyes each time he ducked into the back room. He looped his thumbs around his tied apron strings and did a little tap dance while waiting to ring up customers.

After a half hour of this, he came over to my table and whispered, “You gotta stop watching me, dude.” He beamed; his crooked smile, pale eyes, and five-o-clock shadow reminding me again of some action/adventure star I’d seen somewhere. “I can’t concentrate.”

“Can’t help it. There are too many sweet things in this place.” His blush was a trophy. “All right. I’ll get to work.” Sighing, I plugged my ears with headphones and, as much as it pained me, ignored him.

Eventually, I fell into my work. The next time I looked up, about a half hour later, Cal was at the end of the counter talking to a pony-tailed woman with a thin pink scarf looped around her neck. I had to shift in my chair to see her face: the bridge of her nose rounded from brow to tip and her chin was soft. She looked nothing like Cal, whose face was all hard, straight lines.

Taking my headphones off, I heard her say she couldn’t wait for Saturday, then she shyly took both of his hands and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. Cal’s eyes shot to me as she did it, giving me the answers to all of my questions.

Without thinking, I stood. “What the hell, Cal?”

One of my notebooks slammed on the floor. Everyone in the room was staring. The woman—still holding one of Cal’s hands—moved behind him. We stood like that for what seemed like forever.

“Cal?” the woman finally said. “Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know. Is something wrong, Will?” There was a warning in his words.



His lack of shame confounded me. Wasn’t he in the wrong here? This was about the time in the relationship when you’d find out you were with a cheater. It’s a risk you took with online dating—the Netflix and Chill guys, the polys—it’s all fine if that’s what you’re into. But that’s not what I was into. I thought I had been clear.

“I thought…” I didn’t want to admit it. “I just thought I was the only one.”

People in the bakery weren’t staring anymore, but all ears were aimed at us.

“You’re gay, Cal?” the woman gawped, and I realized she was younger than I thought.

“Yeah,” Cal said with a shrug. “Cara, this is my boyfriend, Will. Will, this is Cara Wilson, a friend of the family. ”

Embarrassed, I returned her hello and shook her hand. As we talked, Cara mentioned that Cal was catering her wedding for free. I asked about the wedding and the menu, giving Cal praise for his kindness. Anything to smooth this situation over. Within a few minutes, Cara said she had other errands to do. She hugged Cal, whispered something in his ear, and then she was gone.

Cal put a finger up. “Hold on.” He walked in back and returned with a co-worker to replace him at the counter.

“Follow me,” he said to me. Outside, he turned onto a side street before he spoke.

“I guess I’m out to my family now.”

“Shit. I’m sorry. My big mouth.”

“Nah, I was going to do it soon anyway.” He took my face in his hands. “They should meet you.” He kissed me softly, then put his forehead to mine. We closed our eyes.

Doing something new for the fiction|poetry challenge: two required prompts. This week the prompts were the word “baker” and the sentence “We closed our eyes.” Sound fun? Join us! Click the badge above for more info.


Red oak leaves circled the edge of the parking lot next to Ben’s head. He watched them swirl in mid-air like cardinals, zigzagging from hedge to fence to light post; all of them seemed to be searching for anything but him. A few leaves finally gave in and fell to the crowning his bleeding head. They didn’t say a word to him. The charity bins sat in silence nearby. Eventually, he watched the whirling mass clamor over the hedge and scatter into the yards of the neighborhood beyond the back lot. The corner of the church across the pavement stood erect. Its broad, gray shoulders blocked his view of the busy city street. Only the wind acknowledged Ben, nudging, nudging, nudging his left side.

A long, thin earring swung from a tree branch above him. The name of the thing escaped Ben. He also couldn’t think of any reason a tree would need jewelry, but there she was: her hair piled high like green meringue, her solemn face questioning his presence. A parking lot is a byway, not a point of destination, she said. Are you a hooligan? Only hooligans waste time in parking lots and only homeless people sleep in them. An alarm rose above the breeze…cicadas, that was the word. Maybe those cicadas had been sounding all along, he couldn’t remember. A shiver of panic rose up his spine; his thoughts were so slow. The cicadas’ drone rattled in his hips, his ribs, his head. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud, flashing light on the car keys about halfway between him and the church. A leaf landed on the key ring…no, that was a CVS card attached to the keychain. Those were his keys, but how did they get out of his pocket?

Hummingbird feeders. That was the name for the tree earrings.

Ben was aware of the car behind him and then of a sound, the smack of liquid hitting pavement. The hatchback door was raised, an iris dilated in surprise. In the back of the car sat a box of donations: a few old blankets, a frisbee from Tybee Island, ice skates, some old leather belts. His smile was pinched to a clipboard in the passenger’s seat, his work ID. He grin, an artifact of his days before the break-up, shined brightly from the plastic card. At the bottom, his name stretched in all-caps. Fourteen letters barely fitting within the margins. Ben remembered flashing the card to the church office assistant before stepping into the hallway and into the class he taught.

He needed to call someone. In the space between the radio console and the stick shift lie his cell phone. Behind the cracked display and the over-designed icons— the stylized F in the blue square, the white envelope edged in red, the black mask on a yellow field— were pathways to his friends, his mother, and Philip, the guy he’d met a few weeks ago. His friends would ask questions, his mother would cry, but Philip was a social worker, too. He would not be afraid of seeing people at their lowest, which means he would enter that church parking lot, observe the open trunk and the wandering keys and the blood on Ben’s shirt, and he would take over. No explanation needed.

But, no, they would have taken his phone. And his wallet. The muggers. His headache stomped and he retched again. Black loafers skimmed into Ben’s periphery. He looked up.

“Sir? You ok? Can you tell me your name?”

Yes…no, something was in the way, Ben thought.

She reconstructed a smile, the kind flight attendants dealt as the passengers debarked. “That’s ok. Can you nod for me so I know you understand?”

The woman was backlit, but Ben was still struck by the contour of her neck sliding past the collar of her uniform. Perhaps he had misunderstood her smile. He tried to reach for her sleeve but his arms refused.

“Someone’s messed you up pretty bad,” she said. “You might have a concussion, so I’m going to let you rest there. But I won’t leave until the ambulance comes, ok?”