A Place For Everything

I frequently take part in free-writing challenges that result in one shot short stories like this one.  The story, inspired by a prompt, is completed in a limited time frame (usually an hour) and I thought they’d be fun to share.


Prompt: Just another late night

Of all the dumb things Jack Walker had done in his life – and there were lots and lots of them – this had to be the dumbest.

He slouched lower in his patio chair and shook his head before taking a sip of cold beer from the bottle. Another Friday night, another night spent with his ass parked on his back porch where the silence of the neighborhood was broken only by an impromptu chorus of bullfrogs; the dark by the lazy flash of fireflies beneath the canopy of the maple trees near the fence at the edge of his property.

Okay, so it wasn’t climbing Mt. Everest in subzero weather, riding with soldiers through an Afghanistan war zone, or tracking drug lords through the jungles of South America with the CIA on a covert ops mission that the White House still denied ever took place type of “dumb,” but it had to take a prize somewhere. Because a grown man, sitting alone in the dark – drinking alone in the dark – because of some chick, definitely put him three feet over the line of Just Fucking Pathetic.

He lowered the beer and let out a gruff laugh. Now he was pathetic? Only now? Who the fuck was he kidding? A year ago, Friday nights meant the newest, hottest night club with the newest, hottest women. Sweaty, grinding dancing on an overcrowded floor followed by sweaty, grinding sex at her apartment. Never overnight, though. Always back to his place before five with a kiss on the cheek and an “I’ll call you” they both knew he didn’t mean. No harm, no foul. A quick cab ride back to his apartment, a shower, a change of clothes… back to work. Off to whatever country was next on the schedule. That was life. One IED on one rocky roadside later… This was his life: Jack Walker – Pulitzer prize photo-journalist – suburbanite. Living in a three-bedroom ranch flanked by a guy who had six cats and a family of four whose son thought it was fun to try to set said cats on fire. With mini-vans and soccer moms and guys who wore nasal strips to bed.

Jack shifted in the chair, absently massaged his thigh, just above his left knee, where the muscles and tendons had knotted and where the joint would never be the same again. Living here seemed about as natural as a piranha in a toilet.

Headlights pierced the darkness then, making him pause in mid-massage to watch as a car took the corner the next block over. It was too dark for him to know the car was a sensible little four-door with a “Bad Cop! No Donut” sticker on the rear bumper, but it was Friday night and it was five minutes after midnight. So that’s exactly what it was. That meant it was her. The chick. The chick who’d steadily turned him into a dumbass over the last three months. Claire Miller.

A few minutes later the car swung into the driveway of the house behind his, the headlights illuminating his backyard. The headlights blinked off. A car door slammed. The house lights went on shortly after that. And there she was. Safe and sound and, from what Jack could see through her sliding glass patio door, still wearing that God-awful yellow uniform the Cup o’ Joe Café insisted their waitresses wear.

It didn’t do a thing for her, Jack thought as he watched Claire toss her purse onto the kitchen counter before kicking her shoes off. That was the hell of it. The color sallowed her skin, made her eyes jaundiced, and he didn’t know a woman alive who could pull off the flouncy chest ruffles or make that butt bow attractive. Yet there she was. And here he was – thinking about the three times the diner had been robbed in the last few months, wondering why she didn’t just quit the damned job, and getting pissy over the fact that her boss – a heavy-jowled jackhole who drove a sports car that cost way too much for him to be driving on restaurant revenue alone – made her close so late at night by herself.

But, Jack told himself as he finished the last of his beer and set it on the table, Claire wasn’t any of his business. He had no right butting into her life or dictating shit. People had to figure things out for themselves, even if the lesson was learned the hard way. He just hoped his neighbor with the ugly butt bow and the pretty bedroom eyes wouldn’t get hurt in the process.

He shifted toward the edge of his chair, waited until he had his weight balanced just right before pushing himself to his feet. His knee protested. The muscles in his thigh mutinied.

“Damn,” he swore as the cramp seized hold. He made a grab for the edge of the table to avoid landing flat on his face, nearly tipping it as he leaned against it. The beer bottle slid toward the edge, over it, and then smacked into the patio where it shattered into several hundred pieces.

He glared at the glass, then at his bare feet. Christ on a cross. He couldn’t even get out of a freaking chair.

“Need some help?”

He closed his eyes. Hung his head. Fuck. He shifted his grip to the back of the chair, somehow managing to stay on his feet, not impale his feet – or what little remained of his dignity – on the glass. “Hey, Claire. No. No, I’m good. I’m just, uh…”

“Having one of those days,” she finished for him as she came to a stop on the other side of the fence. “Been there. So done that.”

Some of the tension left his shoulders. He rubbed at the knot in his thigh as he eyed her. Damn. Still pretty. When was that gonna stop?

She wasn’t model tall or model thin. No, this was a woman who liked to eat. Food. Real food. Probably red meat. And in the circles he used to run, that’d be a sin… or something to be puked up in a toilet almost immediately after eating. But then those women also wouldn’t spend an afternoon eating grilled hot dogs and watching the Marlins all afternoon or pushing a lawnmower through grass in cut-offs, a leopard print bikini, and a pair of flip-flops either.

“I saw you the other day,” Claire said as she brushed at the mosquitoes hovering around her bare legs. “I would have said hi but you looked busy.”

Busy? What the fuck did he have to do these days but wobble around the house and try not to give into the lure to don a pith helmet, grab his camera and crawl through the bushes on his belly? “Why?” he asked rubbing harder at the knot. “You bringing me more soup?”

A faint smile touched her mouth. She folded her arms along the top of the fence. “You were sick. My mother would have a stroke if I didn’t at least offer to help and I could hardly let you starve, could I?”

She could have. Most people would have. The world seemed to function by the same three rules that got him through journalism: Don’t invest, don’t get involved, and above all else, don’t ever get emotionally attached. So far he’d already broken one of those rules because of her.

“Besides,” Claire continued, “everybody else around here is terrified of you.”

He frowned. “Of me? What the hell for?”

“You snapped at John—”


She pointed to the guy- with-six-cats house. “John Sanders. You snapped at him the first week you lived here.”

“Guy was standing on my lawn in his underwear.”

“He was getting your mail.”

“I didn’t ask him to get my mail.”

“He thought you’d appreciate it.”

In other words, the old man thought Jack – just released from the hospital and barely able to get anywhere without falling on his ass – was a cripple. They’d been frustrating days, and compounding that frustration was the uncertainly of whether he’d reach the bathroom in time to keep from pissing himself. Yeah. Thanks, Moses, for springing over to get my mail.

“And then there’s the poor Appletons,” she said.

“The who?”

She pointed to the other house. “You made their youngest daughter cry.”

He straightened. “I did not.”

“You got her Barbie stuck in a tree.”

“She threw it over the fence. I threw it back.”

“You lobbed it like a hand grenade. They tried to get it down but… well…” She peered over the fence toward the neighbor’s yard. “The head’s still up there. It’s all mangled now ’cause the birds keep pecking at it.”

“That was an accident.” He wasn’t an ogre. Why was she making it sound like he was an ogre? He glowered at her. “I talk to people. People can talk to me.”

She cocked her head. “When I came out here to say hello the other day you were attacking the bush with your cane.”

Ah, crap, she’d seen that? He shifted. His glower became a scowl. “Golf club.”

“It looked like a cane.”

“Golf club,” he said again. He’d swapped his cane for a club ages ago, and that particular afternoon he’d had a rather disturbing conversation with his editor about his “future” with the Miami magazine. A conversation that ended, if he recalled correctly, with Jack suggesting his editor take his ‘concerns’ about the magazine’s ability to compete in an already tough news-media market with a useless photojournalist dragging down the magazine’s already limited revenue and shove them up his ass. Fucking little peckerhead. So rather than take a cab to the office and crack the man’s skull, Jack had found an easy target in the Firebush growing just off the patio. “Titanium. 3 wood.”


“I was going for distance.”

“I see.”

“I’m not crazy.”

“Oh, no,” she said with a hint of… was that laughter? Was she laughing at him? “Of course not. You just sit out here in the dark all by yourself every Friday night and watch me through the windows.”

Damn. She knew about that too.

“That’s creepy,” Jack felt compelled to point out, “not crazy.”

She smiled then and something in his belly unknotted. If she thought he was creepy or crazy, she’d be dousing him with mace and screaming. Or tasering him. Tasers were big right now.

She hooked her thumb back toward her house. “I brought some food home. You eat yet?”

A frozen dinner tray containing what was supposed to be meatloaf, mashed potatoes and corn could hardly be classified as food, so he shook his head.

“Well, there’s enough for two.”

Jack eyed her as she started back toward her house. “You know,” he called after her, “I could be a total pervert.”

“Well then,” she said as she paused and peered back over her shoulder at him, “I guess you’d better bring that golf club.”


© Julie Harrington 2012