Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Forgetting

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Pablo knocked at the door with a nervous twitch, fully prepared for the police to jump out of the adjacent apartment door and arrest him for his illicit act. Or what he was about to do. Or was it what he was about to buy? The laws on memory erasure drugs were as clear as waking up from a bender, and no less painful.

He pulled at his coat and rubbed the sweat off. Were his shoes, suede and leather Nikes, too out of place for the neighborhood? His coworker told him to dress down if he went through with going the building in the south end of town, past all the dive bars and all night bail bondsman shops. The hookers working the corner didn’t even take two looks at him as he walked by and buzzed the brownstone door.

A lazy feminine voice answered, “Forget your wallet?”

“Yeah, the brown one,” he recalled the coded answer, “with the baby pictures.”

He climbed the stairs, patting his wallet, free of baby photos, but full of cash on a disposable credit card.

He was about to knock again, but soft footsteps approached the door, and a chain rattled. A sliver of a face appeared through the ajar door, revealing a deep blue eye outlined with heavy eyeliner and a broad forehead that lead to black and bleach blonde streaks.

“I called about the lost wallet,” Pablo said, his Portuguese accent more pronounced with his rising blood pressure.

“Come in, come in,” she said, opening the door wider. She wore grey yoga pants and her breasts hung braless against the white tank top. “I’m Marie.”

Pablo exhaled, and committed himself to cross the threshold. A skyline picture of London, a generic poster of flowers hung in the sparsely decorated studio apartment. A strand of Christmas lights dangled around a doorway, unlit, and faint traces of teriyaki floated about.

“Take a seat. Pablo, right?” she said, disappearing below the unlit Christmas lights.

Still no cops. Were they hiding in the bathroom? He sat down on a deep orange leather recliner.

“Yes,” he paused and eyed the coffee table covered in a trio of celebrity magazines. He pulled out his wallet and removed the disposable credit card and placed atop the eyes of a young starlets face. That little blue piece of plastic was his ticket to forgetting. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”

She returned trailing a miniature cart about as tall and thin as she was. Pablo had seen these in emergency rooms that administered drugs in specific measurements.

“You’re welcome. I consider this my volunteering, helping people through rough patches,” she said pulling out a blood pressure cuff. She bent over and the scratchy peeling of velcro ripped through the room. “Mind if I roll your sleeve up—or better—could you take your coat off?”

Pablo nodded and removed his coat, placing it on his lap. She wrapped the cuff around his arm and pumped it full of air. Her eyes glanced between the gauge and the blue card on the table. The cuff deflated and she said, “Let me get you a glass of water to ease your nerves.”

Marie hung up the cuff and palmed the card in one motion before walking to the kitchen. A faucet sounded and Pablo refolded his coat and repositioned himself in the chair. She returned, arm outstretched with a glass of water. He half smiled a thank you and accepted the glass.

“Pablo, for this to work, you need to calm down. It’s understandable, you’re not the first, but to achieve the… results you want, you’ll need to relax.” She rubbed his shoulder and smiled. “Take a few breaths and visualize a peaceful setting. An image or place that calms you.”

He was here to forget those places that brought him peace, all the places he and Jamal visited together hand in hand. He gulped more water, and pictured a generic beach of smooth sand and a sunset painting the tides red and purple. Jamal hated beaches, and Pablo could not envision him there.

Marie worked at the cart. “This works in three parts, Pablo. Well four, but the first part is set up, where I place two prickly diodes on your temples and poke you to get the IV line going. Next, I’ll inject saline as a test to make sure your blood is circulating. That’ll make your mouth taste funny, but the next two parts—where I administer the Cerebrexum—the drug is a shot and a chaser. The shot will make you feel warm in your chest and then buzz your brain a little bit, and the chaser will knock you out.”

“Knock me out? Like sleep?” he asked, his eyes now open.

“Kind of. It’ll induce a deep REM state for about ten minutes, and then you’ll wake up,” she said, putting on gloves. She pulled out a sterile wipe and searched Pablo’s right arm for an obvious vein.

“Have you done this?”

“Before? You’re at least the twentieth person I’ve given Cerebrex—.”

“I mean, have you taken the drug?” he asked, tilting his head, searching her face.

“I have,” she stared back, resolute.

“Did it work?”

“Yes.” She poked the needle in the vein above his forearm. “I don’t recall having a father.”

He frowned, unable to hide his melancholy, but it sounded promising.

She shrugged as if this wasn’t the first time she had delivered the line. “The thing about Cerebrexum is, yeah, you forget, but you forget why you have things missing. Kind of like something at the tip of your tongue except it’s a shadow out of your mind you can’t recognize.” She swished her lips and tapped the machine, looking back at Pablo as she affixed the diodes to his head, “I have the line in. Are you ready? Are you sure you want to forget?”

He nodded, his eyes beginning to water at the thought of losing Jamal forever. The man he loved was dead, but Pablo’s memories of him caused him so much hurt already—a botched suicide and a constant fog induced by all those memories that rolled in at any sensation that was Jamal.

Marie patted his knee, “All right. Saline first.”

She pushed a button on the machine. Pablo’s arm grew cold as the saline flowed through his vein, and he could smell, taste something bitter and tangy in his mouth. The machine beeped, and he rolled his head. OK was lit in green letters.

“Here comes the first part of the drug, and this is the important part, picture what you want to forget.”

Pablo let the tears roll, and his arm now felt warm. His chest swelled inside as if a fire was lit in his heart. “Jamal,” he said, realizing it’d be the last time he’d say his name.

The fire dissolved but his head felt warm and pulsed as if he’d drank too much coffee.

Marie said in a whisper, “Think of Jamal.”

Pablo met Jamal at a New Year’s party their mutual friend Katelynn was throwing. Jamal, in a fit of irony wore a gold polyester shirt with his trademark black jeans, while Pablo wove through the crowd wearing glasses in the shape of the year they were celebrating. They ate oysters and drank cheap wine at a grimy bar by the harbor that reeked of fish and fried oil for their first date. Jamal’s lips still tasted of the vinegar sauce when they kissed for the first time as they stopped strolling down the wharf with seagulls drifting overhead. Pablo’s bed was a mess the first time they made love, and Jamal always teased him about making the bed, even on the morning Jamal died and breathed his last breath, surrendering to leukemia. They vacationed in Japan, staying in the country side eating rice balls and pickled vegetables with an elderly couple who took in travelers on holiday. In Chicago, they argued in a blizzard why it was a good idea to visit then. They cried together at the death of Pablo’s mother, holding hands in the front pew, in front of a priest and Jesus hanging from the cross. Coltrane played while they drove the English countryside in a rented Rolls Royce for Jamal’s fortieth birthday. Pablo stood silent, by Jamal’s side as he told all of their friends in their apartment that his leukemia wasn’t responding to treatment. Pablo fell to the ground as Jamal’s casket was lowered under a bright blue sky.

“Here’s the second half—.”

Euphoria surged through his arm and bloomed in his mind. He smiled wide, embracing Jamal in all his warmth, and fell asleep.

Pablo awoke to Marie checking his wrist. His ears rang, and his head felt like it had hit a brick wall. His mouth was dry and chalky, and the wires no longer threaded from his body. He remembered why he came here, to Marie, to forget something, but he wasn’t sure what.

“Welcome back,” she said, softly. “How are you feeling?”

He groaned, rubbing his face.

“Figures. Drink water for the next day or so, and eat a few good meals,” she said, handing him a bottle of water. “You remember your way home?”

“Yes, I live in the financial district. Can I hail a cab this time a night?” he asked, cracking open the water. He proceeded to drink half of it.

“I’ll call you one.” She stopped after standing up and held a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember Jamal?”

He looked up and winced at pounding in his head, “Who’s Jamal?”

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Rhymes

Detective Ryann Chilcot entered the interview room with a cup of water and set it in front of the main witness, Jane Doe, who still refused to give her real name. Jane stopped tapping her fingers, the nails painted bright blue with a pearled clear coat, clutched the cup in both hands and drank all the water in three gulps.

“Thirsty,” Ryann said, more as an observation than a question.

“Parched, like an empty sea,” Jane replied, resuming her finger tapping. The notes on her case file guessed she was mid to late twenties. She had blonde hair with lighter highlights, tan skin, and her mascara and eyeliner had started to smudge. Roy, the night desk sergeant put her in an orange jumper after she arrived in a cocktail dress soaked in blood.

“How are you feeling?” Ryann asked, taking a seat across the table.

“Fate’s sealing.”

Ryann looked to the grey tiles above, “Fate is above us?”

“Yes, but closing up.”

The “rhymes words” in the case notes now made sense. It was still early in her shift, and Ryann could put her mind through the gym of whatever word play her Jane Doe wanted to tumble at. Ryann was a twelve year veteran of the force, and had recently returned from maternity leave. She surrendered to the path of least resistance and got a short cropped mom hair cut, so she wouldn’t have put time into the extra shampoo, conditioner, brushing. Her slacks and blouse stretched and bunched up in awkward places thanks to the remaining pregnancy weight she still hadn’t jogged off during her evening runs. As a first time mom, pumping breast milk took priority.

Ryann took the cup back, “Can I get you another?”

“Yes, please, mother.”

Ryann held her breath and rolled her jaw. Was Jane aware that Ryann was a new mother or was it part of her verbal speech habit? “I’ll get you another glass in a minute, but I have a few questions for you first. Can I ask a few questions?”

“Yes, yes, minus suggestions.”

Her voice wavered between breaths to let out a rhythm to her words.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Mary, a dame of no fame.”

“Mary, can you tell me why you arrived here covered in blood?”

“Like I told the others, a man I was with was an emotional flood.” Her eyes looked up and blinked. She brushed her hair back behind her ears to reveal a pair of ruby stud earrings.

“And what does that mean, an emotional flood. Tell me in your own words what that means.”

“If I tell you, will you let me go? I’d like to go home and put on jeans. Comfy jeans, or comfy sweats and snack on pretzels with my dog, Beans.”

Ryann leaned forward and mimicked Mary’s hair gesture, except Ryann didn’t have any expensive earrings to reveal. “I’ll see to it you can go home to your pup.”

“He’s a good doggo, always knows what’s up. Okay, see, last night was supposed to be a delight with dinner so expensive they kept candles for light, but instead the man, my date, insisted on dinner in, with room service and gin. He always drank gin, it made his cheeks red and gave him a sloppy grin. But I didn’t mind, so long as he paid me in kind, enough so I could cover my rent and not put me in a bind.”

Ryann remained leaning forward, wondering if this young woman was highly functioning on the spectrum. She let Mary continue with her verbal prose.

“He asked me a lot of inquiries, and I always answered true, but he got angry and summoned furies. He shouted and yelled, and twisted my arms and my legs befelled, I said he was hurting me and in his eyes there was a rage I could see. He shoved me near the hotel food cart, and I stumbled and saw my part. I clasped the steak knife and swung and slashed at my strife, thinking goddamn I deserve my life.”

Mary’s eyes searched the table and the rest of her face remained expressionless.

“I left the room, knowing my doom, but I doth protest, innocence in my defense!”

Ryann leaned back and glanced at the two way mirror and the camera in the corner of the room and let out a sigh. She’d order copies of the forensics report and ask about reports of a dead male with stab wounds in a hotel. Those don’t stay quiet long, and in fact attract the press quickly.

Ryann stood and Mary kept her head bowed watching her tapping fingers.

“Mary, I’ll go get you another cup of water.”

“Okay. And when you come back, can you give me a hug, like you give your daughter?”

Ryann froze and her eyes sharpened on Mary. How could she know that? Rather than giving in to curiosity, she stepped out of the room to fetch the water and to ruminate on her next line of questioning.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – The Ward

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Without having my first cup of coffee, I answered the chime of the door bell to greet my neighbor Blaine, who appeared too chipper for 8:45 on a Saturday morning. He was holding a brown pot in his arms. Or maybe it was an urn.

“Les, g’morn,” he said, his Welsh accent slipping through. His usually crisp clothes were wrinkled.

“Good morning, Blaine. What’s up?” I asked, still raw with sleep, half distracted by the brewing pot of coffee in my kitchen.

“May I come in?” His fingers tapped the pot he cradled while his face made an apologetic smile. “It’s a bit urgent.”

We were friendly neighbors. We grilled out on each others patios, shared beers, and socialized with our significant others over board games in our respective urban row houses. We’ve known each other for years, and even when I helped him get the keys out of his locked car, his demeanor was cool. This morning, however, his feet shuffled and his hands moved as if he couldn’t shake the nerves out. My girlfriend Ginny still slept, but I looked over my shoulder and the bedroom door was shut.

“Come in, sure. Everything okay?” I said, stepping aside.

He entered briskly and placed the pot on my kitchen table, brushing aside the stack of mail I had yet to open. “Truthfully, no. Honestly, I hope it will be. You haven’t seen anything odd yet today have you?” His words were quick.

I closed the door, but not before glancing up and down the street. Only parked cars covered in leaves sat outside. I approached the table chewing my lip, “Just woke up, so I haven’t had a chance to notice anything.” The coffee pot stopped gurgling. “You want a cup of coffee, tell me what’s up?”

“Darkness. I mean, a cup of black coffee would be great, and I don’t want to cause you any alarm, but some bad stuff is going to happen soon,” he said pulling small canvas baggies out of the pot, along with a set of three candles.

I waited for him to explain his coy sentence. When no further thoughts came, I asked while pouring our coffee, “What kind of bad stuff? Rain? Some hail? It is the time of year we get those bad storms.”

He spread out his items as if to double check he brought everything. He exhaled and leaned against the table, “You know that I’m a pagan, right?”

“I guess. What you do or believe is your business.” This was too much of a conversation for too early in the day for me to process. I knew he and his partner were into occult or wiccan interests, but I never really pried. I figured it was something they brought with them when they crossed the pond, as they often joked, keeping some of the old world mythos with them. They rooted for the White Sox as opposed to the Cubs and drank cabernet instead of Old Style, but I never questioned who they were. I handed him a mug.

He took a sip and stared directly at me, “I’m what’s considered a ward. I look after a particular area. My area happens to be north side Chicago.”

“Do you walk the streets with a wand or something?”

“No.” He took a longer sip. It was piping hot, and I’m not sure how he hadn’t scalded his tongue. “I do make rounds, checking parts of the city, talking with people, things, creatures.”

“Things?” It would have been rude to break out the whiskey and pour some in my cup.

“More like checking energy levels of landmarks.”

“Huh.” I leaned back against a counter. I refrained from asking about the energy level of the Bean in Millennium Park.

“I ensure the welfare of the area and see to it—.”

A shriek shot out from my bedroom followed by a series of thumps. The coffee singed my hand as I banged the mug down and bolted towards what had to be Ginny, still yelling. Blaine followed and we met Ginny, who wore one of my old Northwestern t-shirts that looked like a mini dress on her figure, mid way down the hall. Her face was pale and her eyes were wide, and I hugged her at the waist, pulling her close.

She spat out words in between ragged breaths. “Went to bathroom… saw an ugly red and black thing… it jumped… I ran…,” she paused, “Blaine?”

She pulled at the t-shirt to cover more of her legs.

“Ginny. G’morn,” Blaine said.

I turned to him and said in my best keeping-my-shit-together voice, “Is this what you were talking about?”

“Possibly. I won’t know until I see the creature.”

“Creature? What?” Ginny said, her hands digging into my waist. “Les, what’s going on?”

“Blaine was in the middle of explaining it a minute ago,” I said, attempting to loosen her grip, pinching at my waist. “Blaine?”

“I’m a warlock, and a ward of North Chicago. I received a… message that an event was to occur in the vicinity sometime this morning.”

“A parade is an event. A Cubs night game is an event. A creature in the bathroom when I want to pee is a nightmare,” Ginny said her brows wrinkled at the bridge of her nose.

Blaine raised his hands in front of him, “I’ll take care of it,” and he turned back to the kitchen.

I kissed Ginny on the forehead and guided her into the office where I knew a spare blanket draped over my desk chair. Blaine brushed back by, and I said to her while wrapping the blanket around her waist, “He probably doesn’t need it, but I should see if he needs help.”

She frowned and shook her head, but I left and entered the master bedroom, where Blaine knelt in the door frame to the bathroom. He was pouring powders into his brown pot, shaking it, and chanting words I could only surmise as Latin. Beyond him, a red and black scaled creature sauntered along the counter. It walked on two stubby feet, and its body wasn’t any larger than an average house cat, but four arms sprouted from it. Atop the longest was a blue, glassy orb with a floating black disk. Judging by its movement, it had to be its eye. At the end of another arm were claw-like prongs with an opening of yellow, brackish teeth like a shark in its palm. Its two other arms were freely tossing and hurling any bottle or tube it touched.

“Holy shit,” was all I could muster.

Blaine held up a hand as if to silence me. He spoke the Latin louder, and the creature paused. It’s blue orb of an eye lowered and peered at Blaine, who tilted the jar towards the creature. It hopped off the sink and its leather feet smacked the tile. Its toothy mouth hissed, while the eye inspected the pot. It stepped closer and I could smell bitter charcoal emanating from it. Brimstone? It clawed at the inside of the pot and Blaine swung his free hand around and shoved the creature in the pot, swooped up the lid with the other and sealed the creature inside.

The pot rattled from within and settled, and I plopped down on the edge of the unmade bed. “WHAT. Just. Happened?”

“You know how they say ‘all hell broke loose?’ Kind of like that, but with the realm of those creatures. One of them got loose.” He said this as if it were a regular thing, like birds fly or dogs bark.

“How often does this occur? Was it dangerous? Would it have hurt Ginny?”

“Not very often, and Ginny could have given it a swift kick and it would have left her alone.”

“Are we good now?”

He nodded his head side to side, “For now.”

I mouthed the words, got up, and went to search for a bottle of whiskey to pour into my coffee.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – My Bag

My bag. Always got to bring it with me in case I got to kill demons. Because you never know when a spawn of hell is walking down the street thinking they can’t be seen by gifted eyes like mine, and then I gut them in broad daylight on a side walk with my sharp little friends.

Only had to do that once. Shame the little girl had to see her dad go like that in Tampa, but I did the right thing freeing her of whatever that bastard might have been doing to her.

I’ve been doing this for three years now, ever since I got off the meds. The cocktail of drugs I took did something to me to now see the little bastards. First time it happened, I was at a grocery store, and fat blonde behind the fish counter showed her real face to me, all black and red with golden slits for eyes. I nearly ripped off the handle of the cart my hands shook so bad.

I’m ashamed to say I ran away, sweating and hyperventilating all the way to my bus stop, where I took time to collect myself on the bench. I sat there letting my rides go by while I processed what I saw. Was she the only one? If there was one, there had to be more. Things that horrible looking had to do bad things in this world.

I resolved I had to kill her. It.

It was messy, I won’t lie, killing the first one. I strolled back to the store, keeping my cool and my breathing under control, and swung back by the counter. She was still there, helping an older gentleman pick out some salmon. Her face flickered to her real face, and that sealed the deal, sold me on what I had to do.

I left and waited in the parking lot, sitting by some bushes. Luckily, it wasn’t well lit and her car was parked under a broken light. She was heavy and strong, so when I grabbed her she flung me to the ground, I wasn’t expecting so much fight in her. I bounced up and clutched her jacket collar, yanking her to the ground. I rolled on top of her chest and muffled her screams. I swear she grew stronger, I strained my arms deflect hers while I beat her skull on the concrete. Her body eventually went limp, and I no longer felt air pass through her lips, and her face no longer resembled a demon.

I got up, walked away amped. I did something good. Something when I was on the pills couldn’t do.

That night, I went home and put a bag together. The bag was a worn leather satchel, a man purse, they say, with enough room for three knives of different length, a pocket bible, and holy water I stole from the church’s baptismal font and bottled.

And I always carry my bag with me. So if you see me walking down the street, I’m prepared like a demon killing Boy Scout.

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Personal Projects

Short story Sunday – Holliday Parade

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Gerald leaned against the vanity in the dressing room tapping a black marker on the counter to a beat inside his head. Bottles of beer, water and liquor in various levels of emptiness lined the counter. Someone had left a lipstick stained cigarette in the soap tray. There was no soap.

He stared at the blank sheet of paper, hoping each tap of the marker would write out the setlist for the last show of the tour, the last show of his band’s career.

Forty cities in two and a half months spinning a web of roads in its path from the east coast in Boston to here, in Vancouver. He, Mack, and JJ rode comfortably in a full size road bus. The label splurged at Gerald’s behest, after he argued that the sales of the box set and sell out venues afforded their arthritic fifty something bodies a better ride than a camper van with extra cup holders.

A knock knock rapped at the door, and Mack and JJ strode in. Each wore their hair short, and in JJ’s case, what was left of it. He sat on the chair and crossed his leg to pick at his boot and the fraying hems of his jeans. Mack took a swig of beer and sat down on the couch. His sleeveless shirt bared his tattooed sleeve arms that showed wire and rope intertwined with roses and women in traditional day of the dead garb.

“Got it done yet, Ger?” JJ asked without looking up.

Gerald still tapped the marker, “Still working on it.”

“Lou needs it,” JJ said of the sound engineer working the board that night.

“We sound checked a bunch of our shit, even Holliday Parade, man,” Mack said. He took another swig of beer. “We haven’t played that in years.”

“A decade,” Gerald replied.

“Holli would appreciate it, Ger,” JJ said. “Ten years is a long time for someone to have been gone. The fans will eat it up, especially the die hards.”

Gerald turned. He flipped the marker through his fingers. “They would, wouldn’t they,” he gave a weak smile, “I don’t know why I suggested it… I’m not sure I could get through the song.”

“Look,” Mack leaned forward, pointing the beer bottle at Gerald, “I get it. It’s our last show, ever. Holli… was your rock when we started out and got big. When she died—.”

“Murdered.”

Mack exhaled, “Right, it hit us all. Holliday was our first hit.”

“We should play it. We need to play it,” JJ said, looking up.

“It’ll be like closure. For us, the band. You, and her,” Mack said.

“You saw me, heard me struggle with the vocals during sound check. I kept cracking, pitching, losing the melody. I don’t want to fuck this up. I mean, for you guys, especially. Tonight’s every bit as your’s as it is mine.” He stopped spinning the marker.

JJ and Mack each stood up and approached Gerald. Mack set the beer down and put his sweaty hand on Gerald’s shoulder. “I push and drag the drums all the time and JJ still has yet to strangle me with a bass string. You drop lyrics all the time, the fan boards treat it as a running joke. And we’re still a band.”

JJ gripped Gerald’s other shoulder, “Yep.”

“We got you, Ger,” Mack said playfully shaking Gerald’s shoulder.

The door cracked open and Lou stuck his head in. His hair was pulled back into a messy bun. “The opener just wrapped up. I need the set list. Your guitar techs are getting antsy, too.”

All three men turned their heads, but Gerald spoke. “Give us ten minutes. I’ll write it up.”

Lou returned a grin and thumbs up and closed the door.

Gerald began to spin the marker again and twisted his lips. “How long you guys want to play?”

“Let’s close this place down,” JJ said with a growl and clapped.

“Fuck yeah,” Mack yelled.

Gerald laughed under his breath, “All right.”

“Put the Buddy Holly cover on there, too.”

Gerald turned and pulled the cap off the marker, and began to scrawl on the paper. They’d open with Holliday Parade.

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Short Story Sunday – Summon

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Yellow and orange sparks hissed, burning the coiled fuse Bo lit. In thirty seconds the rocket would ascend to the stars above, explode, and signal to the gods to heed their call. He hoped the fuse was long enough for him to rejoin Mai and Kan kneeling on the prayer rug at the edge of the dune. And he prayed the burst would be seen. The village depended on it.

Bo beat his bare feet on the sand, looking over his shoulder at the rocket. Mai and Kan held their arms out, ready to catch him. He slid short of the rug and kicked up sand.

Mai balked in a shrill voice, batting away the sand, “Don’t dirty the rug, idiot.”

“Quiet!” Kan pulled at Bo and pushed at Mai. “It’s about to—.”

The rocket erupted with a white tail and arced steeply to the moonless sky above.

All three teenagers followed the ascent, raising their necks, holding their breath, eyes wide. They had packed the tube full of blessed minerals and powders they had stolen from the village doctor. Bo had pages of his book listing the words they needed to chant in hymns of a language they did not speak. Their village needed help, a reprieve from the lack of food the sea provided them in recent months.

They lost the tail of the rocket, and it boomed, casting a bloom of crackling, fluttering petals in shades of rubies, emeralds and sapphires. The petals rained down over the ocean, lighting the shoals as they fell.

“It worked!” Kan jumped up and raised his fists in the air. “Our letters will be heard!”

“Maybe, not yet,” Bo said, muted, still tracking the rocket’s fall out.

“When will we know?” Mai asked.

“The book said when the ashes land in the sea and then they will walk ashore,” Bo said.

The flickering embers of the rocket continued to fall, bright and soft, lasting much longer than the fireworks they shot off during the new year. As they landed in the water, the embers stayed lit, floating like leaves on the water, but luminescent. Each color pooled, growing brighter and brighter, and each teenager needed to squint as they looked to the sea. The waves had ceased lapping the beach, and the salty air stood still around them.

An explosion of murky red cracked the silence, sending a fountain of water in the air. A blue and green eruption followed and they each stood with their mouths wide open.

“I think it’s working,” Kan whispered. “They’ll come now.”

“And we can ask them to provide for our people,” Mai said.

The foam of the water’s surface dissolved, the red, blue and green fading to the waters black.

A huff and a gasp of someone in a hurry encroached their prayer rug on the dune. The old mystic’s head appeared as he climbed over, his fists clutching sand and his face mixed with exhaustion and anger. “Foolish, foolish children,” he said.

Bo, Mai, and Kan turned, surprised to see the man rushing down towards them.

“Mr. Tran—.” Bo said.

“Quiet!”

“—We were—.” Bo continued, but Mr. Tran strode between he and Mai without looking them in the eye.

“I do not care for your intentions,” Mr. Tran said quick and harsh. He marched, shoulders forward to the water’s edge and stopped, planting his feet in the wet sand. The waves had not resumed their approach to the shore.

Three dark figures broke the water’s surface one by one. Each cut through the water with a distinct motion, and their figures became more discernible as they approached. The bulbous head of an octopus bobbed up and down while its arms propelled it forward. In the middle of the three, a turtle whose shell was larger than a house, glided along with the glint of his eyes focused on Mr. Tran. Farthest away, due to its zigging and zagging, a shark fin sliced through the water.

“What… what, are those the gods?” Bo said, his hands covering his mouth.

“We should go to Mr. Tran,” Mai said.

As if he had heard, Mr. Tran held his arm back to signal stop.

“But we called them,” she said.

Mr. Tran turned at his waist and mouth, “No.”

He turned back to the gods who stood before him. The shark floated in place, and the turtle’s wrinkled head rose above the surface, but the octopus towered taller than their temple’s spire. He began to speak in a language they’d never heard. His vowels were short, and his tongue clicked, and he gestured emphatically with his arms, pointing to the village and to the teenagers. He finished and bowed his head.

The octopus swung an arm across the water and pulled it back across, sending a wall of water over Mr. Tran’s head. It soaked him, but he remained still, holding his head in reverence. The gods slowly pivoted and receded to the sea, their figures dissolving below the surface.

Mr. Tran walked back to the dune, his body relaxed, but his face weary with a blank expression. “You three were lucky. Spared.”

“We—” Kan said.

Mr. Tran gripped Kan’s shoulder, “Almost started a war.”

“War?” Bo asked, the word surprised him.

“Against who, I do not know. You summoned them, that flare, was a war cry. And they would have taken each of you as a host to walk on the land.” He paused. “When they were done with your bodies, you would be as hollow as an empty conch.”

“Our village though, we need food,” Bo said protesting.

“We have enough, not plenty, but enough,” Mr. Tran replied. “We only summon the gods when it is absolutely necessary, and when we can sacrifice in kind.” He paused and looked at each of them. “It is not time for a sacrifice.”

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Short Story Sunday – In Need of Truth

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Chelsea slid into the seat of her BMW and dropped her coffee tumbler in the cup holder. Stray blobs of brown escaped and jumped on the gearshift. She cursed and wiped it off as she set her Birkin bag on the passenger seat. She started the car, fiddled with her rear view, making a note to talk to her husband about taking her car for a drive and forgetting to adjust the seat back to how she liked it. It was all about respect, and if you can’t respect the small things, how are you to respect the larger things?

Like, while she dressed in her slate grey Gucci dress, the radio station reported the president’s latest statements on the most recent congressional bill. It was bland and mealy mouthed, coded language to his supporters of his hidden agenda to submit the country to foreign interests. The man had no respect for liberties and constantly enabled division. All the experts she listened to on television confirmed it. One handed, while slipping on matching Kate Spade heels, she dashed of a 140 character screed with an emphatic hashtag of FREEDOM to her 234 followers. Most of them would agree, and she clucked her tongue at how right she was.

She flicked her blinker to turn right and rolled through the stop sign to pull out into traffic. A horn bleated and she raised her left hand, signaling a reply with her middle finger. Just another morning drive jackass. She flipped the radio on to her favorite station, where she caught the start of the morning portion of one of the few sane commentators talking about the truth in the world. In the rear view, she noticed her lack of mascara, blinked, and reached in her purse for a thin tube to pull out and brush her lashes as she drove.

Chelsea came to a stop at a light, batted her eyes twice, and put the makeup away. She sipped her coffee and checked her phone. She already had likes and retweets of her earlier message, but she also spotted a random reply from someone she didn’t know. The profile picture was that of a tree, and in a glib sentence called into question what she wrote, stating the opposite of what she believed.

She sucked in her bottom lip and huffed. What she believed was true! You can’t trust experts and their opinions. They have agendas. Agendas to further take away our freedoms, our liberties, our way of life. Didn’t this person know that? A horn honked behind her, and she gripped the steering wheel and accelerated through the intersection. Once she parked, she resolved, she’d respond with facts linking to the radio commentators website, not the newspaper. You couldn’t trust them either with the truth. It seemed like they were in cahoots with the president, writing lies and getting paid to do so. Everything was in decline. Schools, communities, roads, families—ever since that horrible man became president. All those staged photo ops and pithy speeches at funerals did little for unity.

But Chelsea knew unity. She fixed relationships in little children as a child counselor at an elementary school. She took it upon herself to make sure the children didn’t believe in their country’s leader.

She pulled into the school’s parking lot, parked, and replied to the person with the tree picture, calling him a traitor for believing that, and linked to a real source of truth. They were in need of it, unlike herself.

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Short Story Sunday – What is Known

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When rumors of a truce wound their way through the stone hallways, we imagined what freedom would be like once we climbed to the surface. Sun or stars above, some said they didn’t care so long as grass grew at their feet. Or space, wide open space, wider than three men across, so wide only distant mountains and the disappearing horizon enclosed us. For those of us, like myself, who had only ever known our stone city below the surface, possibility was intoxicating as it was foreign.

Foreign enemies we only heard stories about bombarded our home above ground. If we hadn’t lived there for over a decade, was the land still ours to till? Periodically, booms reverberated like a war drum beating a constant rhythm of fear into our daily lives. Why? Our land was there’s they claimed. Our elders cried back that we were in the way of conquest. We refused to be fate to their proclamations of destiny.

But could freedom and peace be destiny for us?

Living in an underground cavern city where our streets are carved hallways and our rooms are hollowed our nooks, anything beyond the stone confines should be. What peace is there with ten thousand people’s voices to forget what silence is? What freedom is there when by the time you’re five you can walk your entire city with your eyes closed, or in the dark when we extinguished our torches when an invader snuck below?

I never saw the body, but torn pieces of his dirty tunics and his bloody silver knives were held up in the great hall and made an example. A real threat, a scourge, the council shouted. They come for our lives, and we refuse to give them.

But the intruder did steal two lives before his own was claimed.

Theft is the only sin we were told. A lie was theft of truth. Stealing was theft of property. Rape was theft of dignity. Murder was theft of life. Being forced to live in a city that never knows the color of the sky was theft of freedom.

And today was the day when we’d venture above ground.

The old women said they’d fall to their knees and kiss it. The old men said they’d tend to it for the crops. The parents said they’d run and play with their children, aches and pain be damned.

I waited with my family in the ascension room. It was as large as a grain store, but a ladder made of cedar and twine rose from the dirt floor of our ground to the ground above our heads. The line moved slow. We weren’t the first family to go, but we weren’t the last. I expected to hear shouts once people reached the surface, but instead the slapping of hands and feet and the occasional groan as someone climbed.

Our turn came, and my father went ahead. I swallowed and flexed my hands, which were sweating. He reached the top, and my mother nudged me forward. The wood bars were warm and wide enough for my sandals to feel secure enough keep my weight even. Below wide eyes and smiles followed me up, and my mother nodded as she gripped the bars. Above was a shade of blue I’d only seen in jewelry worn by the women on the council. A breeze of outside air scraped my wrists and touched my cheek.

At the last rung, I threw my arm out and clutched hard dirt. I pushed myself up and saw why I heard only silence.

The adults were bent over on their knees with sack cloths over their heads, while the children were carried away by masked men in brown tunics, gagging the children’s mouth. All around us stood a grayish red wall, twice as high as the walls of our city below.

A hand that smelled harsh and acidic smacked over my lips, while another arm wrapped around my chest and knocked the air out with two quick pumps.

Either our leaders were tricked, or they surrendered, but in the grip of that man, this was not freedom. This was prison.

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Sunday Short Story – A Librarian Conducts an Orchestra

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Our feet tread down the empty hallway lined with red lockers. Principal Wabash’s heals clicked at the beat of the metronome in my head while Kent, the janitor’s scruffed tennis shoes squeaked out of rhythm. My beating heart provided the percussion.

Wabashed is what we called her. She arrived loud to to any social setting breaking it of any harmony, whether it be by her shoes, always designer, or prim cut power dresses, or how her dyed black helmet hair bob became the most distracting wreaking ball on a pair of shoulders. Her words swung regardless of their impact. How she became a leader of a suburban high school may have been one of demolition.

And now she led Kent, who carried a set of bolt cutters, with me in tow as an unwilling bystander, to demolish the lock on my locker. We stopped three quarters of the way down the hall. She huffed and cocked an eye at Kent, who stood lazily with his gaze at the floor.

“Fiona, one last chance to do this voluntarily and you’ll only receive a minor detention,” Wabashed said. “I’ll see to it the counselors can help minimize this for college applications.”

A threat with a favor. A snake holding its own anti venom.

I glanced at my watch. Five minutes until the changing bell. She had attempted to extract me at the beginning of the period, but Mr. Lowery, the band instructor deflected her requests stating today was the day of an important rehearsal of an exam on pentatonic scales. Thirty two years of waving a baton, wearing sweaters, and watching each new principal enact their own form of bureaucracy made him immune to administrative theater and made him attuned to his students. He nodded to me as he took the podium, knowing she’d return with even more force.

He knew I stowed banned books in my locker. He recommended Kerouac and Ginsberg as much as he talked about Mahler and Mozart. “Art is a weapon to small minds and a tool to greater minds,” he told me when rumors of the book crackdown began. “Use those tools wisely.”

Despite preparing for this moment, rehearsing what I’d say in my head with whatever mental notes of rhetoric composed as a score for my argument, I lost the sheet music and felt like I was going to throw up all over Wabashed’s emerald leather heals. “There’s nothing in my locker,” I said, keeping lunch in my stomach.

“Lying makes this worse, Fiona,” she raised her voice on the last syllable of my name.

“It’s the truth. There’s nothing in my locker for you to find.”

“Those books are restricted—.”

“Banned—.”

“—Do not interrupt me. Restricted because they are not appropriate.”

My mouth was dry and I swallowed nothing, not even my meek sense of pride, “When are they appropriate? And by who?”

“Parents concerned for the welfare of their children. That’s who. You’re simply not ready to deal with the weight of those issues.”

“Then teach us how. How to be responsible and deal with them.”

Her lips puckered, and she turned to Kent, who stared at the ceiling. “Kent, open the locker.”

He looked at me. I couldn’t tell if it was pity for me or annoyance at her.

“Don’t look at Fiona for approval. Open the locker.”

“Okay, okay,” he said with a hushed voice. He raised the bolt cutters and steadied his feet and squared his shoulders to get leverage. The steel loop of the lock jangled at the arrival of the pincers come to cut it loose. Kent grimaced and grunted, but the loop snapped with two brute squeezes of the cutters.

A flicker of a half smile revealed Wabashed’s zeal, but she composed herself and with a twist of her wrist clutched the lock and removed it. With her other hand she pushed the lever and swung the locker open.

“Where are the books, Fiona,” she said both syllables of my name with a shout that startled Kent as she saw my empty beige locker.

I shrugged. “Everywhere else.”

“They can’t be,” she said with a curled lip. “I know you’ve been distributing these dirty books.”

The passing bell rang like a shrill final note, and an applause of student footsteps began to pour into the hallway. A brown haired skater boy stopped and handed Wabashed a piece of paper. I grinned. My bandmates had gotten word out via texts and snaps.

“Here, Principal Wabash,” he said.

“What is this?” she asked with a sneer.

“A piece of paper I need to turn in.”

She scanned it. “This is a page from Catcher In the Rye…”

He walked off and another student, a blonde haired girl with glasses and a round face. She did the same as the skater but with a page from The Giver. As the hall became abnormally flooded with students, more and more stopped at my locker and handed Wabashed sheet after sheet of paper. It reached a shuffling, rustling crescendo when she grew tired of stuffing them under her arm and shoved the stack into my locker.

With Kent as witness to nothing in my locker, my parents were able to argue all the way to the school board that I had done nothing wrong, despite conducting orchestrated civil disobedience.

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Short Story Sunday – Funeral Pyre

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Under a waning, summer half moon, we lit the funeral pyre with an oil soaked torch. Walla, Menor, and myself tossed them to the rising flames and receded to the living shadows of our people gathered by the spirit doctor. Beyond us stood the Tomb Forest, a maze of thick trunks and mossy earth, and a canopy so dense, the sun never broke its boughs.

Our dead lay at the bottom, wrapped in shawls of their family’s colors. Walla’s father wore sapphire and cream diamonds, Menor’s grandfather wore gold and emerald stripes, while my father was draped in scarlet and black check. They each died two days ago fending off a swell of vipers on horseback, cross men who desired a little more than what their king provided them, and sought it by stealing from our village.

Theft receives death, and the three knights were killed. Two by our own and a third by the sheriff upon hearing of the incident. The king sent his condolences by letter, and we placed them in the pyre, too.

Eloe, the spirit doctor took two slow paces towards the fire and spread his arms wide and his hands cupped the air. His silhouette with his cloak made him look like a dove standing on two feet, with its wings coaxing the embers higher and higher.

Walla held her face steadfast, and the flames gleamed in her eyes and against the tears. An only child, she shouldered the pelts of her father, which swallowed her in the dark. No doubt her hands were balled in fists. Menor bit his lip and closed his eyes tight. His chest heaved under his grandfather’s milliner’s cloaks. I watched the flames engulf more of the pyre and held my hands behind my back. My family tended the fields, and our garb was worn threads patched over several harvests.

Eloe began chanting at the first loud crack of wood. The pyre shook and his voice undulated through a range of high notes. With each measure, he repeated it at a lower voice and swung his arms upwards. By the fifth cycle of chants, his voice bellowed, and the fire had now taken a deep red almost purple tint. Wisps of white and orange flickered at the tips, but the core of the pyre looked like a burning bruise across flesh.

At the sixth cycle, he thrusts his hands by his side, dropped to his knees and shrieked the chant. Several in the crowd startled. Walla narrowed her eyes and Menor opened his just as the fire exploded in a fury of white flames. We all stood and bore the brunt of the heat. How Walla did not pass out under her father’s pelts I’ll never know, but her face was drenched in sweat.

Within the larger white flame, three smaller ones formed: bright blue and off white, solid yellow with green flecks, and red with black shades. The colored flames grew to ethereal outlines of men.

“Papa,” Walla whispered. “Papa.”

Elow approached the pyre. He waved his hand through the flames as if he were stroking the waters surface. He stepped back and bowed his head to each colored flame, and then spoke with a deep reverence, “Go find respite and peace in the forest. Your kin shall honor you and complete the work you had left to do.”

He turned and walked towards us, his head bowed, and his folded in his sleeves. No scorch marks marked his cloak.

The three flames separated from the pyre and walked towards the forests. At the tree line the black depths of the forests, welcomed them to their tomb and extinguished their light.

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