Field Research

Unaware of his alien observer, Glunt squatted in the tall grass with the other members of the hunting party, wanting nothing more than to slink away, to disappear, to hide, anything to avoid killing the adorable baby deer-like animal in front of him.

The tribe had been following this herd for a very long time. The observer couldn’t get a handle on the way Glunt and his people measured time, but it had been at least a few years.

Glunt was a boy of eight or nine, about three years away from puberty. The spear in his hand was smaller than the adult’s spears, but no less deadly. Glunt had been practicing with the spear for as long as he could remember and he had an excellent arm. He knew, with complete confidence, that if he threw, the young mammal would die.

Which would be perfect. It would raise Glunt to the status of meat-provider. He’d never again have to dig in the dirt with the other children, searching for edible roots and grubs, or crawl thru prickly scrub searching for nuts and berries, boring tedious work reserved for the young non-hunters of the tribe.

The hunt so far had been fun and exciting. Almost relaxing. They’d circled the grazing herd, padding quietly thru the lush grasses that filled the valley floor. Glunt was proud of the approval he received from the older hunters at his ability to move as silently as the others. Glunt was the youngest of the hunters and although some of other young men resented his presence, (most boys had to wait until they were closer to puberty to try for their first kill) everyone was so pleased with the size and health of the herd and the good weather that the teasing he’d expected had been kept to a minimum. The recent cold rain had dissolved into warm, sunny skies, and if it weren’t for the act of horrific violence he was about to impart on the poor defenseless animal not 20 meters in front of him, Glunt would have perfectly content.

Instead, a wave of nausea swept over his body and he shivered. The man nearest him, his sponsor, looked at him, questioning, wondering why he hadn’t yet taken advantage of the opportunity that was standing right over there, munching on some grass and looking exactly like a toy he’d given to his niece last… what?

The part of Glunt that was the silent observer called Eric’Y’Lith’27, swore silently and tried to shrink back into nothingness in Glunt’s mind.

Glunt shook his head, embarrassed at the way he was losing concentration and slowly started shifting his weight to the balls of his feet in preparation of his throw.

Eric’Y’Lith’27 cringed and wished he could close his eyes.

Glunt’s eyes started to close.

Dammit!” Eric’Y’Lith’27 had to get a handle on hiself and fast, his emotions were bleeding into the subject. Not good. Not a good time to learn that he lacked objectivity this far along into his career. Me’lis’H8T had warned him of this. She told him that this particular study was not good for someone of Eric’Y’Lith’27’s sentimental nature. Well, what she had actually said was, “What? You? The Paleoamerican study?” and then she had laughed so hard she’d fallen over.

Eric’Y’Lith’27 ignored her. The same way he ignored all the similar advice he’d received from other co-workers and his boss. The boss had simply alternated the rainbow hews of it’s protoplasmic jelly in a certain pattern that Eric associated with disapproval and said that the study was accepting all volunteers and would certainly accept Eric as well.

It was Eric’s pride, not his common sense, that made the final decision to enter the study tank and allow his consciousness to be implanted into the mind of the Paleoamerican child somewhere on the North American continent of Earth some 12,000 years before the Earthling Diaspora.

The study wasn’t critical. It was only being used to fill in some gaps in the understanding of Human Beings. Most of that research had been completed decades ago. This study was being funded by some wacky, albeit wealthy, Anti-Human Group hoping to prove that Humans were not far enough removed from their violent beginnings to be accepted into the Intergalactic community as a ‘Proven Peaceful’ member.

Eric had never studied humans before. Most of the research he’d done so far had been into pre-sentient organisms. Not nearly as immersive, and, honestly, a little boring. Boring, but comfortable. The Paleoamerican boy slept on the ground with his siblings and cousins crowded around each other for warmth. They ate a lot of bugs and raw, tasteless food, with the occasional bit of undercooked animal flesh. He’d managed so far to avoid imparting his own feelings of disgust and discomfort on his subject, but his reaction to the imminent murder of the cute furry mammal was just too strong.

He wanted to end the study right then and declare that yes, the Anti-Human group was right, that humans were too violent. Any group of people that would encourage an eight-year-old to murder something was barbaric beyond measure and Eric wanted no part of it.

Eric had memorized a pattern of numbers and letters that he would simply have to think of in a certain order to be removed from the study. Better for him and certainly better for poor Glunt who would be ostracized for life if he didn’t go through with this killing.

He started the pattern… than stopped.

Glunt would be ostracized for life if he didn’t go through with the killing. Eric had spent a few days inside of Glunt’s brain now and knew that the kid didn’t want to kill the animal any more than Eric did. Interesting.

And then Eric broke the rules. He gave Glunt a nudge. Glunt lowered his spear and sunk back down into a crouch. One of the other boys jumped at the opportunity and threw his own spear. He missed and startled the animal which bleated it’s distress and ran back to the safety of the main group. It’s panic caused a bit of a stir, but the herd did not sense the hunters and stayed where they were.

The other boy’s sponsor smacked the boy in the back of his head hard enough to throw him to the ground. Glunt was smart and knew to keep his own head down and just be grateful that the other boy’s clumsiness distracted the group from his own shame.

Over the next hour, while the group moved to another more advantageous position, Eric examined the turmoil in Glunt’s mind. Eric’s own sponsor, in his case the study monitor, sent him a warning signal, informing him that they had noticed his transgression and would expect a full report upon his return. They could have just yanked him out then and there. That they didn’t gave Eric the confidence that he had in fact stumbled onto something interesting.

Glunt was a mess. He berated himself for his cowardice while trying to suppress the feelings of relief he felt at having again successfully avoided the sight of blood. Eric sifted through the the kid’s relevant memories…

A younger Glunt crawls silently though the bush towards his prey, an animal skin sack almost full of berries. His own sack is mostly empty, as he has spent the last few hours lying on a bed of moss and pulling apart wild flowers while watching birds fly south instead of picking. He is sure to get in trouble if he is found slacking off again. One of the other children has dropped the full, heavy sack while answering a call of nature. While the other child’s back is turned, Glunt takes the full sack and leaves the empty one behind.

The hunters have returned successful. Glunt hears the crys of joy and runs with the other children to see what is happening. Two large animals are thrown to the ground. One is still bleeding from the gaping hole in its shoulder. A few of the women start sawing and hacking around the creatures neck with their stone awls working to remove the head from the body. More blood and other mushy red bits spew out, covering the hacking hands, oozing through fingers. Glunt hears a rushing sound and the next thing he knows, he is lying on ground in the shelter while an older child sits near by with half an egg shell filled with water for him to drink.

The older men stand in a loose circle behind him. They’ve moved Glunt back even further away from the target, and he knows they believe he will certainly miss this time. The target is a patched together hide, roughly animal shaped, staked between two sticks. A black spot drawn on with the end of a burnt stick approximates the location of the eye. Glunt breathes in and out, shifts his weight, takes a step and throws. The spear sails cleanly through the hide, creating a hole where the eye used to be, and the men erupt in cheers behind him. Glunt’s pride melts away to fear when he realizes his success means the men will take him on the next hunt.

As far as Eric could tell, the other tribe members hadn’t noticed Glunt’s dislike of blood and hunting and his unwillingness to do any actual work. They were distracted by Glunt’s superior spear throwing ability, the only aspect of his life that Glunt put any sort of effort into.

It dawned on Eric that he and Glunt had a lot in common.

Eric and his race were the galaxy’s negotiators. They communicated entirely by telepathy and had the highest levels of empathy among the known sentient species of the galaxy. They were trusted by all to be impartial judges and researchers.
Their own planet was to them, if not to anyone else, a paradise. The stable climate, the abundance of digestible energy, and low birth rate meant that for all of their known history, there had never been war or suffering. For countless centuries, the entire race focused inward, all of their energy spent on exploring their own minds. They had levels of mental control that seemed like magic to even the most scientifically advanced cultures.

Eric was not a good representative of his race. He found mental exercises, the prime obsession of his peers, boring. He was, like Glunt, squeamish and a bit afraid of things that his peers took for granted. Like strong emotions.

Eric liked reading fiction. Fiction was a new concept on his world, introduce by alien visitors. Writing and reading fiction required a denial of reality, inconceivable to his kind.

To Eric, delving into a fictional world full of fictional people with fictional emotions was pure joy. The most relaxing sensation possible to a being that, by nature, never turned off it’s mind.

His peers called it escapism and laziness and believed he was a useless member of a group that never rejected anyone.
Eric felt Glunt’s pain when the hunting group arrived and another perfect spot and moved Glunt to the front where he had a clear shot at another living, breathing creature.

There was nothing to be done. Eric did his job because he had no choice. Everyone had to participate. Everyone had to at lease pretend to be useful.

If Glunt refused a second time to throw the spear, he would be forgiven for now, he was still young, even by the standards of his people. But eventually he would have to throw the spear. He would have to kill. He would have to learn to skin and gut the dead animal. He would have to participate in the survival of his people.

If Eric refused to participate in the expected, acceptable activities of his peer group, the ramifications weren’t life threatening. It was known that some individuals did not fit in, and there was room for all in his world. He’d be fine. Very lonely, but fine in the end.

The same was not true for Glunt, and in his secret pocket of the boy’s mind, Eric cried silent tears for this distant soul-mate.

If Glunt refused to participate in the good of the whole, he would be forced out. He’d be shunned by the other members, and would probably wander away on his own to live or die without passing on his over-sensitive genes, hence protecting the future of the race.

But it wouldn’t happen that way, Glunt would throw the spear. And over the course of his life he would grow harder and harder until the squeamishness of his youth would be a distant memory that only resurfaced in the middle of the night when he woke up screaming, rubbing the skin of his hands raw, trying and failing to remove the indelible bloodstains.
Eric hid away in the corner of Glunt’s brain, cowering from the surge of emotion as Glunt rose from his crouch, found his balance, raised the spear level with his ear.

The pattern to release himself from the study came unbidden to the forefront of Eric’s mind. He visualized the numbers and letters in their proper order as a unstoppable mental scream.

Glunt focused his whole mind, his whole self on the animals eye, developing in that very moment the trick that would save his sanity, using all of his imagination to pretend the eye was just a smudge of black on a patched together hide.
Eric felt the relief of losing consciousness as Glunt cocked his arm, stepped forward and threw.

Hasty Words

The sisters sit alone in the living room, their age-bent backs to each other. The windows are open but even the crickets and cicadas have stopped their chatter, afraid of attracting the wrath of the women inside. The guests have left unnoticed, sneaking away into the night, one of them chastised almost to tears for bringing up the decades old feud.  “I didn’t know!” she cries to her companions, “Why didn’t you warn me?”

The sisters have hacked and slashed at each other for hours now, their mouths dry and throats raw from prolonged discussion. They’ve revisited every battle except one.  The first one.  There is only the last part of the argument to get through now.  But who will begin?

The elder sister lost the most in the event, the details of which are fuzzy nearly fifty years later. But she recalls her patient, thoughtful course of action, all her careful plans, ruined by her sister’s hasty derailment.

The younger sister never apologized.  Her decision to ‘derail’ her sisters hopes, while made in haste, she never regretted.

The elder opens her mouth, tired, wanting to sleep, about to speak the final words and end the argument, the same way it ended so many times before, when the younger holds up a hand.

“You were twenty and beautiful,” the younger says, in a hoarse whisper. “Your life was like a perfect fairy tale, and you were engaged to your Prince Charming.”

The elder turns to face her sister.  This is something new.

“But you teased him so mercilessly. He banged through the screen door that last night, angry, frustrated.  I don’t think he saw me at first, curled up on the porch swing, he started to light a cigarette and we both heard you laugh. It was a cruel laugh.”

The younger’s eyes meet her sister’s briefly. “I saw his face in the light of his match. I saw the anger change to rage.  It scared me.  No.  No, scared is not right.  The look on his face changed something in me.  I changed.  He dropped the match and the cigarette, I saw his hands turn into fists, and he took a step to the door.  I jumped into his path.  I didn’t think, I just acted. Pure instinct. I acted without all the careful consideration that you pride yourself on, sister.”  The last word flecks her lips with spittle.

“He certainty didn’t think when he yanked me by the hair and threw me to the ground.  The back of my head hit the corner of the swing, not enough to bleed, but it dazed me for a moment.  He took another step towards the door, and I think I grabbed his ankle, I’m not sure. He kicked at or stomped on my hand. He broke three of my fingers. I told our mother I fell off the porch. I was sixteen and clumsy.”

The elder sister folds her hands tightly in her lap to stop their trembling.  Her memories shift in her mind and come into focus.  The secret sense of relief she felt when he called off the engagement resurges.

“I held on,” the younger continues, “I could not let him enter the house.  Somehow I knew that he would never really hurt me.  He didn’t care enough about me to go that far.  But you… I knew that if you went on with your plan, that if you married this man with all his wealth and beauty, that somehow, he would kill you.  I knew it in the instant he heard your laugh.”

“There was no time to think it through.  I told him, while I lie there on the porch clutching his leg, I told him I would scream.  I told him I would tell the world he tried to rape me.  I told him to leave, to call off the engagement.  I held my mangled hand in the light from the door and told him to never come back.”

The elder sister clears her throat, “He told me you said I wasn’t a virgin. Why…” The question, asked a hundred times before, has to change now, “Why did he say that?”

The younger sister hears the change and meet’s the other’s eyes, holding steady. “He said he needed a reason to end it.  I told him to blame me.”

“You could have told me the truth.”

“You wouldn’t have believed me.”

The elder sits in silence, absorbing the new truths.

Eventually, she sighs and rises slowly, carefully from her chair. Her younger sister stands as well, and they help each other towards the back of the house.

Before they separate, the elder touches the younger lightly on the cheek. “It is good to know,” she says.

The crickets and cicadas resume their chorus. The argument is over.  It is time for bed.

***

Fine Pancakes

pancakes
pancakes (Photo credit: Shoot into the Sun)

The Old Man insisted on calling her Marcy. Marissa wasn’t in a position to argue with him.

“I’m just reminding you, again sir, that in order to arrive at the signing on time, we need to leave in,” She glanced at the cell phone in her hand, “three minutes.”

He just kept on smiling and forked another pancake onto his plate.

“Marcy, relax. Have a pancake.  They’re delicious.” He winked at the cook who blushed.

The Old Man sat at the kitchen table in the tiny B&B he’d spontaneously chosen – instead of the fancy hotel the publishing house paid for. The cook/owner bent over backwards for the famous author, but Marissa had never seen her boss so angry.

You can’t just give in to the Old Man’s every whim! You’re his handler, Handle him!

“We don’t have time, sir.”

“Marcy, sit!” The old man barked, “You’re hovering like a mother hen.”

The commanding tone took her by surprise and she sat without thinking. He took her empty plate, put a pancake on it, and put it in front of her.

“Eat!” he said.

“I don’t eat carbs,” she said, cringing at the whine she heard in her own voice. The Old Man made her feel like a teenager despite her twenty years of experience in the book selling industry.

The Old Man snorted. “Marcy, you are an idiot.”

She’d been called an idiot and worse before. But for some reason, this client got to her.

No, I’m not, sir,” she snapped. “You are a rich old man used to getting your own way and you don’t care that your actions, or rather lack of action, will make me suffer.”

“How will my enjoyment of these fine pancakes make you suffer, exactly?” He said, still smiling.

She glanced at her phone where the messages from her boss were already piling up. “If we are late, again, I will get into trouble, again, with my boss, with the signing planners, and with your fans.”

He laughed and said, “I will tell them it was my fault.” He waved his fork in the air, a benevolent wizard with a magic wand.

Marissa shook her head. “I will still be blamed. Because you cannot be blamed.”

The old man sighed around his smile and looked down at his plate, “I am sorry for your suffering.” He punctured another piece of pancake, “But I am going to enjoy these pancakes.”

He looked back up at her, a hard glint in his watery blue eyes. “I am very old. These might be the last pancakes I ever have. We will leave when I feel it is time to leave. They will wait. The world will not end if I am late.  In fact, I might, if I feel like it, take a stroll through that lovely garden down there,” he gestured through the window behind Marissa, “and skip the signing altogether.”

He put the forkful of pancake in his mouth.

Marissa turned to look out the window. She hadn’t noticed the garden. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Like a picture from a fairy tale, with flowers, miniature trees, and a winding path of white gravel. She felt relaxation seeping into her bones just by looking down at it.

It would be nice to take a stroll, to skip the signing. He was right, the world wouldn’t end. She could picture herself sitting there, enjoying the sun. But she knew what came after that. Boredom. She didn’t like to vacation on the beach. She didn’t like to wander.

The stress of work made her feel alive, needed, and useful. She lived alone, her job was her life, and she liked her life.

She stood and left the kitchen. While she waited, she called her boss and let the other woman vent her frustration with the Old Man on a patient ear.

Eventually the Old Man appeared, hat in hand, ready to go. Marissa took his arm and helped him to the waiting limo, but before closing the door on his smile, she said, “We are real. We do exist. We think and feel and breathe in and out.”

He looked at her, his smile questioning now.

“Just in case you forgot.”

The smile faltered.

“I enjoy schedules and plans,” she said.  “I like planning things out ahead of time.  I get tremendous satisfaction out of checking items off a list.  This does not mean that I am living my life wrong.”

The words came out quickly – she knew the driver was anxious to depart, and she respected his anxiety.

“There is no wrong or right way to live a life.”

She started to close the door, then stopped and said, “And at your age, you really ought to know better.”

*

Daily Prompt: Comfort Zone – What are you more comfortable with — routine and planning, or laissez-faire spontaneity?

Send in the Clone

He reaches a hand across the table. She can see its motion out of the corner of her eye, a force so much larger than its representation. It takes over the table, the restaurant, the hotel they are in, but not in together, not like that.  Just co-workers at a meeting.  So typical.  But not, really, not like that.  Just friends.  At least they were until he started moving his hand, inch by inch, gently pushing aside the unused utensils it its path.

What are the words that go along with the force of the hand?  They are odd, and she is so completely focused on the hand, that she almost asks him to repeat, but no, here they are, “I wish I could clone you.”

She laughs.  The smallest of giggles, a tiny breath of sound though smiling lips.  Such a tiny sound, but with a power strong enough to stop the hand.  The hand slows just as it is passing her salad plate.  It slows, stops, reverses.

The words kill the depth and passion of the moment. What does she say in return?  She can’t remember.  Something nice. Something that will boost that fragile male ego.

They move on, see each other at the odd meeting here and there.  Never a word spoken of the ‘cloning incident,’ as she remembers it.

But she never forgets. He wanted her. How could a girl forget being wanted? He wanted her enough to defy convention and tell her, that despite the ring on her finger, he thought of her as a person worth wanting. Every time she sees him, she feels more beautiful, not just physically, but mentally too. Altogether more everything.

Years go by, and things change. The ring is removed from her finger.

She sees him again, some meeting somewhere, some restaurant, some hotel. They sit next to each other, and behind the mask of louder conversation among their co-workers, she tells him the truth about herself. But she drinks too much, says too much. The next morning, her sober, hung-over brain will recall the way he leaned away from her as she shared the facts of past acts of infidelity, the reason for the end of her marriage.

And it becomes painfully clear that he only wanted her when he couldn’t have her. When he thought she was clean and pure. Something very different than what she is. The happy memories of feeling beautiful, tarnished by the fact that he didn’t really want her, he wanted a made up version of her. A cleaner, nicer version.

Another time and place. He is engaged to a person tall and athletic, not a thinker, but a doer, like him. He reeks of smug superiority. At dinner, he is the one drunk, and he calls her a terrible word. She reacts with nasty words of her own, slashes his ego to ribbons. She is far smarter than he is, after all. A thinker, a planner.

And finally, he is married and all the things she found attractive about him are gone. The sweet loyalty, the casual kindness, the relaxed laughter, all gone. The stress and strain show in the lines on his face, the hunch of his shoulders. Another meeting, another hotel, he treats her like a disagreeable sibling. She avoids him and declines his invitations to dinner. With co-workers near by, he reaches a hand out, to grab, what? The hand is both mean and meaningless.

“What happened to you, so wild and fun?” He asks, when she says no, again.

She laughs, a large laugh, a laugh to shred conversation. She remembers plans made and broken, opportunities missed, and instead of regret, finally, she feels relief that it never worked out. It would have ended so badly if it had ever started. Usually she can’t picture the endings, but this one is clear.

Despite the clarity, she can’t make herself understood. How can she tell him that she does not exist?

Your Turn

A long time from now, in an assisted living facility not so far away, four old women sit around a card table.

“Jessica, it’s your turn.”

Jessica didn’t respond.  She stared at her hands instead. Gray hair never bothered her, nor did the wrinkles in her face, but her hands looked old.

“Jessica!”

Drea was getting upset. Jessica shuffled through the cards in her hands.  Normally she kept her hands hidden, the large puffy veins and prominent  bones embarrassed her.  This game makes no sense.  Why are we playing it, she thought to herself.

“What am I supposed to do, again?” Jessica asked.

Drea snorted loudly, and grabbed the cards out of Jessica’s hands. Jessica dropped her hands into her lap, below the table.

Drea hardly knew how to play herself, though, and the other two women were no help.  Jessica couldn’t remember their names. She blamed the lack of memory on her age, but the truth was she’d never been good with names.  The younger looking of the two picked up the tattered copy of “Bridge For Dummies” and unhelpfully read the same passage she read a minute ago.

“In bridge, four people each place a card face up on the table, and the highest card in the suit that has been led takes the trick.”

The other woman interrupts, again, and says, again, “That’s called the trump, right?”

They argue while Drea hands Jessica back her cards and says, “Just play this one,” pointing to the Queen of Hearts.

Jessica puts the card down while singing,

“Playing with the queen of hearts,
knowing it ain’t really smart
The joker ain’t the only fool
who’ll do anything for you”

The other women, even Drea, start laughing.

“O-M-G!” the youngest one says, spelling out the letters, “That song was already an oldie when I was a child!”

“I think it was from the seventies, the nineteen seventies I mean.”  Jessica said. When the last two digits in the years started to repeat, one had to be more explicit when naming dates. “I remember my mom singing along with it on the radio.”

“So, you can remember the lyrics to a song almost a century old, but you can’t remember how to play a simple card game?” Drea said.

“There is nothing simple about bridge, and I’ve never played it before in my life, and neither have you.”

Drea snorted again but didn’t argue, adding, “I was more a fan of Magic the Gathering, back in the day.”

The younger looking woman, Heather maybe? said, “Oh! My brothers played that game all the time! They had stacks and stacks of those beautiful cards. I loved looking at them.” she sighed then looked to her friend, “Susan, didn’t you play that game, starts with a D or something?”

Susan smiled shyly, “Yes, Dungeons and Dragons. I was the only girl in my school who played.  Wow, what memories I have of those days! But that wasn’t a card game, it was more of a dice game.”

Jessica felt a rush of excitement, “Do you remember any of it, could we play it now?”

Drea grinned, “Did any of you ever play World of Warcraft or Ever Quest?”

Susan and Jessica exclaimed at once, “WoW!”  Then turned to look at each other, eyes shining.

Heather shook her head, “What a bunch of geeks you all are!”

Drea scooped the cards into a pile.  “Well then, I believe I know what game we are playing next.”  She waved the robot attendant over and asked it to bring out four laptops.

Jessica frowned, “Drea, those games aren’t around anymore.  All the games now are full VR immersive, like we use for our exercise classes.”

“AH ha! You are wrong about that!  Happens that I am a member of a guild in a old MMORPG called Star Wars, The Old Republic.  A bunch of the old coders brought the game back a few years ago.  My,” she paused and swallowed, “My brother worked at the company that made the game.  Just before he died, they got it working again.”

Jessica saw the tears in her friend’s eyes, but knew better than to acknowledge them.

“But I never played any of those games,” Heather said, “I can’t…”

Old and newJessica leaned over and took her hand, “Don’t worry.” Heather’s hand felt light and brittle in Jessica’s stronger grip, but didn’t look as old.  Jessica wondered if all those years playing WoW in her thirties and forties made her hands look so old. Right hand on the mouse, left on the keyboard, taping and clicking for hours and days and even weeks when she could get away with it.  If so, then she should hold up her hands with pride. They were gamer hands.

“I’ll help you. You won’t believe how much fun it is.”

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/daily-prompt-game/

Her Last Day at Work – A Horror Story

Jane approached the entrance to her office building, eyes down, watching her feet. The wet leaves that cluttered the walkway clung to her shoes, leaving damp stains. A finger of wind groped her, pulling up on the edge of her coat, letting in the cold, making her shiver. Reaching the door, she stopped, her image reflected at her in the glass. She clutched a security badge in her gloved hand and waved it at the square black box to the left of the door. A green light on the box flashed briefly and she heard the click of the door unlocking itself. Jane tugged at the handle fighting not only against the weight of the heavy glass and metal but also the breeze which had, at that moment, turned into a gale, pushing the door closed, not allowing her to enter.

Maybe the wind was trying to tell her something. The familiar churning in her stomach surged beyond normal levels and she let go of the handle. She heard the second click, the door locking, as she stood there frozen in her own uncertainty. But then, wildly, she made a decision. A flicker of hope crossed her heart, started it beating. She started to turn, to walk back to her car, to leave this place, when someone pushed the door open from the inside.

“Having trouble with your badge?” the older, bespectacled gentleman inquired. She looked down at the badge in her hand, her own smiling face staring up at her, the seeming happiness mocking her. She nodded, because he expected her to, because she didn’t know what else she could do, she nodded and smiled and murmured thanks as she passed by him, and the moment, to enter the building.

The noise of a hundred voices in quiet conversation was the first thing she sensed as she left the entryway behind. She imagined floating above the huge room, looking down on the source of the noise, to see rows upon rows of identical cubicles, the occupants of which busily scurrying around, talking. Talking to each other, talking on the phones, talking to themselves, always talking, always making noise as if silence was something to avoid. As if to stop and think for a moment would bring the grinding, heartless machinery of Corporate America to a halt.

She twisted her way in a daze though invisible hallways and corridors towards her own cubicle, a feeling of despair filling her mind, surpassing the usual numbness, forcing tears. She automatically blinked them away, embarrassed by her lack of control despite knowing that no one would notice. Everyone ignored her. She felt like a puzzle piece that got put away in the wrong box. She floated along with all the people around her, never understanding what the final picture should look like; only knowing she wasn’t a part of it. The moment of potential freedom had passed and left in its wake a complete hopelessness.

Jane sat down in front of a desk that had her name attached to it, but otherwise looked exactly the same as all the other cubicles. A monitor sat on the desk with its keyboard and mouse. She reached under the desk and turned the computer on. An action of habit, done without thought.

Something in her mind clicked off as the computer clicked on.

A notebook sat on the desk, full of notes that she had taken without knowing why. She opened it and slowly turned the pages, staring at the familiar handwriting. She could see the letters and the words but they made no sense to her. Panicking, she flipped through the pages, frantically searching for one phrase, one word that she could understand. But there was no meaning in any of it. Nothing related to anything she was feeling now. It was useless. She flung the notebook away from her into the cubicle wall.

A certain kind of silence emanated around her as people stopped talking and started watching her. Tears ran, streaming down her face, following the creases of anguish and pain and frustration. The letters on the keyboard lost their meaning and the blinking cursor on the monitor waited for her to do something but she didn’t know what it wanted. The screen grew, looming over her; the mouse turned into its namesake and crawled towards her. She searched for a weapon. The off-white, flat rectangular thing with the buttons seemed adequate and she used it to smash the creature with the long white tail. Smashing and smashing, trying to kill the thing – but all she managed to do was destroy her weapon. She reached for the rectangular glass thing, but hands grabbed her from behind, restraining her arms. She kicked her legs, jabbed with elbows and knees but soon they were held too… and… then… stillness…

Jane felt each heartbeat, each breath and the long space between. People in orange jackets hovered over her. Their mouths were moving, they were asking her questions. They were talking at her body, at her face, at her eyes, but her mind was not connected to those things anymore. She huddled inside herself, unaware that her body was defending her still, kicking and screaming.

The last thing she felt was a painful prick on her arm and the last thing she saw was her reflection in the glasses of the old man above her. The same man who so kindly, so wrongly, let her in the building. He opened the door that destroyed her. As she drifted off to sleep, she wondered if he regretted it as much as she did.

Disregard the Clouds

A swirl of dark clouds crouched on the horizon in an angry knot, obscuring the sun. The old man saw where Laura was looking and said, “Don’t worry, the wind’s coming in from the northwest, that storm’ll head off east without coming anywhere near here.”

They sat on the back porch eating homemade ice cream and enjoying the cooler air of the early evening before the mosquitoes chased them back inside again.

Laura couldn’t believe how amazing the ice cream tasted. She’d watched her sister’s husband, Charlie and his father make it, it looked so simple, cream, sugar, vanilla, but it tasted better than any ice cream she’d ever had. It made no sense that the expensive stuff in the store couldn’t taste like this. They’d all taken turns cranking the handle on the antique ice cream maker. Maybe that was why it tasted so good. Even Little Charlie with his wiry strength had helped.

“Grandpa, how can you know that? You’re not a weatherman,” Little Charlie said around licks of the cone. The ice cream had melted in rivulets over the boy’s fingers. He sat on the edge of the porch, swinging his feet over the tops of the flowers planted below.

“What, you think the weathermen know anything?” the old man laughed. “They just stand there and read a script.”

“Well, the meteorologists know, and they’re the ones who tell the weathermen what to say.”

“Huh, you keep believing that, kid. No one can predict the weather.”

“But you just did.” Little Charlie said.

His grandfather roared laughter, almost spitting out his ice cream. “Kid, you are too smart for me!” he said when he caught his breath.

Laura looked through the window into the kitchen to see her sister frowning. Lynn didn’t like it when people told her son he was smart. Laura thought that was ridiculous. The kid was brilliant and everyone knew it. He was only nine and tested at a tenth grade level in every subject. Lynn held him back in school though, because of his size.

Laura looked back at the sky. The dark clouds still looked threatening, but the sun was starting to poke around the edge of the mass. The sky seemed so big out here. At home in the city she never noticed it, unless it was spitting rain at her as she ran from her apartment to the subway station. But out here, she couldn’t get away from it. Everywhere she looked, the sky forced itself into her awareness as if it resented her usual disregard.

Lynn came out with a paper towel for Little Charlie. He snatched it out of her hand before she could wipe his face for him. Laura hid a smile.

Lynn had her hair pulled back in her usual pony-tail. The sun glinted off the shiny grays and brought out the wrinkles around her eyes. Before she’d had her son, everyone guessed Lynn was the younger of the sisters. But after the premature birth and the three months of living in the neonatal care unit, there’d been no question anymore.

Laura looked at Little Charlie and wondered what he thought of his mother. He was such a happy kid. Equally adept academically and socially. Always the shortest, but also the most coordinated, he excelled at every sport. He was already pushing his mother away, how long until he came to resent her?

In the most hidden corner of her mind Laura remembered how much she’d hated him when he was born. She hated the pain and sorrow he’d caused her beloved sister, and the way he consumed Lynn’s every waking thought. Lynn had no time for a younger sister just starting a new job in the city, needing an older sister’s advice and counsel. Laura remembered standing in the hospital corridor, staring through the glass at the tiny infant covered in tubing and wires, and wishing he would just die and let everyone get back to normal.

It was hard for her to connect those feelings to the way she felt about her nephew now. He was kind and sweet, funny and smart, a joy to be around. She really only came out to visit as often as she did to see him. Her relationship with Lynn had never gone back to the way it had been before.

The sun shone brightly, a strange contrast with the heavy, dark clouds moving off to the east.

“Hey Charlie,” Laura said, “Maybe next weekend, before school starts, you can come visit me in the city.”

Charlie yelped, “Can we go to the big toy store?”

Laura ignored Lynn’s glare, “Sure. We’ll have a sleep over and play Xbox –  just Minecraft,” she added quickly to hold off her sister’s objections to ‘violent’ video games. “And I’ll let you stay up as late as you want,” Laura finished with a glare of her own.

Charlie stuffed the rest of the cone in his mouth and chewed while putting his hands together like he was praying. “Can I Mom, please.” He begged around the mouthful.

Lynn sighed, “Fine. Next Saturday,” she said to her son, then to her sister, “but you must have him back early Sunday morning, in time for mass.” Laura nodded in agreement.

“Awesome!” Charlie bounded off the porch, leapt onto his bike and showed his favorite aunt how he could do figure eights with no hands.

She’d leave tomorrow. Follow the clouds east back to her apartment in the city. Back to her quiet, somewhat lonely life, where those same clouds, as frightening as they looked here, wouldn’t even be noticed.

Gut Reaction

A fictional tale of unexpected, and slightly silly, heroic rescue.  

Wendy reached out to turn off the alarm and cringed, waiting for the hangover to slam into her head. After a moment or two, when nothing happened, she opened first one eye then the other to the midday glow emanating from around the edges of the shut curtains.  Still nothing. No pain, no queasiness. Random thoughts from the night before bounced around her brain without chronology or context, but one thought was clear: she’d drank a lot. More than she ought to.

Sitting up in bed, Wendy looked at the clock and saw it was a minute past noon.  Exactly when she wanted to awake, plenty of time to recover, shower and dress for Sunday dinner at her parents house. Perhaps the lack of hangover was due to the ten hours of sleep she’d just had.  Ten hours.  When was the last time she’d slept ten hours? Groaning, almost wishing for the distraction of the hangover, Wendy prodded the memories of the night before like she would a sore tooth. She remembered her uninhibited hands groping in strobe light, a cute guy with soft lips and muscular arms. She shook her head wishing the embarrassing memories away, imagining instead the dinner tonight. She would plant herself in a safe corner, watching her loud brothers dominate the conversation at the table and their uncontrollable sons tear the house apart. She’d try to get a few mouthfuls of her mother’s cooking, and maybe a word or two with her parents, before escaping into the quiet night.

She got out of the bed, spent a few minutes in the bathroom then went downstairs to the kitchen.  Her tiny rented house, with its mini backyard and single-person sized rooms was a dream after four years in a dorm and a lifetime of sharing space with others.  She started the coffee maker then went back upstairs to dress.  With bra and underwear on, she’d just started to put one leg into a pair of comfy sweatpants when she heard a scream from outside.

Wendy thrust back the curtains and threw open the window to see into the neighbor’s backyard. She hadn’t lived there long, only a few weeks, and hadn’t met her neighbors yet. The only thing she knew about them was their ownership of a small, yappy dog.

That dog, visible only as a bundle of white fur, currently occupied the space between the talons of a huge bird.  A raptor of some kind, its neck long and snakelike, its wings stretched in a protective circle around the meal in its claws. The sound of the continued screaming originated from a woman, just now falling to her knees, maybe ten feet away from the bird, her fear warring with her desire to save the dog.  Her hands reached into her short hair, fists pulling uselessly at the roots.  The bird clacked its beak and hissed.

Wendy’s first thought was to simply watch the drama unfold, like a bit of National Geographic wildness happening live before her eyes.  But the neighbor’s pathetic wail sliced into her ears, a cry of pure helplessness. Wendy couldn’t say later what it was that spurred her into action. Maybe it was the high feeling from the missing hangover, or the rare ten hours of sleep. Something in her clicked from observer to participant, and she found herself searching the bedroom for a missile.

Wendy had an excellent arm, she’d played softball since she was little. Her eyes scanned the room finding nothing round and throwable. But there, just behind the trash bin, the rejected birthday gift for a nephew, a toy spear and shield. Wendy made the mistake of showing the gift to her sister-in-law before wrapping it.  “No, I’m sorry, we don’t allow our kids to play with toys that encourage violence,” she’d said.

Wendy held onto the toy, even though it made her mad every time she’d noticed it.  But now the thought of using it made her smile.

With a leap, Wendy grabbed the spear, a flimsy plastic thing with a soft rubber tip, ripped it out of its packaging, and bounded back to the window. A giggle bubbled up, and even as she threw the silly toy, the giggle turned into laughter.  The spear flew from her fingers, sailed the short distance to the scene below, and amazingly, hit the bird.  It only bounced off a wing, but was enough to startle it.

The bird leapt back and released the dog which bounded away, straight past it’s owner’s welcoming arms, and in through the open door to the house.

Wendy’s laughter burst out of her in a loud guffaw.  The shocked neighbor looked up, a hand poised as if to wave, but frozen as she stared.  With a squeak, Wendy saw herself as the woman must see her, with long, bed-tousled hair, clad only in her underwear, cackling hysterically, after having just thrown a spear.  She drew the curtain then fell back on the bed, clutching her stomach, overcome by her laughter.

After she’d recovered, wiping tears from her eyes, she finished dressing, and went downstairs to have her coffee.  She stood in the kitchen, gleefully imagining the surprised faces of her brothers and their kids at dinner.  Tonight would be her turn to dominate the conversation with a tale of heroic rescue.

There is this really fun website called Seventh Sanctum that will generate prompts for all sorts of writing. Last night I clicked through several ‘Writing Challenge’ prompts until I landed on one that said, basically, that the story had to happen at noon, involve an eagle, and end with a spear.  Not sure if this story makes a whole lot of sense – but it was awfully fun to write… Hope you enjoyed it!

Unfinished Memory

A few months ago, Robbie’s 2nd grade class had added a class photo and a picture of the last Space Shuttle to his school’s time capsule. Today, as he stood near his grandfather’s grave, watching the people throwing mementos on the coffin, Robbie thought it was just the same. Except no one was going to dig it up in fifty years and ooh and ahh over all the old stuff.

Robbie thought long and hard about what to throw in for his grandfather. Mom said it should be something special that would remind Grandpa of Robbie. Just like the teacher had said, the picture of the last Space Shuttle was something that made this year special.

Grandpa liked playing cards, usually War because there was no way to cheat. He liked puzzles, the ones with millions of pieces. But throwing a deck of cards or a box of puzzle pieces didn’t seem right. They weren’t special enough.

The thing Grandpa loved most was his trains. In the basement of his old house, Grandpa had a huge oval table with a hole cut in the middle to stand in. A model town covered the table with a train track running through it. There were tiny trees and fake grass and little houses and stores and even streets with cars that could get stuck at the railroad crossings.

Every Sunday they went over to Grandpa’s house for eggs and bacon after church. As soon as he was excused, Robbie ran downstairs to see if he could find the new thing Grandpa had added to the table. Mom always warned him not to break anything but he knew it was ok because Grandpa liked fixing things.

The basement smelled funny and the lights that hung from the ceiling made a funny sound. Sometimes one of the long bulbs would start flashing on and off. Grandpa would just tap it softly with his finger to ‘calm it down,’ and it would stop. When he was little, Robbie asked Mom if Grandpa had magic in his hands, because they could fix anything. Mom just laughed and said that Grandpa was Clever and that was better than magic.

Sometimes the new thing on the train table would be easy to find. A new house or a new train car. But sometimes the new thing was really hard to find. Once it had been a tiny gray cat walking along the sidewalk. Grandpa, amazed at how fast Robbie spotted the cat, had told Mom that she should be proud to have such a Clever boy.

At the grave, it was Robbie’s turn. In his hand he held the most special thing in the world. It was a tiny model school-house, Robbie’s first addition to the train table. It wasn’t finished. Grandpa went into the hospital right after the Sunday that they started working on it. This morning, when they were all at Grandpa’s house before the funeral, Robbie sneaked downstairs to see if he could add the white paint for the windows and doors, but the paint had dried up.

Robbie uncurled his fingers and looked down at the little half-painted structure laying in the palm of his hand. This really wasn’t like the school’s time capsule, he thought, because Grandpa was the only one who would ever see the things they put in the grave. And even though the model was the most special thing in the world, it seemed wrong to throw it in like this.

He looked up at Mom and whispered, “I want to finish it.”  Mom nodded and wrapped her hand around his, closing both around the unfinished memory.

http://www.bachmanntrains.com/home-usa/products.php?act=viewProd&productId=653
image source: BachmannTrains.com

 

My Oasis

Beer
(Photo credit: W.D. Vanlue)

Her oasis looks like a bar. An old English style pub, dimly lit with lots of cozy corners where a person, or two, can hide in the shadows, away from the eyes of the bartender. The bar never closes and the clock never quite makes it to midnight. There are no cell phones on her oasis, and although there is someone out there, waiting for her call, she is never late.

I say oasis and you think of sand and sun, but she is too pale, bright lights hurt her eyes. You ask, are there palm trees growing there? No, there is nowhere to grow things, because there is no outside. It is all inside, in the gloom of perpetual one-minute-before-midnight, when even 100-watt bulbs cast only shadows. But there are wedges of pineapple, pierced by tiny umbrellas, precariously balanced on the edges of frosty, cool drinks. She can see them when some slinky chick enters the bar and orders one. She is envious of the slinky ones, not for their looks, but for their youth and their freedom.

Free? No, she is not free. The outside world frightens her. It demands things of her that she is not prepared to do. If she steps beyond the edge of the oasis, then the clock will strike midnight, and it will be time for her to make that dreaded call. Outside the bar door there is a pay phone; in her pocket there is a quarter. She will lie to someone she loves. (I’m so sorry, I didn’t notice the time. I’m leaving now. I’ll be home in twenty minutes.)

You ask me if there are other people in the bar. As I mentioned earlier, there are the extras, the slinky chicks and the business casual men, the ones who flit through and have no speaking parts. They make up the moving, changing background that gives the scene depth. Their drinks are fake, just tinted water.

The bartender? Well, he can’t or won’t leave either, but I’m not sure why. The conversations she has with him are vague, confusing. He always has a clever line, but just when she thinks he is trying to seduce her, he walks away to fill someone else’s glass. He knows her name and her favorite beer and he never makes her wait. But he never crosses to her side of the bar.

I think sometimes, he looks down on her, disappointed. He knows perfectly well what she is up to and he doesn’t like it. I like to imagine some of his disapproval hides some frustrated longing though.

And who else is there, you ask, what is it really that keeps her there? Are you implying that the comfort of a familiar bar and beer that always keeps one buzzed but never drunk and time standing still isn’t enough? No, it is not, you are correct. Even with all that, she would be bored in no time.

And it is the certainty of constant boredom on the outside that keeps her in there.

If you must know, there are pockets of stimulation in that oasis bar. A pocket may not seem like the best simile, but wait, I will explain. A pocket is dark and secretive. You can not see into a pocket, you can only grope blindly with your fingers, and try to recognize what it is you are looking for with only your sense of touch.

She sits at the bar and sip her beer, making it last. The bartender has just made some flirtatious remark and walked away. She spins slowly on a red leather bar stool. Not a bright red; there is nothing bright in this bar. Well, there is one bright thing. It shines on her finger like a laser, slashing the comforting darkness to ribbons. A diamond set in a band of gold, and pull as she might, it won’t come off. She twists it so to shield the light in her palm.

The red bar stool is comfortable. It curves perfectly to her back, but doesn’t let her slouch. It spins smoothly without resistance or squeaking. In a slow spin, she scans the room, looking for… A someone, maybe me, maybe you, who can lure her with dark eyes and knowing looks into a velvet lined pocket of time. A moment within a moment. A moment of exquisite sensation that lasts as long as forever or no time at all.

What are you trying to say? Escapism? Well, yes, you are right of course. But isn’t that what the word ‘oasis’ implies? An escape from the harsh realities of the world.

It doesn’t matter that the reality is one of your own making.

What else can she do? She changed, but her reality did not change with her. You escape into music or books. I escape into my words. She escapes into a bar that never closes, that serves drinks that relax while never inebriating, where she is whomever I want to her be. And I never have to deal with the consequences of her actions.