A Writing Exercise

So this is a writing exercise, in which I write a short story in the first person. .using the word “I” only twice. Enjoy.

It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, I’m sitting at the mall’s food court, eating some Chinese and watching all that’s going on around me. It’s like a museum of people, the mall—all sorts of people come and go constantly, and it’s easy to make up a story for each of them. Sometimes, just watching and listening is enough. Like now.
There’s a middle-aged man a few tables away, eating a Rueben sandwich and talking on the phone. He laughs once or twice, inadvertently showing off some corned beef and lettuce.
Next to him, an older woman sits at her table with a cup of steaming coffee, brow furrowed in deep concentration as she works on her daily crossword puzzle. Her pencil delicately scratches across the paper, and she smiles every once in a while, muttering under her breath.
Behind the counter of the coffee shop are two workers in uniform, elbows on the counter, talking conspiratorially. The older one elbows the younger one, who rolls his eyes and goes to help the next customer.
A shift in gaze brings to sight a group of “the cool kids”—a couple of football jocks, three girls with blonde or reddish hair in tank tops and miniskirts, and another kid who looks like a younger Tom Cruise. One of the jocks has his arm around the red-haired girl, who’s leaning against his shoulder. One of the blondes shoots the Tom Cruise kid a cutting look. He’s too busy getting ready for a lip lock with the other blonde.
Also eating at the pizza place are a few couples and several families. One of the families is made up of a weary forty-something father and a woman who looks nearly half his age. There are three kids with them: a girl who looks about ten, wearing a sundress and flip flops; a boy about two or three years younger, clad in a sports outfit; and a toddler who’s screaming his head off.
Farther away, at the ice cream place, are a couple of teenaged boys in line. They look about sixteen or seventeen, and they’re ribbing each other and laughing. One of them pulls out his phone and shows it to his friends. They read whatever’s on it and crack up. The tallest one puts his arm around the one with his phone out. They look similar. Maybe they’re brothers.
There’s a buzz. My phone. It’s a text message from Chris, a good friend. He’s waiting in front of the water fountain. I shake my head, sigh, and get up, leaving the food court behind.

Less than three,
Josh

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Pain

One more step, he tells himself, just one more step. It’s almost as though he’s flying—his feet touch the ground for but a moment before they go up again as he runs, runs, runs.
He will not stop. He cannot stop. He must not stop.
Why?
His inability to answer that question practically forces him to a sudden halt. A car whizzes by him, then another. He takes in a ragged breath, attempting to take in more air. What is he doing? Why is he running?
No. No. He must not ask questions. He simply must run. It is all he can do.
And so he starts again, feet pounding, eyes tearing, heart beating. He runs and he runs and he runs until he feels as if he cannot run anymore. But he does not stop. His hopelessness, his emptiness—they are his fuel. They keep him moving when he feels as though he cannot go on anymore. And so he does. One foot forward, then the other. Repeat.
The minutes pass by as he continues to surge forward, as if hiding from some invisible enemy. But then he realizes that he cannot run. That there is no place to hide. And that realization is like a punch in the stomach, and all the air escapes him, leaving him doubling over, gasping for a breath. He lurches off the road into the trees and collapses on the ground, struggling to breathe. Eventually, he sits up, pieces of leaves and bark stuck to his face. He takes a shaky breath in and out. In and out.
He is pathetic, he realizes. A coward. A weakling. He deserves to die. But right now, all he can do is cry. And that is what he does. It is not just a tear or two, it’s a flood of tears, and soon he’s sobbing. He cries, and he cries, and then he cries some more.
That’s the thing about pain. Once it’s there, there’s no ignoring it. It fights its way to the surface, demanding to be felt. It is cruel, yet it is necessary.
And as he cries, nobody hears him. Nobody comforts him.
But, then again, that’s how it’s always been, hasn’t it?

Less than three,
Josh
“There is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.” –Peter Van Houten, The Fault In Our Stars

Autumn Day Out

Greetings, friends!

The following is a short story I wrote with the main characters from my book series. Enjoy.

The piercing alarm was able to penetrate through the thick dream-state that Chad Warren was in. He wasn’t quite dreaming—at least, it wasn’t the type of dream he could remember when he got up—but neither was he just sleeping. It was as though the sequence of the dream was right there at the edge of his mind, all fuzzy and distant, yet he had no desire to pursue it. So when his alarm went beep-beep, beep-beep at 6:30 a.m. on a cool Saturday morning in the middle of October, he wasn’t annoyed.
Yawning, Chad rolled out of bed and sat up straight, wiping the sleep from his eyes. His eyes fell on the wall opposite his bed, where posters and other memorabilia of some bands he liked were proudly displayed. Amidst it all was picture of Chad and Dayne together with Patrick Stevens, the lead singer of Chad’s all-time favorite band Falling Into The Sky. He grinned.
Chad’s phone buzzed, and he instantly knew that it would be Dayne.
555-9314: top of teh mornin to ya pal!!
He shook his head and tapped back a quick reply.
555-1385: How did I know it would be you?
555-9314: who else would text you at 6:30am?
555-1385: Good point.
555-9314: so your gonna pick me up soon right?
555-1385: Mhm. And that’s you’re*
555-9314: shut up.
555-1385: You know you love me, Dayne.
555-9314: sometimes i wonder why i put up with you
555-1385: Ha! I’ll be over soon. We’re gonna have fun today.
By the time Chad had sent the last text, he had taken a quick shower and had changed into a plaid shirt and jeans. After making sure he’d fed his fish and his dog Phoenix, he ate a bagel for breakfast. His mom, Adrianna, was still asleep, so he left her a note. Chad’s dad had moved out a while back, and his mom seemed to be a little happier, but not that much. Chad wondered if she ever would be back to how things were when he was younger.
By 7:10 Chad was out the door, driving the car he’d bought from a friend going out west. Chad put in a CD he’d bought the other day and hummed along to the music, feeling rather content.
He’d let the car windows down to enjoy the crisp, autumn morning air. As he coasted to a stop at a traffic light, Chad looked out the window to see what was around him. At the 24/7 gas station/convenience store on the other side of the road, he could see a cashier behind the counter dozing. A few morning joggers passed by him, running in sync. In front of him, a bird darted by rapidly, perhaps in search of breakfast. All in all, it was rather quiet.
In five minutes he pulled up to the William’s house. He texted Dayne and waited for him to come out. Dayne came running out moments later, wearing a T-shirt that said “CSI: Can’t Stand Idiots” and beige khakis, along with his signature yellow and black Stryper sneakers.
“Go, go, go!” Dayne yelled. “Put the metal to the pedal!”
Chad frowned. “Are you all right, Dayne?”
“Jeez, dude, if we were being chased by the men in black for real, you’d’ve been caught by now and they’d take you to their top-secret headquarters where they’d do whatever diabolical scheme they had up their sleeves.”
“Mhm. And what, would there be an evil sorcerer who created a device for mind control in order to run the world as he saw fit?”
“Eh. Been there, done that.”
“Good point.”
“Good morning.”
“Morning, Dayne.”
They drove in silence for a minute or two before Dayne spoke again.
“Is that Blood Red Sun’s new album?”
“Uh huh. Just got it the other day.”
“Awesome.” Dayne reached over and turned down the music. “So exactly where are we going?”
“Well, I thought we could spend the day over in city. You know, just walk around, go window-shopping, eat out somewhere, and stop by the skating rink. Then we could catch a movie before heading back. I’m paying for lunch and dinner.”
Dayne looked at Chad curiously. “You don’t say? What brought this on?”
“Nothing. Should I have some ulterior reason?”
“No,” Dayne said after a pause. “No, you shouldn’t.” He fell silent again, which was uncharacteristic for him. The alternative rock music played softly in the background, and Chad glanced once or twice at his friend.
“I’m glad you invited Kristy,” Dayne finally said.
“Really?” Chad asked. “I was wondering if that was what was bothering you.”
“No . . . not exactly.”
As Chad waited for the stop light to turn green, he looked at Dayne. “What’s going on?”
“Well . . . it’s just that . . . remember when we got back? And how you told me that you were sorry for ignoring me?”
Chad nodded but didn’t speak.
“See, it was Kristy who brought it up. I wasn’t going to. But she did. And after that, it was like you were afraid to ever bring over Kristy whenever we hung out. But . . . Kristy’s cool, Chad. And I was afraid that you were gonna start putting me over her because you were scared to hurt my feelings.”
“Were you talking to Kristy?”
“No. If I had, she’d have told me not to mention it. She says that because we’re best friends I’m more important than she is, and—”
“That’s bull!”
“I know, man. But that’s what she’d say. And she has mentioned it before when we talked.” Dayne paused for a moment. “You like her, Chad, don’t you?”
“Look, Dayne, Kristy and I went over this and I to—”
“Just answer the question, Chad.”
Chad rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I do, but we both decided that no—”
“Shut up, Chad.” Dayne grinned. “That’s all I wanted to know. Just remember this: you’ve found a good one. Don’t let her go.”
They’d arrived at Kristy’s house. Chad slowed down to a stop next to the curb and sent a text to Kristy.
555-1835: Your cab is outside the door, ma’am.
555-3901: Oh is it, Mr. Warren? You’ll have to give me a few mins. Finishing up breakfast for the mom
555-1835: No problemo. Dayne and I aren’t going anywhere
555-3901: Thanks 😉 I’ll be out soon!
Chad relayed the information to Dayne, who merely grunted and turned up the music. In about five minutes, the front door swung open and Kristy came bounding out. She was wearing a blouse, jeans, and a pencil-thin scarf. As she got closer, Dayne got out of the car and said, “You can ride shotgun, Kristy.”
She shook her head and gently pushed him back into the car. “You were there first. I’ll sit in the back. Besides, there’s more room.” She winked and hopped in the back. Chad offered her a smile before starting the car.
“That’s Blood Red Sun’s new album, right?” she asked.
“Yep,” Chad replied. “How goes it?”
“It goes well. I finished that paper on existentialism for my philosophy class last night.”
“Exi-what?” Dayne asked.
Kristy laughed. “Existentialism. It’s a mostly atheistic theory/approach which emphasizes an individual’s existence as a free agent, determining his—or her—development through acts of the will. You know, the will to power?”
“I have no idea what you just said.”
“Have you ever heard of Kierkegaard?”
“He was one of the founders of existentialism, right?” Chad asked.
“Mhm. He was Danish, and he stressed the importance of the individual experience. He believed that God could be known only through a leap of faith, as opposed to doctrine and dogma.”
Dayne shook his head. “How do you know so much about everything, Kristy?”
“I don’t know that much, Dayne. It just seems that way. You’re pretty smart too.”
“Yeah, because playing the drums and knowing how to work with chemistry equations is important.” He grunted. Chad and Kristy laughed.
The trip passed quickly. They arrived in the city a little after eight, and each got a donut and coffee from a coffee shop, since Dayne said that he needed energy for the day. After that, they began walking through the different stores and restaurants along the streets—mostly looking, hardly buying. By eleven, they were back to where they’d started, so they drove to the park and tossed around a Frisbee for several minutes.
They then sat down in the shade and admired the brilliant reds and yellows and oranges that made the atmosphere feel like autumn—at least Chad and Kristy did. Dayne said, “It’s leaves. Just leaves. They do, however, make a good pillow once piled up,” and then promptly fell asleep on some of the leaves, snoring lightly. Apparently the coffee he’d drunk earlier hadn’t been enough to keep him awake.
Chad and Kristy sat together silently, watching the leaves slowly fall to the ground. Chad was people-watching, as he always did, but only half-heartedly. Most of his senses were on something of an auto-pilot at the moment: he was aware of everything going around him, but he himself seemed to have transcended above it all. He could see the couple sitting on a bench in the distance, sharing a drink together and laughing; he could smell the leaves and dirt and coffee; he could feel the wetness of the ground on the seat of his pants; he could hear Dayne snoring next to him and he could hear children laughing gleefully as they played with their ball, but that was all. He registered it, but went no further. Instead, Kristy was the focus of his attention. She was there, he was there. They were there.
“Dayne’s a great guy, isn’t he?” Kristy said quietly.
“Hmm?” Chad was jolted back to the present abruptly. “Oh, yeah. He is.”
“He worries about you a lot.”
“Really?”
“Of course, he doesn’t say so. He can’t be too soft, you know.” Kristy winked.
Chad nodded slowly and paused for a moment. “Yeah, it’s true. Whenever I think about what might have happened if I had left him . . . well, I’m just glad it never happened. That we didn’t drift apart.” He lapsed into silence, and Kristy didn’t speak, as though waiting for him to go on. And he did. “I’m an awful person, Kristy,” he finally said.
“What makes you say that?”
“I dunno. A lot. How did you guys put up with me all this time? You and Dayne and Mercy and the others . . . why are you guys my friends?”
“I guess it’s because we love you, Chad. I mean, it’s not like we’re perfect or better than you or anything. But you’re not as bad as you make yourself out to be. You keep focusing on where you fall short . . . on everything you’re not good at. And you’re forget that there’s more to you than your flaws and imperfections. That you’re a wonderful person. You love, Chad. And . . . you’re loved.”
At that moment, Chad wanted to blurt out the words that he’d wanted to say for ever so long. Those three little words were right there on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t get them out. He couldn’t. “Kristy . . . I . . .” But they wouldn’t come out. He just wasn’t able to. And just before he felt like an utter fool for even trying to say it—
“Look, if you guys’re gonna kiss, get it over with,” Dayne said suddenly as he sat up. “You people are hopeless.”
Chad socked Dayne, who put on a pouting expression. He winked at Chad, and Chad mouthed, “Thanks, man.”
“I got your back,” Dayne said softly before getting up. In a louder voice, he said, “Now what say we have that lunch Chad said he’d be paying for?”
The three friends went to a sub place for lunch, and then drove to the skating rink, where they spent the next several hours at. By the time they were through with that, they decided to have an early dinner before going to the movies. After some pizza, they spent the next two hours watching the latest action movie.
“I’m exhausted,” Kristy said. “It’s been a day.”
Dayne yawned, then said, “I haven’t had so much fun since I went time traveling.”
“I thought that was more frustrating than exhilarating, Dayne,” Chad said.
“Why do you say ‘exhilarating’ if ‘exciting’ does the job? It’s like when you say ‘I wish I weren’t at school now’ instead of saying ‘I wish I wasn’t at school now,’ which is what normal people say.”
Chad started to explain the proper use of the subjunctive mood, but Kristy interrupted him.
“Hey boys, what if we drive to the lake on the other side of the city before heading back home? It’s not that late.”
Dayne looked at Kristy as if she were crazy and said, “Why the heck?”
“Just because. It’ll be quiet there. And why not?”
“Because it’s cold!” Dayne whined. “And it’s late and I don’t want to sit outside in fifty degree weather wh—”
“It’s not even eight,” Chad said. “And besides, you left your sweater in my car yesterday, so you can put that on.”
“I plead the Fifth,” Dayne said stubbornly.
“Alternatively, you can always walk home.”
“I’m coming.”
Twenty minutes later, they were at the lake. No one else was around. The three friends got out of the car and walked to the edge of the lake and stood absolutely still. None of them spoke.
As Chad stared out over the perfectly calm lake, he thought of the overused expression that described the sea as a sheet of glass. He hated to even use the metaphor, but it was true. He could see the moon’s reflection over the surface of the lake just as clearly as if he were looking up into the night sky. It was undisturbed. Placid. It seemed to go on forever and ever. And right there, Chad was filled with a sudden rush of emotions that he wasn’t quite able to even process them before they went away.
He felt that if his life were to end at that very moment, all would be complete. He wouldn’t have died without a purpose. He didn’t know why he felt that way, but he did. And though he still wasn’t able to say those three words, he somehow felt as if Kristy knew what he’d been wanting to say. And he knew that by speaking, he would ruin the moment of understanding. That fleeting moment that already seemed to be rapidly vanishing.
Ce took in a deep breath, and knew that that the moment was gone, and that no matter how hard he could ever try to recreate the moment, no matter how eloquently he tried to put into words that brief moment, he would never be able to experience what he had. It was something of a Eureka moment, but not quite. There was no profound discovery, but something profound had just happened. It was so deep, so profound, he wasn’t even sure how to explain it to himself. But in that moment that passed before Chad was even able to comprehend what had just happened, Chad decided that for quite possibly the first time in his life, he knew what it felt like to be alive.
Chad Warren was truly, honestly, and finally alive.
He was alive.

Less than three,
Josh

He sits there at the edge of the room, holding a red plastic cup in his hand. In front of him, others sway to the catchy beat of the music playing. Some talk, some laugh. He watches. Two or three people occasionally greet him. He nods, smiles. A polite reply, but no more. Instead, he contemplates on who he is. And he reflects.

He is biased, yet he is disinterested.

He is apathetic, yet he goes on.

He is straightforward, yet he is withdrawn.

He is honest, and yet he is a hypocrite.

He believes, but he is cynical.

He is pretentious, yet simple.

His mouth says one thing, but his heart and mind and soul feel and think and do the opposite. How?

He shakes his head and returns to reality, but fades out almost immediately. He realizes that he is there, but yet not there. That he is himself, but not himself. That he is everyone, and yet no one. He is someone, and not someone. He is a walking contradiction in almost every respect…and yet, somehow, he makes perfect sense.

And then he realizes—no, I realize—he is me. That I am he. That everyone is who he is, and he is who everyone else is. We are him, and he is us. But still, somehow, he is no one, and none of us are him.

It’s a paradox. It’s an absurd contradiction. He knows it. I know it.

And somehow, still, it almost makes sense.

Almost.

Less than three,
Josh

A generation goes and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever. –Ecclesiastes 1:4

Trenton

Salutations, humans!

As I was traveling through the States last year, I happened to pass through Trenton, New Jersey a few times. One afternoon, while in the car going back to Pennsylvania, I was inspired to write the following short piece. Enjoy.

I walk a little quicker and resist the urge to look behind me. The people here are rough, and they won’t hesitate to stir up trouble. I’m pretty sure that they could rob me right out there in the open and everyone would just watch. That’s why I carry mace with me.

A shirtless guy whizzes by me on his bike, pants sagging and talking on the phone. I sigh. Two more blocks to reach home. I stand at the crosswalk, a mother wearing a revealing outfit and yelling at her two kids next to me. The stop light is green but there are no cars, so I cross. They follow, but the littlest one trips and starts screaming. She picks him up, swears. A car arrives and blows the horn. I shake my head and turn left.

There’s a gang of thugs talking, laughing. They’re smoking and drinking. As I pass, they look at me. I may be black, but somehow they sense I don’t fit in. I don’t get in trouble like they do, and they must know it. I pass by them and they resume their activities.

The houses are rundown, dilapidated. Some of them look deserted, but I know better. People who can’t afford any more live there, often with more than one family. Moss grows on the walls, and green, stagnant water is everywhere. Garbage cans overflow, the smell overpowering. I try not to breathe. The lights are on in some houses; in others, people sit outside. An old man dozing. A teenage girl texting. A couple making out.

I pass by Mr. Forester’s place. He’s sitting outside and I say hi. He smiles, nods. He points to a seat, but I shake my head. He likes to talk about the battles he was in, but I want to go home now. I’ve been working since morning at the gas station and I’m exhausted.

A middle aged man with several earrings and multiple tattoos passes me and looks me over. He whistles appreciatively. I flinch and, for a brief moment, am tempted to give him the finger. I know I shouldn’t, so I speed up. He laughs. I hear the echo.

38. That’s my house number. I’m home. I fish out my key, unlock the door. The outside noises are muffled as I close the door, and I breathe in and out for a full minute.
Once the pounding in my ears subsides, I hear the clock ticking, the refrigerator running, and the dog running over to me. A smile breaks out on my face and I bend down to pat Emil. He licks me, and I laugh. In the kitchen, I heat up some leftovers and go to the sitting room. I open the blinds and look outside. In my little haven, I feel safe, secure. Away from the rough going-ons out there. I breathe in, breathe out. I am thankful to be alive, and I relish in the peace.

Night falls on Trenton.

Less than three,
Josh

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:43-44