04/1/15

Whispers

The first time I swam I was three. My pudgy fingers reached forward in a stroke I barely knew, wrapped in salt water, happier than I had ever been. My parents pulled me from the water hours later but I never really left. Most teenagers slept in, but I went back to the water every day at four in the morning and four in the afternoon. Swim team captain, champion swimmer, the water is my home. It makes the doctor’s words hard to take.swimmer

“No swimming until we take out the tubes.”

Thanks to the ear infections I’ve spent weeks listening to muffled, unclear speech. His words boom into me. I put my hands over my ears, trying to block the sound. “So loud.”

“A side effect of the tubes, everything is two decibels louder. You’ll get used to it.”


I start to hear the whispers in math class. They follow me to history, scratches of sound, like someone talking behind you or in the hall. I haven’t gotten used to the tubes. Chewing blocks out every sound. Running makes my breath as loud as a rock concert. But when I’m not doing that, when I’m sitting or reading the whispers come back. Frustrated, I say what I’d been saying for almost two months.

“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you.” Every time I say it, people speak louder and slower, a look of pity on their face for the seventeen year old who acts like an old man. The whispers stop. A bliss of relative quiet falls over me. I hear the noise of my teeth rubbing together, the sound of locks clicking open on lockers, and a thousand conversations in the hall but I can’t hear any whispers.

They come back. This time I understood them.

You’re useless. Nothing. Nobody.

“No, I’m not.” My response startles my lab partner, who raises an eyebrow before going back to the experiment.

Then who are you? What can you do?

“I’m a swimmer.”

“Yeah, sure you are, dude.” My lab partner smiles. “Best in the state in the 50 meter. Everyone knows that.”

But the whispers say “A swimmer who can’t swim. You’re nothing.”

They’re wrong. It stings anyway. They keep it up all day. I’m nothing, useless, I’ll never get in the water again. They’re wrong and I don’t believe them, but the more I hear, the more I think about it. If I’m not a swimmer, if this thing with my ears doesn’t get better, who am I? When I couldn’t hear the gun, I started from the block just a second after the other swimmers. Not enough to hurt me in meets but enough that I couldn’t get my best time. I haven’t set any records, haven’t seen any improvements since the infection started.

And you’ll never set any records again.

I know the whispers lie, but it’s hard to hear them, over and over again, and not start to wonder if they’re right.


On the third day I can’t take it anymore. Every hallway, every classroom, every where I go in the school I hear them. Over and over again, repeating the same terrible lies. (I’m sure they’re lies. Really. Except what if they’re not?) The whispers have me half convinced. I break my word to my parents and head for the deserted pool. There, with ear plugs and water between us, I don’t hear them. But I can’t swim forever. Two hours in my arms burn. I’ll get caught for cutting class soon. Does it matter? If the whispers are right, nothing matters. I swim another few laps before I get out. The whispers start again in the locker room.

I’m not going crazy and the weekend proves it. Two days away from school, and I don’t hear them. I hear the water in my mouth and the rustle of the newspaper when I fold it. It should be a gift but the only thing I’m grateful for is getting away from the whispers. On Monday-

“Doesn’t matter if you hear us. It’s still the truth. You might as well kill yourself.”

For a second, just a split second, I think about taking that advice. How I might do it, how it would make people feel. Instead I add lying to cutting class and call the doctor’s office. I pretend to be my Dad. The whispers tell me I’ll never be as good as he was, never have it together the way he does. I talk over them, asking the receptionist to change my appointment. She gets me in that afternoon, and when I check in I lie some more about why he isn’t with me. I’m shocked it works. I remember what the whispers said.

There’s a loud pop when the tubes come out, a bright pain that radiates down my jaw. Pop and the world goes quiet.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” The doctor smiles.

“It was wonderful.”

He tells me a lot of things, but I’m focused on how I can’t hear the air coming through the vent anymore. There’s only one class left in the afternoon, and I might as well miss it, but I go back anyway. The whispers are gone. I walk the halls, check the locker room. Nothing. I’m in the auditorium back stage when the drama club starts to file in. I can hear them but nothing else, no lies, no threats.

Are they there, still trying? Still talking to me? Just in case I tell them, “Doesn’t matter if you’re there. I don’t have to listen to you anymore.”

A movement behind me makes me jump. I would’ve heard it a few hours ago, but now the girl surprises me. Pale, tired, she looks half dead with dark circles under her eyes. “You hear them? The whispers?”

10/13/13

A girl’s best friends

dolls“Hey!” I picked up the soccer ball after it hit the house for a third time. “I’m your new neighbor! They didn’t tell me the yard was the local soccer pitch.” I smiled and held the ball out, a gang of eight or nine kids looked at me in terror. “I don’t mind, just don’t hit the house so much. I don’t want it to fall down.”

“We do. That’s why we made it the goal.” The oldest of them spoke with an angry certainty.

“Why would you want it fall down?”

“It’s Mary Alice’s house,” he said, as if that explained everything.

“Well it’s mine now and I’d prefer if-”

“What are you kids doing?” The child’s guardian came over, obviously upset. “You get away from that house now. Play in the yard but not up on the porch. You know better.”

As the kids scattered away from his gruff tone, I introduced myself. “I’m the new owner.”

“You looking for another place yet?”

“I haven’t even unpacked.”

“Don’t bother. Just start looking now.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Mary Alice, of course.”

“I’m sorry? I don’t know who she is.”

His eyes popped out against his skin, going wide with surprise. “They let you buy it and they didn’t tell you?” He shook his head at the elusive ‘they’. Who were ‘they’ I wondered? My real estate agent had told me everything about the house, 1930s construction, built to last but not updated since the 70s. A gem that needed work for less than a quarter of the price of the rest of the neighborhood, cheap because of some local legend, which I suspected I was about to learn. “Let’s move away from here, out to the yard.”

We walked across lush grass to the detached garage. I’d been told the door was stuck shut, but the local kids hadn’t noticed. They used it to store soccer balls, bases for a baseball game, and at least one football. Apparently I’d bought not just a house but custodianship of the local park.

“Mary Alice was born too late you see.” My neighbor balanced on a cane with a crooked handle. An older gentlemen with distinguished gray hair, I suspected this wasn’t the first time he’d told the story. “Her parents were older, today we’d get it checked out, know if it was Down’s or Asperger’s or what have you. But then, all we knew was she seemed to have a connection to the other side. She’d go up to someone and hug them and love on them, crying the whole time, then the next day they’d be dead in a car accident. It was like she knew.

“The other kids tried to ignore it at first. Her papa was so proud of her he threw the best parties. You wanted to be Mary Alice’s friend, to play with her toys and eat her fine ice cream. But eventually none of the girls could take the way she was, just not right, not normal. She’d look up in the middle of a game and say, now you get home, get home right now, and then you’d get home and your mother would say she was just wishing you were there. It was eerie.”

I almost interrupted to ask if he’d been there, tasted that ice cream, but he didn’t give me the time.

“Her mother, Mrs. Ginther, started making these dolls, hundreds of them, replacement friends for Mary Alice, friends who wouldn’t call her spooky or run away.”

“They’re still there.” I’d found them this morning, in the upstairs bedroom, Mary Alice’s bedroom probably. The house was half  museum, when the old couple died nothing changed. There were patterns for horrible 1960s knitting and 70s macramé, along with a collection of dolls all lined up. “I’m getting the collection appraised, the antique dealer comes tomorrow.”

“Don’t you move those dolls!” He barked at me. “She loses those friends, she’ll go looking for others!”

“She never had another friend?” I felt sorry for her, the picked on little girl. She’d have known she was different, and wished more than anything that she could be the same.

“Oh no, there was one… the devil. Ruthie.” He shook his head and spit on my lawn, a caricature of an old man. “Ruthie had the devil in her. When she saw that Mary Alice was different, she wanted to know how she could use it. Ruthie was the worst thing in the world for Mary Alice. Whatever her gifts were, Ruthie turned them into terror. She told kids your Mama’s gonna die tonight or if you don’t give me that toy I’ll make Mary Alice hurt you. Ruthie used that girl like a whip to make the world bend to her will. It killed her but it was her own fault.”

“Killed her?” I prompted. He’d gotten to the meat of his story but now he seemed reluctant to tell it. He shifted from one foot to the other.

“My father was working in the kitchen that day, fixing the old stove. The girls were upstairs playing, he heard them every once in a while, but let Mrs. Ginther deal with them. He didn’t hate Mary Alice, not like us kids did but he steered clear of Ruthie. But when he heard Mrs. Ginther screaming, he ran up those stairs.

“He said he didn’t notice the quiet when it happened, just afterwards, when the police asked about it. He got up there and Ruthie was stuck to the couch. Have you seen it yet, a big red velvet couch?”

I shook my head.

“Mary Alice would pile her dolls on it. Ruthie got uppity about it, and said she wanted to sit there. She shoved the dolls on the floor and sat down. Only she couldn’t get up. She said the couch was squeezing her, and begged my father to get her up. He grabbed her hand and he pulled but even though there was nothing around her she stuck fast. He was giving it all his strength when he saw the dolls there in a heap. He said it was like a hundred eyes staring into his soul. He could just tell they knew every mean thing he’d done and they were going to get payment for it. He wrapped his hand around Ruthie’s arm and he closed his eyes tight to stop them from looking at him.

“He pulled and he pulled, but when he opened his eyes, Ruthie was gone.”

“She slipped out of his hand?”

“No.” He spoke very slowly. “She disappeared.”

I raised my eye brow at him, the way I did in the classroom to let a kid know I didn’t believe them.

“Mrs. Ginther was looking at Mary Alice. Mary Alice was crying. But even with that Ruthie couldn’t have slipped away. They’d have seen her.”

“But your Dad had a hold on her hand?”

“Her arm. He was pulling and pulling but something swallowed her up.”

“And?”

“And nothing. If you don’t want to be swallowed up you’ll sell that house, or at least stay the hell away from those dolls and that couch.” He shook his head at me, angry again. This was the part where the kids got scared and swore they’d never go near Mary Alice’s house. But it was my house now and I wasn’t scared.

“Thanks for the warning. Let the kids know not to hit the house with the soccer ball, okay?” I gave him a good-natured smile but he returned it with an angry jut of his chin.

Inside I marveled at the complexity of the story and how he saw it from one side. I kept thinking of Mary Alice, with all her dolls and just one friend. A friend she probably didn’t like much, who was mean and sassy. I took switch plate off the wall, the floral wall paper needed to come down, tropical flowers the size of my head hadn’t been in style for years. The wall needed to be prepped but…

But I found myself in the upstairs bedroom, Mary Alice’s room, talking to the air. “I’m sorry you didn’t have a good teacher to stop the bullying. It’d be different today, in my classroom.” The dolls were still there, store bought and handmade arranged side-by-side, dust on their eyelashes and coating their hair. They were arranged on a hope chest, watching out the window for Mary Alice to come home. She’d probably died a few decades after Ruthie’s disappearing trick, years before I was born. I lifted up some of the dolls and found it, the tiny red velvet bench. Maybe it was modeled after the one from that day, only small, so small only four of the best loved dolls could stand on it, skirts brushing up against each other.  I put the ladies aside delicately for a closer look.

I ran my hands along the edges, thinking about the Ruthie’s trick. Had she slipped into the cushions and then run away when no one was looking? The story made the kids seem like they were eight or nine, but if they were really teenagers, in the 70s, well Ruthie might’ve been ready to run away and practice her manipulation elsewhere. My fingernail felt a crack, and I pulled it up. The bench had a storage space, just over a foot long and less than a foot wide. It held only one thing. Dusty and old, a single doll arm sat in the center of the space. I started at it from the top, not at the molded porcelain shape, the chubby arm itself wasn’t threatening. No the problem were the fingerprints, greasy like a man who’d been working on a stove, and shrunk down, like he left them on the arm when it was life size.

If your mother made dolls for you, it wouldn’t be odd to have a spare arm lying around but why would you put it away? And where would it get those fingerprints? I looked up at the doll collection. Had the yellow-haired one moved? I thought she’d been to the left of Bo Peep, but now she was on the right. Dolls don’t rearrange themselves, except that a feeling in the pit of my stomach told me they had. The glass eyes stared at me, questioning me, demanding to know what I would do next. I put the four dolls back in place, making a point of remembering which one went where so I didn’t trick myself into thinking they’d moved again. Then I walked out of the room, deliberately ignoring the noise, like  the clicking of porcelain as it moved.

05/12/13

Not Part of The Routine

a man walking on the highway  courtesy of msadrian, stock.xchngHe had a routine. It worked for him. At least, he grinned to himself, it had worked the last seven times. Two women, a pair of senior citizens, and four men – mostly truckers – it had worked for all of them. The pair of senior citizens were only a month ago, a loving older couple. Different from the singletons, he couldn’t take the passenger seat and sink his knife in his victim’s side, taking the wheel as they looked at him, shocked and suddenly dying. He’d had to slice the wife’s throat and the husband jerked the wheel. So much blood, the windshield got coated with it, like it was raining red inside the car.

His worst kill, but his favorite so far. Definitely not routine.

He walked along the side of the highway, his breath starting to come out in white smoky puffs. He’d have to stop for the winter soon. After Christmas it got too cold and there was no more charity left in anyone’s heart, no more softening at the sight of a hitchhiker. This would be the last time he followed the routine this year. The thought left him sad, and excited.

A car slowed, a station wagon, a family car. His breath caught in his throat. Maybe that would be how he could survive the coming winter. Take three now, stock up. A giggle escaped his throat. He’d stock up for winter.

“Going far?” Dad asked.

“As far as you’ll take me. Headed to Denver.”

“Oh that’s far,” Mom agreed. They were forty, maybe a little older. “Squeeze in with Johnny.”

“Little Johnny,” Dad corrected. “I’m big John.”

“Oh neat.” It was a stupid thing to say, but little Johnny worried him. He’d been hoping for a car full of teens. Hoping for a bunch of girls. Now a six year old with chubby cheeks looked up at him. Dad locked the car door almost before it shut. Locked the predator inside, he smiled. The little boy wouldn’t be a problem.

Except, with his fingers on his knife, ready to strike out (always do it before they got up to speed, grabbing the wheel at 45 was a much different thing than having to grab it at 70) little Johnny’s face stopped him.

Perfectly cute, perfectly normal, but waxy. Too still. Little Johnny didn’t look normal.

“You guys waited to have kids, huh?”

“Thought we couldn’t.” Dad nodded. It was a personal question, Dad should’ve been upset or scared. The Predator hadn’t even thanked them for the ride yet.

“So when Johnny came, we knew he was a gift from God below.” Mom smiled as she said it.

“Above,” the Predator corrected, nervously licking his lips.

“Oh no. God Below.”

He turned toward the unnaturally still child, and studied it. Little Johnny did not blink. Sweat popped out on the Predator’s forehead, the hands that gripped the big knife felt clammy. He pulled it out, as Johnny watched, unblinking.

His slid his knife into the child’s side, like going into butter instead of flesh. Didn’t hit anything hard, didn’t see the bright red blood. This was wrong. All wrong.

“We’re lucky you came along. Our little boy needed his dinner,” Dad said. The father’s eyes  never left the road, the Predator’s eyes couldn’t tear themselves from the knife, stuck so far into the boy’s side that he couldn’t get it out, couldn’t go for Mom’s throat or slash at Dad. Couldn’t protect himself.

The boy sprang forward, biting. As the child’s sharp teeth pierced his throat, he could only think that this wasn’t part of the routine.

10/19/12

The Creek People

The Bottoms contained an assortment of blacks, Irish, drunks, and whores along with other undesirables. There were children, skinny legged, sad eyed, always hungry children. The river wrapped around the narrow spit of land in the shape of a V, crossed on one side by Matthew’s bridge, a half rotten wooden bridge, and on the other by a set of marshy pathways. Some of the people there were good but it was not a good place to live. When times got better they expected to move on to ground that didn’t flood every time it rained. In the meantime they kept their few valuables high and the food higher, and hoped for a dry summer.

 

At Christmas time the good ladies of the many church auxiliaries would come out with baskets of food and toys for the children. On these obligatory gift giving trips they called that side of town the Creek, as if the fifteen feet wide river was just a trickle of water and the people there Creek people as if they were some tribe of mismatched Indians. The Creek people tolerated this, since smiling and agreeing meant a heavy Christmas ham while reminding the fine Christian Ladies of their prejudices brought nothing.

 

There were signs that summer, little ways the animals changed, that told anyone who was looking that there would be a storm, a bad one. Just how bad no one could say for sure but everyone agreed that something should be done about Matthew’s bridge. No one did anything, of course. It was July, and hot, and not nearly close enough to Christmas for the ladies to care about the Creek people but they all agreed just the same. It was the depression and money was scare enough for the decent people of the town, let alone for the Creek people. So when the storm came and the rain pounded the earth, everyone knew that if they went to the Creek Matthew’s bridge might be nothing but a pile of sticks drifting on the water. They knew, and yet they dawdled. They put on rain boots, they checked the skies hoping for signs that it would clear, and finally they went out.

 

As if by some mystic shared knowledge all the cars stopped twenty feet from where Matthew’s bridge had been. That put them a good ten feet away from the edge of the river, the one they had mockingly called a creek all these years. No one would call it a creek now. It surged with brown foamy water, overflowing its banks, chewing up trees as if they were nothing. The bridge was gone. There would be no easy way to help the Creek people.

 

And those people needed help. They lined the other side of the river, children crying, mothers looking on in mute appeal. Even the drunks sobered up at the sight of that river rising. Water already lapped at their feet on the undesirable side of the river and they all knew that if they didn’t get to higher ground soon there would be no getting away from the hungry river.

 

The town fathers, good white men all, consulted each other. The good ladies smiled, and shouted promises. But there was no way any of them would get into that river. Not now, when half a tree floated by, the trunk a mess of spikes. They needed boats, they all agreed, and the boats were back at home. The rain opened up then, coming down harder, faster, when everyone on both sides of the river hoped it would stop.

 

But it didn’t. The men from town herded their families back into cars, and the ladies’ promises changed. They’d be back, with boats! Soon. Stay away from the edge children. We’ll be back as quick as we can. But at home the boats were tied up tight, brought inside from the storm. Lightening crashed and the men debated if it was safe for them to carry the boats, safe to drive so close to the river. Anyone who would normally argue for the Creek people instead bit their lip, looked at the storm, and shivered. The rain kept coming.

 

Under the pounding of the rain a new sound, a low wailing. The Creek people were drowning. A child first, or maybe a father, trying to do something to stop the inevitable water. Wailing followed by screams, shouts for help. Oh please, God someone help us. And the good people of the town stayed inside and pretended not to hear.

 

Were they safe then, those good people? Were they following good sense and not drowning in the cause of helping someone else? Self preservation or calloused indifference? Was there any difference between the two? Not on that night.

 

And not on this one either. Almost a hundred years later, a storm harder and faster than anything anyone can remember. A different town now, with no Creek. The undesirables in public housing, cinderblocks of neglect. Out by the river those decedents of good people who once were deaf look out at the sky the way their forefathers did, with a sense of foreboding. Because it is a town without a Creek but not without Creek people, and they are coming, coming up out of the river in the middle of the storm. Hollow eyed children with wet slick skin, mothers bent on vengeance. Coming for the people that promised to come back but never did. Coming for their due. As the rain pounds down and lightening crashes, the Creek people rise.

 

12/5/11

To Be Read Pile

I tend to be a little paranoid about losing my ‘voice’ as an author, so I don’t read a lot of fiction when I’m in the thick of writing.  I’m working on a new manuscript so my To Be Read (TBR) is about to take over the book shelf.  The books and a bit of explanation:

 

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler – Noir/Mystery
I can’t stop reading this book. No matter how many times I read it, it ends up back in the TBR pile every year.

The Wedding Quilt – Jennifer Chiaverini- Women’s fiction
I quilt. I read. This book combines the two hobbies. After 17 books in the series the characters are like old friends. The author has jumped the series ahead by about 20 years. I’m wicked curious to see what happens to everyone.

The Price of Freedom – Ann Crispin – Fantasy/Historic
I read this during the weeks before DragonCon but I didn’t really get a chance to enjoy it. It’s up for a re-read.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman – Fantasy
I enjoyed this book greatly on first read, and with rumors that it’ll be a miniseries on HBO soon, it’s due for a re-read.

Sup with the Devil – Barbara Hamilton – Historic Mystery.
The third in the Abigail Adams mysteries hasn’t grabbed me yet (118 pages in). I enjoy Barbara’s work enough that I’ll keep going back to it.

The illusion of Murder – Carol McCleary – Steampunk/Mystery/Historic
I devoured the first book in this series, and immediately went for the second. On reflection though, I realized the first book ran long. I’m now waiting for a good long flight to start the second.

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht – literary fiction?
On loan from a friend, it’s set in a part of the world where I spent some time. Despite that I can’t seem to get through it. 129 pages in and I’m still waiting for the story to start.

Candlenight – Phil Rickman – Mystery-Horror from the UK.
I’m a fan of this author, but 35 pages in the novel didn’t grab me, so it went back on the shelf. I’ll pick it back up again soon-ish.

The Doctor’s Family – Lenora Worth & The Cowboy’s Lady – Carolyn Aarsen – Inspirational Romances in the Rocky Mountain Heirs series
I read the first 2 books in the series. The bad guy getting away with crimes (kidnapping, harassment, theft, vandalism, arson) is getting really old. That said, the only way to see him get caught is to read the next 4 books in the series.

Huntress – Malinda Lo- Fantasy; Fuzzy Nation – John Scalzi – SciFi; After the Golden Age – Carrie Vaughn – Urban Fantasy (but not the kind with vampires)
All got great writes up on Tor.com.

All the others were recommended by friends or have a style I want to emulate in my writing. Some of the historic ones were published in a time frame I’m writing in now. I love to ‘research’ the values of a time by reading what was written then. Of course the funniest part of having a TBR pile of epic proportions is that there are still books on my ‘to be bought’ list.

07/25/11

It wouldn’t have killed you…


It wouldn’t have killed you to walk those ten extra steps on a dark, wet night; to go the few extra feet into the circle of ugly yellow light at the crosswalk. Ugly yellow light that made your blood look almost black on the pavement. It wouldn’t have killed you to walk that far but you were in a hurry and even those ten extra steps seemed like too much. I wonder now, what errand will wait forever?

The blood on my windshield slid off like too much rain water, the wipers already going on low, bloody half circles left behind before I could turn them off. Some people wait all their life for a defining moment, you were mine, lying dead on the pavement one high heel dangling half off. I was in a hurry too, though not so much as you, my hurry didn’t make me forget the laws. If it had been dry, clear, not raining, if it had been an hour earlier and not quite dusk, maybe we would never have intersected, you and I. Instead it was wet with a thick drizzle, dark as only the winter afternoon can be, and you were dead just an instant after my wheels locked into a skid.

You expect klaxons and bells, alarms and sirens, but it was quiet. Your death was quiet for me, just the horrible noise of the wipers beating your blood back and forth, then a thud as your body fell down. A heavy thud for such a light body, you must have worked out every day to keep that shape. I wonder if you would have bothered if you knew how bent and twisted it would be in the end.

The rain was already washing the blood off your face when I got out of the car. It wasn’t a busy intersection; you probably thought that before you darted out into the street. Not a busy intersection but my car was busy enough. I started to shake looking into your dead eyes, cold rain running down my skin. Life is not lived in days or weeks, not even hours, but split seconds when irreversible decisions are made. It wouldn’t have killed you to walk those ten steps, but you didn’t and so it did.

A horrible accident on a cold wet night in the winter, a terrible loss with no one to blame, just one of those ugly things that happen. If you had lived I would have killed you in a rage for not walking those steps, for the pain you gave to me when you died on my hood. Your blood washed down the street, painting the gutters pink, but I was a victim all the more, and jealous of you for being dead and away from it all.

I traced those steps, those short ten steps from the very dark into the light of the crosswalk, steps from the illegal danger into the safety of the glowing halogen bulb. Cars were rare on that street; coming around the curve and up the hill seemed too much trouble for them. I walked those steps from winter back to fall, in ice and pain, not many cars. Not many cars and only one streetlight on a dark road not close enough to town for a traffic light.

I wonder about you at night when sane people sleep. I wonder about your habits, your smile, the life I snatched from you by mistake. I play with it in my mind, turning over the possibilities, but always coming back to the unchangeable truth. Dead is dead, and living does not get any easier. I wonder if you were the type of person who would do this to me if you were alive. The type of person who would eat into my mind and plague me with guilt; a woman who would make me lose my job then give up all my pleasures. I wonder.

Sometimes late at night I drive back to that road. I take the hill slower, I creep along the curve. I stop my car there and listen in the silent night to the sound of the wipers beating and that heavy thud. I listen to the rain on nights when it’s bone dry. I listen to the sound of the brakes locking then I count the steps. It wouldn’t have killed you to walk those ten extra steps.

06/1/11

Road Trip

Photo of a rural highway by dlockeretz via stock.xchngThey drove down on a Saturday morning, when no one in the world would miss them. He worried about the bills and she daydreamed about how it would turn out. They were on the edge: the credit card out of room, the rent due in another week, and now, with the baby… It seemed like the only solution.

The old woman had lived alone for the last three decades, stubbornly clinging to independence when no one in the family thought it wise. Over time the family died, faded away, still worried about her living alone until the couple in the expensive car that needed a tune up were the last, desperate, relatives. The old woman loved the old house and the land it stood on, rolling green hills worth millions to developers. The couple did not.

She greeted them with a smile, her arms spread wide. Arthritic hands shook and so the couple offered to make breakfast. They ate at her table, she complained the eggs were gritty. They both smiled. Guilt didn’t join them, but death did. Eggs laced with sugar, breakfast potatoes with sugar, toast with sugar, all served with orange juice.

“I don’t usually eat like this,” the old woman admitted. “My diabetes…”

Her grandniece smiled at her, and offered a second cup of coffee. Her grandnephew-in-law slipped the insulin in the refrigerator into his pocket.

“You know you surprised me.” The old woman tried to smile, but only half her face moved. “I haven’t had my shot this morning. Haven’t gotten my day started at all.”

They urged her to go back to bed, wake up and start it all over again. She agreed, suddenly feeling so very, very tired. They saw her to bed, nodding at each other as they noted her rapid breathing. Every dish was cleaned, stacked back where it belonged. They wiped the counter tops, took away any trace of their presence. As extra insurance the grandnephew-in-law hide her car keys, and left the cordless phone in another room to lose its charge.

Back in the car, back on the rural highway and the grandniece let out a sigh of relief. She listed the things she would do, shopping, getting a new car. He wondered out loud how long the will would take to go through and if they should sell the house separate from the land or just knock it down. An hour long drive home to the city, and neither noticed the rolling hills around them, the land the old woman had loved.

Except the drive kept going, through the same land, the same hills, and now it was easily eleven o’clock, and both were hungry. Tempers flared. Did they have enough money to stop? Did it matter? They should be home soon.

But the drive kept going.

“She’s dead by now,” the grandnephew-in-law sneered. “And we’re still in this car.”

“You missed a turn off, stop and ask for directions.”

“Where?”

Hills upon hills, flat green space rolling around them, and the gas gauge persistently stuck at half a tank. Only the clock seemed to march forward, eleven, then twelve, digital numbers turning back to three, then four. Shifting again to five and then six. The sun faded and the hills stayed the same, but the car ate up the miles. They drove hungry and tired, cramped in the car, angry but dreaming about their inheritance. Day turned to night, then back to day again, and the one hour drive never ended.

05/3/11

A Try for Freedom

It took exactly 26 minutes to end her life. She timed it from the minute the wig-maker called her back to the minute she stepped outside, cash bills folded in her pocket for the first time. People said before you died your memories flashed before your eyes, and hers had, in a fashion. She saw images of the life that had been planned for her: her long hair covering her back on her wedding day, falling around a baby’s face, sparkling under the stage-lights as she cheered her husband. With each snip another memory fell to be collected, weighed, and bought. The price was scandalously low, but as she fingered the bills in her pocket she imagined all the once forbidden things she could buy, books filled with philosophy, unwholesome foods, ungodly music. She smiled.

A woman without hair was like a day with out meals, something to be endured with great suffering until you could get away from it. The shunning would begin the moment she stepped inside the house. One or two of the servants might speak to her, her parents never would. They expected her to marry a man with father’s political beliefs, a man she would lift up, help into the spotlight. She would carry his children and help his campaign. But all of that called for a woman with long hair that proved her godly values. She tried to run her hands through her own hair but stopped short, barely an inch off her head. The movement caused spikes and she impaled every junior senator she knew on them.

She came in the back entrance, moving fast so the cook didn’t see. At her computer she transferred the money out of her accounts and into ones her father couldn’t empty. She could stay as long as she liked, in a silent bubble, but instead she started packing. The clock chimed in the hallway and she ignored it, one last box of clothes. Should she take the political-biblical t-shirts or full length skirts? Neither she decided and tore down the stairs.

She stood in the doorway, memorizing the scene. Servants lined the walls, heads down in reverence. Her parents sat at the table, hands folded. Her sister glanced up, then quickly down in horror.

“Merciful God, help us to steer those in darkness to your light, help us to punish them for the error of their ways and lift them up when accept your righteousness,” Father’s voice intoned the dinner prayer. “And help our daughters, Liberty and Chastity to-”

It would have been a laugh but it caught in her throat, the muscles knowing better than to interrupt, but her heart incredulous at the irony of her name. Father looked up sharply. His face clouded with rage, then immediately became a blank slate. The senator knew how to maintain appearances.

“And help our daughter Chastity to be a beacon of femininity, and some day motherhood, in a world where woman put on manly garments.”

The last words were a departure, added to be his only acknowledgement of her. Her mother looked up, saw her hair and stifled a sob. She took her place at the table, serving herself, knowing better than to pass the food to people who wouldn’t take it. The conversation continued as if she had never existed at all. She delighted herself by taking a second helping of the rolls, snatching the basket away from her sister who couldn’t acknowledge the crime. But when the plated desserts arrived for everyone but her the thrill faded.

She went to sleep with a filled suitcase propped by the door. Staying guaranteed food and shelter, leaving meant more freedom. The choice was easy and she slept well.

“Honestly, Libby, I don’t know why you bothered to try it,” her sister’s shrill voice woke her up. The darkness outside her windows told her morning prayers would start in a few minutes. Chas was already dressed, playing with a pair of earring, probably planning to steal them. “You should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy.” Chas debated a necklace, stealing from her sister with aplomb. “You’d better hurry up or you’ll be late, and you already have hell to pay.”

She sat up in bed, wondering what her sister meant. She was free, she was finally-

Her eyes fell on the mirror in front of her bed. A second later her hands confirmed the impossible sight. Every single strand had grown back, stretching down past her shoulders, locking her into servitude.

02/22/11

Want a Taste?

“Wanna taste?” The man behind the deli counter held the ham out to her. Its pale pink meat sat in the center of a blossom of white filmy paper.

She shook her head.

“Nothing wrong with a taste of what you pay for,” he cajoled, offering the meat again.

Except it had to be a pound, exactly a pound, not under, if was under… She shivered, didn’t want to think about it. The bruises had faded. She hoped the memory would.

“Suit yourself.” He wrapped the meat up, sealed it in the bag. “What else do you need?”

She read off the list, her husband’s precise handwriting, .33 of a pound of Swiss cheese, sliced medium, .5 of a pound of turkey, shaved. Alexander was always precise. He’d written costs next to each item, an exact accounting of what she should pay. In her wallet the hundred bill lived alone, no other money snuggled up next to it. One bill, one list, left in an envelope on the kitchen counter and when he came home tonight, one receipt and one list, each item ticked off, along with any change. He’d count it to, down to the penny. He thought he had it all figured out, but she’d been diligent, careful, and creative.

At the checkout she handed over the bill. The change came back to her, and she put the crisp bills away into her wallet. The receipt she held cautiously. The service counter was just ten feet away, the woman behind it bored. She could do this. Coupons in one hand, a meek smile on her face.

“I forgot.”

“Oh honey, happens all the time. And besides, we see you in here each week,” the woman smiled. Two dollars and fifty-five cents, the store doubled all coupons under a dollar. It would be enough, maybe more than enough.

She left the cart by the service desk, went back to the cleaning aisle. It was at the back, a box in red and white with a dead rat on the front. One-eighty-nine. How much to kill your husband? How much to live your life? She had enough change for a chocolate bar, which Alexander didn’t allow. She ate it in the car, savoring the forbidden sweetness.

Dinner at six o’clock, clear the dishes, hand him the newspaper to read while you do the cleaning. Return with dessert for him, along with coffee. When he finished those dishes went into the washer and then, only then, you could start it. It was just more efficient that way, he explained, it wasn’t about his way or her way, just the right way. Like the right way to drink coffee was with two creams and one sugar. And perhaps tonight, with rat poison.

She stopped herself in the kitchen, worried she’d forgotten something, checking, always checking. Check or suffer, those were the choices. Had she organized the sections of the paper the right way? Folded the dinner napkins? Would he like the pie? Did rat poison taste bitter?

She tossed the white powder into his mug, poured the coffee over top. Too much. Not enough room for cream. If the color wasn’t right… She remembered it from the early days of her marriage, the mug flying through the air toward her face, the hot liquid already burning on her cheek. Worst of all the indignity of scrubbing coffee off the dining room walls the next day. Not enough that he hurt her, she had to clean it up too.

She stirred, wondered if enough cream could fit in the mug. Poured, her hands shaking, spilling some on the counter. In a minute he’d be in here. He’d wonder why she was so nervous then check under the kitchen counter. The coffee color was perfect, but the liquid touched the brim, too high. A spill likely. She spooned out a portion, worried about the taste. Sipped it, nothing, just coffee and cream. She added the sugar, spooned out another portion, got it right. Exact. Brought it to him with the pie, the small fork at forty-five degrees on the plate, then sat, watching him drink it down. He asked for another cup, and she made it, following the new steps: poison, coffee, cream, sugar. This time she didn’t take a sip.

Second cup finished, he gave her time to run the dishwasher before taking them both upstairs. He finished and slept. She got up to take her shower. The movements of her life circumscribed by his rules, what if she wanted to shower in the morning? Maybe she could tomorrow.

The pain sliced across her abdomen, doubling her body in half. She stuffed her fist into her mouth to keep herself from crying too loudly. Didn’t want him coming in here. She grabbed at the shower curtain, but it gave way. To weak to stand she fell to the bottom of the tub, the pain blocking out everything else. Hot hurt lanced her belly, and she crawled to the toilet. The shower ran unoccupied as her body emptied itself, blood filling the bowl. It hurt, it cut, her insides being ripped from her body, sticking as they went, tearing out more flesh. Over and over again.

In the bedroom she heard retching, the bed bouncing as if violent spasms took her husband. She made to go to him, but her intestines cramped again, the agony worse than anything she had ever imagined.

Cold floor, hot pain, and the words of the deli man came back to her:

“Nothing wrong with a taste of what you pay for.”