Winking and Blinking – published by Stoneboat Literary Journal

My short story “Winking and Blinking” was just published by Stoneboat Literary Journal (Issue 10.2, Summer 2020). It’s a beautiful journal with lots of great prose, poetry, and visual art. Check out their website for a full list of contributors and information on ordering your copy today! Below is a short excerpt from my story:

The woman I lived next door to as a child just shot herself in the head. The news is passed along like the latest bit of juicy small-town gossip. I imagine my mother telling her friends at the beauty parlor, exaggerating her connection to the tragedy. When I hear the woman’s name, I drop the phone, barely managing to catch it before it hits the floor. I pull it back to my ear, to the sound of my mother rambling on. Typical of these Sunday night calls to check in, she’s already moved on to something else, hitting each bullet point of our mostly one-sided conversation. She likes keeping me updated, but not a lot happens back home, especially in the span of just one week. She keeps talking, but I can’t hear anything after that first piece of information. Something finally happened ..

To read the full story, order your copy today! Please enjoy, and let me know what you think of “Winking and Blinking” in the comments below.

City Filled with Expectant Mothers – published by In Parentheses Magazine

My short story “City Filled with Expectant Mothers” was published in the “Crowds” edition of In Parentheses Magazine (v. 5, issue 4, Spring 2020). You can purchase the magazine here (digital download, print copy, or both). Below is an excerpt from my story:

They’re everywhere, they’re all I see, and no matter how far I run I know I’ll never escape. What started on the train continued in the grocery store and followed me on my run along Riverside Drive. This city, suddenly filled with expectant mothers. They’ve sprung up like weeds, their stomachs so swollen I wonder how they keep from falling over.

Purchase the latest issue of In Parentheses here to read the full story. It’s a great magazine filled with poetry, prose, and photography!

Make sure to check out In Parentheses, based here in New York.

The Waiting Fire – published by Slippery Elm Literary Journal

My short story ‘The Waiting Fire’ has been published in Slippery Elm‘s 2019 edition.  Visit their website to buy a copy of the journal now!  Here’s a brief excerpt from my story:

This can’t be happening. I feel the colors draining from my body, leaving nothing behind but the outline of what might have been. I can’t feel my heart, I can’t find my next breath. I’m lost in a world burning bright. All I can see are the flames eating my house.

Visit Slippery Elm‘s website to buy a copy of the journal now. Let me know what you think!

Eggs – published by Gravel Magazine

My short story ‘Eggs’ was published in the April 2019 issue of Gravel Magazine.  Follow this link to read the full story.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

While fighting through the throng of passengers on the train, I started panicking.  The cramps were so bad I feared I’d never make it in time.  Out on the platform, I doubled over, gripping my stomach as I wondered what in the hell I could have eaten that would wreak so much havoc, like my insides were being ripped apart.  No one offered to help or glanced my way at all despite the fact that I was clearly in pain.  Not that I expected them to.  In New York, it’s best not to get involved.  Even making eye contact with a stranger can lead to trouble.  Holding my stomach, I shuffled along, hobbling up the stairs to the sidewalk.  By the time I reached my block, the cramps suddenly stopped.  I wiped the sweat from my brow, relieved I hadn’t had an accident on the street.  Now that would have been embarrassing, though I’m sure my girlfriend would’ve got a kick out of it.  She laughs at all the bad things that happen to me. 

Continue reading here.  Please let me know what you think in the comments below!

‘Trash Bags’ – published by Cease, Cows

My short story ‘Trash Bags’ was just published by Cease, Cows (November 2018).  Click here to read the full story.  Below is a brief excerpt:

You want to tell the world about trash bags, how it feels to stuff everything you’ll ever need inside one. Mother says there isn’t room for more than one, nor is there time. Two trash bags – one for her, one for you. She tells you to hurry up, and don’t forget your toothbrush. You make sure to grab your favorite shirts, like the one with the Smurf on the front. You shove in a pair of denim pants, a pair of corduroys, and two pairs of shorts, even though it’s still cold out. No matter how far away it feels tonight, summer will eventually arrive, and you have to be ready. You add two sweaters, your pajamas with the race cars down the front, and your favorite He-Man toy, Screech the bird – he has floppy wings, and you love him most because he can fly up, up, and away. If you could be anything other than a boy, you’d be a bird with wings that could take you higher. You’re not sure Mother would approve of the toy since it isn’t a necessity, so you wrap it in a plain white t-shirt, hoping she won’t notice. Underwear and socks are boring, but you stuff those inside too.

To continue reading, click here.  And let me know what you think in the comments below.  Thanks!

Grasshopper – published by Jonathan

My short story “Grasshopper” was published back in 2013 in Jonathan Issue 04: A Journal of Gay Fiction.  Click on the link if you’re interested in ordering a copy from Sibling Rivalry Press.  Here’s an excerpt from the story:

For such a violent act, he did it with the most delicate precision I’d ever seen, snatching a grasshopper up from the ground and flicking it against our electric fence in one swift move, watching its twitchy little legs pop off.  A single line of juiced barbed wire enclosed the pasture, keeping the cows and lone bull safely confined.  “You got your eyes open?” he’d ask, hunching down near the fence, his left hand balanced on one knee as he searched through the grass.  They were everywhere, so it never took him long.  Wade liked performing such tricks, all to the morbid delight of my eleven-year-old eyes.  I wouldn’t touch the alien insects, no matter how many times he tried to show me how to flick them just right.

I wrote this story a number of years ago .. I really like it and hope you do too! Again, if you want to read the full story, the issue it ran in is still available for purchase.  Just follow this link.

A Meditation on Swimwear – Published by Thrice Fiction Magazine

My short story ‘A Meditation on Swimwear’ has been published by Thrice Fiction Magazine (Issue No. 23, August 2018).  Follow this link to access the pdf version of the issue.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Knowing he won’t return for a few hours, I finally let go, abandoning the idea that what I’m about to do is wrong.  Left alone with the clues and artifacts of his life, of his essence, I stop resisting and fling the door open to whatever comes next.  I’ve never allowed such freedom in his presence, which might be half the problem. 

Click here to continue reading. My story begins on page 35.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.  Enjoy!

Year in Review: Writing in 2017

The past year has been a great one in writing for me.  A few of my stories have found homes with some great journals.  It’s also the first time my work has been nominated for awards.  Below are highlights of things that have been published over the past year.  I’ve included links, so make sure to give my stories a read – and check out all the wonderful journals that have published them!

  • My short story Be a Good Girl was published by Cold Creek Review (Issue 3). I’m happy to report that they’ve nominated the story for a 2018 Pushcart Prize!
  • Oyez Review published my story No Splashing in their Spring 2017 issue. Read the full story here.

This year, I’ve also made significant progress on a novel I’ve been working on.  I’m still writing the first draft, but I’m over 300 pages in and nearing the end.  I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a dark story set in the South. It centers around a group of high school students during their senior year. The story opens with the mysterious death of two of the characters, who are also twin brothers.

A close friend has been reading over another novel I wrote to offer notes and general feedback.  It’s much further along in the drafting process.  This story also takes place in the South, but the narrator is much younger.  I describe it as my Southern Gothic novel that doubles as a coming-of-age story.  No Splashing, the short story mentioned above, is a reworked version of one of the chapters from the book.

I’m always working on various projects, so it’s wonderful to see them reach an audience, big or small.  2017 felt significant in a lot of ways – I hope 2018 is even better!

No Splashing – a short story published by Oyez Review

My short story ‘No Splashing’ was published by Oyez Review (v. 44, Spring 2017).  Please visit their website for information on ordering a copy of the issue.  I’m also presenting the full story here for you to read.  Enjoy!  And please leave a comment to let me know what you think!

No Splashing

by Cameron L. Mitchell

Jake grips the side of the pool with both hands and looks around to make sure no one’s watching.  He spits out twice, trying to get rid of the foul chlorine taste filling his mouth.  Feeling guilty for doing something he shouldn’t, he swipes at the gently undulating water and watches as the white spittle separates until it disappears.  He’s a good swimmer, always keeping his mouth shut when submerged, but water still manages to get in, little by little.  Jake wipes his lips with the back of his hand, but the strong chemical taste remains.

“Hey, look at me!”

He turns around to watch Bobby attempt to land an even better can opener than the one he did less than five minutes ago.  “Ok,” Jake calls out, “I’m watching!”

With a determined look on his face, Bobby takes a deep breath, stares straight ahead, and shakes his arms all around in a kind of nervous ritual before finally making a run for it.  He bounces as hard as he can at the end of the diving board, flying high into the air.  Right before hitting the water, he leans back and grabs his knee with both hands.  Although the resulting splash isn’t the biggest Jake has seen today, it’s really not all that bad.

As soon as his head pops above the surface, Bobby asks, “How was it?”

“Good,” Jake assures him, watching his friend swim over.  “Probably your best one ever.”

“Yeah, but not as good as theirs,” Bobby says, nodding over to the older boys near the lifeguard stand.

“But they’re bigger than you,” Jake says.  “When you get older, I bet your splashes will be way better.”

“Yeah, me too.”  Bobby pushes his wet hair back, smiling.  “You gonna try one?”

“No, I think I’ll just dive.”

“Again?”

“Yeah.”  Jake swims over to the ladder.  Before fully emerging from the water, he tugs at his blue trunks to make sure they’re not sticking to his body.  It’s awful when they get like that, exposing the imprint of his backside and other private areas.  Having to swim around half-naked is bad enough.  Last summer, he often wore a t-shirt in the water.  No one would have said anything if he was one of the fat kids – everyone knows why they swim with a shirt on.  But Jake is as thin as a rail.  It didn’t take long to figure out he was drawing more attention by keeping his shirt on than he would if he just took it off like the other guys.

Jake nears the white cement steps leading up to the diving board but keeps his distance from the two boys already in line.  Over on the other side of the pool, past the floating rope that divides the deep end from the shallow, Jake sees his brother Sampson kicking around.  He’s got his goggles on, the pair Jake used to wear.  He’s getting better at swimming, only because Jake has been giving him lessons.  It was their father’s idea to save money.  When he was around Sampson’s age, Jake had official lessons at this very pool, but, even then, Father thought it was a waste of money.  Take ‘em down to the river and toss ‘em in, he said.  Like my daddy did with me.

Jake would have fared just fine if his father had done that to him, but there’s no way he’s letting anyone throw Sampson into the deep end while hoping for the best.  At the same time, he doesn’t blame his father for not wanting to pay for swimming lessons.  Jake can’t recall ever actually learning to swim from that skinny lifeguard lady who’s long since moved on, probably to a better pool in a bigger town.  He and the other kids spent most of their time splashing around in the shallow end, taking occasional breaks to practice holding their breath underwater; there were also floating exercises, on their backs and stomachs.  Then, one day near the end of the course, they all lined up at the diving board to jump off into the dreaded deep end.  If that was too scary, you could jump off the side of the pool near the ladder instead.  Some kids pinched their noses and dropped down, holding onto the side for safety.  Most of the kids, including Jake, chose the diving board.  Janine, the lifeguard, was right there in the water to rescue you in case you started sinking like a rock.  None of the kids had much trouble, but Jake still thinks it’s odd that he can’t remember a single instance of being taught the mechanics of swimming – nothing about the breaststroke, backstroke, or any stroke at all.

“Ok, it’s your turn,” yells Bobby.

Jake considers trying something flashier to change things up, but right before he bounces at the end of the board, he decides to stick with what he knows best.  Arms extended over his head, he hits the sparkling water at what feels like the perfect angle; he’s not good at most things, but he’s good at this.  Jake stays underwater while swimming back over to Bobby.  If he wanted, he could swim under the rope and all the way to the other end of the pool without coming up for air.  He loves the feeling of total submergence, when every sound is muddled, no voice able to reach him.  A different world exists beneath the water, one that feels more peaceful, somehow.

After returning to the surface, he wipes drops of water from his eyes and looks at his friend.  “How was it?”

“Boring,” Bobby answers.  “Hardly no splash at all.”

“That’s what I was going for,” Jake says.  “The smaller the splash, the better the dive.”

“Mission accomplished.”

“Let’s go see what Sampson is doing.”

“Ok,” Bobby says, “race you there!”

Before Jake can respond, Bobby kicks off from the side of the pool and darts under the floating rope.  Jake takes off after his friend, easily catching up and swerving past him.  He touches the wall at the shallow end and turns around to find that Bobby has already given up on the race.  He’s standing beside Sampson and some other little kid.  “What are you doing to him?” he asks.

“We’re playing baptism,” Sampson answers.  “I can do you next.”

“Yeah, right,” Bobby says.  “What kind of game is baptism?”

“You baptize the person so they don’t burn in H-E-double-L,” Sampson explains.  “It’s really easy.”

“Are you sure your friend wants to be baptized?” Jake asks, joining the spectacle.

“My name’s Ryan,” the boy says, “and I’m ready to meet God.”

“Oh geez,” Jake snickers.

“Alright, hold your nose,” Sampson says.

“Can you believe this?” Bobby asks under his breath.

“It’s my fault,” Jake says.  “I tried to baptize him in the bathtub at home one time.”

“Quiet!” Sampson exclaims in a surprisingly authoritative voice for someone so puny.  He turns Ryan around and places a hand on each shoulder, pushing the boy down towards the water.  “Now, are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” Ryan says.  He sounds funny with his nostrils squeezed shut.

“Take this child!” Sampson yells, pushing Ryan down beneath the water.  “Don’t let him rot in that, um, purg place – what’s it called again?”

“Purgatory,” Jake says.

“That’s it, purr-gahh-tory,” Sampson repeats slowly.  “And let God take this child who’s now clean and ready to be taken.”

Ryan struggles under the water until Sampson finally releases him.  He inhales a desperate gulp of air before turning around to ask if it’s done.

“By the power vest in me, you are saved,” Sampson says.  “Forever and ever, amen.”  He puts his hands together in a praying motion, offering a small bow.  “Anybody else wanna go?”

“No way,” Bobby says.

“It’s the power vested in me,” Jake tells his brother.  “But that’s what they say when you get married, not baptized.”

“It’s the thought that counts.”

“Not really,” Jake says, laughing.  “You’re being silly.”

“I am not!”

“Yes you are.”  Jake splashes water in his brother’s face.

“Am not!”  Sampson yells, splashing Jake back.  Bobby and the newly baptized Ryan join in.  So much water is flying through the air, Jake can’t tell if anyone is really winning.  He quickly tires of all the shenanigans and makes his escape up the ladder, just as the lifeguard blows his whistle and yells at them to knock it off.

“Where are you going?” Bobby asks, out of breath.

“To rest.  I’ll be over with our towels.”

“Wanna get something out of the snack machine?  My mom gave me extra money.”

“Not right now,” Jake says, walking across the hot cement to where they left their stuff.  He digs through the pile of t-shirts, towels, shoes, and socks until he finds what he’s looking for – the big beach towel with the palm trees that he always brings to the pool.  It’s old and frayed at the edges, but it’s the biggest towel they own.  After spreading it out and sitting down, he digs through the pile again to find his sunglasses.  They’re his favorite pair because they look just like the ones Tom Cruise wears in that movie where he dances around in his underwear.  Jake slides them on and leans back against his elbows, keeping his head up so he can casually glance around the pool.  With his eyes hidden, no one will be able to tell he’s watching.

Despite the clear sky and warm weather, the pool isn’t very busy today.  Jake turns his attention to a group of high school kids gathered near the deep end.  The two girls are lying on their backs and seem more interested in sunbathing than taking a dip in the water.  Their bronze skin is shiny and greasy from all the baby oil they keep rubbing on.  Lots of girls come to the pool to work on their tans, never once stepping foot in the water.  Jake’s not sure why they bother since they could lie around just about anywhere else without having to pay an admission fee.  Girls in high school are weird, though.  One day they wake up with boobs and start showing them off every chance they get.  They’re pretty stupid, Jake thinks.

The two older guys are soaking wet and don’t act much differently than Jake and Bobby.  Earlier, Jake noticed them trying to outdo each other by taking turns jumping off the diving board to see who could make the biggest splash.  They really thought it was funny when they caused water to shoot across the deck, hitting the girls.  The shorter one with shaggy dark hair suddenly leans over the girl closest to him and wrings his trunks out, making sure to get her good and wet.  She squeals and tells him to cut it out in a really annoying, high-pitched voice.  He laughs and gives his friend, who’s taller with blonde hair, a loud, smacking high-five.

Jake wonders if the girls and guys are paired off into couples.  It seems everyone in high school is obsessed with finding someone to go steady with – a boyfriend to hang all over, a girlfriend to paw at when no one’s looking.  Jake can’t believe he’s on the cusp of such a strange new world, where going steady and driving and parties are everything – a place where full grown adulthood is the next step.  If he finds it challenging to fit in and act normal now, he can’t imagine how much harder it will be when he’s older.  It’s like there’s this set of rules that he never got a chance to read.  Even when he figures out what he should be doing, it’s usually too late.  When he leaps into the deep end of the pool, nothing pleases him more than landing the perfect dive with little to no splash, which is the exact opposite from all the other boys who aren’t happy unless they’ve soaked innocent bystanders.

If it was just splashing and sports, roughhousing around and making gross sounds with your armpits, Jake figures he could manage.  But other things worry him.  In just about any situation, he’d be better off if he just went against his instincts.  Instead of staring at the high school boys, Jake should be gawking at the girls with their oiled-up skin and budding curves.  He should be waiting in wild anticipation for a bikini top to slip down just enough to reveal a quick glimpse of nipple, like his friend Bobby.  The chests he finds thrilling are always on display here at the pool – he just has to be careful in taking a peek without being noticed.  It’s the guys who excite him, the way they horse around, sometimes even pulling their trunks down to moon each other.  Behind the protected darkness of his shades, he takes in every detail of the boys and their increasingly adult bodies.  Muscles spread and flex across their backs, arms, and naked torsos.  The shorter guy even has hair sprouting across his chest.  For a moment, Jake gets a little too excited and has to shift around, but that quickly dissipates when he stares down at himself.  He has such a flat, narrow chest, not a single hair to be seen.  He’s so scrawny you can actually see the outline of his ribcage, and his limbs are like toothpicks.  Jake feels like such a little kid and worries that his body will never expand and grow or change at all.  He fears he’ll always look the same, trapped inside the body of a child forever.

Jake hears wet feet smacking across the deck and glances over to see his friend Bobby approaching.  “Still resting?”

“Yeah,” Jake answers.  “The sun feels good.”

Bobby agrees, pulling his own towel out.  He snaps it in the air before spreading it out next to Jake and sitting down.

“It’s getting a little hot, though.”

“Here, this will cool you off,” Bobby says, shaking his wet head at Jake.

“Haha, funny.”  Jake removes his shades only long enough to wipe them off with the edge of his towel.

“Hey, you want to spend the night with me this Friday?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jake answers without giving it much thought.  “I’ll have to ask my parents first.”

“It’ll be ok with mine,” Bobby says.  “We can watch a movie in my room if you want.  My dad hooked up a VCR to my TV.  He said it’s so I can watch my stupid cartoon videos and not bother him, but I don’t even watch those anymore.”

“Sure you don’t.”

“I don’t,” Bobby insists.  “We can get a scary movie, maybe.”

“I thought your mom didn’t let you watch R-rated stuff?  If it’s not rated R, you know it’s no good.  Definitely not scary.”

“I think I can get my dad to get us something good,” Bobby says.  “He’s on this movie buying kick lately.  He gets them for cheap somewhere near work.  Come on, it’ll be fun.”

“Alright, I said I’d ask,” Jake says, annoyed with all the nagging.  “Jesus, you don’t let up.”

Bobby looks away.  Jake studies his friend’s body – just as skinny as his, thank God.  But he’s sure Bobby will sprout up before long, his body filling out and bulking up in ways Jake can’t imagine for himself.  Bobby’s the baseball player, the athlete, so it’s only natural that his body will grow and change into something else.  It makes him sad in a way, the idea that the differences between them might one day expand to the point of being insurmountable.

Suddenly, Jake notices that a hushed silence has fallen over the pool.  The high school kids are staring over at the locker rooms.  So is Bobby.  Jake turns to see what’s caught their attention.

It’s a young man making his way around the edge of the pool as he heads to the deep end.  He must not be a regular since Jake has never seen him before.  He looks to be in his mid-twenties or so.  Everyone’s staring because of what he has on: a skimpy pair of tight black shorts that look like bikini bottoms meant for women.  It’s a Speedo, which is fine if you’re on TV or getting ready to swim in the Olympics, but this is real life.  People don’t wear stuff like that around here.

Jake quickly pushes his sunglasses back on and stares at the form walking by, absorbing every detail.  The stretchy material covering his groin leaves very little to the imagination.  He might as well be walking around naked – most underwear Jake has seen reveals less.  It’s obscene the way the curve of his manhood sticks out, hanging down on full display as if begging to be traced by hungry fingers, inch by inch.  His smooth, tanned thighs bulge out, flexing as he walks.  A trace of light brown hair covers his chest, and his arms, while not overly muscular, are well-defined.

The high school boys snicker as the man steps up to the diving board.  For some reason, Jake feels nervous and exposed, like he’s the one in the tiny swimming briefs for the entire world to see.  The man runs down the board, bounces high, and lands a perfectly smooth dive, leaving only the smallest hint of a splash behind.  He comes up for air near the floating rope but quickly darts back underwater beneath it, swimming the length of the pool.  When he reaches the wall at the shallow end, he turns around to swim another lap.  One of the high school boys calls the man a fag.  He doesn’t say it loud enough for the guy to hear and defend himself.  He says it for his friends, who all start laughing.  Coward, Jake thinks.  He looks over at Bobby, thankful that his best friend has never made a fag joke.  “I’m gonna use the bathroom,” he blurts out, hopping off his towel.

“Ok.”

Jake races to the locker room, unsure of what he’s doing.  He noticed the guy in the Speedo didn’t bring a towel or anything else with him to the deck.  He must have left his stuff inside the locker room – and there it is on the bench against the wall, a pile of clothes that must belong to him, close enough to touch.  There’s a dark blue tote bag beneath the bench, along with some tennis shoes that have socks sticking out.  Jake moves closer, sliding down the bench next to the clothes, imagining that the man is still inside them.  He reaches a hand out and touches the acid washed jeans with the tip of his finger – a jolt of electricity shoots through his entire body.  The wild splatter of colors call out to him, the various shades of blue splashed across the bleached out whiteness; he has to feel every inch of the material for himself.  Slowly, he runs his finger along the jeans, up to the jagged teeth of the open zipper and the cold metal surface of the button.  He takes a deep breath, noticing for the first time that the clothes have a light scent of cologne, something masculine and woodsy.  He longs to pull the clothes up to his face to breathe in that alluring smell.  He doesn’t want to forget this moment, delicate and dangerous as it may be.  To reach inside the jeans and get his hands on the man’s underwear – he could do it if he wanted, but he’s scared.  It would be like walking off a cliff.  A single step and down he’ll fall, tumbling into the deepest abyss.

A sound from across the room disrupts his train of thought.  As if withdrawing from a fire, his hand snaps back.  He turns to see a very young boy rounding the corner into the locker room.  The kid looks younger than Sampson – a baby, basically, with his full, round cheeks and pudgy arms and legs.  He flies past Jake, who sits in a stunned silence, his knee barely a centimeter from making contact with the man’s clothes.  Excited to reach the pool, the boy doesn’t acknowledge Jake’s presence at all.  The floor is wet and slippery, and Jake wants to tell him to slow down.  He shouldn’t be running in the first place.  That’s what all the signs say.  It’s dangerous.  He could fall and hurt himself.  By the time he opens his mouth, the boy is gone.

Jake looks back to the jeans and rumpled t-shirt, but the spell has been broken.  He feels ridiculous, like some pervert stealing a lady’s panties off the clothesline behind her house.  Jake jumps off the bench and runs from the locker room, much faster than the young boy.  He’s lucky not to slip and fall.

“Sampson!” he yells at the edge of the shallow end.  “Get out, we’re going home.”

“Come over here,” Sampson calls back in an infuriatingly chipper tone.  He’s leaning over something on the side of the pool.  “Look at this.”

Jake walks around to his brother.  Crawling on the deck below Sampson’s careful gaze is a dark June bug.  “It was drowning, so I rescued it.”

“Ok, whatever,” Jake says.  “Come on, let’s go.”

“Alright,” Sampson says, keeping his eyes trained on the bug.  “First I have to do CPR.”  He reaches a finger out and pins the June bug against the deck.  “There, CPR,” he says, squishing the bug until its guts squirt out.

“That’s gross,” Jake says, looking away from the splattered bug.  “Why do you do stuff like that?”

Sampson shrugs.  “I don’t know.”  He dips his hand beneath the water to wash away the slimy insect guts.  “Help me up.”  He reaches his arms up for Jake to grab.  Once he’s out, they walk over to their pile of stuff, where Bobby still sits.

“You guys leaving?”

“Yeah,” Jake answers.

“I’ll come too.”

“Ok.”

“Ok,” Sampson echoes, pulling his shirt over his head.

“You should have dried off first,” Jake tells his brother.  “Now your shirt is all wet.”

“So what,” he says, sitting down to pull his flip-flops on.  “It’ll dry.”

The boys gather their belongings and head out.  As they walk through the locker room, Jake can’t help but take one last look at the Speedo man’s pile of clothes still sitting on the bench, waiting.  Filled with an aching sense of wonder, he thinks it’s probably best to stay away from the pool for a while.

Be a Good Girl – published by Cold Creek Review

UPDATE (10/8/18): My short story “Be A Good Girl” was originally published in Cold Creek Review’s Issue 3 (September 2017). Since their website is currently down, I’m posting the full story here for you to read. If their website is reactivated, I’ll post the appropriate links. In the meantime, enjoy my story!

Be a Good Girl

by Cameron L. Mitchell

Kate woke that morning with a start, haunted by a single thought: there are some things you can never take back.  Things that happen in the deepest, loneliest part of night, when everything is so perfectly still and quiet that each creaking sound the bed makes is like a gunshot ringing out in the dark.  Things you can’t forget, no matter how hard you try – a story untold, trapped in your fingertips.

She jumped out of bed and ran to the crib, looking down at her sleeping child.  “No one will ever hurt you,” Kate promised.

Today is an important day, so of course she’d wake up thinking about the past.    She and her sister Beth will be together again.  These family visits occur so rarely.  Kate dreads it, actually, and considers pulling over at the next exit to turn around.  She tries to shake it off, to think of something else.  She’s a good girl, she tells herself, transformed by motherhood in a way no one expected.  That has to count for something.

When she first learned she was pregnant, a moment of panic took hold.  She hadn’t been kind to her body over the years – she hadn’t been kind to it over the last few days.  Could glass after glass of red wine do much damage in the first trimester?  What about the cigarettes and occasional joint?  The only thing that managed to slow her racing heart was the fact that she’d given up the really hard stuff months before.  No more cocaine nights.  She had the boys to thank for that.  With their twenties winding down, they suddenly felt too old to be sitting in a circle on Friday nights snorting lines from the small mirror Kate had taken from her bedroom wall.  Greg wanted a quieter life, one that didn’t involve turning into a dried-up coke-head.  “You gotta know when to stop,” he said.  Joe agreed, and Kate followed their lead, as she often did.

Soon, however, the boys disappeared.  It’s funny how life swallows up friends.  A few months into her pregnancy, Greg decided to move across the country to be closer to his family.  He needed a change, something big.  Joe stayed behind, never bothering to find a new roommate to help cover the bills.  Their relationship was always hard to define.  Joe withdrew more and more.  It must have been hard to see everyone in their old gang except for Greg, the one who mattered most.

So for most of the pregnancy, the boys weren’t around.  They would have been proud to see what a good girl she’s become.  Well, Greg is proud, or so he says in an e-mail here and there.  “No wine?” he asked during one of their occasional phone calls.  “None at all?”

“None,” Kate answered.  “The day I found out, I bagged up what I had and took it downstairs to Mike.”

“And no cigarettes either?”

“Nope.  I flushed them down the toilet.”

“Wow, that’s great,” he said, somewhat unconvincingly.  “I can’t imagine you without a glass of red.  It seems so wrong.”

“It’s not like I’m an alcoholic or something.”

An awkward silence stretched between them before Greg finally said he had to go.

She showed them.  She gave it all up.  Maybe she went overboard with soda and coffee, but she heard caffeine was bad for the baby.  As for pick-me-ups, she allowed herself an occasional mug of green tea in the morning, but nothing else.

It wasn’t so hard, not for Kate.  In a way, she feels she cheated by trading old addictions for new obsessions.  She fed on the need to do right, giving up all vices for the baby growing inside.  In those early days, she closed her eyes and laid a hand across her stomach, imagining the tiny life swimming inside her womb: she could see the limbs expanding by the day, the oversized head getting larger, and its thin, translucent skin glowing in the darkness.  It was her little peanut, her sole creation – a life’s work made possible by the sacrifice for something good.

If only it was her sole creation.  She had Tom to thank for helping with the conception.  Though she found him silly and ill-equipped to be a father, she could never be angry with him.  It’s not like he asked to be a parent.  And it’s not like she ever pictured them getting married and being a family, even though he did ask.  He thought it was the right thing to do, but Kate didn’t see the point.  Her relationship with Tom was never that serious.

Her phone suddenly rings beside her.  “Hello,” she answers.

“Where are you?” Beth asks.

“On the interstate.”

“Well I’d hope so, but where?”

“Passing through Statesville.”  She’s actually about twenty minutes from Statesville, but she hopes this will shut her sister up.

“I thought you’d be here by now,” Beth says.  “If you’d left first thing in the morning, we could be having lunch.”

“I know, sorry,” Kate says.  “But Grace was cranky this morning.”  She looks in the rearview mirror at her wide-eyed daughter.

“Don’t blame the baby,” Beth says.  “I have two kids and still manage to be on time.”

“I’ll be there soon.”

“Meet me at Mom and Dad’s.”

“Can I stop by your place first?” Kate asks cautiously.

“Well, if you’d left earlier.”

“I’m coming straight to your house,” Kate says.  “We need to talk.”

“You always need to talk.”

“So you’ll be there?”

“Fine,” Beth says.  “Just hurry.”

“Alright – bye!”  She hangs up before her sister can change her mind.  It’s important that they have time to talk before visiting their parents.  Beth can be difficult, but Kate needs her this time.  She doesn’t understand why they don’t get along.  As little girls, they couldn’t be separated, but something changed as they got older.  The classic overachiever, Beth had to be a part of everything, from cheerleading to the debate club, while Kate slouched her way through school.  Settling in with the goths and wannabe hippies, Kate wore loose denim overhauls and flannel shirts, hoping to disappear in the crowd.  Beth, on the other hand, tried to stand out as the shining star of the family.  It’s just too bad she always seemed annoyed by everything Kate did.

Beth isn’t all that bad, though.  She’s just different.  Since high school, they’ve each had roles to play, and they continue playing them to this day.  Even though she’s the younger sister, Beth is the one their parents have come to depend on.  Beth went to a nearby state college so she could visit home almost every weekend.  After graduating, she moved back to their hometown and got a job teaching at the same elementary school she attended as a child.  She even married her high school sweetheart and popped out two perfectly adorable kids.  Everything happened right on schedule.  When their mother had the mastectomy and all those nightmarish rounds of chemo, it was Beth who stayed with her night and day.  Kate visited a couple of times but mostly stayed out of the way.

After finishing high school, Kate traipsed across the state with a girlfriend, wanting to get as far from her family as possible.  Since moving to a place like New York seemed unrealistic, Kate settled on Raleigh.  She partied a lot in those days, but she always supported herself, refusing to ask anyone in her family for help even when she desperately needed it.  She lived on ramen noodles and whatever free meals she got while waiting tables.  Eventually, she got a decent job at a department store in Chapel Hill and decided to move there, leaving her high school friend behind.  Before long, she became manager of the women’s department and is still amazed she makes more money than her sister ever will as a teacher.  No one expected that.

Kate has done well for herself but wants to do even better now that she has Grace.  Raising a baby alone is hard.  This trip home is a way of testing the waters.  She really needs her family’s support but isn’t sure she can leave certain things in the past.  That’s why it’s important for her to see her sister alone, though they haven’t been close in some time.  What remains of their relationship depends on the things they don’t say.  Still, Kate has so many questions.  She needs Beth to fill in the blanks.  She needs someone to tell her why.

As she pulls into the driveway, her sister emerges through the screen door holding a dish towel.  Kate grins at her through the windshield, noticing that Beth has put on weight.  While not exactly obese, she’s filled out and seems broader.  Standing on the porch with her legs spread wide, she looks as stout as a bull.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Beth says as Kate pulls Grace out of the car seat in back.  “I’ve gotten fat.”

“No you haven’t,” Kate says.  “Besides, you’ve had two kids, and you’re not a teenager anymore.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Where are the kids?”

“I dropped them off with Mom,” she says, gently taking her niece out of Kate’s arms.  “How are you, baby doll?  Aren’t you just the cutest thing ever?”

“She’ll probably nap.  Long drives put her out.”  Kate grabs her diaper bag and follows her sister inside the house.  It’s odd, she thinks, how they never hug.  They never really touch at all.

While Beth busies herself in the kitchen, Kate changes the baby’s diaper in the living room.  “So,” she calls out, “how’s Mom?”

“She’s fine.  Excited you’re moving back.”

“I’m not sure about that yet,” Kate says.

“You know it’s for the best.”  Beth continues talking without turning around.  “I have Jerry here, Mom and Dad down the road, and I still drive myself crazy.”

“That’s just the way you are.”

“Well, in my defense, Jerry plants himself in front of that TV almost every single day after work,” Beth says.  “You can imagine how much help he is.”

It’s amusing to watch Beth clean her dishes so fastidiously, holding each one up to the light as she scrubs away spots and smudges left behind by the dishwasher.  Grace has already fallen asleep, as Kate expected.  She looks around and sees a crib in the corner.  “Can I put Grace in your crib?”

“Of course,” Beth says.  “That’s why I got it out.  When you move back, you can have it.”

“I already have one.”  Kate tries to ignore Beth’s assumption that she’s made up her mind about the move.  “What, no more kids for you?”

“Lord no.  I’m done.”

Once the baby is down, Kate heads back to the kitchen.  She stares at Beth, unsure of how to start.

“What is it?”

“I need to ask you about something.”

“What?”

“Dad,” Kate answers, standing behind one of the wooden chairs, gripping its back with both hands.

“He’s fine,” Beth says.  “Doesn’t get around so well these days.  Mom survived cancer, but he wouldn’t make it a week without her.”

“Do you ever leave the girls with him?”

“Sure,” Beth says.  “I leave them there all the time.”

“Do you ever leave them alone with him?  Just him?”

Holding a glass in midair, Beth drops her gaze down and shoots Kate an icy stare.  “What exactly are you getting at?  If you just came to stir up trouble, you shouldn’t have bothered.”

“I didn’t come to start anything,” Kate assures her.  “I just, uh, wanted to talk about some stuff.  About us growing up, things that happened.”

“What things do you think happened?”

“Do you have anything to drink?”

“I thought you quit.”

“I did,” Kate answers.

“Still like a glass of red?”

“That’d be great.”

Beth walks over to the counter and pulls the cork from a previously opened bottle of wine.  She pours them both a glass and sits down at the table, nodding for Kate to take a seat.

“We both prefer red wine,” Beth comments.  “Isn’t that funny?”

“Not really.”

“Red,” she says, dangling the glass in front of her face like she’s hiding behind it.  “Just like your hair.”

Kate takes a sip.  “Yes, I still keep my hair red.”

“Ever since your sophomore year,” Beth adds.  “It looks nice.”

“Thanks.”  Kate’s unaccustomed to compliments from her sister.  Then again, her family seems to think she’s finally turned a corner in her life.  As for her hair, anyone who didn’t know her when she was a little girl has no idea red isn’t her natural color.  It’s because of her green eyes and the spray of freckles dotting her face.  Her true hair color is a dull and somewhat mousy brown.  Looking up, she’s surprised to see Beth staring at her so directly, waiting for her to continue.  Usually, Beth is more than willing to fill such awkward silences with mindless chatter.  Kate takes a deep breath.  “Remember how none of our friends wanted to come to our house?  Don’t you think that’s odd?”

“Your friends were freaks,” Beth answers.  “And my friends were too prissy.  They had more money than us, cars, bigger houses.”

Kate glances down.  “They didn’t want to come over because of Dad.”

“Dad?  He had nothing to do with it.”

“Maybe your friends were more discreet,” Kate says.  “Remember Angela?”

“That girl with the nose ring?”

“Yeah.  She told me our father was a pervert.  She said he constantly stared at her and was always finding a reason to touch her.”

“And of course you believed her,” Beth says.  “You would believe anyone over your own family.  That’s just the way you were.”

“I’m not saying he raped little girls,” Kate continues.  “But, come on.  Remember the way he was with us?  When you first started cheerleading and had your brand new skirt, green and white like our school colors?  He just had to sit you down on his lap.  He was basically drooling.”

“That’s disgusting,” Beth says, pushing away from the table to go over to the fridge.  With her back to Kate, she asks, “Do you want a cigarette?”

“Sure.  I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I don’t,” Beth says.  “These are Jerry’s.”

Kate peeks at the crib in the living room.  “Should we go outside?”

“No, I’ll open a window.”  Once she returns to the table, she hands Kate a cigarette along with a lighter.  The first puff is harsh against Kate’s throat, making her cough a little.  She watches as Beth lights up, inhaling a deep drag.  For someone who doesn’t smoke, she appears perfectly adept.

“Why do you think I stopped wearing dresses?  He always had to see you up close, with those giant, rough hands on your thighs,” Kate says, surprising herself by being so blunt.

“Would you stop it?  We had a fine childhood,” Beth insists, looking off to the side.  “You stopped wearing dresses because you always had to be different.  Sad and mopey – starved for attention.”

“Do you leave the girls alone with him?”

“They weren’t perfect,” Beth says, “but neither were you.”

“Do you?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because,” Kate says, searching for an explanation.  “I don’t want him near Grace.  I don’t want him to ruin her like he ruined us.”

“How exactly is that supposed to work?  What, we go over there, but you’ll insist on Dad being locked away in the bedroom like some criminal?  Or better yet, why don’t we just call him now and tell him to leave?  That you can’t have him ruining his own grandchild?  How’s that?”

“I know this is hard to hear –

“You don’t know a damned thing!”

Kate doesn’t know what to say.  She reaches out to touch her sister’s hand but quickly withdraws it without making contact.  “I wish things were different, I do.”

“Just stop it,” Beth says, smashing her cigarette out in the ashtray.  “Please.”

“Do you leave the girls alone with him?”

“No, ok?  Mom’s always there, and if she’s not, I stay away.”  Beth takes a moment to catch her breath.  “Are you happy?  Is that what you came here for?  To rub it in my face, our family’s … dysfunction?  To brag about how you got away?  Well here you are, crawling back, so it couldn’t have been all that bad.”

“I don’t want him near her.”

“They’re expecting us.”

“We could call,” Kate suggests.  “We could have Mom come here.”

“We could do a lot of things.”  Beth stares out the window.  A dark shadow has fallen across her face.  Kate wonders whether she should have said anything or not.  Beth pulls a strand of hair behind her ear, reminding Kate of that night years ago, before either one of them were mothers, when they were simply sisters – two young girls, sharing a bedroom.

In the middle of the night, Beth crawled into Kate’s bed.  They hugged each other at first but quickly broke into a fit of giggles as one of them started a tickle fight.  They squealed, begging each other to knock it off.  Panting, lying face to face, they stared at each other and started playing another game.

Well, you’re growing up fast, Kate said in her deepest voice.  She ran her hands through Beth’s hair.  Let Daddy get a good look at his most favorite girl.

Beth giggled.  But Father, I thought Kate was your favorite?

Daddy can have two favorite girls, Kate said.  Both of my girls are special.  And only special, sweet girls get to sit on Daddy’s lap. 

Awkwardly, Beth rubbed Kate’s shoulder.  The only light came from the window between their beds.  Unusually bright, the moon cast a bluish tint across their room.  Kate reached out and caressed her sister’s blue, alien face.  Giggles gave way to an uneasy silence.  Hands crawled over bodies, inching across legs, pressing the crusty scab on one knee.  Whose knees are these? Kate might have asked.

The roaming hands had a mind of their own.  Nightgowns were pushed out of the way.  Little was left unexplored as small fingers poked and prodded, tracing circles across skinny thighs.  Minty toothpaste breath was blown back and forth as hands warmed what was once cold.  Soft and paper-thin, there were pieces so delicate they almost begged to be gripped harder.  Desperately, they held on tight, afraid to let go.

Before they quite understood what was happening, it was done.

Beth jumped out of Kate’s bed and crossed their room, looking over her shoulder one last time before hopping into her own bed.  The sad, startled look on her face is something Kate will never forget.  It makes it hard to look at her, even now.

Maybe it’s normal.  They were young and curious, and maybe it had nothing to do with their father.  Still, Kate feels a deep shame.  She’s the older sister.  She should have known better.  The look of defeat on her sister’s face that night – it’s the same look she has now.

Kate laughs.

“What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” Kate answers.  “I was just thinking of Greg and Joe.”

“Those two gay guys?”

“Yeah,” she says.  “We’d get drunk or high and tell our stories, trying to one-up each other.”

“Did you often win?”

“We were pretty evenly matched,” Kate says.  She never told them about that night with her sister.  She’s never told anyone.  It would have shocked them, she thinks.  She would have won the game once and for all.  The idea of winning – it’s a funny thought.

Kate takes a deep breath and stands, heading into the living room to get Grace.

“Are you leaving?”

“No,” Kate says.  “I mean, yes.  We should get over to Mom and Dad’s.”

“Do you want another cigarette?”

“No, I’ll be ok,” Kate answers.  “I don’t want to pick it up again.”  As she returns to the kitchen, holding Grace’s head against her shoulder, she offers Beth a smile.

“Are you going to be nice to Dad?”
“I don’t know,” Kate answers truthfully.

They decide to take Kate’s car since it has Grace’s seat in back.  Kate lets Beth drive.  After pulling out of the driveway, Kate asks, “Do you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing?”

“All the time.”

“When we were little, I remember thinking Mom and Dad knew everything,” Kate continues.  “No matter what, they had the answer.  I couldn’t wait to grow up and be on my own.  I thought being an adult meant that you’d always know what to do.  But here I am, and I don’t know a thing.  I still feel like a little girl waiting for it to happen.”

“Maybe they didn’t really know what they were doing either,” Beth says.  “You just do the best you can.”

“Maybe.”  After a moment, Kate adds, “I hate him.  Sometimes I think I hate them both.”

Beth has no response.  She keeps her eyes on the road ahead.

When they reach their parents’ home, no one comes out to greet them.  The baby is a little fussy when Kate pulls her out of the car seat.  “Shh, it’s ok,” Kate whispers, pushing the door shut with her hip.

Beth enters first, announcing their arrival.  Her daughters push past their mother and surround Kate, reaching up to pet the baby’s legs.  She promises to let them hold her later.  She can’t believe how big her nieces have gotten.  Kate greets her mother, who’s busy washing dishes at the sink.

“Have you girls been smoking?”

Kate and Beth look at each other, grinning conspiratorially.

“Don’t wait twenty years to quit like your daddy,” their mother says.  “That stuff will kill you.  I’ve been after Jerry to quit, at least for the sake of his kids.”

“Don’t worry,” Beth says.  “Jerry will quit when he’s good and ready.”

“Mm-hmm,” she mumbles.  “Kitty, go in there and show that baby to your daddy.  I can’t believe he’s not seen her yet.”

No one’s called her Kitty in years.  She hates the old pet name but doesn’t say anything.  Mothers will always be mothers.  “He could have come with you when she was born,” Kate says, quietly.

“Yeah, right,” she huffs, wiping her hands.  She comes closer and pats Grace’s head.  “He won’t move off that couch in there.”

Kate walks to the living room where Beth has already settled in the beat-up old recliner that’s been around as long as she can remember.  On each side of their father sits one of Beth’s girls, all smiles and freckles and skinny, bare legs.  The skin around her father’s neck looks droopy, and the lines across his forehead have deepened with time.  Despite having gone completely grey, his hair is thick and shaggy.  Looking at him with the girls, Kate feels like she might be sick.  Her mouth has gone completely dry.  She could still turn back, running away for good this time.

“Well hey there Kitty,” her father says in that deep, unchanged voice.  “Bring that baby over here.”

Kate takes one slow, uncertain step at a time.  Beth stares at her, nervously waiting for whatever happens next.

“Come on,” her father says, reaching his greedy hands up.  “Let me see her.”

She passes Grace down.  “Be a good girl,” Kate whispers, surprised she still has a voice.

He cradles the baby in his lap, beaming with pride.