One of my short stories, Just One Smile, was published in Rain Magazine, a literary journal released this week. I was excited to see the journal because it featured artwork from one of my students and stories from several friends. It’s a gorgeous edition, available from booksellers on the north coast of Oregon.
I thought I’d share an excerpt from my story. It’s about a young woman using public transportation who is harassed. I wrote it because it’s a familiar story to a lot of women–many of us could offer our own versions, unfortunately. It’s kind of a horror story, to be honest. No, there’s no ghost in this one, but in writing it, I tried to convey the fear many women experience in these situations. I’m horrified that it’s 2017 and women still have to deal with this stuff. If you’ve experienced this, know that you’re not alone. I hope, if you see something like this happening, you step up and intervene. We’ve got to stand up for each other.
The bus had been full at the beginning of the route, but as passengers got off, Janie noticed the man was still there, sitting at the back of the bus. Then, at Sunset Beach, he moved to the front of the bus—to get off, Janie thought, until he sat back down, close to her. She peered over the top of her book to find him looking at her, and quickly averted her gaze.
“I seen you before. What’s your name?” he asked.
Answering would only encourage him. Janie ignored the man and kept reading—or pretended to. She couldn’t focus on the words with him staring at her with those hungry eyes, as if she were a meal to be consumed.
“I asked you a question,” he said, his tone demanding. “What’s your name?”
Janie looked over at the bus driver. His eyes were on the road as he slowed for the stop at Westlake Lane. There was an open seat near the front of the bus, right behind the driver. Maybe if she sat there, this guy would leave her alone. She closed her book, then shouldered her backpack and changed seats.
It did no good. The man got up and followed her, gripping the metal bar overhead as he walked down the aisle. “What, you’re too good to talk to me? You’re smarter than everybody, reading your college book?”
Janie stared at the back of the bus driver’s head, waiting for him to say something. He remained silent. The bus gained speed as he accelerated, pulling back onto the 101. The windshield wipers swept back and forth, clearing away the rain. The driver probably couldn’t hear what was happening behind him, over the noise of the wipers and the motor. Or maybe he could, and didn’t want to get involved. Janie clenched her paperback in her hands, wishing it were a can of pepper spray instead of pocket Shakespeare.
“Aw, come on, baby,” the meth head said, taking the seat across from her. “That was a joke. Give me a smile.”
Janie turned away and scanned the back of the bus. There were still two other passengers on board—an elderly woman and a middle-aged man. She met the man’s gaze, and he gave her a sympathetic smile. She nodded, comforted someone was aware of what was happening. If the meth head tried anything, surely the older man would intervene.
Then, at the next stop, the man got off, and it was just Janie, the old lady, and the meth head, and the meth head wasn’t leaving any time soon.
“You’d be prettier if you smiled,” the man said, giving her a smile of his own, one that revealed a mouth full of rotten teeth. “Come on, baby, just one smile.”
He was going to follow her home. Janie knew it. Her stop was coming up, and he’d get off with her. Then what? What was he going to do? What was she going to do?
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017
A short story in honor of April Fool’s Day. A seasoned assassin finds her breach of etiquette isn’t the only snafu at a friend’s party.
I checked the address written on my invitation, and then the sign near the door. The Rose Petal Tea Room. This was the place. A brand new building plopped down in the middle of town, next to a strip mall, made to look old with its shabby chic white shutters and ivy starting to crawl up pink walls. Rachel would have called the color cheerful. It reminded me of that pink medicine you take when you’ve got the runs. Diarrhea pink, I decided.
Even before entering the restaurant, I felt a looming sense of doom. I could already tell—this event was not going to be my cup of tea. Normally, I wouldn’t frequent a place like this, unless it was for a job. My discomfort deepened when I entered the tiny boutique at the front of the tea room. Shelves lined the walls, and on every inch was something pretty and fragile—delicate tea cups and saucers, tea pots covered in roses and other flowers, and small porcelain figurines of women in Victorian dress. It was like standing in my grandma’s living room. Not that I don’t love my grandma, but I’ve never been able to relax when I visit. I’m not a large woman, but in her tiny house, I feel like a lumbering giant, clumsy and stupid—I’m that worried about breaking something.
There was a “Please wait to be seated” sign barring the entrance to the rest of the restaurant. I waited there obediently, checking the time. I was five minutes early, so that was good. Through the arched doorway I could see the hostess seating a gaggle of elderly women, all of them sporting gaudy purple hats with wide brims and red ribbons. Darn, I thought, forgot mine at home.
The hostess, a wholesome looking woman with a complicated updo and a pearl necklace, returned to her station. She looked mildly alarmed to see me, which did nothing to ease my own sense of being out of my element. “May I help you?”
Since she was acting like I came to rob the place, I gave her a smile and took my hands out of my jacket pockets so she’d see I was unarmed. “Yes, I’m here for a bridal shower. I believe the reservation is under Rachel Anderson.”
The woman scanned the list at her podium, and frowned. “I’m sorry, ma’am. There’s no reservation for Ms. Anderson.” She looked me over again. “Are you sure you have the right place?”
I was starting to question that too, so I retrieved the invitation from my pocket and showed it to her. “Rose Petal Tea Room, two o’clock.” I was surprised I hadn’t seen Rachel coming through the door yet—it was her party after all. The hostess glanced over at the clock above the archway. “I’m a little early,” I apologized, not sure why I was doing it. I thought it was good etiquette to arrive on time, if not a little early, but maybe I should have been fashionably late.
The woman looked over her papers again. I caught a glimpse of a seating chart. “Well, I can go ahead and seat you, and then bring your friend over when she arrives.”
“There might be a few of us,” I said. I had no idea how many people were supposed to come.
She nodded. “That’s quite all right. We’ll move your party to a larger table if need be. Your name?”
The hostess wrote my name on the chart and grabbed a menu from beneath the podium. “Thank you. This way, Ms. Connors.”
She seated me in the middle of the tea room, fussed with the tableware for a moment, and then returned to her station to greet some women who had just arrived. I looked for Rachel but didn’t see her among them. I scanned the large room, hoping to recognize a familiar face among the lace tablecloths and pastoral landscapes that looked as though they were of the English countryside.
It was then I realized why the hostess had acted strange when she saw me. I’d committed several major faux pas with my wardrobe. One, I was dressed all in black: black skinnies, black t-shirt, black moto jacket and boots. The other patrons hadn’t even risked a little black dress. I was drowning in a sea of pastels. Two, I was the only one wearing pants. I owned exactly one dress, and that was only because I’d been coerced into being a bridesmaid. I had an idea it was bad form to wear the same dress to the bridal shower and the wedding, so my single dress was hanging in my closet, awaiting Rachel’s big day. Three, my hair was slicked back and woven into a tight braid, which is good form in my line of work. Intricate updos and soft flowing locks, like the ones I was seeing in the tea room, could get a girl killed. I’d learned pretty fast that in a fight, you pull back your hair and you never wear earrings. Not if you want your earlobes to remain intact. Against all those blush pink, baby blue, and mint green dresses, the only way I would have stood out more was if I were a three-hundred pound biker with a beard covering half his face and tattoos covering the other half. I was glad my own tattoo was safely covered. Wouldn’t want to have to use smelling salts on anyone.
I checked the time again—it was now fifteen minutes after two. Where was Rachel? I considered leaving when I saw her sister Stephanie headed from the ladies room down a hallway. I jumped up from my chair, careful to push it back in so no one would give me a dirty look, and then followed her.
As I entered a room draped in lacy bridal decorations, I finally caught sight of my friend, sitting at the head of the table, surrounded by women dressed nothing like me. Rachel stood up and gave me a bright smile. “You came!” She crossed the room to wrap me in a hug.
I’d do anything for Rachel, even bear haughty looks from her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Rollins, and the maid of honor, Elizabeth Whitney. Something clicked into place. That was why the hostess hadn’t found Rachel’s name. The reservation must have been under Elizabeth’s. “Sorry I’m late,” I whispered to Rachel.
“Just glad you’re here,” she said. We’d been close since college, when we went through a few scrapes together. Not the kind of stories you share with polite company, since they involved actual blood being shed. I found it amusing no one in the room knew about our sordid past, but I wasn’t about to ruin the party by sharing those secrets. Rachel’s reputation was soiled enough just by associating with me.
Rachel took my hand. “Come on. I saved you a seat.” She led me to the chair next to hers, and I settled in, avoiding eye contact with everyone else. “We were about to eat.”
A server, holding a large platter, set the tray on a stand and began placing dishes around the table. “Glad you could make it,” Elizabeth said, from across the table. She held out an elegantly manicured hand. I shook it with a firm grip, my own nails short and unpainted. “Megan, was it?” she asked.
As I released her hand, I tried to hide my annoyance. We’d met on a few occasions, but every time, Elizabeth acted like she’d never seen me before. I smiled sweetly. “Morgan. And you’re Liz, right?”
She scowled, placing her napkin in her lap. “Elizabeth. Never Liz.”
Rachel shot me a warning look, but I could tell she was hiding a laugh. I gave her a sly smile. I didn’t know what she saw in Elizabeth, but then again, I wasn’t sure what she saw in me either. I was just glad I hadn’t been tagged as maid of honor and forced to pull off a fancy party like this. I had skills a woman like Elizabeth couldn’t imagine, but I had to concede—she was a better choice for a shindig worthy of its own social media following.
The server set a plate in front of me, which held five tiny sandwiches. I use the term sandwich loosely—they were more like round slices of bread about the size of a half-dollar, filled with green stuff of unknown origin. I picked one up as delicately as I could manage and chanced a bite, chewing slowly. The mystery filling wasn’t bad, something with spinach and garlic I thought. My stomach growled, louder than I would have liked. I stole a look at the other women, doing more chatting than eating. I popped a second sandwich in my mouth. Would it be poor etiquette to request seconds? I’d kill for a fat, juicy cheeseburger.
“And what is it you do, Morgan?” Mrs. Rollins asked me. Like the hostess out front, she was wearing pearls, and her hair was twisted into a French roll.
I looked at Rachel. This was always the hardest part—explaining what, exactly, I did for a living. She nodded, and I said, “People come to me with problems, and I make them go away.” Vague, but I couldn’t explain it better without fear of making Mrs. Rollins queasy.
Rachel’s mom-in-law-to-be looked intrigued. “What sort of problems?”
Elizabeth-never-Liz chimed in. “Rachel said you were an exterminator.”
I raised an eyebrow at Rachel, and she shrugged. Exterminator was technically correct, but the preferred term was assassin. Still, hunting down nasty characters for pay wasn’t something everyone could accept. “Pest control,” I agreed. I took a sip of tea, hoping Mrs. Rollins’ curiosity was satisfied.
I was saved from further interrogation by a cake.
Another server entered the room, carrying an elaborately iced dessert, topped with edible flowers. She placed the cake in front of Rachel while several of the ladies applauded in approval. Rachel beamed at Elizabeth as the server prepared to slice the cake.
Then the flowers on the cake moved. I stared as they pulsed, as though something were wriggling inside the confection, trying to climb out. And it did.
A brown, rat-like face surfaced, popping out of the icing to peer up at Rachel, a pink and yellow hibiscus still balanced precariously on top of its head.
“A rat!” Mrs. Rollins shrieked. She pushed back from the table and climbed on top of her chair with an agility you wouldn’t expect from a woman in her sixties. Fear is a powerful thing.
The rest of us looked on in surprise. The cake crumbled as three other figures burst forth. They were tiny, hairy things, standing up on their hind legs and hunched over in a way that made it easy to mistake them for rodents. Except some of them were wearing clothes. Primitive looking vests and scarves, yes, but clothes nonetheless. Not rats. Boggarts. I’d tangled with malicious house spirits like these before.
The one in the velvety green vest launched itself at Elizabeth’s face, sending her backwards in her chair, head over red-soled Louboutins. It looked like Mrs. Rollins was going to find out what I did for a living after all. I leapt up from my seat and grabbed the table salt, screwing off the top as I rounded the table.
Elizabeth lay sprawled on the floor, her screams muffled by her long, pleated skirt, which was hiked up over her head. I yanked the skirt off her face to find her clawing at the hairy little monster biting her. I upended the salt container on the boggart, and it popped like a balloon, drenching Elizabeth with dark slime. I was handing her a cloth napkin to wipe off the goo when I heard Rachel yelling.
I turned to see my friend dancing in a circle, pounding herself on the back of her head. It almost looked comical, except for the nasty little beast pulling her hair. The boggart with the scarf had entangled itself in her chignon, no doubt attracted by the rhinestones in her hair pins. Like other faeryfolk, boggarts like shiny things.
What they don’t like is iron, and I had a horseshoe in my jacket pocket, which I carried for just such an occasion. Okay, I’d never been in a situation quite like this, but you get the idea. This kind of thing happens more than you’d think, and it’s good to be prepared. You might want to take notes.
I held the ends of the horseshoe up to the boggart. It howled, a kind of guttural growl as the iron burned its flesh. It didn’t explode like the first boggart, so I grabbed a fork off the table and skewered it, working it free of Rachel’s hair. She seemed unharmed, but the boggart began to melt, curling its body around the silver-plated utensil. I tossed it on the ground and scanned the room for the other two creatures.
One was shoving frosting in its mouth while the other taunted Mrs. Rollins and the other ladies, most of whom had joined her on their chairs. The server had backed up against the wall, her face frozen in a look of horror.
I grabbed the tea pot from the middle of the table and forced the two boggarts inside, pushing them along with the horseshoe. They clawed at me, but the toxic iron did the trick, persuading them to submit. I dropped in a little St. John’s Wort, retrieved from another pocket in my jacket, replaced the lid on the teapot, and let them steep in the mixture. They wouldn’t be bothering anyone else.
I checked on Elizabeth, who had gained her feet. She’d managed to get most of the slime off her face, but her nose was bloody and looked like it had been gnawed on. Nothing a good plastic surgeon couldn’t fix. She nodded to me, not quite a thank you, but I’d take it. I couldn’t fault her for being too shaken to express a full appreciation for my talents.
As I helped a still trembling Mrs. Rollins down from her chair, she said, “An exterminator, you say?”
“Something like that.”
She gave me a grateful smile. “I’m glad you came, Morgan.”
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016