Closing Out 2016

I do not think I am alone when I say that 2016 was a difficult year on many different fronts. I had personal losses that were harder than any I had faced before. Earlier this year I worked with Jessica Smith to create a thirty minute story/piece of art. She painted, I wrote and when we were through we put up what we had in a collaborative effort. Neither of us knew what the other one had worked on until we were finished, and I think both things turned out surprisingly well. I wanted to share that post here as a cathartic release. It’s one of the things I’m going to do to help me start the process of closing out this year.

30 Minute Collaboration

 

Stripping away the layers of flesh was not as easy as it had once been, but it was still a ritual she embraced. Each night she gripped a soft chunk between her thumb and forefinger and pulled it back in long straight strips that she folded over neatly and placed atop the rock altar.

When she was free she glided over the water and danced among the blades of grass, moving in and between them until each one’s molecules were imprinted on her spirit. Some might have said she was one with the air, but that wasn’t true either, it was more than that. The air was all around her, through her, and in her, but she didn’t merge with it.

It was getting harder to wear her flesh so that she could salvage the lost souls. There were days she wanted nothing more than to ascend and give up on her mission. But each night she refreshed her spirit, and as dawn slipped over the horizon she returned and replaced her skin one strip at a time.

Each time it felt heavier than it had before: the thickness of it pushing in on her as she assembled it until she was solid again. One day soon the strips would no longer fit together and the healing rays of the moon would not be enough.

She wondered if she would collapse all at once under the weight of the flesh. Or, if it would bury her gradually in overlapping wrinkles until she could no longer release her spirit?

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“A Million Pieces” By Rhonda Parrish

In exactly one week I have the pleasure of hosting Kristina on my blog. What’s more (Spoiler!), she’s going to be sharing a bit of Christmas flash in that post. Since she is sharing a story on my blog I wanted to return the favour on hers.

Every year I participate in Loren Eaton’s Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts. So far I haven’t figured out what I’m writing for this year’s (good thing I have a few days left!) but I am quite fond of the piece I wrote for last year’s. This story has been described as ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘haunting’, which is my way of warning you, this isn’t a happy little holiday tale, but I hope you like it!

A Million Pieces
by Rhonda Parrish

They say it’s the things which drove you crazy that you miss the most. I never much believed it myself. Not until I lost you.

It’s been a year now. And what a year. A year of rehab and therapy, lawyers and courtrooms. A year of firsts.

My first surgery. First steps without my walker. First birthday without you. First day back in our apartment, alone. First night—

So many things you could have counted. So. Many.

It used to frustrate me so much, your counting, but my love was deeper than my irritation so I stayed. Stayed though you counted every Cheerio in your bowl. All the bowls in the cupboard. Every spoon.

I loved you enough to stay though you counted your pills six times a day. And when you stopped taking them? I stayed then too.

I spent our last Valentine’s Day dressed up, crying and watching you crawl across the floor in your suit picking up each Q-tip from the Costco-sized box I’d spilled and counting, counting, counting.

I stayed through all that, yet you let a drunk driver tear you from me. One. One car. One driver. One crash.

Christmas was always your favourite holiday, and I’m celebrating in style in honour and remembrance of you. I’ve baskets full of Christmas balls scattered throughout the house, festive decorations, and the tree is up and decorated. I think you’d approve. The lights twinkling on it are reflected in the glass globes which adorn it and nearby the fireplace snaps and pops. Outside, snow is falling, piling up in the corners of our windows, and my want for you is so intense it’s nearly a physical thing.

I stare out at the city. From this high all I see is a sea of lights piecing the darkness. Like stars.

I look up, then, expecting to be disappointed; star-watching and snowfall so rarely go together, but through a clearing in the clouds, just to the left of the moon, one star gleams. It’s super bright and though I don’t know its name or if it’s a part of a constellation, I’d bet it’s one sailors use to navigate. To find their way back home.

I close my eyes.

I make a wish.

When I open them, something has changed. Not outside. The moon and star are still there, snow still falls and below steams of red taillights still move alongside the blue-white of halogen headlights.

I shift my focus from beyond the window, to its glass. The change is in here. With us. The window reflects the room back at me. Tree, fireplace, me…and you.

Your reflection is as solid as mine. Distorted ever so slightly by the flaws in the glass, but distinctly you. Your shaggy hair. Your hipster glasses. Your mouth which moves, your voice I hear.

“I missed you—” You reach for me. You reach for me and I panic and grab the basket of Christmas balls from the window ledge beside me. The wicker is hard against my fingers, unforgiving. I turn it upside down, pour out the balls which tumble over one another, and onto the floor.

You stop. Your graze drops to the floor, then back up to mine, reflected in the window.

“I—” you begin, then stop and chew on the corner of your pinky finger’s nail. My chest clenches at the sight, so familiar.

Your indecision is a vacuum sucking all the air from the room, slowing the tick-tock of the clock on the mantle until each sound is a long, drawn-out scream. I can’t move. Can’t breathe. My eyes burn, but I cannot cry.

“One,” you say, kneeling down and disappearing from my sight. “Two—”

I exhale. The grip on my chest loosens and the clock resumes its natural rhythm.

“Three, four…”

How many balls were there? A dozen? More?

Too few. Too few.

I step back and white heat rips through my heel as the ball crunches beneath it.

Blood stains the milky glass shards, drips from my foot to the hardwood. You reach for a piece, a shard, “Five, six, seven…”

A sob catches in my throat and I snatch a ball from the tree. It’s blue and glittery, the surface rough against my palm. I remember picking it out with you in the antique store we stopped at on our way home from the local theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol three years ago. You’d grinned at me then, so big I could see the gap between your bottom teeth, and your eyes shone with love. It was a perfect moment in a perfect day.

How many more of those days could we have had?

“Eighteen, nineteen, twenty—”

How many were stolen from me?

“Twenty-four, twenty-five—”

…from us?

“Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine—”

I hurl it with all my strength so it shatters. I rip the next from the fir’s branches and smash it too. And the next, and the next.

I scream out my anger. I sob out my sorrow. My blood mixes with the fragments of memory spreading across the floor and woven through it all, your voice. Implacable. Counting.

“Three thousand four hundred and two, three thousand four hundred and three—”

***

Bio: Rhonda Parrish is driven by a desire to do All The Things. She was the publisher and editor-in-chief of Niteblade Magazine for eight years (which is like forever in internet time) and is the editor of several anthologies including, most recently, Scarecrow and B is for Broken.

In addition, Rhonda is a writer whose work has been in publications such as Tesseracts 17: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast, Imaginarium: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (2012 & 2015) and Mythic Delirium.

Her website, updated weekly, is at http://www.rhondaparrish.com

 

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Mark’s Story

He drummed his fingers on the Formica counter, trying to find just the right phrase to put in the letter. This, after all, was going to be the turning point. This was going to be the day that he solidified his relationship with Lucy. This was going to change everything.

Unrequited love may have been something that Shakespeare wrote about, but this was different. This was his life, not some sixteenth century drama. When he thought of the perfect way to express this, he put the pen on the paper and scribbled it out, his hand moving across the paper as fast as he could to not lose his concentration. This was his latest attempt at getting everything down on paper, on getting it written out correctly.

Just as he was about to move over and dump the stale coffee into the sink the news flashed to a story about the special anniversary of the singer who had disappeared. Mark snatched up the remote and turned up the volume, checking to see if they had any new findings on the woman whose voice he had adored.

“…vanished without a trace on her way home from getting gas. Tonight it has been three years since anyone has heard or seen Shelly Green. If you have any information on this case, please be sure to contact the authorities using the special hotline number on the bottom of the screen.”

While she was speaking of the disappearance the broadcaster’s face was drawn and serious, but in the instant when the story shifted over to the children’s art festival her face transformed into a large wide smile, the trauma of the missing singer gone.

Life moves on. He thought, folding the paper up and tucking it into the envelope. He made sure that his shirt was tucked in and that his hair was combed. He knew that presentation was half of the battle to gaining her attention.

On the way to her he made sure to run the truck through the wash, the warm soapy water closing him off from the outside world. He leaned back against the headrest of the truck and thought about the letter in his pocket. He had memorized every line and now replayed it in his head imagining how it was going to go and what he was going to do. He liked to be prepared for every eventuality.

Twenty minutes later he was pulling up in front of her house, his sweaty palms gripping the steering wheel. This was his last chance. He knew that if she didn’t respond to him tonight that it was never going to happen, that he would have to move on.

He didn’t want to, but it was truly in her hands now.

When he got to the door he could see her sitting on the couch through the window, waiting. She was always dressed so perfectly, her long blonde hair fanned out to frame her face. When he stepped on the porch it creaked and she looked over at him and waved.

Waving back, he thought about the first time he had found her, stranded on the side of the road, trying to get help. The cell signal on these back roads was spotty, and he knew right away that he had to help her. Since then he’d been visiting her regularly.

Tonight they sat on the couch as usual, her palms pressed together and her knee slightly bouncing in anticipation. In the time Mark had known her he was always left a little breathless when they were together and he loved to sit next to her and soak up the scent of roses that seemed to seep out of her pores.

He was not sure what to say to her, but he knew that she understood because she never seemed put off or upset when he came around.

Mark sighed, this was his last shot though, he’d promised himself that if he didn’t work up the nerve to ask her to marry him this time then it was never going to happen. He wasn’t sure what he was so worried about; he knew that she would probably say yes. They spent all of their free time together and neither of them were seeing anyone else.

In fact, Lucy was almost a hermit. He wasn’t sure that she ever saw the outside of her cabin, let alone anyone else. While he wanted to do some grand gesture to let her know how he felt, instead he took the letter out and slipped it under the edge of her hand.

Smiling, she took the letter and opened it, her eyes slowly reading over the lines as he waited. Mark could feel his chest tightening and the blood pumping through his body was doing so with such force that small stars lit up the corner of his vision.

He didn’t know that he had ever been so anxious for a response.

Looking down, he fished the ring from his pocket and put it firmly in the palm of his hand, clasping his fingers around the band and pressing it deep into his flesh. When he looked back up he saw that she was staring at him, her dark blue eyes churning.

“Of course I’ll marry you, Mark.” I’ve always wanted us to be together forever.

He heaved a giant sigh of relief and handed her over the engagement ring. He thought about getting down on one knee, but he didn’t want to fall over or do something foolish to ruin the moment.

He held his breath, waiting for her to laugh at his clumsy proposal, but instead she just smiled sweetly and took the ring from him.

After a moment, she stood up and tried to grip his hand, “Come here, I want to show you something.”

“What?” he asked as he rose, pulling his shirt down and wiping his palms against the fabric before slipping his hand back into hers.

“You’ll see.” She whispered, and Mark walked through the room into the back of the house. In all his visits he had never gone to the back of the house. It was were the bedrooms were, and he knew how important waiting was for Lucy. She’d mentioned it more than once.

In his mind he wondered if because he had proposed now would be the night when they would finally be able to be together. He smiled to himself.

“I want you to see what forever looks like.” Lucy put her hand on the doorknob and looked at him one last time. “You ready?”

Mark nodded and took in a deep breath, and he was still inhaling and envisioning their night together when she pushed the door open and stepped to the side.

When he looked up he almost choked on that breath as he struggled to push the air back out in a solid scream. In front of him was a woman shackled to the wall. Her head hung limply against her chest and her blonde hair was matted with clumps of dried blood. He backed up a step, and tried to turn only to find himself falling.

A heavy object landed its first blow against his head, and then that pattern was repeated three more times in rapid succession. The last thing he could see through red tinged lenses was the woman’s face as she looked up and tried to call out to him, her gaunt features pulling tight against her cheekbones as she screamed. But he could hear none of it.

As the darkness sank down over him, he realized three things. One was that the woman had chunks of flesh missing from different points in her body, some of them healing at different rates so that it looked like this was an ongoing thing.

The second was that he had found the missing singer.

The last thought he had as he struggled to pull himself away from Lucy’s beating was how often he had eaten steak at her house.

She leaned over him, the soft scent of her floral shampoo now clogged his nostrils and he pushed himself away from her.

“I promise you forever,” she whispered as she leaned back and raised the pan above her head one more time.

“Oh no…” he managed to mutter to himself as world faded to black.

 

Vascular System

He looked up from his biology book and asked me with an earnest face why they had two different names for the circulatory system. I told him that the vascular system was more outdated, but that it was harder to scrub something from years of references in textbooks so they still reference it.

“But isn’t the vascular system in plants too? That’s crazy.”

I nodded and continued cutting the vegetables for dinner, sliding my knife easily through the carrot as we talked. “It may be, but you should never underestimate the level of crazy that one can experience when dealing with any aspect of the heart.”

For a little while he didn’t say anything else, and I was so concentrated on getting dinner ready that I didn’t notice until I felt the weight of his gaze. He wasn’t going to interrupt my concentration, but it was clear that he was waiting for my attention. I didn’t immediately look up but rather finished slicing the cucumber and slid it into the salad bowl alongside the tomatoes and carrots.

Then I looked up and met his gaze, “Yes?”

He was barely fourteen, that soft age between the harsh expectations of society and the soft touch of childhood. In that instant I could see the person he was going to become as clearly as I could see the child he’d been. My arms longed to gather him up, pull him tight in a hug and wrap myself in the memories.

Time was an evil mistress, and I blinked back at the sudden tears in my eyes.

“Do you mean that love is crazy?” he asked, his brows drawn together in serious contemplation. I almost chuckled at his concern, but then I remembered how moments ago I was ready to swaddle him like a babe for one more hit of that deep motherly love.

“Yes,” I started, holding up my finger when I could see the apprehension in his face, “all love is crazy, but that does not mean it is bad. Rather, it is exciting and  tense and sadness and happiness. And it is all of these things all at once. But life would be a flat wasteland without it.”

“Huh,” he commented, blushing a little as he looked over my shoulder. I wondered if he was thinking about a girl or if he was contemplating future loves. I almost asked, but instead reached for the head of lettuce and slid it onto the cutting board as he dipped his head back to his studies and I began chopping the salad.

Storm Shelters

“You never really notice them until you need them.”

That’s what my mother used to say to me about storm shelters. Although, growing up in Western Oklahoma, it was almost mandatory that every house had one on the property.  I know we never lived in a house without one. Sometimes they would be shelters, more often than not they would be labeled as storage or playrooms during all of the times we didn’t need them.

Then, when the storms would come, we would find ourselves huddled down in the dank confines of the underground rescue with overflowing boxes of old paperwork, panting dogs, and hissing cats. All of us bound together waiting for the tornado to pass by as we listened to the sound of the air moving by so fast that it was temporarily a pressurized being.

Sometimes we would play cards, and once Uncle Jim even brought down a set of dominos. But most of the time we sat in the darkness, our eyes all turned upward at the cement ceiling. If someone had peeked into the shelter they would have thought us some weird faction of an underground cult. Our eyes all pointed upwards at the terrifying deity that could form a hand out of the air and crush us at any moment.

Quietly

She pushed her fingers against her lips and stared at her sister. They could only play quietly after dark. It was an important rule. They could play, but it had to be done without noise. Their father was not one to be disturbed. Most of the time, Lana liked to pretend that she were living inside of a giant vacuum, and that no sound would push its way out of her lips.

Her sister, however, was a different story.

Margot didn’t like to be still or quiet when she played. She was a giant ball of energy that could barely be contained by her own skin. It was hard to believe that the two of them had been born sisters, let alone twins. Pushing their way out of the womb at such an early age, both fragile little beings who were inexorably intertwined. Their mother told them that she hadn’t known there were two. Being too poor to afford to go to the doctor had caused her to miss out on this knowledge until it was too late, until both of them were pushing their way out into the world.

Lana supposed that was why there was a distance between the two of them and her; a gulf none of them could not bridge. The man they called dad was just a substitute, and a poor one at that. When Lana was sure they were safe, she turned her attention back to the game, moving her doll to a corner of the collective, turning their vacant stares to the wall. When she swung her arm back, one of the dolls fell off the bed, landing on the floor with a thud that echoed across the silent house.

Margot grabbed her arm and held her tight when they heard the floorboards creak. Her breath burned in her lungs and she remembered her mother leaning over them whispering, “Quietly” in her whiskey burnt voice before tucking them into bed and holding onto the doorframe. It was the one word that echoed through her head over and over again as she stared into her sister’s eyes in the darkness.

Quietly.

Minutes

Time slips by in minutes, sometimes in waves. There are times when I can almost feel it carrying me through the day, as if it were a substantial force and not just a construct, an idea, a way for our brains to perceive our reality. I remember when those minutes felt like a burden that was carried across my shoulders and draped over my body. Each soft tick of the clock another moment until freedom.

I was a child, I didn’t understand.

Now, now it is different. Time does not move the same as it did before, it does not follow the same path once we cross an invisible barrier. I think it must be like some giant cosmic equation similar to what we used to study all those years ago in school. At the point on the graph when the greater of X is less than than Y, then each minute will consist of 400 seconds. When X is equal to Y, then each minute will equal an appropriate sixty seconds. However, when X is more than Y, then each minute will consist of 20 seconds.

And so on, and so on, until eventually one day our minutes run so fast that they fade out. Until I fade out, wondering what happened to all of my minutes.

Killers Among Us

They say the average person walks past a murderer 36 times in their life. That means that without knowing it you have crossed paths with someone who has maliciously taken the life of another. It hurts to think about, but when you are naïve to this fact you can live on in ignorance.

I was only twenty years old the first time I held the hand of a murderer. I clasped it between my own two hands and looked into his eyes as he put down his old, sick dog. I told him how sorry I was and helped him out the door. I’d never seen someone so big be struck down by such overwhelming grief. His wife usually came in, but this dog was his; this was his time to grieve.

And he chose to do it alone.

I didn’t see him again for a several months, and the incident was lost in my memories of everyday clients and their pets. However, when he showed back up one evening just before closing I immediately remembered how he sobbed quietly into his handkerchief as his dog passed away.

He walked up to the front desk and stood there for a moment, his head down.

“I just wanted to say thank you.” He finally managed, raising his bright blue eyes up to meet mine. I smiled and nodded, but was unsure of what he was thanking me for. When we had put down his dog there had been snow on the ground, now it was a 110 degrees in the shade. So much time had passed that the plants had forgotten who they were. I turned my head to the side, tilting it as I studied him, and then offered him a standard reply. I had dealt with many people and their grief, but this was definitely a first.

“It was no problem. It’s always such a hard thing to do, no one should have to go through it alone.”

He nodded and stared down at his hands for a long time, not making a move to go away or to say anything. After a bit I picked up some paperwork and started to sort through it in hopes that he might be persuaded to do something. Finally he looked at me once again and I saw the sea of anguish in his eyes and realized he was grappling with far more than his dog’s death six months ago.

“That is a very true statement. Thank you, again.”

He held out his hand and I shook it and this time there was a spark of electricity that seemed to flow from his palm to mine. A shiver so stark and cold ran up my arm and down my spine. In that instant I imagined running out into the heat to purge myself of it.

His smile was slow to spread across his face, but it never did reach his eyes and when he walked out of the door and into the brilliant sunlight I knew that it would be the last time I ever saw him.

I don’t think I was all that surprised when I saw his picture on the news that night saying that he had walked into the police department and turned himself in less than thirty minutes after coming into the clinic. When I heard that he had chopped his wife into little bitty pieces and stored her in the freezer I remembered the horrible chill that ran down my arm when he touched me. Thought of the blood that must have been hidden under his fingernails and in the crevices of his fingerprints that had once been flowing through his wife, a woman I had seen on a monthly basis for the last three years.

When I looked down and saw that I had sliced open the palm of my own hand while cutting vegetables I should have been surprised. I should have been horrified, but I could do nothing but wonder how much blood flowed through her body when he was cutting it apart, and how much of the residue of who she had been was now imprinted on my hand? My soul?

Would it ever be the same.

Imaginary Playmates

He waits for them at night to come shuffling out of the closet, lining up against the side of the bed and whispering to him their secrets. This is their nightly ritual, and it has become so that he cannot sleep without feeling the cold air whistling against his neck as his head fills with images of what they have told him.

When he tells his mom about them she waves her hand and dismisses his imaginary playmates as nothing more than typical childhood delusions. One morning while she was flipping pancakes he tried to let her know that it was not him who dumped out the toy box after dark, or rearranged the books and shoes on the shelf. But the hand that reached out and clamped down over his mouth reminded him that this secret was one he had to keep.

Most of the time what they tell him is not bad, twice he found small treasures in the backyard. There are some he would rather not hear, but he has to bear witness to what they want to tell him, he has to lend a willing ear. Or else, they may ask that he look at them, and that above all else is something he does not want to do. Deep down in the bottom reaches of his stomach he knows that it will not end well, knows that seeing the imaginary whispering train would leave him in fear.

So, each night he waits patiently with closed eyes and tight chest as the closet door creaks open and he hears the first footsteps scratch their way across the floorboards to his bed. And then, then he listens.

Gladiator Women

They walk out ahead of the battle, shields at their side, swords drawn. The fog creeps in from the nearby lake in spiky limbs, caressing their feet, curling over their bodies, encasing them. They stand erect, tall heads facing their enemy.

She steps into the center, her hand tightly wound around the hilt of her sword and turns her head to the left, and then the right, ensuring that the line formation is solid. Nodding to herself she tucks her chin in and holds her breath. The first hit to the shield sounds hollow and empty, but with each one the tension grows, vibrating out into the hushed dawn. Lower on the valley birds scatter and fly up into the sky, the fog clinging to their wings and trailing back down to the earth in small tendrils.

Letting the air out through the gap in her teeth she narrows her gaze and stares across the field. Her muscles tight and ready, coiled in balls against her bones. She sniffs the air as the drumming continues, waiting for any sign of their enemy. In the moment before she spots the metal of their armor she swore that she felt the universe pressing in against her, holding all the pieces of her skin together, keeping her from exploding at the seams.

And then it was gone and she was launching across the hill: the grass slipping against her calves, the sun rolling over her flesh, the air passing through her lungs, the blood pounding across every inch of her being.

“For our daughters!” the cry was so intense and so stark that she could feel it vibrate against her bones and carry her the rest of the way into battle. The blood at the end of the blade her sacrifice.