Bystanders, by Tara Laskowski, due out May 2016, contains thirteen short stories with titles that make you want to see who the bystanders are and what they’re up to. The majority center on young couples, and several pieces would be right at home in the old TV series “The Twilight Zone,” like “The Monitor” in which neighbors see each other’s babies on their own baby monitors. Plus, there’s another strange figure who keeps appearing. Bystanders, by Tara Laskowski, due out May 2016, contains thirteen short stories with titles that make you want to see who the bystanders are and what they’re up to. The majority center on young couples, and several pieces would be right at home in the old TV series “The Twilight Zone,” like “The Monitor” in which neighbors see each other’s babies on their own baby monitors. Plus, there’s another strange figure who keeps appearing.
In a recent interview with the Santa Fe Writers Project, Laskowski talked about Bystanders, her second book after the award-winning Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons published 2012. It is “really, at its core, a book about how violence can have a ripple effect. So plenty of bad things happen in my stories—murder, theft, hauntings, car accidents—but not always directly to my main characters. Still, these violent things have a way of unraveling something in my characters that wasn’t wound too tight to begin with.”
We see this right away in “The Witness,” the book’s first story, in which Marie witnesses a man in a car who hits and kills a boy on a bicycle. Her sympathies lie with the driver:
She knew why she wanted to see him, why she kept thinking of him. It was because she was going to do the same thing he’d done. She, too, was going to kill, destroy, rip someone apart, and it was nearly impossible to avoid it.
More tense moments jump out in “There’s Someone Behind You.” Here, Laskowski portrays William, a dentist, and his young, blond mistress Ruthie. This story is a caution for women not to take up with a guy who likes to scare you.
Occasionally, I could see what was coming next. Consider Mindy in “Other People’s Houses.” The story opens with Derek and his wife Hannah back together after a separation. They are house hunting with real estate agent Mathilda. Derek may or may not be the father of the child Hannah’s expecting, and Mindy is Derek’s coworker. Derek likes to go alone to horror movies. “He looks up in surprise and sees Mindy—of course—standing in the aisle [ . . . ]” Hmmm.
Earlier, we learned more about Derek. When touring a townhouse, he recognizes it’s a good deal, close to work, and yet:
When did he turn into this person that is so spiteful for the sake of being spiteful? It scares him. He watches Mathilda and Hannah wander around the place, oohing and ahhing, and it makes him want to puke. [ . . . ] He feels trapped, like a wild animal caged in a prison of drywall.
Two characters in “Entrapment” seem all too familiar: a duplicitous judge and a child troubled about her parents divorcing. This is the longest and most developed story, and small instances of predictability don’t distract from Laskowski’s distinct storytelling style. In “Entrapment” we have the critic Paul who, under a different byline, is the reporter Harrison, the photographer Lila who Paul/Harrison had an affair with, Mary Beth the almost-ex, The Professor the iguana—yes, really—and Theresa the teenager who dotes on the iguana. Where does the judge come in? Harrison broke the story about the judge’s double life.
One other story to mention, “Support,” poses a situation in which a woman starts getting letters in one form or another from her husband who died eight years ago. Laskowski lets the messages unfold gradually. I really love the way she ends this one.
For your late spring or early summer reading, pick up a copy of Bystanders. Laskowski’s stories start out with circumstances that could befall anyone, you or me, but watch out for what happens next.