Elementary School

She held her hands tightly together, one on top of the other as they grasped at the warm plastic handle of the Fraggle Rock lunchbox and chewed on her lip. Everything was different here; different names, different styles, different looks from the eyes of her classmates as she walked by them one by one. Each step she could feel their eyes crawling over her, judging her.

A movement caught her attention, and she turned her head just in time to see one of the boys flick his tongue against his lips. She thought of lizards, and snakes, and all things slimy in the world and shuddered against the thought of his touch but she kept her gaze true.

Instinctively she knew that wavering would have been the nail in the coffin, knew that they would pounce on her and tear through the tender flesh of her abdomen like a hyena. The room was still, each child’s breath held in collective anticipation of her next move. She could hear their combined pulse thrumming around her like a current and knew that even the eyes pretending not to follow her were keenly aware of her presence in the room.

When she reached the far table she carefully skirted around the edge, walking so that her back was against the wall when she sat down. Then she opened her lunchbox, sat up, and gazed upon the kingdom that she would eventually make her own.

Change

The coins clinked in the paper coffee cup as people spared what change they could, a penny here, a nickel there. Every couple of hours she would empty the change she had collected into a secondary location, leaving only a few lonely coins at the bottom.

American Gypsies.

It was a name that she had heard spoken in hushed tones around the fires at the train yard since she was a very young child. It was a brand that followed her wherever she went.

Hobo, gypsy, vagabond

These were words that were thrown at her on a daily basis with a viciousness to them that ran deep in her veins, but most days she would just grit her teeth together and pretend she couldn’t hear them. Her mother used to tell her to let the words roll off her skin like raindrops.

She would think about how much rain actually soaked into your being before it started to roll off.

Shifting her weight from one side to the other, she rocked gently back and forth on the ground, the cement briefly scratching her numbed skin, sending tendrils of pain across her thigh. For a moment she thought about her life, thought about all of the things that could have gone differently, and wondered if the people who taunted her were right.

A bright flare of light reflected off of the building across the street as the door swung open, blinding her. She put her hand over her eyes to shield them and watched as the great afternoon departure began: line after line of people filing out of the doors of all of the businesses in the area.

Very few of them looked at her, and she would still get the occasional clink in the cup. Most of the time she was a ghost, a part of humanity they would rather forget. To her they looked like ants on the sidewalk, a flow of people from one point to the next, strung together by obligations and jobs.

She leaned her head against the brick and closed her eyes and thought of the sound that the train would make when it moved through towns in the dark of night, how the wind would roll across them through the openings in the car. She thought about humanity and how they were all just passing through this space and about the idea of abstract items acting as concrete barriers.

An eternity might have passed behind her eyelids, considerations of all things great and small, but time and space were not barriers that mortals would be able to overcome in her lifetime.

Addictions & Apples

She was cutting an apple, the knife slicing through the thick outer skin and slipping into the meat of the fruit with an almost mindless repetition. Later she would tell herself that she could not remember what she was thinking about at the moment when the tip of the blade bit into the side of her finger, but that was a lie.

In fact, she’d been thinking of how her insides had twisted when he’d calmly told her over how he would never be able to love her “like that.” The delicate rays of the sun bouncing from his dark glasses became that much more brilliant, the calm day around her feeling unreal and unsteady beneath her feet as if it were all a lie; her entire life. His words moving through the air like an attack, reaching into her chest and squeezing around her lungs like a vise.

A bright red drop of blood welled up against the cut and then rolled over the waxy green skin of the Granny Smith before reaching the crisp white inside and soaking into the apple like a slowly branching virus. She stuck the finger into her mouth and absentmindedly suckled it, allowing the coppery sustenance to coat the inside of her mouth and watched the blood filter through the apple.

Images flooded her mind: his jaw and how it clenched so tightly when he was mad that she could see the muscles straining against his flesh, the look of the brightly burning stars from their blanket picnic on the first night they had been together and how she’d imagined them searing into her flesh, her white knuckles curled around the doorframe, and the blood moving in small rivers through the sand on the last time she’d seen him.

She didn’t even realize she was laughing until she was doubled over; gasping for breath in great heaving sobs that clenched around her body and left her coughing and raw, the blood from the cut leaving an intricate pattern on the floor.

Isolation

She’d never understood how she could be in a room full of people and feel so alone. There were conversations going on all around her, but it was as if she were watching a show on humanity.  The people in the room were puppets, inept beings pulled along by a cosmic string with painted on smiles.

It was a slap to her subconscious.  Each obnoxious and insincere “Do I know you?” like sandpaper against her skin.

Without hesitation she would recount the story of how she had come with friends, pointing vaguely across the room to acknowledge someone before excusing herself and slipping back into the crowd until the voices flowed around her as if she were a stone in the cascading waters of life.

The idea of sprouting wings to fly from the room took root as she sipped her drink and closed her eyes.  In her imagination, the scratching bones of the unfurling wings began to poke through the flesh on her back, just to the side of the tender skin that rested between her shoulder blades.

When the pain surged across her back, she sighed and bit into her bottom lip hard enough to taste blood.  There was no surprise later when she felt the twinges of her muscles as the feathers began to poke through, all harsh angles and needle sharp pain.

I want to rise out of this existence. She thought as the wings broke through and unfurled like downy flags.  Tremors shook her as she stretched her newly formed limbs, testing them for strength.

There was a soft whoosh as they beat through the air, and then silence.

When she opened her eyes she saw the world was paused, as if time had been fractured and frozen.  The jigsaw pieces were still in place, their jagged bonds now visible.

She reached out to touch one of these silvery lines and gasped as it snaked out and wrapped itself around her finger and trailed down her arm, sending pulses of power into her newly formed appendages.

You’ve always known we were here. It whispered in a voice comprised of a thousand humming insects.

Nodding, she pulled her wings around her and then beat them down once, twice, three times before rising into the air. Then the spell lifted and the screaming started, the shrill voices joining in a disjointed chord before rising up to greet her.

As she flew toward the window she watched them scurry along, their figures shrinking back into obscurity.  Shards of glass cascaded over her body, shredding her dress and causing small rivulets of blood to flow over her skin and fall through the night like crimson rain.

The wings propelled her forward, carrying her farther into the sky until the air thinned and the particles of the universe reached out to brush against her flesh and welcome her home.

Chasing Storms

I’ve decided to dust off my older stories and recirculate them in the digital era.  This is another previously published piece that is new to the blog.  This one was originally published in Absolute in the summer of 2005 and it even won a writing award!

Chasing Storms

 

Once, a long time ago, I was truly happy.  For one short-lived afternoon my capsulated world was perfect and harmonized and I played as if there were no rules, no pain, and no memories to haunt me.  I was twelve, and it was the last time I felt human, the absolute last time I felt whole.

I grew up in a small town in southwestern Oklahoma with my Grandma Carol and her fourth husband, Ted.  I lived with my grandma then.  Ultimately I would live with many people over the course of my teenage years, but that year was spent in Grandma Carol’s bricked up trailer.  She was the kind of woman most people meet only briefly and then walk away wondering what was wrong with the picture.  The deep wrinkles, a head of gray hair, and an obvious set of false teeth made her look like she was over seventy, but she was actually closer to fifty that year.  Most of the confusion about her age probably stemmed from the fact that she’d gotten married at fourteen and had five children by four different men before she was twenty-eight.

However promiscuous her early years may have been, in her later years she’d decided to make herself seem like an upstanding citizen.  So she had Ted buy her the finest trailer and had bricked it up on the outside, adding a carport and a wooden fence to make it seem even more like a “real” home.  Then she’d gone to the best bargain furniture store in town and bought a whole living room set with a sofa, loveseat, recliner, and even an ottoman that we were never allowed to sit in lest our dirty rears wore out the seats cushions.  Every day I would clean that house, scrubbing it spotless for visitors who usually weren’t even allowed inside.

Grandma Carol was a living contradiction, a world of nicotine stains and bar fights wrapped in a bricked up trailer and tied together by a top of the line Cadillac.   It was hard to know what it was she really wanted, hard to know when life would be good enough that I could have her approval for even two seconds.

I would spend all morning scrubbing the wood paneled walls of the trailer, trying to remove the filmy tar coating that had become ingrained into every pore of my very existence with the false scent of lemon Pine-Sol.  By the time I got home from school she would have already smoked enough to give the walls another finish.  My life was tempered by her cigarettes.  I once saw her smoke four at once, and for awhile that made her like some type of superhero to me, able to conquer the evil side effects of smoking with nothing more than sheer determination.  A few years later, when I actually did the math on the number of cigarettes she smoked per day, I understood that by most doctor’s calculations Grandma Carol should have dropped dead over twenty years ago.

The best part of my young life that summer was my friend, Ellen, whose short, frizzy hair, dimpled cheeks and sprinkling of freckles covered her face so precisely it was as if they’d been placed there by fairies.  She looked like a dirty angel; untouched by the worries and pain that often clouded my world.

One afternoon we were outside in the playhouse Ted had made for me from the scraps of wood from some house he’d been contracted to help build.  It wasn’t much, just a plywood shell built over the back half of the tornado shelter, but Ellen and I could always manage to turn those four plain walls into a castle or a grand ballroom depending on the occasion.  I can’t be a hundred percent sure what we were doing on that day, but I think that we were taking turns putting on Grandma Carol’s make-up, pretending that we were finalists in the Miss America pageant.

Ellen came over a lot, and she didn’t seem to mind that my grandma was a little dysfunctional.  Sure she commented on it like most twelve year olds would, but it didn’t stop her from being my friend.  And that acceptance bought her a true friendship that no amount of ridicule in later years could break up.

This was before we thought of boys as anything more than friends.  Before sneaking cigarettes and beer became our favorite pastimes.  Before time and reality distorted the innocence in our lives as if it were nothing more than a station on the television that could be changed with the click of a button.  When I think back at my early childhood I see everything as a two-dimensional picture that has faded over the years, and for the most part it’s hard for me to accept that anything really even happened, that those defining moments were anything more than a dream I had a long time ago.

One thing I definitely remember about that day was that Grandma Carol had tucked herself into the storm cellar and was listening to Gary England’s weather reports.  She was smoking so much that a spiraling gray cloud could be seen wafting its way out the cellar vent as if she were a human chimney.

It was the middle of tornado season, and we were in the pressure cooker that is southwestern Oklahoma.  A place where the heat and rain can build up into a frenzied culmination of childhood fears and nails bitten down to the quick before the weather would suddenly Snap! releasing everything in one giant whoosh of storms that left the charged air smelling sharply of ozone, only for it to build back up again within a matter of days, sometimes only hours.  Storms were the one thing that Grandma Carol was actually terrified of, and she would refuse to emerge from the storm shelter until the all clear had been given by Gary England and the Tornado Watch had been lifted.

She had been down there six hours before we heard anything.  Ellen and I had taken bets as to how long she could remain down there without needing to go the bathroom, and so far she’d held out longer than either of us had expected.  She knew that May was the culmination of tornado season.  A time of year when any normal, bright sunny day can turn into a nightmare in under thirty minutes and the heat and humidity can be as real as a fleece blanket pressing over every inch of your skin.

Just as we were beginning to believe she had turned herself into a shelter hermit for no reason, Grandma Carol’s shrill voice rang through the thick air, warning that there was a tornado headed right for us.  Ellen and I looked at each other, the excitement lighting up our faces like they were Christmas trees.  We’d never actually seen a tornado.

“Marie!  Ellen! You’d better get down here right now.  I’m shutting the doors in thirty seconds.”  I can still hear her voice calling to us from that cement dungeon, but we never made it in.  I took Ellen’s hand in mine and ran to the front of the house, determined to see a real tornado, to look that god-driven fear in the face and say that I was not afraid.

In fact, I felt liberated for the first time in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as free as I did when we rounded the gravel driveway and saw the thin spindle touch the ground.  Now I know it couldn’t have been more than an F1 tornado, but then it was a giant, the most beautiful and majestic thing I’d ever seen.  It seemed far enough away that we felt safe even when we shouldn’t have.  The wind seemed to have sprung out of nowhere, as if there were a volcano of hot, pulsating air just beneath us.  It circled around us, pulling at our hair and whipping it around our faces, punishing us by turning our hair into a cat-o-nine-tails.

Despite everything we didn’t hesitate for more than a second before we began running through the field, climbing the low-riding fence and burrowing through the wheat towards that storm, sweaty palm touching sweaty palm the entire time, binding us to each other permanently.

I’ve never been able to remember what happened when we crossed that threshold and stood in the embrace of Mother Nature.  Nothing’s ever brought those lost minutes back, and now I’m not sure I want them.  They found us a few hours after the tornado, huddled together and half-buried by uprooted plants and debris.  They took pictures when they found us, the earth beneath our two curled and interconnected bodies the only area of ground not touched by the tornado.  Our trailer had even been partially mangled by the force of the wind, and my playhouse was nothing more than another memory, but our clothes hadn’t even been torn, and not a single cut or bruise graced our bodies.  Grandma Carol proclaimed it a miracle and pronounced me terminally stupid at the same time.

The next year I was traded back to my mother in Maine, and the year after that I went to my father’s house with his new wife and three new kids in Arkansas, and the whole time I was gone I missed the embrace of the wind as if there was a vacancy in my body that I couldn’t fill no matter how many times I tried.   Eventually, I found my way back to Grandma Carol’s.  When I went back to school I found that Ellen, my dirty angel, was halfway to being a harbinger of hell.  Her face was pocked and half-eaten by her meth addiction, the careful dusting of fairy freckles transformed into symptoms of a horribly ravaging disease.  The cuts and scrapes of her tormented soul sewn clearly across her flesh with interconnecting lines and marks that showed more of her insecurity than she ever realized.  I think now that she must have missed the wind too.

Within six months of my return I found myself one of the few people attending her funeral.  I could still feel her sweaty palm pushing into mine.  The hollow roar of the wind filled my ears where the preacher’s words should have been.  The wind was with me for the first time in four years, comforting me through Ellen’s death the same way it is comforting me now.  The same hollow roar is pulsating through my ears.  The unsubstantial weight of the wind cocoons me, just like it did both of us back then.

In the movies, the people standing on a ledge about to kill themselves always draw such a crowd.  That’s not true in real life.  In fact, the only thing that seems to notice my presence is the wind.  It’s been cushioning me, cradling me, and yes, even beckoning me for the last hour or so as I’ve remained here, a living gargoyle on the urban skyline, watching the people below me move across the sidewalk in meaningless patterns; nothing more than simple drones.

I stand up on the ledge and close my eyes, letting the wind work its way into my veins like a junkie begging for that last hit.  There are still no cries from those below.  No warning shouts or screams of horror to acknowledge my existence.  There is nothing, just the wind rushing past my body, the roar in my ears, a small sweaty palm encased within my own, and the weightlessness of worries floating through thirty stories of air….

Cataloging Creation

This is an older story that was originally published in Nonzine in 2006.  However, since I have nothing new at the moment I wanted to share it with you!  Enjoy!

Cataloging Creation

She moved towards him, carefully pacing herself so her anger didn’t get away from her.  Auburn ringlets framed her heart-shaped face and enhanced her large spring green almond eyes.  As with all gods, her beauty was so perfect and so visceral that it hypnotized any mortal who happened to look directly on her.  Right now, however, it was her son that was the focus of all her attention.  She slid her hand under his chin and pulled his face to hers.

His face looked like little more than a dollop of lumpy clay with two dark and deeply set eyes, a small hump for a nose, and a crude slash for a mouth.  It had not refined its features yet, had not decided exactly how it would turn out.  At this point in a young god’s life, their personality would be the final say in what kind of beauty they would end up with.  Though, if she had to say right now, Riza was afraid that Nokth’s face would end up being perhaps the most horrible of all those to ever grace the upper realm.

Snot bubbles moved out from the holes where his nose was supposed to be and around his thin mouth, briefly mingling with his tears before being wiped off his knobby cheeks with the back of a grubby hand.  She shuddered with mild repulsion before she could get a hold of herself.  Her son was not supposed to act this way.  He had been sculpted from the very beginnings of all gods, the clay of creation on the banks of the high river by her loving hands and using her own hair to bind him together and her own blood to give him life.  No matter how many times she reminded herself of that fact it didn’t alter the behavior he’d displayed since his resurrection yesterday.  By now most god children were halfway to learning how to blend and mold the wonders of the universe for their subject’s enjoyment.  But Nokth couldn’t even seem to learn the simplest part of their work: watching.

Riza was the guardian of all creations.  What other gods created from either carelessness or as by-products of their own frivolity she guarded as precious celebrations of life.  It was her job to tend to the unwanted, but even so her patience was being sorely tested.

“Calm down and remember what I told you about the carelessness of a god’s tears.  You wouldn’t want to cause life or death somewhere when you weren’t paying attention, would you?”  She asked, her voice while crystal clear and flawlessly human sounding still made everyone who heard it remember the most perfect day in their lives.  Right now, however, she was using all her energy to reign in her emotions and convince herself that this limbo was only temporary and that by tomorrow, everything should be stabilized.

Nokth looked at her for a moment, his near black eyes clouding with confusion before stubbornly shaking his head back and forth.

“Good, then quit crying and explain your problem.”

He opened his mouth and then clamped it shut as if he were a fish struggling for air.  She let go of his chin and looked at him from her full height, her hands on her hips as she waited.  While Riza’s voice was a soft and beautiful perfection and brought to mind the same clear spring day that was reflected in her eyes, his voice sounded like broken shards of glass scratching against metal, and again, Riza winced.

“I not want to watch.  Watching is silly.  I want to make things.”

“You can’t make anything because we’re not makers.  You have to learn what I do so that in the future you can help keep track of everything.  I know it’s not a glorious job, but it’s our duty as guardians to keep all of the information in order and catalog everything in the universe.  It’s a hard job, and that’s why I created you, so you could help me.”

Nokth put his head down once again and said nothing.  Believing that the foolishness was through, Riza turned back to her clipboard, walking ahead of him to begin the next round of cataloging.  She would never understand why the creators kept on churning out more and more creations every day when they knew that she would never be able to keep up with all of the items in the universe as it was now.

Looking ahead of her, Riza noticed palate after palate of cushioned items.  Some were nothing more than blades of a new type of grass or tiny replicas of a new species of animal.  But every now and then she would come across an orb no bigger than a marble that had been set on a pedestal and put aside for her to carefully examine.  An entire new world to put in her lists before she plucked it from its resting place and set it somewhere among the other stars and creations.  These were her favorite things to do, even though it meant more work, because these small, new worlds were always full of real, live interacting beings that hurt, cried, loved, and laughed.

In truth, a part of her could understand Nokth’s desire to create.  She had also wanted to be a creator, to see new flowers and grasses as they grew up under your feet as you walked or more involved beings when they first came from your eyes as you slept.  What a joy it would be to wake up in the morning and find a small animal that you had dreamed up and created resting on your pillow next to you, your imagination now a gateway to reality.  But over time she had come to realize that her job was almost as good as theirs because she at least got to study and observe what they had created, while for them the process of actually giving birth to new life forms was somewhat tedious and not often an altogether pleasant experience, if she understood correctly.  She hoped that Nokth would see things that way to.

Looking over her shoulder, she realized that she could no longer see him and she took a few steps back to see where he’d gone.  It didn’t take her long to spot him.  In fact, there were not many places you could go in the warehouse behind her, for whenever she finished cataloguing a new item, she placed it where it belonged, and the pedestal it had been on vanished, leaving only those items in front of her.

Nokth was standing over a small glass pedestal that held an orb even smaller than a marble and was surrounded by a special glass that allowed Riza to see everything on that tiny surface and even some stuff below.  It was the smallest world ever created, and even though she had cataloged most of the things from its planet, she had not placed it where it belonged yet.  This was partly because she couldn’t seem to find the perfect atmosphere for it and partly because she was so enamored with it.  In her opinion, it was possibly the greatest item ever created.  And that wasn’t just because it was small, either, but also because everything living within that sphere went together in complete harmony.  There had not been a single conflict between inhabitants the entire time she’d been cataloging it, which was an incredible first for her.

“What are you looking at?”  She asked gently as she leaned down behind him, happy to take the opportunity to support any faint trace he had of learning her trade.  It had taken a lot for her to convince the other gods that she was ready to create a god child to train and work with, and so far she had been worried that at his week review the other gods would smugly assure her that she had not created a higher being and force her to unmake him.

“It’s so pretty.  So perfect.”  The edge was removed from his rough voice by pure awe as he watched the inhabitants of the planet move around without even being aware of his presence.  Without stopping to think about what he was doing, Nokth reached up with an extended forefinger as if he were going to try and push the tiny ball around on its cushioned setting.

Riza quickly snatched his arm back and looked at him sharply, her beautiful face flush with anger and impatience.  “Do not try to touch that, you could unmake everything for them.”  She said, barely able to keep her voice below a scream.

Nokth turned and looked at her, his crude face turned into a scowl.  “But I want, I want, I want….” He said as he tried to pull free of her and began stomping his feet and throwing a holy temper tantrum.  Riza had never seen a superior being behave this way and was unsure of what to do.  So she immediately let go of his arm, afraid that any struggle would harm a number of creations around them, but she wasn’t soon enough.

As she was loosening her grip, he was pulling back with such force that his arm continued to move through the air until it struck the glass pedestal and caused it to sway erratically on its base before completely falling over and shattering.  The world went with it, tumbling end over end until it fell to the floor and smashed into a thousand glittering pieces.

Riza clamped her hands to her ears as the horrified screams of the entire population poured through her head.  She heard that cry every time a species went extinct, and it was ten times worse now with the death of a whole planet.  The only other time she’d ever felt anything comparable was when some careless god had thrown a pebble and it had landed on that planet full of giant lizards, but that had been nothing compared to this.  The death of the only perfect society rang through her head until she was unable to control her tears anymore.  She removed her hands from her ears and held them under her eyes, careful to catch every drop so that no other careless incidents occurred.

When her eyes dried up after they had cried ten drops each, she looked to Nokth, holding her pain in front of her in liquid pools of glimmering fire.  He had matured into a young man and his face had finally taken shape.  It’s rough edges, meticulously carved prominent cheekbones, brooding eyes, and black hair were so different from her own features that she immediately knew what he was going to be—one of the mysterious outsiders.  Guardianship had passed him by and the title of destructor had been handed down instead.  Even though he was no longer technically in her care, she felt it her responsibility to teach him one final lesson.

Transferring the tears to one hand she reached out and tilted his chin back again.  “This is so you never forget what goes with a god’s carelessness.”  She reached above his head with the tears and let them fall into his muddy, chocolate eyes.  As the tears entered his exposed lenses they soaked into the iris, changing them from a dark brown to a beautiful yet violent shade of red, not quite dark enough to be maroon but not light enough to be crimson.  He called out in pain, but it did no good.  His eyes had already been filled up with only ten tears each.

He shook his head and looked at her through eyes of infinite sadness.  Nothing would remove the haze of pain and loneliness that covered everything.  None of the creations held the beauty and importance they had only moments before, and every sound he heard was tinged with the echoes of a million voices reaching out to him in pain.  He started to say something, to beg her to take it all back, but a door appeared beside him.  The carving on its massive walnut surface showed a great man, handsome but dangerous, walking down a solitary road holding only an axe.

“That’s your door.”  She said as it opened and pulled him through before disappearing again.  Riza then picked up her clipboard and returned to her tasks.  There were a million more creations to be put into the register, and she did not have time for useless good-byes.  He had chosen his path, and she had given him her pain so that he would only view the universe through images of pain and sadness, and so that he could never take comfort or joy in the job of destruction, never take anything from it but guilt.  She looked up at the unending warehouse in front of her and the emptiness behind her, sighed, and walked over to the nearest specimen.  It was an elegant purple flower with drooping petals ringed in gold.  It would have been so much nicer if she’d just had someone else to share it with, and she wondered how long it would be before the other gods let her try her hand at building another helper.  This time she would try to make it a daughter.

Running Through

She was running.  She was always running, but this time it was different, this time there was a void, three days of darkness, and a promise.

The promise had not been hers to make, but it had been hers to keep.  And in this topsy-turvy world with no relevant regulations, she thought it wise to comply with the outline of the bargain.

Three days, that’s how long the clock had been ticking, that’s how long she’d been running in the black, that’s how long an eternity could last when stretched around someone like a blanket.  Up until then, she’d been a normal albeit hormone-ridden, teenager.  A knock on the door that should have been her Saturday night date had been a promissory note on her mother’s longstanding debts.

The guy who’d been on the other side of that knock was short and squatty.  His wool suit had been worn down to a few threadbare patches that seemed to be strung together by sheer force of will.  She leaned out of the door to ask him what he needed, and was quickly greeted by the smell of tobacco and mothballs that rolled from the dirty bowler hat that was perched on a meaty roll of his head.

At first she’d thought that she might actually laugh out loud in the man’s face, but her manners had held out.  After all, this man must be in a great deal of distress or need to go wandering from door to door in those clothes.  She’d thought that he would ask for food or money or maybe he would want to fill them full of stories from the good book.

But after a moment of silence in which she’d felt the intensity of his stare marking her pale flesh, he’d asked for her mother, and she’d obliged, wondering if this man was someone from her mother’s past, someone who could fill in the blanks on a life her mother refused to discuss.

Hiding behind the doorway, she’d learned of the promise that had been made, of the sacrifice that was now needed.

It was only a week.

Those had been his words, his guarantee to her that she would be allowed to continue on with her life when the debt was fulfilled.

Her mother had not seemed to care this way or that about the arrangements, only that she herself would be free of this burden and that it would be I who made the payment in full.

“It’s only running, and you do that all the time anyway.” Had been her flippant response.

And although the carelessness with which it was tossed into the air had stung, it had been the truth; she did run a lot.  When she ran she liked the way that the earth seemed to tilt around her, pouring through her body until it came through changed and she knew for once that she had affected something.

This type of running was different

This time there was nothing.  She was running through a void, and she could feel it pressing in on her, and everyday it changed her a little more; the darkness creeping in like a stain.  She wanted to stop, to take a breath and let the tightening in her muscles ease for a moment, but she knew that it wouldn’t be possible.

The man had said one week:  7 days, 168 hours, 10,080 minutes, and 604,800 seconds.

If you sewed this much time together, they could easily form an infinity of unchanging years in the abyss.

Time bends.  Time does not exist.

She’d been running for three days, the man in the bowler hat had whispered it to her earlier.  And even though she had been unable to see him, she had not missed his scent as he exhaled on her neck, as she felt the inside of his thoughts turn against her.

Earlier—

Earlier it had been three days and counting.

In her mind she could she all of the movements in the heavens.  She could feel each star burning its brightest against her bare flesh.

Four days to go—

But she knew she would never reach the goal, knew the debt would go unpaid, and something else the man in the hat whispered to her makes her wonder how long her mother had owed this promise, how many daughters she had burning through in her half-hearted attempts to pay it back.  A stitch, previously sewn and embedded in her muscles reached up to squeeze its fiery grip around her longs.

96 hours—

She wonders what her mom got in the bargain—wonders if she will share her secrets, her bounty, when everything is done and quickly realizes it is a moot point.  It is unlike her mother to share that much of herself with a child, let along any rewards she may have reaped along the way.

Maybe she was on Olympus, this whole thing some cruel punishment handed out by the gods.  Maybe that is why she feels so close to the stars and so very far from reality.

5,760 minutes—

Why did they have to take her eyes?  Why leave her running through the dark?  Why leave her stranded where she cannot even shed a tear?

345,600 seconds—

Her lungs burn more with each breath, her feet leaking out small amounts of blood with each step.  She can feel the end pressing down on her with the same weight and stench as the man’s breath when he whispered her timeline into her ear.

For a moment she thinks about her mother and whether or not she will miss her, but she immediately decides not.  She cries out in her hopelessness and hears no echo to greet her.

And of course, she keeps running.

 

Chasing Happiness

“You talk about happiness like it is something you’re guaranteed.” He said, running his fingertips across her flesh as he spoke.

Her skin tingled under his touch and she turned her head to look at him, her black hair falling over her alabaster shoulder. He, on the other hand, had the darkened skin and golden hair of a Greek god. The long standing joke between them had been that she was that she was the Fury to his Adonis.

Biting down on the inside of her cheek she thought about his statement for a moment before responding. His blue eyes were almost grey with lust, and although she longed to roll him over and mount him again she refrained.

“I would like to think we’re guaranteed happiness. We just have to claim it.” She tried to smile to dismiss the lingering doubts.

Why does uncertainty always follow passion? She wondered as she studied him. After all, minutes before they had been completely intertwined together, their bodies locked in a moment of lust so intense her limbs were still numb with pleasure.

“Is that what you’ve been trying to do? Is that what this is about?” his questions were fired in rapid succession, and she knew he was looking for a way to process what had happened.

“This is about that and so much more. Happiness is here, right now, in this room. What is outside that door is nothing more than a lifetime of normality. So yes, in this moment I am happy.”

He kissed her shoulder as he spoke. “I’m not saying I mind.”

She smiled and leaned over, pulling him into another kiss and before long they were once again drowning in passion. And with each rising thrust she urged him closer, using his body to block out the fear she could feel trying to claw its way out of her.

For a while it worked.

When she was leaving he stood at the door watching her. She looked up and smiled.

“It was bound to happen someday.” She whispered, hoping he did not catch the sadness edging into her voice.

“We’re just mortals, and you can only deny attraction for so long.”  He responded, his face beginning to solidify into a mask of stone. It was a look she’d seen before, and she knew that if she were to hang around by tomorrow the remaining lust in his gaze would be replaced with something else. Something she had no desire to see.

“Yeah, attraction and base level pheromones.” She halfway joked as she walked out of the comfort of that moment and into the stark world that had been waiting just beyond the drapes.

He watched her go, but didn’t say anything else and didn’t venture down from his doorway.

She only looked back once, but quickly turned around when the shadow began to linger at the edge of her peripheral vision. For a short time she had managed to banish it, but now it was back and there was no more hiding. Its dark and bilious form caused her pulse to quicken and she took several deep breaths to remind herself it was just a lingering manifestation, nothing more.

It had been there for months, stalking her, and she knew what its presence heralded. She’d chosen to embrace it rather than run or hide from it.

Destiny was a finicky thing.

Once she was in her car, she pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes to try and stop the tears from leaking down her cheeks.

Turning over the engine, she backed out of the drive and turned down the road that led away from her life and into the horizon.

Endings First

“Why do you always do that?” he asked, pushing her book closed around her fingers even as she tried to continue reading.

Her gaze shot up to his, her cool green eyes meeting his dark brown ones with a flare of anger and irritation that had sprung up almost instantly when she’d heard his voice.

“Do what?” she retaliated. Pulling the book away from his grasp and staring at him.  Without the precious pages between them, she had nothing to wall herself into the corner. It had been weeks since she’d been forced to look at him, to address the problems that had begun to spring up between them.

Now she found herself considering his unkempt graying hair and sloping pot belly and a wave of disgust washed over her.  She took a breath and swallowed back the bile creeping up at the back of her throat.

For a moment she managed to choke back her revulsion, but just barely.

“Read the end first.  What good is the rest of the book if you already know how the story is going to end?”

This was not a new conversation. In the course of twenty plus years of marriage it was one they had endured multiple times; although, she had never felt as much anger directed at his question before now.

“Endings are the best part.  I want to make sure I know if the best part is good enough to warrant an investment of my time.” Taking another deep breath, she pulled the book back up to her face and tried to once again bury herself in the comfort of words.

Books had been her reality disconnect for quite some time. The stories they portrayed were stark creations of black and white that called out to her and invited her into a world that could numb the pain of this one.

He studied her, and she could feel his gaze burning through the pages of the book.  She knew from experience that he wasn’t going to let this moment go.  When she had reread the same sentence at least three different times without him moving at all she lowered the book and once again and held his gaze.

He took this as an invitation to start picking on her.

“You realize you can’t see the end of your life, right?  If endings are the best part then you must be living in hell not knowing how this is going to play out.”  A lilting half-smile spread across his face, and the moment that she could see its smugness her arms tensed, her muscle reflex itching to take the book and smack him across the mouth with it.

Fingernails scraped against the cover as her hand curled into a tight ball.

Instead, She managed to pull out her own smile, raise her eyebrow, and toss back a reply she knew would bother him.

“How do you know that I don’t?”

He snorted and started to walk away, but pivoted on his heel and turned back before she could start reading again. “If you knew how it ended, why would the middle section be fulfilling at all?  Why not just lie down and die? Wouldn’t all of the rest of it just be unimportant filler?”

Frustration and anger surged through her and she felt her nails biting into her palm as her hand once again closed shut. But when she caught his gaze she realized he truly did not know or understand the answer to his question.

“The ending is the best part, but that does not mean it is the only part. All of the struggles, all of the pain, the heartache, the daily grind of living, these moments add up to something.  Without them the end is just a suspended glimpse in time that has no relevancy. It’s true in life and in books.”

For a moment he held her gaze and she felt a tremor of life as it had been slip between them. The anger subsided, and the air no longer seemed to buzz with their mutual dissatisfaction.  Without even realizing she was doing it, she allowed her clenched fist to relax.

He shrugged and walked away, leaving her to read her book in peace.  She considered the day a victory.