What Does Your Character Like on His Pizza?

This afternoon, a member of my writing group (ok, not my group, by I do belong to it) posted a question for the other members:

What would your main character order on his/her pizza?

My first thought was ‘what a silly question.’ My second thought was that the first thought was wrong. It was an excellent question. Many authors have a character reference sheet that lists their characters’ physical and personality traits. Some are very basic, many are very long. Few, however, go deeper than asking for ‘likes/dislikes,’ ‘habits,’ and ‘weaknesses.’

Occasionally, though, a character will be in a position to make simple choices that say a lot about them. What do they like on their pizza? What book is he reading? What kind of furniture does she buy for her apartment? Handled right, these simple choices can show more about a character than a full descriptive paragraph.

“Whisky sour,” she told the bartender, then nodded to the stranger. He picked up his beer and slid onto the stool next to her.

While his friends hit the surf Bob stayed in the sand, planting himself under an umbrella and reading Jaws.

The tourist stomped out of the New York pizzeria, angry that she couldn’t get french fries on her pizza.

I often use music as cues to my characters. In one short story, I had a college-age Antichrist conduct some self-reflection while listening to Dark Side of the Moon. My bar bitch selected two Alan Jackson songs on a jukebox. Satan is also a character in a work-in-progress; if it comes up, he’s a big fan of 70’s trucker music.

Even if not used within the story, these cues are often an important part of the character’s background, and a good way to better develop a full-rounded figure. If you don’t know what he or she likes to eat, drink or read, then you may question whether you have a fully-developed character.

If you’re currently writing a character, can you answer these questions?

Which television shows does he watch?
What does she eat for breakfast?
Where does he go on vacation?
What does she read at the beach/pool?
Who is his celebrity crush?
What’s her favorite breakfast cereal?
What kind of pet would he own. What breed?
What’s the most-played song on her mp3 player?
After dinner, what does he have for dessert?

For the record, the Antichrist prefers white pizza, with basil, spinach and/or arugula. Yuppie scum.

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It Always Comes Back to Mother (A Monologue)

Tommy hit the pause button on the remote and looked at his friend. “You wanna know why I can’t keep a girlfriend? Ask my mom.” He picked up his beer and took a drink. “Lemme tell you something. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I had this girlfriend – Cindy – and one day we’re hanging out at her house, just sitting on the porch, holding hands. Mom pulls into the driveway with her piece of shit station wagon to pick me up. Cindy walks me to the car, gives me a little kiss on the cheek and I get in. So Cindy’s standing there in the driveway, waving, and Mom pulls out and heads back up the street. And the whole time, she’s just staring into the rearview, with this… this look on her face. Finally we get three, four houses down and she says – and she’s still glaring into the mirror – she says ‘Not too good looking, is she?’ And she’s dead serious. Can you fuckin’ imagine that? Who does that to a fourteen-year-old?” He took another drink. “I mean, she was right, but c’mon, you don’t do that, for Chrissake.”

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This is Not Li’s Story (flash fiction)

Cheng stared down at Li. Moments ago they were breaking ground, throwing their pickaxes into the hardened earth. Then his friend collapsed. He lay there, eyes open, flies walking across his face.

Above, the desert sun sank lower towards the horizon but offered no relief from the heat. The other laborers began to wander over, gawking at the body.

“What the hell is going on here? I didn’t say anyone could take a break.” Boss rode up on a chestnut quarter horse, shouting at the crowd. He dismounted and demanded an explanation.

Cheng stepped forward, and searched his rudimentary English for the right word. “Dead,” he said, pointing at Li.

Boss noticed the body for the first time. He removed his hat and pondered the corpse before him. “Leave him,” he finally drawled. “We’re already behind, and they’re coming to lay track first thing in the morning.” He turned around towards his horse, and the workers started back toward their stations.

“No.” Boss looked back to see Cheng still standing over the body. “Dead. Bury,” Cheng said, pantomiming a shoveling movement.

Boss shook his head and wiped the sweat from his brow. “I don’t have time for this. Get back to work!”

Cheng stood still and let his pickaxe slide from his hand. The laborers stopped at the sound of the metal tool bouncing from the ground, and turned to watch.

Boss and Cheng stared at each other across the patch of dry earth, each acutely aware of the crowd gathering around them. Boss finally stomped back to his horse and pulled a bullwhip from the saddlebag. “You want to put on a show, fine. We’ll have a show,” he yelled, and raised the whip into the air for everyone to see. He walked back towards Cheng. “Unless of course, you’re ready to pick up that axe and start back to work.”

Cheng lifted his chin and stared into Boss’ eyes. “No.”

In one smooth motion the whip unfurled and came down across Cheng’s chest, ripping through his shirt and drawing a line of blood from his shoulder to stomach. Cheng screamed and bent forward, his arms wrapped protectively around his torso.

“Let’s try this again,” Boss said softly, slowly rotating his hand with the whip. “How ‘bout you pick up that axe now, and I don’t have to make an example of you.”

Cheng looked up and bared his teeth, spitting out ‘No’ once again.

“Have it your way.” The whip flashed down again, this time across Cheng’s back. He fell to his knees. Before he could regain his balance, it hit a third time. Cheng put his hands on the ground ahead of him, and watched a line of blood trickle down his left arm until it dripped from his elbow.

Boss stopped and rested the whip over his shoulder. “Ready to go back to work?”

“No.”

The whip came down with fury, repeatedly, tearing into Cheng’s back. “Pick… Up… That… Axe!” Boss hollered, the whip punctuating each word. Cheng fell prone to the earth, howls turning into whimpers. Feeling around on the ground, he found his axe. He weakly wrapped his hand around the handle and held it up in a sign of surrender; the beating stopped. The crowd stared silently at Cheng, his shirt ripped from his skin, blood pouring from the wounds.

Satisfied, Boss walked back to his chestnut quarter horse, wrapped the whip back over his saddlebag and climbed up. “All of you, back to work,” he yelled to gathered laborers, who quickly dispersed. He pointed at Cheng, who lay still in the dirt, gasping for breath. “Somebody fix him up and get him back on line.” He turned and rode away.

Ju-long, a young man who had arrived just the week before, carried the water bucket over to Cheng. Cradling his head, Ju-long held the ladle of water to Cheng’s mouth while he drank. “You are a brave man. Nobody else would have stood up to the boss,” he said in his native Mandarin.

“No, I’m weak.” Cheng spat back. “Weak, and stupid. I let him break me.” He pushed himself up and walked towards Li.

“I’m going to bury my friend. You’re welcome to join me,” he said to the young man.

“What if boss comes back?”

“Next time, I don’t drop my axe.”

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The Crawdad Story (A Little Bit of Gonzo)

We met up just after dark at Mudbugs, a backwoods crawfish joint in Leesville, Louisiana, itself a half-dead cluster of pawn shops and dollar stores that owes its existence to nearby Fort Polk. I pulled in early and hung outside, chain-smoking and listening to some reptile or another croaking in the woods past the gravel parking lot.

Halfway through my third cigarette Mike, an old Army buddy, showed up. With him were his wife Yvette, a surgically inflated Zumba instructor from Jersey, and a Russian immigrant who called himself Vlad and looked suspiciously like Putin. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged. We opened the screen door, walked in and claimed a lopsided table in the back corner, underneath the television.

Vlad sprung for the first round of beer, and Yvette ordered ten pounds of boiled and spiced crawfish for the table to share. She was amused that I’d never tried them before.

“Crawdads, we used to call them,” I said. “When I was a kid they’d climb out of the mud every spring and we’d use them for fish bait. The idea of willingly eating the filthy creatures never appealed to me.”

The waitress came out and placed before us a plate piled high with steaming red crustaceans, ears of corn and potatoes. She left and returned with a roll of paper towels. “You eat them like this,” chirped Yvette, grabbing each end of a crayfish. She twisted it until it snapped in two, then she slurped the meat from the tail end. “See… easy.”

“It looks a lot better when you do it,” Mike told her. She grinned, not bothering to blush.

I took one and twisted. It cracked open easily enough, but I kept my amateur status and used my fingers to remove the tail. Cajun spices burned my lips. Vlad let out a curse and wiped a paper towel across his face. “Damn, that’s hot,” he growled.

“That’s quite an accent you’ve got there, Vlad,” I said.

Mike jumped in. “The first time we met, Yvette made him say that line from Rocky.”

“What line?

“You know… ‘I must break you.’”

“He sounded just like the actor,” Yvette said, giggling. Vlad grinned, and we continued to whittle down the pile of crawdads.

Mike dished out for a second round of drinks, and his wife called for a toast to good times. Across the room, a crowd of bikers celebrated somebody’s birthday. Above, the television blared an old black and white sitcom. I had to shout to be heard. “So how did you folks meet up, anyway?”

“Vlad’s a soldier in my unit,” Mike said. “He came to the U.S. a few years ago and signed up to serve.”

Putin’s lookalike spoke. “But I’m getting out this summer. I’m moving to China.”

I slammed beer down and glared at him. “What, you don’t like America?”

He took a long swig. “Yes, but, Americans aren’t as nice as they are on television.” His accent got thicker with the alcohol.

Yvette interrupted, hoping to prevent an international incident. She asked him what American television shows he watched back in the motherland.

“I liked the show about the guys from the oil family.”

“Dallas?”

“No, the other one. Knot something.”

“Knots Landing?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“That’s a hell of a way to learn about Americans.” Of all the things we could be shipping over to Russia – jeans, cars, toilet paper, we wind up giving them a soap showing us all as wife-swapping alcoholics. It’s a wonder the Kremlin hasn’t dropped the bomb on us already – the rest of the television-watching world would probably thank them for the favor. Hell, after watching J.R. in action a few times, I was ready to go off on a rampage.

I called the waitress over and slipped her a twenty. “One more round,” I told her. “Keep the change.” She collected our empties and hurried back to the cooler.

My attention turned back to Vlad. “You know what t.v. taught me about Russians? It taught me that you all live in Siberia, and that you spend all your time drinking vodka and eating potatoes.” He laid down his crawdad shell and stared at me.

“You know what else I learned? You’re all spies. Every last vodka-swilling one of you. You’re spies, you’re wives are spies, and I’ll bet your dogs knock over our garbage cans looking for state secrets.”

The Russian leaned forward and squinted. “Everywhere I go in America,” he rumbled, “from New York to North Carolina to Florida to here, everybody – everybody – asks me if I’m a spy.” Mike stopped in mid-chew. Yvette looked down at her lap and fidgeted. The waitress, oblivious, walked over and set down four cold bottles.

Vlad continued to hover over the table, like a demon preparing to rip our souls out. I sat petrified, waiting for him to pounce across the table and pummel me to death, Drago-style. Then without warning he slapped his hand on the table, leaned his head back and roared in laughter, pulling us all in with him.

“Well, that’s it then,” I yelled, lifting up my beer. “A toast – to spies, vodka and network broadcasting!”

“And Rocky!” Vlad raised his bottle and knocked it into mine. “I must break you… hilarious!”

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Halftime (flash fiction)

“Well, that was horrible,” said Maggie McClure, the quarterback’s mother, as she watched the crowd make its way to the snack bar. “They couldn’t even come close to scoring.”

“I don’t know why you’d think they would. They haven’t scored in three games,” answered Janice Avery, whose son Toby was a linebacker for the Jackson High School Wildcats.

Maggie, Janice and the other parents who sat together at every game (home and away), shifted uncomfortably on the cold metal bleachers.

“Did you see that kid score on the punt return? I swear nobody even touched him,” offered one of the linemen’s mothers, raising her voice to be heard over the marching band.

“They touched him plenty,” said one of the fathers. “They just can’t tackle.”

“Makes no difference, if they can’t score,” said Annie Gates; her boy was captain of the defense.

Maggie bristled. “Well, if they’d try throwing the ball, they might be able to do something. The coach only called three pass plays the whole half. Isn’t that right?” She looked up at her husband, who had just returned from the snack bar with a cardboard carrier full of coffees. He grunted and began passing the drinks around.

“And two of them were intercepted,” sniped the running back’s mother.

“Well, of course they were,” barked Maggie. “They don’t have enough pass plays in the book, so the other team always knows what’s coming. That’s the same reason your son can’t gain any yards. They know where he’s going before the ball’s snapped. He didn’t have a chance; they were all over him on those fumbles.” The running back’s mother didn’t respond, sulking.

Annie drew her blanket tighter around her shoulders. “They don’t teach the defense how to cover, either. I don’t think the other team dropped a pass yet.” A handful of other parents nodded.

“The guys shouldn’t have skipped that football camp this summer,” said one of the receivers’ fathers.

“That doesn’t matter if the coaches don’t coach,” Janice snapped. “You know, Toby and I saw Coach Smith out at the mall last Saturday. You’d think after losing like they did the night before, he’d be back in his office trying to figure things out. And he said hi to me like nothing happened!”

The group quieted as athletic director walked by in front of the bleachers. Smiling, he waved as he made his way past. “Glad you could make it out tonight. Sorry about the weather; we’ll try to warm it up next week,” he joked.

“No problem, Bob. Just keep the rain away,” Annie yelled back playfully.

“Did you see that,” Janice asked as Bob disappeared into the next section. “It was like he wasn’t even watching the game. If I were him, I’d be on the phone looking for a new coach.”

“Not going to happen. They’ve all been around so long, so they know they won’t be fired,” said Maggie. The band left the field and the team trotted back on to warm up for the second half.

“It’s just sad. You’d think somebody would take some responsibility,” Janice responded. Everybody answered in agreement.

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Bob (Work in Progress)

Bob wiped the remaining shaving cream from his face and leaned in towards the mirror. He studied his cheeks, which remained their youthful chubbiness well into adulthood. His greying hair was thinning. Eyes which had once drawn compliments for their brightness had dimmed. Wrinkles starting to form in his forehead. He acknowledged to himself that he had spectacularly unremarkable, forgettable face.

He moved to the bedroom, where a freshly ironed white shirt and tie hung from his bedroom door. He finished dressing, then reached into a box on his dresser to pull out a new pair of black wingtips. The scent of leather wafted from the box. He slipped the shoes onto his feet and laced them up, then arranged the box neatly under his bed.

On his way to the front of the house, he stopped at the hall closet – reaching up onto the top shelf, he pulled down another, larger wooden box. He opened the top. Inside was a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver, stainless steel with a glass bead finish and molded black handle. Not a classic ‘man stopper,’ the seller at the gun show told him, but it had a low recoil and good accuracy. He opened the small cardboard box next to it and counted out six bullets, placing one in each cylinder. He tucked the gun into his waistband, the way he saw it done on television. If was heavier than he imagined it would be.

He threw on his sportscoat and grabbed his car keys. At the door, he gave his apartment one last look. Everything was tidy, in its assigned place. He walked out the door, locking it behind him.

As Bob started towards the driveway, he smiled. After tonight, no one would forget him.

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Writing For Story (Quick and Dirty Book Review)

Full title: ‘Writing For Story – Craft Secret of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner,’ by Jon Franklin

I bought this as a textbook for a college journalism class almost 30 years ago. I finally read it front to back, and was enthralled. While dealing with non-fiction story writing, it’s the best instruction I’ve seen for aspiring fiction writers. It’s earned a permanent place on my writing shelf, and is quickly becoming overloaded with highlights and dog-ears.

Franklin, true to the Truman Capote school of writing non-fiction in a fiction style, breaks story-telling down into individual sections, with separate dedicated to structure, outlining, focus, transitions, etc…

As a bonus, two of his best-known stories are reprinted with detailed footnotes to shed light on the writing process, sentence by sentence, choice by choice. It was worth every cent the University of Maryland made me (over)pay for it, even considering that we never opened the book in class. (a common college story).

Five Enthusiastic Stars.

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Microfiction

A bow festively pinned to his shirt, Chester lay under the tree and put a gun to his head. Merry Christmas, baby.

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We’ll Always Have Jersey (flash fiction)

The teenage boy who was stacking books stopped to watch the old man in the travel section. It was normal for customers to pull books from the shelves and read the jackets or check the cost, but not this man. Hands planted in the pockets of a thin brown jacket, this man just stood unmoving, staring at the shelves, for five, ten minutes, maybe longer. Finally the boy left his station and walked to where the man was standing. “Sir?” The old man didn’t move. The boy tried again, a little louder: “Sir?”

Harry jerked up, startled; he hadn’t seen the boy approach, and had no idea how long he had been there. “No, no thanks. I’m ok,” he said, and watched the boy wander back to his duties. He turned back to the books. Coming here was a bad idea, he muttered to himself.

As a young man he dreamed of exploring the world. He spent countless hours pouring through his parents’ encyclopedias, studying all of the countries and continents and bookmarking where he planned to go. Plans have a way of falling apart. Harry joined the Army to see the world, only to find himself stationed in Kansas for three years. After that, he moved back got married, had children to support, a house to pay for, and a lifetime chain of other responsibilities. The idea of traveling became a luxury, a frivolousness he couldn’t afford.

Now, newly retired, it was too late. A miniscule pension and arthritic feet weren’t going to take him anywhere.

But we’ve gone places, Evelyn likes to say. We’ve been to Cleveland. And remember when we visited my cousin in New Jersey?

The books, new and crisp, stood up on the shelves and mocked, a shrine to dead dreams. Travel guides, lined up in alphabetical order. Afghanistan, Aruba, American Samoa… Harry longed to dig his toes into the remote white sands of Ofu Beach, and swim the clear waters in Pago Pago Harbor.

His eyes scrolled left to right across the paperbacks. China, where Marco Polo befriended Kublai Khan and lived among the Mongols. Egypt, where royal tombs and archeological treasures are still buried, awaiting discovery. Peru, home to howler monkeys and 17-foot long anacondas that roam the Amazon. Spain, land of Salvador Dali, the flamenco and running with bulls. Tibet. It was 29,029 feet to the top of Mount Everest, a fact he committed to memory as a youngster. One day he was going to join Edmund Hillary and they’d climb the deadly north ridge. One day.

Remember when we visited my cousin in New Jersey? Harry sighed. He could sense the boy’s eyes still on him. Embarrassed, he picked up a book at random and went to the cash register. Yes, I found everything I was looking for. No, I don’t need a membership card, thank you. He swiped his debit card, and the cashier handed back his purchase in a small plastic bag.

Only after the doors slid closed behind him did Harry open the bag to see what he had bought. My Travels Through Africa. He tossed the book into a garbage can and walked to his car.

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Somewhere in the Desert, on the Way to Needles (flash fiction)

40 v2I rest my cheek against the cold Greyhound window and stare into the Mojave night. Cacti and yuccas roll past, crisply outlined in the starlight. The bus rumbles steadily east, and vibrations make their way up from the road through the vinyl seat beneath me. It’s soothing, restful even, but I force my eyes to stay open. My stop comes up in less than an hour, and I can’t afford to fall asleep and miss it. My brother (the good son) will be waiting to deliver me to our parents. Unshowered and unshaven, I imagine the awkward family reunion that lay ahead.

The prodigal son comes (crawling) home.

Eventually bored with the landscape and my face numb against the glass, I scan the bus for anything interesting. Most of the passengers fell asleep hours ago. The rest keep to themselves, looking out into the desert or at the seat in front of them. Anything from making actual eye contact. The bus driver, a portly, middle-aged man, guzzles coffee from a thermos. Behind him a young mother, dirty blond and barely out of her teens, strokes the hair of a toddler laying across her lap.

Directly across the aisle from me a disheveled guy, about my age, sits straight up, agitated. His jeans are torn, and a faded black tee-shirt hangs loosely from his shoulders. A mess of brown hair is hidden beneath a ball cap. He clutches a small, camouflage-style backpack. Looking for something out the window, His eyes dart back and forth across the landscape. Catching my reflection, he turns and looks back at me.

“Dude, how far to Kingston,” he asks, not bothering to keep his voice down.

“Not sure. Ninety minutes, maybe a couple of hours.”

“Shit.” He turns back towards the window.

I resume my people watching. Bus Driver has one hand on the wheel, other on the thermos. Teen Mom has fallen asleep. A middle-aged man is stretched out across the back row, his coat a makeshift blanket. My eyes lose focus and the homecoming plays out in my imagination; Mom will cry. Dad, stoic as always, will shake my hand. They won’t pry about my other life, at least not yet. They’ll set my old room up the way it was before I left. Mom will insist on making homecooked meals every night (she’ll have remembered all of my favorite food from my youth).

Movement across the aisle grabs my attention. Kingston Dude is reaching into his backpack, withdrawing a pint-sized bottle. Catching my eye, he scoots to the aisle edge of his seat and holds the bottle out towards me. I reluctantly decline – the last thing I need is to arrive home smelling like alcohol. He smiles and takes a swig. “Got to stay warm somehow.”

He continues looking at me for an uncomfortable minute. Taking note of my own ragged countenance, he decides he’s found a kindred spirit and works to keep a conversation going.

“Where you heading?”

“Needles.”

“What’s there?”

A return to the upper middle class. A place, like Dad would say, where respectable people don’t ride busses, drink booze from the bottle, or spend time in the county jail.

“Nothing.”

A string of motorcycles roar by from the opposite direction, chasing shadows down the aisle. Up front, the toddler fusses. “I wanted to make Kingston before the bars close, but I’ll have to make due till tomorrow,” my new friend says, chugging more from the bottle. “An Army buddy called me up – he’s going to put an ad in the paper to make money moving people out of houses and stuff. Wants me to throw in with him; it’s easier to get jobs as a team. Nothing’s happening in Barstow. Not in Bakersfield or Fresno, either. So here I am.”

What do you do for money till then, I ask.

He smiles, happy to have found a willing audience. “I can crash at his place till we get settled. When we’re not moving, I can do odd jobs, wash windshields, beg if I have to. There’s always someone willing to throw a dime into a cup. When there’s a will, there’s a way, if you’re not picky. You know what I’m talking about.”

I stifle a laugh. He does know me. “I just spent three months in jail for not being too picky,” I said, keeping my vice low. “Got stupid and tried to sell a friends’ meds to a cop.” He laughs out loud. On a roll, I tell my story; left home three years ago, passing the time drinking, sleeping outdoors, and working odd jobs, legal and otherwise. This last stunt was the end. It broke me. So tail between my legs I’m on my way home, wearing my only set of clothes and nothing in my pockets but some spare change and a half-pack of cigarettes. I’ll have to beg a light later.

“Harsh.” Kingston Dude leans back and stares at the ceiling, lost in thought. I watch him for four, five minutes, and convinced he’s fallen asleep I look back outside. A full moon shines brightly across the desert landscape, the horizon faintly visible.

Later this week, the folks will ask my brother to take me downtown for a haircut and some new clothes; Dad will hand over his credit card to pay for it. Not long after, hints will drop about looking for a job, or applying to college. Or both. Time to move on with my life.

“Dude.” Lost in my own head, I hadn’t noticed that my buddy had moved over and was now sharing my seat. He has no hangups about personal space. “Dude, you sure about going back to Needles?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you really giving up this easy?” He looked me in the eyes. “Going back to everything you ran away from. Are you going to be happy doing nine to five, having a curfew, serving fries or being an accountant or whatever the hell you’re going to be doing?”

“It got too hard, man. I give up.”

“Fuck that. You just got started. You want to talk about jail? Let’s talk about 30-year mortgages. Or student loans. How about a damn cubicle? That’s jail, dude. Guys like us, we aren’t built like that. We can’t be fenced in – we’ll shrivel up and die. Shit, dude, we’re feral.

“You maybe. Not me. Not anymore.” I flop forward and rest my forehead on the seat in front of me, closing my eyes in an effort as a signal to end the conversation. The bus hums steadily, vibrations are relaxing. In an instant, I am asleep.

I find myself back in Needles looking at my future. I’m wearing a starched white shirt, which itches, and a tie is tightening around my neck. I’m a lawyer or finance manager or some other respectable profession. I have a wife, two point three children, SUV, and a membership at the country club. There’s a professionally landscaped two-story home in a new development. There are no windows, only bars. A heavy iron chain snakes from the front door, ending at a clasp around my ankle.

My head jerks up. The bus is still cruising forward. Up front, the mother is cooing at the toddler, who woke up and is now crying. My seatmate is still beside me, looking concerned. “You okay? You about jumped out of your seat.”

“I’m fine.” He’s still clutching the bottle, now barely half-full. I ask for a drink. He obliges. A large gulp goes down hot, the warmth spreading through my chest to my extremities. “What else do you know about Kingston,” I ask. His eyes light up. We share thoughts and half-formed plans, and I barely notice as the bus stops in Needles, then pulls back onto the road. Sometime soon I’ll have to borrow a phone and call my brother. He’ll understand.

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