Beyond the Microscope

Waiting room by Jozefmician via DeviantArt.com

Analise stepped into the waiting room, feeling a bit lighter than she’d left it. She exhaled weeks of anxious waiting, and her sigh shifted her husband’s gaze from the tiny screen in the palm of his hand.

Curt slid the phone into his pocket and straightened in his chair.

“Well? What did he say?”

She sat down next to him holding the papers out for him to read. He frowned before taking them.

“I’d rather you tell me.”

His tone was soft but firm, the gravel in his timber stealing any emotion from his voice.

She’d loved that stoic depth when they were dating. He’d seemed impenetrable, unshakable. She didn’t witness a crack in his armor until their wedding day, but once she saw it, she desperately wanted what was underneath.

He was never prepared for that, though.

It had taken him two months to ask her on a date, but only four to propose. And after they said their vows on his 29th birthday, he’d whispered a hundred times that night that she was the best present ever.

Her sister had warned her not to expect the honeymoon to last forever. But when she woke, naked and tangled in hotel sheets two days after her wedding to find him showered and dressed, reading a newspaper and guzzling coffee, she hid her disappointed tears beneath the shower.

It wasn’t that he was ever unkind. In fact, he was the perfect gentleman. But she rarely got the glimpses of that man who was so smitten he couldn’t take his eyes off her on her wedding day. She could probably count them on her hands.

She sighed, looking up into his bright, cool eyes.

“Well, he said I need to have a procedure to remove the growths, but he says it isn’t cancer.”

In a flash so fast she almost missed it, his face crumpled with relief before settling back to his normal, stony expression.

“So they are growths, but not tumors.”

A statement, not a question. But not without a tremor in his voice.

She’d lived too long with the desperation to make him feel, and had been defeated too many times by his dismissals and robotic responses. So she hadn’t tried to see beyond his shell for a very long time.

Suddenly, it was all she could see. “Were you worried?”

His eyebrows knitted together, for a moment glaring at her furiously. But his words came out in a choked whisper. “Of course.”

Twenty-four years, two kids, two houses, a dozen cars, a handful of tragedies, and she’d never seen tears in this man’s eyes until today.

“I’m not a boulder, Ana.”

It wasn’t the first time he declared this, pointing at his chest in defiance. She’d said to him a few times during the first few years of their marriage that he must be made of stone. The first time he’d said he wasn’t, they were watching Titanic. He’d wrapped his arm around her as she sobbed, staring at the screen in disbelief when Leonardo DeCaprio froze. She’d looked up at him, startled, and his face blanched as if she’d struck him.

She realized now that it had always been those moments where she experienced some significant emotion that she caught those glimpses inside his heart.

He smiled so broadly the day she first held her son that she thought his lips might crack. He shook with fury the day a drunk driver had sideswiped her, forcing her off the road and into a ditch.

When she’d stood on the kitchen table, shaking in terror as a mouse raced across her kitchen floor, he’d stalked that pest like a lion hunting prey to feed his family.

And when she told him she had been to the doctor for a biopsy, he held her so tightly that night that she had to tell him she couldn’t breathe.

“You’ve been a bundle of nerves for weeks, of course I was worried.”

Lifting her fingers to his cheek, she longed to push him for more. To let her tug off that armor and snuggle into the softness she so desperately had hoped was underneath. Or warm herself against the fire he kept secretly to himself.

But, as her heart pummeled against her lungs, she knew that would only encourage him deeper into himself. So, she kissed him quickly before taking back the papers and folding them into a little packet.

“Ok. Well, the biopsy came back clear. But the growths are fibrous polyps and my endometrial lining is very thick. They will have to do a D&C, do you know what that is?”

“That’s what you had after Joel.”

The memory of Joel’s birth and the hemorrhaging that had followed burned behind his eyes.

“Yes, but this will be scheduled in advance and without all the hysterics.” She giggled, covering her mouth with her fingers. “Quite a bit less dramatic.”

He slumped and laid a hand on her knee. “Less scary, you mean.”

Lifting her eyes to meet his, she held her breath for a moment.

“I thought I was going to lose you that morning, Ana.”

She’d never thought about what that day had been like for Curt. Her whirlwind first pregnancy filled with difficulties, followed by an emergency cesarean birth. She barely remembered the bleeding or the surgery that followed. She barely remembered any of it, truthfully. The memory of Curt handing her Joel 24 hours later overlaid everything else. The bliss of motherhood giving her amnesia to everything that had happened in the days and even weeks leading up to that moment.

She stared at him for a long moment. “You’re not going to lose me now, either.”

His face went slack before his eyes widened almost imperceptibly. “Good.”

It was hardly a word, more of a release of breath pushed through the crack in his facade. She dropped her fingers to wrap around his in her lap, then drew her leg up beneath her so she could lean into him.

She thought about the way she’d always examined those cracks in his exterior, as if through a microscope. Trying to find a way in.

She’d been missing the fact that she was already in.

Every morning, he rose before her, showered and dressed, then waited for her to wake, ready with a cup of Earl Grey with two sugars. She focused on the fact that he wasn’t in bed with her instead of the big picture.

He held both of their babies for days before she could, but handed them over without question once her body and heart could handle it. She’d envied how they idolized him as they grew, and spent countless hours quietly at his side building, fixing, and painting. But if she’d just stepped back, perhaps she would’ve understood that he was keeping them out of her hair.

He never wanted to take exotic vacations, always opting for weekend trips to the country or the beach. But maybe it was never about the money or time off work. Maybe he just wanted to keep them safe and close.

Everything she ever saw as a dismissal could’ve been his simple way of showing how much he cared.

Reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear, she watched his eyes follow her fingers, and she saw the same glow in his eyes that he’d seen on her wedding day.

“They will call me to schedule the procedure.”

She went on in a soft voice, to explain the surgery center and the outpatient procedure that should only leave her a bit sore for a few days. She slipped her hand under his arm and pressed her cheek against his shoulder. After she’d finished, he sighed another affirmative and pressed his lips against the top of her head.

“Let’s go somewhere nice for lunch. I’m in the mood for pasta.”

She looked up at him, her forehead lined with confusion. “Don’t you have to go back to work?”

Curt shook his head and kissed her again, this time on the bridge of her nose. “No. You’re stuck with me for the whole afternoon.”

“But- You don’t have to do that. I mean- You never miss work.”

“Yeah, well. I don’t always find out if my wife has cancer or not, either.”

Scanning his face, Analise grinned broadly as tears pricked her eyes.

“Thank you.”

He shook his head again as she hugged his bicep again. But then he stood, pulling her into his arms and holding her there long enough that she heard the nurses sigh and whimper behind the counter. He pulled back and cleared his throat, wiping his eyes with his thumb.

Raising up on her tip toes, she wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Let’s go home instead.” Pressing her lips to his ear, she told him she would make him pasta.

“Then you can take me to bed.”

Warmth

A Warm Touch by NovaMcKnight
A Warm Touch by NovaMcKnight via DeviantArt.com

His skin burned bright with the desire surfacing from within. The fire in his soul a damp, red sun fueling the hunger in his touch, made more intense by the pink heat of the desert outside.

I often wondered if he’d ever cool down. But even after decades, his want had never abated. Even through the trials of war which desiccated everything we knew. Years of chasing and being chased by devils. Our marriage peppered with miscarriages followed by months of devastation. Nothing ever made him see me differently. He always treated me the same. He wanted me just the same. And no matter where we were, in the frozen city where we met, the icy ridges of the mountains where he had hidden me, the stormy beaches we’d traveled looking for peace, or this dessert, cooled by the nuclear winter, he was always warm.

It was habitual for us, the way he would take me every Friday evening. Some might say such a routine is unromantic, even tedious. But when he came home, stalking me through the house like an animal before pouncing, pinning and devouring me, monotony was the furthest thing from my mind.

Collapsing onto my side on the kitchen floor, giggling as his whiskers tickled my shoulder and sighing when his arms folded around me from behind, I watched the sky burn away into an amethyst haze.

“I missed you, Mrs.”

Squirming around in his embrace, I flipped over to face him and hold his salted jaw between my hands.

“Since you’re filthy and sweating all over my clean floor, I’m not sure I can say the same.”

His fingers raked through my damp hair as he chuckled.

“That sass doesn’t make me want to clean up any faster.”

His hand wound around my golden tresses, tugging lightly to raise my eyes so that I looked into his. They were as clear and brilliant as they’d ever been. But, something new had taken residence in his stare. Something that traced cool fingers down my spine. Something that held more weight than I thought was possible in his gaze. Something that made me swallow hard against the lump of empathy growing in the pit of my stomach.

“What’s wrong, Mister?”

As a General in the Gulf Militia, Ant had carried the responsibility of thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands, for decades. The heft hardens most men. Makes them power drunk or breaks them completely. But Ant had lived through the war that broke the Earth, and stood before the council of what was left of our world’s leaders with all the heart and devotion of a little boy dreaming of being president.

There were fourteen of them left. In the famine and fury of worldwide revolution, thousands of military and government leaders had been killed or fled. The death toll after ten years of post-nuclear fighting surpassed the actual nuclear attacks. But fourteen men and women found a way to finally settle the chaos.

My Ant was one of them.

“Do you remember when we came here? You’d told me we should make our home in the center of this dead land.” I nodded, searching a reason for that memory. “You said that it didn’t matter if America was gone. And you said-.”

His eyes were wet and he choked on the recollection.

“I said the world would be our country someday and that Texas could be it’s heart.”

We’d traveled all over the continent. The bombs had turned the east and west coasts to rubble, and the fallout from the concentration of attacks in the east reached as far as the Mississippi River. The north had been plunged into a nightmarish nuclear winter that made so much of the continent uninhabitable. And what was left of the western states after the collapse of California was dismal.

But Texas had been warm. And it simply felt right.

“Yes, Mrs. And you were so very right.”

Tears slipped down the ridge of his nose as he pulled my forehead to his.

“You’re scaring me, Ant. What is wrong? What has happened?”

I pulled away, praying silently that there wasn’t more war coming.

But as he shook his head and pulled me tightly into his arms, I knew it was something worse.

I didn’t cry. I’d known my whole life that being loved by him was more than any poor frostbitten orphan could have ever dreamed. I’d known after each lost pregnancy, seen it in the disappointed eyes of all of his soldiers. I’d felt it in the furious storm of security that swaddled me each time we went out. And more than anything, I’d heard it from my own heart.

The troubles weren’t his, which was rare in this post-apocolypse. My doctors, fertility specialists, nutritionists, anyone who had seen the scans knew it was my body that could not accept pregnancy.

If there’d never been any bombs, we would have simply hired a surrogate.

But if there had never been a bomb, my family would have lived. And I wouldn’t have endured the countless rapes that destroyed my body before Ant rescued me.

Irony is the cruelest joke.

“Is there already another?”

My voice was mist leaving my lungs. I felt myself dying inside as his arms tightened further around me.

“There could never be another.”

I pushed against his chest as my mind crumpled and my heart flew. My face ached with confusion and unshed tears. I glared into his eyes willing him to somehow split into two men so that no choice ever needed to be made.

“They want me to plant my seed, yes. But I can’t-.”

He averted his eyes as he choked on the thoughts and wishes of others.

“Until death parts us. That was my vow.”

An exhausted and prickly relief washed over me. I clung to him tightly as he picked up my broken body, carrying us both to bed. He was so warm, and as I burrowed deep into that warmth, I tried to push everything down.

But I knew what I was depriving the world of. I knew the only solution was to deprive him of the choice.

We made love three more times that night. He slept fitfully as I planned and plotted. When he woke, he talked about where we could go, how we could hide. But there was no way I could keep him from the world we’d built. Rebuilt. Created from almost nothing.

When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of a beautiful girl with tawny skin and raven hair, looking exactly like her father as she picked flowers in a sandy meadow. She had my eyes, and held my cheeks in her tiny hands.

“You won’t make it through, Momma. But I will take care of him. Don’t worry.”

Her tiny smile told me more than words ever could have. So when I awoke to the barrel of a handgun at my cheek, I simply closed my eyes again and said my last, living prayer.

I never got to meet her, his beautiful little flower. But the gunshot only killed my brain.

She was barely as big as his hand when they had to take her from my body. But she burned with the same fire as Ant, and survived with my will and determination.

And her life gave hope to a hopeless world.

 

 

 

Highway (A Drabble)

Snow Storm Traffic 2
Snow Storm Traffic 2 by SeeThruMineEyes via DeviantArt.com

The SUV clung to the concrete divider with one rear wheel while the other hung in mid-air. Front tires deflated, doors cut away, glass shattered, airbags spent and shifting ghostly in the icy wind.

Her car-seat laid on the frosted pavement of the shoulder. The straps cut and the headrest stained.

Frozen blood.

She never even saw it coming as she sang along to a KidzBop song and her tiny fingers twisted the little ribbon which tied her mittens to her coat.

It was such a happy song.

I guess death doesn’t listen to the radio.

Purpose

bedtime stories by dyingrose24
bedtime stories by dyingrose24 via DeviantArt.com

There used to be a time when people worked for something greater than money. Something akin to fame, with the same kind of pride but more divine. Something that cannot be faked or bought. But once you feel it, you want more and you want to try to make others feel it too.

It also used to be easy to find people who wanted to work for the accomplishment of working. The world was simpler and the fruits of labor were sweet.

I paid fair wages and even offered benefit packages to my full-time employees. But the truth is, working for me was far more about the accomplishments than anything else. I wasn’t looking to replace anyone but walked through life with an open mind and a craving for something more, someone great.

Daphne was just that.

Alan had hired her during the holidays at his hardware store, but as post-Christmas cleanup drew to a close, he couldn’t keep her on.

“I’d love to have her around just for the cleaning if I could afford it. But she’s better than that.”

We sat in his office upstairs smoking a couple of white owls and knocking back the last of a bottle of Glenrothes, an odd but pleasant combination.

The window looking out over the shop was now free of the twenty-year-old film it used to wear and the arms of the old swivel chair I sat in were polished to a gleam I wouldn’t have thought they could carry. I could clearly see the impact she had engineered all over his place.

Looking down into the empty shop, there were examples all over of her presence, all of which lit up like light bulbs popping to life. Ideas were my business, and someone with that kind of work ethic at a measly fifteen hour a week job was an idea just waiting to be born.

Before she arrived for her interview, I asked Sandra to let her into my office but not tell her where to sit. It’s a tell of a person’s character to have to choose their own seat. Men typically sit down in one of the straight back chairs perched in front of my desk or one of the armchairs to the left of it, obvious choices as suitable places for an interview. Women often perch on the edge of the sofa in front of the window so that they might see the door open and stand to greet me.

I knew Daphne was different right away. When I entered the office seven minutes after her arrival, she was standing before my bookshelf, invested in a pale blue, handbound book of french poetry. A gift from long ago that I could have never forgotten was there.

After I stepped in and closed the door, she turned toward me, but her gaze continued to dart across the handwritten page until she sighed and closed it lightly. She looked up with eyes that gleamed like a woman twice her age, but a smile that I might have expected a child caught in the cookie jar to wear.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Stanley. It just-,” she turned and slipped the book back into its place. “What a wonderfully sad gift, it just called to me. I apologize.”

I was unable to withdraw my surprise. “You can read French?”

Her cheeks warmed like Gala apples, but her voice was clear and unfettered by my shock. “I can and do. I love French novels. Sorel, Voltaire and everyone in between. But a present like that, so personal. So private-,” her voice sank soft and low, “You shouldn’t keep that in your office.”

I looked up at the ceiling, bobbing my head from side to side before looking back down and leaning in, lowering my own volume. “I certainly never expected a stranger to peruse my private library.”

Swallowing and straightening her shoulders, she took a step forward. “Daphne Reynolds, sir. I am simply thrilled to have the opportunity to interview with you. I sincerely apologize for the invasion of your privacy.”

A young woman reading French poetry at 18 is not perhaps the most impressive thing in the world in 1965, but with only a high school education and a mountain of brothers at home, it was intriguing, to say the least.

We conversed for twenty minutes about her skills and experience, and of course the book. Nothing rattled her, she answered every question barely blinking, even when I wondered at her relationship status.

“Well, Mr. Stanley, I am in the precarious position of being too smart for my own good, as my father likes to say. But to be truthful, I’m simply bored by the boys my own age. And since I had the distinct honor to be born into an era where I am not only allowed to, but even encouraged to work, I would like to do something with myself before allowing myself to be tied down to a house and children.”

“You want to find a career? That’s a tall order for a young lady without a diploma.”

She looked down at her hands, chewing on the inside of her lip, then looked up and moved to the edge of the little club chair she’d decided upon once encouraged to sit.

“I want to give myself the opportunity to feel the earth beneath my feet before allowing someone to sweep me off of them.”

I chuckled but she held my gaze. Deep blue sapphires carefully lined and highlighted beneath her tall brassy blond coif, swept across her forehead and flipped perfectly at the shoulders. She had dressed for the part, undoubtedly in her mother’s best suit and heels.

But she was not a child playing dress up before heading home to read bedtime stories to her siblings.

I offered her the position that Friday, and she started on the following Monday.

The newspaper was printed at a press on Suffolk Ave., but the writing and piecing together happened all over the city. It was never about the hours at your desk or word quotas or advertising dollars, not for me. It was all for the exhilaration of going to print.

I rarely ever read my own paper. But the crazy intoxication of getting it ready to read, that was my fuel. Daphne became an integral part of it during the next four months. Sometimes you hire people without a position in mind, and after restructuring the mailroom and assisting with a major ad campaign debacle, it was clear that she was assistant editor material.

She was made from the same stuff that presidents and warlords were made of, but smoothed and softened by the delicious curves of femininity. So when she steamrolled over you, you were left sighing and smiling about it.

It was a shimmery first day of May, dew winking in the grass and on every sleek surface as I walked to work at 7am. Daphne, in her feverish need for information, had recently read about the negative effects of sitting all day. She’d already worked her magic over my smoking and drinking, and truth be told, I had no inclination to dismiss anything she brought to me.

She met me on Hudson, smiling broadly as I offered my arm. “It’s such a beautiful day, I’m going to pretend I don’t see the powdered sugar on your tie, Roger.”

“Only tooth powder, my dear. I haven’t touched a donut in at least a day.”

Her laugh chimed through the crisp spring air like the song of a harp. It stole my next step, and when she turned to face me after my sudden stop, I felt the earth slip from beneath my feet.

Her smile softened as her eyes met mine. Concern drew tiny vertical lines between her brows and she let her hand slip from the inside of my arm. Stepping forward and tilting her head, she asked me what was wrong. Or I think she did. I could only hear my own pulse thumping in my ears.

“Your eyes remind me so much of my wife’s.”

Jeanne had been 19 when we married. She was wild and flippant but loved me with a passion that locked down my heart so tightly that I was sure no one would ever break it out. She wanted babies immediately when I brought her to America after I finished my third year in the Army, but struggled to hold a pregnancy.

After each miscarriage, she would huddle beneath the sheets for days, scribbling away in her journal. Or what I thought was her journal. It was two days after losing her fifth pregnancy that I found out what she had been writing during those terrible times.

It was a pale blue linen stretched book. Inscribed with her suicide note. And embedded with a special kind of torture that I would inflict upon myself repeatedly for over a decade.

It would have been such a beautiful gift if she had been there to share it with me all those years.

Daphne stood listening to me blabber about that book that had drawn her to care for me in a special way, to know me in a way most people don’t, to see me like only my beloved ever had.

“I’ve read it, you know.” Her lips quivered slightly at the admission. “I’ve read it and reread it, cover to cover.”

“And yet, here you stand.”

I don’t doubt the world thought me a fool. At my age, some pretty young thing harbors a fascination like hers and longs to take care of me, I could’ve had a whole new life.

After all, Jeanne brought her to me for a reason. In that dusty old blue book, she didn’t just write our past.

She wrote my future.

But I saw a different future for Daphne. The heart of a poet and philosopher with the brain of a businessman and the face of an angel, she didn’t need to be tied to a house and family.

She needed to be free to feel the earth beneath her feet as long as humanly possible.

So instead of giving her my love, I gave her my newspaper. A purpose.

And she never forgave me until she received her own book of poetry, a million years later.

But not a day too late.

Back

No matter where you go, there you are. Artwork by Josu Urrestarazu Garcia

She sat on the stoop and stared as I wrestled my suitcase through the door. Her eyes peered at me from a face swollen by a long night of tears and pleas. But she was silent now, clutching a cigarette like it was a life raft.

I hated when she’d smoked, but I could complain no longer. And as I reached the bottom step, turning to look at her again, she closed her eyes, pulling a long drag from the filter between her fingers and turned her head to the side. We’d said all that could’ve been said, twenty years of marriage rolled into a tight ball and tossed at our feet. But it still felt odd, leaving without a kiss.

“Goodbye, Marilla.”

Not a kiss. But I did always have to get the last word.

My own shaky voice rang in my ears as I walked down the shaded boulevard our house resided at the end of. A knot in my throat, the wheeled case behind me, a couple thousand dollars and a credit card was just going to have to be enough.

I could maybe catch a cab at the main road. I could’ve called for one, but something itched at the soles of my feet. The bite of freedom needed to be walked on. ‘Determined’ had not been a word used to describe me until late. But I had a dream and a pocket full of will. That would just have to be enough.

Marrie hadn’t understood this new creative ambition. An accountant is, after all, the general definition of boring. Honestly, I truly had been. Studying the news and stock markets with such intensity that I could never be bothered with hobbies or side business. So, when I sat on the bench in the back garden sketching and smoking my pipe every weekend throughout one summer, she’d thought it was a side effect of our recently empty nest.

One humid evening as she flipped through a magazine at the kitchen table, sipping on a glass of tea, I sketched her. She’d looked so soft and serene, and the resulting painting won me a display at a local gallery that autumn.

But when she saw the image, she crumbled.

“You’ve given me so many wrinkles. Why have you made me look so old and sad?”

She didn’t look old to me at all. Sad, maybe, as the loneliness of losing our children to adulthood had sagged against her from the inside, despite nearly nightly calls from our daughter and weekend visits from our son. But to me, that sorrow was beautiful. An attribute that can only be worn by a woman during the sunset of her life.

She forbade me from sketching her again. Refusing insistently and abusively, calling my talent ill-formed and amateur.

But I found willing muses then, in other venues.

The night before I left, I’d been unwilling to listen to her apologies. The longing for complete freedom to explore this new purpose gave birth to a vindictive cruelty of words that spewed from my lips as if I’d hated her. A year of hiding my work and lies curdled the adoration of her I’d held for decades. And the glory of retribution for her degradation of my art was addictive.

But as my feet fell into a soft rhythm on the concrete and the sun warmed my face, I felt the edge of my speech cut through my mind, the memory boomeranging back into me.

“You’ve stifled me for long enough. I am a man with art in my veins and I’m not sorry for ways I chose to bleed it out of me.”

Her voice cracked as she asked me how, who and when.

“Those women saw the gifts I offered them instead of the lines I painted on their faces. And the joy of their bodies in return might seem to you as my taking advantage, but I held them each in such reverence.”

The begging turned into convulsive sobs. But she was missing the point completely.

“Marrie, if you could only feel the pleasure of seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes, you would have never turned away.”

She’d sat at the end of our bed, gazing at the tissues in her hands.

“If you’d just explained. Carl, I could’ve-”

“No. I shouldn’t have to. You could’ve been my muse. You forced this upon us. Not me.”

It had been a cold thing to lay blame upon her, my righteous indignation at her ignorance giving voice to the devils of my conscience. Under the blaze of day though, my guilt sprouted wings and prodded me to look into the light.

On Ferry Street, I looked up to witness the broad colorful swath of a paraglider skimming through the crisp darkening clouds of October. Marilla adored such sights, and the desire to share it with her broke open inside my chest.

What had I done? Where was I going? Was I really so stubborn that I couldn’t draw her to please her or help her see the beauty within herself, as bright and expansive as that patchwork wing above?

A handsome young man in glittering white stood beside me, looking up and smiling.

“Wherever you go, there you are,” he said.

It was a mere whisper, but it vibrated through my skull like a gong. I turned toward him as recognition surged through my nervous system. I followed his gaze as he swiveled and his eyes fell on something in the distance, behind me.

A crowd was forming on the sidewalk I’d just stepped from. A frantic woman called for help. A teenage girl dialed her phone as she kneeled. A young man ripped open a coat…

My coat.

I sprung forward, stopping near the edge of the circle of strangers all gawking at the crumpled face I knew so well. The face of a stupid man who’d wasted the last night of his life breaking the heart of the only woman he ever loved.

“Aneurysm,” said the man in white with a lilt in his soft but booming voice. “Even if you’d stayed, you still would’ve died.”

I turned to face him, still feeling the weight in my hand of my wheeled case and now tasting the bitter plastic of my pipe pinched between my lips. The world around me faded into a whimsical scene, stalled as though captured on a canvas.

He strode away from me, up a road I wasn’t sure I was allowed.

He beckoned me to follow.

But all I wanted was to go back.

Irony

I know what you’re thinking. And yes, I’m one of those girls. The kind who wakes up in random places with random strangers and how in the hell do I never end up cut up in pieces in some guy’s freezer or chained to the hot water heater in his basement.

I could only be so lucky.

It was late August the last time I thought that about myself. I opened my eyes to a vicious sound, whining and rumbling in disharmonic unison that made images of my grandfather’s chainsaw pass through my whiskey clogged brain.

When I opened my eyes, the ever adorable Raina was standing at the kitchen counter dropping rocks into the bowl of her giant Kitchenaid mixer and glaring at me with eyes that could have set water ablaze.

My hands went to my ears as I shouted, begging her to stop.

She pointed to her ear, shaking her head as her mouth twisted upward at the corners. Raina’s smiles cost me a drop of my soul, every single one. But there was never any complaining on my part. She paid her own penance for being with me.

When I stuffed my thumbs in my ears and wrapped my fingers over my eyes, dropping my head against the back of her fuzzy futon, she threw one of the stones at my stomach and turned off the grievous machine.

“I don’t know why I put up with you, Krista.”

The wilted thorns in her voice told me I’d better get up. As I did, the room spun with waves of heat and black baubles of non-light making me wish I’d just keel over and die on the spot.

“Raina. Baby.” Another stone, smaller than the last, dashed across the coffee table and hit me in the thigh. “You’re gonna break something.”

“If it’s your face, I might be ok with it.” Her lips trembled with the ache of whatever I’d put her through. Don’t ask me what it was, I couldn’t have told you my name just then if she hadn’t said it.

I sighed, putting my hands up to simultaneously steady myself and signal the universal sign of surrender. “Then you really wouldn’t put up with me. My face is the only thing you like about me.”

Another twitch at the edge of her lips made my heart flutter.

There is lots of beauty in the world, but then there is a rare form of it that is so close to magic, you might not be able to distinguish the difference. Raina had the means to make you believe she flitted between the two like a fairy or angel or siren.

Most like a siren. There was just something dark and dangerous in those fiery eyes of hers.

But this time, the darkness bloomed. It took over the crisp sweet pleasure of her smile. With tiny explosions of thought visibly firing inside her mind, her features muddied into demonic fury. She held the large rock in her right hand and I swallowed hard, gazing at the mud that still clung to its surface and wedged deeply beneath the long white tips of her fingernails.

A surge of something cold and penetrating went through my spinal column, sobering me from root to stem as I stopped my quiet advance toward her and let my eyes waft back up to hers.

I knew I’d taken her for granted. I never told her how I loved her or made sure she felt it. I partied hard and plenty, letting myself become seduced by pretty boys and gruff girls in the toilets of bars or hotel hot tubs. I was 26 and I still thought I was invincible.

Raina was just a girl I was fucking. FWB. My last call.

The realization of my mortality that sticky, late summer morning made my life seem so wasted. So worthless. And as her fist rose in the air, I did not see the past flash before my eyes.

I saw every speck of dust sparkling in the late morning sunlight. I saw the drops of sweat on Raina’s forehead and collarbone. I saw kids across the street running through the spray of a lawn sprinkler. I saw Raina’s kitten with eyes wiser than they should have been watching the scene unfold before her as she perched on the top of the sleek silver curtain rod I’d helped to hang a hundred years ago.

I saw every single thing in the world around me, in slow motion, about to go on without me after the sharp, cold ridge of that rock slammed into my face. But I didn’t see the small stone she had thrown a moment ago sitting neatly behind my right foot as I stepped back away from her.

Holding my breath, milliseconds fell between us like those helicopter seeds that sift below the branches of maple trees in the spring. Her eyes widened and my foot fell awkwardly on something round and rough and out of place. I watched as the massive rock glided past my eyes, mere millimeters away and my frame lurched backward nearly parallel to the floor.

But only a breath before the back of my head skimmed over the solid oak edge of her coffee table.

When I opened my eyes to find her kneeling over me, crying and laughing in some superfluous symphony of irony, she was holding the tiny rock I slipped on.

“Only you, Krista. Only you.”

I’m baffled as to why, as it hurt my head when I began to laugh with her, but I did. I sat up, clinging to her as she dissolved in a fit of giggles before me.

“Where is your shoe?”

Through the tears in my eyes and the pain from the depth of my soul, I laughed even harder.

Because she was right.

Only I would lose a shoe and have it save my life.

 

Perspective

Polka Dots by melusine-la-fay via DeviantArt.com

“Three can keep a secret, but only if two of them are dead.” My dad had told me that once. It sounded smarter coming from his lips. And not nearly as threatening as it did in my head.

Bruce’s breath came out in a rush against the door to the bathroom. “Josie.”

He hadn’t actually mocked me. Rationally and logically, I know this. But crazy rarely pays attention to such things.

I hate that I take this all out on him. The mere implication of how those two girls always react to my presence, their giggles and whispers dripping with deceit and disgust, it nails me behind the bathroom door. It floods me with a jealousy that chokes out all sane thought and produces the intrinsic need to hide.

It doesn’t matter how much I trust him. I don’t trust THEM. And the knowledge that he spends every day, alone in tight quarters, with women who were cut out of magazines and pasted into his life for pretty much no other reason than to actualize my self hatred, it’s too much for this broken girl to take.

A gentle thud on the wood makes me close my eyes and mimic his likely stance. Foreheads pressed against each side of a bathroom door that has separated us far too many times. His voice is simultaneously muffled and amplified by the position of his lips which I imagine grazing the surface of the tan paint as he speaks.

“There’s no one else who could even hold a candle to you, Josie.”

The pinch of those words travels right to the center of my forehead. That place that makes tears eminent and rips right down through my heart and guts and soul.

There is no believing those words.

“I don’t even know how to compare you to other girls. I can’t even imagine wanting anyone else.”

I do. I can. I am plain and pudgy and gravity has stolen anything that might have been desirable about me long ago. They are beautiful and sexy and pert. Oh how I hate that word.

“Not a Victoria’s Secret model or those dumb girls I work with.” His voice is gruff, filing down the last words to wood shavings and casting them aside like garbage. “Especially not the two of them.”

A lifetime of self hatred boils up through my chest, escaping in silent sobs that wrack my upper body and steal my balance. I steady myself with both hands pressed on the hollow core door. But instead of holding me up, it disintegrates like a wall of dust.

I free fall as though everything around me was nothing more than smoke. The spiral is deep and dark, rushing through my ears and somehow constricting every inch of my body at the same time.

Closing my eyes to the furious spinning, I feel the door against my fingers again, as well as the solidity of the floor beneath my feet. The vertigo releases me as quickly as it chomped down.

But everything feels different.

Eyelids squeezed shut, I exhale and push myself back from the door. My center of gravity is off, my heart feels heavier and louder against my ribs, and my chest itself feels constricted from within. Bigger somehow, but tighter. I take a deep breath, filling an expanse of lungs that makes my eyes pop open.

As they focus, I’m on the wrong side of the door. The other side of the door. The tan paint marked with the oil of where my forehead just rested, except it should be on the white side. And much lower.

I take another step back as the handle turns and the door swings open.

She stares up at me. Shy, flirty smile budding on her soft, pale mouth. Lips that always seem to carry the tiniest pout below the most adorable nose that fits her face just perfectly. Her hand rises to sweep back the silky strands of hair that fall in her face whenever she looks down. But when she looks up, her oceanic eyes rimmed with long, black lashes, painted by expert hand, watch me expectantly.

The delicious curve of her breasts, which lift and press against the sweetheart neckline of her red polka dot dress makes my mouth flood with saliva. The hourglass dip of her waist and thrusting curl of her hip beneath the satiny bow fogs my mind so that I can hardly force my gaze further down to the arc of her calves.

I swallow against the feeling that fills my chest. It’s like warm soup, how a look can somehow give you a hug and a kiss and wipe away all your complaints. But the feeling doesn’t stop in my chest. It sinks and swells, burning hot and bright and full in my groin. I crave her like a beast hungers for it’s prey, but at the same time, I long to cradle and care for her like she is fragile.

My mind can’t quite wrap around what it is that I’m experiencing, and there isn’t time to contemplate it. I simply must convince her just how wholly and completely beautiful she is. That it’s impossible for me to notice other women because, when she is near, even in thought or memory, I am simply engulfed with desire to kiss her.  To touch her. To hold her.

I take her hands, or she takes my face, or some cosmic force magnetizes us until our bodies are touching and I feel exactly what it is for a man to want a women so completely that his body takes over the thinking.

As his lips meet mine, the spiral stops for real, and my eyelids spring open.

Behind my own eyes now and watching his face from the correct perspective, I am frozen in his arms. His lips tasting of all the love I just felt and his hands preparing for the task of forcing me to feel it.

No other women get to experience that. Only I do.

“Please, Josie. I’m so-”

I hold a finger to his mouth, tracing the soft, full curve of his lower lip before looking deep into his clear but heated gaze. The words he wants to say pour from his fingertips as they pull me tighter against him and grip me there like he cannot allow me to escape.

“They are beautiful, Josie, I don’t deny that. But you are a sunset. Compared to you, they are the dry desert surface of the moon.”

I know it’s crazy. That no amount of affirmation could ever make me see myself as he does. But even after feeling it first hand, it’s difficult to believe myself worthy.

But it’s easy to believe he wants me. To see the beauty he sees in me. To feel the physical representation of that affirmation.

So, I guess I’ll hold off on killing those girls just yet. You know, now that I have some perspective.

 

Beneath

ramada
The Ramada Plaza Hotel of north Columbus, closed in 2015

I’d heard the rumors. Some of the guys on the force think it’s funny to try to scare the female officers. But, I would say, after seventeen years of experience, women police are far more difficult to rattle than male.

We probably have more fears than our male counterparts, but we simply cannot show them.

Dan was trying to bait me, no doubt. Our afternoon assignment was to clear out the squatters in the abandoned Ramada Plaza hotel. The property owners had security, but once a month, they’d ask for a sweep. And we drew the short straw that day.

“Patterson, code 4.”

The hotel was supposed to be on a low-use power setting, operating hallway lights, exit signs and the fire system 24/7. But even this seemed to be faulty, as I exited the 2nd floor and jogged down the steps in the dark, my feet spotlighted by my Maglite.

“Please answer me.”

My ears rang with the bang of the door behind me as I exited the stairwell and jogged over the matted, thick carpet between peeling wallpaper and doors marked with large, gold plated numbers in the one hundreds. My whispered pleas where only met by the squelching of the carpet beneath my shoes.

“Officer Patterson, please respond.”

The crackle from the two way echoed through the first floor hallway. No power on this floor either. I stopped and started to close my eyes. But the silence around me begged for my full attention.

He’d said we should stick together, but I wanted to get in and out and had felt the vile, moldy stench infecting my uniform before we were even inside. No one in their right mind would sleep here, breathing normally was impossible.

I thought we’d be out in fifteen, so I’d decided to split up.

But as I had kicked around crack pipes and used condoms in my twentieth empty room, there was a laugh through the two way, a gasp and a sigh. Then, complete silence.

Half an hour later, I wished I’d listened to his sorry, lazy ass.

“Dan, please. If this is a prank, it’s over. I’m calling for back up.”

I stood at the front of the damp, putrid lobby, praying for his laugh to bark through the speaker at my shoulder.

But the only sound I heard was my own breath. And the pop of electricity as the lobby, too, went black.

Reeling into the daylight felt like being born. The front door swung open so easily, I half expected to find Dan standing by the cruiser, eating one of those God awful protein bars his vegan wife makes for him.

But the car was empty.

I fought back tears as I sat in the drivers seat. Pressing insubstantial buttons on the laptop screen, stomach acid rising in my throat and my skin itching with some combination of the late summer heat and the layer of mold spores that must be invading every pore. I could not give myself the opportunity to second guess. It had been nearly an hour.

“Better not be fucking with me.”

I cleared my throat and took a deep breath, closing my eyes to the setting sun glaring across the windshield.

“Tango Echo, officer needs assistance at 4900 Sinclair.”

I waited, an odd light grabbing my attention from behind the glass inside. Green and hollow, like a hot air balloon, but as it grows brighter, I’m fascinated by it. I stand and move toward the door, the dispatcher’s voice chirping over the call, asking me to repeat. The sun seems to be setting too fast.

Stopped, halfway to the door, I felt the ground beneath my feet shudder. The vibration was electric in it’s intensity, invading my skin, penetrating my tissues right through to my veins and nerves.

My vision swam, the light changed, became all I could see.

It is twenty three steps to the door.

I know this because I fought my own feet for 22 of them.

I heard the sirens blaring up the highway that zoomed across the back of the hotel. My puppeteer maneuvered my body as though I truly was held up by strings. I couldn’t stop staring at the light. I wanted to be in it. Under it.

I needed to.

When I found him, in the center of the basement, the light pouring from his pores, I understood why.

But by then, it was too late.

 

 

 

Flower in my pocket

I slipped it in there to hide it from sticky fingers and perplexed glances. It was a greedy gesture, sure. But it’s not for them. 

It’s mine. 

It pokes through the fabric lining a few times, digging into the skin of my thigh. But it isn’t painful.

It’s a thrill. 

An injection of femininity. A sharp reminder of the girl I leave behind so often. A symbol of the self I long to set free. 

I reach into my pocket to feel it’s faceted petals and silvered leaves. I hold it in my hand, letting the buzz of touching something so fine, so sweet rush through to the deepest darkest places that need it so desperately. 

She stands about twenty feet away, a gorgeous girl, fingering a strand of beads and wearing a self satisfied grin. The kind I would wear, if I’d only chosen a dress, if I’d only worn the kitten heels, if is only slipped that flower in my hair. 

It’s me. 

As I glide it from my pocket, watching the light catch the pastel ovals to make glittery lights sprinkle across my skin, I stop thinking. 

I let it find its way into my hair, and the buzz turns into a high. Wings of sparkling daisies glinting in the sun of my imagination, lifting me and my mood, brightening the world all around. 

“Oh, how pretty!”

It’s only a barette. 

But sometimes, the little things are so much more. 

Future

Family-Foods by KyleAndTheClassics via DeviantArt

It was so dark that night that the lightning bugs looked like flashbulbs. As we drove north on AB-2, the highway was littered with stopped cars and lifeless bodies. And the static on the radio was too deafening to keep seeking through.

Shannon’s hands were so cold that I had turned the heating on, despite the mild July evening beyond the Chevy’s windows. I held my fingers over her wrist, her pulse was fast and her breathing slow. My mind felt like a glass ornament, crackling into fragments before it would eventually shatter beneath the pressure.

As we approached Calgary, there were still no sign of life except the occasional firefly. The draw to this unknown place made no sense. Yet I knew, if I could reach it, everything would be alright.

I checked my phone as I passed a billboard for the MRT Family Foods, lit up like a homing beacon. I don’t know why I kept checking, it had shown the map and nothing else for hours and hours. Not even the time. It must’ve been close to 10pm.

Shannon had called me from her office. “Glenn, honey, oh thank God.” Her voice held the kind of throbbing shrill that made you pull the phone away from your ear. “Everyone is lying on their desks or the floor, unconscious.”

I was working beneath a 1958 Olds and had to slide out to hear her properly through the chunky, digital static that I’d grown to hate. Cell coverage in my shop had always been a joke. “Baby, you aren’t making sense.”

The sound was so garbled, I had to step outside to hear better, but the call dropped and before I could even dial her back, half a dozen people strewn across the parking lot of the First Baptist Church caught my attention. Like they had been rushing to their cars, but just… died.

I went back inside to ask Mike what he’d heard, but he was out cold. He was breathing, but his pulse was slow. The DJ on the old Memorex radio said, “…reports from all over,” but then he was gone too, along with the power. The phone in my hand proved as useless as a paperweight, but I still stuck it in my shirt pocket, climbed in my ’57 Chevy pickup, and made my way down Marias so I could get to Shannon.

The signs of life downtown were few and far between, and when I reached the US Bank parking lot, my phone buzzed and screeched, sounds I didn’t know it was programmed to make, then as I took it out of my pocket, it lit with a nearly radioactive glow that almost seemed to mist out and land on my skin before displaying a navigation map from the bank parking lot I stood on to Calgary, AB in Canada.

It was hot against my fingers, but I was paralyzed against dropping it. Like a silent, siren’s song beckoning me to follow it’s command, I heard it without hearing. And then I felt it, without feeling.

I gripped it back, as it gripped me, and ran inside to find Shannon on the ground just inside the front door.

Whatever this was, it needed me awake.

It was about a four hour drive, from Shelby to Calgary. But with cars dead in the road, and the boarder blocked from so many angles. It must’ve been six hours later when I reached the exit for 19th Street.

I’d seen two other cars approaching the lot from the other direction, and when I pulled in, the store was lit up like Christmas. The appalling darkness of a city so big but so completely dead made the store feel like home.

“I got here at 5. Cleared the lot to make space. I really don’t know why,” Tony approached me, his phone glued to his hand. I don’t know how I knew his name.

“Cleared it? You moved the cars?” My voice held a depth that was usually reserved for pillow talk with my Shannon, dark and heady, thick with testosterone. I suddenly realized I was growing erect.

“And the bodies.” Our voices hung in the still air. I wanted to ask if they were dead, what he’d done with him, what had made him move them. But as I stared at him, I felt my own purpose seep into my skin like ocean air.

There were fifteen of us by midnight. All in classics. All with wives who had warmed when we reached the lot, but had not regained consciousness.

By then, I was as hard as steel pipe and felt the body of a much younger man inside my skin. It was invigorating and intoxicating. And the work we had all begun without any instruction or understanding continued to energize me, instead of wearing against my 57 year old bones.

Each new fella came in a classic car with a wife 10-20 years his junior, asleep in the passenger seats of those vehicles that lined the parking lot of that little shop as though we had communed for an auto show. But our work on the shop and it’s contents was as individual as our thumbprints.

I had stopped worrying about Shannon almost immediately. I knew she would soon be revived and would join me in the place that we were transforming. My skills with mechanics offered me a lead position along with two others whose specialties were in science and medicine.

Charles, Stan, Bernie, Don, Freddie, Dominick, Cecil, Henry, Virgil, Robert, Paulie, Kirk, Tony and I greeted Buck when he arrived, phones up, dicks hard, the bewildered look of Cub Scouts getting ready for their Arrow of Light. We knew each others names like we’d all grown up together. Buck was apparently our leader. We all knew it when he shook each of our hands, still acclimating to the surge of answers flowing into him from… well, us I suppose.

He instructed us to place our phones together on the ground of the thing we were machining inside the store. When they were laid in place, each screen went black, and once the 3×5 block had been created, they came to life in unison. One great white square.

It hurt to look at, but as we moved into a circle around it, Buck began to explain things, looking as though it was a great effort to do so. I understood immediately why, as the last to arrive, he was made the top dog simply out of necessity. He needed every drop of energy to receive and translate the information he was getting. From what, I did not quite understand.

Buck’s wife was the first to rise, then Tony’s. One by one, they came over to us, leaving trails of their clothes as they did. Shannon was the last, the oldest I guess, and when she joined us, the women undressed us as well.

Buck continued to speak, eyes closed and appearing to be pained by the effort. “The future is bleak. The men of this world have allowed themselves to be woefully misused and taken for granted. Fifteen men from fifty sectors of the planet have been chosen to remake that future.”

Cindy led the women to the left of their husbands, positioning them on the knees, looking up into the eyes of their men. Shannon’s were filled will the admiration and respect they had always held for me. I welled with pride at the understanding of exactly what the machine we were building was to become. And why this store had to be the site.

Buck, somehow a conduit for something I could not understand continued his speech about our paths and our ideals. That the fallout would only remain for five years, in which time we were to procreate as much as possible in the bomb shelter built beneath this fascinating place. Stocked with supplies, vitamins, plants and the machine we were creating would withstand the blasts and power the shelter for at least those five years.

The future came seventeen days later and took everything from this planet.

Everything but us, and those who were chosen in the other forty nine communes across the planet.

The air was always sweet. We understood this was a gift from the future. Something that would nourish our bodies beyond what food and vitamins could provide. It kept the women young, soft and supple and the men strong and hard. My hair was growing in black again and I was able to make love to my wife like I had never had the authority to do before. But more than that, we were a collective. And as we all accepted this as our reality, our beds were more suggestions than assignments. And sex became something integrative and without gender. 

Tony was my first. He and his wife shared a bunk with Shannon and I, and we found ourselves in primitive knots of thrusting, sucking, coiled jubilation that I would have never believed to be so rewarding.

We were the new Romans. And this bomb shelter was our Eden.

Buck was the only man who did not benefit from the gift of the future. The weight of his purpose meant long hours writing in notebook after notebook. Shannon shared a pillow with him one night. They talked and fondled one another, but he told her that he couldn’t release a drop. As good as is felt, he had to remain whole.

His wife then took the seed of all of us in a way that led to no one knowing who’s had won out. Buck was an amazing father, too. Despite having no biological stake in those babies.

Shannon became pregnant within three weeks, despite our struggle to have babies for the fourteen years prior to that awful, wonderful night. We are expecting our third now, as the five year anniversary wakes us with the sweet, bubbling call of two dozen babies and toddlers.

It is finally time.

Buck, having aged fifteen years in five, stands at the hatch door.

The lights on the machine visible from the window.

“We are all green, friends. Who would like to see the sun?”

 

 

Image courtesy Family-Foods by KyleAndTheClassics via DeviantArt