A sampling of short stories or excerpts follows.
Haj (available in the Writers Digest Competition Collection of Short, Short Stories)
Is Haj a fool? It’s not my place to say, so I’ll lay out the facts and let you draw your own conclusion.
Bear in mind, even those who insist he is nothing but a sadly demented soul nevertheless acknowledge he has good intentions. Best be warned, so you aren’t swayed by appearances.
Haj arrived in Glesha last month, when the daytime temperature was so balmy icicles hanging from roof tops melted into little puddles. Delinda was the first to talk with him. Seems he stopped in at her eatery for breakfast. She reported the encounter to Tave Sern our esteemed information mogul.
– – –
At His Table (published in Fellowship: LINK)
I am Omari Mbogo, though Bwana Harrison called me Omani. No—I wanted to shout—O-m-a-r-i, a fine name, one steeped in the history of my people, one I share with my father’s brother and someday hope to give to a son.
As yet, I have no son. My wife Mukami gave birth to two beautiful daughters before her sickness … before her death.
When she first became ill, I believed it was the fever and sat by her bedside to feed her broth as soon as I returned from work. Day after day she steadily grew worse until she became so thin I could hardly recognize her. Although I knew taking her to the government hospital meant she would never come home, I could not watch her die without trying everything. Bwana Harrison gave me permission to miss work, and I sent my daughters to Mukami’s parents.
– – –
The Beacon (published in the Sword Review)
Zan’s despair was more acute than the pain ripping through his shoulder. Being captured—being tortured even, because that cruelty was sure to come—was part of the risk. But even when he imagined all that could go wrong with a foray into enemy-held territory, he still expected to accomplish his mission.
Not that he believed he would necessarily play the key role. His part might be nothing more than distracting the sentries, freeing another volunteer to reach the artifact.
The guard holding Zan’s arm behind his back yanked it higher. “Who else is with you?”
“I’m alone; I’m alone.” His voice rose with his desire to keep the Darian from wrenching his shoulder out of its socket. Besides, he was alone now, more so than ever before.
A second guard toed the lifeless body of Zan’s section leader. “This one’s dead. Do we kill that one, too?”
– – –
The King or the Shaman Posted June 5, 2007
Back in drought-plagued Mpwapwa, superstition was law, with the shaman as the ultimate authority, but sitting in this Kansas court house, I couldn’t help think the little Tanzanian village looked more and more like heaven.
I tugged my skirt further over my knees, squeezed them tighter together, and straightened my back against the hardwood bench. I’d still be in my dimly-lit hut right now, boiling up a mess of cabbage if it weren’t for the mission’s financial policy. Support level too low for too long, they’d said, and I packed up and headed back to the States. Reluctantly?
I thought so, but coming home was almost a relief. To be completely honest, it wasn’t long before I came to see it as a blessing, as if God had handed me a get-out-of-jail-free card. Who could fault me for enjoying my own little wood-frame house or for basking in grocery-store plenty? Best of all was church, but that was before this suit, of course.
I glanced at the shiny black marble floor, squeaky-slick if you were wearing the right shoes. Like Dave was.
– – –
Swallow and Beyond (Posted at WhereTheMapEnds, August 2008 )
As the egg-shaped ship drifted toward Swallow’s shore, Rhei jostled to get a better view—past a mother with her baby nestled in a sling, past four or five tradesmen clustered in front of the tinker’s stand, past a mason repairing the rocky wharf. Near the water, she scrunched between barrels of smelly fish parts, instinctively pressing the back of her hand against her nose to impede the briny odor of decay. To think, the unfortunates ate this refuse. Hunger drove a person to tolerate the intolerable.
Tolerate the intolerable. Didn’t that describe her this very minute? To satiate this yearning that intensified every day, she would endure just about any unpleasantness.
Pressure built within her chest. Why had these travelers come to Hol? Were they friendly? Intelligent? Wise? Handsome? What language did they speak? And more importantly, what did they know about The Beyond?
Questions. As always, the unasked questions stoked a fire within her soul that threatened to bubble into a volcanic inferno. In childish naiveté, her first word had been a question, but her mother scolded her for her unnatural curiosity.
– – –
Kor’s mother, Lara noc-Jodan, a merchant with an upstanding reputation in the City of Stones, first reported her youngest son’s aptitude to the authorities four winters ago. Governor Hadan himself hurried to the family’s modest dugout, bringing with him the officer in charge of Cepae’s watchmen.
At the entrance to the simple home, the governor made his pronouncement. “We have need of a new watchman. Young Kor, present yourself for examination.”
Straight-backed, Kor climbed the narrow stairs to the rock garden. His parents eased through the trapdoor behind him.
“If your mother has lied, boy, Master Iba will know immediately.” The robust governor exchanged a smirk with the watchman instructor, then beckoned Kor toward the road. “The examination is simple enough. Listen to the stones and tell us what you hear.”
Kor peeked over his shoulder. His parents nodded, so he bent his wooly black head beside Master Iba’s bald one, his ear brushing the topmost stone in a mound of marble and rose quartz.
– – –
The Other Open Door
(Unpublished story, posted here in its entirety)
The door was open, if only a crack, and Beth knew it. Darnel’s tight lips and the deep crease between his eyebrows might fool other people, but not her. That expression was the same one he’d worn when he was seven, when the cut on his heel, rising like a boil, had sent red streaks flaming up his leg. He claimed it didn’t hurt much, but he’d been lying. Just like he was lying now.
So this was her chance. Yet she hesitated. Pushing the door open wide was tantamount to inviting her brother to trample through her life with his snide, cutting retorts. Did she really have to put herself through that again?
If she didn’t love him so much, and owe him so much, she’d happily let him believe his gruff exterior had her fooled. Besides, she knew how the conversation would end—the same way all their discussions about God ended. At some point, after belittling her and dredging up the past, Darnel would yell and storm from the room. So what made her think he’d listen today? What made her think anyone would ever listen to what she had to say about God?
Yet, as her rangy brother shuffled toward the back of the house, that open door coaxed her, suggesting—promising?—this time would be different. If she ignored that persistent prodding from somewhere inside her, if she said nothing, how worthless would she feel when he headed back to California next week?
Fumbling for an ice-breaker first line, she followed Darnel into the kitchen. “I can’t imagine trying to cope with all this if I didn’t have God in my life.”
He yanked a chair away from the table. “Don’t start with me, Beth.” He spun the seat toward him, straddled it, and plopped down. “You forget, Sis, I lived with you for eighteen long years. I know what you’re really like, so your God-talk doesn’t fool me.”
Beth crossed the room to the sink, shifting her gaze out the window to the red wagon under the drooping pepper tree in her back yard. Darnel did know her. She was the one who had given him his first drink, who provided him with a fake ID when he was sixteen, and set him up with the first girl he slept with. She’d lived fast and loose and pulled her little brother right along behind. The past would always block her when it came to talking about God, especially with Darnel. What could she say but what she’d been saying for the last ten years? “I’m not the same person any more. I just wish …”
He pulled a banana from the bunch sitting in the fruit basket. “Yeah, yeah, you wish I’d see the new you. The squeaky-clean you who doesn’t cuss any more and who goes to church every Sunday. And, you wish I’d come with you. Well, forget it. I’m not about to have a pack of strangers telling me to stop drinking and start anteing up my hard-earned money when they pass the plate.”
Beth leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. What Darnel didn’t say was that he had no intention of letting his sister lead him away from the very things he hated her for dragging him into. Could she blame him? She’d betrayed him too many times—used him to get close to the guys on the basketball team, used him to buy her booze when her license was suspended, used him to lie for her to their parents, once even to the police. How could he ever trust her again?
More importantly, how could God take her words, her sin-tainted words, and turn them into truth-filled assertions? It was like trying to build a mansion overtop a cesspool.
No, her best hope was to get Darnel to church where he could meet some other Christians—people he could respect—but his attitude toward church was just as sour as it was toward her. “Darnel, the church is not out to get your money.”
He stripped the peel from the banana, then started in on her argument. “No? They don’t ‘take a collection’ every Sunday?”
Beth slid into a chair beside her brother. “Well, we do, but nobody has to give. It’s something we want to do.”
“Sure, sure. No one has to give money or show up at all your meetings or live the goody-good life.” He crammed a huge bite of banana into his mouth.
“You make it sound so—”
“Fake?” he mumbled past the mushed pulp.
“I was going to say, ‘insincere.’”
Darnel’s mouth twisted into a sneer. “Same diff. I call it as I see it.”
Beth vacated her chair. The open door she’d pushed against refused to budge any further, as if caught against the warped floor of Darnel’s stubborn pride. He acted as though he had life all figured out, in spite of his two failed marriages and a drinking habit that bordered on alcoholism. Despite their father lying comatose in the hospital day in and day out.
A lump clogged her throat. She stretched on tiptoes for a glass from the cabinet. It was bad enough that Daddy was dying, but her brother turning his back on God for good was unbearable. Yet, what right did she have to tell him his life was a mess and he needed a Savior, when she had been the lure to draw him into the very sin she now wanted him to escape?
She pulled the plastic milk bottle from the refrigerator, filled the glass, and set it before Darnel. “The problem is, you don’t take time to see what’s in front of you. You just assume. If one church is insincere—”
“—all churches must be insincere.”
Darnel pushed the milk away from him. “Don’t you have anything stronger?”
“You know I don’t drink any more.”
He chortled. “You used to get so smashed, you really livened up a party.”
Beth repositioned the coffee maker an inch to the left, then rubbed away a water spot from the glass pot. She’d known he would start in on the past—it was inevitable—and still it stung. “I haven’t been ‘smashed’ in years.”
“So, now your parties are as dull as your church services?”
“Momma.” Trudy toddled through the doorway from the family room.
Beth bent and scooped up her three year old, a little gladder to see her than usual. “What do you need, sweetie?”
Trudy put her chubby hands on each side of Beth’s face and patted her cheeks. “Nothin’.”
“You silly girl.” Beth gave her daughter a noisy smooch. If Darnel needed a miracle to believe she’d changed, all he had to do was look at his little niece.
Trudy nestled her head on Beth’s shoulder and hugged her tight.
“You are getting to be such a big girl, I can hardly hold you.” Beth shifted her daughter higher on her hip, then returned to her chair.
“Where’s Daddy?” Trudy’s little fingers stroked Beth’s chin.
Beth brushed back loose strands of her daughter’s fawn-colored hair. “He’s at the hospital with Grampa Jack.”
Trudy turned a trusting gaze up to her mother. “Is Grampa Jack gonna die?”
“Yes, honey, I’m afraid he is.” Beth squeezed back the tears that sprang to her eyes.
Darnel dismounted from his chair, stalked to the sink, and tossed the remainder of his banana in the direction of the garbage disposal.
He stood with his hands bracing him against the sink, his head lowered, his silence filling the kitchen. At last, he mumbled, “I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to.” Beth eased Trudy onto her lap.
“Look, I don’t care what you say, I think this is wrong.” He rounded on her. “We should be doing whatever it takes to keep him alive. He’s our father, for God’s sake.”
“And he wants it this way. He’s ready to die.” She straightened her daughter’s little Pooh Bear tee shirt.
“How can you say that? You with all your religion. I thought you of all people would fight this.”
Beth shook her head. “He doesn’t have a death wish, Darnel, but he knows he has a wonderful future to look forward to. He’s not afraid to go.”
“He’s in a coma!” Darnel turned on the cold water tap, smushed the banana into the disposal, and flipped the switch. Over the uneven grind, he shouted, “You don’t have a clue what he’s thinking!”
Beth shifted Trudy to the chair beside her and slid the glass of milk toward her daughter. “I do know what he’s thinking.” She stamped to the sink and shut off the disposal. “We’ve talked about heaven a lot these last couple years. Ever since—”
“Oh, spare me.”
She planted her hands on her hips. No matter what, she needed to say her piece. The door, stuck as it was, invited her, and she was responsible for walking through the opening. Nothing more. The work was God’s work, after all. God’s work, not hers. She steadied her tone. “Ever since he became a Christian.”
Darnel rinsed his hands and turned off the water. “If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. Dad saw a bright light, and an angel came to him and told him he needed to get right with God.”
“Quit being so sarcastic. You know it wasn’t anything like that.”
“A supernatural appearance would have been more believable than the old curmudgeon up and deciding to get religious.” He dried his hands on the cloth attached to the cabinet door below the sink. “Got any cookies?”
Beth picked up the rooster cookie jar from beside the toaster oven. Up and deciding? She’d prayed Dad would become a Christian for years. Pastor Billings had met with him regularly for months, answering his every question. Dad’s change of heart was a reasoned choice, the response to hours of teaching, and the beginning of a relationship that had revolutionized him. But Darnel couldn’t understand any of it. All he looked at was the past—at Dad’s empty place at the dinner table, at her own flirtatious come-ons to each of the friends he brought home. “Peanut butter cookies OK?”
“Better than OK.” Darnel slumped into the chair opposite his old spot, removed the rooster’s head, and plunged his hand through the opening. “You want one, squirt?”
Trudy grinned up at her uncle, nodding her head vigorously, then glanced sideways at Beth.
“You can have a couple, sweetie. Are your hands clean?”
Trudy studied her fingers a moment. “A little.”
Beth ran warm water on a cloth and passed it over the soap. She took her daughter’s hands one at a time and cleaned away the dirt. No matter what Darnel thought of her, she had to make him understand what being a Christian was all about. “Dad didn’t up and decide to be religious, Darnel. He became a Christian because he realized he had no answer for the sin in his life.”
“Oh, brother, you just can’t let it go.”
“No, I can’t. This is life and death we’re talking about.”
“That you’re talking about.”
“And that Daddy talked about.”
Darnel’s fire-alarm voice cut her short. “I don’t want to hear it, all right?”
“Why? You should be glad to know your father made his peace with God.”
Darnel scoffed. “Yeah, I would’ve been if it had come about thirty years ago.”
Beth lay a napkin on the table in front of Trudy and dished two cookies on top. “What’s your point?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just that it’s very convenient for old Papa Jack to live hard and drink hard and whop his kids, then find religion in his old age, just in time to slip into heaven.”
Beth clipped her words in an effort to keep her emotions in check. “One minute you want us to hook him to every machine in the hospital just to keep him breathing, and the next you talk like you want to see him rot in hell.”
“No, no. Calm down, Sis. I don’t want him to rot in hell. I don’t even believe in hell. I mean, what kind of a god would ship people off to eternal damnation?”
Beth rested a knee on the chair beside him. “A just God who’s also provided the way of escape from that horrible punishment. The Bible says—”
Darnel groaned. “Please, spare me the Bible quoting. It’s bad enough I have to listen to you read the Bible to Dad all day. As if he can hear you.”
“You don’t know.” She slipped into the chair. “And listening to the Bible won’t hurt you any.”
“Ha! It’ll probably put me into a coma right next to Dad. Tomorrow I’m getting me one of those iPod things.” Darnel tipped his chair onto its back two legs and rocked up and down.
“You can run, Darnel Williams, but you can’t hide.” She poked the air with an extended index finger. “The Hound of Heaven will find you just like He found Daddy.”
Trudy’s small voice piped up. “The Hound of Heaven?”
“Jesus, honey. We call Him the Hound of Heaven because He pursues those He’s chosen, just like a good hunting dog trees a coon.”
“I can’t believe you’re spewing this nonsense.” Darnel crammed a cookie into his mouth.
Beth brushed a crumb from the table into her hand and deposited it onto Trudy’s napkin. Darnel might not believe she’d changed, but he couldn’t deny the difference in their dad. “It’s not nonsense. If you’d taken time to talk to Daddy these last two years, you’d know just how much he’s changed.”
“Oh, here we go.” Darnel slammed the front legs of his chair to the ground.
“I’m not trying to indict you. I’m just saying.”
“I know what you’re saying. I shoulda this or I shoulda that. Same rubbish your church spouts, no doubt. Go ahead. Stuff me into your guilt grinder. I hear it from my ex-wives already, why not from you?”
“Me, stop? You’re the one going on and on about your precious Jesus. Well, I’ve had it.” He sprang to his feet and stomped from the room, releasing a string of curses on the way.
Trudy dropped her half-eaten cookie onto her napkin. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she whimpered.
Beth snatched up the cookie jar lid and clattered it into place. One more failed opportunity. She’d known it would end like this, so what had goaded her to persist? Was it nothing but her own wishful thinking?
“Mommy, why is Uncle Darnel so mad?” Trudy’s tears spilled onto her cheeks.
Beth pulled her daughter to her, cradling her on her lap. “He’s not really so mad, honey. More scared and sad because of Grampa Jack.”
“Because he’s dying?”
“Yes.” She snuggled her daughter closer.
“Even though Grampa Jack will be with Jesus?”
“Uncle Darnel doesn’t know Jesus, so he doesn’t understand.”
“Mommy, do I know Jesus?”
Beth rested her cheek on the crown of her daughter’s head. Darnel didn’t know Jesus and in all likelihood never would. She’d blown it with him fifteen years ago, and he was not about to forget. If it weren’t for God’s forgiveness …
“Momma, do I?”
“Do you what, honey?”
“Do I know Jesus?”
Beth swallowed the gasp that rose in her throat. Another open door, one she almost missed because she’d been so busy beating herself up over things God promised not to remember. “I don’t know, honey. If you want to know Him, you can.”
“Like I know my friend Tammy?”
“Sort of. You won’t see Jesus the way you see Tammy, but He’ll be with you day and night because He’ll live in your heart.”
Trudy glanced in the direction of her heart. “Will He fit?”
“He fits wherever He’s welcome, sweetie.”
“When can He move into my heart, Mommy?”
“How about right now?”