Better

“What are you doing here, Paul?”

From within the glare of the headlights, a thick voice answered, “I’m gonna kick Matt’s ass.”

Stacy stood in the doorway of the bar, arms crossed. “And you really think that’ll make Annie want you back?”

Seated on the hood of his car, Paul answered, “No, I think it’ll make Matt regret being such a piece of shit.”

“Well you’re wasting your time. He’s not even here.”

Before Paul could retort, another voice said, “It’s fine.” Matt stepped outside into the headlights. “I’ll fight my own battles.”

Paul leapt from the hood and charged. “Damn right you will.” His punch knocked Matt flat on his ass. “Get up,” Paul growled, and Matt obliged. Another furious swing Stacy screamed, others poured out of the bar. Paul kept swinging, meeting no resistance from his opponent. “Come on, fight me,” he roared as Matt once more hauled himself to his feet. “What’s the matter with you, asshole?”

Matt’s lip was already swollen and split. He answered, “Annie.”

“Don’t talk about her,” Paul raged, once more knocking Matt to the ground.

“She would want me to be better,” Matt coughed. “She would want us both to be better.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Eugene Triguba on Unsplash

Leaving

I watched him prepare to leave, feeling a strange emptiness a foreboding. Then my dad happened to stride past. “Dom, you’re not staying for dinner?” he boomed.

Dominic shook his head. “The number 23 stops running after seven.”

“The bus?”

“Yes, dad,” I said, unable to stifle my own attitude.

“Nah, come on,” he insisted, clapping Dominic on the back. “Stay for dinner, then I’ll give you a lift.”

Dominic’s face was still, as impossible to read as ever. All he said was, “My mother might worry, sir.”

Dad gave a sharp, approving nod. “Fair enough. We’ll take you back now.” Then he turned to me. “Whaddya say, Harry?”

“Dad, just be cool.”

But he wasn’t even listening for my answer. “Dom, where do you live?”

A quick glance in my direction. “Corner of Fifth and Washington.”

A pause.

“That’s . . . that’s on the East Side, right?”

Dominic’s jaw tightened. “That’s right sir.”

The jovial tone returned. “Oh, would ya stop calling me sir. Call me Bob.” Then he grabbed the keys and flung open the door. “Come on boys, the Cadillac’s out front.”

We rode all the way to Dominic’s house in silence. Somehow, I knew that everything had changed.

* * *

A story by Gregory M. Fox

Clinging

“I can’t do this anymore.”

We were used to shouting at each other. Angry clashes and passionate reconciliation had always been our pattern, but then a simple, calm statement ended everything. I couldn’t even summon a response, just stared blankly, searching her face for some sort of explanation.

She shook her head. “Things were supposed to be different here.” I could hear a deep, searing pain in her voice. “You said they would be different.”

“I thought they were.”

She didn’t respond for a long time, just stood in the doorway. Finally she said, “My sister’s downstairs. She’ll give me a ride. The apartment is yours now.” A pause. “Goodbye.”

She must have shut the door, but I did not, could not watch her go. At some point, night fell.

At some point, I smashed a lamp and toppled a bookshelf. At some point, I ran out of liquor. “This is your fault,” I said at last.

A thin voice replied, “No.”

“We left everything to get away from you. You weren’t supposed to be here.”

“You . . .” the voice creaked, “brought me.”

“Leave me alone,” I pleaded.

“I . . . can’t.” And I sat in the darkness, clinging fiercely to my anger.

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Ducks

Today, a duck reminded me of how the world ended.

I never thought it would be possible for me to forget a single detail of the meteor you sent hurtling into my life. The words you spoke were a life-smothering cataclysm. Blindsided, all I could do was stare straight ahead at the pond, where a family of ducks swam in slow, uneven circles.

I still remember the ducks with perfect clarity, but find I can no longer remember your words. Though I endlessly retraced every syllable, every pause, every shift in intonation, turning the crater into a canyon, I now recall only muffled echoes. The chasms I carved were just scribbling in the sand, and the pain that bored so deeply into my heart is now cold, inert, and surprisingly small.

There are still scars, of course. A few of the joys we shared have fossilized within me, brittle monuments of a different life. Occasionally, one of them turns up. Occasionally, a duck reminds me of incomprehensible sorrow. But life has returned, new and varied and beautiful. The world spins on. And it turns out that the moment I thought was the end of everything was only a fleeting shudder.

bence-balla-schottner-1aB_gM58k5A-unsplash
Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash

Story by Gregory M. Fox