Cole Hardman
Feb 25 · 6 min read
artwork by Graham Hardman —


Dirk finds Shelly just outside the church. She is standing next to Leo, a mutual childhood friend whose parents own the Chinese restaurant just off Highway 37, and who is trying to bum a cigarette of a PROTESTING STEPMOTHER. The Protesting Stepmother leans against her sign in a given-up kind of way, but she smiles as if she is afraid of offending someone with her lack of motivation.


Come on, mam. I haven’t had a smoke all day,

and I swear, really, I’m starting to get the shakes.

Dirk waves to Shelly, and Shelly nods his way. Her hair, popping out of the elastic that ties it behind her head, bobs as she adjusts her glasses. Her face is so red from yelling that you might wonder where her freckles have wandered off to, but she manages a smile despite how, as Dirk can obviously tell, some ghost of doubt, regret, or guilt is bothering her. Dirk walks up to Shelly, and the Protesting Stepmother regards him for a moment before turning back to Leo.


Are you even old enough?

(to Dirk)

We should’ve

stayed in school.


I’ll trade a light for a smoke —

that’s fair.

Leo, looking impressively bored, reaches into the depths of a pocket on his pants and pulls out an orange lighter. The Protesting Stepmother takes it from him. She sets her sign against the wheel of the truck and pulls a pack of cigarettes from her purse. She knocks a cigarette out and hands the pack to Leo, who shakes a cigarette free and puts it in his mouth while he patiently watches the Protesting Stepmother light her own cigarette and take a drag. After the Protesting Stepmother exhales, she hands the lighter back to Leo. All of this ritual, this passing of a torch and the sweet smell of sacrificial smoke, finally appears to help Dirk relax.

(trying to ignore them)



No, mam, thank you.

A pause blooms with the smoke blossoming from half-open mouths, which is blown away by a wind that cackles in mangy branches of a nearby tree.


I hardly ever

smoke on Luckys. I’m not a lucky guy.


That’s all I’ve smoked since I started back at it.

The Protesting Stepmother tosses a pinch of ashes to the wind with the flick of her finger. The smile she’s been forcing disappears. She looks first at Leo and then at Dirk.


You boys both came from the funeral,

didn’t you?

Leo looks at Dirk with embarrassed-big eyes, implying that they’re in for it now.


I guess I did. Maybe. Did you?


I guess?


It’s just awful. It’s just not Godly, you know?

The Protesting Stepmother pulls a breath of smoke into her lungs, and Shelly looks at Dirk.


It’s inhumane. They say that Congress will

pass a bill about it soon — it’s on

the table, anyways.



Shelly elbows Leo in the ribs, causing him to choke on a drag.


It’s true —

it’s awful what they do. Just look at how

they whitewashed RJ back there. When you’re

alive, they’ll kill a guy if he’s offwhite,

and after they’ve gone and killed you, they turn

your memory into sitcom from the 50s.

The Protesting Stepmother pulls the cigarette from her mouth and looks at Leo before something barely perceptible on her face twitches, suggesting the break of her fortitudinous empathetic wall, and she speaks.


I had a daughter.

The Protesting Stepmother takes another drag of her cigarette before tossing it to the ground and picking up her sign.


She wasn’t mine, exactly.

She was my husbands, from another marriage,

and her mom was dead. This was before the app.

So I took her in, you know? I loved her

more than I thought I possibly could, and when

I had a kid of my own, it didn’t change a thing.

Dirk fidgets — like he just noticed how dirty the Protesting Stepmother’s fingernails are, or how calloused her hands look.


I used to take her out to work with me

at the Ford Factory, sometimes. On special days…

the other guys would bring their sons with them,

but I thought I’d show her that she could

work just as hard, if she ever needed to.

The Protesting Stepmother seems to eye the cigarette she tossed to the ground. She looks terribly sad. You could even call it regret.


Well, she died three months ago after

fighting cancer for a year. I’ve got

hospital bills as big as the Sears Tower.

I was exhausted when she died, you know?

I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel anything at all,

but it tore my husband up real bad —

probably my not crying was worse for him

than her dying. He said I didn’t care about

his daughter, not my daughter, that I was acting

like I loved her all the time. He wouldn’t

let me put her in Hereafter either —

he said I didn’t know enough about her, that

it was up to him to put her in the app

if he wanted too, and of course he didn’t.

He wanted her to be at rest, is what

he said, but who knows what he really wanted?

We nearly broke up over it, but I didn’t

think I could take another loss like that —

at the time — so I tried to make amends.

But then my husband went and found where one

of Stacey’s friends had made a version of her

inside the app. Come to discover, though,

that this friend didn’t like our Stacey so much,

and the girl in the app was nothing like the girl

we knew…and it was awful…her memory…

The Protesting Stepmother appears to be done. She builds a dam out of pursed lips to stop the torrent of words in its tracks and crushes, very gently, with a muddy bootheel, her still-smoldering cigarette. Then she looks at Dirk, maybe by accident.


I’m not married anymore. Not after that.


You probably should’ve called the people at

Neverland — I’m sure they have a way to take

unlawful afterversions like your daughter’s down.

The Protesting Stepmother fixes Dirk with a smoke-filled acidic and sleep-deprived stare.


That would’ve killed her.

Leo flicks his own cigarette.


What’re you going to do, then?

But the Protesting Stepmother is already gone. She takes her sign and, walking past Leo, heads to where a group of protesters have gathered around a white van. A TINY RED-FACED PROTESTER helps the Protesting Stepmother into the back of the van and turns to the stirring crowd.

(to no one in particular)

We’ll be back!

The Tiny Red-Faced Protester slams the doors of the van together, and the protesters speed away down 12th Street. They turn left onto Hancock, heading towards the Highway 37, and suddenly they’re gone. Their absence is palpable, like the ghostly feeling you get when you pull off a bandage — they seemed, in a way, while they were there, to counteract the sense of peace that Hereafter had brought to people inside the church. The seemed to implicate something or someone. And now that only Shelly is left, everyone goes about their business.

Some students walk back to school, but most head for dimly-lit cool corners where they can drink, smoke, sleep, and play videogames in peace before the festival starts in the evening. Dirk, Shelly, and Leo leave, too. Shelly breaks first, and Dirk follows her, like smoke follows fire, to Leo’s car. Leo unlocks the car and they all get in.


Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

Cole Hardman

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I’m an engineer with a passion for poetry and literary theory. Find more at:

Lit Up

Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

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