8 1/2 Hours – Trapped in an Elevator

Sometimes there are just so many directions a story can go, it’s hard to know how it should end. I’m still not sure I nailed this one. That’s why there are two endings. I’d love to hear your opinion. Which ending do you like best? Or maybe you have another idea of how the story should end? Leave your thoughts in the comments. And thanks!


8 1/2 Hours

Maybe nearly dying doesn’t make everyone dig deep, but it did me. I hadn’t opened up to anyone in years. Yeah, I talked with my girlfriends some, but not like this. And yeah, sure, I opened up to my therapist too, but does that really count? A hundred and twenty dollars says it’s not the same.

I didn’t even know the guy I was pouring my heart out to. He got on the elevator around the twentieth floor and mumbled some sort of greeting.

What do you say when you get on a fairly empty elevator? The politest thing to do is smile and pretend like you have something important in your purse or on your phone.

My tears hadn’t quite dried from my last therapy session. My very last. The good doctor had decided he needed to move to the country, so I needed to find someone else to help me sort out my bad scripts. No warning or anything. It was like an afterthought at the end of our session. “Oh, and by the way, I’m moving out to Culpepper, so I guess you should find someone else. I can give you some names.” And then he escorted me out of his 30th floor office and that was that.

I think I was fishing through my purse for the list of other therapists he gave me when we screeched to a scary stop between floors. The entire elevator shuttered as it came to a dead halt. My purse and its pathetic contents fell to the floor. And my stomach jumped up to where my heart was pounding.

“Um. What was that?” Before the stranger could answer, a pop sounded from above us and the elevator swayed to one side and then fell. A three-second free fall can feel like pure, undiluted terror.

Something caught ‘cause the fall slowed and lurched to a stop and the elevator leveled out. When I opened my eyes, my purse contents met my face. Somehow in those three seconds I’d gone from standing to sprawled on the floor. Sitting up, I noticed the stranger gripping the metal bar that surrounded the elevator wall.

“You okay?” He managed to loosen his grip and reach out his hand to me. I grabbed a hold, and he pulled me to my feet. But as I stood, the elevator creaked and swayed. “Maybe we should try to stay very still,” he whispered.

I nodded and couldn’t think of any better way to be still than to huddle on the floor, so I sunk to my knees. The stranger slid down next to me and scooted to lean against the dark wooded panel. As elevators go, this one looked like a manly, wooden office with lots of brass and two mirrors on either side, and the floor, which I was quickly becoming acquainted with, looked like marble.

“What happened?” I knew he didn’t know, but maybe he was an elevator repair guy or a fireman or something.

“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s good.” The numbered circular beacons for the floors were all dark, and the door to the little brass box where the phone was supposed to be hung on one hinge. “Do you have reception?” He lifted up his cell phone. Mine was somewhere with all my junk scattered on the speckled marble. I hooked my purse with my foot and slid it to me along with all the stuff trapped under it. My phone didn’t have reception either. Stupid elevator.

There was a red alarm button under all the dark circles. “Should we push that?” The adrenalin pumped through me keeping the tears at bay. I’m a crier, so the fact that I hadn’t burst into tears yet meant something, especially since 15 minutes ago I’d been balling. Not crying actually scared me a little more. I even sounded steady when I talked. “Maybe it’s connected to some main source or something.”

“I don’t think so. Besides. . .” He reached his long arm over and pushed the silent button. “It’s dead.” Bad word choice, buddy.

Elevator story - mb dahlThe lights above flickered but stayed on. I reached out and gathered the rest of my purse contents returning them to their home. “Want some gum?” He waved me off. I didn’t have anything to say, so I sat there looking at my chipped nail polish and noticing how old my hands were looking. Old hands like my mother’s. Twenty-eight felt like forty and past my prime. How did I end up here? Wasn’t I just in college dating the guy from that weird fraternity?

“Maybe we can pry it.” Good-looking, stranger guy had an open pocket knife in his hand and hungrily eyed the elevator doors.

“You think that’s a good idea?”

“It’s something.” Standing, he took two soft steps and slid the blade of his knife in the slivered opening between the doors. As they loosened a bit, he pried them open with his hands. The bottom part of the number 17 covered the otherwise bare gray wall about a foot away from the elevator. When he stuck his handsome head out the opening to look up and down, I cringed.

He made it safely back inside, and faced me with his glum news. “I guess we’re really stuck.” His palms pressed against the door panels, but they weren’t going back together.

I didn’t say anything because nothing nice was coming to mind.

He budged them a little, but the swaying feeling started back up, so he stopped. “Sorry,” he grunted. “I was hoping we’d be close to a floor, but it looks like we’re too far away to reach a doorway.”

I hugged my knees. “You think we’d hear people trying to get us out of here, but it’s been really quiet.”

“Maybe we should make some noise.”

I jumped as he started shouting for help. His voice commanded attention, surely someone would hear him. He glanced down at me, and I picked up his cue and started to scream too. When our voices faded in the empty corridor, my mind kept replaying them in my brain.

“I don’t know what else to do.” He leaned against the mirrored side of the elevator. Two of him looked better than one. At least 6’2”, his blue eyes fit perfectly on his face. His jet black hair held the effects of his fingers running through it. His khaki pants, blue shirt, patterned tie and a grayish, blue sports coat reminded me I should try a little harder to look put together.

My faded jeans and Virginia Tech sweatshirt did not give the impression I was looking for anything more than maybe where the next keg party might be. Of course, I can’t really pull off college student anymore. So now I just look sad wearing clothes that don’t fit my age group. What do people in my age group wear?

He slid back into his spot next to me with the same sigh the doctor gives the family right before he tells him there was nothing he could do. I had to grin. I could be dead in the next ten minutes, and I’ve spent the last three ogling some stranger and evaluating my wardrobe. Am I really this shallow?

Despite the fact that I hadn’t shared anything deep with another human being in years, I still liked to talk, and I wasn’t going to sit next to someone and not start up a conversation. “So you’re not a fireman or an elevator repair guy, are you?” That got him to smile, but not speak. He just shook his head. “How ‘bout a spy? Cause a good spy would know where the top door to the elevator is and could crawl up there and figure a way out of this.” I looked up, but there didn’t appear to be a door or anything at the top of our little prison.

“Nope,” he said. “I was actually up here interviewing for a lousy job.” Loosening his tie, he unbuttoned the top button of his pale blue oxford. The fresh smell of starch mixed with his cologne wafted over to me as he moved. “I don’t want to work here. I hate the city. But it’s all I could get.” He had a nice voice, deep and strong, but kind of sad sounding.

“Jobs are hard to find, especially in this economy.” Ugh. And now I’m going into chit chat mode. It’s like a reflex in me, and I hate it. Maybe I could at least try to be interesting. “So what kind of work do you do?”

He flashed his blue eyes up at me. They matched his shirt. “I used to be an architect. Now I’m gonna be somebody’s messenger boy.”

That was interesting. “Architecture too slow for ya?” He didn’t find me funny. I didn’t find me funny, so that’s really no shocker. My attempts at humor often fall flat. That doesn’t keep me from trying though. “At least now, you won’t be going back to the drawing table. You’ll be off to something new.” I was trying to be optimistic, but I’m pretty sure I was just sounding like an idiot. He smiled, though. A pity smile, and I gave it another try. “What’s your name?” There, that shouldn’t bring up any bad thoughts.

“Greg. And you?”

“Josie.” Now, I don’t know why I said Josie. My name’s Josephine, and everyone usually shortens it to ‘Jo’, but lately I’ve sort of thought I’d like to be a ‘Josie’. That sounds fun and alive and adventurous, and everything I’m not. So I just blurted it out. I wouldn’t see this guy again anyway.

His singing brought me back to surreality. “I know that everything, know that everything, know that everything, everything’s gonna be just fine,” he started his own mini-concert right there, complete with air guitar, closed eyes and a bobbing head. I had no idea what that had to do with me lying about my name. When he finished the chorus, he cleared his throat and put his guitar away. “Oh, sorry. It’s Blink-182, Josie.”  Who was this guy? He read my face again. “Don’t listen to pop-punk much. You’re a country girl aren’t you?”

Elevator story-mb dahlI would’ve nodded my head with pride, but the way he said “country” made it sound like something I shouldn’t be proud of. He didn’t look like a punk-rocker. Jacket, tie, dress pants, loafers, no noticeable piercings.

He interrupted my inspection with another question. “So, what’s your favorite movie?”

Now, this was chit chat I could get behind. “I love all the Nicholas Sparks movies and the books. Read ‘em all.” It was his turn to have a blank look in his eyes. “That’s okay. They’re more chic flicks anyway. . .I guess punk-rockers don’t go much for the softer side of things.” This time he showed his teeth when he smiled, and I think there was no pity in it at all.

We laughed a few times in those first hours of our imprisonment. I found out his all-time movie favorites (mostly stuff I’d never heard of), music preferences (also made me feel pretty ignorant) and favorite Facebook status lines. That was entertaining. He sees Facebook as a way to experiment with human behavior. I got a little defensive since I take it all very seriously.

He asked me some questions and for a complete stranger actually seemed curious about me. I probably rambled on more than I should have about my strange fascination with windmills. But he didn’t make fun of me or anything

As we got into the fourth hour, our chit chat died down. Greg kept checking his phone for service, but no change. And I started rummaging through my purse again. An old lipstick, some mini-candy bars, my wallet, a bunch of old receipts, gum, and my divorce papers. I should read over those again, but it really didn’t seem like a good time, so I took my phone out and started going through my old text messages. Some of those might come in handy if Wayne decided he wanted to play the martyr.

“You got any bars?” Greg leaned over just as I found the one text message with the most colorful language peppered through it. “Oh, sorry,” he said as he backed off.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Do I explain that my crazy soon-to-be ex had a very small vocabulary of words that aren’t “R-rated”? But if I go into that, I would feel compelled to explain why I chose to marry someone who used the “f” word in our wedding vows. And it’s a very, long complicated story. And I’m kind of tired of telling it.

I snapped my phone shut and looked up. His blue eyes looked tired and strangely concerned. If I hadn’t looked at him, I would’ve dropped the whole thing, but instead I gave him a little bit of me. “That’s my soon-to-be ex. He felt very strongly about the location of the surround sound system. I guess he can figure that out on his own now.”

Greg halfway grinned. “Or maybe you should ask for it in the settlement.” That thought hadn’t occurred to me. I just wanted out. He must have read how I was considering his suggestion, because he followed up by telling me he was just kidding. “It’s better just to leave that stuff behind.”

“Have you been married?” He didn’t have a ring on, but he had to be in his 30’s. How many good-looking males make it to thirty something without having gotten married?

His grin turned serious. “No. I haven’t really been looking.”  He fiddled with the leather cord tied around his wrist. It had been tucked up under his sleeve. A copper circle with a cross-shaped hole dangled from it. “Timing’s everything, you know.” The grin came back.

I wasn’t really sure what he meant, but I nodded while my mind filtered through appropriate questions I could ask to get more of his story. “Ever been close?”

“Not really. There was one girl, but it wasn’t the right time.”

“How did you know?”

“I’m not so good with this stuff. But Jesus knows all about timing, and he was pretty clear on it.”

It took me a good ten seconds to realize he wasn’t cursing. He was serious. I knew something was off. He’s a religious nut with commitment issues. Great. “So it wasn’t the right ‘time’.” I think making the quote signal with my fingers probably was crossing the acquaintance line, but maybe we crossed that when we moved from talking about movies to my love life. His eyes looked a little hurt, so I threw him a sorry and a shrug.

“It’s okay. I’m used to it.” He let me off the hook.

Time to change the subject. “How much longer do you think it will be till they get us out of here?”

Greg’s expression changed. There was a mixture of disbelief and reluctance in his eyes. “Josie, I don’t think anyone’s coming. At least not any time soon.”

“What?” My throat got dry quick.

“It’s after midnight. The building shuts down at 10 pm. My guess is that no one’s even noticed the elevator’s not working. As long as the other one kept running, there wouldn’t have been anything to make anyone curious. The only people in the building now are the security guard in the lobby and a few custodians. They’ll use the maintenance elevators. No one’s coming.”

There wasn’t an echo in our little box, but his words seemed to bounce around those paneled walls before they sank into my consciousness.

“Will anyone wonder where you are?” he asked, quieter than before.

I shook my head. I’d just moved into that stupid studio apartment. I hadn’t even given the address to my mom yet. No one. I had no one to wonder why I hadn’t come home. “You?”

“Nope.” He sounded too cheery. I wanted to hit him, but instead I hugged my purse and scooted into the corner. Stupid life. I have a stupid life. All I’ve done is make one bad decision after another, and now this is what I get. I’ll die in some freak elevator accident and everyone will say, “Figures. That girl, Josephine, couldn’t get anything right, not even pick the right elevator.” Who am I kidding? No one’s even going to notice if I die.

That’s what was on in my mind when I started to chatter, and by chatter, I mean ramble on and on. I think I even went back to first grade. Greg sat there, listened, occasionally asked a clarifying question and listened some more. He was better than my therapist, and he was starting to make me angry. I know that doesn’t make sense, but I was hating his “put together” demeanor.

He must have noticed cause he met my angry eyes with a half-smile. “What? Did I do something?”

“No,” I lied. He was being too perfect and nice. “I guess this blows that timing thing out of the water for ya.” I felt like picking a fight.

“Not really.”

“You sure about that? I mean if life’s all about timing, then this sucks. This has bad timing written all over it.” He didn’t say anything, so I figured he knew I was right. “Religion’s only good until you’re stuck in a broken elevator. Then you need a repairman, not God.”

He still didn’t say anything. It was going to be very hard to pick a fight with him, if he wasn’t going to talk.

“I’m sorry,” I offered. Time to try a new tactic. “I just don’t get it. How does an intelligent, attractive, confident man find himself believing that stuff?”

“What stuff?”

Elevator storyNow he was really making me mad. “That Jesus stuff,” I fumed.

“The same way you find yourself believing what you believe,” he replied.

“I don’t believe anything.”

“Sure you do. Not believing is believing something. I say God exists and that we are eternal beings. You say he doesn’t and that this is all there is. Both take faith. You can’t prove I’m wrong, and I can’t prove you are.”

“So it’s all just some big guessing game then. What does it matter?”

“Well, if I’m wrong, I guess it doesn’t really matter, but if you’re wrong, it would be the difference between life and death.”

“What kind of God says ‘you didn’t believe in me even though I never showed myself and gave you no proof, so you have to go to hell forever?’ If that’s how he is, I might choose to go to hell.” I sounded like my mom. She quit going to church when she left my dad. Too many people were telling her how bad she was.

Greg stretched his legs out and got comfortable. “How do you know he hasn’t shown himself to you? Maybe he did, and you ignored him.”

“Is he the kind of God who can be ignored?”

He nodded and gave me that look like I’d just said something right. “That’s good I’ll have to think about that.” His eyes sparkled. “What would you need to see to make you believe?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yeah, you don’t, do you? But he knows what you need to see, what events will shed some light on your little world, and here you sit in an elevator with someone who believes Jesus is the son of the almighty God of the universe.”

“And there’s a connection? Or are we back to that bad timing thing? Cause from where I’m sitting, I’d rather be in here with a fireman than some religious nut.”

“But just think of it,” he sort of whispered and his face got all animated. “What if we did plummet to our deaths today, but before that you decided to believe. You said, ‘okay, I’ll give him a shot. I haven’t been able to do much with my life, so I’ll see what he can do.”

I got stuck on his estimation of me not having done much with my life. It’s one thing for me to rant about that, another for some stranger to throw it back at me.

I wasn’t gonna let him try to sell me something I wasn’t looking for to begin with. “And then we die. Well, that’s just perfect. That’s a nice welcome to the family.”

“Yeah, and then we died, and you walked into heaven.” He paused, as if that would make some huge difference to me. “And Jesus would wrap his arms around you, hug you tightly, and tell you how much he loved you, and for the first time in your life, you’ll feel it. You’ll feel what it’s like to be completely loved, totally forgiven, and unconditionally accepted.”

He wasn’t looking at me when he finished talking. It was clear from his face that he really believed this stuff. I didn’t want to interrupt his happy thought, but the question needed to be asked.

“And what happens if I die thinking he’s some fairy tale?”

“Well, then you’ll find out he wasn’t…”

I wanted to come back with something snappy, but nothing came to mind, and about two seconds later, we heard people yelling above us.

Greg scooted to the open doors and yelled up the shaft. “We’re down here. Somebody help us.”

We couldn’t make out what the men were saying. The next few minutes are a blur to me. You’d think I’d remember it, but it all kind of runs together. The sound of some machinery, the lights blinking, the horrible thump, and then the way the metal screeched as the side of the elevator hit the steel beam and took off for the bottom floor. That screech is the last thing I remember then everything went black. The screech and Greg’s arm coming around me as we smacked into the side wall.

Ending #1

My eyes opened just as the fireman strapped me to the stretcher.

“You’re going to be okay,” he assured me then turned away. His stubbly face was replaced by my soon-to-be ex’s crazy eyes

“You okay, babe?”

That made no sense. Was I in Hell?

“You’re going to need to follow the ambulance,” a paramedic instructed Wayne. “You can meet us in the emergency room.” Wayne squeezed my hand and left, and the paramedic started pushing the stretcher out. “You’re lucky your husband alerted everyone. This could’ve been a lot worse.” He must’ve noticed my confusion but didn’t have anything else to say.

“What about Greg?” My voice didn’t sound like me.

The medic set a bag of some solution next to my head. “You’re husband? I just told him to follow the ambulance.”

“No,” I grimaced. “The other guy.”

“What other guy?”

“The guy in the elevator. The guy that was with me.”

He gave me a strange look. “Sorry ma’am. There was nobody else in the elevator with you. You hit your head pretty hard.” And then he started shouting to his partner.

I don’t tell this story much. It’s weird and strange and makes people uncomfortable. And there’s a lot that I can’t explain. There’s more to it, too, like how Wayne knew I didn’t make it home that night and how we’ve been able to work through some of our stuff. I don’t really understand it all. And I’m not about to concede that timing is everything. But I will say that those eight and a half hours I spent in the elevator with some stranger named Greg changed my life forever. Some people say their life changed on a dime. For me it took a third of a day. I guess I’m slower than most, and I still don’t have it all figured out, but I’m better off than I was.



Ending #2

My eyes opened just as the fireman strapped me to the stretcher.

“You’re going to be okay,” he assured me then turned away. His stubbly face was replaced by my soon-to-be ex’s crazy eyes.

“You okay, babe?”

That made no sense. Was I in Hell?

“You’re going to need to follow the ambulance,” a paramedic instructed Wayne and pushed him away. “You can meet us in the emergency room.” Wayne squeezed my hand and left, and the paramedic started pushing the stretcher out. “You’re lucky your husband alerted everyone.” He must’ve noticed my confusion, but didn’t have anything else to say.

“What about Greg?” My voice didn’t sound like me.

The medic set a bag of some solution next to my head. “You’re husband? I just told him to follow the ambulance.”

“No,” I grimaced. “The other guy.”

“What other guy?”

“The guy in the elevator. The guy that was with me.”

He gave me a sober look, and I knew. I didn’t even know Greg’s last name or anything. How could he be dead? Where’s the timing in that? A smart, young, kind man dies in a freak accident while his counterpart, a loser female with a knack for messing things up gets to ride away on a stretcher. How could that be fair?

Those questions stayed with me for months. It took me that long to work up the courage to visit Greg’s family. I’d seen his obituary but couldn’t bring myself to go to the funeral. It felt wrong.

He hadn’t mentioned much about his family. It was just his mother and a younger sister. They hugged me for too long the first time we met. I knew things they didn’t—Greg’s last words, bits of his story, and they filled me in on his life. They were strangely calm about his death, and it unsettled me.

It was on Easter, three months after the accident, that I finally got it. Greg’s mom, sister, and some extended family had invited me to church and to lunch. The church part was boring and mostly how I remembered it as a child, but at lunch, I realized something. It washed over me like a huge wave, pushing me over and sending me under.

I sat there passing the ham and listening to their stories and being part of their family, and it hit me. He brought me here. Not Greg, but God.

The thought warmed my heart and froze me between the sweet potatoes and the deviled eggs. Couldn’t there have been another way? Did God want Greg to die? As much as I loved the idea of being loved, it repulsed me to think the giver of this love had snuffed out the life of the person who opened the door for me in the first place. Would Greg have lived if I had responded differently to his Jesus talk?

His mom patted my arm. “You okay, dear?”

It all poured out right there at the dinner table, and they listened to me and hugged me and told me they missed him too, but that they’d see him again. Dying’s not the worst thing that can happen, they said.

They were right. The worst thing that could have happened to me was to have never gotten on that elevator.

It changed me.

I don’t tell this story much. It’s weird and strange and makes people uncomfortable. And there’s a lot that I can’t explain. There’s more to it, too, like how Wayne knew I didn’t make it home that night, and how we’ve put the divorce on hold for a while.

A lot of it doesn’t make sense. And I’m still not ready to concede that timing is everything. But I will say that those eight and a half hours I spent in the elevator with some stranger named Greg changed my life forever. Some people say their life changed on a dime. For me it took a third of a day. I guess I’m slower than most, and I still don’t have it all figured out, but I’m better off than I was.


Ending #3 (Contributed by a sweet friend who wants to remain anonymous)

As Josie came to, beautiful music like nothing she’d ever heard before fell on her ears while a delicate, soft and wonderfully perfumed breath of air touched her cheeks. Her eyes gradually opened to an amazingly glorious burst of colors—colors unknown to her.

She was in the most gorgeous garden she’d ever seen. Glancing around in wonder Josie noticed a crowd of people standing nearby, all dressed in white and surrounded in a lovely glow. Wait, wasn’t that guy over there Greg, the stranger she’d spent hours with in the elevator? Just then, the tall figure in the center of the group of people walked toward her. With a face radiant with love, he held his arms out and welcomed her. Josie got up and ran to meet Him, her tears flowing freely.


Sometimes there are just so many directions a story can go, it’s hard to know how it should end. I’m still not sure I nailed this one. That’s why there are two endings. I’d love to hear your opinion. Which ending do you like best? Or maybe you have another idea of how the story should end? Leave your thoughts in the comments. And thanks!


A Spark of Hope

Henry unclenched his fists and took a deep breath. He should be outside the facility by now, driving past the guard house, playing some jazz, and putting this place behind him. But he wasn’t. Nope. Instead, he was here, trying to fight a losing battle with his dimming hope.

As he approached the door to the confinement cell, screams and angry expletives exploded into the quiet hallway. The sound annoyed and entreated him.

“How’s he doing?”

The fifty-something guard posted at the door lowered his newspaper. “You don’t want to go in there. The kid’s a lost cause.”

Henry didn’t respond. Another deep breath, then he pulled the keys from his belt unlocked the door and braced himself.

The boy stayed unmoved, crumpled on the floor, blood covering his shirt from his swollen nose. Henry cleared his throat, but the boy’s sobs drowned him out.

A Spark of Hope - Short Story - MB Dahl“Gene, you can’t keep doing this.”  Henry closed the door and filled the space with his 6’7” frame.  “You’re losing all your privileges, and you’re gonna end up at Wilkers if anything happens again.”  Might as well get straight to the point. After weeks of seeing improvement and gaining hope that the kid was getting it, hearing about his latest eruption had called it all into question. “What were you thinking? Has this all just been a game for you?”

The boy sat up and wiped his bloodied nose with his uniform sleeve.  His eyes narrowed, and he looked away exchanging sobs for angry silence.

“Well?”  Henry continued, hoping to see some remorse in the hardened youth. Three months without any problems had to mean something.

“Well what?”  Gene shot back.  “I gotta let them know I ain’t someone they can mess with.  I’s just making a point is all.  That ain’t no crime, is it?  You ain’t gonna send me anywhere. You know it’s not my fault.  They’ve been setting me up.” Gene’s eyes blazed.

Maybe that was true. The older boys had decided on the first day that Gene wasn’t gonna fit in. But there was plenty of blame to go around.

“You started the fight this time, Gene.  And this isn’t like all that little stuff you got into when you first came here. You crossed a line. Mr. Turner said one more strike and you’re out,” Henry warned.

“Are you kidding me?” He jumped up from the floor. At fifteen, Gene had already broken 6 ft., but he was as skinny as a rail. “That’s not fair, and you know it.” Tears threatened his eyes, but his anger must have kept them back. “I’ve done everything you said. I go to those stupid counseling sessions. I sit through all that crap, and I get in one fight and they’re gonna ship me off? This is a joke. I guess it really is all about the money.” He turned away.

Henry glanced at the surveillance camera. They were listening. They listened, but they didn’t care.

Gene was right. Turner and the chief catered to the clientele. A bunch of rich daddies whose kids got in some bad trouble and needed to do their time quietly. Gene shouldn’t even be here, except that he was technically too young for Wilkers, and the other boy’s “home” was beyond capacity.

“They’re not shipping you off yet,” Henry cleared his throat and made sure the tapes got every word. “They can’t just turn you over to Wilkers without data to prove you should be there.” Gene leaned with his hand on the wall, shook his head, and didn’t turn around.

Henry pressed on, “This is up to you. If you get shipped off, you’re only going to have yourself to blame.”

“Yeah, right.”

“You better believe I’m right,” Henry growled and turned the kid to face him. “You got a chance here that you wouldn’t have anywhere else. You think they have counselors like this at De Paul’s? They sure as hell don’t have them at Wilkers. This is your chance. Don’t throw it away.” As he finished, he realized his hand was pinning the kid’s shoulder to the wall. He let him go with a pat.

Gene’s eyes dissected the air as if the words were hovering there. Anger mingled with disbelief and a spark of hope. But then he shook his head and walked slowly to the other side of the little white room.

Words escaped Henry. He couldn’t make the kid see his potential. There wasn’t anything that could do that. You can’t make a person have hope. It’s like faith. They either choose it or they don’t.

Henry sucked in another deep breath. It helped him stay calm. He should be on the I-5 right now half way home to sweet Annie, little Katie bug, and a Christmas tree in desperate need of some lights and tinsel, but instead he’s here watching a smart, gifted teenager be angry at the world for causing him to shoplift a bag of chips and a pair of sneakers.

A Spark of Hope - Short Story - MB DahlBlocking the boy from the camera, Henry lowered his voice this time. “You’re different, Gene. I can see that. The other boys in this place are going to grow up and learn how to steal and lie better and make money from it, and they’re going to get away with most of it too. You’re not going to get away with any of it, though. You’re the one who’s going to take the blame. And you’ll spend your life trying to feel better about yourself, but you won’t. You won’t because you’re always going to be waiting for someone else to fix this, but no one else will. You’ve got to do this yourself. You’ve got to want it.”

The boy glared. He was a hurt, caged, cub.

“You’re fifteen. You’re not a kid anymore. And whatever’s happened to you. It doesn’t decide where you go from here. You do that.” Henry tried to offer a hopeful smile, but his hope withered in the silence. The kid didn’t flinch. Henry let the buzz of the lights take over the room and waited, willing the boy to see the light, but Gene kept his stony stance.

“Okay, then,” Henry conceded. “I’ll see you in two days. You’re going to spend Christmas in your room.” He probably said Christmas too loud for the cameras, but he didn’t care. This kid needed some Christmas, and the best gift Henry could give him was keeping him away from trouble.

Henry wanted to hug him. Just grab those skinny shoulders and pull him into a bear hug, but instead he nodded his head and kept looking until the kid met his gaze. There was something there this time. A spark of hope shining through a black wall of distrust. The kid didn’t say anything, just gave that one look and walked over to the cot in the corner, but it was something. And at this point a spark was a super nova.

Henry stayed for about five more minutes. Neither of them spoke, but the tension melted. Kids come and go through here, and until now all of them hadn’t appeared to learn a single thing, except that money can make even serving a court-ordered sentence seem like taking a long vacation.  Gene stood in the face of all that. Bad life. No family. No apparent future. But not without hope. Henry could see that.

* * * * *

“Told you he was a lost cause. I’m not sure how that white trash even made it in here.” The guard had put his newspaper aside and was working through a Sudoku now. It was apparent he hadn’t been listening at all. Like everyone else, he had already made up his mind.

Henry locked the door and turned around, but before he could respond to the little thoughts of his narrow-minded coworker, Gene shouted at him through the wall.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Banner.”

“You too, kid,” Henry called back, ignoring the guard’s surprise. “See you on Tuesday.”

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The Answer


He didn’t have an answer.

It was an easy enough question, but he didn’t have an answer.

“Why do you love me?” Her defiant chin went up as she repeated herself.

Did she think she had him? Would his silence be her cause to walk out and leave him for good this time?

His hands dropped from her shoulders, and he stepped back. A thousand possible replies rattled through his head, but her eyes said she wanted him to say the wrong thing. That’s all it would take. The cords binding them had frayed to the point of disrepair. The only thing holding them together was the quiet between them. Once he spoke, it would be over. No answer would be enough. Nothing he could say would change their course. Too many other times of not saying anything had already torn such a gash between them that it was only a matter of time now.

An argument rose in him. One that would rip her noble glint away. Who was she to bring him to the mat after the things she had done? Perhaps he should turn the question on her. But no, what would her answer be. “I don’t love you.” He could picture her face as she said it. Sure and settled. How deep would those words go?

Perhaps reminding her of better times, what they’d been through, how beautiful he thought she was. Maybe that would mean something.


He’d done this. He’d missed her. While he was working and expecting everything to go the way it ought to, he’d missed her crying in the dark and how she always deflected his compliments. Life had been so much about him and his hopes and dreams that he had forgotten about hers. In his sureness that the world would love and adore him, he hadn’t noticed just how hard it was for her to believe it could do the same for her. He had failed, and here she stood, the same question that had always been there. The one answer she had never been able to grasp. This fight wouldn’t be over for her if she left. She would always carry it—the feeling of not being enough—of being unlovable.

It broke him to know her pain would continue and that he’d played such a thorough part in reinforcing the lies.

“I’m sorry.” His voice cracked, and his gaze left her fiery eyes. “I’m sorry.” Still, no answer for her question. No perfect words to mend their brokenness. A long overdue apology. That was all. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Three times in his life he had cried. When his dog died, when his father died, and now. He knew there would be no right answer to her question—not one she would believe. In their brokenness they had danced together perfectly. Him receiving what there was to give and her giving, but never able to receive. Both broken. Both lost.

“I haven’t loved you,” he blurted out. His polished-self long gone now. “—not the way I should have. I didn’t see you when you needed me. I didn’t answer when you called. I left you alone. I didn’t watch out for you.”

Silence. Confusion and uncertainty drained the flush from her face.

He seized the moment. “I haven’t loved you, but I will. I will love you until the words feel like sunshine on your soul, until you know beyond a doubt that it’s true, until you are able to fully love yourself.”

She wept, and for the first time since he’d known her, he saw her. He saw her, and he saw the brilliance of love. How it brings beauty out of brokenness. How it keeps two damaged people together in the confidence of commitment to become completely who they can be.

It would take time. For now, he would give her space. Though his arms ached to hold her and wipe away the tears, he respected her heart and did not presume upon it. Besides, he had things of his own to examine—things he’d excused for far too long.

January 2018

Good Riddance

Kelly rested her hand on the clean pillow of the gurney. 

Two nurses walked by, glanced Kelly’s direction, then beeped their way out of the ER. Kelly stayed put. A young man in purple scrubs pushed a cart down the busy corridor and into a room. The odor of Clorox and hospital food followed in his wake. 

Three patients on stretchers dotted the hallway. None seemed to have serious issues. Two looked like minor sports injuries, and the closest was a meemaw who didn’t need to see a doctor. Her daughter argued about the importance of being careful while the grandson played with a plastic airplane and avoided his mother’s attempts to keep him close.

Kelly swallowed her tears and waited for the boy to mind his mother and stop staring. Some good byes needed to be said alone, not in crowded hallways, not with little eyes watching. She didn’t have that luxury though. This was it.

She took a deep breath and came around to the side of the gurney. It wasn’t the picture she expected. The face sagged slightly with a sneer. How could she have ever thought this girl was beautiful? Her cheap red lips probably still had hints of the lies she’d told, even to herself.

Tucking her straight hair behind her ears and wiping her tears away, Kelly closed her eyes and saw the ugly truth. The girl was calloused—broken and scarred. She didn’t want to be happy or whole. All she wanted was to keep Kelly in her world.

“This is it, I guess.” The tears stopped. The worst part wasn’t the loss, but the wasted life. So much lost time. Years of it. Gone. A pang of grief surprised her and pulled at her, as if the girl herself had mustered her strength and grabbed Kelly’s arm.

“No.” Kelly stepped back. This would be it. No grieving would cloud her days ahead, only joy and the realization that the girl’s world was no longer hers. “I won’t grieve for you. It’s not sad to see you go. It’s sad that I held on to you for far too long.”

Kelly took one last look into those cold eyes. “Good bye.”

“Ma’am, may I help you?” One of the chattering nurses must have circled back.

“No. I’m fine.”

“Do I know you?” The nurse twisted her mouth to the side and did something funky with her eyebrows, then lightened up. “Kelly?”

“Um, yeah.” Kelly bumped the gurney putting space between them. The past would always be there, but it didn’t have to control her. She stepped to the side toward the exit, but the nurse caught her arm.

“You look different.” Recognition and surprise registered in the nurse’s eyes. “It’s good to see you getting your life together. Recovery program?”

Kelly nodded. It was so much more than that.

“That’s great. We don’t see a lot of stories like yours.” She glanced at the empty bed. “Why are you here? Visiting someone?”

“More like saying good-bye.”

“To who?” She looked down the hallway.

Kelly weighed her answer options. Mind your own business seemed too harsh, and the truth seemed just plain weird, and there would be no more lying.

“Um, nurse…” Kelly searched for a name tag.

“Lynn.” She moved her sweater to reveal the tag.  “I sat with you that time they had to pump your stomach, and then the other time.”

Kelly winced and nodded, grateful Lynn didn’t bring up the last time she had been here.

“Yeah, well. I was messed up and broken, and I guess I still am, but that part of me is dead. I came back here to say good-bye … to me. I died with Christ and have been raised to new life. I just figured I’d say one last good-bye before I put it all behind me.”

“Oh.” Lynn gave a weak smile.

Maybe the mind-your-own-business option would have been better. Kelly teetered back and forth looking for a good exit plan besides just turning and walking away, but then remembered what her new self would do.

“Oh, Lynn.”

The nurse checked her watch. “Yes?”

“Thanks.” Kelly touched her arm. “Thanks for taking care of me. I appreciate it.”

Tears glistened in the nurse’s eyes. 

“And don’t worry.” Kelly patted the gurney. “You won’t be seeing that girl ever again. She’s dead and gone.”
With a smile bursting from deep inside, Kelly spun and headed for the exit, returning the kid’s high-five as she breezed by.



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