some fall in love. i shatter.

Archive for the ‘Stories Volume 1’ Category

One More Cup Of Coffee (#23)

In Stories Volume 1 on August 6, 2012 at 11:45 am

The Private Infirmary (#22)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Just two burners on the stovetop and five inches between them where the white porcelain had been discolored a mucus yellow from boiling-over pasta water.  Around the edges of the smaller gas burner were slight brown smudges, remembrances of coffee brewed and spilled.  To the right of the stove, on the yellow Formica countertop, was the moka pot that her right index finger reached for, wrapping around the hook of the black plastic handle and bringing it into her left palm.  The scratches of heavy usage showed on the metallic skin of the single-serving machine.  Her right hand gripped the top chamber and her left hand spun the bottom boiler until the two halves came apart, the funnel filter lingering in the seat of the boiler.

Coffee grounds remained impacted in the filter from the last time she had used the moka.  Little flecks of brown that had been stuck in the grooves of the top chamber shook loose over the countertop and the sink.  The top layer of grounds in the filter still bore the pinprick impressions of the filter plate that sat as the base of the top chamber.  Tipping the filter into her hand, she then placed the delicate piece between her thumb and middle finger, began the flow of hot water from the faucet, and placed the inverted filter directly under the stream.  The water forced its way through the tiny neck of the funnel and she could feel the pressure mounting until a movement began between her fingers and the mass of spent grounds fell with a thud to the sink, still in their molded shape.

Janine turned the filter upright and ran her finger around the edge where some of the grounds had lingered.  The water continued washing through and after a moment, all that was left was a residue of coffee oil, slick between her finger and the metal wall.  She placed it upside down on the countertop to dry for a few moments.  She picked up the bottom chamber and rinsed it out twice, a formality really, before filling the chamber with water up to the level of the steam release valve.  Janine set this on the counter next to the filter.

Reaching into the cabinet over the stove, she pulled out a sealed Ziploc bag with an open bag of Bustelo and small spoon inside.  Trace amounts of espresso-ground coffee collected in the corners of the bag, shimmying around like ants when the bag tipped one way or another.  She unsealed the bag, inhaling the aromas of cafés and bodegas as her fingers reached for the spoon handle and flicked away the clinging grounds.  Keeping one bag inside the other, she measured three heaping spoonfuls of coffee and gently laid them into the filter that she’d picked up in her left hand.  The back of the spoon smoothed out the mound until it was flush with the edges of the filter.  She laid the filter inside the bottom chamber, careful not to spill any of the coffee on the counter.  There was enough of that already.  She was tired of wasting things like coffee, time, herself.

Janine winced at a sudden cramp in her left foot, bending down to massage the muscles back into submission.  On her way back up, she turned the knob to ignite the burner and once the flame came alive, she set the temperature to Medium-High.  She liked for the burner to heat up just two minutes before putting the moka pot atop the grill.  She found that the sudden rush of heat served the coffee better than the slow increase in temperature.

Sometimes Janine missed who she had been just a few years earlier and sometimes she was more than content with who she’d become.  This was one of those moments when things seemed to be okay.  Even when the coffee came out tasting thick and burnt, she fetishized the ritual and the way that it made her feel like an independent adult.  She only wished things could have come on like that same rush of heat and spared her some of the details.

The top chamber next went under the waterfall of hot water like everything else, her finger sweeping the sides of the chamber in order to wipe away the remaining oily residue.  Three sweeps and everything looked clean enough.  It wouldn’t be sufficient in any café but it passed in the galley kitchen of her forgettable apartment.  The skin on her face felt the heat erupting from the small burner so she hurried to wipe dry the top chamber.  She never understood why she bothered with the unnecessary step but she did and was persistent about it.  The top chamber was placed atop the bottom and Janine gently twisted them together, careful not to spill any water or grounds.

She placed the moka on the edge of the burner, trying to keep the handle as far from the flames as possible, and leaned against the counter with her eyes closed.  Percolation only took two minutes and she had learned not to leave the stove or she would turn absentminded until the coffee spilled, burned, and stained.  So to the ritual of making the coffee and drinking the coffee, she had added waiting for the coffee.  The rote movements of ritual had been comforting at one point in Janine’s life.  They became necessary after she kicked Marcus out of the apartment and out of her life.

Janine enjoyed the simple movements of cleaning the moka pot and the gentle bitterness of the coffee down her throat.  Now there was the darkness of her lowered eyelids, the silence of the apartment broken only by the sound of the gas coming through the burners and the light gurgling of the dark coffee bursting forth through the central column.  Soon enough she heard the coffee erupting and the faint sputtering of water from the safety valve.  She knew it was best to remove the machine then, that residual heat would continue to turn the water into upward moving steam, that the coffee could quickly burn.  But she loved the sound, the little dreams being born below and fulfilling their ambitions above – impossible half-lives.

She cut the flames and pulled the little moka from the coils of the burner.  From the cabinet over the stove, Janine pulled down a coffee mug with a photograph of two foxes and the text “People Like You Are An Endangered Species.”  Pouring the coffee into the mug, it rose only to where the handle began.  Espresso mugs weren’t quite a luxury but they had yet to find a way into her home.  She liked the way the coffee remained close near the bottom of the mug, how demure it was down there, waiting to be discovered, remaining calm about it all.  Janine held the mug by the upper edges and felt the spreading warmth.

Another dollar saved, another minute of peace maintained.  She looked around at the walls, off-white made off-yellow by the march of time and the cheap light bulb that promised efficiency yet failed to deliver clean light.  The maroons of the sectional couch didn’t help, nor did the glass coffee table that so efficiently displayed dust, coffee spills, heel prints from her bare feet, and who knew what else.  Brown floorboards are better than any shade of carpet, she thought; that would only serve to better display the remnants of city streets that I carry into here.

To think I call this peaceful, she thought, this wandering-eye critique and criticism of my home.  To think some people call this success, call this getting by in a tough economy, call this surviving.  To think that I’m one of those people.

Janine picked up the phone to call Marcus again.

 

Fragments of A Rainy Season (#21)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm

“Well?”

 

never win and never lose

 

I remember looking away from her, like looking away while the Sermon on the Mount was being read.  It was bad enough sitting away from her but to avert my eyes at the moment they met hers was a grave injustice to her, myself, and to all the romantics who christened themselves Great Lovers, the same group I previously and erroneously connected myself with.  She was lying on the painful comforter of a Wayward Traveler Motel bed, somewhere in Nebraska off Highway 25.  I had positioned myself on the edge of the bed, thoughts in my head contemplating moving closer to her or relocating myself to the meager chair by the miniature table, against the window that looked out onto the empty and cracking parking lot.  The lamp in the corner with the tired white lampshade cast pale yellow nightmares on the faded pink walls around us.  I swear I almost cried.

She had let down her yellow hair, dyed to shield itself from the natural brown undergrowth.  Are any of us honest anymore?  Her glasses were still on and the look on her face was one of love, care, and longing; one that was leaving everything up to me.  Never leave everything up to a man dressed in scuffed black boots, faded jeans, a shortsleeve black shirt, and a white longsleeve shirt underneath.  Never leave anything up to a man like this, especially when he dyes his hair black.  Are any of us authentic anymore?  There I sat, on the edge of the comforter, a vomited smatter of pastels cleverly designed to mask any stains the Wayward Traveler’s industrial chemicals and cleaners were unable to unstick.  My thoughts began to scatter.  I looked back towards her as she slid her glasses off the gentle slope of her nose.

“Sean, are you okay?”  I barely heard her through the din of my thoughts growing louder with every passing second.

“I’m fine.”

“Well then why don’t you lie down?  You look so nervous; you know there’s no reason to be nervous.”

“Nervous… nervous.  I could actually use another drink.  You want anything?”  Without even hearing the response, I relocated to the dresser and reached for the bottle of whiskey we’d brought.  I poured her a drink and one for myself with a little more going into my glass.  I brought Camille’s glass to her, noticing how her yellow hair had begun to curl itself around her shoulders, somehow magnificently floating over her body while melting into it at the same exact moment.  She sighed and our fingers brushed as I handed her the glass, the contact like a train barreling upon us and the stillness of the room.  I don’t know if it was the awkward and pained look on my face or the abrupt movements of my body, but a sad smile stretched across her lips.

“Seriously, what’s wrong?  Is it what I said?  Cause we can pretend it didn’t happen.”  Camille knew the answer, knew not to press it, knew she had gone far enough already.  The sweetness in her voice almost made me break down on the disgusting blue carpet of that forty dollar motel.  If I’d lost it there there would have been absolutely no reason for me to go on.

“I’m just trying to wade through my thoughts right now, trying to make sense of things.”  I returned to the whiskey on the counter, poured myself another drink, held it in my mouth, and swallowed.  “I think maybe I need a little air.”

“We just came in ten minutes ago.”  Looking back at her green eyes nearly shimmering in the lamplight, it seemed there was almost a trace of fear.  But for what, or whom?  “I know, I just need a few moments alone to collect myself.”  Camille nodded.  Could she possibly understand?

“Take your jacket.”  She propped her slipping body back up against the chipped and decaying wooden headboard.  I pulled my brown leather jacket off the chair and swung it onto my shoulders as I moved toward the door.  “Sean, come here.”

I moved to her.  Her electric hands reached up to my face, pulling it closer until her lips pressed against mine, her closed eyes trying harder than ever to look inside of me.  She let go and I kept my face against hers.  No, I thought, not here, not now; I will not lose myself.  I touched her face and pressed my lips against her cheek.  She had that unforgettable scent, like the desert, so vast and so ongoing.  It makes you want to forget everything you’re thinking, to kiss her closely, to climb into bed with her, to never let go.  And that is exactly why a moment later I was out the door, out of that deadly motel room.  As the door shut I thought I heard her ask, “Will you be back?”  I didn’t answer.  I didn’t have one to give.

Stepping out into the Nebraskan spring night was like stepping out of time.  The night was still beautiful and that mattered for the moment.  Almost as beautiful as Camille.  Looking up, past the garish orange light hanging from the ceiling of the motel walkway, there was the expansive sky.  There is nothing like the late night skies over Nebraska, when the sky is clear and you can see every tiny star outlined against that oceanic darkness, competing against the moon for infinite glory.  And that full moon, casting brightness over what should be an all-encompassing darkness.  It turned the harsh blackness into a shimmering blue-black, like a slow, fading sunset when the day and the night hold each other close.  A sense of comfort, almost as a giant comforter for the entire world, wrapping itself up in it and getting lost forever, finding blissful sleep in forgetfulness.  Even in cloud cover there’s nothing like those midwestern skies, utter darkness folding out over the land.  The only lights those random ones planted by humanity in the desolation of the Great Plains.  They’re no match though, the darkness seeps inside of you, letting you breath deeper while simultaneously strangling your mind.  Mankind.  Humanity.  Fighting so hard to hold a candle in that vastness.  A pair of headlights, a fire burning, the lights of a cheap motel.  The perfection is in the imperfection.

 

there’s nothing much to choose

 

I looked around, exhaling.  There were just three cars slumbering in the concrete parking lot and the pavement cracks all resembled grins and frowns, mingling and drinking in a roadhouse bar.  The light from our room fell out the window, casting my shadow long and mean.  It seemed so warm and safe inside.  I thought about going back in.  I lit a cigarette instead.  In the light of the flame, I could see an image of glory, fighting so hard to stand straight in reality, but failure fell when the flame went out.  I stepped off the walkway between the cracks, a hundred examiners staring.  A sprinkle of dust fell over my boots, turning the dull black a harmless gray.  As I continued walking forward, not knowing where I was directing myself, my thoughts began reaching in every direction but moving too far and too quickly for me to follow.  I lost most in the tumult and held only fragments that made no sense when I tried to reconstruct them.  What’s one to do?  Keep moving, always keep moving.

I approached the quiet strip of highway.  This was my Desolation Row.  There was nothing in front of me, to my left, to my right.  Emptiness.  A wide canvas, blank for the stories of a life to be written and erased once the dust has cleared.  There were no other buildings visible and no cars on the road; all those passing through had found a place to rest for the night and all the farmers were home asleep.  This empty canvas hits hard to the gut, it inspires all fears and dreams.  The fear of abandonment, loss, failure, the fear of one person’s significance in the face of so much emptiness.  The fear of death.  The dreams of starting fresh, moving unseen through the space of life, leaving your mark, the dream of one persons significance in the face of so much emptiness.  The dream of permanence.  You could be everything or nothing, but what decides, what differentiates?

 

between the right and wrong

 

It had happened not that much earlier.  We were coming back to the motel from dinner after having stopped driving for the night.  The ride back from the Country Drive-In had passed in silence, both of us tired from the long day on the road.  At least I was; I thought Camille was too but it turned out she was busy thinking about what was to come.  The parking lot was silent and still as we pulled in.  The violent thud of my car door sounded like a right hook, Camille’s sounded like a knockout.  I should have known something was amiss as the sounds traveled unmolested across the flat country.

As we approached the door to the room and I reached for the key, I felt Camille’s quiet hand slip around my waist in a slight embrace.  Without much pressure, she pressed herself against my back.  I thought nothing of it, nothing extraordinary at least.  We were close, there was nothing strange about it if she hugged me.  Simply a matter of closeness between friends.  So I pulled the key from my right pocket and moved it to the keyhole.  Turned and pushed.  As I motivated my muscles through these actions, as the door waved gently on its hinges, as her hands slid up my back to my shoulders, as a star shone brighter in the sky, as the world continued its revolutions, as the threads of eternity kept unraveling, she said softly, just below my ear, “I love you.”

I shuddered.  My mind went empty and vast, I didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t even comprehend the ramifications of what had just happened but I knew they were huge.  Most of my nerves had gone numb but I noticed that her hands had slid back down from my shoulders and eventually dropped off of my flat-world map.  Keep breathing, I told myself, inhaling deeply and holding it, afraid that if I exhaled I would have to face the reality that time was continuing to move.  She was becoming my double, standing silent and still behind me.  For the first time since I had known her, I was afraid of her.  I comprehended the passage of time and let my breath go.  There was nothing else that I knew to do, my options had been cut down to zero, so I walked.  That was it, I walked.  Straight into the room, past the table and chair, past the bed and lamp, past the dresser with the whiskey we had brought in earlier, past the chronological listing of events I had thrown out of my head and onto the floor, and found myself in the bathroom.  I never touched the bathroom door but it shut behind me.  It read my thoughts.

Once inside, I pressed myself up against the wall, left the light off.  I heard Camille shut the door upon entering, heard the light turn on, heard her movements across the room.  I sat down on the edge of the bathtub.  There was a window in the bathroom through which the moonlight came in and reflected off the cold white and black linoleum floor.  Camille tried knocking a few times, calling to me, asking me to come out from behind the door, pleading with me to talk to her and then offering me the opposite and insisting that we didn’t need to talk about any of what had happened.  She would have found better traction with consistency but instead tripped herself up by changing tactics.  Unfortunately, there comes a certain moment when a rational person doing an irrational thing realizes just how silly he’s become.  I was accomplishing nothing in that bathroom.  It was a cramped and pointless place for me to be at a moment like that.  Maybe I’ll fare better in the room with her, I thought.  Maybe.  If she was the catalyst, maybe she would be the means to an end.

My thumb and index finger clasped the knob of the old silver lock and twisted it clockwise.  The lock silently slid to the right through it’s curved wooden frame.  Years of repetitive motion had smoothed the wood to it’s present frictionless state.  The door with it’s white paint and cracks of age swung inward on equally silent hinges and presented the tableau I’d been avoiding.

The bedroom was lit for a sacrifice.  Was I offering myself up?  She was lying on the bed, her eyes shut against the world, beauty reclining.  I had moved silently and thought perhaps she hadn’t heard my reentrance into the room.  Had I become a ghost to her, had my actions from a fleeting few moments ago killed the person whom she had thought I was?  Perhaps this is how the ignorant remain stable, they push out unanswered old questions with burning new ones, continuing the cycle, the ringing repetition.  They don’t feel vacant because there’s a flow of thoughts though nothing is ever answered and nothing is ever composed of a greater substance.  Whether this be the verdict or not, it was happening to me.  I was drowning in a sea of open questions.  I sat on the edge of the bed and knew that if she had not known of my presence previously, she did then.  I turned my head around to afford my eyes the opportunity of falling onto her grace.  She was looking away, out the window, maybe she wanted to be somewhere else, at some other point, as much as I did.  And then she turned back so that her eyes once again knew mine.  And then we rebroke that barrier of familiarity for a moment.  And then the intricacies rewound themselves tightly for it was in that instant that she broke the silence.

“Well?”

 

nothing lost and nothing gained

 

We were in the middle of America, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a vague sense of destination precisely because Camille and I both found ourselves succumbing to becoming nothing without putting up any fight.  Both of us had dreams, both of us had ambitions, and both of us watched passively as those things begin to slip away in our post-collegiate years.  My dreams of architecture and painting had given way to the reality of an exhausting and low-paying administrative job in a bad economy.  Camille’s dream of writing a novel had repeatedly hit against the daily frustration and self-sabotage of long work-hours, a social life, and an inability to find the time to be creative.  We’d met just after graduating from university, a mutual friend, and had introduced ourselves with the titles of things we wanted to become.  But the world is a vicious place and society needs people to keep everything running smoothly; the support staff for those doing what they wanted was massive and we’d watched each other – unable to watch ourselves – be pulled into the machine.  We’d watched each other grow older and more complacent; we’d watched each other fall into a routine that wasn’t bad but wasn’t what we’d wanted.  That phrase had been seared into my mind: Not bad but not what I wanted.  That phrase was the catalyst to shake things up, to undo the mental ties we’d allowed to form around us, to once again fight against the notion of settling.

So, a cross-country drive. See things we’d never seen, do things we’d never done, allow our minds to wander and be inspired and realize what it was like to flex those muscles.  Two weeks wasn’t a magic cure but it was meant to be the start of something restorative.  It was a rallying cry to actively reject what we’d been passively accepting.  And yet there we were, just barely into the thing, when Camille said what she said.  It wasn’t the love that had frightened me so, it was the realization of what that love stood for.  Maybe she viewed it differently but I saw it as a retreat into the things that we knew, that complacency we were trying to head away from.  Even if we’d never approached each other romantically, we were each still anchors for one another.  Instead of being supportive for the changes we were each trying to make, a love between the two of us would pull us away from those things, wrap us up in one another with the dreams left on the outside.  We were safe while the things we were trying to do were god-awfully dangerous.  Camille had panicked and read that panic as love.  Panic and fear were no reasons to change the thing that we had between one another, even if love did exist.  If it truly did, we could nurture it later, see if it grew once we were strong enough to nurture ourselves.  She was a beautiful sense of fear though, one that wouldn’t be easy to turn away from.

 

still things aren’t quite the same

 

With memories and futures unfolding inside, I passed back through the parking lot, leaning against the hood of our car to regain a sense of footing.  I closed my eyes just for a second and stumbled through the paper-thin walls of organized thought.  All the ends and all the beginnings became mixed up and then lost upon themselves.  Everything around me experienced a momentary slice of evaporation, including myself, and all I knew was darkness.  Without order and without expectations, the world and our paths in it made just enough sense for me to think I understood what I was doing.  Normal consciousness ricocheted back into the forefront of my mind.  I pushed off the car and stood back up.  The light was still falling from the window to our room but there was no movement of shadows, everything was still in the night.  Not even a cricket chirped, making every step I took sound like a shattered shotgun blast.  Expand your mind with a shotgun, a friend of mine used to say.  I didn’t see many of my old friends anymore.  Always keep moving.

The tarnished golden doorknob spun with my hand and the great wooden door inched open.  Slight upon slight the door opened until I had a clear image of Camille curled on the bed.  I couldn’t tell if she was asleep or waiting for me.  Her glasses were off, resting on the dark wooden nightstand, her hair had fallen over her face, slipping down onto the bed.  It was here, standing in this doorway, looking at her with the smooth, chilled Nebraska night behind me that I realized the beauty and wonders that she was composed of.  And it was all feeling, all emotion.  As much as I try to lay these thoughts out and piece them into intelligible words, I know it’s an impossible task.  That was exactly the wonder of her.  It’s as if she wasn’t real and never was because nothing tangible is sufficient to describe her.  She hits you on a different level of perception and you never know what it was that hit you, you’re just left reeling.  I stumbled over thoughts about her and nothing fell in a straight line; they scattered and that was the only way I was able to read them and get an idea, to begin understanding what I felt about her.

I remained in the doorway: one foot in the room, one foot out, my hand still on the doorknob.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from her, I couldn’t do anything; if I were to fall at that moment, I would realize what was happening yet be unable to do anything about it.  And my body did seem to be going limp, my hand slipping from the door and lightly pushing it.  It creaked this time, shaking me out of my trance.

Camille was sort of splayed out, laying on her side with her head in the direction of the bathroom that had been my refuge not so long ago.  She slept in her jeans and the red tank-top she’d worn during the warmer parts of the day, the cable-knit sweater folded and placed neatly atop her unopened rolling suitcase.  Just looking at her, in that singular moment when God knew how many people were awakening to their problems and how many were succumbing to them, I knew that I loved her.  It was stronger than any other fake premonition of love I had ever felt before.  I had loved her since I met her and now I loved her more fully than ever before.  I stepped softly into the room and clicked off the lamp.  The room became awash in darkness with only ghostly wisps of moonlight drifting in, terrifying and beautiful.  I walked in and stood over her, just looking, taking her in.  That tiny tide of light became homicidal, its strength overpowering me until I felt like I was suffocating in the air of the open room.  I could see myself leaning over, brushing the gold silk off of her face.  I caught a heavy scent of her smell again and almost lost myself in that desert that could bring me to my knees faster than any act of brutality or repentance.

I tilted my bent angle a fraction more and kissed her forehead.  She smiled unconsciously.  Love had always been a thing that I so strongly pretended to understand but it was always just that, just pretend.  I stood straight and turned away.  My brown and beige overnight bag sat atop the table near the entrance to the room.  The two leather hand straps were still buttoned together and they stood straight up.  The bag was light, just a few changes of clothes and some toiletries inside.  Almost absentmindedly, I took the car keys from my pocket and laid them on the table where my bag had been.  Then my hand was back on the doorknob, turning it so slowly and deliberately.  She had outdrawn me; I was shooting back.  I had loved her in numerous ways since I had met her, since we’d been friends, years and years earlier, but things were now in dangerous territory that I thought was bigger than the two of us together.  And so I walked out the door and back into the night, breathing in the air of uncertainty.

Walking back out into that Nebraska night was like walking directly into a self-directed line of fire.  What was I doing?  Where was I going?  Who did I think I was?  The worst part was that I had no answers to justify myself.  All I really know, I told myself, is that I cannot stay here, I cannot stay with her.  In searching for love between her and myself she was simply angling herself downwards, not just setting herself up for a fall, but actually begging for it.  I didn’t want to be the one pulling the lever to make the floor drop out from underneath her, she meant too much for me to do that.  And though I felt like I loved her with all my heart, I knew that if I stayed I would have eventually worn the executioners hood.

 

between you and me

 

My boots on the parking lot’s gravel kicked up the same gray clouds as before.  The sky looked even blacker.  The air felt even stiller.  The atmosphere was alive and all changing but the gray cloud remained the same, kicked up and resettling back where it’d come from.  My steps were loud against the gravel.  The brown bag hung from my right shoulder and I knew the strap would leave a solid red mark on my skin by the time I dropped it again.

I stood at the edge of the road.  Street lamps shone in the distance but I couldn’t tell how far away they were.  The Wayward Traveler sign to my right had long ago been turned off.  I looked to the left, the direction we’d been heading when we stopped earlier, the direction I was to again head now.  I didn’t know what Camille would make of my disappearance, if she would try to find me on the road or leave me to my journey.  I hadn’t left any note so she’d need to piece it together herself but she was smart.  I had utter faith in her, more than I had in myself, but it’s all about big gambles and big payouts. I hoped so at least, and I put my foot to the blacktop.

 

**credit to John Cale for the lyrics from ‘(I Keep A) Close Watch’

The City Clock (or, An Enumeration of Jack & Meg Reynolds) (#20)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 16, 2012 at 9:58 am

1 love.

2 people searching for each other.

3 children that’ll change everything about their lives.

4 months trying to get pregnant the first time.

5 grandchildren, but they don’t come along for a very long time.

6 different apartments they live in together before deciding to leave the city and buy a home.

7 years Bianca spends in college before graduating.

8 women that he slept with before meeting her.

9 men that she slept with before meeting him.

10 weeks in the hospital after his car accident.

11 movers working a full day to pack them out of their house the last time they move.

12 dollars for an anniversary cake from the same bakery where they ended their first date.

13 Christmases dressed like Santa Claus.

14 years, approximately, that Kingsley spends in prison for a variety of reasons.

15 fights over the entire course of a remarkably stable marriage.

16 children’s books she publishes during her 60s and 70s, while “retired.”

17 vacations at the beachside rental.

18 years old, Wendy, when she joins the army.

19 companies he refuses to buy from for political reasons.

20 months between their first and second children.

21 degrees outside and snowing when he proposed to her.

22 years in banking before she decided it wasn’t for her.

23 boxes to pack the first time they moved together.

24 thousand dollars on home renovations just before the market collapsed.

25 seconds she waited before saying “I do.”

26 when they married.

27 hundred dollars for the most expensive ring he ever bought.

28 countries they’ll visit, mostly after they retire.

29 years old when have Wendy, their first-born.

30 days after meeting, he told her that he loved her, at a wedding.

31 when they have Kingsley.

32 different campaigns they volunteer for together.

33 weeks between jobs in 2011.

34 marriage counseling sessions while Bianca flails through college and Kingsley does his second stint in prison.

35 thousand dollars per year in undergrad for him to never use his degree.

36 business trips the same year he was let go.

37 flights they take together.

38 when they have Bianca.

39 R 3 SG – the plot number of their shared grave site.

40 weeks to plan their wedding.

41 when she changes careers.

42 states they visit together.

43 when she finally convinces him it’s pronounced ‘supposedly’ and not ‘supposably.’

44 friends invited to their 50th wedding anniversary.

45 when his father dies and his mother moves to an apartment not far from their home.

46 when the cancer scare comes.

47 people at their wedding.

48 weeks dating before they move in together.

49 when the cancer reality comes.

50 days until their first great-grandchild, Monica, is born.

Numbered Days (#19)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 9, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Wednesday

This was the first day I saw her in the park.  Red dress.  Eight planks of unstained pinewood fashioned loosely into a stage set between the Luminos Building and the large concrete fountain in our little corporate park on 13th and E.  I could recognize the fresh scent of the lumber from thirty feet away amid the exhaust, food, and perfumes of the city.  The stage was neither large nor small; it suit her perfectly, this stranger.  A one-woman show; there was room to pace, to cry, to call out towards Heaven, to beat the floorboards and claw at the grave.  I only say this with certainty as I saw her performing these motions over the course of the day.  I observed her on my way into the office, I held her in my line of sight from my office window on the 12th floor, I lingered over her when I stepped out for cigarette and coffee reprieves. It was this same day and in this same office that I received the Pinski account and became manager of our second largest account.  It was this same day that we learned Harris had killed himself, which was the reason for Pinski falling into my lap.  Normally there would be a day or so before account redistribution, but Pinski was just too big.

She was on stage reciting dramatic monologues without hesitation, without notes, without any sense of order as she called for requests.  Few answered her.  Some humored her with the standards, some challenged her with the obscure.  Shaw, Brecht, Shakespeare, Pinter, Synge, O’Conner, Churchill, Thomas.  She challenged them back, calling for specificities: a play, a scene, or a character, but her antagonists generally folded.  These were men and women like myself: ad men, accountants, personal assistants, executives, and financiers.  We could muster together a playwright and a play for these were the things required at cocktail parties, necessary for the social lubrication that allowed us to squeeze upwards on the tightly packed ladders that dominated our lives.  Unless the theatre was someone’s outside hobby, nobody knew anybody they didn’t need to know.  Even from so high up, I could hear bits and pieces of the outside world through my cracked-open window.  I only recognized some of the Shakespeare and that was primarily luck.

I cracked the window in my office and her voice fluttered in on gusts of wind.  I had opened the window to hear her but tried to not stray too much in that direction.  Pinski was more than big.  Pinski was a behemoth.  There was no reason for the account to have come my way other than those above me doing their damnedest to dodge the bullet themselves.  Pinski was high risk, high reward, but most just viewed it as a threat, a liability.  A tragic opportunity they called it, the smell of Harris’ death still in the air, a moment to step up and distinguish myself.  Trial by fire; execution by ire.  Harris would be remembered for the wrong reasons.

She was distinguishing herself far below me.  Even if she has no name, I thought, she’ll be remembered better than I’ll be; all it took was one day of standing on a silly, transient stage to become lodged, however deeply, in thousands of memories.  People may remember the work I’ll do, the images and jingles and campaigns may linger, but not my name, not my face.  Harris would even be remembered more than me.  Harris.  Pinski.  I shut the window and turned away from the red dress below.

Thursday

The stage was dismantled.  Six planks sat in a pile while the remaining one lay across her cross-legged lap as she sat on the ground damp from the night before, rain still collected in the pockmarks of the concrete.  No matter the pervasive moisture around her, both she and her collection of wood seemed completely dry.  One of the planks had disappeared.  She wore blue jeans and a black tank top that contrasted the pale musculature of her arms.  She seemed to utter not a word.  Her right hand held a wood plane as her left steadied the plank.  A stack of sandpaper sat tall next to her.  In smooth and steady strokes, she ran the plane over the plank, creating thin, curling sheets of wood that dropped around her.  In time, she seemed to be sitting within the collections of a pale snowdrift, mute as a snowman.  Snowwoman, I suppose.  Fewer people stopped to see her today.  She did not wield the same dramatic magnetism as the day before.  Wednesday, people had stopped to watch and then asked the simple question: why?  Today, they asked why and didn’t bother stopping to watch.  Which is to say that I only gave her about three minutes before heading into my building.  It was 7:03 when I turned my back to her.

I had worked for eighteen hours the day before.  Pinski was a killer or a career-maker, depending on how well you handled it.  Harris was the unfortunate example.  Second largest account and also the most troublesome.  Our clients within Pinski were notoriously difficult to deal with, mercurial and antagonistic, challenging and unrelenting, continuously changing opinions and expectations.  In my seven years with the company, six different people had managed the account.  I made lucky number seven.  Harris was the only actual casualty; the others had either beaten back the account and slid up the corporate ladder or had quit, transferred, found new jobs.  Pinski could make you or break you.  I liked my job and hoped to be one of those who could best the beast.  That meant leaving at midnight and working at home for an hour before sleeping.  My wife understood.  She was an editor at one of the city papers, which meant she kept fluctuating hours as well; she was neither home when I got there nor when I left.  This happened frequently.  I missed her more than I loved her.

Wednesday had been devoted to sifting through the paperwork and files for all of the Pinski sub-accounts, to acclimate myself to the atmosphere.  Thursday was the planned attack.  I knew who was who, who needed what, how quickly they needed it, which Harris had attended to, which he had allowed to slide down the slope.  I say planned but it was loose at best.  My team met at 7:30am and the tasks were doled out in descending order of responsibility and trustworthiness.  I wouldn’t become Harris.  We knew what each account wanted, needed, in what ways they had changed their minds and we were anticipating their future shifts.  Everyone knew the meeting was coming so they were prepared.  The last person left my office at 8:01.  One minute late.  I shook it off.

With everyone gone, the office became oppressive.  The whirr of the hard drive, the tick of the antique clock, the whoosh of the air conditioning turned on early for the season all amounted to a weighted nothingness.  I stood and walked to the window.  She was still there and working incredibly slowly.  There was no way of knowing when she had begun but the plank was still in good shape.  The shavings were an illusion, a castle built on air and angles that puffed the structure up.  Was there an end design for the plank?  Was it nothingness?  Would she shave until the plank no longer remained, until a gust of wind blew the cloud of slivers away, leaving behind just her?

Friday

I didn’t get close enough to see how it all held together but the six planks had been fashioned into a large vertical hexagon, only as deep as the width of each plank, which is to say, not very.  And yet there she was, sitting inside the structure, somehow balanced upon the bottom plank, seemingly meditating.  Again, she sat cross-legged but her back was ramrod straight and her hands sat open upon her knees, palms facing upwards towards the ceiling of the sky.  Her eyes and lips were closed, not a single movement or utterance, not even the flutter of an eyelid when the sun emerged from behind the clouds and backlit the darkness she imposed upon herself.

This was different from the past two days.  Wednesday had been straight dramatic performance and Thursday was more like performance art.  This… this seemed to me like she was simply taking up space.  To meditate in a space like that didn’t bring anything to the people around, did it?  Then again, did the wood shaving?  And she was balancing upon the base beam.  The planks of wood almost seemed to be of as much importance to whatever she was doing as she herself was.  It suddenly dawned on me that this was a sort of countdown.  Wednesday was eight planks of wood and we were losing one plank per day, perhaps we were losing her piece by piece as the days pushed onward.  Maybe she wanted us to begin thinking about thinking, thinking about existing, and thinking about our own progression through life.  What is meditation anyway?  What is performance, what is spectacle?  When do I stop existing for me and begin existing for someone else?

I circled around her before heading inside.  We had hit the ground running yesterday and everything was going well until my phone rang at precisely 10:00.  It was Pinski himself, the patriarch of it all, the boss, the ruler of the empire that had turned to face me.  I had heard his voice once before and as he responded to my greeting with, “Jennings, a storm is already brewing,” I already had my email client open to the Pinski folder that housed all the Pinski sub-folders.  My team had been emailing me updates every thirty minutes and nothing as yet seemed out of place.  “Mr. Pinski, it’s a pleasure to finally speak with you.”  “Fuck the pleasantries just like you’re fucking me, Jennings.  You are single-handedly undermining my entire enterprise.  It hasn’t even been a day.  Can you get one goddamned thing right?”  “Mr. Pinski, I –” but that was it.  He was gone.  His voice had sent electrical charges shooting below my skin, antagonizing every nerve ending that I tried to keep calm.  Sweat, nausea, images of Harris.  All came with bombast and bodily violence.  Moments later, emails began to drop in from all the heads of Pinski’s Hydra, iterating the changes that had been made in their expectations and desires.  Deadlines, budgets, creative goals, talent, their own team lineups; everything had shifted – some had done a full about-face, others weren’t quite so drastic.  And miraculously (for the inner turmoil was on the verge of tearing me apart), they had more or less fallen in line with what we had anticipated.  Elation is the only word to describe what I felt.  Those revolting corners of my body crumbled beneath the weight of foresight and planning.  We had a chance.

When I left that night, near midnight again, she was still there, still meditating, still caught up in the world within herself.  She was serene, she moved not a muscle, until my watch clicked twelve, and her eyes opened.

Saturday

My wife had left a note at home saying that she’d be away for a work trip over the weekend.  I wished she had been around to give us time to talk, to make sense of our known issues at work as well as our unknown issues at home.  I felt as if we hadn’t shared a home in a long time.  I thought that it was the thing I wanted most.

So because of my absent wife and because of Pinski I was in the office before the sun rose on Saturday.  I had worked plenty of Saturdays before but never was I there at 6am, never was I the first one in, always instead a team member on those projects, never the leader as I had become for Pinski.  Leader of a deflated and thrashed balloon, for everything had fallen apart around 9pm the night before.  Those emails that had been the source of such happiness Friday morning had all come undone by Friday night.  We, I, had only anticipated the one shift in expectations from Pinski, the one that we had been astonishingly prepared for, the one that my team and superiors had been so impressed with my handling of.  I was wrapping up for the night when a dozen emails came in from Pinski detailing all the shifts, all the mistakes we had made, all of our mental deficiencies, all the examples, all the evidence of our subterfuge and undermining of Pinski and everything Pinski stood for.

So there I was, there we were, back at it; undoing everything we had thrilled for the day before and beginning anew.  Beginning anew with deadlines that had risen up from their slumber and stumbled closer to us.  It seemed like they were out for my head, that Pinski had thrilled at Harris’ crumbling and was out for more; strength from the blood of the conquered.

I was there, Pinski loomed in the air, and she was there as well, just like every other day, committed to continuation even if few others were.  She had been there when I left the night before and was there with a sort of flat-roofed house when I arrived.  Two planks straight up, two angled at about forty-five degrees, and one flat across the top.  The entire structure stood at least fifteen feet tall and sprawled wider than anything else before, wider than even the stage.  Despite the noise of her first day on the stage, this seemed the most likely to incur police intervention due to the physical scope; it was in her favor that the office complex and the park were mostly empty on the weekend.

The first two days, she had stood atop and then deconstructed a structure, or at least a portion of that structure.  Now, two days in a row she had placed herself underneath or within a structure of sorts.  Instead of her quiet meditation this time, she mimicked household chores and activities, full pantomime and sound recreation.  She pretended to vacuum, fake cooked upon a fake stove, pulled clothes made of air from an invisible dryer and folded them delicately on a bed that nobody could see.  All the while, the whirr of the vacuum, the sizzle of oil meeting water in the frying pan, and the rumble of the dryer all passed from her lips.  These were just the things I saw her doing in the morning and when I stepped outside for a cigarette in both the late morning and the early afternoon; it was more efficient than eating.

I wanted to watch more of her.  I wanted to see her continue through the routines of the day, to see the creation of a household from thin air, to see a domesticity that I felt existed in my life only as a wisp.  She made, piece by piece, a home that I wanted.  Reality awaited me back upstairs while components of dreams and desires moved in front of me.  I could hear the ding of the elevator through the glass façade of the office building, through the rumble of her dishwasher as she waited for the cycle to end, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table.  She looked towards me.  She smiled.  I turned away and went upstairs to put out the fires burning in my home.

Sunday

I was close enough to make out the details and yet I saw neither adhesive nor nails nor anything of the sort.  Nevertheless, she had created a picture frame from the four planks of wood that remained in her arsenal on that rainy morning.  She had propped it against some rocks and cinderblocks and that freedom allowed her to reframe herself and repose, for she was the subject within the picture frame.  She had been our unofficial spectacle since Wednesday, now the point was hammered into place.  My window from the 12th floor allowed me to see that she kept changing her appearance throughout the day.  Sometimes she stood tall and straight, centered in the frame, sometimes she pushed against it like a mime.  She mimicked American Gothic, taking turns on the parts of the husband and wife; she mimicked the Scream repeatedly.  I’m certain there were more replications of famous works but these were the only that I saw or recognized.

When I first saw her on my way into the office at 8 – this late arrival my only recognition of the weekend – I stopped for five minutes to watch her.  She was posing as if in a chair, reading a book.  She looked up after a few minutes and seeing me there, she stood, put down the “book,” and gazed directly into my eyes.  She held my stare for a few seconds, captivating me, before I realized that she had assumed my stance, my posture, the hang of my arms, and the slight slouch of my back.  She had become a perfect mirror of me and I saw myself as I was at that moment and how I would be that night.  Her solid reflection became my fast forward button and I saw myself as I would be come Monday and Tuesday.  She blinked when I saw my Wednesday self and subsequently lost the thread; I had no vision of what battered person I would be after that.  She assumed the first Scream of the day and I went inside.

Saturday bled into Sunday.  My team was there the entire time, my more sympathetic superiors flitted in and out, trying to help me manage the undulating scenario I was working within.  Nobody understood Pinski: the method of operation, what the ultimate goals were, why the shifts came so rapidly, unexpectedly, and drastically.  Pinski himself had contacted the head of my firm on Saturday, had actually flown in for dinner with him while I was losing weight and looking down on the serene meditation of the artist below.  Pinski had calmly explained that he understood that he could occasionally tax our resources and thus offered more cash for our continued services.  Which translates to no intervention on my behalf; which translates to a sliver of assistance from above; which translates to my continued presence in the office.

I still couldn’t get a leg up on any of the companies within the Pinski account.  Harris had left no notes, no thoughts on where things were going or what he thought might be the actual goals of the account.  There was a notebook documenting his frustrations, which were disturbingly similar to mine.  I could have written the damn thing, but in my concern over getting things right, I hesitated to read much into it.  I was busy not becoming Harris, not succumbing, not being the conquered.

I glanced outside before falling asleep in the office.  I stood at the window with Harris’ diary in my right hand.  Below, she was again become the Scream.

Monday

A pyramid.  Egyptian.  She wasn’t on it or under it, but in front.  She lay on the ground, her stomach, waist, and thighs against the wet concrete.  Her calves were curled and poised like a feline and her chest and head were held high, buoyed by the support of her arms.  She had become a Sphinx.  Whether she enticed people with this position or whether they were more playful having just returned from the weekend, they were drawn in.  Time and again, they approached her.  From where I stood, still yet to have entered the office building that morning, I could never hear what was said but after some back and forth, she would bow her head and wait until they passed beyond.  I hesitated before approaching.

“So what is this all about?”  Her eyes looked into mine, we were so close after so many days that I wanted to sit with her for this conversation.  I remained standing though, looking down at her while she looked upwards

“I am the Sphinx, guardian of the pyramid you see behind me.”

“Right, but why have you been here this whole time?  Is this being filmed somewhere?”  I cast my eyes 360-degrees, expecting to suddenly find the dull, black, glassy eyes of camcorders

“I am the Sphinx, guardian of the pyramid you see behind me.  Do you wish to pass?”  Truthfully, I had expected almost anything but this response.  I don’t know what I expected but not this re-proclamation, not this question.  It didn’t faze me.

“Sure, I’d like to pass.”

“Then you must answer my riddle.  If you answer correctly, you may pass freely and safely.  But should you answer incorrectly, I will eat you; consume you.”

“What?”

“I will not do so immediately though, as the true Sphinx once did.  Instead, you will have three days before I eat you whole.  Are you ready?”  What was there to lose?  Over a dozen people had gone by and not one seemed to falter.  I stood straighter, taller.

“I’m ready.”

“There are two sisters,” she said.  “One gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first.  Who are they?”

Uncertainty prefaced the sweat, which prefaced the concern, all of which came on in less than a second.  This wasn’t the question I expected, the typical Sphinx question, the “what-walks-on-four-then-two-then-three-legs” riddle.

“I’ll give you a hint,” she said, eyeing me with concern, “I’m not Egyptian.  I’m Greek.”

I didn’t even know there were Greek Sphinxes.  This was a tease in the guise of a hint.  I looked around as if for help but nobody paid us any attention, nobody impatiently waited for their turn with our resident minimalist and avant artist.  I thought hard yet generated nothing; felt like I was already in the office.

“I don’t know.”

“Really?  No guesses?  Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“No guesses – I’m not much for luck.”  She looked away for the first time, casting her eyes downward.  I saw them reflected in the small puddle below her chin and I saw a ripple erupt from the center and make tiny waves outward.

“In that case,” she said, “the answer is Day and Night.”

“Why sisters?  Why not friends, brothers, anything?”

“Day and Night are both feminine in Greek.  That was the hint.”  That was the hint.  It felt like a riddle Pinski would tell, a riddle constructed for failure.

“Clever,” I said.  “So now you’ll eat me?”

“Not yet – three days.  Today is day one and you will have until the end of the third day before I come for you.  Three days.”

There was a voicemail waiting for me upstairs.  Only one.  That was un-Pinski like; they enjoyed filling the hard drive as if it was a competition, while simultaneously sending emails.  But there was just the one voicemail.  Pinski’s voice was on the other end of the line; we had spoken only the one time before.  Friday.  The terseness displayed back then had been ejected forcefully from the man.  I could now barely understand what he said – it ranged from whispers to grumbles to shouts so mangled by an unexplainable fury that I heard more clearly the spittle hitting the microphone of the mouthpiece than I did the words he shoved past his lips.  He was coming.  Pinski was coming for me.  Leaving LA behind and coming to my state, my city, by building, my floor, my office.  Pinski was coming and I didn’t know why but I knew it wasn’t good, that it was very far from good.  Wednesday.  Three days.

I knew neither where to start nor where to aim myself in order to end.  Everyone knew by the time I had arrived that Pinski was coming though nobody would tell me how they knew.  The team looked to me for guidance but I had nothing to offer them.  His coming was the bomb dropping – it would change everything and made pointless any work we would do now.  Where was there to go when there was neither direction nor destination?  I told them to put Pinski aside for now and to resume work on their other accounts.  They wouldn’t listen, they worked in what they thought was secrecy but I knew what they were doing, so I revoked their access to the various Pinski sub-accounts.  My superiors came to see me, cigarette smoke and whiskey on their breath.  They empathized.  They understood the difficult account and agreed that perhaps it was best to get my other accounts in order before he came.  They may as well have said goodbye then and there.  Have done with it.  Start fresh, for I was thoroughly spoilt as far as they were concerned.  I began to wish I had gone to inspect the pyramid more closely.

Tuesday

I turned the corner curious to see what had come of her diminished supplies to find that she had gone the simplest of routes and created a crucifix.  She did not hang from it in spite of her physical involvement with all other daily tableaus.  Instead, an orange crate was placed at the base of the crucifix, which somehow stood freely, and it was upon this that she was planted with her arms outstretched in her best Jesus Christ pose.  She had traded in her previous outfit for linen pants and a linen shirt.  It was the only expected thing she’d done.  One foot lay upon the other, her head hung downwards to the right side of her chest, arms steady and without a quiver.  People brushed past quickly, turning a snide eye, muttering to themselves. Passersby spoke as if they had followed her work for decades; even calling it a rebuke of her earlier self.

I stood in the rain with her for twenty minutes.  I had come early just to have extra time with whatever she had constructed for that day.  Nervous was the way I felt when thinking of what had to be her impending departure from our scene.  My wristwatch tolled 7am and like Pavlov’s bitch, my body turned away from her and towards my skyscraper’s revolving glass doors.  I glanced back through the emerging sunlight and lingering raindrops.  A hazy mist of a rainbow was forming and for an instant, a tear of ruby blood ran the length of her cheek.  I wondered if gods, or the sons of gods, ate people, or if my sentence had been commuted.  One sentence before me and one above.

Inside, there were eight messages awaiting my arrival.  I guessed seven but all eight were from Pinski people.  I was long past sympathizing with Harris and was instead beginning to wonder if he had found release in death or if Pinski had people there as well.  Nothing was right, they said, nothing was meeting approval, they wanted an explanation for the drop in communication the day before.  It didn’t matter that we had followed their edits, suggestions, and revisions word for word.  It didn’t matter that we had slaved away with them every time they turned corners expected and unexpected.  Pinski paid, paid well, and had recently upped that number.  Was that only days ago?  It felt like weeks.

The intern placed my 8am coffee on my desk at 7:30.  She said it looked like I needed it early.  I thanked her as she walked away.  She was young, pretty.  I hadn’t seen my wife since this all began.  There were problems at the paper, financial issues that were stacking up, building upon themselves, and pushing everything else out of the way.  Including me, not that I would have been there anyway.  Her hours were as bad as mine but her problems were the institution’s; my problems were mine.  She was Rome, whereas I was Damocles.  We were both oblivious.

I looked at the fork in the road ahead of me.  One option was to begin calling my other accounts, tell them that I would be heading out on sabbatical, and to direct their communications to one or another person on my team.  Begin an exit strategy, basically; step away gently and go down intact.  The other option would be to take a final shot at Pinski.  Aim and pull the trigger, hold it down until I either beat him or he comes for me.  The stacks of files on my desk were tall, the team was already locked out of the accounts, they were disbanding slowly and unwillingly, another round of emails was likely to come in from Pinski at any moment.  But what if Pinski began to double back on previous instructions?

Wednesday

I hoped it wasn’t her last day but the finality of being impaled upon a pike seemed to indicate otherwise.  Didn’t the crucifix yesterday say the same thing, the intern had asked me.  Jesus rose, I responded.  And isn’t Jesus supposed to come again, she parried.  Yes, I said, you’re right; Jesus is supposed to come again.  But he hasn’t yet, he’s still gone; we’re still waiting for him to come back.

All day long, I returned to my windows to gaze upon her lifeless body below.  She was alive, obviously; both from the ground and from here it was apparent that her body was somehow affixed to the side of the pike, giving the illusion from certain angles that she was impaled.  And she breathed heavily as if the position required great physical expenditure.  Not even understanding how this worked, I was inclined to believe that it did require a bit of effort.

I had remained in the office the night before.  My wife had called around 10:30 and said she’d be likely doing the same.  There was crowd noise in her background; there was silence in mine.  I had asked what was happening but she hung up before I finished.  I had taken option two in the face of Pinski, the road of confrontation, of not backing down, of climbing off the cross and facing the pike, no matter what may come for the worst was known.  Wasn’t it?  I had taken my two best team members and the intern and sequestered us in my office.  Forget living and breathing, we mainlined Pinski.  We went through the shifts, the changes, the expectations old and new, through my time and Harris’ time, and those who came before him.  We did the homework, we studied, we crammed, we made preparation the focus and execution the afterthought.  Pinski was coming and that perversely bought us time.  We each stayed overnight, sleeping in shifts so that the we could continue working.

I hadn’t slept though.  I traded that time for the view out the window and the occasional trip downstairs to see her and to smoke.  Two crutches.  I had wanted to see her transition from two planks to the one.  Wanted to know when it happened, wanted to know what became of the wood that disappeared everyday, wanted to see her as a human being and not an artist, in the moments between her art.  I missed the transition though.  Had been caught up in some minor breakthrough and missed the tolling of midnight.  By time I realized, seven minutes late, she was already impaled and lost to this world.

Pinski was coming but his plane wasn’t scheduled to land until late – sometime after 10pm.  He’d be coming directly to the office.  I could barely keep focused from the lack of sleep and from knowing the executioner was waiting.  The executioner.  I reconsidered my vocabulary in order to drain Pinski of some of the power I was imbuing him with but nothing would fill the void.  We had a chance against him, slim as it may have been.  If we pulled it off, it would be amazing; if we didn’t, well, back to the executioner.  Pinski was important enough that the heads of my firm bowed before the man, the conglomerate, the account, and the fees.

The hours continued by, unaware of the way that I, we, the entire company was keeping one eye on the clock.  We kept working as the sun rose higher and eventually began the downward creep, long shadows cutting across the office walls.  Fingers were cramping, our knuckles had become sore and our fingertips were smooth and tender from the thin layer of skin that had been punched off on keyboards.  At a certain point, sometime after the intern had brought my 7pm coffee, I dismissed them all.  I told them that we had done everything we could, everything that we would be able to do.  As willingly as they had participated, this was not their fight and there was no need for them to suffer through to the end.  It was more explaining than was necessary.  They were gone quickly, like they could already smell my corpse beginning to rot.

Once everyone was gone, I went downstairs with my coffee and two cigarettes.  I crouched against the exterior of the building as near to her as I could and peeled the lid off the coffee cup.  She was still there, no reason for her to change her pattern, but I was still amazed that she hung there motionless except for her breathing.  She was dedicated, or she was gone, absent into the back rooms of her mind.  There was so much I still wanted to know about her but a suspicion lurked inside of me that I would never discover the truth.  As one cigarette burned away, I remembered that we were approaching the end of my third day, the day upon which I would be consumed.  Not if Pinski beats you to it, I thought.

The call was from Pinski’s assistant.  The flight had been delayed but they had finally landed minutes earlier.  They would be at the office in under an hour and expected that I be there as well.  That was it; he hung up before I could get a word in.  An hour would be just after midnight.  “He’s racing you,” I said aloud even though she was hundreds of feet and millions of miles away from me.  I called my immediate supervisor.  He was at dinner with his wife, told me he’d be here, told me to stay put.  The way he said it – stay put – was like a warning, an admonition to be careful, to not do anything drastic, to be careful, to not hurt myself or anyone around me, to not become Harris.

The sky was black but reminiscent of Halloween with the orange glow of light pollution.  I could barely make out the lights of airplanes ascending and descending outside of the city limits, wondered if I had seen Pinski arriving.  Another coffee sat lightly in the grip of my right hand as I sat in my desk chair, repositioned along the windows so that I could still see her hoisted below.  Midnight loomed but my staggering concerns were not quite enough to keep me solidly awake.  Pinski was inevitability – there was no ice water in there to shock me lucid.  What would happen, I couldn’t know, but that amounted only to details.  Any minute, the door could open, the sound of footsteps, the presence in my doorframe.  His assistant had indicated near midnight and that was only two minutes away.  Below, she gave no sign of moving and my eyes were steady upon her.  I had become familiar with the final act but I wanted to see the exit, how it all went down, how she took her bow.  So much mystery and majesty, would she just walk away in the end?  Take the last plank or leave it?  Disappear into thin air and leave no trace.  One minute.

It wasn’t the caffeine but the burn of heat through the coffee cup keeping me going.  Then I heard it.  The swift opening of a door and the sound of footsteps.  Low voices.  The air seemed to rush through the floor and into my office.  The sound of a single knuckle rapping intently against the doorframe.  I looked up and over.  Pinski, the head of it all, empire and trouble and anything else, standing in my doorframe.  But I didn’t see him, not really.  I saw the idea of him.   It was too fast.  I saw him and in seeing one of the forces of nature that had been eluding my comprehension for the past week, I realized I had broken my downward gaze just as my watch ticked over to midnight.  I stood and looked back out the window, down at my artist.

She was gone.  The pike was gone.  A trace of neither in the now empty park.  I turned to face Pinski along with his assistant but they were gone as well.  I ran to the door and looked left and right down the hallway but there were no traces of anyone having been there.  I went from offices to cubicles to conference rooms looking for them, but nothing.  The entire floor was as silent and empty as it had been for the previous few hours.  Orange light filtered in through some of the windows.  Motion sensors caught me and illuminated my movements.  But nothing.  From one corner of the floor to the opposite, there was not a soul.

“Pinski?  Pinski!”  No answer.  But as my shout settled into the carpeting, I heard the door open again, more gently this time.  The sensors had lost their bead on me and I stood in darkness.  The cubicle walls were tall and I could just barely see the top of a head moving through the labyrinth.  It wasn’t Pinski and it wasn’t his assistant.  Blonde hair, loose, seemingly long, seemingly familiar.  The sensors selectively picked up her movement.  I smelled the rain of the past few days; it wafted my way gradually as she made her way to my empty office.  I could no longer see her but heard her pause and then slowly begin working her way towards me through the cubicle maze.  I stood still, terrified and turned on; maybe it was the same feeling.

She turned the corner and there she was: a flowing white skirt and brown peasant shirt, trace amounts of sawdust trailing behind her.  There I was: suit pants and a button-down with the sleeves rolled up past the breaking point.  She met my eyes and held them firmly.

“It’s been three days,” was all she said before every light went out around us.

More Than I Know (#18)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 2, 2012 at 11:18 am

NEW YORK

New York is a great city to enter but a better one to exit.  Coming in, you’re wide-eyed, fresh, ready for experiences, and hungry to taste what the world has to offer.  But when you leave, your focus is narrowed, you’ve lived the experiences, you’ve learned from them, and your palate is refined.  By the time you leave New York, you know what you want and you should be on your way to find it.

Postcard Coney Island.  The boardwalk packed, the carnival lights of the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump triumphant over the night sky, the expansive blackness of the Atlantic Ocean encroaching.  4×6, clean straight lines, wholesomeness on display, neighborhood reality outside the edges.  Idealization running rampant – that’s the idea.  This postcard is meant to be bookend of sorts – one coast to the other.

On the other side, I write, “There’s a certain amount of surprise missing from modern society, isn’t there?”  I don’t sign it – just address it, drop it into a mailbox at the next intersection, and leave New York in pursuit of what I want.

 

NEW JERSEY

Living so near to it and having so many friends come from there, I thought I knew New Jersey.  Newark International fading from my rearview mirror, though, the landscape becomes as foreign as anything else I’d never truly encountered.  The names ring so familiar but beneath the surface, they mean nothing.  East Orange, Parsippany, Rockaway, Roxbury Township.  Fielding is from Jersey, his parents still live somewhere named Mahwah but we’ve never visited them together.  He’s never invited me for the holidays or reunions or birthdays, and he’s never told his parents about me.  I can’t be certain but I don’t think he ever told them he was gay.  28 years old, almost 29, and he couldn’t even admit to me that he couldn’t admit it to them.  It saddens me and somehow makes me love him more.

New Jersey.  Fielding always said it like it was old and provincial, as if no gay sons had come from Jersey and it was his burden to bear.  I offered him a shoulder and he refused it, even from within the safety of Brooklyn.  We could share time and love and practically everything else, but he would never take my support when it came to that one thing.  So I never knew Mahwah and still don’t as it lays outside the course of my directions.  Some things are destined to remain mysteries but I hope that this gambit begins to unravel the Gordian knot of Fielding’s distance and detachment.

 

PENNSYLVANIA

The Delaware River makes for an uninspired crossing-over point from Jersey to Pennsylvania but it’s fast, it’s simple, and there’s no traffic.  My route through the Keystone State keeps me on the northern side of things, still fairly close to New York as if it can only let me go by degrees, a gradual loosening of the grip instead of a fist flung open with empty fingers splayed out.

I’ve been to Philadelphia once, Pittsburgh once, and that is the extent of my time in Pennsylvania.  It’s midday as I pass through most of the state and from the highway, everything seems bucolic and quaint.  Fielding told me stories about school trips to Philly – he liked it there, liked the atmosphere, but by the time he was old enough to move out, the lure of New York was much stronger.  It was a much cooler place to be.  Fielding often promised to take me to Philadelphia but it never happened.  The one time I went for work, he offered to accompany me but backed out at the last minute.  His own deadlines at the architecture firm stood in the way and his clients didn’t understand the whims of a man in love or at least close to in love.  I didn’t hold it against him, his building plan had been behind schedule.  I believed he would have taken me if possible.

There were so many things that Fielding and I discussed doing: Philly, camping in the Adirondacks, a weekend in the Bahamas.  Thing is, we discussed these things while sitting around the apartment or bars, or walking down Third Avenue, and we never made it outside the confines of our own prison.  Our failure to mobilize together was surely a contributing factor in Fielding’s decisions.  To go to San Francisco, to abandon the architectural work that wasn’t progressing quickly enough, to make one last effort at the painting he claimed to love.

 

OHIO

I’m having my first doubts as the sun sets and I pass into Ohio.  It’s something to do with passing over into the great span of states that I know nothing about.  It’s emblematic.  I begin asking myself what I really know about Fielding, about us, about our mutual and distinct desires for the future, desires of each other, motivations, fears.  Commitment is obviously one of his fears; though we’ve been together for nearly a year he doesn’t call me his boyfriend or partner, says nothing to his parents, often keeps me at arms length emotionally and blames it on a lifelong tendency towards being distant.  It isn’t true – well, he is distant, that much is true, but it’s always seemed a little more directed towards me.

San Francisco was a complete surprise.  An invitation from two friends with a newly opened gallery, an offer to host him and his work.  Fielding had recently started painting again.  His new paintings were all good but none of them were great.  I still encouraged him.  Fielding planned it all on his own and then told me just one week before leaving.  Quit his job, sublet his apartment, told me we’d explore “the long-distance thing” but I knew he just wanted to explore a different side of his life.  A life without me.

So why am threading my way between Cleveland and Toledo?  Why do I think that surprising him is a good idea?  I ask myself these questions as the sky turns deeper blue and then black, as I think I see Lake Erie to the north but it’s just an illusion.  Why?  Is it because I love Fielding?  That’s hard to say as Fielding is such a difficult man to love, which doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of love or undeserving of love, just that it requires more of an effort.  Maybe it’s love.  Maybe it’s that I don’t want these months to have just been wheel-spinning.  I want my time and commitment and effort to come to something.  Maybe I want to give him the surprise that he’s been missing.  Do I love him?  I don’t know.  I’m getting older and that seems to worry me more than I ever anticipated.  Is Fielding my youth?

If I keep thinking like this I’m going to drive into a ditch.

 

INDIANA

Interstate 80 through Indiana runs right along the northern border with Michigan.  At times, the highway veers dangerously close to the other state.  It’s as if the road can’t make up its mind and wants things to be both ways.  I understand this, I relate to this, and it tears me to shreds to realize that I may be closer to a strip of highway than I am to Fielding.

One week before he left, Fielding revealed his plan to me and said we could attempt a long-distance relationship.  Then the day before he left, Fielding said it wasn’t worth the effort.  That the separation would be too vast.  That we were both plotting different courses in different directions.  Part of it seemed a genuine change of heart and part of it seemed his intention the entire time.  We both looked hurt.

 

ILLINOIS

Illinois comes with a whisper.  It may as well be a dream, or a fantasy, or a nightmare.  Everything seems to be blending together.

I’m stopped in a motel for the night.  I arrived in Lansing as the weight of my eyelids was winning the war.  I was exhausted from driving and really needed to be out of the car.  The solitude had crept under my skin, making me question everything and wearing away my conviction to continue heading west.  Now that I’m in a comfortable bed with plenty of light around me, now that I’ve had some interaction with others and not just my own voice, I’m feeling better about things.  I realize the daringness of this plan.  I understand that realistically this could go either way but I know that it’ll go my way and Fielding’s way, that our ways will be one.  I have to know that, otherwise what am I doing?

 

IOWA

It actually feels good to get back into the car and continue westward.  The sleep was refreshing, I feel good about my decisions, I feel good about myself and about Fielding; as good as one can when chasing down his lover who has fled with barely a word of communication.

I’m trying to be realistic.  Hopeful, but realistic.  We had seemed so well suited.  He the architect and painter, creative and striving; me the lawyer, mature and stable.  I suppose you could reframe those descriptions as ‘fun’ and ‘boring’ but we were more complimentary than anything else.  Energizing and calming.

I’ve been thinking that Fielding’s decision must have been his succumbing to fear, to his own tactics of emotional distancing.  Why else cut and run so suddenly after almost a year?  It doesn’t make sense, there’s no logic.  We can work through this, I just need to talk to him.

 

NEBRASKA

As hopeful as I am, the desolate expanse of Nebraska is difficult to pass through with only my thoughts as companions.  I can’t help but feel a measure of insignificance and it’s sort of awful when I’m trying to build myself up.

I tried calling Fielding again but it’s still going straight to voicemail.  It’s been like that since the week before.  I can’t tell if he’s turned the phone off or if he just isn’t taking my calls.  I don’t know if he’s okay or if something happened to him.  He gave me the address for where he’s staying so I don’t think he’s willfully avoiding me or trying to hide.  Fielding gave it to me when he first announced his impending departure so he must have had a genuine change of heart.  I knew it.  I can do this.  Thank goodness I’ll be able to find him.

 

WYOMING

What seems funny to me is how abstract and meandering my thoughts become the further I travel west.  It’s as if the hang-ups and the baggage and all the connections I have on the east coast actually weigh down my thoughts and hinder them from roaming.  There’s a freedom to this American West that I thought was nothing more than a fanciful notion in the mythology of America.  Did Fielding know about this?  If he did, then this may have been the real motivation for leaving and maybe he kept it to himself because he thought I wouldn’t understand.  Maybe he didn’t need to spend more time explaining and instead needed to be doing, immersing himself in the mental freedom.

That freewheeling freedom is exactly what the two of us need together.  To break free of his hang-ups, for me to loosen up, to not frighten him with my commitment.  Out here, I don’t even think about Fielding being my only long-term relationship since I was… God, since I was Fielding’s age.

 

UTAH

Utah leaves me feeling defensive and besieged.  I drive quickly without exceeding the speed limit too flagrantly.

 

NEVADA

Nevada forces you to think about gambling, there’s no way around it.  I’m taking stock and telling myself how much of a gamble this whole adventure is.  To drive cross-country with the intent of bringing Fielding home, to throw down the gauntlet of our relationship, to open myself to the thought of leaving New York behind for good, to prove that even as I approach 43 I can have the ambition and daringness of 30.

I was thinking that every gamble has a winner and a loser but that isn’t true, is it?  If I can set things back on course with Fielding then we both win, don’t we?  And if I can’t, well, I’m the loser but I don’t know where he’ll think he stands.

 

CALIFORNIA

I experience a measure of calmness after passing Reno and crossing the border into California.  It’s like I shook a gambling habit and entered rehabilitation – who says states don’t have stereotypes for good reasons.  Something to the air, whether it’s the scent of inevitability or the grid of design flowing into my nostrils, seeping into my veins, and coursing through my body.  I can see Fielding meeting me at his front door, surprised by my arrival, elated, taking me in his arms, finding happiness again and sharing it.  I can also see him rebuffing me, shocked, outraged at my unprovoked forwardness, shutting the door, sending me back alone.  I see two realities occurring at the same time.  I see both possibilities.

California – the land of dreams and harsh realities.  I suppose it’s not so different from New York, is it?  These east-west edges of the country with open water to inspire us; do our dreams lie on the ocean tides?  We made it work in New York for 12 months so why couldn’t we do it here?  The more I think of it, the more I think that Fielding was onto something.  He always has been something of a genius in the abstract even if he could be dense in the realm of relationships.

 

CALIFORNIA/NEVADA/UTAH/WYOMING/NEBRASKA/IOWA/ILLINOIS/INDIANA/OHIO/PENNSYLVANIA/NEW JERSEY/NEW YORK

I drive back in one shot, fueled by caffeine, rage, a need to set my life on track, a need to be back in New York, a need to get off the road as quickly as possible before I kill someone, accidentally or intentionally.

After days and thousands of miles, he couldn’t even meet me, couldn’t even offer me the face-to-face courage of his stance.  His friend answered the door.  Claimed I had the wrong address.  I could see his fucking paintings in the hallway!  I drove across the goddamn country!  He could have at least talked to me and told me that it was over.  I mean, really over.  God, was I operating under some massive delusion the entire time?  I feel so stupid.  So old and so stupid.

Oh, Fielding, you think you’re so wise with your youth and your wide eyes.  You think your ambition and a fresh start is all you need.  Well, I’ve left you messages and tried to warn you that it isn’t that easy, that you’re ill-suited to handle the emotional ups and downs on your own, that you’re nothing more than another newcomer and once that sheen’s worn off, you’ll just be nothing out there.  It isn’t a land of dreams, no place is.  It’s a land of delusions where everyone keeps pretending that the dream can come true, even for the shattered and the tired and the broken down.  The delusion is a drug that everyone nods off on.  At least back home we know when the dream is broken, and once we know, we learn how to get on and get by.  That’s why I can’t wait to be back.  To formally give up this dream and get on.

 

Custom Legends (#17)

In Stories Volume 1 on June 25, 2012 at 11:37 am



Fish & Bird (#16)

In Stories Volume 1 on June 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm

First there was a hat, then a larger hat, and then a sort of veil was attached, which transformed the entire get-up into something like a beekeeper’s mask.  The inefficiency of this design soon became apparent.  The hat was then refitted with the dismantled remains of two child-sized black umbrellas, ultimately appearing as a misshapen parasol.  To protect his eyes, he tried a welder’s mask, then moved on to a pair of safety goggles with the rubber strap around the back, then a pair that fit more like glasses, until finally settling on various pairs of swimming goggles that he rotated into the weekly lineup.  He liked being able to tuck the goggles into his pocket whenever he went into the office and the way they created that near-perfect seal even as he maneuvered them on while wearing gloves.

And yet for all the layers he draped over himself, for all the lines of defense, for each step taken backwards from the world, the sunlight continued to fall on his shell.  The shell did its job, the shell sheltered, and yet he remained anxious for he knew too well the slow, insidious, destructive nature of sunlight and all that accompanied it out of doors.  It seemed so obvious, months later, when he bought the first compact mirror and sewed the dismantled reflective piece onto his jacket.  He didn’t waste his time with experiments – the moment the first mirror was hung in place, he began on the second and worked the night until the trademark jacket was adorned with nearly thirty of the make-up mirrors.  He used a thick marker to color each of the mirror cases black; the pale pink was not for him.  From the moment he stepped out of his apartment building the next morning until he reached his office, the burden of living in a decaying and imperfect world was partially lifted as each mirror received the sunlight and cast it back into the world.

**********

It was impossible to miss him though she couldn’t say for how long she had missed him in the past.  She put it down to differing schedules or always being buried inside of a book or a newspaper or him being tucked behind a crowd on the subway platform opposite hers, though she couldn’t help but wonder how she had failed to see those beams of light reflecting upwards and outward between the cracks in the crowds.  And that hat, she thought, resembling some poor mangled vulture that he insisted on wearing even while underground.  Ever since she first saw him, since she smoked away the major metropolitan cataracts, her mind had lingered alongside and traveled with him.  Days into weeks into months, her life followed the string lain out straight ahead of her, but her thoughts lost themselves in the refracted false worlds of his mirrors.  Some days she discovered an empty seat on the subway platform and would find herself still there forty minutes later, a dozen trains arriving and departing as she slipped into unseen places, everyone around as oblivious to her as they were to him.  Then one day there were no empty seats.  And the trains were so late that the platform was crowded with nowhere to stand.  And the air was hot, stifling, and thin where she tried to stand on the stairway.  And his mirrors still reflected the overhead lights across the tracks.  She retreated back up the stairs, walked twenty-four feet to the stairs for the other platform, and descended into his starburst.

He was directly in front of her but she couldn’t yet bring herself to speak to him.  Instead, she made her introductions, explained who she was, and why she was bothering a stranger all underneath her breath.  Nobody in the crowd heard a word though in her mind, it was as if she were shouting through a megaphone.  She would have liked to have grabbed him and taken him to some unimagined private place where she could talk to him; she would have liked to have pounded on his chest, shattered his mirrors, and broken through his defenses; she would have loved to have torn the world down.  But she spoke underneath her breath until she ran out of breath to shelter under. And then…

“Can I see your apartment?” she asked.  She stood behind him and spoke quietly but directly so that he could not mistake her speaking to someone else and could not pretend to not hear her.  He continued looking straight ahead.

“I live on the seventh floor.  It’s a walk-up but there’re windows in the stairwell so it’s not so bad.”

“That’s alright, I won’t mind,” she said to the back of his head.  A few moments passed before he turned around and caught her gaze through his thin swimmer’s goggles.

“Okay, we need to head back to the 6 train.  Follow me.”  They walked the long hallways of the Union Square subway station, from the N/W platform to the 4/5/6, hot and dirty gusts of air chasing after them and lifting the hem of his jacket like a cape.  She alternately walked beside and behind him, mutually angling their way through the rush hour crowd. He moved quickly, she noticed, in spite of all the mirrors hanging off his body, the heavy jacket that brushed against the dirty tile and threatened to trip him.  He dropped a step or two now and then to make sure she kept pace and in case she wanted to ask him anything else. He wished she would.  He didn’t know why he had agreed to her coming back to his home, it just sounded so natural coming from her lips.  A strip of sweat was forming along the band of his hat.  It had been years since his body had conditioned itself to the heat and abandoned sweating.  The sudden urge to remove the hat flooded him like adrenaline through a car crash victim.  His right foot hesitated an instant before pressing again against the ground.

“What stop do you live at?”

“Eighty-seventh.  Over on the corner at First.  It’s not much of a walk.  Have you changed your mind?”

“No, not at all.  I was just curious how far we’re going.”  The tunnel breeze picked up and they both looked to see the blinding headlight approaching with the red circle surrounding the red 6.

“It’s not far at all,” she heard him say as they stepped through the marred silver doors.  “It’s worlds away,” is what he said.

The entirety of the ride passed in silence as they sat next to one another on the mostly empty train.  People on his regular route no longer gave him a wide berth, they had observed his gradual transformation and knew that he wasn’t dangerous.  But his route had reversed itself that morning and they had the center of the car to themselves.  Somebody near the conductor’s booth made a comment about ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ but nobody near him laughed and they couldn’t hear him from where they sat.  Only when they were accelerating past Eighty-First did he gently tap her shoulder to indicate that they were next.  She smiled and nodded.

First Avenue confronted them quickly and was the loudest thing spoken between them for over twenty minutes.  “It’s the second building back,” he said.  “The faded green one with the flowerpots along the fire-escape.”  She gazed on the building as they waited for the traffic light to change in their favor.

“You’re the top floor.  Do you have roof access?”

“I haven’t tried in a very long time but back when I last tried, no.  Remember, it’s a walk-up.”

“I’ve been walking my entire life,” she replied.  When he looked at her, she turned her face away but not before he saw the sadness migrate from her lips to her eyes to her cheeks to her ears and then dissipate into the air amongst the wisps of cigarette smoke from the old woman next to her.  He thought about his hand on her shoulder, he thought of a dozen other supportive gestures, and he watched as she crossed First Avenue against the absent traffic.  He crossed only when the white man walking was illuminated on the traffic sign.  She was waiting for him on the other side and they crossed together to the north side of Eighty-Seventh.

They passed the deli on the corner and the laundromat next door before he unzipped a portion of his jacket and pulled loose a thin keychain with three keys on it.  From all of the different angles, she could discern no key scratches on any of the mirrors and found this both surprising and impressive.  The frames had been bouncing against people, walls, train doors, and now the jamb of the entryway and the black plastic appeared to have been heavily scraped and recolored but the mirrors themselves were pristine.  Not a smudge, a fingerprint, a drip of somebody’s errant coffee; if her eyes hadn’t been on him for the past thirty minutes, she would have thought he had cleaned them at some point.  He gestured her inside and she broke away from her reverie to the sounds of them clanking against the door.

The black and white diamond tile floor went dull against the green interior walls as the door shut on the sunlight outside.  They walked the length of the hallway, past the silver mailboxes, towards a backdoor with the wired glass that housed the trash room, and  then turned at the very end where the stairwell waited.  The brown wooden railing led her to begin thinking about ice cream and then a breeze came elbowing its way through the window on the first landing.  She shivered in her icebox thoughts even as the sunlight reflected off three of his mirrors and lit her up like warming spotlights.  They looped up and around time after time, the same sun catching the same mirrors and lighting up the same goose bumps until they stepped onto the seventh floor.  There was a door halfway down the hall and one at the far end.  They proceeded to the far door where he turned one key in the deadbolt and the other in the doorknob lock.

He pushed the door open and leaned to the side, allowing her to enter ahead of him.  As she stepped across the threshold and onto the pale wood floorboards, motion sensors captured her movements and began switching on streams of recessed lighting that ran the length of the long room.  They came on gradually, like someone turning up a dimmer switch, beginning at the front door and continuing to the curtains at the end of the room.  She hesitated in the doorway as the room came alive, her mind and eyes wide open in disbelief.  It was everything she hadn’t expected and was all the more beautiful for the sleight of hand he had pulled by simply being himself.

The walls were painted the cleanest and brightest of whites.  They had become a surrounding, living canvas for him to work on and where he hadn’t worked, the white reflected the emanations from the bulbs shouting approximations of natural light.  But oh, where he worked, she thought, where he worked.  It was as if everything he shunned outside had taken root in his heart and been projected onto this chambered vessel.  Trees painted in broad brown strokes that flared near the baseboards and erupted into cascading waterfalls of green toward the crown molding.  The spiky tips of grass shot upwards around the perimeter of the entire room, left for eternity at a height that almost required trimming.  Myriad flowers rose up from this jungle in sporadic bursts: daffodils near the front door, tulips by the kitchen, snapdragons rising in two different corners, daisies in little groupings all over the place; at least a dozen others that she couldn’t identify.  Small bushes sprang up along two of the walls.

Above, the ceiling was painted the gentlest blue, a sky imagined but rarely seen.  There were clouds painted in differing shades of white and light gray.  And they moved.  After looking away, she realized that each cloud was moving almost imperceptibly on a set of interconnected panels that operated on some fixed track so that nothing remained stationary yet no gaps could be detected in the mirage.  A sun – a giant, resplendent, dominating sun created in aureolin, golden yellow, maize, saffron, orange peel, persimmon, tomato, lava, carnelian – was painted across the three walls of an alcove, a dining nook, that had become all at once an eternally rising and setting sun.  All of the light panels in that room had been painted to match the sun so that instead of white light, a radiant citrus spectrum burst forth.  She shielded her eyes but only for a moment before realizing it was not actually the sun and it was not actually setting.

Thin planks of pale bamboo ran the length of the room and in certain spots there were oblong pieces of rug that looked like a compromise between carpet and Astroturf.  When she stepped on one, her foot felt the give of soil as the scent of crushed grass wafted upwards into her nose.  The furniture was made of unworried wood, lightly varnished and with minimal crafting.  Stout wooden legs supported a couch whose pillows were dyed in various camouflage shades of mossy greens and browns.  Thin, wispy wooden legs supported a coffee table whose top had been painted in spiraling shades of blue that approximated the movements of a rippling lake surface.  A flat-screen television had been mounted into the wall and when those imbedded lights came on, so too did the screen; a waterfall began its natural movements and as she glanced away, it almost seemed that the waterfall was running off into the lake of the coffee table.

At the end of the room hung a mural painted on layers of thin curtains that she surmised were blocking the only windows that would have looked onto the imperfect world outside.  Upon the undulating curtains was the massive painting of a mountain range, detailed in the gray stone veins, the wide swaths of arboreal expansion, the patches of dirt where water color rains must have eroded the soil.  Snowcaps were conspicuously absent but, she surmised, who knows to what height those mountains reach?  She could see the ways that he had painted the different components of the mural on different curtains, creating the false sense of three dimensions and when the air ducts pushed cool air into the room as it was at that moment, it gave the impression that she was viewing the range across some vast, hot plain where the heat shimmered upwards into the atmosphere and played tricks on her vision.

She snapped from the trance that the room had cast upon her and turned to see him still standing back at the doorway, allowing her to take in the room on her own, at her own pace, on her own terms.  He had pulled the hat from his head and was clutching it in both hands like a nervous old woman afraid of the breeze.  The mirrors still hung from his arms and those attached to his shoes and pants were still in place, but instead of reflecting all that he sought to keep away, it now made him more a part of the room than he had ever intended.  The goggles hung on the collar of his shirt; his nervous eyes caught her delighted ones; his nervous tongue fumbled.

“I call it The Harbor.  My place, I mean; I call my place The Harbor.”

“It’s so beautiful.  It’s so tremendously beautiful.”  She continued casting her eyes over the room to take in all the little pieces of the tableau missed on the first pass through.  Her nose detected more – the smell of cedar from a small dish on an end-table like the stump of a tree and from somewhere she noticed the musky, pleasant scent of a wooded pond but she couldn’t place from where it came.  “This is incredible.  How long did all of this take you?”

“I don’t remember anymore.  Years, but I haven’t finished.  I’m always making alterations and additions.  I’m working on other rooms but they aren’t finished yet.”

“What are the other rooms like?”

“It’s only one right now.  The bedroom.  It’s meant to be the night but it hasn’t consumed me like this room has because night’s one of the few times I enjoy being outside.  The urgency, the sense of life-and-death, doesn’t exist in the same way.  Nor does the literalness.”  He paused as her eyes ceased their swimming around the room and resettled on him once again.  “It’s the door on the right.”  It was right next to her.  She reached out, turned the knob, and swung the door inward.

Again, the arc of the door was caught by motion sensors connected to imbedded lights.  These were pinpricks in a black ceiling, like white holiday lights stuffed behind a black bed-sheet in a college dormitory.  Before her eyes dropped to the walls around her, she noticed the lack of moon in the artificial cosmos that swirled above her.  Then she came upon the mural that spanned all four walls of the bedroom.  Just one thing, just one giant painting.  Beginning at the head of the bed and wrapping corner after corner until the beginning met the end.  A whale.  One whale.  One giant whale in meticulous detail.  One light gray whale against the deepest of navy blue backdrops.  One whale with these great, rolling, expression-filled eyes that faced it’s own tail but gazed out the door into a believable eternity, or into herself.  There was nothing else in the room besides the bed, a bedside table, and herself.

He stood silently in the doorway behind her.  She reached for the black and white bag that she wore across her shoulder and from it, she pulled a small black and white ceramic bird no larger than her index and middle fingers put together.  He said nothing and she placed the bird on the bedside table.  They both remained silent as they left the room, the stars extinguishing themselves as they had done for years and would do for millions more.  He gestured toward the couch and she nodded, sitting on one side as he lowered himself onto the other, a pile of moss between them.

“Why?” she asked.  He looked down and crossed his right hand over his left, laying them both on the just-created lap.  She just continued looking at where his eyes should have been, waiting for an answer without pressuring him into creating something disingenuous.  Near eleven minutes passed during which she thought he may have been crying, sleeping, thinking, regretting, or receding.  Just as suddenly as she had released her question into the world, he picked his head up and cleared his throat.

“It’s just that there’s so much potential for things to go wrong outside,” he said.  “Everything has a flaw, even you and I are full of them to the point that it’s a miracle we hang together.  As beautiful as everything is, it all has two sides out there.  Everything is killing us in one way or another.  There’s no true harmony, only a harmonious balance between all of the things that would like to get under our skin.  We’re continuously getting lucky when all of these things cancel each other out.”

“Do you believe in true love?  Because that’s something that exists out there.”

“It also exists here and it’s the only thing from out there that I allow to enter.  True love will kill you just as gradually and steadily as anything else out there.  True love cannot repel all evil – it can strive but it allows insidious forms to enter; the kind we never expect and never see until it’s far too late.”

“But you let it inside?”

“I never have, but I would.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“No, but I believe in waiting for God.”

“Are you waiting for God then?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe I am too, though this place makes me think that maybe God is a place.  Would you let God inside?  Or if God is a place, would you abandon all of this for wherever God is?”

“I’ll decide if the opportunity arises.  It would be nice if it involved an elevator – I can’t imagine God as a walk-up.”  He laughed for, as far as she knew, the first time ever.  She thought about her hand on his leg, she thought of a dozen other gestures, then watched as he crossed the moment back to calmness.  Neither one of them knew what to say but nor were they afraid of the silence that joined them on the couch.  “I’ve been feeling nostalgic recently,” he finally said, “but I don’t know what for.”

“I’ve felt the same way,” she whispered.  “How long is recently?”

“Years…”

“Yeah.  It’s funny though, I could never place what for either but the moment I stepped inside here, something settled inside me.  I don’t know how I could be missing something I’ve never seen before.”

“I think that we can miss what we love even if we don’t know that we love it, even if we’ve never seen the thing that we’re loving and missing.”

“Do your lights change with the apparent motion of the sun?  Do they become brighter or darker?”

“No.  I’m not particularly interested in the authenticity of the passage of time.  The flowers don’t grow taller, the trees don’t lose their leaves, the – “

“Grass never needs to be cut.”

“ – grass never needs to be cut.”

“What is it you’re trying to preserve here?  No, don’t tell me.  Let me guess.”

“So guess.”

“Let me whisper it into your ear.”  She planted a hand on a pillow and leaned with her lips forward.  He planted another hand on another pillow and leaned with his left ear forward.  She spoke a few words hesitantly before finding her footing and releasing herself into his expectant and yearning ear.  His eyes went wide staring into the waterfall where he almost lost himself before she shot a hand through the cascades and pulled him back.  His eyes fluttered as her lips barely grazed the soft skin of his ear, his brain warmed with her words and her breath.  The ceiling panels silently crept along overhead, detaching themselves from expectations and forming a map that led to heaven, to the heart, and to everywhere believed and disbelieved in-between.  The ripples of the lake finally found the shore and dissipated amongst the stones and silt.  She closed her lips and he closed his eyes; she closed her eyes and he opened his lips and though nothing came out, he spoke volumes and she understood everything.  She heard everything she had wanted to hear for all of those long, long years as he became unhinged on the poetry that had bound his tongue in verse.

After awhile, the flowers on the wall began to grow taller and the first tree lost the first leaf.  Their eyes closed, the sun tracked its way across the wall and set behind the mountain.  Hours later, the whale blinked and swam away as the bird took flight and maintained the occasionally cresting gray blur.

Beginnings & Endings (#15)

In Stories Volume 1 on June 11, 2012 at 7:02 am



#1

Every morning is a choice: stay and fight, or go.  Remain in relative safety and hope that someone comes to town who can help, explain what’s happened, save you; or go, leave this battered and hostile shell of a town and hope to find something better on the road.  Every morning has been a decision: stay to fight on at least one more day.  You tell yourself you don’t know what it is holding you but truthfully, you just don’t want to admit it.

James: your love, your partner for the last six years until twenty-three days ago when he took part in the last stand at the barricades.  He fell with the town and with nearly everyone else.  It’s pointless to stay for him.  He’s one of them.  He is not James.  He is not yours.  And yet part of him has to be, you think.  Even if the only part that’s left is the one that you need to extinguish to put him out of his misery.  You feel a certain responsibility.

Unfortunately, the zombies have become a way of life and fear became normal a long time ago.  Your knowledge of the town doesn’t do much anymore when supplies are running low and most days are spent just picking off zombies from the roof of a decimated grocery store.  You’ve encountered no other survivors but at least you have a barricaded house, a safe place to escape back to whether things go as planned or fall off course.

You’ve maintained a stockpile of rifles, handguns, bullets, axes, and various thing that may come in handy in a pinch.  You’ve cobbled together a collection of canned beans, vegetables, airtight containers of cereals, and any other shelf stable foods.  It’s monotonous but food is food and it’s a base to work from.  You know where things are bad nearby and where they’re quiet.  If someone’s looking for you, they’ll head here.  So, you ask yourself, what’s it gonna be today: stay or go?

If you choose to go, continue to section #2

If you choose to stay, continue to section #3
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#2

You load the Cherokee with weapons and supplies, things for killing and things for living though you err on the side of killing.  If you run out of bullets, you won’t last long; if you run out of food, you can manage hunger for awhile.  The food goes in the trunk, the guns and assorted melee weapons stay nearby, spread across all available seats.  Before you leave, you walk through the house that you shared with James the past four years and thought you’d be in for so many more.  The town won’t be hard, the house won’t be hard, but to leave the memories and the fading remembrances of him, the imagined glimpses of his shadow, is to abandon him to the abyss that you keep reminding yourself he truly is not coming back from.  You kiss a framed photo of him and leave it facing down on the dining room table.

The zombies don’t typically congregate in your neighborhood, so it’s uneventful when you raise the garage door and pull out to the street.  You’re aiming for Jasper, west across the state; it’s only ninety miles away and before your own barricades broke down, you heard they were putting up a solid fight.

You take your time navigating the streets.  Zombies sometimes fall over in the street and remain there, waiting, or they drag out something they think they can eat.  You’ve seen a dozen of them overturn a car with a dead cat underneath.  All this recommends you drive slowly as you pass through to the other side of town.  It’s a warm day and there’re more out than usual.  Some just walk along, some lay slumped against cars, some fight over scraps of meat.  They don’t pay much attention to you – they only see an inedible can driving by, not the fresh meat within.

You are constantly amazed at how recognizable they are.  For being flesh-eating monsters, they still resemble their old selves remarkably well.  Even after they’ve become monsters within, so much remains the same on the exterior: the face, the hair, the shape.  Pieces may be torn from their flesh but if you knew someone beforehand, they’re close enough that your brain fills in the gaps.  Everyday that you’ve gone shooting, you’ve picked off a handful of faces recognizable from a distance.  It doesn’t make it any harder to shoot them in those recognizable faces, there’s no forgetting they’re incapable of anything but murder, but you find it strange how that physical humanity remains.

You slam on the brakes!  James.  You saw him, or you think you saw him, down Tyson, crossing by that intersection and behind that building.  Was it him?  He’s a zombie, so even if it was James, it wasn’t exactly him.  The screech of your brakes has drawn the attention of a few of the monsters nearby and they’re coming to see what’s going on.  To see if there’s food.  You look at the hunting rifles bundled in the passenger seat footwell and realize there’s little time to make a decision: do you go after James or do you stick to your plan and continue to Jasper?

If you go after James, continue to section #4

If you continue to Jasper, continue to section #5
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#3

You can’t bring yourself to do it.  You walk through the house while making your decision and you’re confronted by too many memories to leave.  James making you breakfast on Sunday mornings, James falling asleep on the couch, you leading him groggily upstairs, James coming out of the master bathroom, clean-shaven but with shaving cream still dotting the space behind the bottom of his earlobes.  There’s no way you can leave this house because it means leaving him.  He’s not out there, not the real him, the real James.  You tell yourself a hundred times everyday that he left the world behind weeks ago.  Doesn’t mean you need to leave the house now.  It’s safer anyway.

Staying means fortifying; fortifying means eating; eating means stocking up on supplies, so you head for the Cherokee in the garage.  The nearby stores are beginning to run low on supplies.  You haven’t seen any other survivors around town but you’ve been pretty thorough on your foraging trips and a lot of people took a lot of things during those frantic last days.  You pull the spare map from the glove box and look over your notes.  Shop N’ Save: empty; Price Chopper: empty; Wegman’s: barely.  You draw red Xs where the two empty stores are located for quick visual reference.  So far, you’ve only ventured to the stores in Rahway since it’s so close and you know the streets so well.  Hapsburg isn’t too far away, neither is Diamond Park, and both have their own sets of stores.  They could be stocked or they could be empty; the roads could be cleared or they could be a gnarled mess; they could be safe or they could be overrun by those monsters or by survivors that shoot anything that moves.

The biggest gambles have the biggest payoffs, though they threaten the biggest losses.

If you go for the nearby stores low on supplies, continue to section #16

If you go for the far-off stores that might be stocked, continue to section #15
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#4

James was everything to you.  The love of your life, the one constant for your future, the person you pinned hopes and dreams upon.  You don’t know if you want to end his pain or try to bring hum back, but you can’t leave now.  Dead palms slap against the trunk window and you hear the groans of hunger.  Startled back into reality, you drive ahead two blocks and turn left slowly, putting some distance between yourself and those creatures while lining up to intercept James.  The buildings are all low and you have a good line of sight all around you.  He’s dangerous, you remind yourself, and a killer.  ‘I need to be careful’ has been a mantra of sorts and you begin repeating it to yourself as a reminder, your lips moving without making a sound.  Approaching the corner where you think he’ll emerge, you stop the car and cut the engine, sliding down in your seat so that you’re barely visible.  Moments later, he shambles into view; you’re astonished at how much he still resembles himself.

His face is mottled pale purples and whites but it’s largely intact.  His jeans and white t-shirt, the same ones he was wearing the last time you saw him, are in tatters and covered in blood that can’t be his as he seems to be mostly whole.  One arm, his right, has a great chunk torn from it; you can see down to the bone from where you hide.  That’s what got him.  It must’ve been just one and he must have fought it off after the bite, otherwise he’d appear more… devoured.  It’s not a word you like but it’s the only one that comes to mind.

James passes directly in front of you.  Your muscles are still, tense; even your lips have stopped moving.  You think you see something in his face, his eyes.  Was it a glimmer of recognition?  Could he possibly remember you?  Way back before communications went down, there had been rumors of a cure, of people coming out of this.  Your brain is spiraling as you realize your hand is on the door handle.  You shake yourself out of your odd reverie.  “What am I doing?”  What are you doing?

If you step out of the car, continue to section #12

If you stay in the car, continue to section #13
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#5
You put your foot on the pedal and continue on to Jasper.  What you saw was not James.  It took the visualization to fully understand that, to accept that he was one of them, and now you feel that you have his blessing to leave him and everything in town behind.

You’re lucky the screeching tires didn’t draw too much attention to yourself and it’s still fairly easy to navigate the streets.  You’d given up trying the radio weeks ago but now that you’re  embarking upon something new, you figure that it can’t hurt to give it a try.  Static… static… static… “If you’re in”… static… “Fort Broward is”… static… static… “repeat, danger, do not”… static.

You’re driving half-blind, one eye on the road and the other on the radio dial, your ears listening for hints of the first human voice you’ve heard in months.  What was Fort Broward? What was the danger?  Is the road dangerous but the Fort safe?  You’re fiddling with the buttons, amped on excitement and fear about the voice.  Your fingers twitch over the knob again when you see a zombie step into the road from behind an overturned vehicle.  Instincts get the better of you.  You swerve.  You hit the over-turned car dead-on.

You awake to the sound of an alarm clock ringing in your ear.  Your eyes are puffy and you hear your old dog, Stanley, growling nearby.  Your body feels tight and though you try to rub your eyes to see better, your arm is restrained.  You manage with your left arm and it all comes careening back to you.  That sound isn’t an alarm clock, it’s breaking glass; that growling isn’t Stanley, it’s that zombie grunting and heaving it’s way through the windshield.  You can’t move.  The seatbelt is jammed and you’re beginning to realize the pain of both legs being broken.

The guns are all so close, a .9mm just inches away, but you can’t reach it.  The zombie’s struggling harder for you, tearing it’s own skin away as the teeth creep closer.  Your right arm is pinned, you think it’s broken, and you just can’t move to get the left arm over.  As you make one last effort to swing your arm towards the gun, the zombie pushes through the glass and sinks her teeth into the arm you had suddenly broken free.  You howl in pain but the adrenaline keeps you reaching for the gun.  You shake the zombie and steady your incomplete arm to fire off six rounds into her head.  She slumps.  You slump.  It’s only a matter of time.

As you slip into darkness, your body replaces a heartbeat with the thumping repetition of ‘Fort Broward’ and the last glimmer of consciousness informs you where your starving body will soon be seeking sustenance.

THE END
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#6

It’s been over a day since you came back and while it seems most of them have drifted away in search of more readily available food, James remains.  You remind yourself it isn’t him, that James is not James, that James died weeks ago and this thing is nothing more than a monster that bears his face, and yet you can’t let the possibility go.  This is the mental muscle you’ve been flexing throughout town, through the wasteland of people that you used to know.  It’s been easy and you thought you were tough but now you’re thinking and realizing that you just didn’t care much for any of those people while they were alive.  They became easy to dismiss or dispatch but James was yours, your man, had been for years and would have been forever.  If he’s butting up against the house, maybe he still is yours.  Maybe, you think, he’s calling to me in the only way that he can now.  Maybe, you think, I’m losing my mind.  Maybe, you think, I’m going to get myself killed.

Even as you cannot decide on what you think of the thing outside, you know there’s no way you can ignore him and let him roam away to become lost again.  Fundamentally, there is no choice to be made here for sometimes things are chosen for you.  That is the power that love holds; it may allow you to decide how you go from A to B, but it will ensure that you go from A to B.  This thought overwhelms you as much as you believe in it, for how did love bring you here?  And where will love take you?  You shudder at either the possibilities or a breeze that may have blown through a crack in one of the barricaded windows.

But, you focus, how to get him into the house?

If you risk the fast and dangerous way, continue to section #8

If you attempt the slow and more difficult way, continue to section #7
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#7

You flex the muscles you’ve developed over the last few months and mentally it makes you feel stronger.  ‘Survival isn’t a game’ has been a mantra and now you’re putting that to the test.  Slowly and silently, you’ve pulled the wooden planks from the guest bedroom on the second floor, the one that looks onto the trampled lawn, right onto one of the spots that James’ been milling about with some regularity.  You’ve turned the green garden hose from the garage into a lasso and quietly lowered it towards the ground.  It’s just a matter of waiting for him to amble over to it.  Eventually, he begins coming your way and your muscles tense.  There’s only one chance to get this right.  Moving slowly, he places one foot inside of the loop, hesitates, and places the second one inside.  Without a moment to reconsider, you yank on the hose, pulling the loop up to his armpits and cinching the hose around his torso.  One foot braced against the window sill, you begin to slowly and methodically reel him in as he bounces and flails against the side of the house.  This escapade has surely drawn the attention of the monsters in the area but the downstairs is well-barricaded.

After a lifetime, his head comes into view, then his shoulders, his torso, and lastly his legs as he tumbles into the room.  Before he can react, you knock the old bureau onto his back, pinning him down while you first handcuff his ankles together, then handcuff his wrists behind his back.  It’s the only way to minimize his threat.  His skin is cold and flaky; you force back the bile rising in your throat.  You tell yourself he once loved you.  Finished, you push the bureau off of his back and look upon him.  He can’t get up, can’t even roll over, but his body bucks in a jerky way, fueled only by the desire for your flesh.  You know what you told yourself time and again but you can’t help still loving him somehow.  He would kill you in an instant and yet you love him, you love this thing, for the resemblance and the remembrance that it brings.  It, you try to say, it, not him or he, but this doesn’t do much good.  You reeled it in because you remember it as him; you believe in some sort of salvation because once, it was he.

You shed only a few tears as you guide it down the hallway to a bathroom where you clasp more handcuffs to rings that you’ve drilled into the walls.  You feel certain about the rings, you trust your own work; you also trust your own work on the deadbolts you’ve installed on the outside of the bathroom door.  You need some time to think.

Continue to section #9
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#8
Through the windowpanes of the garage door, you see him milling around the driveway as if he had found his way home.  Another two of them are on the lawn and three are in the street, but you can’t make out much else.  This is your best chance.  With the green garden hose in one hand, the other lifts up the garage door to about knee height and you’re bent down enough to see his feet shuffling forward.  You wish the old door wasn’t so loud.  You get the door about waist high and you catch him, eye to eye, which makes him shuffle faster.  You ready the garden hose, steel your nerves, and hoist the door up but you’ve mistimed it.  He’s too close and the door smacks him in the face, sending him to the ground on his back.  You sense them all looking at you, realizing your presence.  He’s struggling to get upright but there’s no time.  You drop the hose and grab his two legs, sliding his surprisingly heavy body into the garage.  He’s disoriented enough that you have a moment.  You grab the uncoiled rope, slam the garage door back down, and when you turn back around he’s almost on his feet.  Quickly, you begin to make a loop of the hose to capture him in when you realize that one end is stuck.  You look down to see the end of the hose snaking under the garage door.  You also see dozens of rotting fingers and chipped fingernails sliding into that open space.  Before you can stop them, they’ve lifted the garage door and there are many more than you had seen from the window.  You move for the door to the house but run straight into James and are knocked onto your back.  The hose still in your hand, you try to strangle yourself into blackout but you see their rotted faces pouncing and feel their jagged teeth clamping before you lose it all.

THE END
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#9

He’s been shackled and locked in the bathroom for days now.  At first, the moans and the sounds of his struggling against the restraints were too much to bear and you needed to stay behind the barricaded bedroom door for hours.  As the days passed though, his guttural growls turned into mumbles, then whispers, then just the occasional sound of the handcuffs clanking weakly.  You can’t continue like this.  It’s not about having one of them in the house, it’s about having him in the house.  One of them you would have killed or you could wait to see if it starves – if it dies of starvation – but you can’t do that with James.  He deserves something better.  Your eyes are red from exhaustion, your brain is tired, your thoughts sluggish.  This isn’t a reasonable situation, you tell yourself, I shouldn’t be forced into such a decision.  If you kill him, it signals an end to the return of normalcy you’d been hoping for and your embarkation into another terrifying world.  If you choose to release him upon you, well, that’s the literal end of the world and the rebirth into another, but at least you would do it with him.  There’s something to that, you tell yourself, isn’t there?

If you choose to kill him, continue to section #10

If you choose to release him, continue to section #11
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#10

He’s weak from hunger and captivity; his head just lolls and nods at you as if affixed to a marionette’s string.  You approach without fear for the shackles on his ankles and wrists are steady.  Caressing the back of his head, he makes trivial lunges at your face and your arms with his teeth but he can’t reach.  Even still, it’s stupid to be this close.  You can’t help yourself.  You need to say goodbye.  Running your fingers across the back of his scalp, they become caught in a tangle of dried blood and quite suddenly you no longer need to say goodbye.  You said goodbye a long time ago, before he was your captive, before he ambled back to the house.  This is not James, you loved James and you’ve made your peace with what has become of James.  This is just a monster that needs to be put down like any other monster.  You put the barrel of your gun to it’s forehead and you fire.  You don’t unbind him, don’t bury him, don’t clean the bathroom.  You shut the door and you walk away.  James is dead, this house is dead, this town is dead; everything.  It’s time to move on.

THE END
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#11

You kneel down to unclasp the handcuffs binding his ankles to the ring you screwed into the wall.  His feet begin shuffling but he can’t get anywhere with his hands still bound.  Standing, you reach around to undo the handcuffs on one wrist.  He begins mustering an energy born of hunger and bloodlust but you’re still able to easily brush away the cold and broken arm.  He bares his teeth but you keep just far enough away.  The last key, the last handcuff, your last decision.  Holding him back at the waist where he can’t bite you, you undo the last handcuff and free him of his captivity.  You step back, not from uncertainty but to savor the last few moments.  You loved him so much when he was alive, when the world was alive, when your future was alive.  That’s all gone now; the future and the world are wastelands.  He too is a wasteland but something way back behind the blackness in his eyes is telling you that you can be together again.  What else is there besides ongoing struggle and eventual death?  Violent death at the hands of monsters you never cared about.  At least this monster you cared about at one point in time.

Your back against the white tiles of the wall, you drop your defensive arms and let him come.  His rotted teeth come at the neck that you bend forward for him.  For a moment there is exquisite pain and a wet warmth.  Then there is numbness, there is cold, there is ravenous hunger.

THE END
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#12

You did see something in his eyes – some faint recognition. Something on his lips – a recollection of your name.  Slowly, you pull the handle on the door and pop open the driver side door.  Barely a sound is made.  You’re unsure what you’re doing but you reach across the seat for your Glock and a hunting rifle.  As you step outside of the car, you realize James has stopped crossing the street and is turning to look at you.  He doesn’t make an immediate move in your direction.  You think maybe something in his brain is still functioning, tying your face to the memories that are either dead or buried deep in his mind.

You’re so focused that only at the last moment do your hear the sounds of shuffling feet behind you.  You turn to see the three zombies that had been interested in your car earlier.  One  is upon you and you push away gnashing teeth with one hand while firing the gun against it’s temple.  It drops and you see the next two right behind him.  You fire off one clean shot, then a second, hitting both in the center of their foreheads.  Before you can turn, you feel two surprisingly strong hands grab your shoulders from behind.  There’s no time to do anything before the teeth come up against your skin.  You can’t even see if it’s James that took you under or if he stood still as another one came, attracted by the sound of bullets.

You like to think that it was him though, that he loved you so much he couldn’t bear to be without you, and that maybe you can be together again.

THE END
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#13

You realize the absurdity of your actions and slide your hand off the handle.  You wonder what you would have done had you stepped outside, but quickly you dispel the rhetorical question.  James is looking directly at you but not moving.  In your rearview mirror, you see three zombies approaching – the ones interested in your car a few minutes ago.  Another few come around the corner.  They’re somehow signaling one another.  There’s enough room to navigate the car but you need to get moving.  As absurd as it would have been to exit the car, you wonder if you were a little bit right about his recognition.  Were you too hasty to quit town?  Is it possible to stay and capture James?  Rehabilitate him or at least ease his suffering?

If you continue on to Jasper, continue on to section #5

If you head back to the house to regroup, continue on to section #14
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#14

The only choice now is to go back to the house, back to safety, back to the distant possibility of James.  You still don’t know how this call of theirs works but it can bring a lot of them to the streets and you don’t want to somehow be caught while trying to get out of town.  The house will be safe until their interest dies away.  They’ll follow you back but once you’re out of sight and with a diminishing scent, they usually dissipate from the area around the house after a couple of hours at most.

James has begun to slowly approach your car but there’s no time to linger; you can hear those behind you beginning to hit the car.  You rev the engine and throw the car into reverse, knocking the three down as you turn the car around to head back the way that you came.  James is moving faster now and you can see dozens of them behind him crossing the square.  Even if the rest lose track, he’ll lead them to you.  Somehow, you’ve jogged his dead memory and he still remembers the way home.

Continue to section #6
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#15

If you’re going to survive in a world overrun by zombies, you’re going to have to take the occasional gamble.  You check the garage windows and don’t see many of them lingering nearby, so you hit the garage opener and roll out slowly.  The streets aren’t bad in the neighborhood and you’re surprised how few zombies you see across the torn-up lawns of abandoned houses.  You wonder what it is they do besides eat.

The roads are fairly clear and it doesn’t take long for you to reach Hapsburg.  All of these towns have a similar layout so it isn’t difficult to locate the stores.  Zombies mill about but as long as you drive slowly, they don’t take much notice.  The parking lot of the A&P is a bad scene – a lot of survivors must have been hit by a swarm; the smell penetrates the sealed windows.

You park just below the rooftop ladder at the back of the store, scan to make sure none of them are nearby, and you climb onto your car and up the ladder.  Most of these places have a door on the roof that leads down to the store and this A&P is no different.  Fill up the duffel bags, drop them down to the car from the roof, and then haul off.  This has been your tactic since the beginning and it’s been working well.

Inside, the store doesn’t have much more than what there was back in town.  You walk aisle to aisle, ensuring that nothing is creeping along with the smell of you lingering like roast beef.  No threats – they must have sealed up the store early on, which could explain how so many had been slaughtered outside.  But just as there are no zombies lingering in the aisles, neither is there much food.  Some canned beans and vegetables, a few boxes of expired Cheerios and Corn Flakes, one bag of pretzels, a dozen or so frozen dinners.  It’s not a good haul, not what you had hoped for, but it isn’t bad either; it’ll feed you for awhile.

You’re dragging the duffel bag back towards the stairwell for the roof when you hear a noise.  The bag drops and both your hands are wrapped around your Glock.  You hear it again and figure it’s coming from the back of the store.  It’s louder but doesn’t seem any closer.  Could someone be surviving inside of a locked room?  Did someone trap a group of zombies somewhere?  Is it even worth checking?

If you choose to investigate, continue to section #17

If you choose to leave, continue to section #18
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#16

There will come a time when you need to venture further and explore areas that you don’t know the safety of.  Today is not that day and you figure that you might as well clear out the Wegman’s before moving onto uncertain locations.  You pull out of the garage unmolested and seal it quickly before any of them can stumble in looking for their next meal.  The streets are pretty clear of debris and the overturned, burned out husks of cars that remain are already on your radar.  That’s the beauty of staying in a town that you know: the knowledge, the security, the way that you know everything.  Images of James drift before your eyes, hovering in the air in front of the windshield as if he’s watching over you.  You presume that physically he’s still in town; all the others seem to have been lingering in the areas where they died and he went down defending the northern edge of Williamson, just a few miles from home.  You haven’t seen him though and you think maybe it’s better that way or you wouldn’t know what to do.

And then, as if he knew, James emerges into the intersection ahead.  You slam on the brakes, barely avoiding hitting him.  Slowly, he turns to look at you and you’re amazed at how much he still resembles himself.  His face has turned pale and purple, he wears a coating of matted blood on his torn jeans and t-shirt, and there’s a significant portion of his arm missing.  Otherwise, James still resembles James.  And somehow, no matter how much his brain has died or deteriorated, something about you is striking a chord in him.  He stares without moving – beating back the bloodlust, you think – and you do the same, until you notice more of them approaching, attracted by the sound of the tires screeching and whatever stand-off is going between the two of you.  You should continue on with your foraging plans as seeing the husk of James means nothing; he remains nothing more than a monster in the guise of your lover.  Former lover.  And yet, if he can recognize you, you begin to wonder if he would follow back to the house if you turned around and drove there now, giving him a bit of guidance. His eyes seem to remember you, you can almost hear him groan your name. What if he’s somehow alive beneath all that exterior death? What if there’s a sentient remnant of James?

Three pairs of hungry hands begin beating against the back windows and you need to make a decision.

If you turn back to the house, continue on to section #6

If you continue foraging, continue on to section #19
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#17

Leaving the bag where you dropped it, you keep your gun raised and step slowly towards the back office of the store.  There’s no window, the door to the office is shut, and the sound is growing louder.  A heavy thumping against the door.  It could be someone weakened by starvation trying to get out, or it could be one of them.  The thumping grows louder as you approach, more rapid, and you realize it isn’t one hand thumping but many.  You take a step back but the smell of rot hits you.  You smell them and they smell you.  They’re ravenous with hunger, you hear it in the desperation of their hits against the wooden door.

You’re walking backwards with your gun trained on the door when the whole thing shatters and a wave of monsters pours forward.  There’re far too many of them for you to handle.  You put down the first four that had ridden a surge of momentum from the group behind and they slow down the rest for you to make an escape.  As you turn to run, your left foot catches the edge of a pallet you hadn’t seen while backing up and you go down, the Glock sliding across the floor.  You’re quickly back on your feet but you’re not fast enough.  A hand grabs your shirt at the back, another your collar, another your sleeve, another the hem; a moment, then another grabs your pant leg, another your right ankle, another your left knee.  No matter how much you try to surge ahead, they hold you tight; in an odd way it reminds you of the way James would hold you tight in bed.  When you tried to pull away to get dressed for work, he would hold you from behind and not let you go.  He would pull you back, just as they pull you back, and promise to never let you go, just as they will never let you go.

THE END
If you wish you had done things differently, click here
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#18

Surviving means not investigating unnecessary danger, so you take the stairs back to the roof.  The beige bag is heavier than you thought and you’re sweating by time you’re outside.  You glance over the edge of the building, doing a full sweep of the perimeter, and see no danger near the car.  You normally haul the bag most of the way down the ladder before dropping it, in order to minimize the sound of impact, but since none of them are too close by and the bag is so heavy, you decide to just haul it over the edge.

The bag meets the trunk of the car with a boom.  That’s gonna draw some attention, you think, and before you can even swing your leg over the ladder, you see one of them emerge from the tree line behind the store.  You hadn’t checked there.  Now you really have to move.  You hurry down the ladder and as you’re only a few rungs in, your right hand slips from the sweat on your palms.  Your left foot moves off the rung and in a moment of panic, your other hand loses its grip and you drop.

You nearly blackout from the pain when your feet hit the roof of the car.  You drop to your knees and you’re helpless to stop yourself from rolling off of the roof and onto the ground.  You feel the radiant pain; you know your ankles are shattered.  The zombie from the woods has been joined by others and they’re speeding up at the smell of blood.  The gun is still in your belt.  You think of James.  You cry at it ending this way but you’ve known it would be along these lines.  Maybe I’ll find James, you think; he always said you were an optimist.

THE END
If you wish you had done things differently, click here
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#19

As much as it pains you, you angle the car away from James and put your foot to the gas.  “It’s not him,” you say over and over again, repeating it as a mantra to give yourself a necessary boost of power.  You don’t even look back.  It’s not him.

You clean out the Wegman’s in under 15 minutes.  The remaining cans of food barely take up more than half of one duffel bag.  You run on autopilot.  When you get home, you realize how lucky you are that there were no incidents because you would have gone down with little fight.  You probably wouldn’t have even realized what was going on.

James.  James.  You can’t believe that you saw him.  Saw him and kept moving.  Does that mean you’ve accepted that he’s gone?  Does that mean you can move on?  Somehow… no, it actually makes you want to hunker down even more.  As if he was a challenge you needed to overcome, you now feel fortified in the house.  He was the weakness, he was the tie to the old world, the you that wasn’t a warrior capable of fighting, killing, surviving, saving her own life.  Today, you proved that you could do it.

As the sun sets on another day and you walk the house, doing rounds to ensure that all the windows and doors are properly barricaded, you smile.

THE END
If you wish you had done things differently, click here

Advice Columns (#14)

In Stories Volume 1 on June 4, 2012 at 2:19 pm

DEAR MR. MANNERS: I’ve read your column long enough to know that it’s not that uncommon for a man to fall in love with his girlfriend’s sister.  Well,  I’ve gone and complicated matters by falling in love with my girlfriend’s older brother.  I was upfront from the beginning about my bisexuality but also that when I’m in a relationship, I’m monogamous across both genders.  Then I met her older brother, who’s both gay and lives in the same apartment building as her.  We got along very well right away and though I made no moves on him and he understood my relationship with his sister, he made a move on me and, well, I fell for him.  So now I’m openly dating my girlfriend while secretly dating her brother.  Is there a manageable resolution to this?

 

GENTLE READER: Thank you for ensuring that Mr. Manners will never lack for interesting material.  While the genders may be shifted a bit from what’s been covered before, the story remains the same: you cheated on your girlfriend with a member of her family who was well aware of the situation.  He obviously doesn’t care much for his sister and frankly, neither do you.  You should leave both for the sake of the family but if you must persist in one relationship, the only one that stands a chance is with the brother.

 

DEAR MR. MANNERS: I followed your advice but when I tried to break things off with my girlfriend, she insisted that we could make this all work.  Since then, I’d been dating both the brother and the sister and somehow, things were going smoothly.  Then I met the younger brother.  He came over for dinner one night and though he knows about the relationships and claims that he isn’t gay, we hit it off and much like before, he made a move and I fell for it.  Now I’m openly dating the two siblings and secretly dating the third, who I’ve supposedly turned gay.  I feel like this is going to end poorly.  Please help!

 

GENTLE READER: Now we know what happens when you ask for but do not heed Mr. Manners’ advice.  The only reasonable course now is to leave them all behind.  You obviously don’t want to or you wouldn’t be writing me, but frankly, it’s too late.  Even if you could maintain one relationship, two would fail and become resentful towards you and whichever sibling has the dubious honor of winning you over.  The parents won’t like the way you’ve treated their children and you’ll end up with four of five family members against you (please tell me there are no other siblings).  You obviously have an issue with wanderlust so until you can control yourself, please only date those people without siblings.

 

DEAR MR. MANNERS: It’s gotten worse.  I tried to follow your advice.  I sat all three siblings down, laid out what had happened, and explained that I could no longer date any of them.  Too bad for me, each one of them had been prepared for such an eventuality and had bought a ring to propose!  Seriously, on the spot, all three of them proposed to me, each one unaware that the others had been planning the same thing.  I tried to insist that this didn’t change anything, that it was still a bad idea, but they refuse to take no for an answer and they insist that someone is getting married.  I tried sitting down with their parents but that only gave them an opportunity to give me their blessing for any of their kids.  They’re all wonderful people and truthfully I’d be happy to stay with any of the three.  So, I guess my question now is, is there any way to make this work?

 

GENTLE READER: Mr. Manners is at a loss as to why you continue to write if you continue to not heed his advice.  He steadfastly maintains that you should leave this family behind as quickly as possible.  There is something wrong with them that they must work through minus your presence.  Should you choose to stay – as it seems likely you will – be aware that due to an old loophole and a progressive electorate, the state in which you reside is friendly to both polygamy and gay marriage.  Mr. Manners does not suggest taking all three siblings to be your spouses but considering the path you’ve been on, he might as well be helpful.

 

DEAR MR. MANNERS: I can’t imagine you’ll publish this letter in our continuing communication unless the judge forces you to as part of your community service but just in case she does, I want it to be ready.  When you last wrote to me asking about the details of my hastily put together three-part wedding, I thought that you were simply curious.  And though I then invited you, you declined to attend.  So imagine my surprise when during the beginning ceremony, someone quite belligerently decided to voice an objection instead of forever holding his peace.  It took me, oh, a good two seconds to recognize your face and your oh-so-proper speech; I can’t believe you maintain that affectation in real life.  I don’t know how you snuck back inside the ceremony room of the hotel after the ushers forced you out, but husband #2 was pretty upset when you began yelling at us from behind that potted plant.  My to-be wife was jumpy throughout our ceremony she was so expectant that you would return to denounce her as well; we didn’t learn until afterward that Cousin Stevie had escorted you out and then detained you in the parking lot.  Good guy, that Stevie.  And then, the great centerpiece of your meltdown, when you came drunkenly careening into the reception hall.  Are you aware that was my great-grandmother, turning ninety-nine in four months, that you pushed onto the table and simulated sex with?  And what were you attempting to do with that slotted spoon?  Did you know Cousin Stevie is a former Marine?  I bet you figured that out when he tackled you.

Your lawyer’s assertion that I caused your breakdown by repeatedly seeking your advice and ignoring it was, at best, ludicrous. Nevertheless, should there be any shred of truth to that, I want to offer you some advice of my own: don’t be so tied to logic.  Everything that you told me to do made perfect logical sense and in an orderly world, events and actions would have broken along those lines.  But our world is not orderly, love does not always follow the anticipated pattern, and just because advice is given, it doesn’t need to be followed.  I’m sure that’s hard to hear when your job is to dispense advice but hopefully it’ll loosen you up a bit for the future.

Now, if you can keep yourself together, I’m stuck between two spouses that want to have kids and one that just wants a cat.  What are your thoughts?