Rat Shuffle

That in-between time struck the city at the clock’s stroke of 4am.

It was still quiet. There wasn’t much traffic except for the very early morning shift, and a few rats shuffling down the sidewalks. Occasionally you could hear the click of the changing of the traffic lights.

Eric had grabbed his morning coffee before work. He stood at the corner and stood watch. He still had 20 minutes before he had to make his way to the train station. If he was lucky, there wouldn’t be any track fires, boozed up denizens, or any other mishaps on the train. He didn’t want to be late.

A woman suddenly caught his eye. She had runs in her stockings, and was wearing only one shoe. In her left hand, a shiny red leather pump was dangling like a dead plaything. The heel was broken.

He wondered if he should offer her a cigarette, but then changed his mind. She might want something else. Thoughts crossed his mind. Eric imagined scenarios for the stranger. Was she getting off of work, or headed home after partying? How did her heel break? Why did some women wear such footwear, knowing the risk of being caught shoeless in the streets.

Yelling broke Eric’s train of thought. A man stormed out of the deli. He didn’t have enough change for whatever he wanted, and soothed his wounded pride by shouting epithets at the store clerks tucked safely inside. He finished off his tirade, triumphantly sailing the leftover coffee in his cup at the window. It hit the window with a smack, and left the milky brown liquid streaming down the glass.

Eventually, something gnawed at Eric to check his watch. He had been too absorbed in people watching. He had 4 minutes to make it to the platform. Looking up at the traffic light, it was still red. It didn’t matter, because there were no cops or heavy traffic around.

Eric dashed for the train. He ran across the street, nearly bumped into an old woman scavenging the garbage can for aluminum cans to recycle, and headed up the stairs.

His lungs were burning as he hustled up the stairs. Two minutes to make it to the platform. He pushed passed the doors, pulled his metro card out of his back pocket, and slipped through the turnstiles. One minute to go.

Eric looked down the tracks, and was greeted with the oncoming lights of the train. Passengers were scattered about the platform. Some were checking their phones, while others were sipping coffee or gnoshing on bagels or breakfast fixings from the deli.

The train pulled up and Eric filed into one of the cars. It was still early enough, so he was able to grab a seat. The train pulled out of the station, and Eric began staring out of the windows. Reaching for his front right pocket, he fumbled about for his headphones.

Another day. Another dollar. 35 minutes until he would arrive at his destination. After arriving two stops before his, that’s when it happened. The brakes were pulled, and the train screeched to an abrupt stop. Track fire.

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The Outsider

The bird swooped down and landed at Laura’s feet.

She watched it, as it cautiously hopped toward the seeds that laid scattered about. Pecking furiously, the bird worked quickly to open the sunflower seeds, and greedily ate the contents inside.

Laura laughed to herself as she watched. Sometimes she wondered what it was like to be a bird. It seemed that they always managed to find their way, no matter what. Perhaps there were always people like herself, who would make it a point to occassionally feed them.

Life hadn’t been the kindest. Laura beared the scars to prove it. Her jeans, ripped at the knees, where peppered in paint, sewn-on patches, and an oddly placed zipper. Each embellishment was a memory and a testament to her life.

Laura had lived off the kindness of strangers for many a year. The day she sprang from her abusive alcoholic father’s house, the open road was her home from then on. It had been two years since her dog London had passed, and she had yet to pick up another travel companion.

She kept his collar around one of the straps of her backpack, worn from hopping trains, and hitchiking on highways. Occasionally she would find herself lovingly stroking London’s collar, when she found herself missing him.

Laura remembered one night sleeping huddled under a bridge. Luckily, London was by her side, and barked when some creep tried to steal her shoes in the night. She never slept well. Vigilance was her only security, in a merciless world hellbent on catching her in a careless moment.

Eventually, a few other birds gathered around, to enjoy the little feast that Laura had provided. Scrounging around her bag, she pulled out a soda that she lifted from a nearby drugstore. Popping off the cap with her lighter, she let the cap hit the ground unceremoniously. She tilted her head back, as the cool drink hit the back of her throat.

She let out a loud belch, followed with a laugh, and stretched out her arms. Life was hard, but she was free. The birds were almost done eating their meal, as Laura gathered her things. She was headed to see the river, one last time before she had to catch a train. The road was calling again.

 

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Swingset Chain

Ellie walked through the playground.

It had been years since she had left her old neighborhood. A lot had changed. The tire swing was no longer hanging around. It had been transformed into a planter, near the entrance of the park. The normal swings were still around, but the cement which was underneath, was now covered in wood chips.

She chose to sit at the bench under the big maple tree. Someone had hidden a makeshift bird feeder in its branches. The air was cool, but not bitter. A gentle breeze passed through the leaves of the trees, making them shift and turn in the wind, as if dancing. She was alone.

Something about visiting this old park, stirred up emotions over life and growing older. Ellie thought about the time she fell of the slide. She managed to chip her tooth. It was the second one, to the left of the center front teeth. She would still emit a slight whistle when she spoke certain words.

Ellie touched her cheek, thinking about the first time she got a kiss from her crush. There was only a few weeks left of school when it happened. The kids that noticed broke out into songs. They loudly teased her with pointed fingers and disgusted groans.

She pulled out her notebook, and began to jot down the memories that began flooding back. So much time had passed, and remembering her childhood had been so distant. Life had been filled with work, dating, traveling, and barely sleeping. It was nice to finally have a moment to rest.

When she finally felt it was time to go, Ellie paused. She gave the playground one last look over, before slinging her bag over her shoulder. She left a tiny paper crane on the bench. It was a memento for her time at the park, a place she thought she had left behind. The years had touched her. The gray hairs, like the old maple trees, were her only witnesses.

 

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Marta

Marta woke up to the sound of birds chirping outside her windows. Her view was obstructed by the clippings of newspapers that covered half the window, and a security gate to keep out unwanted intruders. She never had any visitors. Sometimes she thought to do away with the gate, but living in a city, reminded her that was a foolish thought.

Sometimes she would wonder the streets, until she would find refuge at a park bench. She would pull out some bread that she picked up at the local baker. Often, she would set aside just one sweet bread. It was a tribute for the little birds that would be her only company, surrounding her feet. It was a nice diversion, to quiet the deafening loneliness that never paid rent to live with her.

She would forget about how she came into that ramshackle apartment twenty years ago. She didn’t think about the persistent leaky sink, that was a longstanding amenity to the neighboring rats and roaches. All that mattered was those few moments of peace, which she found at the park. Slowly, Marta would dip her hand into a paper sack, pinch off a piece of bread, and throw it to the ground.

The birds would swoop down and land in front of the bench. Sometimes one would be brave enough to land on her shoulder, or eat directly from her hand. Marta liked to think of the birds as little saints, who would fly to heaven, and whisper her prayers to God. She greatly enjoyed the comfort from their songs, their kindness, and how they looked past her shortcomings.

Perhaps, if there was such a thing as reincarnation, she could be reborn as a bird and return the favor. Sometimes, a dark thought came to her, that the birds were simply taking advantage of her having food. Then again, life was about give and take. What was the loss, to simply share a crust of bread with another living soul?

The Laundromat

Vivian watched the swirling gray water slosh around the laundry machine. As the socks, shirts, and slacks slipped and slid over one another, bubbling suds began to cover the clothes from clear view. The laundromat was always a good place to get away from the apartment, depending what time she came. Sometimes, she imagined herself a sociologist or anthropologist deep undercover. She would mentally record the comings and goings of the local patrons, seeking to clean their dirty laundry while listening out for whatever gossip they could monger up.

She’d laugh to herself, as she watched women with pendulous bodies, overburdened with years of childbearing, heavy loads of dirty clothes in tow, waddle in like they were royalty. They only seemed to take notice of the other ladies, who bared similar appearance. Occasionally, Vivian would catch them huddled together on the block, smoking cigarettes, and making disapproving comments at passerby. They were the old hens of the roost and consequentially the unofficial neighborhood watch. They definitely let everyone know, who ruled the pecking order of the neighborhood, and that you were on notice.

There would be single men, either the college-age yuppie wannabe types, or SRO regulars. Both were often looking to score a number. Sometimes the single men were older, perhaps widowers, or had always been a bachelor. They didn’t seem to mind not separating the light and dark clothing, or tossing detergent, softener, and everything but the kitchen sink into the smallest washers available. This would happen often, if the attendant wasn’t looking.

The attendant on staff would grumble under their breath, mumbling curses as they hurriedly rushed to grab a mop. The need to clean up overburdened washer machines, spewing out soap suds everywhere, occurred a little too often. Kids would take the opportunity, to run and attempt to slip and slide in the wet soapy mess. Otherwise, they would be too busy whamming the buttons of arcade machines, that they never had enough quarters to play. Occasionally, candy and sticker machines would get stuck. This tragedy would create a sobbing child, who would be dragged away, with promises of a beating, or a treat to make up for the loss.

The laundromat was always a curious place. Brimming with life, the denizens of the block would shed their need to always out-do and out-polish one another in appearance. Of course, there would be those few exceptions, but they were often on the prowl for a new date, or side-piece. Vivian enjoyed the smells of the laundry softeners mixing together. The hum of swirling washers and dryers, made a unique rhythm, which complemented the flow of customers coming in and out of the laundromat.

At last, her laundry was done. She stopped peering her eyes over her glasses, keeping score of how many people dropped their soap powder, or how many times a quarter got stuck in a machine. She went to her dryer, and quickly pulled out the still burning hot clothes. They landed cleanly into the laundry basket, except for a few socks that got loose. Vivian focused on folding her clothes, making sure to tuck in the corners of sheets, and turn any shirts or pants outside-in.

After the last item was neatly stowed away, Vivian slung her laundry bag over her back and made her way out into the street.

Candy Hunt

Janice quietly slipped out of bed. She crept past her parent’s bedroom, and slowly, stealthily made her way down the stairs. She was on a mission for a late night snack.

She pulled out the step-stool from out of the closet. Carefully she unfolded it, and placed it in front of the cabinets. The best treats were hidden on the very hard-to-reach, out-of-the-way, topmost shelf. With the aid of the step-stool, Janice reached the sugary contraband with ease.

She grabbed marshmallows, chocolate bars, jelly beans, and caramels. She was proud that she was able to do this so well, and so quietly. That’s when Janice let her early success get the best of her. There was a jar of lemon candies, sitting in a fancy etched glass jar. She just had to have some.

Janice thought she had a good grip on the jar, but it managed to slip out of her fingers. She watched mouth agape, as it splintered into pieces after a resounding crash. That is when the hallway light flicked on, putting a spotlight on the stairs. A door opened and closed, and the sound of heavy rushed footsteps hurriedly made their way down the steps.

She was caught. Janice quickly tried to get the broom to hide the mess, but there was no time. She crawled into the cabinet space under the sink, and waited.

“Is it a ghost or burglar Harry?” a woman’s voice asked.

“Well Nancy, I don’t see any signs of a break-in. So, I suspect it’s just a ghost.” Harry answered, while looking around. He swore that the cabinet space under the sink was slightly ajar, if just for a split second. Harry paused to see if anyone or anything would make a sound, and quickly give itself away.

After a few moments of silence, Harry swept up the mess of glass, and put away the other items. He rummaged in the refrigerator to get himself a glass of juice. Harry was thirsty after engaging a moment of heightened adrenaline.

Janice breathed a sigh of relief, as she heard the light switch click off, and footsteps trudging back up the stairs. She wondered who Harry and this woman were. Did her parent’s know that someone had moved into their house? Maybe she should call someone? But who?

Janice made her way into the living room and plunked down onto the sofa. She quietly mulled over what just happened. Digging into her pockets, she began popping some marshmallows into her mouth, which she had managed to hide away.

Eventually, Janice fell asleep on the couch. She kept thinking how strange it was, that some stranger, and not her parents, had come down stairs to investigate. Suddenly, she found herself remembering the accident at the pool, and the flashing lights and siren.

She was the ghost.

 

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Maybe Sunday

Autumn walked through the lonely city streets. Her mustard yellow boots protected her from the pools of water, as she trudged along through the rain. It had been raining for three days, with no end in sight. Tucked tightly under her left arm, her notebook was wrapped carefully in a plastic bag. She could not afford to lose her work. Autumn was a writer.

After making a left turn at Duffy and Lane, she finally arrived at her destination. Autumn enjoyed holing up at Maybe Sunday, a doughnut and coffee shop. It wasn’t a pretentious and expected place for a freelance writer, like those well known designer coffee shops. She was a down-to-earth low-key kinda lady. Plus, those stuffy coffee shops didn’t have a 2-for-1 special on doughnuts after 3pm. The cinnamon and bow-ties were her favorite choices.

“The usual, Autumn?” Andy asked with a smile.

“You bet.” Autumn smiled back, as she put a five-dollar bill in his hand, and plunked a golden dollar into the tip cup. She wasn’t well-off, but after spending years scraping by in the service industry of diners, coffee shops, and retail, she knew tips mattered. Plus, joints like this one had a je ne sais quoi about them, and were a treasure for story incubation. Maybe Sunday was one of the last gems in a city, that had been all too quickly overtaken by gentrification and chasing trends. Autumn vowed she would protest and chain herself to the doors, if the city ever sought to push her “office space” out of business.

Andy would chuckle, when Autumn would say these things. “Well Autumn, you and a few of these other customers still believe certain things are worth preserving.”

Andy was the son of the original owner of Maybe Sunday. His father had come to the city seeking a better life, after escaping the war. He wasn’t much good when it came to door-to-door sales, and didn’t want to handle work at the stockyards or factories. He choose to make doughnuts and brew coffee instead. Turned out, he had a natural knack for powdering fried dough and sourcing great beans. Business thrived, and after the old man died, Andy decided to keep a family tradition going.

“So what you writing about these days, Autumn?” Andy asked with a lighthearted curiosity. He was wiping down the counters with a damp rag, and moving the napkin dispensers and sweeteners around.

Autumn enjoyed watching Andy and the other staff work. Everyone at Maybe Sunday operated with such precision, that the coffee shop ran like a fine-tuned machine. No matter if business was slow, or the number of customers swelled and created a line out the door, everyone got ample attention and quality service.

“Well, I just picked up some work on the changing face of real estate in the area.” Autumn replied. “I’m also juggling some side assignments on pet ownership, and the struggles of dating for 20-somethings in the city.”

“Sounds interesting,” Andy responded. “Hope you put in a good word for us at Maybe Sunday, if you can. Maybe the city will one day make us a landmark. That would be something, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, that would be fantastic.” Autumn then paused before speaking up. “Well, as long as the prices don’t go up too much for one of your favorite customers?”

“You’ll always get something for loyalty.” Andy assured Autumn with a wink.

“And hopefully no terrible food trends or diet police come in, trying to make you offer fat-free or sugar-free doughnuts!” Autumn chuckled while clapping her hands in amusement. She imagined some emaciated health-critic storming through the doors of Maybe Sunday. Their face turned up in disgust, and with slits for eyes, they would vilify Andy and the offerings of Maybe Sunday with a pointed finger.

Andy went to the back to grab some more doughnuts to restock the front. Autumn went back to writing in her notebook. Customers would occasionally file in, shaking off the rain from their umbrellas and coats. Orders for coffee with two sugars – no cream, old-fashioned, jelly-filled, and eclairs were called and filled. Autumn decided to call it a day around 8:20 pm. It was ten minutes to last-call and closing time for Maybe Sunday.

“See you around Andy,” Autumn said, as she gathered up her belongings. She placed her notebook back into its plastic bag, despite the rain finally tapering off to just a drizzle.

“Have one for the road, wordsmith.” Andy replied, placing a paper bag filled with doughnut holes into Autumn’s hand.

“Thanks Andy, you’re the best!” Autumn shouted over her shoulder, as the door closed behind her. The bell in the corner jingled gently, announcing her departure. As she made her way across the street, she turned back to look at Maybe Sunday. The sign at the entrance was flipped to show ‘Closed’ and the lights had been turned out. Only the steady glow of the neon, with its persistent low hum, was the only light left.