Story Cubes Challenge: Dichotomy

Part of my novel-in-stories Story Cubes Challenge.


Joe O’Leary passed the glass of wine — he made sure to find those plastic ones that looked real — across the table to Annabelle. She didn’t like beer, she said. Course not, she was a good girl. Not like those sluts at the football parties, throwing themselves at everybody. Dropping their red cups full of beer and bending over so they were showing off what wasn’t under their skirts for anybody who wanted an eyeful. Or more. He’d gotten more last night, and the night before that. But Annabelle wasn’t like that. She was a good girl.

“This is nice,” she said, smiling at him. “Usually all anybody has is that cheap Boone’s sludge.”

082014Joe smiled at her, glad that sneaking the bottle from the supply in his dad’s shop storeroom was worth it. He needed a girl he could bring home, one that would get his parents off his case. The party girls didn’t count. Any girl who would spread her legs for half the football team because her sorority sisters told her to was just a sheep waiting to be fleeced. Once he had what he wanted from them, they were useless.

“Just consider it thanks for all your help tutoring,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to answer that questions about the signs a mountain might be a dormant volcano on the last quiz without you.” He sipped from his glass, sure that the wine was the key. “Are you going to the game Saturday?”

“My parents aren’t coming,” she said. “They don’t-” She sighed. “They aren’t coming.”

“They don’t like football?” he asked.

“They don’t like that I went away to school,” she said, straightening in her chair. “My father went to Boston State and worked nights to put himself through school. My mother went to work when she was 16 because her family needed the money. They wanted me to stay at home and go to UMass-Boston. I gambled that I could get a big enough scholarship to come here, and didn’t even apply to UMass-Boston. They think spending the money for me to come here is a waste, but I was lucky and did get that scholarship, so they couldn’t stop me.” Her voice quivered a little, her eyes bright with unshed tears.

“But they aren’t coming all the way out to Amherst to see you,” Joe said. He reached across the table and took one of her tiny hands in his big one. “My parents will be here, if you want to borrow them. I’ll be busy with the game, anyway.”

She smiled, but shook her head. “I couldn’t,” she said. “But you’re a really nice guy to suggest it.”

“Why don’t we take a break from studying for a while,” he suggested. “My brain feels like a big blob, and you sound like you could use a minute.” He reached for the wine bottle and refilled her glass. “What do you like best about living on campus?”

He kept her talking, and filled her wine glass over and over, until she was giggling and starting to tip to one side. When she slid into him, he leaned over and kissed her. She was soft and her lips tasted like the wine, and Joe wanted to keep going. But she wasn’t that kind of girl.

“I should go,” he said.

“You don’t have to,” she said.

“Yes, I do,” he said.

It wasn’t until she was in bed and he was standing outside the on-campus apartments that he realized what he needed. Sure, it was a Monday night, but there had to be a party someplace. He walked until he found a house with music pumping out the windows and the smell of pot on the air. He didn’t know whose party it was, but it didn’t matter. He was the quarterback. He could get in anywhere.

When he woke up the next morning, he was surprised to find himself in his dorm room, fuzz coating his mouth. He thumped his alarm clock until it stopped and pushed himself up, his head throbbing. He remembered being a gentleman and putting Annabelle to bed. He remembered the party, and the two girls he’d fucked in the living room. He thought he’d nailed another one in one of the bedrooms, but that was the last thing he remembered. He must have made it home to crash at some point, but he had no idea when. He looked at the clock, rubbing his eyes until they focused. Shit. He had to move or he’d miss geology class and Annabelle would be mad.

He made it to class just as the last few people were filing into the lecture hall. Annabelle was sitting further back than usual, but all the seats near her were full. When the lecture ended fifty minutes later, he hurried outside so he could catch her when she emerged.

“I hope you understood that,” he said to her when he saw her.

She nodded, and bit her lip. “I’m sorry about last night,” she said.

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Joe said. “I’m the one who brought the wine. I should be apologizing.”

“No, you were a complete gentleman,” Annabelle said. “Most guys would have tried to join me in bed, and you didn’t.”

Joe managed not to smirk. “Most guys are jerks,” he said.

“I’m glad you’re not,” she said. “Since I almost passed out on you, how about I treat you to a movie tomorrow night?”

“Sure,” Joe said.

Only after Annabelle had headed to her next class did he pump his fist in the air. She was the right girl, he was sure of it. Soon he’d have a girl worthy of his status on campus.

If you want to read new stories in this novel-in-stories as I write them, or get the weekly Story Cubes prompts in your email, please subscribe

Story Cubes Challenge: First Impressions

Part of my novel-in-stories Story Cubes Challenge.


First Impressions

Joe O’Leary skirted the Campus Pond, backpack slung over one shoulder. He’d blown off his first class that morning — who wouldn’t? Everybody in the dining hall had wanted to talk after he’d come into the game Saturday and saved the day. He was the quarterback who’d thrown three straight touchdowns in the third quarter after Matt went down, putting the team back on top. He’d remember the sight of the final 21-14 on the scoreboard for a long time. That third one had been the toughest — he’d had to wait with everybody else for the referees to rule if Cal’s foot had come down inside the lines.

The news Sunday that the starting quarterback would be out at least four games, possibly more, had just brought him even more attention. Not just his fellow freshmen either — he’d had plenty of seniors — sorority girls — coming by to talk to him.

Not the one he wanted, though. That’s why he had to be on time for his geology lab. His father had raised an eyebrow when Joe signed up for it during summer registration. “What? I am a jock,” he’d told him. “Better fossils than something I’ll never use again.”

The first day of classes, he was glad he had. Annabelle caught his eye the moment she walked into the lecture hall. Blonde and beautiful, her hair a gleaming curtain that framed her face and those blue eyes, ones that caught him and wouldn’t let him go. He’d tried to talk to her a few times since then, but one of her friends had always swooped in before he got a chance. Seniors, all of them. It figured they had put off their science lab as long as possible — everybody knew girls hated science. But now he wasn’t just another freshman. He could offer to tutor her and she’d want the excuse to spend time with him.

He looked at his watch and pushed a little faster. It paid off when he walked into the lab three people behind Annabelle. Class was a repeat of the dining hall — congratulations and people who’d never noticed him before wanting to talk.

“Break up into groups of three this time,” the teaching assistant said as they gathered. She looked around. “We’ll have one group of two left over, but I’ll provide an extra set of hands when you need it.”

Joe moved so he was next to Annabelle. “Can I work with you and your friend?” he asked.

“No, we’ve-“ she broke off and looked around. “I guess she’d working with somebody else,” she said. “Sure, I’ll work with you.”

As the TA handed out specimens, they did introductions.

“Oh, you’re the one everybody’s talking about,” she said, smiling. She took the box from the TA. “I guess it’s just the two of us. I wonder what we have?”

Joe held out his hand and she gave him the box. He opened it to find several rocks. “I wonder what she wants us to do with them.”

The TA stood at the front of the room. “As you know, we’ve been talking about the types of rocks. Each group has a box of several different rocks. You need to determine which type each is, then describe its texture and other characteristics using the terminology we’ve been studying. There are magnifying glasses in a box at the front, should you need them.”

Joe went up, but he put the second magnifying glass back down almost as soon as he’d lifted it.

“I wasn’t sure there we enough to take two,” he said to Annabelle when he returned with just the one. “We can share, though, right?” She picked the first rock and they started classifying it. She could identify them right away, and he began to doubt his plan.

“You really seem to know your stuff,” he said.

“My father’s a geologist,” she said. “I grew up with this.” She rolled her eyes. “I swore I wasn’t going to take this in college, but I need one more set of science credits and I didn’t want to ruin my chance to graduate with top honors. Good law schools are competitive. This is an easy A for me.”

“I can tell,” Joe said as he tried to rethink his plan. Trying to do that and pay attention to the stupid rocks wasn’t working very well. After the third time she corrected him, Joe knew what he had to do. He made sure to pick a rock that wasn’t obvious. As they studied it, he frowned and reached for the magnifying glass. Joe bent over the rock, peering through the lens. “I think it’s porphyritic,” he said. “Here, take a look.” He moved to the side, just slightly, and tipped the lens just enough that she could see — if she got close enough.

She gazed through the lens, then looked up at him. “Are you sure?” she asked. She had the same look Ma always had when she caught him out.

“Not really?” Joe said. He lowered his voice. “Science isn’t really my thing,” he said. “I took this class because I thought it would be easy.” He leaned down toward her. “Maybe you could help me figure this out?” He waited to see if she’d take the bait.

A squeal from the back of the room kept her from replying.

“It looks like a cat,” said one of the girls. “Isn’t that the cutest thing ever?”

“At least you’re not seeing animals in the rocks,” Annabelle said as she stepped back, rolling her eyes. “Let’s talk about it after class — unless you have someplace to be.”

“No, no place special,” Joe said, ignoring the thoughts of the freshman comp assignment in his backpack. Why had he scheduled so many classes on Mondays again?

When lab finally ended — not nearly soon enough — Joe walked out with Annabelle.

“How about over by the pond,” he said. He had a plan in mind, something sure to melt her heart.

Joe led the way to the fine arts building, then across the footbridge to the small island in the pond. The fountains and the colorful fall leaves made for just the view he needed.

“Would you help me?” he asked, sitting so Annabelle couldn’t help but see the fountains while they talked. Girls went for that romantic junk. “I need to pass this class, or I’ll be suspended from the team. And this science stuff — I just don’t get it.”

“What kind of help are you looking for?” she asked. “Doesn’t the football team have tutors for you?”

Shit. He hadn’t thought about that. Joe fumbled for words. “Uh, well, I don’t want Coach to know,” he improvised. “He only put me in because he ran out of options, and I don’t want to give him a reason to think it was a mistake. Come on, have a heart.” He smiled, the same smile that had always kept a string of girls chasing him in high school.

She looked at him, frowning a bit. “All right,” she finally said. “Let’s figure out a couple of times we can meet.”

When one of those times turned out to be Friday afternoons, Joe knew he’d find a way to get a date out of Annabelle before too long. He could play dumb the first couple of times, just enough to make her feel sorry for him, then make a miraculous improvement thanks to her tutoring. All he’d need to do would be offer to take her out to thank her and make sure to take his fake ID along. A few drinks and she’d be begging him to fuck her.

If you want to read new stories in this novel-in-stories as I write them, or get the weekly Story Cubes prompts in your email, please subscribe

Story Cubes Challenge: Missing Details

My current round of Story Cubes Challenge prompts comes in a weekly email, and I’ve chosen to use the prompts to draft a novel-in-stories to tell the story of an Exeter character who’s been on the fringes of the books to date: Joe O’Leary. While the eventual published novel-in-stories will be mostly chronological, the dice aren’t that cooperative. As a result, you’re getting the stories out of order. As a bonus for newsletter subscribers, the stories appear there first. I’m migrating them over here with a delay, but arranging them on the Story Cubes Challenge page in chronological order.

Missing Details

080614 promptMary O’Leary felt every one of her sixty-mumble years — she refused to count them anymore — as she watched her youngest grandson climb through the 3D maze that stretched between two floors of the Children’s Museum. A Boston trip was rare, but the discounted tickets were too good a deal to pass up. Timmy’s wide-eyed expression when they boarded the commuter rail train that morning reminded her of his father when Joe was not much older than five-year-old Timmy.

Mary sat, since Annabelle was close to the space where Timmy climbed. He was so skinny, he slipped through the maze easily even though he had his father’s height. Not his temperament, though. A bigger boy pushed Timmy aside in his rush to get through the maze, but Timmy didn’t push back or shout at the boy. Joe would have wrestled the boy to the ground by now, and often had as a boy, his anger getting the best of him.

Annabelle winced as the boy kicked Timmy in the shoulder, and Mary pursed her lips. She had always promised not to be that mother-in-law. She never wanted to meddle, never wanted her sons- and daughter-in-law to feel like they had to put on a mask when they came to visit to hide their real feelings.

Timmy waved at her through the glass, his good mood unbroken by the encounter with the bigger boy, and Mary waved back. Annabelle did, too, but she swayed a bit as she did. Mary stood, aching feet forgotten.

“Take my seat,” she said as she walked over to Annabelle. “You’ve been chasing him all day, crawling through the Japanese house and shopping with him in the market.” She steered Annabelle over to the bench, not liking the green tinge to her daughter-in-law’s face.

“I’m fine, Mary,” Annabelle said. “I just… haven’t been sleeping well.”

There was a blankness in her expression, and Mary wanted to push. But the crowded museum wasn’t the place.

Mary bided her time until they were on the train home, the afternoon still young enough that the car was almost empty. Timmy fell asleep before they even reached the Back Bay station, the Viking helmet Mary bought him at the gift shop for his Halloween costume tipped over his tired face.

“You look better now,” she said, taking in Annabelle’s weary face. At least it had some color. “Today wasn’t too much, was it?”

Annabelle ran a hand over Timmy’s shoulder. “No, this was a wonderful day for him.” Her other hand rested on her belly, and Mary smiled, her suspicion confirmed.

When Annabelle saw it, she jerked her hand away, dropping in to her side so it rested on the bench seat.

“I won’t tell,” Mary said. “I won’t even tell Franny, until you say it’s all right.”

“It’s not…” Annabelle’s voice faltered. “I didn’t expect this.”

“Coming so many years after Timmy, it must be a surprise,” Mary said. She wasn’t going to pry into whether they were following church teaching or not. Some things weren’t a mother’s business. “It will be nice to have a baby around again.”

“Joe doesn’t know yet,” Annabelle said, her voice barely audible.

“I’m sure he’ll be happy,” Mary said. “This is… different than last time.” She looked down at her unexpected grandson, the one who had changed everything. “We are.”

“You’re probably right,” Annabelle said.

But she didn’t meet Mary’s eyes, and for the first time, Mary wondered if she had missed something. She watched as Annabelle fell asleep, one hand curved over Timmy’s shoulders, and wondered at the lines carved deeply enough around her eyes and mouth that they didn’t vanish while Annabelle slept.