Wool

On their third date, Candace and Michael were still getting used to seeing each other without masks. They grinned at each other constantly all through dinner until Candace pointed out a seed stuck in Michael’s teeth. She laughed so hard at his panicked expression that water squirted out of her nose.

Michael had been mortified, but Candace still invited him back to her apartment for drinks. “You look warm,” she remarked. “Why don’t you take off that sweater?” She indulged herself in a quick peek at his narrow hips and flat stomach as his undershirt pulled up with the sweater, but then he started writhing awkwardly, stuck halfway with the sweater covering his head. With one forceful tug, Candace freed him from his woolen constraint, but the static electricity left tufts of his hair standing on end.

“What is it?” he asked as Candace stifled a giggle.

“Nothing,” she insisted, leaning forward to kiss him. A bolt of static electricity crackled between their puckered lips and both jumped, clutching their mouths.

Then Candace started giggling.

Michael’s shoulders slumped. “I guess I should go,” he sighed.

“No!” Candace said. “Stay! This is the best date I’ve had in a long time.”

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

Sacrifice: a parable

It was in the dark ancient days that the last king climbed to the hill in the center of the city. They were days of uncertainty, of fear, of death. There was only one white flower left in the grove on the hill, one bloom remaining with the power to heal. The king stood resolutely before it. Pale, flickering stars burned far above. Drawing his gilded sword, the king fell on the blade. The blood, the sacrifice, nourished the flower, and a dozen more grew in its place.

The people of the city saw. They would not forget that sacrifice, nor let the flowers that blessed their city perish. Each year on the anniversary of the king’s death. a procession marched to the top of the hill, and blood was shed. A few followed the dead king’s example, willingly giving of themselves so that others might live. But most years, they had to find the blood somewhere else. Beggars in the street, criminals filling the prison, but mostly people from the farms and villages of the surrounding countryside: the people of the field.

For year after year and generation after generation, laborers, migrants, and their children were hauled up to the hill and sacrificed with a gilded blade. Over time, things changed. A wall was built around the grove. Families of victims were offered a small recompensed. The people of the city appointed guardians for the hill to protect the flowers that grew there. Less blood was taken so that most of those sacrificed were able to live. And the hill was glutted with blood.

Then came a time of plague.

Across the land, people fell sick. They fell in the dirt and never got up. Remembering their long years of sacrifice, the people of the fields came to the hill. Calloused hands outstretched, they came begging for the healing that their blood had bought.

But within the walls of the grove, there was little to give. Blood had soaked the ground, and flowers had grown, but their petals were thin and brittle and mottled with red. What scarce healing those flowers had to offer, the guardians gave.

And the people of the city raged at the loss of the flowers their king had given. They smashed the gates. They stormed the hill. They set fire to the grove. Red flame. White smoke. Screams in the night. Cold, distant stars.

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Date

Serena grinned enticingly as she set her empty glass on the bar. “Why don’t we take this back to your place?”

“I’d love to,” Phil said staring into his own glass, “but I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”

“Oh.”

“But what about your place?” he offered hastily.

Serena’s brow furrowed, then her eyes went wide. “Oh no,” she gasped. “You’re married.”

“What? No.”

“But thereissomeone else.”

“Not . . . really.”

Serena shook her head in disbelief. “I’m an idiot,” she said gathering up her jacket and purse. “I have to get out of here.”

“She’s not—” Phil winced. “I mean, I can explain.”

But Serena was already on her way to the door. “Don’t bother,” she called without even looking back.

Fifteen minutes later, Phil opened the door to his dark apartment and turned on the lights.

“Your back early,” a woman’s voice remarked.

“I know,” he grunted.

A spectral figure glided into view. She was dressed in rags, her skin was cracked and crumbling, nothing but two deep pits for eyes. “So how did it go?” she asked.

“Like you care.”

The ghost considered, then shrugged. “Turn on the TV. I want to watch Great British Bake Off.”

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Gift

“I don’t know what I did to deserve this as a gift,” she says in her seat beside the hospital bed. She presses his hand into hers, though the bony fingers remain limp in her grip. A life, faint and fading.

A life is ending.

She had never felt more scared than when she realized she was sitting in the room where her husband would die. She would have to say goodbye to him alone.

“On Christmas, of all days.”

Two floors above, another woman wipes a tear from the corner of her eye. “A gift,” she whispers. “Such a beautiful gift. And on Christmas of all days.”

She had welcomed him into the world alone, never before feeling as relieved as she did when her son was born and she held him for the first time.

A life is beginning. A life, so fragile, so hopeful.

She cradles his head to her chest, lets tiny fingers grip her thumb. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this as a gift.”

Two floors below, a woman says goodbye to the love of her life with tears in her eyes. “A gift,” she whispers. “You were such a beautiful gift.”

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Sandy Torchon from Pexels

Shield

Shauna had always hated working holidays at the hospital, but Christmas during a pandemic made everything worse. Usually patients could at least have visitors; they could celebrate in some small way, letting their ailments fade into the background, but this year the loneliness and misery of the hospital were harder to escape.

She found her next patient standing up in the room and looking out the window. “It’s nice to see you up on your feet,” Shauna said in her nurse voice, more upbeat than she felt.

“I wanted to watch the angels,” the patient, an elderly woman with bad lungs, replied.

Shauna was grateful for the N95 and face shield which masked her cynical expression. Great, she thought, now she’s showing signs of dementia too. “Let’s get you back into bed,” she offered, not wanting to stay late on Christmas documenting about a patient fall.

“Just a minute longer,” the patient answered as Shauna stepped up beside her. After a moment, Shauna finally followed the woman’s gaze out into the night’s darkness. From their fourth floor vantage, they could look down on city streets resplendent with twinkling Christmas lights. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” the patient whispered. “Joy to the world.”

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Restaurant

“Derik …”

“What?”

Her mouth opened, but no noise came.  She swirled around the last few noodles of her fettuccini, hoping they would provide the answer she needed, just like the tea leaves her grandma used to read before apostatizing.

In another part of the restaurant, a pitchy variation of the birthday song had started up.  His head turned in the direction of the music where a cluster of balloons bobbed a little too closely to the ceiling fan.

But she was trying to talk to him.

“Derik, I’ve been thinking …”

A bright red apron materialized abruptly beside them.  “Can I get you a refill?”  The overly chipper voice was a shock to her system, so entrenched as she was in her solemn contemplation.

“Thank you,” Derik chimed in reply.

A clear pitcher of water suddenly hovered between them, filling their glasses.  There was the familiar “plop, plop, plop” of ice cubes falling into the cups as well.  She hated having too much ice, but she managed a feeble “Thanks”

“And let me get those plates for you.”  Then apron and plate and fettuccini had vanished.

“What was it you were about to say?”

“It was … nothing,” she said.  “Never mind.”

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
from A Breath of Fiction’s archives
originally published D
ecember 5, 2010

Zipper

“Why can’t I stay at home?” Zinny asked dejectedly.

Hannah answered my rote, “You’re still too little to stay at home by yourself.” Moving automatically, she grabbed a stocking cap from the hook by the door and shoved the hat down over her daughter’s mess of curly hair.

“Why can’t daddy watch me?” Zinny asked next.

“Because dad’s not home right now,” Hannah said, grabbing the bright purple coat from its hook and draping it over Zinny’s shoulders.

“But I want him to be home.”

Hannah restrained a sigh, saying simply, “I know, darling.”

Zinny looked up with large eyes that her mother refused to meet and asked, “Where is daddy?”

Hannah knelt to help her daughter with her zipper. “He had to go far away for work, remember?”

“He’s always far away at work,” she groaned.

“Yes.” Hannah yanked the zipper, and it didn’t move. She yanked again.

“I just want him to be home again.”

“Yes Zinny,” Hannah said through gritted teeth, “I know.” She tugged the zipper pull with short sharp movements.

“But why is he not home?”

“Because he’s NOT” Hannah shouted. They were on the same level, face to face, eyes filling up with tears.

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Holidays

“You find the human traditions intriguing, don’t you?” Nioll asked as the two ancient beings studied the party happening around them.

“How could I not?” Xiad replied.

A sneer: “I find these holy days primitive. Festivals celebrating a seasonal change based on the tilt of the planet’s axis? Childish.”

“It’s pronounced holidays.”

“An inconsequential distinction,” Nioll answered, dismissing the reply with a wave of the hand.

“And they’re not just celebrating the solstice,” Xiad continued. “At least, not exactly. Certainly they started by fearing the dark and cold, then rejoicing when the days got longer. But that is not what they celebrate now.”

“Oh? Then what is?”

Xiad watched the smiling humans. “Hope itself. The belief that goodness exists in the world and that it can overcome the evils and injustice that oppress them.”

“Then maybe they aren’t primitive, just naive.”

“Maybe. Or maybe we’ve grown too cynical. With all we’ve seen, maybe we need some hope.”

“Noble words,” Nioll admitted. “Worth consideration. Yet they continued to study their companion. “So . . . your love of these festivities has nothing to do with the egg nog then?”

Xiad looked down at the mug in their hands and smiled. “Well, maybe a little.”

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Photo by Rinck Content Studio on Unsplash

Eyes

“I can’t believe I ran into you! It’s been too long.”

Renee nodded while desperately searching her memory for this woman’s name. What she said was, “I’m surprised you recognized me. Between my haircut and the masks, I’ve gotten used to friends walking right by me.”

“It’s the eyes,” she said smiling. “They gave you away instantly.”

“I guess they call them the ‘window to the soul’ for a reason.”

Exactly!” the other woman said. “That’s all we’ve got to go on these days.”

Renee realized that she had never actually made an effort to look this woman in the eye. In fact, she’d gotten into the habit of avoiding eye contact with anyone she encountered on her rare excursions out of the house. It took a surprising exertion of will, but Renee forced herself to look into the other woman’s eyes. And she saw.

Mirth
Uncertainty
The strain of trying so hard to accept that this was what life was like now
so that when she told herself, ‘it’s gonna be okay,’
she might actually believe it.
Loneliness
Determination
Confidence that everything really would be okay.

“Emina,” Renee said, recalling the woman’s name. “It’s so good to see you.”

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Devotion

The sculpted folds of cloth were cool beneath his touch. “It’s a beautiful statue,” someone behind him said.

The elderly worshiper turned to see a young priestess watching him. “Beautiful,” he said with a wistful smile, “but still only a poor reflection of the divine, wouldn’t you say.”

“Your humility does you great credit, sir.”

“Ah.” A sigh. “His eminence has been telling stories, I see.”

“It’s an honor to meet you the sculptor who filled this temple with the most awe inspiring representations of the goddess,” the young woman said eagerly.

“It was my honor to work in her service,” the wizened artist replied. His hand still rested on the sculpted stone but it was his other hand the priestess now focused on: the black, deformed thing at his side.

“The high priest also told me about your . . . accident,” she said.

“A fallen stone,” he said, “of all things. I had finished my work, and the goddess claimed my hand forevermore.”

“Why not pray to her for healing? Surely she would answer such a devoted servant.”

A smile, radiant and sorrowful. “And have her return the greatest sacrifice I could possibly offer? What would that say about my devotion?”

     *     *     *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Photo by Peter Ivey-Hansen on Unsplash