Life flashes before your eyes

Life flashes before your eyes

You’re never ready for it. All hell breaks loose and your brain suddenly feels like swiss cheese. Women are better at dealing with it than men are, sure. Specifically mothers, like there’s some sort of mechanism born within the mind of a momma when she gets pregnant. But the feeling is the same. “What the fuck do I do now?” It’s a universal thought process.

When you add trauma to the chaos, that’s when momma’s really shine. Take a black woman in her kitchen making dinner for her kids when she hears thumping bass notes turning onto her street, that first pop barely reaches her ear before she’s pulling those babies into the basement stairwell, screaming at them to get down. Like she knew it was coming. But then a bullet aimed at the neighboring dump ricochets off a shovel sitting on their porch and bursts right in through her living room window and catches her neck as she’s hunching down to follow her kids on the steps. She doesn’t immediately have that next step ready at the front of her brain to call out to her 12 year old now watching her momma slide down the steps with blood seeping from a major artery. Nope. She thinks to herself, “What the fuck do I do now?”

Holding a hand to the wound, pressing as hard as I can, staring into my oldest baby’s face as I tried to unfold emergency plans in my head, I felt as stupid as the dummy I married who is now rotting in a prison cell up state. Fortunately for me, it’s my daughter who inherited brains from someone else in my family who had the plan.

The 911 operator’s voice seeps from the phone calm and authoritative, and I thank heaven for that. “My mom’s been shot. We’re at 62 Hanover St. It was a drive by and I think the bullet is still in there because I’m pretty sure it hit an artery but the blood is just sort of leaking out.” I raised an eyebrow at my little science junkie. “Don’t press too hard, Momma. Just keep your hand there.”

I watched her bark orders at her younger siblings, her beautiful eyes focused on me until she heard the sirens outside. As she stood on the step beside me, peeking out the basement door, I cursed myself for never getting us out of this shitty neighborhood.

“Make sure it’s cops first, baby. Don’t open the door until the cops are here.” I grabbed her wrist with my left hand, “And keep your hands way up in the air, you hear me?”

She shook me off, “I know, I know.” I could see the lights, but my vision was getting hazy. “Hang on, Momma. Just hang on.” I imagined her with babies of her own in some big house in the suburbs with a two car garage and one of those kitchens with a double oven. She’s smarter than me. She would take her brains to college, instead of getting knocked up at 18. I prayed every day of her life that she would be smarter than me.

The police pounded on the door, and she walked out of the stairwell with both hands straight up in the air. “I’m coming to unlock and open the door. I have a phone in my hand, but only a phone.” As she unlocked the door, I prayed some more for God to keep her safe. It was getting hard to hear over the heartbeat in my ears. Oh why couldn’t I have just gotten us out of this hell?

My vision went black and I felt as though I were floating, carried by something free of form. Light began to flood in all around me. Blinding light. But then, suddenly, I was standing in my kitchen. I looked around at a frozen moment in time. Raybecca stood at the front door, hands high, in front of a familiar looking cop. I turned to the stairwell, my crumpled body lay on the top two steps, Miandra and Michayla hunched around my legs. Watching their momma die. And Tobias sat with his back to it all on the bottom step. Good boy, Toby. You keep your mind and memories safe.

I turned back, the cops eyes were on me. I blinked and he smiled. “Hey, Dahlia.” His voice was familiar too. And his skin glowed like amber coated bronze. I did know him.

“Lonnell?” I took a step forward but stopped as an invisible band held me in place. “How- Am I dead?”

He laughed, and the sound went straight through me. It was rich and deep, and something that had been frozen within me for a long time melted. “No, baby girl.” He stepped around the statue of my daughter. Nothing else moved. There was absolutely no sound but his voice. “This isn’t death. This is a choice.”

He came to stand in front of me, and part of me wanted to reach out to grab him. But if the choice was between going wherever he came from and staying alive for my babies, I could never choose him.

“I know.” He gave a sad, hopeless smile as he stood before me. “But if you had chosen me all those years ago, we’d be in a different place now, wouldn’t we?”

I blinked up at him. “How could I have known Ray would do what he did?”

His eyes narrowed, and his smile disappeared. “You believe that you didn’t see that side of him? The day I met you, he’d backhanded you right in the middle of a Walmart parking lot. Knocked a beautiful, pregnant woman to the ground. You didn’t know then what he was capable of?”

Some loyal part of me stretched to defend him. But Lonnell’s point was valid. “I loved him. I was about to have his daughter.”

“I can’t fault you for giving him the second chance, Dahlia. But the others?” He pointed to the steps, and I started down at the frozen figures of the only other things Ray ever gave me. “Eh, I’m just salty because you didn’t feel what I felt back then.” He stepped forward and his warmth invaded me. “This is a new choice though, baby.”

He took my hand and spun me on the spot. As my vision cleared, I stood in a sunny kitchen before a broad, pine table with benches on either side where 12 children sat eating breakfast. I looked at their faces and realized that the twins were sat at the end, teenagers now and laughing as their brother sat across from them. His preteen face sulky, but his hazel eyes lit up like I’d never seen before. The rest of the faces were unfamiliar until I turned around to see Becca standing at the kitchen island with a forty-something version of Lonelle.

She was a woman, three massive textbooks in her arms. “She’s just finished pre-med. But that smile on her face that looks so much like yours is because my wife, Liza just told her that the scholarship program she started when she graduated high school is going to put 4 kids into college.”

As my eyes moved around the kitchen and found Liza, my absent insides twisted. Liza-Marie had been Ray’s girl before me. In high school, she’d dumped him because he had disrespected her father. And now she was married to Lonell, the boy who’d promised to save me from all that I’d made myself endure. He’d married her and was going to take in my four parentless kids?

“They are all foster kids. Liza and I can’t have our own. So we try to give a better chance to kids who grew up like we did. Show them there’s another way.” He stepped up next to me and took my hand again.

I looked up at him. “This is my choice? Die and give them to you or keep them… And what? Fuck them up forever?”

“No, baby girl. That’s not the choice at all.” His fingers came under my chin. “Think bigger.”

I felt this world falling away. He didn’t spin me this time, just lifted my face, and when he let go, I stood in the parking lot of Becca’s elementary school, holding the hands of my tiny toddler twins and pregnant with Tobias. I remembered the day vividly. I’d stood there with my babies waiting for their older sister and trying to think what to do. Seven months pregnant with a swollen, bruised face, two broken ribs, and nothing to call my own, I was about to decide to stay, just until the baby was born. But I never left.

“You could choose differently this day. Decide not to go back. Move into that woman’s shelter. You could have had Ray arrested for this, instead of that terrible thing he did after this. Your friend Natalie from Becca’s school would’ve taken you in and gotten you a part-time job at the school, helping kids who don’t have computers at home learn how to use them.”

He squeezed my hand again, and I opened my eyes to the nursery where the twins spent their first fragile days of life. Ray had disappeared for 29 days and Becca was being looked after by Ray’s sister, who I was pretty sure was a heroin addict. But I hadn’t known what else to do. There was a nurse, wheeling me into the NICU 26 hours after my precious babies had been taken out of me in a emergency C-section. I was still swollen and weak from preeclampsia. But they’d finally let me out of bed to go meet them. I didn’t even remember my babies being born.

“She’d asked if she could go get Becca for you, do you remember?” I nodded but not looking at the nurse. I stared at myself. So puffy and stubborn. I wouldn’t even accept help when it was offered. “She would’ve helped you get into a better house, too. Her mother’s house in Reynoldsburg. She would’ve let you live there and helped you get that IT certification you’d wanted. When the girls were two, you would’ve moved into your own home where Becca would’ve been mentored by an amazing science teacher and even graduated early.”

I looked down at our feet, “Why are you telling me this?”

He slipped his fingers under my chin to look up at him, and when he dropped them, we were back in my crappy house on Hanover Street, right after we’d moved in. I stood at the bedroom door with Becca on my hip, watching her Daddy, naked on the bed with another woman. “He turned this around and made the whole thing seem like my fault,” I said in a tight voice, remembering all of the times between then and now that Lonell wasn’t showing me. All the moments I should have walked away.

I turned away, and as I did, a park shelter house materialized, where he’d shown up drunk to his daughter’s first birthday. My expression frozen in horror as I watched the path of his fist coming straight at me. The first of many full, facial punches over the years. “Stop, please.” I covered my face, but there were no tears.

Until I heard my own voice.

“I can’t Lonell. I know I’m probably making a mistake, but you won’t love this little girl like he will.”

Lonelle at 21 was softer than he was at 35. His kind, coffee color eyes scanned over me. My face had healed from the night in the parking lot, but I’d seen him every day since that night. “That’s where you’re wrong, baby girl. I could love her more.”

I shook my head. But he kissed me. The whole world was right that night.

“You know I was right back then.” The 35 year old Lonell locked his fingers with mine as we watched our younger selves make love.

I turned toward him, “But I can’t go back. I can’t choose you now.”

He stepped close to me. “None of this has happened yet, Dahlia. I’m not real. You’re not dying on the steps to your basement. Ray doesn’t exist here. You have the chance to make a different choice right now. Any choice. But only one. And you won’t remember anything else once you’ve made it. Your life will simply move forward from that point, with a different trajectory.”

As I turned away from him, I saw them all. Options on a wheel of fortune. I could spin around and walk into any of them, deciding the opposite of what I’d decided before. I could decide not to let Carson Donovan put my hand in his pants when I was 12. I could say yes to going to prom with Stephen, our class valedictorian. I could walk away from our neighbor Mr Quintez when he asked if I wanted to watch a movie with him in his basement.

I could decide to go to college and get that degree in IT.

Making the entire circle, I turned back to Lonell. “But there were good things, too.” I closed my eyes and pictured my babies’ faces. I remembered the day Ray told me he was going to turn himself in, and try to turn his life around. I remembered the night we’d talked all night about how we could make things better. I remembered only a few days ago when I went to see him, and he cried fat, heavy tears about the things he did to me. “There were so many moments I will lose if I decided anything differently.”

Lonell’s smile was full and bright. “That’s right.” He nodded and held his hands out to me. “That’s what makes it so hard. You know what you know, but if you give one moment up, everything could be entirely different.” He put his hands together and opened them again to reveal a bubble. Like a crystal ball. I stepped close to see inside.

It was me. A foggy, different version of me, wearing an expensive looking flowered blouse with navy slacks. My hair was cropped short and flecked with gray, and I wore chunky jewelry that I always loved, but wouldn’t afford. I stood in a beautiful sunny office, writing on a whiteboard. But as I squinted to try to see more clearly, the bubble popped.

“Sometimes, the choice is simply to see yourself in a different life. And go there.”

I looked up into his eyes. And I saw the scene reflected there. My daughter’s face contorted with fear and anger in front of him. I turned and saw myself. The woman I’d let myself become, covered in blood. “Can I survive this?”

“If you make that choice.” He stepped back, his voice growing distant. “All you have to do is decide.”

Abandoned

Skyscrapers by Ralf Kunze

The pavement pulsed with waves of heat, out of time and place in the city during late October. The bus stop was quiet. The park was void of anything that resembled a Saturday evening. There were a pair of forgotten pink rainboots sitting by the wishing fountain.

A rich, amber glow had settled into the horizon, over the ocean, supplemented by this sound heard by no one. Or possibly everyone.

Clouds gathered in the west mocking the sunset’s twin by hiding it from any possible observer. Or maybe calling to its observers. Bidding them west.

Before it is too late.

Enough

Stride by sivel120001 via DeviantArt.com
Stride by sivel120001 via DeviantArt.com

(Originally posted November 2014)

My fingers press against the cold glass causing the area just around them to fog from my warmth. I’d love to break this glass that tells me I’m not pretty enough, sexy enough, skinny enough… I’d love to break it and cut away this disgusting flesh that makes me feel like I’m not enough. I’d love to bleed away all these feelings of hatred and disgust. I’d like to feel the pain of that instead of the useless pain of self abhorrence.

I stare hard at that bitch who screams inside my head that I’m ugly and useless. I can’t stand her voice, it feels like a hammer breaking bones inside my skull. I can’t listen to her for another single minute.

I press harder on the glass and focus every ounce of my magic on those points of contact. I know I might break the mirror, but the sound of that might be welcome compared to the hurtful abuse going on inside my skull. I push harder and harder until I suddenly begin to feel my fingers permeating the membrane of this plane.

My reflection sees and laughs, taking on that awful voice. “Whatcha gonna do, baby doll? Do you think you can come through here and shut me up? God, you are dense.”

I wonder if I’m strong enough. Can I truly breech reality? Can I go through this glass? Is this possible?

Her abuse begins anew, from the other side of that force field, and I don’t even care if this is insane and I’ve had some sort of mental break. I am going to shut her up. I am going to make her stop or I’m going to kill her.

My arm slips in and she backs up, laughing harder until my grip finds her wrist and I pull, hard.

Her face slams into the glass, and I find this incredibly amusing, since my arm is literally reaching through this completely impermeable surface. I do it again twice, giggling at the shock in her expression. She tries to yank her hand from my grasp, but only succeeds in pulling me further in. I lift my other hand to brace myself from smacking my own face on the glass, but then those fingers begin to slip through the surface as well.

I yank her toward me again, and punch her hard in the face. She bounces back, but not out of my grip, and blood begins to gush from her nose. It was a surprisingly square hit, given the awkwardness of this fight, but I do it again before she recovers her wit and starts to fight me.

She captures both of my hands and yanks me into the glass, but it is not solid for me, and my upper body slips into the reflection as if it were another room.

At this point, I realize I am clearly crazy and decide to just pummel that wicked whore to death on the other side. As I lunge toward her, she lands a good punch to my throat, knocking the wind out of me, and I fall back into my own bathroom, wheezing and lifting my bloody hand to my throat. I can smell the acrid tinge and wonder for a moment if this might actually be real. Am I fighting the bitch in the mirror.

I stand and stare at her, blood pouring from her broken nose down her chin onto my favorite blouse. “You’re ruining my shirt.”

The shock in her eyes is disarming, as she stares at my chest, and when I look down, it is clear why. I am bleeding too, and I reach up to feel my own broken nose, even though she never landed a punch anywhere but my neck. Realization dawns on us both, as she too is holding her own throat and wheezing. If we fight each other long enough, I will rip apart.

I stand and wonder if I could do that. Kill myself to silence the hate. Cause myself the greatest pain in order to end all pain.

I lean down against the vanity on my elbows and revel in the silence of her contemplating my ability to end my own life in order to end her. My blood drips into the sink but then suddenly stops, and as I stand upright and look at my reflection again, I see that nothing has happened. It wasn’t real. But one tiny drop of blood remains, on the edge of the sink, daunting me.

A reminder? I can beat myself senseless over the reflection in the mirror. I can beat myself to death, if I’m not careful.

I look again at the girl in that glass. A sight that normally fills me with ‘not enoughs’. Because I will forever be not pretty enough or sexy enough or thin enough or smart enough or sweet enough or good enough… This time, the girl I see is just enough.

Enough to keep me from pummeling myself to death.

That girl in the reflection, that girl who plenty of people DO think is enough… Maybe it’s time she accepted that perfection is unattainable. And that today, at least today, I am enough.

Just a glimpse

I stood on the deserted beach watching jagged, angry shards of ice, deposited by the waves, stack up on each other.

Like brittle, living panes of glass just waiting for a pair of feet to shred.

It was brutally cold and every breath hurt to take in. The thick velour scarf my mother had given me before she died sat frozen at my lips. My fingers inside my wool mittens had gotten too stiff to feel.

I worried for a moment that I might not make it back inside.

But I had to see.

His ship broke open the cove just as the sun made a sliver of fire on the horizon. The ice cover on the bay wasn’t thick, so I knew they would only make one pass.

He stood, behind the rail, alone. A lantern hung by his side. His breath sent plumes of vapor up into the first light of morning. And the breaking sun made the sliver of skin visible around his eyes glow.

My heart pummeled against the inside of my breast.

He lifted a gloved hand to his mouth, pulling the fabric loose so that I might see his smile. It was too far to see properly, really. But my memory colored his lips and made the silver in his whiskers glimmer.

I waved and giggled. I wonder if the sound made it to his ear. I imagined it could, somehow, and whispered my love into the wind.

I watched until I thought I might break.

But I knew I would do it again tomorrow, if it wasn’t too cold. A glimpse was better than nothing. It was enough to stoke the fire in my belly.

Enough to warm me through another day.

Was it was the same for him?

I wonder.

A dance in time

Rain Dance 03 by fbuk via DeviantArt.com

For me, it was just another day. A wonderful, exciting, beautiful new day.

Mav woke up at 5:45. As he slathered his cheeks in preparation for a shave, humming a tune that heated my cheeks, I made my way down to the kitchen smiling.

Mabel had stayed with a friend the night before, but she would be home for breakfast that mid summer morning and I was excited to make my little announcement. I hoped the kids would respond as well as Mav.

I started the percolator and was pulling out my frying pan when Marcus’ feet slapped hastily down the polished oak steps.

“Ma, what happened? What’s going on?”

His voice was too high and when I turned, his face was as white as porcelain. We’d just celebrated his fourteenth birthday a few days before, but his wide eyes and trembling lips made him look much younger.

“What’s wrong, dear?”

The sun was rising behind him, and it startled me to see sunshine in my kitchen so early in the day.

He grabbed my wrist and pulled me to the side door. As he flung it open, we both froze staring out at a sight I still cannot explain.

Maverick’s parents had bought us the property as a wedding present. It was a slice of a pie shaped meadow in the center of a beautiful ancient forest with trees topping out 40′ above the grass. We’d built our home alongside 13 other young couples, unknowingly creating what we would later call ‘Pinedale Oasis’. A sweet little neighbourhood that grew to the north and west, out of the trees and toward the city.

But ours had remained the last house, butting up to the woods to the south and east. Our kitchen door and window were always shaded from the sun by a thick copse of pine trees less than ten feet away.

Staring out at a hill filled with homes behind white fences and punctuated with tall oak trees, my mind couldn’t quite make sense of the landscape.

“What happened to the trees?”

I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The backs of twenty houses stood in my line of vision, all with tiered wooden porches supporting big tables with umbrellas and massive shiny metal boxes that must be for cooking because they all had knobs that looked like the ones on the front of my new six burner stovetop.

A couple of them had pools with Caribbean blue water sparkling in the rising sun. I watched a woman doing laps in one of them until she spotted me. She climbed out of the water in a bright pink bikini and stared at me with the same expression that I must’ve been wearing.

Mav’s voice broke through the haze. “What in heaven-”

“Dad, where did they- What is- How?”

Marcus’ hysterics brought me back to myself. I turned and told him to go put on clothes as I dashed up the steps to dress myself.

“We’ll just have to go ask them.”

The early morning heat loomed over us as old neighbors hugged each other and tried, noisily to make sense of this. The crowd from the new neighborhood was larger, but quiet. Most of them held shiny and strange flat boxes, some put them to their cheek and spoke into them while others jabbed or slid over them with fingers or thumbs. I even saw some of them holding them up at us like cameras, they even had what looked like a flat lense on the back.

Maverick kept his hand on me protectively all morning. It was comforting, even as it added a bit to the fear.

The blonde woman who had been swimming had walked over first. She had what looked like a rhinestone in the crease of her nose and several tattoos down each arm. It was unsettling until I realized many of the others did as well.

“Where did you come from?”

It was the question of the day. One I couldn’t answer.

Our phones hadn’t worked. But the electricity did. Dan Bradbury had turned on his television to static, but the radios all revealed we were no longer in 1967.

When the police arrived, they brought medics and firemen with them, which I thought was strange until Marcus whispered in my ear. “Maybe they think we’re aliens?”

When I could finally speak to tell an officer my name, his wizened eyes were filled with fear and pity and something else.

Understanding? Recognition?

Mav wrapped both arms around me as we listened. Marcus sat on the other side of the hospital room with his head in his hands. My tears wouldn’t stop, and neither could my mind.

Fifty years prior to that day, our beautiful, quiet neighborhood had vanished. Without a trace.

The site was studied for decades. Scientists from all over the planet ran tests and studies. They searched for us.

My daughter searched for us. For decades.

She was living in southern California with her second husband. Twin girls from the first had both gone to Stanford and were now pursuing doctorates in different fields in different parts of the country. She also had a son with the second who has Down Syndrome and is named after his grandfather, but with an easier nickname for him so say.

Her voice sounds just like mine.

But older.

She’s about to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. But, as she told us she and Pete would come up with Rick on Saturday, I felt my sweet little girl bursting through the speaker. She wanted her mommy.

“Oh, Mabel. I’m so sorry.”

The tears caught, and her restrained demeanor broke into hiccuping sobs and the muffled questions of a young man who didn’t want to see his mother cry.

Marcus raised his head, his eyes reflecting his sister’s pain.

He stood and came closer. “Maby, it’s Marcus.” He cleared his throat and sat on the edge of the mattress. “I’m glad you’re ok.”

A tremor in his voice that vibrated through the fabric of time made her stop crying.

“You’ll be ok too, Marcus. I promise.”

They released me from the hospital late that night. We left stunned by the medical advancements of the past fifty years.

Three of us were brought in for observation. Mr Winstead had a heart attack when they told us it was 2017. Franny Gilson fainted and needed two stitches. And me.

Mabel is a gorgeous woman who doesn’t seem old enough to have grown children, except for the tiny wrinkles that flank her eyes and the grooves that frame her mouth. Rick is kind and sweet, his speech is nearly perfect and he loves to talk. He works at a store called Walmart and recently moved into a full time position which he loves.

His father could not stop staring at me. My daughter and I look very similar. Twenty years apart, instead of 30, and in the wrong direction. I can’t even imagine what it was like to meet us.

I couldn’t find a way to tell her about the baby. We talked for hours about everything. Just not that.

Mav had spent the four days before her visit sorting legal and financial stuff. He was exhausted, but was positively fascinated by Rick. He and Pete worked to explain modern sports, satellite television and something called Fantasy Football.

Marcus was lost to it all. Swiping his finger over the glass of his sister’s Smart Phone, he seemed to be absorbing all of this new technology much faster than me. As they sat, hunched over the device, I felt my heart break for all the years she lived without us.

And then he said it.

“Our brother will grow up with all of this. He’ll never know life without it.”

My doctor in 1967 called it a change of life baby. But fifty years later, it wasn’t unusual to have a baby at 40.

That night in the hospital, we got to see his little face, his perfect little body of 10 weeks, his amazingly tiny heart thrumming along as if nothing had ever happened. As if he hadn’t just vanished and reappeared 5 decades later.

The rain started just as she looked up at me.

He chased her outside, shouting for her to wait. It was like watching a film. The sound distorted by the rain as she cried out and fell to her knees. The way he looked back at me.

He picked her up. Held her to his chest.

There was no age between them as I watched her collapse against him. They just stood there, hanging onto each other.

And then, she laughed.

The sky above them brightened despite the downpour.

It was magic.

I won’t deny it’s been hard. On all of us.

Mav had to train for a new job. Marcus had to adjust to modern schooling which took tutors and counseling. We were paid for interviews, but not a lot, and for the next year, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of us. Sometimes, it still does today.

But when it is hard, I look at that photograph.

A picture I took, on a weird device that I didn’t know how to use, of my children.

Dancing in the rain.

And it’s magic, still.

Christina

https://www.deviantart.com/art/the-box-326060573

1.

On a morning in January that was cold enough to hurt your lungs with each breath, I left my mother’s house and planned to never return. Despite the fact the I was only fifteen, I managed to cut her out of my life like a surgeon removing a cancerous growth.

As I sat in the judge’s chambers six months later and watched him sign my freedom onto a seemingly ordinary piece of paper, I was surprised. It had been a little too easy.

Unless you took into account the medical records and hundreds of abuses missing from them.

All she had done was glare at me that day. She hated me, which used to terrify me. But that day, I was glad of it. No one could mistake that rage, and no way would a judge let her argue her way back into my world.

The lawyer watched my mother leave, then stood and wrapped me in a hug that forced the judge’s gaze away.

“I don’t know how you brought yourself up out of that, child.”

Her voice was damp and heavy with emotion, which is what had drawn me to her in the beginning of it all. An advocate for women and children, I’d seen her speak at a school assembly when I was 11. And that day, Nancy lit a spark inside me. Every trip to the emergency room and night without dinner just fanned that flame.

I knew I would eventually be rid of that life. And this angel would be my salvation.

She pulled back but laid her palm against my cheek. “Now, are you sure you’re all set, baby? You don’t need any help with the apartment or getting to school and work?”

I smiled at her. If she knew how many times I’d wished she was my mother, she would’ve probably invited me right into her home, forcing her five boys share two rooms instead of three and telling her husband to get ready for a daughter.

But the goal had always been emancipation. Independence. Freedom. So I closed that book before it was opened.

I shook my head, pulling myself away and picking up the paper the judge had just stamped and signed.

“I’ve been doing it for months now, Nancy. I’ve got this, I promise.” I couldn’t help the teenage petulance in my voice, but it was gone before the promise, and so was the pity behind her eyes.

“Ok then. You’ll come have lunch with us again next Sunday, won’t you?”

I didn’t.

We lost track of each other as the years folded over me, giving me a diploma, a different name, a bachelors degree, an amazing job in informational engineering that let me work from home and maintain a safe, steady new life.

It had made me sad, but she was part of the old life. A life I had to leave behind.

2.

Her name flashed across my phone screen one Monday afternoon as I was prepping a code report for a client. It took me almost two minutes to stop shaking.

I hadn’t looked over my shoulder in years, but the association Nancy held within the cold, damp basement of my memory dragged everything right back up those steps.

CALL ME, TONIGHT, JENNA. I’VE GOT SOME NEWS.

I didn’t want any news but knowing there was news twisted in my stomach until I thought I was going to be sick.

I’d chosen to be Jenna Jacobs. I thought it was fun, the perfect, anonymous name for a freshman at the University of Illinois. I hadn’t really thought about how it would work for the rest of my life. But, just like your given name, you don’t think about it. It is simply an extension of you.

But imagining what news Nancy might have to share, I felt my given name burrowing up through my skin. Like something alive that had simply been sleeping for the past 13 years.

I could hear her growling it as she trailed the buckle of my dead father’s belt against the tiled floor. I could taste the blood where I would bite my tongue to keep from screaming. If I shouted or moaned from the pain, it was like pouring lighter fluid on dying embers. I could feel the change when the rage would break open and she would throw down the belt to beat with her fists. I could smell the sickness that would ooze from her when her body could not handle the adrenaline any longer.

Or maybe, that was my own.

Brian found me when he came home at 5:15. I’d cleaned up, but blacked out in the shower. The memories hadn’t come up in a long time, not like that. But the fear creasing his beautiful face helped me put them back away.

“I’m not her.”

He wrapped me in my pink terry cloth robe, a laundry accident when I was 16 that had become the only possession I could never let go of. And it was just the thing I needed. The perfect symbol of how far I had come.

“No, you’re you, Jenna. But who are we talking about here?”

I explained what had happened after I received the text. He knew more than anyone about my past, but no one would ever know just how much the woman who gave me life had also taken from me.

He pulled me into his lap as he sat on the commode, his lips pressed to my forehead and his arms offering me a kind of safety I didn’t allow myself to imagine was even possible for a very long time.

“I could call her, Jenna. You don’t have to talk to her.”

But I did. Or my old name was just going to creep out and swallow me up all over again.

He cooked macaroni with hot dogs while I stared at the screen in my hands. I loved him for knowing, without even asking, just what I needed in every moment. And after he served me a golden heap of comfort and sat next to me with a bowl of his own, I used it as fuel. Every bite and smile and touch making me a little bit stronger.

Until I dialed.

3.

She was dead.

Maybe some part of me knew, but I think I’d always expected her to haunt me. I’d imagined it so many times as a girl that I’d actually prayed she would live forever.

She didn’t.

Nancy sounded exactly the same. Her voice had lowered a tiny bit and she didn’t hover within the niceties as long as I’d expected. She just sighed and said it.

“She’s gone, now, Jenna.”

I didn’t feel anything except the odd awareness of her using my new name. I had her on speakerphone and stared at Brian as she repeated herself.

“She’s dead, your… mother. She died last week in hospice and the police contacted me because… Oh, child. She left you that God forsaken house.”

I laughed, and the sound startled all of us. But I couldn’t stop. I giggled again, a feeling I couldn’t describe with a poets tongue bubbled up from within me. “You’re joking.”

I shook my head trying to free myself of the hysteria, but it ballooned and my laughs turned into sobs and back into laughs. Brian tried to shush me, stroking my hair and eventually pulling me into his arms. His murmurs in my ear settled my voice, but not my heart.

Was it celebrating? I thought it might be leaping out of my chest. But at the same time, my throat was closing and my eyes were leaking.

My mother who never loved me was gone.

And now, she never could.

Nancy had given Brian the details. Who to call and what to do next. I could handle the sale completely from here without ever having to step foot in that house again. There was no funeral to arrange, no family or friends to contact. That had all already happened. And the judge only opened my records to my lawyer, so no one from Evanston would ever know.

But the house was worth a decent amount of money.

A lot more if it was empty.

I took the phone from him and listened as Nancy sighed again. “Baby, I would handle it all for you, you know I would. But I’ve got grandbabies now. I’m retired and I just don’t think I-”

“No, Nancy. I would never ask that of you. I just-” my voice left. My head throbbed with the weight of the day.

“You think on it, darlin’. Darnell could help you if you decide to clean it out. He runs a moving company, so he knows a couple auction houses. We could just have them come in and take it all.”

Brian’s arms came around me from behind, holding me together when I felt like I might literally fall apart. I didn’t answer for long enough that he took the phone from my fingers and ended the conversation for the night.

I heard her tell him to give me a squeeze from her, and watched him lay the phone on the island in front of me.

“There’s something there, isn’t there?” His voice was soft, full of longing to erase this for me. To solve it.

I turned to look up at him. My arms were too heavy to lift, but I wanted so desperately to be normal. For him.

Sane.

But as I nodded, she leaked out again.

And as much as I didn’t want to set foot on that house ever again, Christina wanted to go home.

4.

Brian brushed my forehead against his lips, his fingers wrapping sweetly around the back of my neck as he held me tightly to his chest.

“You don’t need to go in. Just tell me what it is that you want out of there.”

If I’d only known.

But I pulled my hands up between us, slipping my fingertips into the curly bristles of his beard and looking up to meet his misty gaze. I shook my head.

“I have to do this. I have to put it away for good.”

He didn’t know what I meant, he couldn’t have because I didn’t. Not really.

But the house seemed to know.

It wasn’t the place I’d left. She had changed almost everything and it was something of a relief. Until I saw the first photo. And, then, all of them.

School pictures, candid shots of us on Dad’s boat, sweet poses of him twirling me or tossing me into the air, angelic smiles and tiny, toddler kisses on his cheeks.

Every single one with a thick black mark over my eyes.

I don’t remember him like I should. I’m not even sure what happened, but I know he died.

And that she hated me the very next day.

I touched each photo and felt the anger build. Brian’s, not mine. But when he pulled one off the wall, I grabbed it from him before he could smash it.

“Don’t look at what she’s done. That’s not why we are here.” I hung it back on its nail and ran my finger over the glass, pointing to my father’s gorgeous smile. “Don’t you see it?”

Brian’s fury crumpled into confusion.

“No, Jenna. All I see is cruelty and devastation.”

I walked through the hatred and felt it fall away like cobwebs. I touched another photo of him and her, no daughters eyes to blacken. Just his broad, brilliant confidence, and my mother’s sweet, doting grin as she stared up at him.

He’d been fiddling with the boiler in the basement that day. The cold bit into my fingers and toes the night before. I remember how proud he’d been to have fixed it.

But he kept going back down there.

I turned to Brian and he raised his brows at my expression.

“The basement.”

5.

It was covered with a tarp. She’d written on it, “Do not touch! Never open!” And as we unwound the plastic cloth from around it, Brian thought out loud that perhaps we should heed the warning.

But she wouldn’t have let me walk away.

The box was far too old. Like it had been there for centuries. It was a wooden crate, nailed shut and left to disintegrate, but somehow remaining, year after year.

My father had obsessed over this. It was what had killed him, I was sure.

It was warm to the touch, and got hot when I laid both hands on it. It was magnetic and electric, and I sat down, pulling it into my lap.

“Jenna, I don’t think you should open-”

But it opened.

And he was gone.

6.

She stood in front of me. A six year old with patents that loved each other and her. A child with a beautiful bright future, unmarked by the scars of death and abuse.

I saw what she could’ve been, should’ve been. I saw her grow into a stunning woman. The picture of feminine wealth. She was so beautiful, and I saw her celebrate and explore her beauty. I watched her become a lover then a mother. I saw her learning from her mother’s lessons, and it became too difficult to watch.

It could drive someone crazy. It probably had.

She made me watch, made me see wicked things and wonderful things. Some where so exciting I almost lost myself to them. The pleasure was sickening, and amazing, and excruciating, and delicious.

But it wasn’t mine.

I pushed the box away, and stood up fast as I stared at it.

It was still closed. “Didn’t I open it?”

Brian moved toward it, but I stopped him, putting my foot on top of it.

She appeared again.

“Don’t you want to know? There’s so much more. You could’ve been so much more!”

I shook my head. Slowly at first, then with something akin to confidence.

“No, Christina. You could’ve been so much more.”

I stepped back and took Brian’s hand.

“I’m exactly who I should be.”

7.

There was a long wait before the auction. I went back a few weeks later to destroy the crate, but it wouldn’t break or burn. I couldn’t bury it or sink it.

I couldn’t let anyone else touch it, I was sure it would turn them as it did my parents.

I don’t know what my mother saw that made her hate me so much. I’m not sure I want to. But I know I don’t want another soul crushed by it’s prophacy.

So I moved it. I had to.

And there’s only one other person in the world who knows where it is.

Fortunately, she’s trapped under my skin.

And inside that awfully wonderful little box.

Bubble

Pop Pending. by amie-faerie via DeviantArt.com

Waiting is a game best left to the protagonists. They are methodical in their introspection, which of course is fascinating. But only in small doses for those in the world stripped of will and purpose.

The good guys can tolerate the doldrums of time wasted. For the rest of us, the ambling majority, the true posture of patience is pretty much impossible.

But give us something sweet to suck on while we wait, and that is a whole different story.

I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. It started with a ride on a bus. I sat two rows behind them, sweating and cursing under my breath when the bus overheated one Wednesday in August.

Her laugh gave me something to absorb besides the sweltering heat. I was drawn in by her luscious disregard for her surroundings, and I listened as he told a story about punching a brute at the top of a hill, one summer day just like that one, then watching him stumble down the rocky face, crying for his mommy.

I could almost hear the little bully’s wails in between her giggles and sighs.

And that first drink led me to follow them off the bus. All the way to her home.

He kissed her against an elm tree growing thick and full next to her front steps. The branches cradled their shoulders, hiding their lips from view. But I watched from a tree away as her leg wrapped around his, drawing him closer and closer until there was nothing between them but heat.

Guilt and embarrassment took me right past them at a pace that left me breathless when I turned the corner.

But weeks, then months passed, and I found myself there. Again and again. Waiting for another sip, another taste. One more glimpse of someone else’s delicious world.

I stood at the gate to the tiny alley that ran beside her building, the angry bite of late autumn making my cheeks and fingers red and raw, and I watched. He scraped a thick layer of frost from her windshield while she teetered on the stoop, sucking on one of those horrid skinny cigarettes and touching her bare throat.

She never dressed appropriately for the weather. But I suppose some people just carry too much heat inside their beautiful bodies to be bothered by the chill in the air.

They did this often, and despite my every attempt to give up this deplorable addiction, I continued to ogle them nearly every morning. My alarm went off at 5 and I was perched in my spot at the edge of the alley by 6:20.

Unless I’d fallen asleep in her back garden.

He would finish with the scraper and slide it into his back pocket. She’d toss her filter in the street. He’d bend to pluck it out of the gutter, shaking his index finger at her until she stepped off the curb and stuck her tongue out at him. Giggling. Cheeks rosy from more than just the temperature.

She was as predictable as ever. But not him.

He shook his head this time and stooped down so that his eyes were level with hers. He whispered to her, I could never hear what he said, even as the depth of his voice rumbled through my belly, but she cupped her hands in front of her and lowered her eyes. So obedient.

His gaze skimmed the street, forcing me back into the shadow of the alley, as he slipped the butt into her palms, drawing them together and lifting them into the air above her lowered head.

Like a magician’s assistant in a turn-of-the-century sideshow, holding up an invisible apple for the blade or bullets first strike. Trembling with something I felt in the pit of my own belly.

I imagined what he might be saying into her ear. “Don’t drop it again, little girl.” I didn’t need to see his face. It was branded into the backs of my eyelids. I could never be free from it.

His long, slender fingers played in her hair while he slipped his other hand beneath the hem of her skirt.

I’d never seen her protest, but there was a first time for everything. She whimpered and said something that brought his eyes back to hers, as his fingers tightened in her hair, tugging her head up to meet his glare.

My own thighs trembled and I used every ounce of my willpower to hold back a groan.

I knew it was wrong, this sick fascination with him. And her. I’m not insane, after all. Just a lonely voyeur with too much time on my hands.

But I had gotten more brazen, watching their windows and sitting on her back stoop to listen to them make love as I touched myself in the dark. I could envision the actions that went with each sound, I could imagine his expression in the amber light they always left on, as his fingers squeezed the sides of her throat and his body pressed against, inside, and around her.

I could even feel his fingers just then, as I watched them in this stolen moment, half a dozen yards in front of me.

He bent forward and kissed her on the cheek as he pulled her arms down and plucked the cigarette from her palm.

The look on her face made me whimper.

“Have a good morning, Lil. Don’t be late for work.”

He always was so fucking frustrating with his exit.

She saw me that morning. I’m sure she had a thousand times, but that day, she locked eyes with me. And I felt something inside me break.

I tried to turn and go, but I was frozen. Locked in the gaze of this woman I wanted to be. Coveting everything about her, down to the smooth, olive skin she got to live inside of. She stared at me long enough that I thought she might scream, or call to him. But she only stood there.

It was the first time I’d ever seen him turn back to her after saying goodbye. His exit was final, always. But this time he turned, walked back to her, and dropped his forehead to hers. And I heard him as if his head was bent to my own.

“I need you.”

Her eyes found mine again as that tiny, mischievous smile played on her lips. She slipped her fingers into his beard, kissed him in a performance worthy of an ‘R’ rating, then broke away breathless.

“Let’s call in sick.”

And from that day on, that wicked woman became my dealer in a drug that I’m not sure I’ll ever be strong enough to kick.

I’d never hurt either of them. After all, if they were gone, what would I wish for?

Nothing is quite as colorful and vibrant and real as someone else’s bubble. Even if you have everything you could ever want, there’s someone, somewhere, with more.

Fault

Devon Smoking by hatemypoisonedkiss his DeviantArt.com

I watched her face glow behind the red embers of her cigarette as she pulled the smoke deep into her lungs. Exhaling a smooth stream into the darkness, her skin returned to a shade of porcelain reflecting the moonlight.

She licked her lips as she stared at the smoke floating away from us. Her mouth twisted as she caught me staring.

“No lectures today about my health?”

Kelly’s eyes were soft, a shade of maple syrup with flecks that sparkled like the stars. But the night made them gray.

I let my gaze fall to the beer in my hands, picking and peeling the golden paper, revealing a slippery, green glass bottle beneath. I held it up between us.

“Who am I to lecture anyone about their vice?”

I tipped it back to my lips and let the bitter, crisp tang wash over my tongue before swallowing several times until my head swam and the bottle was empty.

I cracked another open before looking at her again. Her hair was parted with a zigzag and twisted into two haphazard knots. She’d tucked the wispy strands of pale blue that had escaped behind her ears. It made her look younger. Vulnerable. Sexy.

She lit another cigarette.

“We don’t have to do this right now.”

Her voice was tight and crinkly, like a Mylar balloon being filled too full. I winced and tried to turn away, but her fingers slipped around my jaw as she scooted closer to me.

The concrete felt like an ice cold promise beneath me.

“You don’t have to decide anything, Will.” She swallowed, tracing her thumb over my lip, then lowered herself to her knees on the sidewalk beneath my feet. Shifting between my legs and tossing her cigarette in the grass, she took my face in her hands. Her voice went up like it always did before she cried. “I don’t need anything from you. Just let me love you.”

A tear slipped down her cheek.

I closed my eyes from the weight of everything. I could pull her against me and lose myself in the dog-eared comfort of us, our story written on pages too fragile to be erased and rewritten. I could…

I opened my eyes as she dropped her fingers to my chest. “I can’t, baby. It would be like-”

She pushed me, rising to her feet. Glaring down at me, her nostrils flared. “It would be like it should be. It would give us more time. It would-” her voice broke and with it, something in my chest burst.

I sagged forward, staring down at hands that had crushed her heart without even holding it. Fingers that had skimmed over another woman’s body, held another woman’s face, made another woman shudder with ecstasy.

“I’ll forgive you!” The volume of her voice made my head snap up and my eyes dart around the empty street. “I will change. I’ll do whatever you need me to do.”

Her sobs cut her pleas into confetti. She fell again to her knees, wincing this time, but grabbing my shirt and pulling herself against me. “Please, William, please. You can’t do this! You just can’t do this to me!”

I’m not a cruel man. I never was. I could have stayed that night, chosen to do the “right” thing. And maybe we could’ve made it work.

But as I pulled her up and held her tightly, I saw my life, my future pass before me. Months or maybe years of mistrust. And the quicksand my infidelity had trapped me in would eventually suffocate me.

She sobbed into my chest as i tried to find purchase on solid ground. It was the first night of many that I would hold her and will her to be ok. Without me.

But the one thing I didn’t think about that night was loving her.

And that was all I should’ve thought about.

Her hair is dark violet now. Straight and sleek, framing her beautiful face like a piece of art. She stopped smoking and started running.

With him.

For him.

I watch her now, every evening, pass by the park where I proposed.

Sometimes, I can’t breath, her happiness hurts so bad. But that’s my fault.

It’s still my fault today.

It will be. Forever.

For Her, For Him, For Me.

Damien dropped the multi-tool, the heft of it slapping the gravel with a rough thunk. It sparkled in the waning light of dusk, it’s diamond cut ridges reflecting onto the device it laid beside

He had been painted in pinks and purples as we worked, but the sky continued to fade and the light couldn’t reach into his skin any longer. His thin blond hair went flat and gray in the dark, and his flesh, normally peppered with amber freckles that made me want to smell it, taste its spice, now took on the mottled simplicity of quarry stone.

I watched his fingers work.

“You ready for this, Pickle?”

His voice sliced through me like a hot knife. The beam from his heavy MagLight danced across my face, blinding me for a second before he lowered it again.

His torch blue eyes held me. Like a candle holds a flame, every muscle in my body worked to keep me from flickering.

I stepped toward him and opened my hand for it.

“I am.”

My voice was like a trumpet against the woods, and he slid the device into my grip. My heart raced as his fingers tightened around mine, his body moving closer. A breath caught in my lungs as the vague citrus hint of his cologne mingled with the acrid scent of his sweat.

“Good girl.”

I waited for him to let go, but instead, he pulled me closer. I could taste the cola we’d shared on the drive, still sweet and thick on my tongue, and wondered if it would taste different on his. The ruddy fullness of his lips made me tighten my grip on the black box, as it fell to my side.

His fingers rose to the back of his neck, unfastening the thick chain that sat there, a tiny vendor key hanging just between his collarbones on his slender but toned chest. When they came around my own neck, refastening the clasp, my thighs pressed together involuntarily.

Touching the small round shaft of the key, I wondered if he’d felt my heart racing beneath my breasts. If my unsteady breath was obvious. If I would collapse from the weight of my want combined with the heft of the responsibility he was placing around my neck.

His voice in my ear was just like an electric bass, strumming right through me.

“When you come back to me, I’ll give you something better.”

A film of smoke was the only evidence of the poison pumping out of that wretched place. He’d slid the gas mask over my face as he whispered my instructions. I knew some of the others received instructions too, but mine were different. And he wasn’t with any of them.

I felt it. When he spoke about the conspiracy, what they were doing to us, I felt the delicate wire of synchronicity between our souls. It wasn’t just physical attraction.

But I wasn’t naive. I knew his fingers dipped into the coffers of his other followers’ desires. I also knew that we all wanted him so desperately because of the melanocortins this plant pumped into the air, water and food.

As I stared up at the massive stacks, holding the device that would either change our existence forever or kill us all in one night, the doubt started to creep up my spine again.

My momma had worked in there. She loved that job.

Or so they said.

She died in her sleep. But they didn’t know I’d seen them. They didn’t know I had her diary. They didn’t know what she’d left for Damien and I to figure out.

I looked up into the trees and saw him.

His smile pushed down all the doubt. All the fear. All the hate.

It was all for him.

The train approached must faster than we thought it would. I thought someone might have seen me, I thought someone might try to stop it. But there was no one.

Just Damien. And me.

His mouth at my neck and his fingers between my legs.

The first explosion was beautiful. The second deafening.

Then, everything just collapsed.

Except me. And my momma’s mask.

Damien died on top of me. He made me leave on the mask.

“I know you thought it was for me, Pickle. But it was always for you. It was all for you.”

 

 

The Last Bite

Snow White by AniMal-e
Snow White by AniMal-e via DeviantArt.com

There are moments in life when your children stop being tiny extensions of you. They come in minutes at first. Then days. Weeks. Months.

Molly refused to let me hold her after her second birthday. Balling her little fists and bellowing in defiance, her hot, sour breath blasting me in the face whenever I attempted to pick her up.

“I do it. No grab me.”

Her independence was a double edge sword, driving her to develop maturity beyond her years. It made caring for her simple, but I longed for her affection. My best friend’s daughter would splay her fingers across her mommy’s cheeks and whisper. It made my heart ache.

I soaked up cuddles brought on by fevers and earaches, cherished moments instead of anxious interruptions. I may have wished for nightmares, relishing in her need for me during the lonely hours of the night after her father left us.

By the time she became a freshman in high school, however, our lives ran in parallel. I had swallowed the bitter pill of resentment because it was candy coated in the freedom to go out on weeknights or spend long weekends in the mountains without worrying. I trusted her in a way most parents wouldn’t.

She crawled into my bed that night, waking me from a sound sleep, my mind couldn’t process the adrenaline that pulsed through my system.

She smelled of leaves and the clean, electric scent of rain. Her skin was wet but warm where I lifted the backs of my fingers to feel her forehead. Instead of brushing me away, she buried her face in my chest.

“What’s wrong, Mol?”

A broken, breathy sob shook her whole body as she crumpled handfuls of my nightshirt and pulled herself further into me like she might hide beneath my flesh.

“Molly, you’re scaring me. What happened?”

I reached over the sliver of bed she occupied to click on my side lamp. She shrank further into the bedding and her sobs grew harder and faster.

As my eyes adjusted, I tried to push her back so I could see her face. She clung and fought, but the livid purple color of her cheekbone gave fury to my need to see.

“What the- Molly, look at me. Now.”

She turned into the pillow releasing a hiccuping groan but exhaled in surrender, turning red-rimmed, storm gray eyes toward me.

The left side of her face was one giant, swollen, mottled bruise. Her lip and brow were split and clotted. Clumps of mud matted her hair.

“How bad is it, mom?”

She choked on the words, a breathy whisper working against the parched rasp of her normal voice. She peered up at me, trembling, and I met her gaze with an instinct I’d thought disappeared long ago.

“Just bruises and cuts,” I lifted my fingertips to run over her damaged skin. “But no broken bones, I think. We’ll see the doctor tomorrow to be sure.”

I kept my voice steady and soft, despite the rage that boiled inside my veins.

“What happened, baby? Who did this?”

Fear flashed in her watery eyes before she buried herself in my breast again. I pushed down every urge in my being, knowing the best thing I could do was stay with her. But the need to say something was strong.

“You cannot let him get away with it.”

She sobbed for a long time, clinging like I was a life preserver. In the muted light, I stared at the picture on my night table behind her. A preschooler swinging her feet on either side of a massive branch, up high in a big old tree in front of an orchard we’ve visited a dozen times.

Molly was holding a huge red apple, the size of a man’s fist, three perfect, round bites already missing from its flesh.

She climbed that tree by herself at four and a half years old, ate that entire apple, plus half of another she picked for me, and wouldn’t even let me help her down.

When I looked back down at my little girl, now a brazen, vicious teenager, she stared back at me with wide eyes, blood in her teeth.

I pried her hands loose from their grip on my shirt and examined them. Three nails broken past the quick, knuckles cracked and bloodied, her right index finger broken.

She swallowed, gazing at the backs of her hands as she flexed her fingers.

“He didn’t get away with it.”