Stories from the Hart: Caught in the Middle

Caught in the Middle 

            I felt my chest tighten. I expected the delivery guy from the pizza place around the block, not him. After everything that happened between us, I thought we were dead to each other; finding him at my front door never even seemed like a possibility.
“Julian, what are you doing here?” I asked, despite the ache I was feeling in my chest.
He looked distraught. He looked… helpless and hopeless. He looked nothing like the Julian Mason I knew.
“I’m sorry to just show up here unannounced. I… I have nowhere else to go.” He looked over his shoulder, pointing me to the direction of his suitcases and bags.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I got kicked out of my apartment. I went to Danny’s house, but their apartment is cramped as it is with the new baby and all. I tried to go to Hugo’s loft, but it turns out he’s on an assignment in Frankfurt for three months and sublet his loft to a Korean couple. They had no place for me either.”
“And so you came here?” I had trouble wrapping my head around his choice of backup plan. “What on earth made you think that was a good idea?”
He shook his head. “I knew you’d react this way. I’m sorry, Z, I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.” He ran his fingers through his messy hair and sighed.
“Zo? Who’s at the door?”
I almost forgot – my boyfriend Scott was sitting on the couch, expecting to enjoy his favorite pizza with me while we watched the Knicks kick the Mavericks' ass.
“It’s…” I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer him.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize you had company,” Julian said.
“I think there are quite a few factors you didn’t think through when you decided to come here.”
“Zoey, please. I know things between us are awkward now, but we used to be good friends. I moved to the other side of the world for you, remember? Besides Danny and Hugo, I have no other friends here. Where else am I supposed to go?”
  “I don’t know… a motel? A hotel? Anywhere but here!”
               Julian took a few steps back. Not because my tone had gone up a few octaves – as scary as it may have sounded – but because Scott was suddenly standing behind me.
               “Is everything all right here?” he asked.
               “Everything is fine. Scott, this is Julian.”
               “Hey,” Scott offered his hand. Julian reluctantly took it. “You want to come in, man?”
               I turned to Scott and gave him a nasty look. Why on earth would he want to invite Julian in?
               “I would like that very much indeed. Thanks, mate,” Julian replied, sounding more Australian than he had ever sounded before.
               “Scott! No! He’s not coming in.”
               “Why not?” Scott asked, quite oblivious to whom Julian was.
               “Because! This is Julian.”
               Oh God.
               I rolled my eyes. Scott knew very well who Julian was; he just wasn’t using his head. On our third date, he asked me why it took me a year to start dating again, and I told him our story – the story of how Julian and I had a roller coaster of a romance. I went through all the details of how I thought Julian was the one for me and how he moved from Melbourne to New York to be with me. He moved into my apartment, and we were engaged by our first anniversary, and it all went downhill from there.
               The evil stepmother (his) who tried to break us up by offering me money to end things with him, the conniving sister (mine) who plotted to ruin his photography career, the psycho ex-girlfriend (his) that kept threatening to have me kidnapped if I didn’t break up with him, and the ill father (mine) whose dying wish was for me to marry a fellow Christian, and the immigrations officer that kept harassing him. There was a whole soap opera around our relationship, and we finally got tired. We weren’t fighting each other, but we were constantly in battle and just couldn’t deal with it anymore. As much as we loved each other, it just seemed too hard and complicated.
               Scott wasn’t that great at remembering things like our anniversary or when we first kissed, but I would have thought he’d at least remember who Julian was.
               “Seriously? You don’t remember who he is?”
               Scott shook his head, and I wanted to scream.
               “Look, mate, I appreciate your invite, but I realize it was a mistake to come here. I’ll just go…”
               “Oh, wait. You’re Julian. The Julian.”
               “I guess so.” Julian looked down. He stuck both his hands into the pockets of his filthy jeans, like he always did. He looked so… cute.
               I hated it.
               “Zoey, come on. He’s got nowhere else to go.” Scott turned to me, and I could feel my cheeks flush.
               “Do you not see his luggage?” I couldn’t believe it. “He comes in and he stays, you know. You can’t invite him in now and kick him out later. You’d be comfortable with my ex-fiance crashing here with us?”
               “I’m more comfortable doing that than letting him sleep on the streets. Come on, Zo, grow up.”
               Bewildered, upset and annoyed, I left them both at the door and headed straight to my room, locking it behind me.
               I heard a dozen loud knocks coming from the other side of my bedroom door along with Willow’s high-pitched voice.
              “You’re going to have to come out sometime, Z. You can’t stay in there forever.”
  “Oh yes I can!” I insisted.
  “Umm, no you can’t, sister dear. You don’t have a bathroom in there.”
               Crap. She was right. But I intended to hold for as long as I could.
               “What are you doing here anyway?”
               “If you’re not going to come out, can you at least let me in?”
               I had an inner debate for a few seconds before I decided that letting Willow in couldn’t cause any harm. As the doorknob slowly turned, I pulled the door just enough to peek and make sure Scott or Julian wasn’t standing on the other side just waiting to push it open.
               Not even close – they were sitting down on the couch together, like they were old college roommates or something. It was truly a remarkably disturbing sight.
               Willow pushed the door open a bit further and pushed me aside as she walked in. “What the hell is going on here? I stop by to bring you some of the stuff you left at mom’s house last weekend and who opens the door? Julian! Freakin’ Julian Mason!”
               “Now do you understand why I’d rather lock myself up in here?” The frustration in my voice must have been more obvious than I intended because even her dog Elphie – named after the Wicked Witch of the West – looked terrified.
               “What is he doing here, Z?”
               “He said he got kicked out of his apartment and had no other place to go.”
               “You mean she kicked him out?”
               I nodded.
               “I wonder why…” Willow said, opening up the door a bit again so she could spy on the guys. “They seemed so happy the last time I saw them.”
               “You saw them?”
               “Bumped into them at that café over on Clover Street. They were holding hands, she was wearing a ring.”
               “My God! Does he propose to every girl he dates?” I said, even louder than when I thought I was being too loud.
               “Hey, hey. What are you so upset about? Aren’t you engaged to Scott, too? Do you say yes to every guy who proposes to you?”
                She was lucky I remembered she was the cute little sister who always used to curl up in bed with me whenever there were thunderstorms because if she weren’t, I would have kicked her out of my room already. But she was, and I loved her to death, so all I did was give her a nasty look.
               “Sorry, that was mean. I know the situation is a bit odd, but you’re never going to find out what’s going on unless you go out there and ask.”
               “Why would I want to find out?”
               “Because I can see it written all over your face! You’re curious as hell, and you’re pretending you’re not because you don’t want Julian to know you actually still care. Plus, you don’t want Scott to think you still care for him either. Am I right?”
               I shook my head. “When did you grow up and get so smart? Where’s the perky little kid who only cared about princess costumes and tiaras?”
               Willow rolled here eyes. “Just go out and ask him!”
               I took a long deep breath, as long as I could in order to stall. When I couldn’t wait any longer, I opened the door and walked into…  
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Short Story: Todd Wanted to Meet Dahlia's Family

Todd Wanted to Meet Dahlia's Family

By Kimberly Vargas

Todd Golden wanted to meet Dahlia Moore’s family, and there was no getting around it. Dahlia had been so opposed to the idea that for a while it gave him a complex. This was because Todd was the son of the wealthiest couple in town, and Dahlia only knew Todd because her family worked for his. She and Todd had fallen for each other and were now having to deal with their glaring differences.

Mrs. Moore was on cloud nine once her daughter nervously asked if she would like to have dinner with Todd sometime. No rush, Dahlia had said. Next year would be totally fine. However, to Dahlia’s dismay, this dinner became the priority of her mother’s life. Mrs. Moore had gone stark raving mad with the opportunity to spend time with the boy she hoped her daughter would marry. She scheduled the event for Valentine’s Day. She insisted upon inviting not just the immediate family, but also even the most distant relations. Mrs. Moore reserved the private room of Smokey’s Pit Barbecue for the occasion. This was the type of establishment where the guests were furnished with peanuts. It was common practice to throw the peanut shells on the floor. Dahlia tried to compare it to the last place Todd had taken her. The contrast in parallel thinking made her feel faint.

“I don’t think it’s the best place for us to be going,” began her attempt to negotiate a more suitable locale.

Her father gave her a disapproving look. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

“You know how the Goldens are, Dad. Give me a break.”

“You’re the one who decided to date that kid. You’d probably be better off dating Damian from The Omen. Maybe it’s not good enough for the Golden boy, but it’s the best place near our house. He’s got to accept all of you, not just the parts he likes.”

“Can’t we at least go to a chain restaurant with accepted standards, practices and health codes?” begged Dahlia.

Joe Moore was no pushover. He realized he was intellectually superior to the Goldens, even if they were the most successful people in the area, and he was not about to kowtow. Besides, he wanted to throw up a few Herculean challenges for any guy who tried to take his daughter away. They were going to have to earn her and prove their intentions were admirable. It was hard for him to deny his daughter anything but this was for her own good. “Forget it. We’re not driving thirty miles away and over the Paradise Skyway bridge for Todd Golden. He can punt on that. Let him come to us if he’s so crazy about you.” Then he returned his attention to the Miami Dolphins and his beer. Dahlia shuddered at the thought of Todd’s reaction to seeing her father drinking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The night of the occasion (anticipated by some with enthusiasm and others with dread) was clear and warm. Todd met the Moores at the restaurant since it was quite a hike and he didn’t want to delay them. Florida traffic is always a wild card. Dahlia, Clay, her parents and grandparents arrived at seven that night. Several of her aunts and uncles were there. One aunt in attendance didn’t exactly have dementia, but she was definitely touched in the head from her husband beating her senseless over the years. There was one cousin there who had recently been released from prison (grand theft auto), and he received congratulations all around on his newfound freedom. Uncle Bob apologized for hitting another mourner during Uncle Fred’s wake, because it just wasn’t appropriate. After assessing the pending damage, Dahlia prayed that Todd’s car would get a flat tire or catch on fire. Anything would be better than him seeing her amongst this motley crew.

No such luck. Todd walked through the door and Dahlia could tell he was doing his best to smile graciously and not to look disturbed. He took in the décor, which was random antiques displayed all over the walls amongst a serious collection of neon beer signs. He thought it was the most distasteful place he’d ever seen in his life, but he looked over at Dahlia and didn’t care anymore. He walked boldly over and shook her father’s hand.

“Nice to see you, Mr. Moore. I’m Todd.”

“You can call me Joe,” said Mr. Moore. Joe Moore gave Todd a once over and thought he was a good-looking kid. A good-looking kid whose parents own about 10% of Florida. What the hell does he want with Dahlia? I can’t believe he actually showed up. Guess he really does like her.

Outside in the parking lot, Dahlia’s friend Jack Burton was sitting in his car. He could see the Moore family inside. Jack had been dying to meet the rest of Dahlia’s family. He figured if he could get to know them better, maybe he’d stand a better chance with her. Seeing Todd Golden through the window surprised him. Jack felt sure he wouldn’t really make the trip to Tomahawk, but there he was. Jack felt like throwing a brick through the window of Todd’s BMW but realized it wasn’t going to solve his problem. He saw the way Dahlia looked at Todd and it made him nauseous.

Inside the restaurant, Todd tried not to slip on the peanut shells all over the floor. Dahlia had to use the bathroom but was terrified to leave the object of her affection alone with her family. She finally gave in, rushing the whole time. She returned to find her nightmare scenario. Aunt Yolanda had cornered Todd.

“In our family, there’s always been really big babies,” Aunt Yolanda told wide-eyed Todd. “Like twelve or thirteen pounds, some of ‘em.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Todd responded with a furrowed brow, as though conducting analysis with a faulty calculator.

“Nope. It’s God’s honest truth. Some of the c-sections the women in our family have had nearly killed ‘em,” Yolanda continued babbling. Dahlia tried to interrupt them, but her brother Clay pulled her aside.

“Let go of me! I have to get him away from Aunt Yolanda!” she hissed.

“No. He’s going to see us for who we are, warts and all. If he can pass the Yolanda test, then I was wrong about him.” Clay gave his sister a you-know-I’m-right look.

“Please- please- can’t it be something he might actually pass, like climbing Everest or finding his way out of that hedge from The Shining?”

“Wouldn’t you rather know now than ten years from now?” he asked her quietly.

“No. Because then I’d at least have the ten years,” she told him honestly. “I can’t even believe I’ve had it for ten minutes.”

Clay appeared as though a death in the family had just been announced. “It’s already too late for you. You’re a goner. You’re flying too close to the sun. You’re headed for a fall.”

Dahlia shook off Clay’s warning and walked back towards Todd. Yolanda had moved to a new topic of conversation. “If you really want your hair to grow, now, you have to eat a lot of sugar. That’s cause sugar makes your hair grow.” She displayed two prominently missing teeth. She was wearing a t-shirt that said All This and Brains Too.

Dahlia linked arms with Todd, asked to borrow him for a moment and strolled with him outside. He looked shaken. There was a sagging swing set behind the property. Thinking that might be a little more peaceful, they decided to take a chance that the swings would hold up under their weight. For a moment, they sat in silence. As Todd was about to speak, a group of children ran up to them. They were Dahlia’s three cousins, aged four, seven and eight. They were the offspring of Uncle Tom, Mrs. Moore’s n’er do well brother. Dahlia groaned. She realized this could actually be worse than the Aunt Yolanda experience.

“Hey Dahlia, is that your boyfriend?” one of them screamed.

“Aunt Jean says you guys are getting married. Is that true? Because I heard Todd is really rich!” crowed another.

“Hey, if you’re rich, will you buy me roller blades?” another one asked. “Because my daddy said he lost all his money in Vegas and can’t buy me none.”

Dahlia buried her head in her hands. This was even worse than she had expected. Their relationship, fragile egg that it was, had just been cracked and scrambled.

Todd’s brain was feeling a bit cracked and scrambled as well. He took things literally and had a pretty active imagination. Mental pictures of writing checks to these three dirty children had already been etched there.

“I’m not rich. Who told you I was rich?” he asked, trying to smile.

“Everybody’s saying that!” an eight-year old redheaded girl informed him before shoving her index finger squarely in her nose.

“Where are your shoes?” Todd heard himself ask, even though he knew it was impolite. After all, this was hardly polite society.

“Kids, why don’t you go inside?” Dahlia suggested. “I think they’ve got a monkey in the private room.”

The children all scampered away to find the monkey.

Todd was bewildered. “They have a monkey? Is that legal?” He wanted to know.

“No. The monkey was my own invention.”

“Too bad. That would have been the high point of the evening. I like monkeys. They sure don’t smell like roses, though.” He handed her a little package that was in his pocket. “It’s a necklace. Happy Valentine’s Day.” Before she even could open it, Todd was exhaling loudly. He was never one to suffer in silence or hide his feelings. “I don’t think I can do this, Dahlia. Ay, carumba. What the hell is wrong with your Aunt and those nasty kids?”

“We hardly ever see them. I don’t even know why my mom invited them,” she said sullenly.

“Oh, your mom told me why. She said she wanted everyone to meet ‘the guy Dahlia’s in love with.’ This is probably out of line to say, but I genuinely think she would sell you to me for forty shekels of silver.” Todd laughed quietly.

Dahlia didn’t have the energy to dispute his statement, particularly since she felt it was accurate. She could pretty much handle anything, no matter how brutal, as long as it was true. “Clay said it’s better you see it now than later. And I never told my mom I was in love with you. Don’t listen to her. She’s a frustrated actress.”

Todd dug his Cole-Haans in the sand. “I don’t know, honey. I don’t know. Maybe we have even less in common than I thought. It’s not fair of me. I’ve treated the situation like you were an angel who dropped out of the sky for me, and never in the context of your life.”

“I’m not planning on this being the extent of my life, Todd,” she snapped. “I don’t have any control over where I came from, only where I’m going. Remember when you told me that your parents’ home was their home, and it didn’t have anything to do with who you are as a person? I don’t think you know yourself very well.” She got up out of the swing. They were on the path of a military airline strip, and a B-52 was flying overhead. “Please determine if you can accept me or not, because it’s kind of the cornerstone of any relationship. If you can’t accept this, and believe me, no judgments, I need you to stay away from me and let me start to get over you.” She wiped a tear from her eye.

“Holy shit Dahlia, don’t start crying. You’ve got a ready-made lynch mob fifty feet away. I’ll never make it out alive.” He was only halfway joking.

“Go ahead and go,” she whispered. “I know you want to. Go ahead and go.” He hesitated a moment and walked out to his car. In the parking lot was Jack Burton, watching the evening unfold.

“Todd Golden, right?” Jack asked. “Hi. I’m Jack. I’m a friend of Dahlia’s. Are you leaving already?”

Todd sighed and took a silver flask of whiskey and offered it to Jack, who declined. He took a long swig of it. “I guess. I don’t know what the hell to do.”

“About what?” Jack asked, wondering how he could permanently paint Todd into a corner.

“About Dahlia, that’s what.” Todd hit the flask again. “I’ve got it bad, really bad for her. But what’s the point? We can’t penetrate the other’s worlds. We only exist in our own. It’s only good when we’re alone, and that’s no good, right?” He had no idea why he was opening up to a total stranger, but he was glad Jack was there.

“You’re right. That’s no good,” Jack agreed. “You can’t sustain that.”

“Exactly. Have you met Aunt Yolanda?”


“What the F, dude? How do you deal with that shit?” Todd sighed deeply. “How am I supposed to sit there and deal with all that?”

“If you were really into it, it wouldn’t be an issue,” Jack shrugged.

Todd laughed cynically. “Yeah, right. Apparently you haven’t met Aunt Yolanda.”

“Au contraire. I take Aunt Yolanda to her volunteer shift at the Sugarville Boys and Girls Club kitchen every Tuesday,” Jack said quietly.

“You ride in a car with that whack job for almost two hours a week? Wouldn’t you prefer to just take a beating?”

Jack nodded. “Well, sure, sometimes. For example, she said her husband’s diabetes was instantly cured when he was hit by a car. She also claims that her breasts get bigger in the shower, and she offered to prove it.”

Todd laughed out loud in response. “Okay, so why do you do that?” He marveled. “Are you looking to get sainted?”

“No. Not that,” Jack responded.

“Then why?”

“Because it helps Dahlia.”

“To do that, you must be in love with her or something…” Todd’s voice trailed off as he realized he’d hit the nail on the head.

Jack just stood there staring at him for a meaningful pause. “Thanks to you, my Valentine’s Day is looking up.” He smiled and walked towards where Dahlia was still sitting alone in the children’s playground, oblivious to the conversation between the two young men.

Todd hesitated. He hadn’t considered that Dahlia had other suitors. Of course she did. And was he really going to leave her with one of them? Apparently, yes. He had to get out of that place.

He started his car and drove across the Paradise Skyway to the Sugarville Microbrewery. They had 50 beers on tap. Maybe he would try all of them. Maybe that would make him feel better. He certainly had to do something.

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Valentine's Day Flash Fiction Contest Winners

Thank you to the writers for sharing your stories with us and the readers for taking the time to post your feedback. Here's how the stories ranked based on our opinions and reader comments:

1st place: Out of Practice Aphrodite by Sheryl Babin - $25 Amazon gift card
2nd place: A Change in Plans by Lucie Simone - $15 Amazon gift card
3rd place: Baked with Love by Karen Jerabek - $10 Amazon gift card

Congratulations! You all did a great job! You'll receive your prizes via email. 

Hope everyone had a happy Valentine's Day! :)

Valentine's Day Flash Fiction Contest: A Change in Plans

A Change in Plans

            I checked my watch. 6:57pm. Plenty of time to change out of my scrubs, touch up my make-up and dash over to the restaurant to meet Jonathon by 7:30. I signed off on the last patient release form, clicked my pen closed and stuffed it in my coat pocket.
            “Goodnight, Marcus,” I said to the young man just coming in to work the night shift.
            “Goodnight, Dr. Jane,” he said with a wide smile.
Everyone called me Dr. Jane since my last name was a mouthful of consonants handed down from generations past. 
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he added with a wink. “Have fun with your new man.”
I instantly blushed. Jonathon and I had started dating in December and our relationship was very new, but I was excited about our plans for the evening. We were meeting at one of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles with views that stretched from downtown to the beach. A recipe guaranteed for romance.
I headed to the small locker room to primp and change into the sexy red dress I’d bought specifically for the occasion. But just as I put my hand on the door, I heard Marcus call my name.
“Dr. Jane, Dr. Jane!” he yelled, frantic. “Trauma room three!”
I rushed over to see what the problem was and discovered the patient I had just cleared for release was in cardiac arrest. My team and I went to work quickly, but I feared the old guy might not make it. His breath was labored, his blood pressure was through the roof, and his pupils non-responsive. It didn’t look good. But Harley had been my patient for ten years and I’d seen him through mange, heartworms and even hip dysplasia. I couldn’t let him down now.
It was nearly eight o’clock by the time I’d gotten Harley stabilized. I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket while I was working on the large, lovable Labrador, but I didn’t even have five seconds to answer it. Harley was touch and go for nearly an hour and I simply would not give up on him. When his vital signs finally regulated and he regained consciousness, and I could tell by looking into his big brown eyes that he was feeling better, I phoned Jonathon.
            He’d left me two messages, but I didn’t bother listening to them. I just dialed, hoping he would understand why I hadn’t arrived at the restaurant. Emergencies came up a lot in an animal hospital, and my patients were my priority. Unfortunately, this had lost me more than one boyfriend over the years.
            My call went straight to his voicemail, though, and I feared my tardiness had jeopardized yet another relationship. I left a message explaining my emergency, and asked him to return my call as soon as possible. Defeated, I slipped my phone back in my pocket and headed to the locker room.
            I didn’t bother with the red dress. Instead, I changed into the jeans and sweater I’d worn to work. I shoved the dress into my tote bag, tossed my scrubs into the laundry bin and headed out. I peeked in on Harley, who was now resting comfortably in an oversized and cushiony cage. He was fast asleep, and as I stroked his silky brown fur, feeling the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, there was no doubt that he would pull through with the usual gentle grace he always managed.
            “You have a good night,” I said to Harley. He snored in response and stretched out his paws, one big foot pressing against my hip. I pouted and gently placed his leg back inside the cage. Yeah, he was going to be just fine.
            I was less confident, however, about my budding relationship with Jonathon. Was this Valentine’s Day going to be the end of our barely begun love affair? I hoped not, but with no return call yet, all my past experiences with impatient boyfriends flooded my mind.
            I stopped by the front desk before leaving and found Marcus with his head buried deep in his medical books. The rest of the staff had gone once Harley was out of danger and resting, and our small hospital was quiet and still. He had a cup of coffee warming one hand and a yellow highlighter in the other, marking important passages in his textbook. Marcus was in his final year studying veterinary medicine and worked nights keeping watch over the animals in recovery and tending to emergencies that arose overnight.
            “This was very exciting,” he beamed, tilting his head up to me. “My first heart attack!”
            “And you did great,” I said. “Harley and I both thank you for being there. You’ll make a great Vet.”
            “Thank you,” he smiled. “Oh, and there’s a message for you.”
            Hope soared through me.
            “It’s from Jonathon. He said not to come to the restaurant. He’s made other plans.”
            “Oh,” I sighed, my elation quickly plummeting. “Thanks.”
            “Sorry,” he said, offering me a sympathetic pout.
            I shrugged in response and headed out the door.
            But when I stepped into the parking lot, I found Jonathon leaning against my car and my English Bulldog, Ralph, at his feet.
            “What’s this?” I asked genuinely surprised.
            “Didn’t you get my messages?”
            “Oh.” I’d completely forgotten about them!
            “I see,” he said with a knowing nod, his sandy hair falling over his blue eyes. “Well, I figured when you didn’t show up to dinner, you were saving somebody’s life. So, I thought a change in plans might be good. I picked up Ralph from doggie daycare and we’re going for a walk and a gelato. Care to join?”
            I smiled as Jonathon took my hand and led Ralph and me down the street.
            “So, did you have a good day?” he asked.
            “Yep. A really good day. But no gelato for Ralph. He’s on a diet.”
            “Got it.” He squeezed my hand. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”