A Return to Tuscany
A story by Sean D. Layton

The dream is terrible in its relentless mimicry, so palpable that when Jude’s eyes finally slide open he feels the disorientation because the here and now and the here and when are so seamlessly joined. Morpheus’ workings have given his bedroom an alien unfamiliarity, repainting it with shadows that stretch and compress the familiar, leaving his bleary mind adrift and uneasy as it grapples with the distortions. He lays there and groans, uncoiling his limbs, stretching as he sorts through the real and the unreal. It’s all jumbled together resembling a poorly organized utensil drawer, as Jude tries to find something to latch onto, something that will put him firmly in the now. Panic subsides and gives way to unsettled relief as the world loses its fuzzy edges.

The distant, bothersome rumble of the wonky sliding patio door causes him to brace himself up on his elbow, ear cocked. The sheet has slithered and twisted down around his legs in his sleep, trying to trap him as he kicks free of it and gets up, pulling on long shorts and a t-shirt. Anticipation and vague anxiety power Jude’s stiff limbs as he walks out to the kitchen. Empty. He stands there, heart thumping in response to nothing in particular, eyes darting about. The moment stretches out and becomes almost unbearable and then the patio curtain bulges and then curls in like a foaming wave breaking the spell. A pale hand, mapped with delicate blue veins, surfaces and then she follows pushing through, emerging with an empty plastic laundry basket braced against her hipbone. The wrinkles around her sea-blue eyes and cheery mouth mold into a smile, and he grins back, an involuntary response. Jude is her firstborn, and the morning smile is a ritual they’ve shared since his childhood when he’d wake to see her standing there in his open door, gazing down.

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise! My handsome son up before noon!” Her elegant British accent is not indicative of her working-class background and the hard roads of the dockside neighborhood she roamed. Her decades in America have done little to coarsen her pronunciation.

“I couldn’t sleep. Was having terrible dreams.” His voice is still husky with sleep and he clears his throat.

“Well, I’m glad to see your smiling face up early for once. I’m going to make some scrambled eggs and bacon. Would you like some?”

“Yes, please.”

He settles onto a bar stool at the kitchen island as she opens the fridge. His parents still get the morning newspaper, so he tries to read, but his eyes find no traction and slide over the stories without latching onto anything interesting; he stacks and folds the sections and pushes the paper aside. He can’t shake the goddamned dream. It was so real, the anxiety, the cheerless hospital, the pink scalp, and bright headscarves worn like a pirate. He is a creature of habit, and it has unsettled his sense of routine, but minute by minute, reality reasserts itself, and the nighttime dirge fades as kindled relief flickers and then burns steadier and the shadowy fears dim and loosen their grip.

“I’ll bet you it’s those video games. You spend far too much time on that computer when you should be asleep.”

Usually, this conversation can get a rise out of him, but not this morning.

“Mom, you sound like a broken record. Hey, did Sissy say she’s stopping by?”

“No, not today. She is in Florida.”

“Oh, right.”

The mild Arizona winter day floods the living room with bright sunlight through the open windows transporting Jude, for the briefest of moments, to a spring day in Norfolk, when he was eight. He remembers sitting on Nana Lynchahaun’s settee, his mother, still in the beauty of her middle years, sitting elegantly in a chair, reading a magazine while he read his book about the Norse gods. Everything quiet except for the occasional mutter of a passing car’s engine and the resolute tick of the clock on the mantle.

Jude breathes deeply as a spring breeze gently stirs the gossamer curtain panels of the open windows. Normalcy is still tantalizingly just beyond his fingertips. God, it was just a fucking dream, he thinks. He just wants the skewed universe to oblige and drop back into alignment so he can start his day right.

She takes an egg, cracking it delicately against the smooth rim of the white bowl, depositing its rich contents into its hollow. She’s chatting, but Jude watches her rather than listening, studying her details: her rosy cheeks, the laughing eyes, the pointy nose, and the gloriously full head of permed, grey-brown ringlets sculpted like an ornamental bush. He wishes she would wear her hair straight again, but all her friends wear it permed, so no chance of that until the hive-mind decides its time for a change of style. She pulls out a packet of bacon from the fridge.

“I was watching Dateline, and they did a story on video games, and people getting addicted to them…”

He grins at her passive-aggressive attempt to influence him. She pours him a glass of orange juice.

“You know, I think I might go to Europe today,” she says with great relish, picking up the white bowl again as if she’s just decided to reward herself with a quick shopping trip to the mall.

Jude decides she’s in a silly mood, but he plays along.

“Really? Bit sudden, don’t you think?”

“I’ll see if Camilla wants to go.  She doesn’t like the train, though.”

She stops what she’s doing to put the kettle on.

“Northern Italy would be nice. Maybe we’ll pop over there for tea. I loved Tuscany. Did I ever tell you about the food?”

Tuscany. She met her sisters and a brother, along with a couple of Jude’s cousins, for a two-week trip, a definite highpoint for her. His mom had talked about it nonstop for months after she got back. He gives breath to a mock sigh.

“When do you not tell everybody in earshot about the food?”

“Oh, it was lovely! Loads of fresh vegetables and pasta. Not much meat and heavy sauces. Definitely not what you would expect when you think about Italian food here.”

The idea of unexpected adventure grabs him.

“Maybe I’ll go. You know, I’ve got the time built up at work, and I’ve always wanted to go to Italy.”

“Oh, you put up such a fuss and wouldn’t go last time. Back before…”

“No,” he interrupts her to stop her from saying…what?  “I did want to go—I just…”

Jude wonders why he didn’t go? Laziness? Low funds. Fear of flying? All the above? Always a reason. With the recession over, he has been trying to save up to move out. It seems so silly now, and he regrets his previous lassitude in light of the desperate vitality he feels bubbling through his veins right now.

His mother begins beating the eggs. She’s absorbed in what she’s doing, the wet rhythmic slap of the fork as it rotates through the viscous eggs.

Silence grows, sending tendrils up through the tiny cracks of the conversation, threatening to choke the moment.

“I wish I’d gone with you last time.”

She looks up from her task, the barest of smiles twitches at her lips.

“It would have been nice.”

“Well, if you go — when are you coming back?”

She sets the bowl down and begins laying strips of marbled bacon into the pan, and they sizzle to life, loud and demanding attention. She turns her back to him, busy.

He hears the bacon start sizzling and inhales deeply, but the delicious aroma is thin and elusive.

“Mom. How long are you going for?”

Outside a cloud passes in front of the sun and Jude shivers involuntarily as dim shadows paint the front room and kitchen in momentary gloom…

…he pulls the covers up around him as his eyes reluctantly crack open, his thoughts idling. He blinks at the ceiling and the strange shadows. The fizzle and pop of the bacon fade, like a greasy pan taken off the heat replaced by the light drumroll of rain on the roof. Jude feels a tremor of uncertainty and then panic as he kicks back the covers and hops out of bed before the morning can rearrange all the pieces.

His bare feet slapping on the cold tiles, he rounds the corner to the front rooms. Closed curtains dim everything, and the shadowy kitchen is cold, quiet — empty. Jude goes to the patio door, and as his hand reaches out his heart sinks; he already knows the answer as he pulls back the curtain and looks at the locked sliding door and the wind-blown detritus scattered on the patio.

Shuffling back to the quiet kitchen, he sits down at the table and puts his head in his hands. Jude can almost feel the echo of it all. It’s been a long three months, some weeks better than others, all a challenge. He sits there as the universe slides and clicks into its new, off-kilter alignment, and he waits quietly to begin another day.


For those inquiring about reblogging, it doesn’t work with my plan — you have to use the Press This feature.

Check out a sample chapter from my WIP book.

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson (accidentally attributed to Alex — whoops!)

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8 thoughts on “A Return to Tuscany
A story by Sean D. Layton

    1. Sean D. Layton

      I fiddled with a couple minor things. Put ellipses ending the dream and starting ‘reality’. Don’t know if helps or not.

  1. A nice one, Sean. My only tip (no hard feelings, I hope) is to keep it as concise as possible. You can do that by getting rid of some adjectives and adverbs and detailed descriptions. And try avoiding things like- passive-agressive. Let me conclude instead. Dialogues work miracles.

    1. Sean D. Layton

      No hard feelings at all, Bojana! In fact, an honest critique is far more valuable to me than silence or encouragement. I asked for people to let me know their thoughts, but they might not see that depending on how they arrive at the story. (I think it only shows up on my home page intro to the story).

      Anyway, I’m mildly disappointed in myself. You nailed it on the head. One of my tendencies is to overwrite a creative piece and slip into explaining rather than showing. This is an old piece I updated but I kind of rushed through in my excitement to get it to press, so to speak. Sometimes I’ll par a piece down if I sit on it long enough but that might take months or years of going back to something before realizing geez what am I doing here?

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and add your valuable insights! That’s the only way I improve as a writer. Keep it coming.

      1. We learn along the way. Don’t get discouraged. I wrote a story a while ago, which I liked. Then let it sink in. Every time I visit it, I find sth I don’t like. Then, I found a thorough explanation of what a flash/short story is. Among other things, they say to get rid of unnecessary adj/adv, which are good for a novel, but can become excessive here. Rather concentrate on one theme, one event, a day or two, effective dialogues. Forget about long descriptions.
        Go through some flash pieces that could be found online, and you’ll see what I mean. We learn best from others. As a writer I love said recently – writing is about copying, which doesn’t mean we can’t be original.

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