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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Tally

Somewhen along the way he told me that any pair of people has a finite number of words. One hundred twenty thousand, to be precise, spooling out like thread. When the words are depleted, the relationship ends as abruptly as Atropos cutting a thread in her tapestry.

I hoarded my words after that, making do with short phrases, dropping the flowery language I had used before. I think it was a relief to us both, my silence. I no longer felt obliged to move conversations along, chattering to fill the empty spaces. He no longer had to sift through the chaff of words to find meaning. Our conversations grew more intense, more considered. We moved more slowly with each other. We listened more deeply.

I found myself counting. I stopped sharing the dross of the day, instead offering a single well crafted gem of a story. When I spoke he paid absolute attention to my every word. It felt like we were dating again. I came to see his reticence as wisdom, his brevity, profound.

Still I tallied. I sat up late at night, comforted by his sleepy sighs, trying to recall every one of our conversations. I reconstructed and deconstructed the intoxicating wordplay of our first dates when we had explored politics and philosophy and favorite television shows. We had compared books and personal histories, travels and adventures. Nothing had been out of bounds. No limits had been imposed on our banter. I came to regret words wasted in trying to impress him.

I took to writing notes for the little things. Grocery store, get milk. This tactic required strategy, lest it become awkward. Sticky notes on the door jamb, found after I left for work. Dry erase reminders on the bathroom mirror. Texting was a godsend, although I fretted that even those brief messages counted against me.

I marshaled my anxiety, confining it to five minutes at the end of each day. Hiding in my office I would write down the day's number, dropping the tiny shred of paper in an old mason jar, cringing as the drifts grew deeper. I wrote in many colors on minuscule slips of paper that pressed against the glass in a mosaic, slowly building a picture of the passing days. Toward the bottom I could see days in which I wasted thousands of words foolishly spent on gossip. With time and practice I pared the totals down. Three hundred. One hundred twenty five. Fifty.

We hurtled toward 120,000 and I found myself gasping in fear, clinging wordlessly to him until he peeled me loose and begged for an explanation. But how could I give him words, when doing so brought the end nearer? I shrugged and shook my head, and he looked sadly away.

Meals became strained. He spoke, and I wondered if his dialogue counted against us. I tried using hand signals, but we both became impatient with my gesturing. His anger grew to match my desperation. I tried to explain to my friends, but they brushed my concerns aside. One told him of my fears, and he took me to a therapist. She prescribed Xanax and several articles about anorexia and control disorders. I fired her. At home I curled up with him on the couch, relishing our quiet time together.

We passed one hundred thousand, and I grew tongue tied. I gave up the pleasantries of “good morning” and “good night”, dropped “please” and “thank you”. I tried to slow time by not speaking of it. He looked at me askance, and grew quieter, too. I rejoiced. He slipped to the far end of the couch.

He left at 117,232. I tried to shout that we had more words, more days, we could continue. He gave me a speech which I should have treasured, but was to busy counting to hear. When he turned his back I wanted to beg, but I couldn't make a sound. I'd forgotten how.

Bits and pieces of his last talk come to me in my dreams. I write the words down and drop them in the re-purposed mason jar. Sometimes I try and make them into sentences. Into sense. Friends tell me it had nothing to do with the tally. That we lost our connection when we no longer talked. But I know I must have miscounted. That's the only explanation that makes sense.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Birth

A poem birthed itself
At exactly 2:15 am
(Between dreams)

I couldn't sleep
Until I caged it.

It fluttered at the edges
Of my mind
and kept me awake.



Exact Measure

I threw my Self entire
Into a pool of dreams
Basking in promises
You never made.
I have since found
that the difference
between my needs
And your efforts
Is the exact measure
Of my desolation.


Friday, December 14, 2012

On Our Knees

The play yard was quiet this afternoon. Parents nodded across the concrete, barely willing to acknowledge their horror on the sacred grounds of our elementary school. Strangers stood close, taking silent comfort in community. We waited, restless for the bell to ring, for our children to flood from the building, to embrace our little ones with desperate relief.

A father stood next to me. I watched as the bell shrilled and his daughter came running joyfully from the building, long hair flying, headband askew. He saw her and collapsed to his knees, unable to hold back his tears as he clasped her to him, whispering over and over "I love you so much".

We were all on our knees today. Praying. Or mourning. Brought down by fear. By horror. We were on our knees with helplessness and anger. Humbled by chance and circumstance and an embarrassing gratitude for our good fortune. Felled by sorrow and sympathy, or, for the truly unfortunate, empathy. 

I don't know where we go from here. I can think of no solutions. I have no answers. I do know I cannot, I will not, stay on my knees. I will rise up and carry on. I will hold tight to my children. And then I will loose them, that they may dance and sing and hurt and love and live. I will cherish them, and love them, and bless the days that I have with them. Because that is all I can do.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Return

The dog is barking mercilessly, high pitched and incessant. I stand to see what he sees. I hear wind chimes and watch dried leaves twitch on cold stiff branches, but there is nothing. He barks again, and finally I understand that he is scolding the unyielding glass. It is an affront, a limitation imposed on him, and it keeps him from the world. He cries out to dance with the crackling leaves and swaying grass because that's all he has. All he ever will have.

I look at the glass and think "this is all I ever will have" and fear wells up inside me until I am breathless, so I turn and make work for myself. I tidy shoes that seem to flee the shoe tray, crossing the floor by themselves as if they, too, seek freedom.


Upstairs I launder and sort and launder and sort clothes that have traveled, that are marked and stained by their journeys, but they always return to the same home, the same room, the same basket. Just as I do. To and from work. To and from children's activities. To and from concerts and movies and dinners and celebrations and funerals. And isn't that what life is? Traveling to and returning from? 

I ache to travel to and not return. To fly far away into a world that is brighter than the dried grass and dessicated rose blossoms of my front yard. More worthwhile than the deflated hellos and goodbyes of long acquaintance.

I turn to the noise of the internet, finding color and excitement, but the screen is flat and impenetrable and I cannot hold the interest of strangers. I return. I return to my dishes and my books, my writing and my knitting. I return to my children who leave me every day and come back different. Each evening I greet new children who look the same but whose peregrinations make them strangers. We get to know each other over snacks and homework, these new children and I.

Secretly I know these rituals are shadows of their ultimate departure. Some nights I wrap them warm in their blankets and think "this is all I ever will have" and, on my knees in anguish, I kiss their sweet brows and whisper my heart into their unhearing ears so when they fly their wings will be lifted by my everlasting love, no matter that they don't return.

This is all I ever will have. This heart, these thoughts, this longing, this love. Most days it is enough. But still I see the glass and imagine throwing the door open, letting the dog escape, adventuring like Dorothy into a land of wonder. But unlike her, I do not wish for ruby slippers to bring me back.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

So It Begins

Miss Awesome and I had a fight this morning. It was stupid, supposedly about her refusal to help empty the dishwasher but really about the tantrums she throws in an effort to get out of doing things she doesn't want to do. I sent both of us to our rooms to calm down, but not until after I'd gotten big and loud and maybe a little mean.

I angrily folded laundry for a while, and when my tears stopped and I could think straight again, I knocked on her door. I found her crouched over her Halloween stash, tearfully stuffing candy in her face. I took the sweets away, told her to apologize to her brother, and drifted back to my room. I was appalled that at age seven my daughter already is eating to deal with her emotions.

After another little while I returned to her room, lay down on the bed and held her. I told her I always love her. I apologized for being mean, but explained that she is part of the family and as such she is required to help out, whether or not she likes the task at hand. She apologized, too. We eventually worked our way back to equilibrium. 

When we were safe again, I asked about the candy. "It makes me feel good and helps me stop crying." she explained. I cringed inside, hearing such a simple truth from such a young girl. I know the physiology of it, how the sugar activates feel-good brain centers. How humans are pleasure-seeking animals. How this is natural and instinctive. I also know how devastating such a habit can be over the course of a lifetime. 

Until now I've tried to make food a neutral topic, neither good nor bad but a tool. Like all tools, food can be used well -- providing good nutrients that keep us strong and healthy -- or badly -- not giving us the energy we need and leading to weakness and unhealthiness. I've encouraged the kids to eat balanced meals and allowed sweets in moderation. Knowing that balance occurs over a lifetime, I've had some suppers that were awful nutritionally (but oh, so tasty!) and others that were nothing but vegetables (and just as tasty). Food is never good or bad, and certainly never "fattening". It's just healthy or less healthy. Through it all I've tried not to talk about anyone's appearance in terms of size or shape. I've been quiet about my own self-image and body issues. I make sure to show the kids a variety of body types as beautiful and healthy. I've taken great care to speak positively about my strength and abilities. My recent weight loss has been a private triumph of which the kids have been blessedly oblivious. 

But this morning I broke my self-imposed rule and talked about my weight. I told Miss Awesome that I got fat because I ate when I was sad, instead of addressing the underlying issues. I didn't eat healthy foods, and had too much candy. Over the years my body carried the bad decisions I made. I explained that it's better to cry all her tears out, take a breath, and deal with whatever made her sad. That food is not the answer. I admitted that sometimes I go into the bathroom and cry until I'm done, and then I can talk about whatever is upsetting me. I told her it took me a lifetime to learn, but candy is a treat, not a treatment.

Our conversation slowly meandered away from candy and eating, and after more cuddles we moved on to other activities. Violet reclaimed her candy with a promise not to eat too much, and I took that at face value. In the end I can only advise, not control. Still, I worry that she will follow me down the sedentary path, swallowing her sorrows, afraid to face her feelings. Like all parents I wish only the best for my child. Strange that a good cry and an empty belly are on that list.

Friday, November 2, 2012

BIG FAT COW!


Guess what?!? In a couple of weeks I will turn FORTY!

I am glad my birthday falls in November, because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. As a little girl I thought our big traditional family dinner was somehow related to my birthday. When I went away to college, the holiday was my chance to meet my father's side of the family. Nowadays I get to spend Thanksgiving with some of my favorite people and share a good meal. More than anything, I think I appreciate Thanksgiving because it's the only holiday without an expectation of reward. No candy, no cards, no gifts. Instead we have a day to reflect on our blessings, and express gratitude for what we do have.

And I am grateful. I have a wonderful family, good health, great friends. I have all my needs met, and most of my wants. So, this year, in honor of both my birthday and my favorite holiday, I am inviting my friends and family – both given and chosen – to mark the occasion with me in a different kind of way. Obviously I can't invite you all to my home for dinner (although you are welcome at my table any time). Instead I am asking anyone who feels like celebrating with me to please donate to an organization called Heifer International. www.heifer.org

I've been donating to Heifer for years because I believe in many of their ideals, especially:
  1. Individual empowerment, especially women
  2. Passing on the gift – acting locally, building community
  3. Environmentally sustainable development customized to the local environment, culture, and need
I'm not going to set a fundraising goal. True, I'd love to say I donated an ark for my birthday. But this is a celebration, not a campaign. (I think we're all sick of campaigns!) However, I know a number of my peers hit 40 this year, too, and I'm going to encourage anyone who beat me to it to chip in Forty Bucks for Forty Years.

Regardless of what you donate, I do want to say that I count my self truly blessed to have you in my life. Thank you.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Slept enough last night to dream, but wasn't rested when I woke. Sad scary thoughts are passing through my head at night.

I dreamt of climbing mountains with friends. The rocks were steep and the views spectacular, but I was uncomfortable and felt like I was going to fall. Suddenly I looked down into a crevasse and there was a woman there, obviously in distress. She was bleeding. I tried to tell everyone she must have fallen, she was bleeding from internal injuries. I watched the pool of blood grow and we looked down on her and could do nothing, we couldn't reach her. A man came up and told us there was a knife accident, that he had stabbed her in the stomach. We sat at the edge, looking down 100 feet and she lay there and bled and died, and I couldn't do anything.

I dreamt a friend called, a dear friend. He was crying and his voice was all wrong. He said he was glad I was there for the interview, because it was really upsetting him and he'd broken the door and hurt the gerbils. But I wasn't there, and I couldn't help from so far away. I couldn't do anything.

The worst of these nightmares was many years ago. I was held in a concrete basement, eyes propped open, bound to a chair. For hours I was held and forced to watch a film reel of the horrific murder of dozens of people, one after another, and I knew that it was my fault, I had caused it, I had done nothing and they were dead and it was all mine. That was more than 20 years ago and it is still vivid enough to bring tears to my eyes.

I saw a therapist after that one. She excused my poor psyche and told me these dreams were about my sense of responsibility. I don't remember anything else she told me about them. All I know is sometimes I wake up feeling like I have failed someone, that I could have, should have done better. And I carry that feeling with me through my days and nights, even when I don't have those dreams.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Crawlspace

His knees grew damp from the cold dirt under the house, even through the double-thickness of canvas. Good. He must be getting close to the broken line. He'd been crawling around in the near dark for a good half hour, cursing the idiots who'd run a water line through a crawlspace, no matter that it wasn't really a cold climate. Of course the damn thing had broken during a super cold spell. And of course the homeowners were out of town. According to the water company the meter had been spinning like crazy for at least a week. They'd finally gotten hold of the family, and the man had called him from some sunny spot in Florida. Friend of a friend recommendation. Work was slow and he needed the money for the holidays, so he took the job on the promise that they'd pay when they got back in a couple of weeks. He'd leave an invoice in their mailbox when this shit was over. 

The handyman craned his neck the best he could, following the lines and ciphering out hot and cold, electrical and gas. The maze was even more complex than usual. Old construction. His right hand splashed down into a wrist deep channel of icy water that flowed sluggishly over his fingers and the flashlight. Fuck. He yanked up, smacking the back of his head hard against the rough cut joists above and spraying himself with mud as he shook the flashlight to dash off the water. It dimmed, glowed bright, dimmed again, then held steady. Thank god for that at least. He looked down at the water, following the stream with his eyes and straining to see where it had come from. It shouldn't have been flowing. He'd turned the water off at the street at least forty-five minutes ago. Didn't matter. He was getting close. 

He shifted to the left to avoid the water, wiping his muddy hand on his shirt. Moving forward slowly he realized the stretch of dirt before him was a quagmire of mud just this side of frozen. Ugh. That was going to add a big-ass PITA charge to the bill. Not sure how he'd explain it, but there was no way he was going to crawl through four inches of muck for a stranger and not bill extra. Goddamn it. He'd never make it home in time for the game. He reached back with his left hand and dragged his plumbing toolbox forward, hoping the dented metal was sound enough to keep out most of the mud. He'd hate to have to wash all his tools on top of the rest of this shit. Goddamn it.

He looked up again, slowly shining his light along the glinting pipes. At least they were copper. Switching up from galvanized or god-forbid PVC would have been an even bigger nightmare. Finally he saw the break. It was big, at least four inches long. The pipe had bulged and split like lips where the water inside had frozen. Strange that it was so far under the house, where the cold shouldn't be so bad. Didn't matter. It was a pretty simple fix. Maybe he'd get home in time after all. 

The man dragged through the mud on his knees, his boots becoming cumbersome as the ankles filled with slime and the toes grew damp. Fuck a duck. He kept as upright as possible despite the low ceiling, and used his hands only to drag the toolbox and hold the flashlight. Below the hole he sat back on his knees, leaning awkwardly to fit under the low clearance. With the pipe cutter he sliced the copper on either side of the break. He measured and cut a length of fresh pipe then moved into the process of flux, fit, solder. The heat and light from the blowtorch was a welcome respite from the cold that was biting deeper and deeper into his fingers and damp pants. He placed the new pipe and soldered one join. His angle was awkward, and his neck and back were starting to ache from the bend and the cold. He reached upward a final time, feeling the rough wood of the joists combing through his hair as he twisted himself into a good position. Finally he got the last joint done, and turned to place the torch and wire back in the box.

Suddenly his knee sank and sank some more. There was no bottom. Hands full of tools and a flashlight that shouldn't get any more wet, he vainly flung his arms up and to the right, trying desperately to shift his balance. It didn't matter. He prepared himself for a face full of mud, bracing for the chill as it oozed down his collar. Shit. Fuck. Damn! He held up the light as high as possible, hoping to keep it dry. The landing was soft and slow. Shoulder. Elbow. Face. Nose and top of head. But he didn't stop. The mud grabbed him, wrapping icy fingers up into his shirt, down his waistband. It oozed over him as he slid further and further sideways until he was, impossibly, upside-down and the mud thinned and he sank, kicking his feet up, grabbing with his heels at the edge -- what edge?!? -- and still he sank, muscular arms too dense to float. Then the flashlight was under and the dirty water glowed yellow and dim for a moment and he realized that he'd fallen into an abandoned septic tank. And still he sank, twisting desperately to get upright but the light failed and he couldn't tell up from down and his clothes were thick and heavy canvas and cotton and his jacket was good for weather, but not water. His boots sank faster and finally he was upright but still there was no bottom and the mud closed in above his head, a bizarre science experiment of bone dry dirt and water that had flowed and filled for days.

The homeowners were a little puzzled as to why the handyman hadn't turned the water back on at the street, but they figured it was a safety measure. They waited a couple of weeks for the bill and when none came they tried calling, but the voicemail box was full and after a couple of tries they kind of forgot about it. It was his problem, not theirs.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

First Snow

Snow and Sky
The snow reflects the sky reflects the snow
We (the trees and bushes and dogs and i)
are immersed in light
None of us cast shadows

Trees weep, bending low
so their tattered rainment of gold and green make
still
quiet
frozen bowers gilded by the soft dawn

I pass below the trailing edge of a leaf
which sheds its icy burden
and springs upward in a
silent explosion of snow.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chaff (Nightmare Fuel Day 15)



The reaper's blade threw chaff
like butterflies
glinting in the sunlight
and covered me
with dust
before the blade fell

Friday, October 19, 2012

Dogfest

video

You wonder why I call Stanley Demon Dog. Here's a brief video (smaller and quieter than real life) of what I get to experience for about 5 hours each day, or until I lose my patience and exile them to the back yard. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shard

The shard fell
fell fast as gravity
the gravity of the situation
fell on me
as the shard fell
fell like glass rain
the rain of blood drops
that dropped to the sink
and dripped
to the floor
and I sink
to the floor
the floor on which
my blood drops
dripped
in whorls and pools
a pool of darkness
into which
the shard fell
and so
shall
I


Inspired by Nightmare Fuel

Friday, October 12, 2012

Broccoli (Nightmare Fuel Prompt Day 12)

“Mom I'm not very hungry. Can I just eat this much broccoli and still get dessert?”

I lost it. I was tired of negotiating every meal. I was exhausted by the tantrums and the sense that I was losing a battle of wills with a five year old. I was weary of feeling society riding my shoulders, condemning my parenting and warning me that if she didn't eat her vegetables she was going to get fat and face a lifetime of self-loathing.

I admit it. My goddamn kids were spoiled. Most days I could deal with it, but I was catching a cold and I'd made a big mistake at work, and there wasn't even that much broccoli on the plate.

So yeah. There was a lot going on. Still doesn't excuse my actions. I'm sorry. Really. Yes, it felt REALLY good at the time. Petty, I know. But filling a donut with coagulating blood and making my kid eat the whole thing? Yeah, that was wrong.

Then again, she doesn't argue at dinner any more. And she's never gonna eat another donut.

Inspired by Nightmare Fuel
Donut

Symphony

“Ooh. That was a good one!” She spoke without turning. The collectors on her head were balanced just so, and they were perfectly tuned to the screams that billowed from the courtyard.

“Indeed.” he concurred. He smiled faintly as the sound waves vibrated down the tubes and zinged along his nerves until he nearly shuddered in delight.

Below, the experiments continued. Peeling. Drilling. Severing. Each patient was unique, so the physicians took their time. Sometimes it took days to find the right combination of methods to extract the perfect key. They knew immediately when it worked. The air itself would shiver in harmony with the screams, and the pair on the balcony would flush and smile.

The screams never lasted long. Even the strongest succumbed. Then the physicians would remove their gloves and rend the flesh from the bones. Long strips were dried on racks, saving the meat for the lean winter months. But now, in the hot summer, they licked the bones like lions, rasping the remaining morsels with their tongues, gnawing the bulbous ends until they cracked and oozed slick tender marrow.

Above, the couple withdrew as their minions fed. They removed their headgear, plugged the goggles into the projector, cast off their stiff uniforms and closed the drapes. Lying on their backs on the low bed, they clasped hands when the screams filled the room in a grotesque symphonic soundtrack to the mutilation on the surrounding screens. “Aaaahhh” he sighed happily. “Indeed.” she concurred as he rolled toward his companion and they began to make love.

Inspired by Nightmare Fuel

Gates

The guards hated the game. It had seemed like a silly summer pastime the first time, but the purpose had shifted from lighthearted goofing to deliberate taunting, and it made the adults crazy.

“You climb down from those gates right now!” they would yell. The children would only clamber higher, arranging themselves like acrobats across the bars. The men worked in pairs, one to operate the gate, the other to check incoming vehicles. The mechanism man would shrug and hunker down in his chair, saved from confrontation by his role at the controls. The other fellow had to stand up, shifting his wide leather belt and its assorted tools as he stood, then march outside to try and catch the little monkeys as the scrambled out of reach.

The security firm sent a memo to the members of the community and the parents gave stern lectures to their children, but everyone knew it was pointless. The guards had no real authority over the people inside the walls – the badges were for the riff-raff outside. The children were privileged and knew their parents laughed off their hijinks. The only people who cared were the guards.

Some of the guards were fathers themselves, and they worried. The gates were fifteen feet high, with sharpened points at the top. They occasionally jerked or stalled when opening, and the kids would be tossed about, barely hanging on. A few got stuck and had their feet scraped rather badly, and others came close to having their hands crushed when the two gates came together. Of course the parents blamed the operators for not being more careful. It was a tough position to be in.

The guard shack was barely comfortable, but most of the guys would rather be inside nursing the coffee maker through another pot than outside in the weather. It was always a little too hot or a little too wet or a little too cold. Zeke was different. He took inspection shift without complaining, skipping the rounds of rock-paper-scissors that the other guards played to get out of duty. Between cars he'd lean against the shack in the shade, waiting and watching. He was particularly intent on the kids. Unlike the others he didn't yell or chase. He collected their names when they shouted at each other, and didn't seem bothered by their taunting. The kids elaborated on the game, developing complex rules about who was King of the Iron. Zeke sussed out the rules, and gradually took on the role of arbitrater when there was a dispute about who had earned the most points.

“You're gonna get hurt one of these days.” Zeke quietly warned the children one day. They'd been especially rambunctious that day, leaping from higher and higher positions on the railings. The previous day a boy had sprained his wrist jumping, and after the news spread there was another round of lectures by the parents. The kids didn't care. It was an easy way to defy the supposed authority of the HOA, their parents, and the hapless guards in the shack.

A week later a six year old was injured when the heavy gate struck her, then dragged her across the pavement until it reached the closed position. Her abrasions sent her to the hospital, and the parent network lit up with worry. Threats were made to take away privileges or to confine children to their quarters. It didn't work. As the pressure from the adults grew, the need to rebel rose, and the following day even more children were hanging and swinging on the gates. The guards shouted and yelled, but they couldn't reach the climbers. Reinforcements were called in. Without names the children couldn't be identified and they were far too fast to catch. Nothing could be done. Beneath the trees they laughed in triumph and planned an even larger rebellion for the next day.

The investigation took weeks and never did have a satisfactory answer as to what happened. An electrical short, possibly caused by the weight of more than thirty children hanging on the gates. It didn't matter. The children melted to the rails, twisting in agony, unable to scream. They shook as their flesh burned. They corpses hung from the bars like abstract art and when the coroners came – five in all – they were forced to use steel tools to scrape and pry the tiny bodies from the bars.

Inspired by Nightmare Fuel

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lullaby

The cannula slipped, allowing a slow trickle of blood to meander from his nose down his left cheek toward his ear, its path impeded by a wispy growth of beard. He twitched. The woman sitting next to the bed startled, grasping for his shoulder, rising from her chair, inhaling into a smile, then slowly sank again, face falling, when she saw that his eyes still rolled upward in a wretched grimace. She reached for the raspy tissues on the rolling table and carefully wiped the blood away. The edge had crusted over and she dabbed a fresh tissue against her tongue before scrubbing it away.

With a sigh she picked up the book and began again to read the fourth chapter. She was careless, skipping whole paragraphs and allowing her voice to fade at the end of sentences. It was deliberate -- a provocation of the helpless young man lying in the bed. She was tired of reading, tired of sitting, tired of waiting. Before the end of the chapter she turned back to the window, eyes seeking out the timeless circling of crows around the gnarled fingers of an autumn tree.

The nurse was empty of kind words when she came in. Silently she worked her way through the familiar checklist. She ended with a quick tuck-in and a hand on the forehead, a brief caress that belied her business-like demeanor. A gentle pat on the woman's shoulder and she squeaked her way down the linoleum to the next bed. The woman picked up the book again.

The blood trickled. She watched, clinical, as it pooled in his ear. It cooled and gelled, and finally her sympathy welled. She washed his ears and face and chest with a warm cloth, and somewhen in the middle she began telling him about his first bath -- how scared she had been, delicately touching each part with the blue baby wash cloth, how she had wrapped him so tightly afterward and nursed and held him for hours, curled around him in a chair, watching him breathe, watching him twitch and smile. How she'd pictured his life, and how proud she had been when he'd found his own path, even though it was nothing she had imagined.

She took a breath as she put the washcloth away and swallowed down a criticism, trying desperately to be cheerful as she impatiently told him how she was waiting, it was time, the alarm clock had gone off, they needed to get going. He was late, he was going to miss his life. While she spoke she buttoned him into a fresh pair of pajamas. Then, scooting his long frame onto its side, she bent his knees, and, wrapping as much of herself around him as she could, lay down. As the sun set she closed her eyes and sang her dying child a lullaby.

Inspired by Nightmare Fuel

Anger

When anger boils around me
like golden red fire
it doesn't matter if
it is meant for me.

(Duck, turn, cover
Placate, soothe)

Sometimes there's no
calming the storm

(Deflect
twist away
ESCAPE)

And I weather it
stinging
but only slightly singed

And sometimes
(rarely, anymore)
I
stand and fight
Angry in turn
at the fear
that shellacs me
into stillness
and makes me cringe
inside.

Ants

The ants were the first to reach the bones, burrowing for precious calcium through quivering flesh whose owner was made blessedly insensate by the inadequate atmosphere.

“No signs of life.” they said, forgetting the many probes that had been sent, whose slow decay under wind and scouring sand had released microorganisms from their own planet.

“Uninhabitable.” they said, unable to imagine that life forms could be made from any element in the right combinations.

And combine they did, giant planet-wide dust storms picking up minerals from the ground and remnants of living things from the dead spaceships and tossing them miles high into the atmosphere where the spinning built static and electricity was, just as Shelley had predicted, the true spark of life.

In their hubris the scientists and explorers couldn't fathom that the dreamers had been right; that the color of the sun was relevant, that shades of blue could speed mutations and evolution could happen in decades rather than millenia.

The ants were the first to reach the body, skittering cloudy silicon shells across the desert, drawn by the scent of rare materials, drawn by the visitor on the bright side of the planet. They burrowed deep inside, winding their tunnels along the bones, chipping away as she lay slowly dying, her blood seeping into the sand, calling the larger animals to feed.

Prompted by Nightmare Fuel

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mask

She took off the mask
because the world was safe
She took off the mask
because the nightmares had fled
Back to the corners where they lurked
Shadows that lingered
on the brightest of days.

She took off the mask
with teeth and horns
With crazy eyes
and golden wings
Wooden and hollow
and just the right size
to scare away the fear.

She thought she was safe
Until the spirits came out
Came from within
where they'd been waiting
Eating her heart
And chewing her soul
Feeding her lies
of failure and loss.

She thought she was safe
Until she saw
that nothing was safe.

The mask was a lie.

The world was not safe because
She was a mask
That the demons wore.

Prompted by Nightmare Fuel

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dock

After the accident the island was cut off. Not just quarantined, but permanently isolated from the rest of the world. They still had radios and televisions – they could still communicate – but no one, no thing, was allowed out. It was a safety precaution, everyone said. Even the millions who lived there agreed. Theirs was a culture of self-sacrifice, so it wasn't a hard sale. Promises to send the occasional barge of outside goods helped. Sure, there were complaints. In this day and age of mobility, of island hopping and world travel, it was understandable that some would fuss about being stuck on an island. But it was necessary.


At first there were jokes about Godzilla and Mothra, but when the mutations began to appear even the anti-isolationists shut up. There was no predicting what changes would happen. They came in waves which scientists watched until they could use the patterns to prove the theory of evolution. That was pretty much the only good that came of the disaster.

The megaflora, including humans, that survived the initial accident did so without much effect. More hair, or less. Occasional tumors or growths, but nothing truly weird. That was for the plants and smaller animals. Ants hatched with eight legs, although their behavior didn't change. That spawned a lively debate about the definition of insect versus arachnid, but it was mostly academic. Hermaphroditic plants developed, which was fine until they began moving themselves around to find suitable mates. People couldn't adjust to having their philodendrons relocate for love.

The rest of the world watched like it was a giant reality show, agog with wonder (and mockery) at the strange creatures that developed, and the haplessness of the humans “in charge”. That is, until the day the dock showed up.

No one knew it was missing until it landed on the west coast. Actually, no one knew it landed on the west coast for several weeks, until someone from the planning office tried to fine the builder for an unlicensed dock and in the process figured out that it hadn't been built. It was torn off a city on the island and floated across the ocean. At first inspection they concluded the cargo was mostly a collection of sea stars, barnacles, and algae. Initial reports stated that a “natural disaster” had caused it to break free. 

Then stories emerged about strange creatures in the trees in the rainforest up in Oregon. Strange attacks that left people cut up and covered in circular bruises. The victims said octopus and everyone laughed, until they found the dock. They had seen on Island TV how some of the cephalopods were using sharpened tools to hunt. And after the accident, anything was possible. So no. There was no disaster. The dock was a ship used by a colony of mutants ready for adventure to sail across.

Inspired by Nightmare Fuel

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

ATM

"Please, please, no!" He slammed his hand against the ATM, fingers scrabbling at the money slot, digging hopelessly for the colorful currency well beyond his reach. He snatched another card from his wallet, shaking as he tried to orient it correctly, shoving against the resisting maw, knees bending with the effort. The machine finally sucked in the card and he fumbled his way through the many verification screens, sounding out the questions as he searched his brain for correct answers in a barely familiar language. At the PIN screen he froze, not even sure which card he'd used, then helplessly tapped in a series of numbers, knowing they were no good.

Again and again he tried, littering the ground with credit cards, debit cards, even a membership card to a museum back home. Finally he gave up, turning and sliding hopelessly down until he crouched at the base of the machine in a yellow-orange puddle of streetlight. He stared past a dripping dumpster at the phone booth across the street, then down at the depleted phone card in his hand. It was a collectible, worth hundreds in that obscure market, and he would have given anything to sell it for cash right then. Cash he could use to call his father, dying abruptly four thousand miles away.

As prompted by Nightmare Fuel

Department Store

The boy hated that store. It was magic, but not in a good way. His mother called it different names - Macy's, Nordstrom's, Nieman Marcus - and the outside sometimes looked different, but he knew it was really just one store. It looked the same every time they went. And they went a lot. He begged his mother not to go, but she had no patience for his protests. “You love going on the carousel!” she would say, as if that was enough, but the carousel was like the store – same thing over and over again, up and down around and around. Besides the carousel appeared and disappeared without pattern, just like the parking lots and trees outside the store. “There's nothing to DO!” he would shout, and she would get angry and tell him not to cry, as if he could turn off his frustration and helplessness.

She was always tired at home, staring distantly at the windows or hungrily at the computer screen. She would slip in a DVD when he asked her to play, turn her back when he shouted “Mommy! Watch me! Mommy! Mommy! You're not LOOKING! Watch this!” as he clowned around trying desperately to make her laugh, to make her see him. He would steal her cell phone, begging her to color with him or build something, but she would snatch it back, shouting, “Don't grab!” and then stand up so tall he couldn't reach; he was left with her knees for company.

But that store was magic. It gave her purpose and intent. Head up, focus tight, alert, searching. The colorful signs atop the racks were scanned, absorbed, ignored or noted in moments. She circled the racks, screeching the hangers left and right so he only saw glimpses of her between the clothes. He knew her ankles better than her face. 

He never did figure out what she was looking for. Sometimes he would grab at the hanging fabric and say “Oh, this is nice!” like she did, but she always sighed and told him “Don't touch! I don't want to have to pay for that.”

When they went, after they parked, she tugged him from the car and hastily buckled him in to the stroller. She would toss plastic bags of goldfish and cartons of juice within reach on the tray, then speed toward the door, moving faster than anywhere else, and with a little bounce. As they entered she thrust her cell phone at him, placating his sadness with distraction. He learned to fall into that flat dull world but eventually the battery would die and still his mother would be questing. He held in his sighs and fidgets because fussing caused her to flare into anger and shake the stroller until his stomach hurt.

Inside she insisted that he stay in the stroller while she stalked the aisles. He was so big it pinched but when he tried to tell her she would say "I can't have you running around, you might get stolen!" as if the stroller kept him safe while she hunted. He didn't understand her fear, so he looked around with suspicious eyes. The floors were slippery stone that shone like water. The nubby gray carpets were like cloth sidewalks. The racks of clothes reminded him of bushes and trees, but there was no wind or sun. It smelled funny, like sweet dust, and made him sleepy. His mother didn't mind. At home she made not-funny jokes about going to the store so he could take a nap, as if his presence alone wore her out. But she really told him to stay in the stroller to keep him out of the way.

All of which is why he wasn't surprised when the strange skinny plastic people came to life. What was surprising was how nice they were.


They approached slowly, quietly. His eyes had been drooping; he was bored beyond tears into indifference. When he saw them moving his eyes grew wide, he opened his mouth to shout, but then he stopped, fascinated. They weren't scary. They didn't move fast or sneak around. He didn't know what game they were playing, but they stood in front of him, arms open, inviting him to join. He looked around for his mother but she had wandered off. He squirmed out of his buckles, stopped to pick up a couple of goldfish, and walked over.

“Can I play?” he asked. They nodded. He reached out, slowly, and took the tall one's hand, and they started walking. The hand was stiff and had no fingers, but it was gentle. They all trooped up the escalator to the beds and pillows department, and he was invited to climb up onto the biggest bed there. He stood, taller than the encircling mannikins, and wondered. He'd never been allowed on one of the beds before. They lifted a small fellow up, and he began to bounce gently. They boy laughed. The adults raised their arms, creating a safety rail, and the two of them started jumping. Leaping and laughing, every time he stumbled or flew toward the edge he was caught and tenderly returned. Finally he collapsed, to tired even to giggle.

They collected him then, the largest carrying him – head on shoulder – back down the escalator. He panicked for a moment, begging not to go back, but a gentle pat on the back calmed him. Instead they went to the big TVs and piled together on a couch to watch his favorite movie. He had never had friends to watch with, and he became so excited that he shouted his favorite lines and grabbed their hands at the scary part. They laughed silently, enjoying his happiness as much as the movie.

Afterward they went swimming. The shiny bright floor, so highly polished, melted before them into a golden liquid that was warm and dry and held him up when he plunged in. They cavorted, fully clothed, his noise echoing through the store without disturbing anyone. When he tired they sat on the edge and plotted more adventures through the jewelry and makeup counters, dressing up as kings and queens and putting on plays. They played hide and seek between the racks, which was particularly easy for him since some of the people didn't have heads, and others had no eyes and they all had to feel their way to him. They made up indescribable games that made sense only to the players, and through it all they surrounded him with love.

The store was magic. He had friends who paid attention to him, who soothed his hurts and listened to his stories. He was never hungry. There were no grownups to lecture him. He was given complete freedom, and the store which had been so odious became his playground. But finally it had to end. He collapsed in tears, begging to stay. He loved them. Didn't they love him? He grew angry and yelled, striking the hands that reached for him. He wanted to play and play and play with them. He didn't want to be in the store every day, just waiting for his mother, doing nothing, tied down. When he finally calmed to hiccups they bowed their heads and sweetly embraced him, then walked him back. The biggest attempted with stiff hands to buckle the boy in, but the boy took the hands and kissed them instead, laying his cheek against them. Finally they all waved a quiet goodbye, plastic expressions never changing. He felt their sadness and knew it would never happen again. He leaned his head back and dozed off, once again waiting for his mother.

He never knew how long he spent with them. He hadn't aged, and his mother never noticed he was gone. But if he'd had his many adventures in the real world they would have taken weeks. Years later he tried to explain that afternoon to someone he trusted. She was horrified, first by his mother's neglect, and then by the idea of a child terrified by mannikins that came to life. No, no, he protested. They were wonderful. It was, it was . . . He couldn't finish.

As he grew older, he understood his mother's desperate attempt to find meaning in pointless acquisition. He grew and exchanged the boredom of the stroller for the tedium of school, and then the dull gray beige of a cubicle farm. He paced the same sidewalks, ate the same food, visited the same stores. And many years later he looked back and understood what he'd tried to say so long ago. It was . . . magical. That had been the very best day of his life.

Prompted by Nightmare Fuel

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Eyes Have It

She dressed in black and wore ice blue eyes. Her yearbook picture featured her dripping blood and clinging to a cemetery cross. She was brash and fearless, and I longed to be her.  

Half our class attended the reunion just to see how she turned out. She wasn't there, of course. Gossip that night swirled above cheap polyester tablecloths and between tacky carnation centerpieces and somehow she was in every conversation, each with a different theory of where she was and what she was doing, and all remembering her amazing eyes.

We had been friends of a sort. I was bookish and kept my head down. Still, I somehow made peace with every clique while belonging to none. She, too, was an outsider, although by choice rather than happenstance. Some days she would sit with me in whatever corner I'd found, alighting like a hawk on a wire, watching with unblinking eyes the hubbub all around us. She didn't feel obliged to chat; however, she would occasionally share a wry observation that finally made sense hours later. It was as if she saw more than the rest of us. I never mentioned how much I admired her.

We continued our acquaintance through college and beyond. I was honored whenever she called, dropping everything to meet her for coffee or to catch an esoteric indie film which she understood and I mentioned at cocktail parties in order to seem more interesting. I never initiated contact; it seemed implausible that she'd want to be my friend. Still, we got together nearly every month, commiserating on school and professors and sharing war stories about our dating lives. She followed an esoteric course of study, exploring feminism and sociology before finally finding her path in psychology. Her keen skills of observation, first honed in high school, brought swift clarity to patients whose relief outweighed any nervousness at her piercing gaze or somber outfits. My interests were more pedestrian until I tangled botany, anthropology, and biology and found myself heading to the rain forest to try to find a cure for cancer. When I got back I suddenly was the interesting one, with stories of having lived -- and shared rites with -- cannibalistic natives in order to collect unfamiliar plant species. At dinner she turned her blue, blue eyes on me and I basked in the attention, reveling in the role reversal, as if I finally had achieved my dream not just of being with her, but being her. That night she told me she'd always admired my style. When we kissed my high-school self leaped for joy.

Our romance was fast and hot and died just as quickly when she came to see how empty I was. She'd mistaken my fascination with her for an actual personality. The disappointment was palpable as she packed to leave my apartment the final time, while I sat, shocked, terrified of losing her. I couldn't imagine what shape I would take without her as my mirror, my muse, my model. I had spent so much time wanting to be her I'd never learned to be myself.

She graced me with one final kiss, the same gothic girl I hungered to be, black dresses and wry laughter and piercing blue eyes. I tasted her laughter. I tasted our past. I tasted what I could become.

I ate her eyes last.

This post was prompted by Bliss Morgan's "Nightmare Fuel" challenge.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kodak Moments


Irene stood at the window, gazing westward and drinking watery oatmeal from a mug. Her eyes focused far beyond the green undulations of treetops, as if she could actually see the funeral taking place a thousand miles away. It wasn't that she wanted to be there. Rather, she was tugged by the gravity of obligation, as if her attendance was somehow required despite the distance that had separated her from her father for years.

Behind her a commotion arose, a tussle over which station to watch. She turned and observed the careless argument between dorm-mates until they finally settled on a soap opera that interested no one, but was better than anything else. Irene walked to a chair and sat, pretending to be absorbed. Instead she slipped into a flicker of memories of her father.

Her first bicycle was pink and the fanciest thing she'd ever owned. A peace offering, contingent on a night's stay with his former family. He had assembled it with strong competent hands, putting her in charge of bolts and tools and saying please and thank you when he asked for parts. They presented it to her mother and he gave Irene all the credit for putting it together. She bashfully accepted the lie, carrying it in her heart like a prize. He promised to teach her to ride without training wheels; shortly afterward he tried drunkenly to crawl into bed with her mother and was ordered in harsh whispers to leave in the middle of the night. Irene hadn't understood his crime – she often climbed into bed with her mother – but her confusion was overshadowed by disappointment.

Years later cold wind slid up her skirt as she stumbled over frozen tire tracks in a Sunday-morning-empty parking lot. The crossing felt like a prisoner exchange, despite the effort she had made to look nice. Her father lingered in the warm Saab until she was nearly there, but made up for it by stepping quickly around the front and opening her door. As they drove away she glimpsed her mother, still anxiously standing by the open door of the rusty old sedan.

By Irene's final, and longest, visit, she was rarely invited to his house. He'd gotten dogs, a promotion, married, and no longer had time for her. The sudden invitation must have come from the new wife. Still Irene combed through her closet to create the most impressive outfits possible. The first night she and the wife baked an apple pie for his birthday. He was effusive in his praise, but his grandiose and supposedly charming monologues were peppered with statements attributing Irene's brains and looks solely to his parentage. By the second day Irene decided she liked his wife more than him. By day three Irene's love for her mother, diluted by teenage angst, was so rekindled by his comments that her mother was baffled – gratefully – by the warmth of Irene's greeting at the end of the long weekend.

“Change the channel!”

Irene jumped at the sudden shout. She glared, still seeing the pie alight with candles and and her father's cheery face, and tried to reorient herself. She stared up at the television and caught a glimpse of a sappy advertisement featuring a loving father and devoted daughter before the channel changed.

“You know how much I hate these stupid commercials! They remind me of my family.” Mike finished with a grin. Everyone laughed. No one noticed when Irene's tears began to fall.

Note: I submitted this for NPR's Three Minute Fiction contest. Someday I'll try again (with a different piece)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Doppelganger

Have you ever met the person
you woulda
coulda
shoulda
been?

Just a little bit more interesting
for having followed your dreams.
Just a little bit
more fun.
The one who can do
those things
that you never quite picked up.
Who finishes projects
You once started
but left by the wayside
with a touch of regret.
The one who looks
a little like you
only better, somehow.

Have you ever met
your doppelganger?

Did you shake hands,
hiding your longing?
Were you
a little too close
-- too similar --
for vengeance dreams?

Have you ever met
the person
you were meant to be?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Attend Me . . .

Note: I work in a public elementary school. One of my primary tasks is attendance; I review which students are at school, or not, I hand out tardy slips to those who come in late, and I try to track down those who don't come in at all.

Attend. We generally use it to mean "show up", but there's a deeper meaning: to be present, to care for, to take charge. Every day part of my job is to review the attendance at our elementary school. Over time I see patterns emerge -- illnesses that sweep through the school classroom by classroom, religious holidays that collect disparate children into faithful solidarity, weather affecting only those who don't have a car. On occasion I see evidence of truancy and must call in a social worker to address the issue. Attendance is a small task, but there are larger ramifications for both safety and education.

In our school some children hardly miss a day, and are never late. I barely recognize them. Others I know by first and last name because every morning they come to the office five, ten, fifteen minutes late. As a parent and volunteer in the classroom, I can attest to a parallel trend: the same children who are late every day often are the ones who don't turn in their homework. They struggle to read and keep up with their peers. They don't have a support network that values their education.

These patterns I see, these falling lines of disappointment and failure, are not tied to race or class. Some poor families fight nearly impossible odds to get their children to school on time. Networks of cousins and aunts and friends and neighbors fill in gaps and make sure that the students are there on time and ready to learn. At home they have space to read and someone to review their work. No matter how late, or how tired, someone is there to help. Every resource available through school or grants or third-party programs are employed to make sure their children will make it. And they do.

At the same time some wealthy families whose children dress impeccably and have all the right props are allowed to stay up late watching movies and lollygag their way to school. They sleep through class. Homework is seen as an unnecessary nuisance. Their extracurricular activities are given much attention; school gets short shrift. The families have no expectations of them; they have none for themselves. Their actions have no consequence, and they have no shame in seeing me first thing, day after day, if they come in at all.

A story: last week a parent called, an hour after school started, to let us know that her (eleven or twelve year old) child would be riding a bike to school, probably leaving home soon (mom wasn't there) and would take about 45 minutes. She asked that we make sure the child called upon arrival.

An hour and a half later, the child still hadn't shown up. The school's main secretary returned from a meeting, heard the situation, and informed me that up after the 45 minutes passed I should have considered it a case of a missing child. She immediately called the district's office of Safety and Security, asking them to send an officer to the student's house. I got on the phone and started calling people on the student's contact list. Mom didn't answer, so I left a message. On the third call I reached a grandparent who told me that the student had decided not to go to school and was at home with an older sibling. We eventually spoke with the actual student to confirm the story. Mom never did call us back.

So. I totally dropped the ball. I am extremely grateful that the child wasn't kidnapped or injured. But I question why in the world this is the school's responsibility? Sure, I can understand if a child was dropped off at school and we couldn't find him. But we had no control over when the student set out from home (or didn't in this case), nor could we know the route used to get to school. Heck, mom apparently anticipated that -- she allotted 45 minutes for a ride of less than a mile. In addition, if the parent was expecting a phone call, why wasn't SHE the one to raise the alarm after her deadline had passed? Finally, if she knew her child wasn't going to school after all, shouldn't she have let us know?

There is an entire industry of blame in our country predicated on holding teachers, administrators, and schools responsible for poorly educated students. As an eyewitness to the education process I have to ask, why are parents (and students) not also held accountable?

Traditionally, schools act in loco parentis -- in place of parents. Through the years the scope of those responsibilities have grown. Even before the bell rings staff provide food, shelter, discipline, and medical care to our students. I agree with most of those additions. However, as a parent I still consider my children to be in my custody until they get to the schoolhouse door, and I believe my responsibility for them and their actions never ceases, regardless of their location or company. I require my children to not just be present in school, but to attend. Their education is not just a right, but their personal responsibility. It seems to me that some parents are forgetting that.  Ultimately the school gets blamed for their poor performance, but really it's the parents who are failing their children.