Category: Short Stories

Brandon writes.

Afloat: A Short Short Story

If he leaned over the stern of the boat, climbing upon the second rail rung and stretching out his hand as far as he could, his hands would brush the paddle wheel. Thumping over his longest three fingers, splashing them with brackish water.

He’d been on the paddlewheel boat for three days. This was a ritual, an act he performed every evening at sunset. In this way he treated the boat as a pet. An animal and he its rider. The longboards jumped under his fingers like muscles in a racehorse.

“C’mon, girl. You can do it,” he’d whisper under the roar of water and engine.

At night he slept on the wooden-planked sole of the saloon on the second floor. Positioned above the steam room, saloon patrons could watch their whiskey dance in vibrations around the glass. The floor planks were warmed from the steam below, making for a sweaty night’s sleep. The vibrations and hum had become his lullaby.

Less Is More

Franz Kafka is one of my absolute favorite authors, for many reasons.

There’s a saying among video producers:

Give me one hour and I can create a 60-second video. Give me two hours and I’ll create a 30-second video.

The idea is that creating a short video takes much more time than creating a longer video. You have to make every shot, every second, every frame, count.

The same can be said for writing. “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter,” wrote Blaise Pascale some 350 years ago.

Much of Kafka’s work exemplifies this philosophy. His short parables are the only works I find myself reading over and over and enjoying them every time.

I do believe less is more. Those who do more with less often go unappreciated. I love storytellers who craft their story making every word count. It shows skill, in a world no longer limited by how many words can fit on a page.

In the age of the boundless capacity of the internet, I find concise simplicity more and more beautiful.

With that in mind, here’s my favorite Kafka piece, which I love for it’s “beautiful but sorrowful strangeness.”


A Message from the Emperor

The emperor—it is said—sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger’s words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death—all obstructing walls have been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways—before all these he dispatched the messenger. The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path though the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door. But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead. You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.

-The Annotated Kafka, edited and translated by Mark Harman

Christmas Past

There must have been some sort of mix up at the North Pole again this year.

I don’t understand how they can keep making the same mistake. Makes me wonder what kind of accountability people are held to up there. A who’s policing the police sort of thing.

After the jaw-dropping debacle of the past two years, I faxed my gift requests to the North Pole Workshop in May. And again in June. I didn’t get a confirmation on the August fax but I did get one on the other five.

I printed clearly — in black ink, as requested. Maybe I misspelled raccoon?

In any case, I awoke on December 25th to the same gift I’ve received for now the past three Christmases: autonoetic consciousness.


Autumn Harvest

Breezy sat on the front porch sipping a warm mug of coffee.

Leaves were floating through his front yard, like a snowstorm on Mars.

He cleared his throat and stood up, setting the coffee mug on the porch rail.

A deep sigh. He looked at the yard.

His boots clapped down the wooden steps, into a mush of grass and fallen leaves.

He thought about raking up the leaves. Pushing them into a pile and stuffing them into bags.

Instead, he politely asked them to get off his lawn.



Random Ramblings II

Aren’t all hypochondriacs eventually right?

It’s fine if too much coffee is killing me slowly. Just don’t make it painful.

Maybe higher consciousness is a curse.

Ninety percent of my daily conversations result with a giant billboard in my brain flashing, “Who cares?”

Ninety-nine percent of my time on Facebook results with me whispering out loud, “Who cares?”

I hear a lot about death by chocolate, but I think that’s just a way for fat people to make a joke.

My girlfriend has short-term memory gain. She remembers things that never actually happened.

Being in a coma for the last 20 years of your life might be great. I bet you’d have some awesome dreams.

Sometimes I just want to be left alone. Left alone on an island far from civilization. With stockpiles of food, of course. And a good wi-fi signal.

I often pretend the exciting part of my life hasn’t started yet. I wonder how long I can believe that. Once I’m confined to a hospital bed, I think the gig is up.

I secretly suspect that couch pillows carry more germs than public toilets.

People sometimes say, “He died doing what he loved.” But that’s not really true unless he loved dying.

They say idle hands are the devil’s workshop. That doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve always imagined the devil having a much fancier workshop. Also, is the devil small enough to set up shop inside your hand? Does he have a tiny set of tools? What kind of significant manufacturing could possibly occur inside a hand?

It would be really cool if cowboys were still around to save the day, because no one really likes police officers anymore.

Somewhere thousands of light years away, the Heaven’s Gate followers are smiling at us from a shiny spaceship and sipping sweet arsenic (because once you pass through the gate, arsenic becomes a nutrient).

Anyone seriously trying to bribe me should start with a Cracker Barrel gift card.

Do you think nursing homes have cliques? And they all sit together for bingo night? And when one of them wins, they all take selfies together and post it on Facebook?

Sometimes I wash my hands before and after using the restroom. Makes me feel like a surgeon.

You know those stick figure decals people place on the back of their car, representing each member of their family? I think if a child is adopted, that sticker should have an asterisk next to it.

People keep asking, “Can’t we all just get along?” Stop asking. The answer is obviously no.

Don’t Do That

By Stephen Dunn

It was bring-your-own if you wanted anything
hard, so I brought Johnnie Walker Red
along with some resentment I’d held in
for a few weeks, which was not helped
by the sight of little nameless things
pierced with toothpicks on the tables,
or by talk that promised to be nothing
if not small. But I’d consented to come,
and I knew what part of the house
their animals would be sequestered,
whose company I loved. What else can I say,


except that old retainer of slights and wrongs,
that bad boy I hadn’t quite outgrown—
I’d brought him along, too. I was out
to cultivate a mood. My hosts greeted me,
but did not ask about my soul, which was when
I was invited by Johnnie Walker Red
to find the right kind of glass, and pour.
I toasted the air. I said hello to the wall,
then walked past a group of women
dressed to be seen, undressing them
one by one, and went up the stairs to where


the Rottweilers were, Rosie and Tom,
and got down with them on all fours.
They licked the face I offered them,
and I proceeded to slick back my hair
with their saliva, and before long
I felt like a wild thing, ready to mess up
the party, scarf the hors d’oeuvres.
But the dogs said, No, don’t do that,
calm down, after a while they open the door
and let you out, they pet your head, and everything
you might have held against them is gone,
and you’re good friends again. Stay, they said.

Cat In A Box: Chapter One

This is the first chapter of my long-awaited novel, Cat In A Box. Okay, it hasn’t been long-awaited. No one has been waiting on it.
A good friend of mine often reminds me: even with today’s technological advances, the cornerstone of communication is still the written word.

I suggest you name your cat when it’s a kitten.

They’re not nearly as cute once they grow up.

If you want a name like “Mr. Whiskers” or “Cuddles,” it really only works when they’re tiny.

Sooner or later we all lose the cuteness.

I live in a city I hate, in an apartment I steal, with a cat that could die any day.

Lived here all my life. At least the part I can remember. My parents moved to New York City when I was three. 1972. I live exactly three blocks from where they set up shop that year. Dad opened a bakery he called “Popo Breads.” The only good thing to come out of that shop was the smell of fresh bread baking every morning. I still get a waft of bread fumes every now and then when I wake up. Something in my brain, I guess.

Mom was in a wheelchair after my birth. I don’t even know why. Dad would talk about the way she’d dance around the room “before you came.” I felt much too guilty to ask if it was my fault. What difference would it make, anyway?

They both died on the day I turned 17. That I do know. Dad was driving back from Cleveland when a milk truck hit them head on. For the longest time I wanted to make a joke about everyone crying over all that spilled milk. I never found the right time.

So my uncle Ethial looked after me until I graduated high school and found a job, where I still work.

He was the nicest man I’ve ever met, and I suppose I would have turned out much different if he had raised me.

Funny how you can consider how small things might have changed your life. Why do we think of such? If your lunch had been served just five seconds later yesterday, what would you have missed? How would your day be different? There’s no sure way to tell. Dreaming of things as these only wastes our time.

I used to read these choose-your-own-adventure books as a child. Decision making was tough for me. When other kids made a choice and turned to the appropriate page, my mind forced me to investigate the consequences of each choice (by peeking) and then choose the best one. When friends would ask which choices I had made in the last book, I’d say, “all of them.” It was fun for me, but no one else seemed to get the point.

People outside the city are usually surprised to learn that I don’t know how to drive. The truth is, I’ve never had to learn. New York City eats up cars like styrofoam peanuts. I get where I need to go using public transportation. This creates a large amount of conflict in my life, because I have a general dislike for being around people. I find most of the public to be ignorant and selfish. Middle-age men in business suits talking on cell phones, young women screaming to each other with fake smiles. Who are these people? How could you waste one day of your life on such silliness?

When I said I had a job, I lied. I haven’t worked in six years. The driver of the milk truck which killed my parents was found to have more than milk in his thermos, and the company offered a large settlement to me. A drunk truck driver caused me to never have to work again.

I spend most of my days watching people out of my apartment window. I like to pretend I know them. “There’s old Albert. Late again. Look at how fast he’s walking. He’ll never learn. The boys at the firm are gonna get tired of it one day, and that will be it for Albert.”

“If Shirley doesn’t get some new shoes, she’s going to ruin her feet. Look at all that clomping. Like she’s on a trampoline. If she’d stop spending so much time with her loser boyfriend, she could get her priorities straight.”

Truth is, I don’t really have any good friends. When Ethial died, I figured he was the last person on Earth I could stand being around. Oh sure, I know people. But they only know what I want them to know of me. Like the lady downstairs – Maude. She thinks I work at Martin & Shulsin Publishers. When she asked what I do there, I smiled and said, “try to keep people from publishing awful books,” then I let out a roaring laugh and nodded to her, as if she should know exactly what I mean. She smiled and never asked again.

The young man next door thinks I’m on the mayor’s staff. No one messes with someone who knows the mayor. That keeps him out of my hair.

My landlord knows me as Shane Weebler. When I moved in after Ethial died, I told her I was caring for his estate. “I’m not a lawyer, I’m an attorney,” I said. I didn’t offer to explain the difference, since I wasn’t sure there was one. I explained that I would be going through Ethial’s things and clearing them out. After two months, she proposed a deal where I could stay if I would handle any legal matters that come her way. I pretended to think about it and agreed four days later. If any legal matters do come her way, I’m fairly certain I can learn what I need to know at the public library.

Ethial left me his collection of vinyl records and his cat. I never as much as thumbed through the box of records. The cat, which he had named Briarbook, was 14 years old when I inherited him. Now he’s 20, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious for him to die already. Twenty years equal two lifetimes for a cat. He’s had a grand time; it’s time to cross the finish line.

There’s one man who passes by each day I like to call Kevin. A short, fat pile of a man. I watch him walk the entire block each weekday, stressing back and forth in a waddle-like fashion, his suitcase flailing about from his puffy hand. I used to wonder why Kevin would put himself through that, when there is surely a bus connection near his workplace. I finally settled on the conclusion that it’s worse for a fat man to be seen taking the bus than to be seen making the effort. He’s a good man for that. There’s also the possibility that he might have gotten lodged in the narrow doorway of a bus, and has avoided the situation ever since.

Last week was Halloween. I had planned well in advance for my costume and had gathered all the necessary components a month ahead. In a science fiction universe I fancy myself a vampire: distant and unaccepted yet smarter and stronger than everyone else. There was no other natural choice for my costume. I started preparing that afternoon, applying makeup to my ears, then face. This turned out to be a poor way to start the transformation, since I soon found white fingerprints all over my black cape. Two hours into the mess, I was severely close to looking like I just stepped out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. To make matters worse, the moment I turned around, Briarbook let out a screaming hiss, turned his end to me and sprayed my black cape with warm urine. After disposing of the cape, I realized this was a good sign for me; my costume was so convincing even the cat didn’t recognize me.

Indeed the costume proved to be the best part of the evening. After stepping outside cape-less (I had tested a bed sheet after the cat incident, but the sheet was far too long), I realized I had nowhere to go. After a few trips circling the block, I headed back inside and climbed the stairs to my apartment. I never take the elevator – it’s too noisy. I like for my comings and goings to be silent.

Opening the door sent Briarbook into another frenzy, hissing and running towards me. My quick instincts allowed me to shut the door before he could reach me. I had few choices. I came up with an easy story and walked to my neighbor’s door. Clearing my throat, I gave a firm rap on the door. Knocking on the center of a door creates the lowest, most masculine pitch. A friendlier knock would bear from the left side, near the upper hinge.

Two locks rattled above the doorknob and light poured from the room into the hallway. There stood a gaunt, frail frame, with a thick sweater hanging from pointy shoulders. His head looked as though it was carefully balance atop a thin neck.

I stared at him, tried not to blink, and waited for him to speak.


“Would you mind if I used your bathroom? It seems my plumbing is out next door.”

“Yeah, sure. Come on in.”

The room smelled of stale coffee. There were books piled up everywhere – on tables, on chairs, piles on the floor. Under a crooked lamp one book lay open, one page waving hello at me. I imagined it saying, “Come in. We’re just getting to the good part.”

“The bathroom is in the back,” the man said as he headed toward the open book. He grabbed it, sunk into a chair and squinted at a page. I high-stepped over a few piles of books and found a light switch inside the bathroom. There was no door.

The hot water knob squealed as water started from the faucet. My sink made the same noise. I splashed warm water on my face, added soap, and reached for a towel. Dabbing my forehead and nose, I pulled back the towel to see it was covered with white face paint. There was a time when I would have felt guilty for ruining his towel.

Once all the paint was off my face I stuffed the towel into a drawer. Moving back through the room with the books, I thanked the man and opened the door.

“Sure,” he whispered, still squinting at the book. I closed his door behind me and stood in the hallway, happy to again be alone.

Birthday Ideas

I asked my dog what he got me for my birthday.

He jumped up and gave me a hug.

That was a great gift.

Then I decided I would change everything.

My name, my hair.

Especially my hair.

Orange? Orange hair sounds good.

I immediately filled a legal-size notepad with ideas.

Shoes made of empty water bottles.

A shirt made of leaves.

Maybe a wooden hat.

A noodle mask.

Then I tried out different voices.




Fourteen hours later, I left my house and went straight to the public library.

They were closed.

I proceeded to walk – water bottles crackling under each step – to the bank.

I was immediately shot as I entered the building.