Downsized

Supermarket

Week 20: 52-Week Writing Challenge
Word prompt – downsized

 

Ramsey felt God had punished him enough.

An honors graduate of Northwestern with nineteen years professional business experience should not be managing a second-rate grocery store.

He fumed thinking about the brand new sixty-foot boat his brother now owned.

Ramsey Carter’s pulse quickened remembering the sadness of his wife’s eyes viewing the photos from her sister’s European vacation.

The former new accounts director owned a boat once. Ramsey took his wife to Europe for their eleventh wedding anniversary… thirteen years ago.

But that was all in the past. The boat was sold two years ago in Ramsey’s second full year of unemployment. Unless they won the lottery, the Carters may never see Europe again.

Closing his laptop, Ramsey pinched the bridge of his noise. Grateful the new work schedule was complete, Ramsey wasn’t looking forward to the usual employee complaints. His penny-pinching regional manager decreased Ramsey’s allotted monthly staffing hours again. The deli and bakery would have to close five hours early to keep checkout lanes and customer service staffed.

Senior employees would scream. Insisting they’d already paid their dues by working the inconvenient shifts and doing grunt work, being scheduled for swing or short shifts was a slap in the face to long term staff.

Ramsey Carter agreed with them. He believed years of service and loyalty to an employer should mean something… have some value.

Or at least he used to.

He believed it right up to the day Bentek Corp’s security escorted him to the parking garage. Security manager Dick Roddy took Ramsey’s employee identification card, handed him an envelope, and walked away.

Downsized.

So, while understanding employee anger at their situation, Ramsey had a job to do. Take the newly allotted hours and staff the store for eighteen hours a day, seven days a week.

At least he wasn’t firing anyone. Yet.

Easing his tired body from the chair, Ramsey headed for shipping and receiving to double check the evening lock-down.

Passing through Household Goods and hearing his name called, Ramsey turned. The throbbing in his head was immediate along with the bitter taste in his mouth.

Delia Pennock, health and beauty clerk, teetered toward him on heels too high… and unsafe for the workplace.

How many times would Ramsey have to warn this woman?

Before Delia caught up to him, Ramsey’s inter-store walkie buzzed. The display showed the call was coming from Ramsey’s intended destination — shipping and receiving.

“What’s up, Minas?”

“Need you back here, Ramsey. Now.”

“On my way.”

Red-faced and out of breath, Delia reached Ramsey as he returned the walkie to his belt-clip.

“Ramsey, I know you’re working on the next schedule. Do be a dear and not schedule me for the opening shift or on the checkout stands.”

“Sorry, Delia. The schedule’s done. You open on the express checkout week two of the schedule.”

He turned to leave, but Delia caught hold of his arm. Ramsey looked back to find the bottle-blonde attempting a full-fledged pout. Pursing his lips, Ramsey stepped out of Delia’s grip.

“Ramsey! Six in the morning is just too early for someone with a social life as active as mine.”

“It’s your turn, Delia. You know the rotation.”

Delia had gall. He had to give her that. Most employee scheduling concerns were about babysitting issues, evening classes and caring for disabled family members. Only Delia would want special treatment so she could sit in a bar all night.

Though her employee file carried a birth-date making Delia thirty-nine years old, Ramsey Carter would swear in open court sitting on top of Bible-mountain she was older than his forty-seven years. Even from where he stood, Ramsey could see the layers of makeup on Delia’s face intended to hide wrinkles. It didn’t.

“But, Ramsey-”

“I have to go, Delia. Problem in S and R. And Delia,” he looked at her feet, “the shoes.”

“Oh, okay. We’ll talk… later.”

Ramsey walked away in double-time to keep from laughing in the woman’s face.

If the employee rumor mill were to be believed, Delia Pennock lured three of the last four store managers into sexual trysts outside… and inside the store. The fourth manager was female and not into women, even though it was said Delia tried anyway.

Ramsey Carter had no intention of becoming the over-the-hill party girl’s latest conquest.

Toni Temple-Carter was the sunshine in Ramsey’s life. He’d loved her since the day she’d walked into their seventh-grade English class. But the shy, awkward Ramsey Carter resigned to be just friends with the dark-skinned beauty. For six years Ramsey watched Toni date other guys, his heart breaking piece by piece each time. When he learned Toni would also be attending Northwestern, it cheered him to know he would still get to see Toni from time to time.

Ramsey’s world spun out of control the day Toni Temple plopped down on the bench next to him in the Student Union.

“Do you like me, Ramsey… at all?”

Ramsey, still gawky at nineteen, sputtered for the right words.

“Huh? Like you? Of… of course, Toni. We’re… friends. Have been for a l-long time.”

“Why haven’t you ever asked me out?”

Ramsey’s eyes widened in disbelief.

“Ask… you out? Because… I thought… we’re friends. I didn’t think-”

“Ask me out.”

“Huh?”

“Ask me out.”

Understanding registered with Ramsey and the two young people shared a grin.

“Will you go out me, Toni?”

“Yes, Ramsey Carter. I thought you’d never ask.”

They’d been inseparable ever since, marrying five years later.

Committed to each other, the Carters had avoided most of the pitfalls which darken some marriages. When their second son entered college, Toni and Ramsey were excited about the future and making plans. Plans which imploded less than a year later when Ramsey was downsized out of Bentek Corp.

Toni was steadfast, never complaining about their financial situation. At the end of her work day, the nursing manager would often pick up extra hours in patient care to help with their household budget. Toni never blamed Ramsey or even Bentek for their lot and Ramsey was in awe of her. Each time he looked at her, Ramsey saw nothing but love in her eyes.

Other downsized Bentek employees lost everything… homes, savings, and their marriages. But Toni was Ramsey’s fortress, holding him up and shielding him from the depression which threatened to take him.

Yes, the Carters sold their boat, the cabin upstate, and their timeshares. And they no longer splurged on artsy furnishings or ate out. But they had saved their home and kept both their sons in college. Toni often said they were an unbeatable team, but Ramsey knew better. Toni’s love for him was his armor against the world, but her endless faith in him gave him the strength to keep moving forward.

When Ramsey suggested putting their artistic sides to good use by getting into the on-line graphic arts business, Toni not only agreed, but she researched and found the best on-line classes they could afford. Eighteen months later, the couple was close to realizing their dream and beginning a new journey together. Ramsey knew it would be a struggle at first, both of them working full-time while trying to start their own business.  But Ramsey looked forward to the day when he was his own boss.

Opening the security door separating shipping and receiving from the rest of the store. Ramsey Carter gawked at the sight before him.

Department manager, Minas Fortuni, stood at the bay doors attempting to unbend metal around a three-foot hole in the door.

“What the hell?” Ramsey inched forward, his stomach churning at the paperwork in his immediate future. “What happened, Minas?”

Shaking his head, Minas gave up his futile attempts to close the hole.

“That last delivery guy… from Buckley Dairy… didn’t swing the back end of his trailer wide end enough. Backed right into the door. He leaned out the window and saw what he’d done. Know what he did then, Ramsey?”

The store manager stared at the hole in the door, still incredulous.

Minas continued. “He said, “Oops, sorry, dude” and drove off. Just like that.”

Ramsey hung his head defeated. He was tired, hungry and he wanted to go home. This day had to end.

Ramsey Carter decided it was time to delegate. “You busy this evening, Minas?”

“No, and I already put in a call to Rolla-Doorz. It’s going to cost extra, but they’re sending a guy over.”

“Good thinking, Minas. If you’re willing to stay and cover for me, I’ll authorize the overtime… as long as it takes.”

“Of course, I’ll stay. It’s Patty’s turn to host girls’ night. You’re saving me from watching a bunch of baby boomer females get drunk and cavort around the house to the soundtrack from “Grease.” It’s a win-win situation for us both. Go home, man… I got you covered.”

“Thanks, Minas. I owe you for this… big-time!”

Returning to his office in record time, Ramsey made quick notes about the incident and put the Buckley Dairy file on his desk for tomorrow. Before Ramsey could lock his file cabinet, Dale Johnson from the meat department leaned into his office.

“Hey, Ramsey… got a slip and fall near aisle twelve. The woman says the floor was wet and Good Buy Foods is going to pay for her pain and suffering.”

Ramsey leaned against his desk, ready to scream.

“Is the woman okay? Anything broken? Bleeding? Do we need to get paramedics here?”

Dale smirked. “Ramsey… she’s fine.”

“Is someone with her?”

“Yeah. Gail from the front desk.”

“Okay, on my way.”

Ramsey pulled an accident report from the file cabinet along with the store’s Polaroid and headed out of his office. He stopped and returned to his desk, grabbing his cell phone.

Ramsey had to let Toni know he’d be late getting home… again.

Save

Addiction

Internet Addiction

Week 18: 52-Week Writing Challenge  Word prompt: addiction

Laura cringed as his finger found the trigger. Though it was aimed away from her, the blast of the shotgun knocked Laura off her feet.

Scrambling in a half-crawl half-walk, she tried to push past him when another blast rang out. Sinking to the floor, Laura howled in anguish.

“Why? Why did you do that? It wasn’t necessary!”

Without responding, Cory Ganz checked the gun’s chamber, wiped the barrel, and replaced it in its pristine case. He then turned and faced his hysterical wife.

“It had to be done.”

Laura crawled over to the devastation her husband of twenty-one-years had wrought. She reached out an arm but pulled back, glaring at him through her tears.

“You did not have to shoot my laptop!”

“Yes, I did, Laura. And I’m not sorry. I had to get your attention.” Cory left the room and returned a few minutes later with a shovel and a box. He began to scoop up the remains of the still smoldering device.

Laura Ganz stood and paced around him.

“Get my attention? For what? What is so important you had to take out a deadly weapon and shoot an inanimate object? That cost me nine hundred dollars, by the way.”

Cory took a deep breath in an attempt to quell his anger. “Let’s work backward, shall we? When we agreed you needed a new laptop, we also agreed on a price and that we’d pay cash. The very next day, you spent three times the amount decided on and you used our credit card… our emergencies only credit card.” The frustrated husband dragged his hand through his collar-length dark hair. “And you didn’t even tell me, sweets. I had to find out when the bill came in the mail.”

Laura hung her head in shame, then tried to rebound. “But I thought it would be a good investment.” The words rang hollow to her own ears.

“Investment in what, Laura? Neither of us works on-line. We’re not in school or distance learners. Hell, we can’t even get the bill-pay program to work right.” Cory leaned the shovel against the desk and approached his wife.

“But you know what does work for you, honey? Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, iChat, Facetime.” He raised a finger as he named each social network. “You’re LinkedIn, you StumbleUpon, you have Pinterest, and don’t even get me started on your blogs! Enough already!”

Red-faced and defensive, Laura folded her arms across her chest. “I enjoy the Internet. Is that so wrong? Dena Gibbs is out four nights a week spending hundreds to play Bingo. Ann Kemp spends thousands of dollars in Nordstroms and she doesn’t even have a job!” She unfolded her arms reaching out to her husband. “I was wrong to buy the more expensive laptop, and I was wrong for not telling you, but honey, is it really such a bad way for me to spend time? For a few bucks a month, I chat with friends on-line. I’m not like Leslie Van Dyke, hitting the male strip clubs every time Harvey works a double shift.”

He would have laughed if their situation weren’t so serious. “A few bucks? You spent two hundred dollars on Amazon last month! And you upgraded our basic Internet package to premium… that’s an additional forty bucks a month.”

“So this is about the money.”

“No, it’s not about the money! This is about you and us… your family! Donna and I have been on our own for months! She cooks, I do the laundry. She cleans the house, I shop for food. We eat our meals alone… because you’re in front of the laptop, caught up in the personal drama of people you don’t even know!”

“You are upset because you actually have to do some work around the house? Take care of OUR home… take care of yourselves? Excuse me for discontinuing maid service!”

Cory’s jaws were rigid, the timbre of his voice a full octave deeper. “Knock it off, Laura! You know better than that!” He sat on the arm of the sofa, resting his hands on his thighs.

“Your shift begins at six in the morning. You sit on-line until one… sometimes two in the morning. When you fall into bed… if you come to bed at all, you have your cell in your hand. It’s like you can’t miss a second of anything happening on the Internet. When you come home from work, you start all over again. It needs to stop, honey. Your life is here… with your daughter and your husband. Not the world wide web.”

“I think you’re over-exaggerating this-”

“You have a problem, honey… an addiction… to the Internet.”

Backing away, Laura began to laugh. She waved her arms in front of her. Glancing at Cory every few seconds made her laugh harder.

His expression was blank as he watched his wife.

“Oh, Cory… honey! Addicted to the Internet? Really?” She wiped the tears from laughter off her cheeks. “Okay, I may have over-indulged just a tad bit, but, honey… let’s not add to the madness.” Laura motioned toward the box containing her former laptop.

“You called into work twice this month… sick. Only you weren’t. You spent both days typing… chatting… whatever, on-line.”

“Baby, c’mon! You know those days were more of a protest because Rina gave the lead operator position to Willa. I’ve been a 911 operator for ten years. That position was mine. Hell, I trained Willa!”

“And you would have gotten that position and the raise which comes with it… were it not for all the recent reprimands in your personnel file.”

Laura’s laughter was replaced by a smirk. “I only did it twice.”

“That you told me about,” he said. “You know logging on-line at your job is a serious infraction. Hackers are always looking for a way into the 911 database. You opened a port for them and risked your job just to chat with friends.”

Tired and embarrassed by her husband’s lecture, Laura walked toward the kitchen. “Are we done here?”

“You called in today.”

Laura whirled around to face Cory.

“You saw me when I woke up! Eyes puffy and swollen, sinuses draining… and I could barely talk. I need my voice for my job, Cory.”

“Yes, I did, and yes, you do. But I also saw you grab your sinus pills and a bottle of water and park yourself in front of the laptop. I had to call your name twice to get your attention before I left… to remind you of the assembly at Donna’s school this afternoon.”

A mournful groan escaped her lips. Donna was one of four students being honored for maintaining a perfect grade point average for their entire school career. The honor students were to be presented with full four-year scholarships to USC in neighboring California, and checks for twenty-five hundred dollars each. Laura had missed it all.

“I-I… I’m so sorry. So, so sorry. Was she upset?”

“Oh, yes! She said, “Guess I’m not important enough for mom to drag herself away from her precious laptop.””

Laura shook her head as the tears began again. “I was just chatting with friends… updating my blog. Oh, my God. How do I fix this? Can I fix this?” She had missed a very important event for her child and hurt her… all because she was in an on-line book party for an author whose books she had no interest in reading. Because her friends were there. Because she felt empty when she wasn’t logged into a social network.

Cory pulled his wife into his arms. They rocked back and forth while he stroked her long, dark hair. Pulling back, he regarded her. “We can’t do it alone.”

“I don’t see what I’m doing as a problem, Cory. And definitely not as an addiction. But, I don’t see what you see. What our daughter sees.” She rested her head against his chest. “I’m ashamed for what I’ve put you through and my behavior. But most of all,” she looked up into his eyes. “I’m ashamed because even though I know I’ve caused my family pain and possibly jeopardized my job, I’m thinking about how I’ll replace the laptop.”

“I’ll replace the laptop, honey after we get you some help, and they-”

“Some help? What kind of help?”

“Allan says there’s a psychologist who works with the police department and has experience with Internet addiction. He gave me the guy’s number.”

She was horrified. “You told your brother about this?”

“Honey, I just dislodged a firearm… twice! I didn’t want SWAT surrounding our home.”

“And he agreed to this?”

Cory kissed Laura on the forehead and began gathering the shovel and box of laptop remnants. “Yup! My gun is registered and we live outside of the city limits, so I didn’t break any laws or ordinances.” He looked down into the box. “And it had to be done. I didn’t know how else to get your attention and make you see how serious this is.”

He headed toward the garage, stopping to plant a quick kiss on her cheek. “I’ll call this guy in a sec and see if I can get us an appointment for next week.”

Laura frowned. Next week? She was already feeling anxious. She’d never make it.

“What am I going to do until next week, Cory? I’m already anxious and it’s been less than an hour.” She looked around the room feeling trapped. “I can’t do this, Cory, I can’t!”

Re-entering the room, Cory squeezed his wife’s shoulder on his way to the kitchen.

“Yes, you can… we can. We’re in this together. I’m going to call this guy and lock in an appointment time. Donna will be home soon and we’ll go out for a nice dinner… as a family.”

Laura wrung her hands as her husband left the room. She looked over at the desk only to have the char marks remind her of what had just happened.

Evening approached. All her friends would be on-line. They would wonder why she was absent. There would be new followers on Twitter. New posts on Facebook. Charlene would be posting new photos from the author’s convention.

She was missing it all.

Standing in the middle of the room, Laura turned in circles several times.

Now what?

Tears threatened to reappear when Laura saw her handbag sitting on the vestibule table.

Her cell phone!

She dashed to the handbag, stealing several glimpses over her shoulder to make sure Cory didn’t catch her.

Grabbing the cell phone from the side pocket, Laura swiped the screen several times, confused. Had Cory done something to her phone? She tried again and realized her hands were shaking and the cell screen was wet… because her hands were wet… from perspiration.

This doesn’t make any sense.

Shaking her head, Laura caught her reflection in the mirror over the table. Her eyes were wild and frantic, and her skin flushed. A tiny sheen of sweat was visible on her lips. Dropping the cell as if it burned her, Laura backed away from the hall table until the wall stopped her. She slumped to the floor in a heap, staring at her shaking, sweaty hands.


While this is a fictional story, Internet addiction is real, and is characterized by excessive or poorly controlled preoccupations, urges or behaviors regarding computer use and internet access that lead to impairment or distress. There are no evidence-based treatments for internet addiction. Cognitive behavioral approaches may be helpful. There is no proven role for psychotropic medication. Marital and family therapy may help in selected cases, and online self-help books and tapes are available. Lastly, a self-imposed ban on computer use and Internet access may be necessary in some cases.

Her End Game #FlashFiction 18+

Her End Game

52-Week Writing Challenge – Week 14.  Prompt: games

Derrick slammed the door of his Denali and kicked it for good measure. Turning abruptly and heading for his second-floor condo, Derrick stopped, his shoulders slumping.

That was stupid.

He looked back at the gunmetal gray vehicle he’d saved so diligently to buy searching for signs of damage from his size thirteen Ferragamo loafers.

Relieved at finding none, Derrick Greene followed the walkway leading to his private entrance.

He had to calm down. Anger wouldn’t change his situation, and it certainly wouldn’t help it. After entering his condo, Derrick tried to close the door quietly. He then plopped down on his sofa and massaged his temples.

I am such a fool!

His friends had warned him, but Derrick had been too smitten to listen. He thought himself hopelessly in love with Anita Banks, and no one could convince him otherwise. For the last ten weeks, he had made her his world. Taken her out for expensive dinners and shows. On weekend getaways and even assisted with her monthly bills.

Derrick wasn’t deterred two weeks ago when he saw Anita snuggled up with a former boyfriend outside an all-night taco stand on the east side of town. She’d explained she’d met with him to tell the man about Derrick and to make a clean break. The old beau became upset over losing Anita and she’d offered him a moment’s comfort.

Sounded reasonable to a love-struck Derrick Greene.

But his friends weren’t buying it.

“Man, she is playing you.”

“She’s nothing but a party girl.”

“Anita is always on the prowl for the fattest wallets and deepest pockets.”

“Neither one of them live or work on the east side, Derrick. Why go all that way for a damn taco unless they wanted to hide and not be recognized?”

But Derrick had seen them. Returning from dinner with his brother’s family. A dinner he had invited Anita to, but she declined, saying she had to prepare a presentation for work the next day.

I am too stupid for my own good! Fuck! I’m too stupid to live!

Determined to be a good boyfriend, Derrick was always trying to show Anita how important she was to him. She was home off work again today with one of her terrible migraines. Anita was complaining about them often. Derrick stopped by her favorite restaurant and got her favorite salad, hoping his surprise visit with lunch would make her feel better.

Parking behind her late model Saab, Derrick let himself into Anita’s duplex with the key she’d given him.

He wasn’t surprised to find the living room dark. Derrick’s chest tightened at the thought of the agony the bright light caused his woman.

Walking towards Anita’s bedroom, Derrick was about to call out to her — not wanting to startle her with his presence — when he heard noises coming from the kitchen.

Changing direction, Derrick headed for the kitchen. His steps slowed. He recognized those sounds. It was Anita, and those whimpering and moans meant one thing.

His first thought was to leave and never come back.

But he couldn’t. Derrick had to see for himself. He had to face the truth about the woman he was so sure he loved. And she needed to see him. Anita would have no wiggle room to talk her way out of this.

Derrick paused in the archway which separated the kitchen from the dining area. His anger dissipated and Derrick Greene pursed his lips to keep from laughing aloud at the scene before him.

Anita Banks was naked and covered in sweat, reclined on the countertop next to the sink. Her skinny legs gripped the back of some guy who had his head buried in her neck… and his pants around his ankles.

Neither of them spoke, each lost in their own lusty race for climax.

Since both were still unaware of his presence… and showing no signs of stopping soon, Derrick felt it was time for a reality check and cleared his throat.

Anita’s attention snapped to the archway, her eyes widening. She pushed the anonymous man away from her as though he’d been attacking her. She half jumped, half fell off the counter, attempting to cover her body with her hands as she approached Derrick.

He took two steps backward and glared at her. Glancing over at the still unnamed man who was scurrying to get his pants up and fastened, Derrick spotted the company logo on his shirt.

He laughed aloud this time, but it was more of a joyless growl.

“The water delivery man, Anita? You’re fucking the water delivery man?”

“B-Baby, no! It’s not what you-”

“Shut up, Anita!”

Giving up on her futile attempt to cover herself, Anita reached out to him. “Baby, listen for-”

Derrick stepped back again. This left enough room for the hapless water delivery man to squeeze past Derrick, his back sliding along the wall. He kept his eyes on Derrick Greene… waiting for the man to attack.

Derrick shook his head and returned his cold gaze to the naked woman before him.

“Let me explain, Derrick! Willie and I go way back and-”

“And you told him what? You’re with me now? Then what? You thought you’d just give him one fuck for old time’s sake?”

“No! No! It’s not like that! I’m not like that!”

“No, Anita, you’re not. You’re worse. You can lie to my face about loving me, and as soon as I turn my back, you got your legs spread wide for any man willing!”

“Don’t talk like that, Derrick! I’m not a slut!”

“Name it and claim it, Anita.”

Derrick bolted for the front door, wanting to be anywhere but near Anita Banks. He froze midway through the living room when he realized he was still holding his keys in one hand and Anita’s lunch in the other. Setting the bag down, he removed Anita’s door key from his key chain. When he turned around, Anita was rushing toward him, wrapping an old brown throw around herself.

“Here’s your key, Anita.”

“No, Derrick, please? Let’s sit down and talk about this. We can fix this.”

He frowned and tossed the key at her feet.

“We? We? There’s no “we” here, Anita. There’s just you, Miss Fuck-‘Em-All, and me, the dumb-ass who fell for your games.” He grabbed the bag. “I came here today because I was worried about you… worried! You said your head hurt so bad you couldn’t see straight. I decided to surprise you with lunch.”

He upended the bag. The southwestern salad with grilled chipotle chicken and house dressing on the side fell to the floor in a colorful, but messy pile.

“Surprise! Enjoy!”

Before she could respond, Derrick stormed out of Anita’s apartment, never looking back.

She watched him speed off, then closed her door.

Why did I ever give him a key?

Anita Banks wasn’t sorry Derrick caught her cheating. She was angry with herself for not being more on her guard. Derrick Greene was pissed off for right now, but she’d win him back. Nice guys like Derrick were no match for her wiles. Anita would wear him down… in time. Just in time for that trip to Ensenada he’d promised her.

(Image from Google)

The Back Forty #FlashFiction

Dark Alley

(Flash Fiction – week twelve of the 52-Week Writing Challenge. Word prompt: alley)

Camryn hated this part of her walk home.

She equally divided her attention between watching the shadowy alleyways and her footsteps. Used needles and condoms, broken liquor bottles, and random pieces of clothing carpeted the dangerous two-block section of 36th Street known as the Back Forty. Grown men avoided the area in mid-day. A woman walking alone just after six in the morning was asking for trouble.

But Camryn had to get home. She didn’t own a car and public transportation in this part of town started an hour later Sunday mornings.

Montgomery Clemens, spiteful, forty-six-year-old married father of five, knew this. Camryn had declined his offer of dinner and cocktails after work a month ago. Monty sought to punish her. As a human resource supervisor at Patterson Banking Systems, weekend scheduling fell into his lap every two weeks. It was a task he despised at first. Now, Monty saw it as a valuable tool he wielded to punish female employees who rejected him. Women like Camryn Evers.

Determined to beat Monty at his own game, Camryn said nothing and worked the bimonthly schedule changes in silence.

She didn’t have too. Camryn could have requested a hearing with the department manager and reported Clemens. However, Camryn was number three on the promotions list. It wouldn’t be long before Camryn was a member of management. When that happened, payback would be a bitch named Camryn Evers for Monty Clemens.

She could have bought a car. Camryn had more than enough money in either of her savings accounts for a car… and a home. But one of those accounts had been started long ago… when she was a different person. When her life revolved around the words of a man. Camryn trusted him. She loved him. And he’d lied and manipulated her. That would never happen again.

Camryn would buy a car when she was ready. Not because some horny, old fool at work didn’t like the word no.

Fortunately, except for the dreaded two-block section of 36th Street, the seven-block walk home wasn’t that bad. The route was well-lit most of the way, crossing through metropolitan and residential areas. Traveling the edge of the Back Forty, however, filled Camryn with dread. Law enforcement made infrequent passes through the area. The one alternate route would add six blocks and forty-five minutes to her journey home. Camryn pushed on.

As she neared the middle of the second block, Camryn’s steps quickened-the bright street lights of Perry Avenue in view.

“Cammie?”

She froze. No one had ever called her by that nickname except family… and her girlfriends from high school. Despite her better judgment telling her to go home, Camryn turned towards the voice in the shadows. A tall figure leaned against the edge of a dilapidated building.

Even though Camryn couldn’t see the face, she knew the owner of the voice. In all her thirty-four years, Camryn had only known one woman who stood well over six feet.

Belinda Glass.

“Lindy? Is that you?”

“Yeah, girl. What are you doing here?”

The former best friends each took two steps forward. Belinda was now under a street light, and Camryn was stunned at the woman’s appearance. Once a mocha beauty, member of the homecoming court, and a standout player and captain of the girls’ basketball team, the years had not been kind to Belinda.

In a stain-covered dress far too short to be considered decent, Belinda leaned against the street light pole. A matted faux-fur waist coat and cheap, spiky shoes completed her outfit. Camryn couldn’t tell if it was a wig or weave, but the long chestnut curls framing Belinda’s face were matted. Camryn could also see traces of lint through the hair even from where she stood. But it was the tall woman’s face which took her voice away.

A mixture of wrinkles, acne, and bruises covered Belinda’s face. Camryn didn’t see an inch that wasn’t marred. Camryn’s gut churned when she reached Belinda’s eyes. While glassed over, her eyes were also empty, flat… dead.

Camryn watched her friend grip the light pole for balance. She didn’t know if Belinda was high, drunk, or both, but she was on something.

“Cammie? Did you hear me? Why are you here… in the Back Forty?”

“I-I… I’m on my way home… from work.”

“Thought so.”

“What are you doing here, Lindy?”

The altered woman glanced upwards as though she was expecting… and dreading the question.

“This is where I… work.”

Camryn’s hand clutched at her abdomen, trying to calm the rising bile. Sadness washed over her when she realized what the stains on Belinda’s dress were.

“Lindy… why?”

“Life is just a bowl of shit, Cammie, and shit happens. But get that look off ‘a ya’ face now. I don’t need or want anybody’s pity.”

“But Lindy, tell me something! What happened? You left the country with Lawrence after we graduated. You both signed to play ball in-”

“Men lie, Cammie. They do it on purpose. Always needing to control women. They say whatever it takes.”

Belinda’s words hit home deep in Camryn’s soul.

“What about you and Raymond, Cammie? I knew you two would get the happily-ever-after.” Belinda didn’t miss the stricken look on Camryn’s face. “But if you were with him, you wouldn’t be out now walking alone, would you?”

Camryn smirked. “Like you said, Lindy, men lie.”

“I’m so sorry, Cammie. You deserved better. You always were the best of us.”

Camryn waved her off.

“I was no better or worse, Lindy. We were kids, trying to grow up. Raymond covered up his true nature for a long time. But once I found out, I walked away.”

“See? Strength of character. You always had it, Cammie. Even with all the lies Lawrence told, the choices were still mine. I knew he was a liar. I chose to believe him. I chose to stay with him.” Belinda glanced away. “Until he didn’t want me anymore.”

“But Lindy, why didn’t you let me know? Or Cyn or Tammie? We could have-”

“Pride, Cammie… pride. I may not have much left, but I have enough to not want my girls from back-in-the-day to know how far I’ve fallen.”

“Bullshit! That’s no ex-”

“Listen! Do not come this way again. Back Forty’s no place for someone like you.”

“Oh, Lindy, stop- “

“Bitch, we are not having a discussion!”

Camryn flinched at the woman’s tone.

Belinda stood to her full height and let go of the light pole. Though an imposing figure, her eyes softened.

“This is the third time I’ve seen you out here, Cammie. And, if I have… other people have too. People with black hearts and no souls who will do what it takes to get what they want.”

She motioned at Camryn with one hand.

“Look at you. Almost thirty-five but still with a school girl’s good looks. Thick, shoulder-length hair, perfect makeup, manicured nails. Morris is always giving me shit because I have no ass. Yours would have him salivating.”

“Lindy, let me hel-”

“Dammit! You always were stubborn! Go home, Camryn Nicole Evers… now! Never walk this way again… ever!”

“Belinda-”

“I said go! Damn!”

The large woman turned and walked unsteadily back to the alley. She paused after a few steps and looked back over her shoulder.

“Cammie… please. Nothing good happens in the Back Forty and I want nothing bad to happen to you. If you keep walking this way… it will.” With that, Belinda Glass disappeared down the darkened alley.

Camryn stood frozen where Belinda left her. Her heart ached for her childhood friend. They had shopped for prom dresses together, prank called boys, and stolen cigarettes from their parents. Camryn knew she could help her friend. It wasn’t too late.

The sound of trash cans overturning and someone crying out startled Camryn. She knew Belinda had fallen. Camryn wanted to go to her and get Belinda out of this nasty, rancid place.

But instead, she backed away shaking her head. Tears were pooling in her eyes when she turned and ran towards Perry Avenue, not stopping until she reached the corner traffic light. The pedestrian crossing sign lit up, and Camryn made her way across the large thoroughfare, thankful for providence.

Camryn leaned against the post to catch her breath. Only then did she look back across Perry Avenue… and down 36th Street. Despite the rising sun, the outskirts of the Back Forty remained blanketed in darkness, untouched by the light of day.

“Never walk this way again.” Belinda’s warning played on repeat in Camryn’s mind.

They were once close as sisters.

Their lives had taken two very different paths… both lain by the lies of men.

Belinda accepted her empty life fueled by drugs and alcohol. Yet she wanted better for a woman she once called friend.

Camryn wanted it too.

She took a few steps from the traffic light and turned right onto Perry Place. Not for the first time, Camryn marveled at the difference in her tiny tree-lined street and the desolate wasteland only a quarter of a mile away.

By the time she reached the door of her street-level cottage apartment, Camryn had made two decisions. First, when the HR office opened at nine, she was calling off work for the next two or three days. Hell, maybe even the whole week. It would serve them right. Camryn had not had an unscheduled day off in almost three years.

There were only six senior account analysts, and while two had more seniority, Camryn was the one with the knowledge and skill. A week of scrambling without her would make them appreciate her more and receptive to her complaint about Monty Clemens. Because she would demand a hearing.

So caught up in her own head to not be manipulated by Monty… or any man, Camryn had played herself. Instead of reporting Monty, she fretted over a job promotion. She had put her life at risk… for a job promotion.

Belinda’s eyes continued to haunt Camryn as she entered her apartment.

She bypassed the living room, tossed her bag and jacket into a corner chair, and turned on the shower. She had enough time to squeeze in a quick nap before calling her job. Then, she would see if any of the numbers she had for Cynthia Kelly and Tamara Alsworth were still good. Camryn wouldn’t tell them about Lindy, but she wanted to touch base with them. The years had passed too fast, making the distance of a few miles seem even greater.

The rest of her day would be spent binge watching the programs stored in her DVR while she scoured the Internet for deals. Tomorrow morning, she’d take on the second decision she’d made.

It was time to buy a car.

The Last Medal

Medal of Valor

Image from NCO Journal

(Week 10 of the 52-Week Writing Challenge)

She didn’t need a shrink to tell her she had PTSD.

Virgie Hudson well knew of the price she’d paid for thirty-two years of military service – twenty-two of those years… on the front lines.

The day after passage and ratification of SB 1200 allowing women into combat, Virgie left behind ten years of desk and training duties. Like her father and brothers, she would now get to serve on the front lines.

As one of only four women who would lead combat forces, Virginia’s service was legendary. She had numerous medals and awards. She also had numerous scars… on her body and her mind. Virgie remembered all too well how and when she’d received each scar – physical and mental.

For every inch of ground taken, every hill won, every town liberated, there was a memory attached.

The good memories made Virginia smile.

The day her unit entered the town of Ras al-Ayn, the grateful Kurdish women’s militia cheered. After fighting ISIS forces for days, the exhausted women thanked the Americans’ for their help… and for some relief. With American support, ISIS guerrillas made a hasty retreat.

The memories of losing team members played on repeat in her mind often. Pfc. Jeff Ollenbeck – lost to a land mine. Pfc. David Jencks and LCpl. Donald Morgan – killed in an ambush attack. 2ndLt. Shelley Cooper – taken down by a sniper. There were more. So many more.

Why did she survive?

Virgie squeezed her eyes shut and yanked at her thick, black curls attempting to block out the faces of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

She grabbed the tumbler of bourbon from the table in front of her, gulping it down in one breath. Even in those brief periods when fallen Marines didn’t cloud her thoughts, there was always the children.

The children Virgie couldn’t save.

It took several days to get into the small isolated town east of Mosul. When a ten-thousand member Iraqi counter-terrorism force arrived, militants soon scattered over the borders into the mountains of Turkey and Iran.

Villagers wept as Col. Virginia Holman Hudson’s team set up aid stations. It was obvious many of the town’s residents survived severe beatings and torture. Virgie knew one young woman wrapped in a thread-bare blanket and shielded by an older woman was a rape victim.

A silent signal to her senior officers was acknowledged only by their scattering to inspect the village. One of her team interpreters called out to Virgie.

“Col. Hudson, the children!”

“What about them, Lance Corporal?”

Accompanied by two female villagers, LCpl. Dirks approached her. “A man took the children yesterday morning.”

In rapid speech and dialect Virgie didn’t understand, she did recognize the word for ‘hill’. The woman gestured and pointed at something behind Virgie.

Virgie looked over her shoulder and saw a small, flat, mud-brick building sitting on a low hill about four hundred meters away. With one movement of her hand, the strike team fell into formation, heading for the building. Virgie led them until her second-in-command, 1st Lieutenant Reynolds pulled her back.

“Excuse me, Colonel, but you know I can’t let you do that.”

She nodded once. “Dammit, Rey… find those children!”

Led by Reynolds, the strike team moved forward up the small incline to the building. Virgie fell into step behind them.

They had traveled half the distance to the building when a man threw open the building’s only door. His maniacal laughter was rife with anger and madness.

“Hold fire!” Virgie held up her hand while glaring at the insurgent.

Stepping forward, Virgie questioned the man in flawless Arabic. “اين الاطفال?” Where are the children?

Not getting any response other than wild-eyed mania, Virgie switched to Kurdish. بچوں کی کہاں ہیں?

Recognition dawned in the mad man’s eyes. He lifted his arms and yelled, “کان کے بچے ہیں!” The children are mine!

Virgie recognized the small detonator in his hand, attached to a wire feeding into his sleeve. Before she could give the order to fall back, the crazed terrorist yelled out again, “Allah is great!”, and detonated the bomb.

What happened in the next few seconds was an eternity to Virginia Hudson.

The expression on the bomber’s face never changed as the impact of the explosion behind him ripped his body in half, each section set ablaze. Virgie lost sight of him when someone threw her to the ground, covering her body with their own. Except for the monstrous roar of the burning building, silence bathed the area.

Then sounds flooded the area.

Like a chorus, the wails of the villagers pierced the silence. Virgie pushed against the body holding her down, but stopped struggling and listened. She heard a different noise… coming from the burning building.

With one final shove, Virgie pushed the body off her enough to roll from under and to her feet. Reynolds lay a few feet away rubbing his chest from the impact of her blow. Virgie headed for the building but another team member grabbed her.

“Let go or you’re losing a stripe! I don’t care who it is!”

Anger rose inside of Virginia as she spun around and looked up into the face of Cpl. Lawrence.

“Col.… there’s nothing we can do for them.”

Her body sagged, already knowing the truth. The tears streaming down the big Marine’s face caused Virgie to look at the rest of her strike team. They all wept–male and female alike.

Donnelly watched out for Dirks, now on his knees, giving up the contents of his stomach.

Sanchez clutched the cross around his neck.

Though his face was wet with tears, Gilmore’s eyes flared with rage.

“Dirks? How many?”

Without raising his head, Dirks responded, the words causing him physical pain. “T-Thirty four, ma’am.”

Anger and grief warred inside Virgie. Anguish strangled her heart as bile rose in her throat. Closing her eyes, Virgie called upon the false sense of calm needed to do her job. Opening her eyes, Virgie spoke, knowing Reynolds was back at her side.

“Secure the perimeter, Lieutenant.”

Virgie gave the order almost as an afterthought, not moving from where she stood. Only after the cries for help stopped did she turn to look at the building crumbling in the fiery blaze.

Col. Virginia Holman Hudson knew her military career was over.

She’d had enough.

Save