Dimple

As soon as Maren stepped into the room, my pain started to lessen. “Alright Dell,” she said flashing a quick, radiant smile, “let me just scan that bracelet.”

Maren moved with brisk efficiency, but I still had opportunities to note the playful bounce of her short natural curls, the shifting muscles in her forearms as she typed, and the dimple that emerged in her cheek when she grinned. It almost made being in the hospital feel tolerable.

“Three pills and a shot this time,” my nurse announced.

Immediately my vision started clouding, and I felt beads of sweat on my neck. “I . . . I don’t really like needles,” I admitted, looking down at my hands.

“That’s alright,” she said handing me the pills. “I’ll see what we can do.”

I felt relieved, but still shaky. Maren waited patiently while I forced down the meds, then asked, “May I see your hand?”

“O-okay.”

She placed two fingers on my wrist as though to check my pulse, but instead of checking a watch or clock, her eyes shifted to mine. Perfect lips asked, “Will you marry me?”

“W-what? OW!”

A dimple in her cheek. “Sorry!” And Maren walked away with an empty syringe.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Fears

They had agreed on two things: ordering the artisinal goat cheese platter as an appetizer and admitting deep fears to each other.

“Do we have to do this here?” Benni asked with a nervous glance at the restaurant’s lunchtime crowd.

Doug nodded, heaped some garlic and herb cheese onto a cracker, and said, “It’s now or never. I’ll go first. I’m afraid that everyone in the office can tell I don’t know what I’m doing.” He smiled, seeming relieved, and looked to Benni who hastily shoved a cracker into her mouth.

Instead Samantha declared, “I’m afraid I’ll never tell Doug I love him.”

A fork clattered to the floor. A clump of cheese fell from Doug’s lip. Samantha sank into her chair, busying herself with spreading fig and honey cheese onto a cracker.

Finally, Benni spoke. “I’m afraid . . . never mind.”

“You can tell us.” Doug offered encouragingly.

“I’m afraid of what you’ll think if I do.”

“That doesn’t count,” Samantha muttered.

Benni looked around the table. Doug smiled brightly. Samantha’s cheeks glowed red. Five expensive logs of cheese lay before them.

“Fine. Benni said with a sigh of surrender. “I’ll say it. I’m afraid I don’t actually like goat cheese.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Skip

Jun was waving as I stepped out of the skip station, but I didn’t rush to meet them. They reached out to take my hand, and I flinched, startled by the contact.

“Is something wrong?”

“I . . .” I hesitated. Uncertain? Embarrassed? Afraid? “I think I had a bad skip.”

I tried to read Jun’s reaction, but their features suddenly seemed foreign in a way they never had before. “Let’s get some food,” was all they said, “then you’ll feel better.”

There hadn’t been anything strange about this evening’s skip. I had stepped into the pod in Philadelphia and 17:23:51 planetary standard time and stepped out in Kyoto at 17:24:07. Practically instantaneous transportation. Not transportation, I reminded myself, reconstitution.

“Is something wrong with your noodles?” Jun asked. Was that concern on their face? Confusion? Fear? How long had I been staring at my noodles lost in thought?

Lost echoed in my mind.

“Bathroom,” I muttered, then left the table.

I studied my reflection and found every freckle, every hair, every scar exactly where I expected. Something still felt wrong. I splashed water on my face, gripped the edge of the sink, tried desperately to convince myself I was more than a ghost.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Growth

“I didn’t know if you were coming,” Patty said as soon as Marie had pulled herself out of the dented beetle.

Her sister shrugged, shoved a cigarette between her lips, and lit it with the same beat-up Zippo she’d had since she was 17. “Let’s get this over with.”

Patty pursed her lips. Marie kicked off her shoes. They began walking toward the grove.

“They’re growing well,” Patti explained, stress compelling her to speak. “Much fuller than last year. I was a bit worried, with that late frost—”

“You know they’re dead, right?” Marie interjected.

“I,” Patti faltered, “was talking about the trees.” Marie snorted, took another drag and walked on. “Someone has to tend them,” Patti grumbled.

Then they reached the trees. Tall, sturdy oaks, some nearly 200 years old. Continuing on, they passed smaller and slimmer specimens until the sisters stopped suddenly about fifteen feet back from the two slender saplings on the eastern edge of the grove.

Stillness among the trees.

“That’s where they’re . . . ?” Marie asked.

“Yes,” Patti said in a whisper.

A gentle breeze. Leaves shaking. Their hands found each other.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Marie said.

Patti squeezed tightly. “I’m glad you’re here now.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Bruise

“Oh Valerie!” Eddy’s sing-song voice called out.

“What, you still can’t manage to give yourself a black eye?” I grumbled.

Eddy leaned back with a smug grin. “Clumsy fingers. Besides, Valerie loves working with me. Don’t you, Val?”

And then she was in the dressing room with us. “I really don’t mind,” she said, moving briskly to arrange makeup supplies. I busied myself with tying my cravat so I wouldn’t end up staring at her.

“See?” Eddy teased. Even without looking, I knew he was grinning at me.
I had tied the cravat wrong. Frustrated, I undid the knot and started over. “You’re exploiting the poor girl,” I said.

“Nonsense,” Eddy declared, “I’m giving her life purpose, isn’t that right, Val?”

In spite of myself, I was staring and saw her shoulders shrug as she worked. “I really don’t mind,” she insisted.

Eddy suddenly grabbed her hand, lowered the makeup brush, and leaned forward to whisper. “Perhaps you could powder his nose so that he doesn’t feel left out.”

Her lips pressed together, mouth crinkled, but the laugh escaped anyway.

My face went hot. I rushed out of the dressing room, suddenly desperate for the refuge of being someone else.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Spill

Ted did the math in his head while his truck compacted a block’s worth of garbage. If he finished the route by five, he would have time for a shower and maybe even a bite to eat before visiting. He made a mental map of drive-thru’s on the way to the hospital.

Thump.

The truck’s robotic arm had knocked over a bin, spilling garbage across the sidewalk. Biting down curses, Ted jumped out of the cab and righted the bin, refilling it with the bags and loose trash so that he could dump it correctly. Sloppy. But he’d be fine as long as he stayed focused the rest of the route.

Three stops later he knocked over another bin.

So maybe he would settle for a granola bar from his locker. He could skip the shower, but mom always wrinkled her nose when he smelled like work. He couldn’t risk ruining the visit, just in case the doctors were wrong.

Thump.

Ted stared in disbelief at a mess of garbage he had just spilled into the street. His hand fell from the controls. Loose papers and Styrofoam cups danced in the wind. Ted did math. It was all slipping away.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Wait

“Another cocktail?”

The woman hesitated, checked her phone, examined the lipstick stain on her glass. “Whiskey. Neat. Something with bite.”

The bartender nodded. Her movements were effortless fluid as she replaced the empty cocktail glass with a fresh tumbler and filled it with a rich golden liquor.

“Thanks,” the woman replied. She took a long, slow sip of the whiskey, then sighed. “I’m wasting my time, aren’t I?”

The bartender shrugged. “It’s not that late. You’ve got a great smile, killer curves, and that dress! Honestly, I’ve been thinking about trying to get your number, except it seems like you’re waiting for someone.”

A sad smile “You’re sweet.”

“Nah, I’m just a sucker for red lipstick. What’s the story?”

Another long drink. “I’m here for a conference. He told me he’d meet me at my hotel while I’m in town, so I gave him the address and everything, but . . .” she trailed off into a sigh, then drained the remainder of her whiskey in one long gulp. Moments later her glass was full again.

“On the house,” the bartender smiled. “This guy, is he worth waiting for?”

Her lips twitched. “I thought so.”

“And . . . would he wait this long for you?”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Fragment

I unlocked the door with my spare key. “Nora?”

“Fuck off.”

Undeterred, I continued into the apartment. The air was dry and smelled like sour dirt. Something cracked beneath my foot: a fragment of painted clay. They were everywhere, scattered among boxes, papers, scraps of plastic, piles of clothes and other debris. I didn’t stop to examine any of it on my way to the spare bedroom. “Nora?”

A growl.

A crash.

A stifled sob.

I found my sister at her worktable, surrounded by a stack of unpainted pottery and a sea of colored shards. “Fucked up glazes,” she said.

“Nora.”

“Ruined my brushes, but the new ones are shit too.” I trudged through the ruins of her grief to stand beside her. She reached for another pot and said, “Gotta keep working.” Then, moving with a manic fervor, she scooped up brushes, moved between different jars of glaze, dabbed, brushed, and swirled the colors, creating a masterpiece right before me.

A pause.

“FUCK!” She hurled the vessel at the wall, shattering the unfinished piece.

I put my arm around my sister, and she sagged into my supporting embrace. “It’s all fucked,” she lamented.

“I know, Nora. I’m so sorry.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Schmincipal

“Do you think this graham cracker is okay to eat?” I asked.

Your eyes darted away from the snowy road only briefly. You frowned. “Where did you find that?”

“The glove compartment.”

A sigh, “Would you stop pulling apart every corner of this truck? I don’t want it to fall apart before it hits 100,000 miles.”

You were trying to joke, but I could see the frustration underneath. “I just thought everyone keeps snacks in their glove compartment. I didn’t think you’d mind if I checked.”

But my gambit to lighten the mood didn’t stick, and you answered, “I think a man’s entitled to a little privacy in his own truck.”

And then I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “What—are you hiding something?” I asked. “You didn’t even know about the cracker.”

“It’s the principal of the thing.”

“Principal, schmincipal,” I snorted. “You’re going to have to get used to me poking around in your life.”

The truck stopped. You shifted into park and said, “You mean, once we’re married?”

“No, I mean right now,” I said pointing out the window at a row of pine trees. “There’s no way I’m letting you pick out your own Christmas tree.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Gray

I was trying to be happy. Your smile was radiant, and you wore the necklace I gave you for your birthday. Rumbling down the dirt road in your jeep made me feel like a kid again, but then I felt embarrassed for being so old to begin with.

Could you tell what I was feeling? I think you could.

We had the beach practically to ourselves. A biting, misty wind whipped in over the waves. We huddled close together on the pale sand. You slipped your hands beneath my jacket, clung tightly to my sweater. “You’re so warm,” you sighed.

Were you just trying to make me feel better? I’m not sure.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This was a bad idea.” I felt your body go rigid, felt you begin to pull away, felt everything start to fall apart. No point in putting it off. I lowered my gaze to meet yours.

Your eyes were hard, and I felt myself break against your glare. I didn’t want to lose you. A smile curled your lips. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” you said. “I’m right where I want to be.”

But did you mean it? I believe you did.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox