Wednesday, March 16, 2016

NYCMidnight

I have been busy. I've taken a step back to work on craft and part of that journey has been short stories. Previously, I couldn't write a short story to save myself. Every idea I had was larger than life and rambled on like a tumbleweed rolling across the prairie. I decided it was time to correct that.

Short stories make you get to the point. They make you hone in on what your story is really about, what it is you really want to say. I wrote a couple short stories for my book Girl Found. They almost became novellas. So when I saw the advert for NYCMidnight, I jumped in.

The contest divides entrants into heats and assigns each heat a genre, subject, and a character. You are given eight days to write a 2500 word story. I was all excited, unable to wait to start on this next step of my short story journey. When I got my assignment, I went blank. Genre: Drama. (Not horrible) Subject: Online Bullying (uh-oh) Character: An Organ Donor (WTF!!!!)

I wrote it. Here is the end product of my labors, just as it was submitted.

Brother's Keeper by Lisa Hall

Shane glanced toward the phone vibrating on the desk. He stared, listening to the buzzing of the case against metal until it quit. He’d like to think that meant the caller was giving up, but he knew that wasn’t going to happen. Monday, the results had come back. He was a compatible donor for Ronnie. Mom had been ecstatic, until he left without signing the authorization forms. This was day five of the offensive.

            The phone spent the rest of the morning wrapped in a dirty towel inside his gym bag. When he took it out at lunch, there were twenty-three missed calls from his mother, one from his wife, and several from numbers he didn’t recognize. There were nineteen text messages, all from his mother.

Shane took a deep breath, and thumbed the screen on his phone. He read the first text, then typed in the hashtag his mother had sent him, #ItsOnlyaLife. Meme after meme popped up, all with at least three comments. Family, friends, and total strangers all weighed in. Shane was an asshole.

He wasn’t really surprised. Ronnie was the cute sibling, a born charmer with baby blue eyes and a dimple that turned every female’s head. He was a good looking kid who learned how to make it work for him at a young age. With their mother posting heart-ripping memes of loss and betrayal all over twitter and Facebook under the hashtags #ItsOnlyaKidney and #ItsOnlyaLife, what other verdict could he possibly expect?

He scrolled through the comments. Aunt Doris was especially surprised by his decision, not that he’d officially made one yet. He hadn’t actually said no to donating a kidney for his brother, he just hadn’t said yes either. Mom had left that, and a few other details, out of the discussion.

“Three tours in Iraq and he’s come home to let his brother die?” Aunt Doris asked in bold print. “Why, I just can’t believe it.”

Because the position Ronnie was in was Shane’s fault. It was an old story. “Why weren’t you keeping an eye on him?” their mother would scold when they were growing up. “What were you thinking letting him go swimming by himself?”

As if he had. A few years later came the skateboarding incident off the neighbor’s roof that resulted in two broken legs, followed by the dirt bike crash. Ronnie broke a collarbone and two ribs trying to jump barrels. It was always something. Shane could sum up their collective childhoods in one sentence. “Why didn’t you keep your little brother out of trouble?”

The problem with Ronnie was that consequences were for other people. Sure, he ended up in a bed every now and then, propped up on pillows eating ice cream and watching television all day. He loved that.

It was Dad who paid the bills, fixed whatever had been destroyed. His big brother did all of his chores and helped Mom while she looked after her little boy. No matter what kind of trouble he was in, all he had to do was turn up with a bruise or a bit of blood on him, smile that charming smile of his, act a little contrite, and tell a joke. Whatever he’d done was instantly forgotten.

It got worse as they got older. Their father died the winter Shane turned fifteen. He’d gotten a job to help with the bills. Ronnie went out with friends, got drunk, and hotwired a car. “Poor thing,” he remembered their grandmother saying after the police left. “It’s because he’s mourning. He’s confused inside.”

Which was complete bull. Ronnie was a juvenile con artist with no regard for the people in his life. As long as he kept getting what he needed, everything was fine in Ronnie’s world. Shane returned the phone to the gym bag and went back to work.

He finished up a contract for a client and opened his email to forward the document. Glancing through his received files, one jumped out him. The subject, Murderer, stood out, as did the FW. Mother had forwarded it. That was low, even for her. Shane hesitated, certain he didn’t want to read the message. He debated deleting it unread, but clicked on it, his jaw clenching as he swallowed.

It had been written to his mother by his cousin Stacey. Shane recalled Stacey from their youth, a skinny girl sporting deep tan lines, freckles, and sun bleached hair. One summer, Ronnie had dared her to climb to the top of the old oak that grew in their grandparent’s backyard. When she’d become stuck, an event requiring the skills and equipment of the local fire department, Ronnie had been the first to point out that he’d told her she couldn’t do it.

Which was true, technically. He hadn’t actually said, “Climb that tree.” She wouldn’t have done it if he had, which was why he insisted instead that girls couldn’t climb trees. Stacey had been the first to say it wasn’t Ronnie’s fault, and it looked like she was still backing him.

Her message read, “I can’t believe he’s not helping his brother! If Ronnie dies, that makes Shane a murderer, because he could have saved him, and didn’t. I can’t believe we’re going to have a murderer in the family! Can he be charged, you know, in court? Can they make him give the kidney Ronnie needs?”

Shane’s throat and chest tightened, and expletives shot through his head. Didn’t it occur to any of them that there must be a reason he wasn’t jumping up and down with excitement to help? He’d grappled with this for weeks, even before the results came back. Shane deleted the email, wondering when Stacey had last seen Ronnie, or any of them for that matter. She must have been no more than fourteen the last time he’d seen her, and ten, no, twelve years later, she was labeling him a killer.

Shane flipped through the other messages and comments. What had begun as a stinging hurt he could almost understand, was becoming a deep betrayal. It bothered him that his family were so ready to accept the story his mother circulated in an attempt to manipulate his decision. Couldn’t they see what she was doing? Shane felt they should know him better, but then they’d never seen Ronnie for what he was.

At the end of the day, Shane tossed the phone into the passenger seat of the car and climbed behind the wheel. Traffic was slow, and for once he didn’t mind. There was no chance his mother would relent, not until she got what she wanted. By six his phone was going to start ringing again, nonstop, because she knew he was home. The ping announcing a text message had already gone off half a dozen times. He didn’t want to know how many emails waited on his home computer. The entire family had that address.

What he really wanted was for them to face him. To stand in front of him and ask him what was going on. Didn’t look like anyone was going to do that. He walked into the kitchen, the aroma of lasagna hitting him full on, making him drool. His wife, Jeannie, stood at the counter, a glass of wine in each hand. “Two fisted drinking, or is one of those for me?” he asked.

She grinned, handing him a glass. “So, how was your day?”

“If you hadn’t handed me this glass, I would have gone for the bottle. I made the mistake of checking my Facebook,” he told her, cutting to the heart of things. “I especially liked the meme with the boot crushing a fetus shaped suspiciously like a kidney. I didn’t even know my mother knew what a meme was, let alone how to create one.”

The phone in Shane’s hand pinged. He wagged it at his wife and tossed it on the counter beside the wine bottle. “She texts too. Wonder how long she’s been doing that, because I’ve never gotten one from her, not until her precious boy needed a chunk of my body.”

Jeannie gave him a look, and went back to shredding romaine for a salad. “Is that what’s behind your recalcitrance? You weren’t the favorite?”

Shane looked up sharply at his wife. “Not you too.”

Jeannie’s expression softened. “Of course not, but this isn’t like you. Your brother is dying and it is in your power to stop that.”

Shane shook his head, and said what he’d been dying to tell everyone all week. “No, Jeannie it isn’t in my power. Do you know why I’m his only chance for a donor?”

His wife repeated his mother’s assertion. “Specific gene markers that are very rare in the population. You both have them.”

Shane shook his head again, this time slow and wide. “That’s the story Mom is telling. There’s no more truth to that than the story about Ronnie missing graduation due to a biology trip in Mexico.”

His wife giggled. “Let me guess, there was no formal biology involved?”

“There was no trip. He was in jail,” Shane said, recalling that night. He’d been in Special Ops training and had gone to a lot of trouble arranging leave for ceremony. The grandparents and a few aunts and uncles had also come to see Ronnie walk, only, no Ronnie. Shane spent the rest of the night listening to his mother spew her story, knowing in his gut she probably hadn’t a clue where Ronnie was. He went to a bar after, ran into one of Ronnie’s friends, and got the scoop. Turned out, she did know.

“At least the doctor believes in full disclosure,” Shane said. “Ronnie has hepatitis C. Between that and the drugs he won’t, or can’t, give up, they won’t put him on the waiting list. That’s why I’m his only option, not some special gene. Only family would give this guy an organ. He’s showing early signs of liver cirrhosis. Even if he gets a kidney, it’s only a matter of time.”

“Oh no,” Jeannie muttered under her breath. “Have you told your mother?”

Shane’s eyes narrowed. Why was he the only one who saw those two for what they were? “What makes you think she doesn’t know?”

A timer beeped and Jeannie stepped to the oven, bringing out garlic toast. “She wouldn’t be so…” Her words trailed off.

“Catty?” Shane said, offering a more palatable suggestion to the word he knew they were both thinking. Shane helped carry food to the table and sat down. “This looks fantastic. Thank you.” He raised his glass. Glasses clinked and they settled in to eat.

“How did you have time to do all this?” Shane asked.

Across the table, Jeannie froze. Her eyes came to his in slow motion. “Angela saw what’s going on. She let me cut out early.”

Shane grimaced. “This followed you to work too?” It was bad enough that he was dealing with this. He didn’t want Jeannie getting hit with it as well, not any more than necessary. He especially didn’t want her business partner involved. “Do I even want to know how that happened?”

“Your mother has my work email. She put the design house on the #Fight4Ronnie list.”

Shane frowned. He hadn’t seen that hashtag. “Babe, I’m sorry. I’ll apologize to Angela, if you think it would help.”

Jeannie shook her head. “No need. Angela was here one of the times Ronnie showed up looking for money while you were deployed. She thought he was a creep. She was betting you’d find out you weren’t really related.”

Shane grinned. “Wouldn’t that have been something?” He hesitated. “I didn’t expect to be a match. I got tested to shut Mom up.”

Jeannie sighed. “I know. Have you talked to your boss, about time off?”

Shane stared across the table at Jeannie. He loved her so much. He had to force the next words out of him. “No. I’m not doing it.” She looked at him in surprise, that little furrow forming over the bridge of her nose the way it did when she was confused.

“What do you mean, you’re not doing it?”

All the internal arguments that had been swirling around inside him quieted as he looked into her eyes. Jeannie was the only one who mattered. “I’m not doing it.”

Jeannie set her fork down and folded her hands in front of her. “I know you and Ronnie aren’t close, but are you sure you aren’t letting old hurts make this decision, and, maybe your mother?”

Shane snorted. “My mother and I are developing a nasty current issue. If I was even on the fence about this, what she’s doing now would push me in the opposite direction in a heart beat.”

He reached for Jeannie’s hand, and she took it, their fingers entwining. “I’m not on the fence, and it has nothing to do with the past, not the way you’re thinking.” Shane’s grip tightened. “Why should I go under the knife when he doesn’t care what happens? I went to see him. I wanted to talk to him.”

Jeannie blinked. “When?”

“Yesterday. He wasn’t home, so I waited outside his apartment. He came back carrying a case of beer.” Shane slammed his fork down on the table. “He’s on dialysis, his liver is next, and he’s still partying. That’s when I decided.”

Jeannie watched him for a moment. “It sounds like this may still be a bit about Ronnie playing his way through life. Are you sure that’s not the reason you’re backing away from this?”

“You think I’m punishing him? Giving him a giant dose of tough love?” Shane asked, as if he hadn’t asked himself the very same thing half a million times.

“Are you?” she asked softly.

Shane pulled away. “Why are you arguing for him? You had to move back in with your parents while I was deployed because of him.”

Jeannie nodded. “I remember. Even my mother thought he was after money for drugs. I’m not arguing for him. I’m worried about you. If Ronnie dies, can you live with the decision you’re making now, no regrets?”

Shane thought a part of him would always wonder if he was doing the right thing, no matter which way he went. “What if, because of my decision, Ronnie gets himself together?”

“What if he doesn’t?” Jeannie countered.

Shane’s vision blurred. “Have you seen how long the waiting list is? How many children are on it? Why should someone like Ronnie get a chance when there are other people, good people, dying? Why aren’t we all lining up to see them well, if donating an organ is no big deal?”

Jeannie inhaled sharply. “Wow, you’re really not doing this.”

“I’m really not.”
This story took first in its heat, moving me on to the second stage of the contest. I will receive another assignment and have three days to write a 2000 word story. There are no prizes in this contest, only a healthy challenge and the feedback for each submission from the judges. I can't wait to see what I draw next. Please don't let it be Fairy Tale.

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