Category: Short Stories

In the Blink of An Eye – Short Story Sunday

One of my goals for 2018 is to publish a short story every week.  Well, I’ve been busy reworking my novel and taking a writing class.  But I have still been writing stories.  So instead of trying to find a publisher for them, I am going to publish them myself.  I’ll be publishing them on Sundays and I have named it Short Story Sunday.

Here is the first one for the series called In the Blink of An Eye.

***

Joy. Bliss. Different labels for the same thing: a numbing feeling that lulls you into a sense of euphoria so life can blindside you. It had betrayed her trust and lulled her into complacency so that tragedy could knock her on her ass in the most unimaginable way possible.

From now on, when joy came creeping around the frayed edges of Asia’s life with its feel-good promises of butterflies and fairy tales, she would steel her nerves and brace for the impact. Two days ago her life was perfect. This morning she woke up to the phone call everyone dreads. The phone’s foreboding ring was laced with death, like her mother’s voice would be. She picked up the phone. “Mom, what’s wrong?”

The silence that filled the space before her mother replied told Asia someone was dead, she just didn’t know who.

“Asia, please come to the house.”

“I’m on my way but I need to know who’s dead.”

“Asia, you shouldn’t hear this news alone.”

“Mom, please. Just tell me.”

“It’s your sister, Asia. I’m gonna have dad come get you.”

It was Asia’s turn to be silent.

“Asia?”

Asia swallowed. “N-no. I…ummm…I need to call Atara. She’ll come get me.”

Atara was Asia’s twin sister, the one her mother just said was dead.

“Asia, baby, let daddy come and get you.”

Asia hung up the phone and dialed Atara’s number. She willed Atara to answer. She listened to the phone ring. The tears that ran down her face admitted what her mind refused to embrace: something happened to the other half of her. She sent the phone flying into the wall. Black pieces of plastic and small shards of glass shattered everywhere.

“Atara, you will not do this to me, do you hear me?!”

Asia threw the covers off her legs and stomped out of bed. She snatched her keys and walked out of the house barefooted to her car. Her feet didn’t even react to the frigid, snow-and-ice-covered sidewalk. She was aware of what she was doing but was also outside of herself watching her own body move. She was in a movie and she was the star of the show and also the audience.

Her body was on autopilot as she drove to her parents’ home. The world around her was on mute. Time stretched just beyond her grasp and moved like molasses. Visions of life with her sister flashed like Polaroids in her mind: their first day of kindergarten; first day of junior high school; first dates; getting their driver’s licenses and their first car that they fought over who would be the first to drive it (this made Asia release a little snicker); and college graduation.

Asia forced herself to stop this final review of their lives together. Atara was fine. She had to be. They still had so many things they had to do together.

Asia arrived at her parents’ house without remembering what route she took there or even realizing that she had been shifting the gears in her car to do it. Her father was just beginning to back out of the driveway just as Asia was pulling up behind him. The back bumper of his car hitting her front bumper knocked them both out of the panic they were in. His door flung open as he ran up to Asia’s car door. Asia looked up at her father through her window. The tears on her father’s face confirmed what Asia’s mother said. Asia’s breathing quickened. She shook her head and started to cry. “Nonono,” she started to scream as she kept her gaze on her father’s eyes.

Her father yanked at the door handle. “Asia, baby, open the door.”

Asia kept her eyes locked on her father’s. Tears ran down her face and saliva fell from her mouth.

Her father pulled the handle on her door several times. “Asia! Baby, please, open the door.”

Asia couldn’t hear him. Her father leaned down putting his gaze level with hers. He pressed his huge hands against the window and framed her face within them. He stared at her through the glass, their tears now synchronized. He nodded his head. She shook hers in reply.

“Open the door sweetheart,” he said.

Asia turned off her car and opened the door. Only one of her feet touched the black asphalt driveway before her six-foot-four father grabbed her up into a hug. Her head fell onto his shoulder as her keys dropped with a tinkling sound into the snow-covered grass.

Asia’s mother put her arms around them both. Asia wrapped her legs around her father’s waist like she did when she was little. Her father turned to walk her inside. As her mother walked behind them into the house, she saw Asia’s red toe nail polish. She rubbed Asia’s foot, the only consolation she could offer.

Inside the house, Asia’s father tried to put her down on the couch but Asia wouldn’t release her grip around him. He sat down on the couch and held her in his lap and rocked her. Asia’s mother sat down beside them and rubbed Asia’s arm.

When Asia’s soul was empty of tears, she sat up and looked at her father. “Where is she? Where is my sister? I want to see her.”

Her father let out a resigned sigh. He knew nothing would keep Asia from Atara. “I’ll take you to her. I’ll move your car. You go put some shoes on your feet.”

Asia’s mother hurried up to their old room. She paused at the door. Her hand flew to her mouth to stifle the sobs that wanted to escape. She went to her own room instead and got Asia a pair of her shoes. They all wore the same size. The memory of all the friendly arguments they had over borrowing each others’ shoes without permission ran through her mind as she grabbed a pair of slippers and took them back down to Asia.

She helped her daughter out to the car. She leaned down and cupped Asia’s face in her hand and kissed her cheek. She pressed her forehead into the side of Asia’s face and let it hover there for a moment.

“Mom, please,” Asia said.

Her mother met her father’s gaze and their eyes said what their voices couldn’t.

On the way to the hospital, Asia watched her childhood pass before her: the park where she and Atara played for hours at a time; their schools; the movie theater where they watched way too many movies and stole kisses with boys in the dark; the roller rink where they met their best friend, Angela (their dad called them the name the A-Team…it was his favorite TV show). The warm memories that every place used to hold turned cold as they slid past her window in silence. Asia looked over at her father. He stared straight ahead and blinked the tears from his eyes to keep them from blurring his vision. Asia grabbed his free hand and laced her fingers between his.

At the hospital her father parked and turned to face Asia. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Asia swallowed hard, then nodded her head. They made their way into the hospital and her father stopped at the desk. Asia watched as her father talked to the nurse behind the counter and then pointed to her. The nurse sent a pitying look Asia’s way then picked up the phone and said something into it while she kept her gaze on Asia. After a few moments a nurse came over to Asian and her dad and escorted them down a side hallway to an over-sized elevator. The nurse pressed the round black circle with the capital letter ‘B’ and the doors slid shut. After a few seconds the elevator made a sudden lurch that made Asia stumble into her father. The elevator began its labored descent making a low humming noise that vibrated in Asia’s feet. The elevator ground to a halt. The doors hesitated before jerking open to reveal a large glass window. A man sitting at a desk in blue scrubs stood up ceremoniously as the nurse led Asia and her father into to the door.

As they walked down the hallway to the door, Asia’s eyes kept staring through the glass at the table in the center of the room with a white sheet covering the body she knew belonged to her sister.

They stopped at the door. The nurse put her hand on Asia’s shoulder. “I’ll meet you back at the elevator. Take your time,” the nurse whispered. Her shoes made a squeaking noise as she walked back down the hallway leaving Asia to face her fate.

Her father looked at the table with Atara’s lifeless body on it and then looked back at Asia, who her body trembling now. “Asia, you don’t have to do this.”

“No. I need to see her.” She walked toward the door to go in and her father walked with her. She turned and put her hand on her father’s broad chest. “Alone, daddy. I need to do this alone.”

“Asia, let me–”

“No, daddy. Stay here.”

He grabbed her and hugged her. She buried her face in his large chest and took a deep breath. She turned and walked through door and stopped at the edge of the table. Her father stood on the other side of the door with his hand on the glass wanting to do something but not knowing what it was. The man with the blue scrubs stood at the opposite end of the table.

“You take your time. Let me know when you’re ready,” he said.

Asia closed her eyes. She breathed in deeply through her nose. A movie began to play in her mind of her, her sister, and their best friend Angela, walking home from school one day. They walked past a group of boys and one of them said “look at the monkeys.” Atara was always more subdued than Asia and Angela, but not that day. She stopped and turned around.

“What did you say?”

The boys stopped and turned around. Asia was counting the heads. Three of them. It’d be an even fight.

“I said which one of you cowards said that?” Atara said as she dropped her book bag on the sidewalk, took off her earrings, and handed them to Angela.

“Atara, they aren’t worth it,” Asia said.

“Atara? What a stupid name,” one of the boys said.

“Why don’t you step up here and say that to my face?” Atara said.

Asia put her hand in front of her sister to keep her from moving too close to the enemy. Angela dropped her books and assumed a fighting stance. The stand-off had begun.

“Atara forget it. Let’s go,” said Asia.

Atara picked up her book bag and turned to walk away when it happened.

“You better keep walking, bitch,” one of the boys said.

Before Asia knew what was happening, Atara dropped her bag and ran up to one of the boys and punched him in the back of the head. Asia was stunned for a moment. She’d never seen her sister fight before. When one of the other boys tried to rush Atara, Angela jumped in and clothes-lined him. Asia ran in and started swinging on the third boy just because he was there. The three boys were no match for the A-team. They landed punches like men. It took two crossing guards and a good Samaritan (who let Atara get in one more punch on purpose) to break up the fight.

Asia was jarred from the memory by the voice of the man in the blue scrubs.

“Ma’am? Are you okay?”

Asia shook her head. “I was thinking of the time when my sister and our best friend got in a fight with these three boys.”

The man in the blue scrubs looked at Asia with understanding in his eyes. “I understand.”

Asia nodded her head and the man pulled back the sheet just and tucked it below the chin of the corpse, then moved away to let Asia have a moment alone. Asia looked at her sister. Atara’s face was pale and lifeless. Her father looked on from the door. This was the last time he would see these two faces together.

Asia rubbed her twin sister’s pale face with her thumb and kissed her forehead, then her nose, then her lips. She laid her head on Atara’s chest and hugged her stiff body, hoping her sister would hug her back just one last time.

“How am I supposed to do this without you?” she said.

The room was silent. The hum of the fluorescent lights played like a dirge above them. She suddenly sat up to demand answers.

“What happened to her?” She looked at the man in the blue scrubs.

He looked back at her and then over to her father at the door.

“Answer me! What happened to her?”

Asia’s father rushed in the room. The coroner went to pull the sheet back over Atara’s body.
“Don’t you touch her,” Asia said.

The man in the blue scrubs froze. Asia turned to look at her father. The next words came out very slowly and deliberately. “What happened to her,” she asked again.

“She had a heart attack” her father said.

“A what?”

“A heart attack.”

“That’s not possible. She was a health nut.”

The man in the blue scrubs looked at Asia’s father as if he needed his permission to talk. Her father nodded.

“Sometimes they just happen.”

Asia looked at her sister again. She rubbed her hand over her sister’s hair. “Was she alone? Did she die alone?”

Asia’s father put his hand on her shoulder. “No, baby. She was at her job. In a meeting. She said she didn’t feel well and then she–”

Asia raised her hand. She couldn’t bear to hear any more. “What’s going to happen to her now?”

“We have to make her final arrangements,” her father said. He put his arm around Asia. “Come on. It’s time to go.”

Asia reached down and hugged her sister. Her father took a deep breath and tried to pull Asia back up. “Asia, we have to go now.”

Asia didn’t move.

“Asia,” her father said gently, “ you have to let go now.”

A week later the arrangements had been made and Asia sat lifeless in between her mother and father at the funeral. Staring at her twin sister in a casket was like staring her own mortality in the face. Asia stood and sat on cue but she was numb. The only thing that ran through her mind was how to begin her life without her sister and she couldn’t come up with an answer no matter how hard she tried. Later at the interment after everyone left she stood next to her sister’s casket staring at the flower arrangement. Angela walked up quietly beside her and laced her fingers in between Asia’s.

“We aren’t the A-team anymore,” Asia said.

“I know.”

“It sucks.”

“Definitely sucks.”

“When I walk away that’s it. How do I do that, Angie? How do I just turn and walk away?”

Angela let go of Asia’s hand and walked up to the casket. She looked at the flower arrangement and pulled off a tiny pink rose. Angela pressed her nose into the flower and let the sweet scent linger in her nose. She walked back to Asia. She handed Asia the flower. Asia took it. “Now what?”

Angela put her hands on Asia’s shoulders. “Take a deep breath.”

Asia took a deep breath and let it out. Tears ran down both of their faces. Angela took Asia’s hand. “Now we say something to her.”

“You go first,” Asia said.

“Okay,” Angela paused for a moment then began to speak, “I’m gonna miss you, girl. We ain’t blood, but that don’t matter. You’re my sister. When I have a child, boy or girl, I’m naming it after you, so you can be with me forever.”

“That was beautiful, Angie.”

“Thanks. Now it’s your turn.”

Asia stared at the white casket and all of the pink and purple flowers on top of it. “You always said that pink AND purple were your two favorite colors. You never would let anyone make you pick one over the other.” Asia and Angela both chuckled. “You’re the other half of me. Stay with me, Atara,” she whispered, “even as a shadow, even as a dream.”

#

 

The Six Hundred

Howdy, friends! I set a goal for this year to publish short stories every month to my blog.  Here is one I wrote about Bloody Sunday written from the POV of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Enjoy!

***

Bridges are a connecting route over an obstacle. I am the gateway to Selma from Montgomery. The day I was completed I was so proud. Before me, there was an old two-lane wooden swing bridge that carried mule loads of cotton. I replaced that old bridge in 1940 and was a sight to behold: a steel arch bridge with a central span of two hundred fifty feet and nine large concrete arches.

But my beauty was short-lived.

I remember it like it was yesterday. A moment born out of grave injustice and death. You know it as “Bloody Sunday”.  Indulge me as I tell you how it all began.

Since about 1963 there was a hard push here in Alabama for equal voting rights. Less than one percent of black people who were of voting-age were registered to vote and the KKK was fighting with deadly force against anyone who tried to help blacks get registered. It was happening across the country.

One day in a nearby town called Marion, a black man who was a deacon of his church and a civil rights activist, was brutally beaten, shot, and killed by Alabama State troopers while he was protesting the arrest of a fellow civil rights worker. He was trying to stop his grandfather and mother from being beaten by the troopers when one of them shot him in the stomach. He died eight days later. He was only twenty-six.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Folks in Selma had had enough and decided to march from Montgomery to Selma and the only way to do that was to go across me, the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Yes, that is the name of the person they chose to place across the top of my steel beam in large black letters.

The name of a man whose family owned slaves.

A man who was a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the most violent white terrorist group in Alabama.

I was all at once the link between Selma and Montgomery and a symbol of all that was wrong with America.

I was a beacon for tragedy.

The morning of March 7, 1965 was thick with tension. Injustice and justice were about to clash. Injustice was there on foot and horseback dressed in Alabama State trooper uniforms and riot gear. They were armed with billy clubs and tear gas, and their blinding hatred was fueled by the cheers of supporters flanking the bridge waving confederate flags.

Justice was there in the form of six hundred people armed only with love and sheer determination, to demand what they had been promised a century before: the right to vote.

The time came for the march to proceed. The six hundred waited peacefully for the signal to begin. The troopers stood in front of them, billy clubs in defensive position. The six hundred began to walk in a very thin line on my sidewalk. A voice over a bullhorn told them “it would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march.”

But the resolve of the six hundred was sure.

The troopers pushed back two of the six hundred leading the cause. I heard the troopers’ footsteps quicken. A flood of sounds followed: terror-filled screams of the six hundred, the cheers of confederate bystanders delighting in the mayhem, small explosions and the hissing of tear gas, the thud of bodies being trampled to the ground, the thwacking of billy clubs striking unarmed bodies with brutal force, and the cloppity-clop of horses’ hooves as the troopers atop them drove men, women, and children back over the bridge, swinging at them with clubs, whips, and rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire. All the while the six hundred never fought back….and they didn’t make it over me that day, either.

The sight was atrocious.

The Alabama State troopers inflicted wounds so bad that fifty people were hospitalized.

Two days later, the six hundred turned into two thousand people determined to walk over my expanse but when they got to the bridge a man named King told them to disperse.

Things went back to normal for a while and the usual traffic went across me as if nothing ever happened. I thought maybe the six hundred had given up, thought maybe those troopers had beaten the dignity and determination out of everyone.

But I was wrong. I should have known that a people descended from those who survived the terrorism of slavery wouldn’t be stopped. Two weeks later, thousands walked over me. They didn’t just use the sidewalks this time. No, they filled up my entire expanse and flowed over me like a mighty river.  I cheered them on and hoped their footsteps were stirred old Edmund Pettus from death’s slumber and made him turn over in his hateful grave as he watched all those people – black and white – flowing steady and sure under his name toward victory.

Before Bloody Sunday, I was a symbol of oppression and hatred. Today I am a landmark of Civil Rights.

I wish I could tell you things got easier but it didn’t.  Death, hatred, and injustice continued to flow freely.

Shortly after they marched across my expanse, the KKK murdered a white woman named Viola Liuzzo. She had driven to Selma from Michigan and was shuttling some civil rights activists to the Montgomery airport. She was only thirty-nine years old and had a husband and five children.

But nothing lessened the resolve of the Civil Rights movement.

Fifty years after that day, this country’s first black president stood before me. He said Selma was a place where destiny had been decided. He said slavery and the Civil War and segregation and Jim Crow and the death of four little girls and the dream of a preacher collided here.

So I stand proud today and wear my name as a badge of honor, not because of Edmund Pettus, but in spite of him. I am a reminder that hatred and injustice are no match for the hopes and dreams of the disenfranchised. I am the connecting route between injustice and justice.

I am the Edmund Pettus bridge.

 

Write On!

That scene is from my all-time favorite movie You’ve Got Mail.

And this is just what I feel like right now.

I’ve been writing a short story every week and sending it out to be considered for publication.  Between that, the creative writing class I’m taking, and the novel I am also working on, my brain just hit maximum stuck mode.

The words just. won’t. come.

I need a break but my Google calendar is the devil on my shoulder reminding me of the weekly goal I set for myself.

“It’s Friday,” she says in her obnoxiously female voice.

“I know that,” I say, “but I’ve been working so hard. Can’t I have an extension just this once?”

This is her reply:

And so I sit here with Nadia, Ella, and Sarek (my characters) staring at me like

waiting for me to write out what happens next in their lives.  But they’ll just have to stare. And I’m looking back at them like:

And I’ve decided I won’t be intimidated by my calendar or my characters who all seem to have bad attitudes today.  And I have no room for that kind of negativity in my life.

I’m going to go read.

Or maybe watch You’ve Got Mail for the millionth time.

So there.

Until I write again….

 

The Drunken Bull

You may remember me telling you that I am participating in a short story challenge at 12shortstories.com.  Well, here is the story I just submitted for August.  It may or may not have been an actual event in my life. 😉

***

I made it a point to have lunch at The Drunken Bull that day after two of my coworkers told me eating there was worthwhile entertainment. I needed something to take my mind off doing way too much work for way too little money. I didn’t really want this job but I took it for two reasons: my husband’s old college roommate said I would love working there and my current job was taking its toll on my health. I walked over to The Drunken Bull around noon. It was only a few blocks from the congressional buildings and the crisp fall air did me a world of good.

The rectangular red brick building looked unassuming from the outside, like it housed offices or apartments rather than a restaurant. The entrance had an inconspicuous blue awning that jutted out over it. The lack of any wording on itgave hints of the infidelity that went on inside. Inside was a stark contrast to the exterior facade. This was the watering hole for congressmen and senators who wanted more than just the draft beers and food listed on the menu, if you catch my drift.

My khaki pants and woman’s polo shirt with the computer installation company logo emblazoned on the shoulder announced to everyone that I was not of the same ilk. The men in their suits and ties looked like desperate johns, and the women in their painted-on suits looked like expensive call girls. I grabbed an empty seat at the bar and was greeted immediately by the bartender with a menu and a glass of water. The chatter was thick and loud. The words “Lewinsky” and “cigar” and “impeachment” were on tap in every conversation. Yes, I worked as a computer installer during that scandal.

I never saw so many people in one place so concerned with who knew whom. But I guess it was par for the course, politics were all about connecting with the right people. Who were the right people? That depended on what your agenda was. I’m not sure what that girl’s was, but I’m almost certain penetration by cigar in the oval office wasn’t what she had in mind. Or maybe it was.

The scandal in the news and the reporters that crawled all over Capitol Hill like an army of ants, hadn’t put a damper on things at The Drunken Bull. This was “the club,” where our nation’s lawmakers made shady deals with rich constituents over burgers and beer and used their political prowess to get laid by women who weren’t their wives.

A tape recorder and no conscience would have made me a rich woman. My ears zeroed in on the guy next to me who called his wife and gave her some bullshit story about congress being in a special session so he wouldn’t be able to make it home this weekend. “No, no, you just stay there and have fun with the kids,” he told her. I choked on my soda. He hung up his cell phone and shot a look at me, displeased I had been privy to his plans for debauchery. I scoffed at his attempt to intimidate me and ate my fries.

This place was filled with young women, none of them more than 23 or 24 years old, who got hit on by unattractive old men whose only lure was their political prowess. They had access to places and these women wanted in. The hypocrisy of it was amusing: these men committed the same sin they were trying to impeach the sitting president for. I kept my gaze on the shelves of liquor behind the bartender to disguise my eavesdropping efforts. I picked up on another conversation, to my right this time. A congressman who convinced his new and gullible-sounding staffer to let him show her around DC to “give her the lay of the land.” She had no idea his words were a double entendre.

I heard politicians were the slimy sort and not trustworthy, but I just sat among scalawags that justified the sentiment. I shoved the last bite of my sandwich in my mouth and raised my finger to the bartender. “Check, please.” I wanted to take my exit before the slime in that place found me and tried to ooze its way over my body like that pinkish-red ickyness in the movie ‘The Blob.’

Then I heard it: “Well, haven’t seen you in here before, pretty lady.”

Shit.

The long and short of it….

Today I took another step toward my goal of becoming a published author: I submitted a short story to The Saturday Evening Post  to be considered for their print edition.

I never pictured myself writing short stories. My goal is to write novels. In fact I am busy working on one while I write these short stories. But I’ve been reading a lot about authors and how they got started and they all have one thing in common: they started out writing short stories.

I read an article about how to establish yourself as a writer and the advice was, you guessed it, writing short stories. Another article said to write three or four of them a month and just start sending them out, so I’ve been doing just that.  I have a long list of bookmarks for online literary journals, e-zines, and shorty story contests that I am submitting to.

My goal is to win four writing competitions and have 15 short stories published by the end of the year.  Sounds like a lot, but if I aim high I’m bound to reach at least a portion of this goal.

Now, I’m not just writing haphazardly.  I’ve been reading articles on how to write short stories and I’ve also been reading lots of shorts by authors who are considered to be the best at this craft.  People like Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Raymond Carver, J. California Cooper, and Annie Proulx.  If you’ve never read short stories before, give these authors a try. I was a little nervous to read anything by Mr. King, but I’ve managed to get through his stories…so far…without any bad dreams. Although I may or may not look like this while I read his stories:

This style of writing has really been stretching my skills. Most short stories are 3,000 words or less.  That may sound like a lot but it isn’t.  Think of how long a novel is.  That’s like a movie. Well, a short story is like a commercial. Yeah. That.

But it really forces me to be deliberate when I write and use strong verbs that elicit (I hope) a strong emotional response while also painting vivid imagery.

Hey, have you read any good short stories lately? I’d love to hear about it!  I’m always looking for another good book to read.

Until I write again…..

 

 

And Then He Sneezed

Okay, so as a writer it’s important to write every single day.  I joined a website called 12shortstories.com.  It is a year-long challenge to write (obviously) 12 short stories in a year.

That’s harder than it sounds.

Each month a writing prompt and a word count are provided. You have one month to write your heart out.

For July, the writing prompt is “coming undone” and the word count is 1200 words. Here’s what I have come up with.

I’d love to know what you think. 🙂

***

He stood there and stared into the open grave where his best friend’s body sat in a mahogany casket. Two days ago they were together for a July 4th cookout. Now his best friend was a Black lives matter hashtag, another Black man murdered at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve, and Mike’s world would never be the same.

Eric and Mike had no idea that cookout would be the last time they ever hung out together. They ate, laughed, and watched the fireworks. But Eric’s allergies had been unusually bothersome that day so he took a benadryl (he didn’t know that would be a fatal mistake). The benadryl made Eric drowsy so he asked Mike to drive him home. Mike didn’t hesitate to do Eric that favor and said he would just take an Uber back to the cookout to get his car.

On the way home they both noticed a police car had been following them since they got on the highway. Mike double checked to be sure he maintained the speed limit but they got pulled over anyway. Mike’s heart sank into his stomach. He had a bad feeling. But he stayed calm. He signaled, pulled over to the shoulder, kept his hands on the steering wheel at 10 and 2, and he made no sudden moves. He and Eric both knew the drill. The officer approached the car and asked Mike if he knew why he was being pulled over. “No,” was Mike’s reply. The officer told Mike he was speeding and Mike said he was doing 60 in a 55. Another officer walked up on the passenger side of the car with his hand on his gun. Eric’s window was rolled down. The officer looked at Eric for a moment, then asked him if he was high.

“No,” Eric said, “I just took a benadryl for my allergies and I’m a little sleepy.”

“You look high to me.”

“No,” Eric said, “I’m not high, benadryl makes me drowsy, officer.”

The cop asked Eric to step out of the car. Eric sighed. This is bullshit he thought to himself. But he didn’t want things to escalate so he complied. Mike was busy talking to the officer on his side of the car. After about 30 seconds….a minute maybe?….Mike heard Eric sneeze, then

bang…bang bang.

He thought it was just more fireworks. But then he heard something hit the car. He turned to look and saw the other officer with his gun drawn.

“What the fuck?! Eric?!”

Mike tried to open his door. The officer pushed it closed.

“Put your hands on the steering wheel and DO NOT move!” the officer said.

“Okay, okay! Can you just tell me what’s going on please?!”

“Don’t move!”

“I’m not moving!”

Mike squeezed the steering wheel so tight he could see the veins in his arms. He focused on those. He heard a bunch of sirens. He wanted to turn around to see what was going on, but the officer had his gun pointed right at Mike’s head.

“Officer, please, what’s going on? Is Eric okay?”

“I said don’t move!”

“I’m not moving, I just want to know what’s going on!”

The officer told Mike to step out of the car. Survival mode kicked in. He complied even though he had done nothing wrong. He was placed face down on the trunk and handcuffed “for his own protection” the officer said. That’s when he saw Eric’s body laying on the ground, lifeless. He asked over and over again for help.

“Please, someone help him! Don’t let him die!”

He heard the cops as they all talked and tried to get their stories straight. Mike wanted to help his best friend but couldn’t. He did the only thing he could do: hope Eric would be okay.

“Eric? Can you hear me?”

Eric didn’t reply.

“I’m here with you man. I’m here. Don’t die, man, just don’t die. Hang on.”

Mike closed his eyes. He’s gonna be okay. He’s gonna be okay he chanted over and over. It was 20 minutes before an ambulance finally arrived to the scene. Mike watched as they turned Eric over. The front of Eric’s white shirt was now dark.

“Eric! God damnit! Eric!”

His instinct made him try to jump up, but the officer applied more unnecessary pressure to the back of his neck.

“Stay still! Stay still!”

“Stay still?! Come on, man! That’s my best friend!”

Mike’s body filled with rage. But he needed to stay alive. He closed his eyes. Mike didn’t know how long it was before the officer finally let him up and took the handcuffs off. The rest of that night and the week that followed felt like a movie Mike had watched. Every day he woke up to the nightmare of Eric being dead. The days that led up to the funeral came and went like molasses. When the day of the funeral finally came, Mike was a zombie. He didn’t cry. He didn’t talk. He didn’t respond to anyone offering to shake his hand or hug him. He helped carry his best friend’s casket out of the funeral home. He helped load him into the hearse. And now he stood at the edge of Eric’s grave and the finality of it hit Mike like a boulder. His best friend since kindergarten was gone. Murdered by a cop. Because he sneezed.

He overheard people that talked about justice for Eric and his soul died a little more, if that was even possible. No amount of justice would bring his friend back, and, as a Black man, Mike knew better than to expect that the cop that murdered Eric would be charged. The only thing Mike thought about right then was how to get his feet to move, but they were like cement blocks that anchored him to Eric’s grave. His brain tried to send a signal to his feet. Turn. Walk away. But his feet knew that life without his best friend had to begin in earnest once he moved. So Mike chose to kneel instead.

And that was his undoing.

Mike felt something wet drop on his hand. He looked down and saw a drop of water. It wasn’t raining. He looked up and hoped gravity would send his tears back to their source. It was no use. His mind filled with images: Eric’s body lifeless next to the car; the cop’s hands on the back of his neck holding him down; the red lights on the ambulance that took Eric away. All the rage he couldn’t let out that night rose up from his soul, to his gut, to his stomach, to his heart – where it lingered for just a moment too long – to the back of his throat. Then his mouth opened and a guttural, primal, heart-wrenching scream spewed out like vomit. He felt arms around him that kept him from falling into his friend’s grave. Arms that tried to comfort him. Arms that tried uselessly to keep his soul from collapsing.

But those arms came too late. A lifetime of friendship was ended because Eric Jackson sneezed.