Friday, December 30, 2011


Our good friend Nikki Kallio shares two stories this week created from a Three Word Wednesday writing prompt   ( If you like them, please let us know by leaving a comment, or by visting her blog. (

The words are advance, pander, shuffle.

Mornings came earlier and night came sooner and people seemed more tired, hungry. Truckers wedged themselves into vinyl seats and made her feel important. She was the go-between, the pander for their addiction to coffee and stale danishes. Old men with crossword puzzles, young men with want ads. The old men wanted to chat, the young men didn’t. Times were tough but people still ate out. They saved money by not tipping. She saved money by not paying her bills. If her phone got turned off, so what? She only heard from creditors and her ex. They sounded the same. She’d pin the phone between her ear and her shoulder and say, yes, I know, and shuffle through her deck of dollar bills – once fifty-two of them, exactly – and think about how quickly they’d be dealt. Hospital, credit card, electric. Babysitter, phone, gas. Rent, groceries. Every month was a test: All of the above, none of the above, or choose A and B? Maybe she’d “borrow” another bag of bread, another giant can of vegetables from the diner. If Emil noticed he never said. Maybe he knew that the deck was stacked against her. Once he advanced her a check when her car wouldn’t start – something with the transmission, the mechanics told her, and then handed her an estimate for seven hundred and some. No car, can’t get to work. No work, no rent money. Pay for the car, rent goes unpaid anyway. Sleep in the car, lose the child. She smiled through it, smiled at work, because if you didn’t smile and pretend then you made even less money. She was an actress paid to perform. A tight-wire act. 

Charlene and the Chocolate Factory

The words are pulse, shard and weary.

Another time or place she would’ve made other choices but she found herself chasing one weary day with another, stacking time and building hours while other people lived better lives.
The shakers continuously pulsed, ridding the chocolate pieces of excess covering. Perfect pieces for perfect people in perfect houses. Sweetness all around her but all for someone else.
She turned and felt her elbow bump something that shouldn’t have been there. The bottle hit the cement, broke into a couple of large pieces and a few chips, some of them sharp.
The chocolate skittered by on the shaker. Pieces of glass on the floor, dangerous.
She bent, touched the imperfect pieces.
One sliver, tiny but strong. A little pressure would break skin.
Just one shard, pressed hidden in a perfect piece. It traveled down the line on its way to a pretty box, to
a lovely store, to some perfect someone.
Licked her fingers. Hummed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Pastor

by Colleen Sutherland 

(Note: "The Pastor" is the last of the depressing Christmas stories this season, to the relief of many of our readers.  It will also be the final story in the collection I hope to publish next summer.  It pulls all the other stories together.  Refer back to "The Rapture," "A Candle in the Window", "Shades of Green," and "The Cat".)

Reverend Peets hid, rubbing his aching knees. Through a crack in the curtains that covered the glass windows in the secretary's office, he peered out at the congregants assembling in the narthex for Christmas morning services, shaking hands and wishing each other a not so enthusiastic “Merry Christmas.” They were tired and so was he.

A Sunday morning Christmas was the worst thing that God could inflict on a Methodist pastor. When Christmas fell on a weekday, all he had to worry about was Christmas Eve, mostly music and very little sermon. No one listened anyhow, so absorbed in their holiday. It was all lights, carols, schmaltzy tradition and no theology on this pagan holiday dreamed up by the Romans and carried on by the barbarians. There wasn't much for him to do. The choir director, Sunday school and the organist took care of the inspiration. On a Sunday Christmas Day, however, he was in charge of his flock, mostly the old faithful who would show up no matter what the occasion, from baptisms to funerals. Yes, they were all out there, leaning on canes and walkers as they took off their cloth coats. Mostly women, their white hair gleamed under the fluorescent lights at the entrance. They seemed to be missing one or two of their chirpy group. But there were also a few others. Family members from faraway places had been dragged in, hungover and grumpy, there only to make sure they were still included in the will.

If it weren't for the money Christmas services brought in, he would have had a theological discussion with the church council, suggesting cutting back to bare bones services. But there were those out-of-towners, big city people who liked to flash bills as they threw them into the collection plate.Christmas was a budget balancer.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Skinny Ray

Skinny Ray always said that between the suicides and fires, he'd just as soon skip December all together. After reading Ray's obituary, Mike felt a quiet anger growing in his stomach. From the way the obituary was worded, highlighting the fire fighter's distinguished service awards and all the lives he saved, but tiptoeing around the actual cause of death, Mike knew Ray had killed himself. The bastard had finally found a way to skip December, and no one had bothered to let Mike know.

In fact, Mike had missed the funeral altogether. He had only found out about it all by clicking the wrong link on the computer, getting the obituaries instead of the hockey scores. Now Ray's body was on the way to some cemetery in Kansas of all places, and it would be a bugger to find out where the place was. Not that knowing the exact location would help him now, Mike thought, it would probably be a few more days before they put Ray in the ground, so there wasn't anything for him to go visit, now was there?

“Hell with it,” Mike said to a shaggy brown dog resting in the corner, “We're going Christmas shopping.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Cat

by Colleen Sutherland 

     The cat crouched under the Victorian settee. His eyes gleamed golden in the darkness of a late night in December. The white tip of his otherwise black tail flashed back and forth, back and forth in the only light in the room, the television playing yet another version of A Christmas Carol. He was half beginning to understand the words. He stared at the human on the floor, contemplating his next move.

     The old woman was flat on the floor. The stroke had thrown her backwards, almost in a perfect line, the rolls of fat sinking into the floor. She was alive, barely. Her eyes moved from side to side, but the rest of her was frozen. Even if she had one of those emergency button devices to push it would be useless. Her hands were dead. All she had left was her brain and her senses. And that damned cat. She could hear him moving around the house.
     This was not the way her life was supposed to end.
     Elinor never wanted a cat or any other pet. Cats were sneaky. Dogs required too much upkeep. Birds scattered seed all over the floor. She remembered all that from her childhood. Her brothers and sisters always had pets and that had meant messes that she, the oldest girl, had to clean up. Her parents brought the babies into the world. Elinor had to raise them. It was one diaper after another in that Catholic family. A pet was just     another chore, nothing but that. The children were enough trouble.
     “Preparation for the nunnery,” her father joked once to his friends. “She's the plainest of the lot and none of them are lookers. When she's old enough, we'll ship her to a convent. No expensive wedding there. She'd be good taking care of brats in an orphanage.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Upstanding Citizen

“Left, please.” Flash.

“Front please.” Flash.

“So tell me, Benny,” said Mel, blinking away the purple blobs floating in his vision,“how is it that you picked me up in two hours, but there's nothing you can tell me about the guys I called you about two weeks ago?”

Benny shrugged and motioned him over to a table with an ink pad and a sheet of paper already filled out with Mel's personal information.

Benny said, “Maybe if you hadn't driven directly home from the scene on fresh snow, it would have taken us a bit longer.”

“Too bad there wasn't any snow when my place was hit, huh?” Mel said.

“I guess it's just one of those things,” Benny said. “ Now just let your hands go limp. It'll work better if I roll them for you.”

The ink pad reminded Mel of creosote. As his fingers were rolled one by one across the paper, he couldn't help but think about the ashen fingerprints and smudges left on the walls where the jerk offs had dumped out the ash bucket by the fireplace.

“Hey,” he said, “why didn't you take fingerprints at my house? They left them all over.”

Benny shrugged. “They wore gloves, Mel. Nothing turned up that we could use.”

Mel let out a bitter laugh. “So all us taxpayers will show up right away on fingerprint searches, but the real criminals on the street just get to keep on laughing.”

“It's an imperfect world.” Benny said.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Shades of Green

By Colleen Sutherland

“Keep your mouth shut,” Mama said, as she stowed Abby’s deviled eggs in the refrigerator. “Don’t say anything and Grace won’t get started. She’s worse when you argue with her.”

So when Grace and her husband arrived, Abby kept her mouth shut. She listened to Grace natter on about her two daughters, her clubs, her church, her home, her activities. Abby said nothing about her friends, her writing, her magazine column, her art. She said nothing about the men in her life, current or ex. She bit her cheek and rubbed her fingers against her arm, back and forth, back and forth. A nervous habit. But she kept her mouth shut, collecting affronts to report to her therapist.

Grace made some triumphant point and pursed her lips. At fifty, her lips carried vertical indentations that were turning into a perpetual frown. From her lofty social position as a small town banker’s wife, she knew the world and disapproved of it on Christian principle. She certainly disapproved of Abby, her divorce, her men, her freedom. Grace set her limits. She expected everybody to do the same. But Abby said nothing.

“Mustn’t brag, dear. You know how it upsets your sister,” Mama whispered to Abby over the supper dishes, wiping her hands on her stained polyester pants. Papa had towered over her, brow-beating her to obeisance. When he died, Grace took over. By tomorrow, Mama would be on her sofa with a sick headache, not answering the phone or door bell, escaping with Oprah.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lightening the Load

November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. (See for a complete explanation.) Wade and I are both using this month to edit novels we wrote in previous years. Today, I am posting a chapter from Going Down from Gairloch. Ronna is an American writer of romance novels who wants to change her life. She is at Heathrow in London to meet William, the man she has been dating for a few years, to break off their affair. At the same time, she wants to say good-bye to her agent, who will be leaving for the United States on the same airplane.

Lightening the Load
from Going Down from Gairloch
by Colleen Sutherland 

It was another cool, rainy British day, but Ronna figured she might as well get used to rain. In a few hours, she would catch a train to the Lake District where it rained all the time. In the meantime, she had to drag her suitcase with her everywhere, and she was getting mighty sick of it. Because of terrorists there no longer were lockers to stash luggage for a few hours at international airports. She was a turtle, dragging her home on her back.

She could have skipped this trip to Heathrow altogether. She had already cashed in her ticket and was using that to live on until things were settled back in the Midwest. There was no chance she would be leaving with William. Still, she felt she had to come to say good bye and tell him to his face that she was breaking it off. She would tell Bonnie that they had come to a parting of ways. There would be no new novel, at least not one that Bonnie would approve of. That would not be easy either, but cowardice would not be part of her new life in Great Britain.

The suitcase bumped along behind her, her laptop computer strapped to it. The case's pull out handle whacked her in the back of her buttocks from time to time to remind her it was there. As she dragged the case up staircases and elevators, and along the entire length of the terminal, she began to think about what was in it. Perhaps it was time to lighten her load.

It was still early so she settled down on a plastic seat, stuck one foot through the suitcase handle to make sure no one would steal it. One strap of her backpack was around an arm, another precaution against thieves. She booted up her laptop, looking for the trashy romance novel she had promised Bonnie. It was terrible. Another thing to get rid of. It was time to write something meaningful, she thought.

She glanced up from time to time and that was how she spotted William, a study in gray in the vast gray of Heathrow. He had a new suit, she noticed, something different than what he usually wore. It was still a conservative suit, but not his usual style. Although she was no expert on men's clothing, it was more tailored. The pants fit him, no bagging around the hips. He looked almost natty.

Ronna settled back to watch, wondering if he would come over to her, but he was not looking for her. He was looking behind him, a smile under his trim little mustache. Then she noticed Bonnie at a kiosk, purchasing a magazine. William stopped and waited for her. Her magazine in hand, she walked toward him. He held his hand out, to take the magazine, Ronna thought, but no, it was to take Bonnie's hand. They walked toward the stewardess waiting at the exit door. They held hands and looked at each other in the meaningful way that lovers do.

Ronna quietly watched them, surprise leading to annoyance to joy. William and Bonnie? William and Bonnie! Somehow the two had joined up. How did that happen? Ronna found she didn't care.

Should she confront them and make the breakup official and give Bonnie her blessing? No, that was a bad idea. Bonnie would rather steal William away than have him handed to her. If Ronna showed approval, Bonnie would re-think the prize she had won, a door prize no one else would want. Best let that be. It was the perfect breakup, no residual guilt, no regrets, no envy, no anger. Ronna would thank Bonnie every day of her life. A few steps more and the couple were through the door.
I've just gotten rid of two negative parts of my life, she reflected. My old life is gone. No more trashy novels, no more boring love stories, fictional or real. She didn't believe in them before, and she didn't believe in them now. It was time to let go of everything else that had no value to her. She looked once more at the beginnings of the romance novel and without a second thought, deleted the entire thing.

She glanced down at her luggage. What else was she hanging on to? There were shops all over England. Why was she dragging all this along with her. She would buy what she needed, as she needed it.

She stared down at her body. She had dressed up for this meeting with William, putting on makeup, her best clean dress, and a pair of pumps. Why had she done that? Because it was the way she had always looked at life in the past. Looking her best for men was over now.

She pulled her suitcase into a women's restroom. The stalls were all occupied and there was a line of tired women waiting for their turns. Standing there, the other women staring, Ronna began to change her way of being. She scrubbed off all the makeup. Then she pulled off her shoes, her nylon stockings, her dress and her bra, leaving her in nothing but her skivvies. She unzipped the suitcase and pulled out an old pair of blue jeans and an over sized sweatshirt that flopped over her breasts and around her hips. She put on white socks and the comfortable pair of sports shoes. The dress went into a trash bin.

The women in the loo looked at her as if she were mad. “Sorry,” she said, “I'm having a crazy, wonderful day.” The new Ronna rolled her case out to the terminal. She dropped her cosmetics bag, plop, on the carpet, picked up her knapsack and laptop and began to walk away from the suitcase.

“Pardon me, miss.” A uniformed guard hurried over. “You can’t leave your things unattended." Ronna hefted up the case again and sighed audibly enough to show her annoyance. She sat down on a hard plastic seat. The backpack was in her way. She pulled it off her shoulders and slid back.

A waste container was beside her. She zipped the backpack open and let the contents spill down her lap to the floor.

File folders of handouts for her workshops. Not an original thought in any of them. She shoved them into the container. Books she carried all over England and had never read. Into the heap, though she saved the best and piled them next to magazines and newspapers for others to read.

Finally, her day planner. Addresses – dates – goals – diet plans. Her life all laid out for the next year. She hesitated for a moment. Her whole humdrum life set out before her. Who needed something like that? She threw it in the container violently.

What else? Some dirty laundry at the bottom. Out it came. The backpack lay empty like a deflated parachute. The trash bin was full.

She opened her suitcase. What did she really need? She snapped it shut and hauled it to the next trash container. She opened it. Out came the bras … gone.

Then the cosmetic kit. Should she keep a lipstick? No! She took out a toothbrush. She found a bandanna, tied it around her frizzy head hippie style, and threw away the hairbrush. The curling iron went flying into the container. She dumped every bit of the junk she had kept to make herself attractive. Why fight a losing battle? She tossed the toothbrush into the backpack. She was now officially old. God, it felt good!

She zoomed over to the counter with the empty suitcase. “See here,” she told the attendant. “I’m getting rid of this stuff. I’m not bombing anybody. Have the security check it over, then give it to charity.” She turned abruptly and marched to the sunlight carrying her laptop and the knapsack with two pairs of pants, two shirts heavy enough to cover her nipples, a pen, a journal, and a toothbrush.

That was enough to go on.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Candle in the Window

By Colleen Sutherland

     “A Valley soldier died in Iraq yesterday,” the television news anchor said in his promotional clip, “Tune in for a full report at 10:00.”  Ben’s face grew red.  He punched the remote and slammed it on his desk, silencing Scrooge’s encounter with the second ghost.
     Another soldier dead and this one in the Valley.  From his office window, he looked across to his neighbors’ house. Tim, Jake and Alice’s only child, was in Iraq, on his third tour.  Their “Support the Troops” banner fluttered in the winter wind, the words almost indiscernible. The yellow ribbons had faded, frayed and finally blown away.
     He let the screen saver take over the computer and went to the cold living room and checked on the electric candle at the window.  Since the beginning of the war in 2003, it had been in his window, a notice to passersby to remember the casualties of war. Four replacement bulbs later, it was still lit.  When Tim went to war, Ben moved it to a window facing Alice’s kitchen window, in hopes that she would find it reassuring.  But it infuriated Jake so Ben put it back in the living room.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Garage Sale

The woman waved the blouse in front of Jasmine like evidence of a crime.

The stitching is coming loose,” the woman said, “right here at the armpit – two dollars.” She tossed her head back like she had a penthouse overlooking Central Park, even though she was cramming a size sixteen frame into white stretch pants that were never intended to go beyond a size ten. Whatever damage had been done to the spandex was covered by voluminous black t-shirt that read “D&R Powersports” across a bust that had given up the fight against gravity long ago.

Jasmine glanced at the blouse, red silk, and the stitching in question. “It was fine until you pulled at it when you thought I wasn’t looking – five.”

Friday, October 7, 2011


    That morning, the boy took a short cut through the alley. His head was down, his thoughts on his math homework. His route didn't save him much time, but it took him past the big windows of the pool hall where grown men with tattoos used their sticks with precision to whack away at balls. The boy liked the imagery. In a small town, this was as close as he could get to phallic stuff. Phallic. It was a new word to him. He liked it.