Story #53 – The Meteorite

“No more Vacancies!” Jeremiah said without looking up when he heard the bell over the office door jingle dingle. “And I’m closing up for the night.”

“But we have a reservation,” came a timid girlish voice. “We made it a week ago.”

Jeremiah looked up to see that ‘we’ was a young black woman and her tall blonde girlfriend. The tall one was wearing the type of sunglasses people his age wore. They were excessively dark and covered half of her face. Below them, her lips were pressed together as if she were fighting not to say something dreadfully important. She had her hands shoved into the pockets of her impossibly tight blue jeans.

The black girl stepped up to the counter and stood on her tippy toes to meet Jeremiah’s gaze. “We couldn’t miss this!” she added and her blonde friend nodded her assent.

Jeremiah scratched the stubble on his chin. He looked behind him and confirmed silently that he had given over all the keys. Indeed, since the thing fell from the sky he could barely keep a room open for more than a few hours. He had even hired a second maid–himself being the first maid–to help keep things running smoothly with the continuous glut of customers.

“And how did you make it?” Jeremiah asked.

“Well, your website was down, so Krystal here called and spoke to you.”

Krystal nodded. She must have used up her monthly quota of words to make the reservation.

“Phone, eh?” Jeremiah mulled as he flipped through his notepad. He didn’t get many phone calls these days. People seemed to prefer to conduct business online which he didn’t mind since it gave him more time for his tv-program binging. Still, he didn’t remember receiving a call a week ago.

“I don’t think–”

But then he saw it, Amber Butler reservation for two, written in his own tiny knotted cursive. He had the type of handwriting a drunk arthritic doctor might have. It was unmistakable. He paused and scrutinized the note he didn’t remember taking as if it were in hieroglyphs. It was always off-putting to encounter tangible evidence of one’s own impending dementia.

“You found it?” The black girl asked, smiling with relief.

“You’re Amber?”

“Amber Butler! Yes sir!”

“I guess I did,” Jeremiah sighed. “However, somehow this didn’t make it into the actual calendar.” He paused, hoping it might sink in and that the girls might disappear. They didn’t.

“Oh,” she said, staring at him with eyes like saucers. “Shit. What should we do?” Her friend slouched and kicked at the threadbare carpet.

Jeremiah was startled at how well they were taking it. It was, after all, his fault that they were currently without lodging. He clicked through the calendar on his IBM.

“I have a room for tomorrow night! I assure you the meteor will still be here.”

Amber leaned in and propped her elbows on the counter.

“But we need somewhere to stay tonight,” she said. “We came all the way from SLC.”

Salt Lake was a ten hour drive south of his motel and the shit township that stole his taxes every year. It was at least an hour drive to any other hotels. His ranch was secluded, which had almost killed it until the space rock fell in the woods behind the building. Now people were flocking to spend a night so they could get a look at the strange light it radiated at night and to hear the ethereal humming it emitted during the day and to run their hands over it and pray and make wishes and cry.

“Salt Lake City, huh? That’s a long drive!”

The tall girl nodded slowly. Her hands were still stuffed in her Jean pockets. Jeremiah imagined them as wads of balled-up skin and bone dried up like owl pellets. The strange image surprised him.

“You sure there’s nothing for us? I really don’t feel safe sleeping in the car again.”

Jeremiah looked at her and her friend and imagined them sleeping in their car. He had a niece their age and he would never want her to have to do that.

“I have a small cot in my apartment. You could share it I suppose, or one of you could sleep on the couch.”

Amber suddenly looked so happy she might explode. Her friend even smiled. She had perfectly white perfectly straight teeth like the grill of an ancient car from another dimension.

“Really!?” Amber bounced back from the counter and did a little spin. “That would be so great!”

“Don’t get too excited!” Jeremiah chuckled. “It’s just an efficiency and I’ll still have to charge you for parking.”

“Oh that’s fine! Thank you Thank you Thank you!”

“Lock that door behind you, if you would.”

Krystal engaged the bolt.

He lifted the hinged part of the counter and the girls ducked in. He waved them toward the back and led the way. The room was pretty much as he described it. There was a sparsely furnished kitchen / living room area and then a small bathroom directly adjacent and then the door to his small bedroom.

As they silently followed him in, he realized that they were the first guests he’d had there in many years. Suddenly much of the maculation was more apparent. Coffee stains mottled his couch. Crumbs were scattered across his coffee table. Dirty glasses hid in the shadows. In the sallow lamp light he noticed that the TV, aside from its nobs and switches, was covered in a film of dust.

The girls didn’t seem to notice, though. Amber strolled in and bounced onto the couch. Jeremiah grabbed a few of the dirty glasses and carried them to the kitchen sink, clinking them down and rinsing them out.

“This is great! This is perfect! Isn’t it, Krystal?”

Krystal smiled and walked over to the window. Outside a green glow filled the forest.

“You see Krys here really needs to see your rock tomorrow. It’s been visiting her in her dreams. She thinks it has something to tell her.”

Jeremiah had been having strange dreams lately too. In his dreams he was an ant carrying a chunk of hard candy past giant rocks and stalks of green. He passed other ants heading in the opposite direction, their antennae flitting at unseen electricity. Suddenly he plunged into darkness and was tunneling underground, clambering over other ants in the gloom. The sound of insect legs was a manic scuffling. He could taste the sugar melting in his mandible. Somewhere below him in the twist of tunnels he could hear the subterranean warble of the Queen Ant singing.

He looked at Krystal, still staring at the green-tinged night through her sunglasses. Her silence was unearthly. Amber was still bouncing slightly on the couch.

“Are you girls thirsty? I have Kool Aide,” Jeremiah offered.

“You must feel so lucky that thing landed in your yard!” Amber said, nodding. Krystal didn’t move. Jer poured three glasses anyway.

“Lucky? Well, yes, I suppose. This town is pretty dried up. I was lucky to get a customer once every month or so. Now, as you can see, I’m booked solid. I’m lucky to get a night off.”

“That’s great for you!”

Jer smiled and carried two of the glasses and put them on the coffee table. “Well, for the first time in a long time, money isn’t a problem. The problem is that I’m now too old to enjoy it.”

“How old are you?”

Jeremiah did a quick tally in his mind. He was old enough not to count birthdays anymore, and he didn’t have friends or family to remind him. He was old enough to qualify for a discount at the movie theater when they still had one which was some years ago.

“In my seventies, I think,” he said.

At this both girls giggled. Amber had a high pitched girlish laugh. Krystal had more of a husky cough which she directed at the window.

Then, as if being reminded of his age also reminded him of how exhausted he was from living so goddamned much, he was hit by a wave of fatigue.

“I’m sorry, girls. Suddenly I can’t keep my eyes open.”

“That’s okay, Jeremiah. We’ll see you in the morning,” Amber said.

Jeremiah shuffled back to his bedroom and barely got his shoes off before falling down the dark hole of sleep. His last thought was, When did I tell her my name?

To be continued.

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Story #52 – Woodpecker

Trevor was getting too old to cut down trees. He had done it his whole life, from the time he first picked up an axe his parents had him out in the forest working with his father. When he was young, his father Ander would cut down the trees and Trevor would do the work of cutting the fallen into firewood.

Back then, he really enjoyed it. He liked being in the woods with his father, using his muscles, sweating and grunting the hours away. It was satisfying work, too, the way he would start with a huge fallen tree and chop his way through it until it was something completely different. He cut it into the size and shape his father had showed him, but sometimes he would imagine what would happen if he kept cutting forever and ever each piece in half and in half again until he was surrounded by dust.

“Because who says we must have the patience to wait for Time to have its way with us?” was a koan his father had given him repeatedly until Time had its way with him.

Now Time had had its way with Trevor too. He was well past his father’s age from his most distant memories of when he first joined him in the woods to chop firewood. Trevor’s own son and daughter had gone off to college. They got jobs in medicine and computers respectively and he was proud that they didn’t have to sweat and grunt their lives away chopping down trees.

He was also lonely. His wife was gone. Her ashes slept on the mantle above his fireplace. Most nights he would stare at her modest urn and try to hear her voice and the songs she had sung to him. Some nights he still could.

He didn’t need to cut wood for money anymore. He owned his cabin and his land and his kids took care of themselves. He pretty much just went into the woods every day because it was all he knew how to do. He rested his axe on his shoulder and walked down a little rocky path that was as worn into the forest as it was in his memory. And he would either finish chopping up a tree he already fell or he would find himself a new tree to take down.

This particular day, he was looking for a new tree. His shoulders ached from work the day before, but he knew that warming them up on a new project would be just what the doctor ordered.

“Now let’s see,” Trevor said to the quiet forest.

He shifted the axe to his other shoulder and scanned the forest around him. He didn’t want to clear out too many trees from any one area. There was no need for another grove. He liked the forest as it was and definitely didn’t want to damage the structure and integrity Mother Nature had blessed it with. He enjoyed the paradox of being both an agent of protection and destruction at the same time.

He always looked for old and sick trees first. When he took them down, he felt assured that he was fulfilling a duty to the forest, clearing away the old and rotted-out so that new seedlings would have a chance to grow. But sometimes he found himself with a strange craving to tackle a tree that was still vibrant with life.

“There is such a thing as too much beauty,” he reminded the forest.

And so he kept walking. It was still early and his belly was still warm with the morning’s coffee, and his feet felt strong today in his well-worn boots. Off in the distance to his right, he saw a patch of forest illuminated with a warmth swath of sunlight. Little purple flowers speckled the ivy. It looked like a magical place so he turned off the path onto an animal run, kicking a few stones out of the way and heading in the direction of the glow. As he blazed this new trail, he relished the cold air spiking it’s way into his lungs and the sound of the underbrush shushing his heels.

“Shhhhh,” he agreed.

Somewhere above him a woodpecker set to work knocking down the door to its dinner. Trevor imagined the sound as if the tree were giggling as the bird tickled it. It was a warm and happy sound that he had known all his life. He looked up to echo-locate the manic bird and saw streams of yellow sunlight piercing the canopy high above.

Then a familiar haunted tickle arrested him and stopped him in his tracks. The ghost caress crept across his face and arms and spun a chill up his spine the same way it had since he was a kid. Walking through a spider web is something you never get used to. It pricked awake a primal terror and he immediately set about wiping away the phantom garment.

He dropped his axe and ran his hands over his exposed forearms. Then he patted and swatted his way down his chest. He ruffled his hands through his hair and over his ears and neck, all the while wiping and pulling at the alien fibers now entangling him. His above him a woodpecker pecked and the trees giggled at his funny little dance.

And as he smacked and slapped himself back into a spider-free surety so too diminished his hushed curses and grunts.

“Ah! Ah! Dammit. Shit. Ungh. Mmmph.”

Until he stood there panting and strange, the forest resolutely oblivious to the trauma surmounted.

And as his breath returned what remaining wits the old man retained after years of axe swinging and bourbon swigging, Trevor was suddenly self-conscious. The eyes of the forest, his oldest and most trusted companion had bore witness to his silly fit. His shaking and flapping like some fallen fat bird wrestling with its broken wings.

And he was suddenly furious. And in his fury he lunged down and grabbed his axe. And he raised his axe with a wounded yell and cast his gaze about the stoic grove.

“AAAAAAaaaaaaaaHhh!” And then, pulled down by the weight of his trusted tool, he fell backward into the mud with a mighty splat.

The earth knocked the wind out of him.

When he opened his eyes, little white spiders blinked across his vision.

High above him the popping work of the woodpecker echoed his own ramped up heart beat. He squished his fingers into the mud and for the first time in his life felt like he was a part of the woods. He lay at the bottom of this thought for some time, letting his body come back to him.

And when it finally did, he giggled, realizing that the forest had made a good point.

When he eventually pulled himself from the mud and leaves, he left the axe where it lay. His tree-cutting days were finally at and end.

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Story #51 – He spends his time

He spends his time riding the subways, walking from car to car, preaching the Gospel. His black suit soaks through with the spirit, his body on fire with passion for his Lord.

Jesus died for your sins! He gave his life so you could be here now, riding this train to your air conditioned office. He was hung from a cross, steel spikes driven through his palms and feet. He endured torture for you. Brothers and Sisters! Can I get an ‘ Amen?’

Reginald doesn’t often get an Amen. Even from the riders who nod to him politely, from the ones who don’t actively ignore him, even from the church-goers, he seldom gets a vocal response, but he is not discouraged! He has the Love of his Lord flowing through his veins. It is hot within him. It dispels his hunger. It quenches his thirst. It drives him forward to deliver the Gospel.

And when sweat gathers at his temples and streams into his eyes, he does not blink it away. He welcomes the fresh burning tears as penance for his own sins, a reminder of his plight as a mortal who must beg forgiveness daily, who must give himself to God’s Love so that he can also keep on the good path, each step in the light of the Lord a blessing.

Are we not all sinners, brothers and sisters? Do we not covet daily? Given to horrible temptations? How many lies tear through your throats as you labor? It is okay! Beg forgiveness from Jeeeeeeee-sus Christ! He can save your soul! But you must do it before it’s too late! The Devil devours every second you hesitate! Your indifference feeds his evil plans, fuels the hearts of his demons!

Reginald speaks with absolute certainty. He knows the demons that must be conquered. Even now with God’s Love swollen in his guts does he feel the demons tittering in the shadows, just outside of his vision, just outside of the reach of his sermoning. Sin and Temptation are constantly on his heels and the gaping maw of damnation is always just a misstep in the wrong direction.

As his passion swells and his voice rises, he sees a bearded white man tap his headphones turning up the volume to drown him out. A young sister doing her best to keep her nose in her book shoots him a disdainful look and shakes her head. He knows she is reading the same page again because he is distracting her. He is undeterred. They are upset now because they see him as an inconvenience, but he knows he is saving them!

The Word of the Lord is NEVER an inconvenience. Even as my sermon falls upon some deaf ears, I am inching you closer to salvation! I am wrapping your souls in a protective armor against the sin that surrounds us. Do you not see that we are riding through the belly of the beast? This is Babylon, my friends! Fifth Avenue is the Devil’s driveway. Time’s Square is a playground for vagrants and thieves! Tell me you haven’t seen the vacant eyes of the runaways! The swaying slouches of the junkies! These are your brothers and sisters and you walk by them as if they were already GHOSTS!

Reginald knew this because he was one of those ghosts once. Before he had been saved by Jesus’ love, resurrected into the Light, born again forgiven and put forth on his mission to save others from similar fates! His veins still itch for the fire of Hell. He still goes to sleep every night craving the demonic push.

It is prayer that protects him. Prayer is the only thing that holds together his tattered heart, that kept the nightmares from springing to life before his eyes. His days in the gutter aren’t that far behind him, so he prays to push them away, to make them feel farther than they actually are. He fills his veins with God’s Word so that they stop their screaming for the other, so that the monster that sleeps inside him will never stir again. He roars the Gospel to drown out its infernal purring.

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ! We MUST–

“Man! Please just stop!” The bearded young man took out a headphone and glared at him. “Please. I’m just trying to relax a little on my way to work. I don’t want to hear it.”

Young man, I’m trying to save you. Don’t you understand?

“I don’t need you to save me, man. I need you to leave me alone. Just move on to the next car.”

But have you found Jesus, my brother?

“I’m cool, man.” He put his headphone back in. A young woman next to him caught Reginald’s eye and looked away like a flash of lightning. Other eyes were on him now too, accusing him of being an imposition on their heresy. They were the same eyes that were blind to him when he was on the corner, nodding off in a cloud of beautiful numbness, when every day was a funnel into that cloud, a cloud that got thicker and heavier every day, a cloud that pushed away all the pain and guilt and fear and let him float downward, forever d–

A stream of hot sweat hits Reginald’s eye and slaps him back to the moment. He starts ambling to the next car as the train stops and some people file off to be replaced by other tired-looking commuters.

Jesus loves you! Ask his forgiveness and his love will fill you and protect you! Give yourself to The Lord and you will be saved!

Silence rushes into the subway car and is quickly replaced with the rumble of the train car and the screech of the brakes as the subway pulls into the next station.

And in the next car he preaches louder. He preaches loud enough to keep the demons at bay. The devil is on his heels.

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Story #50 – An excerpt from “The Ghost Port”

Dear Readers,
First of all, thank you for subscribing to my Blog and reading my stories! Every notification I receive that someone has read one of my posts is encouragement and inspiration. I know many of you are writers as well, so I appreciate your time and comments so much.

#100Stories is a challenge I put upon myself to craft a story every day for 100 days. (Don’t trouble yourself with checking to see if I’ve cheated–I have. However I plan on finishing the challenge even if I don’t perfectly adhere to my own expectations. This is what writers do, no?). Most of the stories are crafted quickly, drawing either on a memory from my life, or preferably a moment from my day. I think it’s important for us all to look at each day to excavate the moments that affirm our role in the grand drama of life. Even in our most mundane-feeling days and weeks, there are moments hiding that remind us that life is a complex puzzle that we have a rightful place in.

#100Stories is my attempt to remind myself to keep my eyes open for them every day. It’s also a chance to practice crafting a narrative on a dime.

So that brings me to “THE GHOST PORT.”

“The Ghost Port” is a novel I wrote about 2-3 years ago. It is currently in the hands of a literary agent who is doing her damndest to get it published. In it a young girl named Nina goes out one night to experiment with a new technology which allows them to astral project. When her spirit returns to reclaim her body, however, the grimy underground joint is on fire and her body is nowhere to be found. It’s the story of her quest to find her body, her friend Syrah’s quest to find out what happened to her friend, and the story of the family who sold her body and why.

In celebration of reaching halfway to my goal of #100Stories, here are 2 chapters from the forthcoming novel. In this section, Wong, whose plant store was accidentally burned down with the Ghost Port, is helping Syrah find a body for her friend’s spirit to “borrow.” She was trying to get information from him at the charred facade of his store when she collapsed from an infection she got from scraping her hands on the dirty Chinatown/Little Italy streets the night before. Syrah has opted to trust him for the time being because he just saved her life.

Thank you for reading and being a part of my journey!

-brokeMC


 

The pedestrian entrance to Mount Sinai Hospital in Little Chitaly was lit with a large HD sign depicting patients in various stages of content convalescence and the slogan We Make You Better flashing up at the end of the cycle.  Baggy pants swishing in the cool night, Syrah quickly realized that, though she had passed it many times, she had never actually been inside this hospital.  Wong led the way.

Once through the facade, they strode up a moving walkway through an ad-tunnel featuring flashing advertisements for every sort of over-the-counter and under-the-counter pharmaceutical currently on the market.  An ad flashed up and followed them showing a whole familyFather, Mother, son, daughter dressed in dirty grey clothes standing in the middle of a three-ring circus looking miserable.  A grizzly bear rode a little tricycle past them.  A monkey juggled cupcakes and ate one.  The family just glowered.  Suddenly a clown somersaulted in front of them and offered up a handful of pink and yellow pills.  The father reached down first and everyone in the family followed suit.  Wong scoffed.

Stupid, he said.  “Capitalism and Medicine should be kept as separate as Church and State.  It’s all about the bottom line here so western medicine only treats symptoms.  It doesnt even try to cure cause then no one would pay for treatment.  It’s business.  All business.  People these days—Theyre tired, sad, cant get up in the morning.  They pop pills to feel normal and end up getting pushed deeper into the shitter.

In the ad the family was now in fun circus clothes, doing cartwheels.  Wong continued, Walk into a hospital and they’ll find a pill for you.  Unless you got no money.  Then, maybe youre healthy.  You can come back later when youre richer and tired.

Wong scoffed and shook his head.  Behind him, in the ad, the young son was eating a cupcake with the circus monkey.  Syrah wasnt sure what to make of Wong.  The karma thing was a little random.  But, then again, so was the whole out-of-body friend apparently flitting around them.  Wong wanted to portray himself as some genteel herbalist, but there was something about his tough Brooklyn accent and the way his lean muscles throttled under his skin that made her wary.  At this point, she had no other leads, though, and the prospect of being able to talk to Nina was an undeniable lure.

The hospital lobby was all fluorescent lights and glass, white walls and inoffensive art.  The air smelled like antiseptic and the temperature was cool enough to both keep germs at bay and extend the life of the vases of flowers threefold.  Wong beelined straight for the elevator.

Syrah always felt weird in hospitals.  Everyone was either sick or assisting a sick person, so it didnt seem fair to galavant around, flaunting her health and vigor in front of so many suffering and afflicted people. 

They passed a wrinkle-and-bone woman scraping forward with the aid of a walker.  A young woman by her side was staring off into the distance, ostensibly engrossed in some information feed generating itself across her field of vision a dating site or shopping cart most likely.  The old lady smiled at Syrah and she forced a smile back, moving quickly so to avoid conversation.  They were, after all, on the sketchiest mission ever concocted.

Wong was chivalrous.  At the elevator, he held the door until everyone was in.  Once the doors had slid shut, he pressed the button for the 12th floor where the recovery zone was.  Boring muzak wafted out of the elevator speakers.  It was the type of music created to be unobtrusive.  The kind that you werent supposed to notice, but would be missing if it wasnt there.  The problem with this correlation is that if you are the type who notices things, you are doomed to endure the piquant diddling every time.

As the elevator rose, Syrah thought about the assholes who wrote and recorded this music.  Had they once actually given a shit about making music that people wanted to hear?  Not everyone can diddle with such precision and cunning.  But what drives someone with enough passion to dedicate herself to mastering the language of music to abandon that passion altogether and trump up elevator noise?  There must just be a lot of dopes out there bestowed with mediocre skill and indelible ambition.

The elevator stopped at several floors letting out everyone but Wong and Syrah.

This music—” Syrah started.

Yup, Wong cut her off.  There was an inventor who created an algorithm in the late 2000s that could compose shit like this.  Funny enough, the muzak it generated was neither better nor worse than the crap they already had on loops in every elevator on the planet.  It was exactly the same.  So no one ever bought it.  The skeleton of the code eventually was repurposed for automated political punditry.

At the twelfth floor the elevator doors swooshed open and Wong led Syrah to a couch where they both sat down.  She slouched low in her seat; he sat upright like the president of the posture club.  The nurses behind the counter were busy enough with computer tasks and actual patients that they didnt even glance in their direction.

They waited there for maybe four minutes until an Asian nurse in a perfect starched outfit and holding a clipboard walked by briskly.  Nina saw her and Wong exchange the slightest of glances and Wong stood up casually, touching Syrahs forearm to indicate for her to follow, and they walked behind the nurse casually, calmly, silently.  Her nurse heels clicked and echoed around them in the hallway like a clock ticking down to something.

After turning down several identical hallways bathed in sterile light, passing doors with little plaques reading things like Radiology and Nanotech, they finally followed the nurse into a dim room with three beds separated by blue curtains.  The sound of pulse monitors and artificial breathing machines created a new, electronic music backdrop only slightly less unnerving than the elevator.  The nurse closed the door and turned to Wong who greeted her in Chinese.  They appeared to extend short greetings pierced with small short smiles before Wong switched to English.

This is my friend Syrah, he said, motioning in her direction.  And this is Mei.

Hi Syrah said extending her hand, which Mei shook lightly.

Hello.

So you have someone? Wong asked, motioning to the room.

What is this for? Mei asked, not moving.  You said youd explain when you got here.  In English, Meis soft voice vibrated like a reed instrument.

Show us the body, Wong said sternly. Please.

Mei walked over to the farthest curtain by the window.  “‘Body sounds so grotesque.  Hes just in a coma,  Mei said, drawing back the curtain to reveal a man of about twenty-five, blonde hair and blue-eyed with an auburn beard.

You said you had a woman!

Her brother is visiting right now.  I was not expecting him.  This is the only other patient who met your criteria.

“My criteria was a woman, preferably a black woman”

Oh, man, Syrah said, raising her eyebrows.

What? Mei asked, raising her arms and then letting them fall to her sides.  What difference does it make?  What do you need him for anyway?

Does this one have visitors? Wong asked.

His name is Brendan, and no.  His mother is the only one who visits him and she is in Europe for the next three months on business.  Why?  What is going on?

Wong turned to Syrah.  She should try it.

Dont tell me, Syrah said looking up around the ceiling.  Nina.  Try it.  Like you did with me.

Mei looked up where Syrah was looking and then back between the two of them.  Nina?

Can you disconnect the equipment without raising suspicion? Wong asked Mei.

Yes, but—”

Do it, he said giving her a hard look.

But —”

He took a step toward her and switched to Chinese again.  He was standing so close, Mei had to crane her head up to meet his eyes.  Syrah didnt know what he was saying, but it sounded serious.  It started off like a scolding and evolved into a subdued threatening tone.  Meis breathing turned shallow and she nodded and went about the process of removing and shutting down all the life-support monitors.  Syrah wasnt sure what to make of it.

Mei was just removing the heart rate monitor from the mans finger when he opened his eyes and sat up abruptly.  Mei jumped back and bit a scream in half.  Wong put his hand on her shoulder and motioned for Syrah to step toward the man.

What should I do? she asked Wong.

The answer came from a groggy hoarse voice she didnt recognize.

Syrah? the man said.  He looked around the room and then down at himself.  Holy shit.  It worked! he croaked.

Nina?!  Is that you?  Syrah took a step closer.  She was shivering violently.

Syrah!  The man said and leaned up to embrace Syrah in a warm friendly hug.  He started crying, Syrah!  Oh god, Ive been so scared!  Ive been following you since you went home.  I didnt know what to do!

I didnt either!  What happened?  Do you know?  Syrah was crying too.

Mei, eyes like lightbulbs about to burst, looked from Nina embracing Brendan to Wong.  What the fuck is going on?

Ill tell you.  But first, does he have clothes nearby?

In the closet behind you.

Great, Wong said, opening the closet and retrieving a garment bag with Brendans name on it.  Girls, he said to Syrah and Nina, We need to keep moving.  Nina, how do your legs feel.  Do you think you can walk?

Nina wiped the tears from her face and looked down at her new male body.  She wiggled her toes and bent her knees.  I think so.

Hes pretty new.  His muscles shouldnt have atrophied, Mei said.

Syrah was staring at her blond male friend.  This is too weird, she said.

Nina looked back at her, Youre telling me!  Im white! she said.

And a guy.

And at this Nina reached down under her gown to the unfamiliar appendage between her legs confirming the accusation.  An expression of non-plussed astonishment white-washed her already pale face.

Wong, though slightly amused, knew they still had to get out of the hospital so he tossed the clothes over to Nina.  Get dressed, he said.  We dont have time for this now.

Nina shook off whatever thought avalanche she was enduring, started to get out of bed and halted.  Can I get some privacy, I guess?

Wong nodded and they all took a step back.  Mei closed the blue curtain and turned to Wong again, initial shock replaced with a fresh sense of confounded urgency.

Please tell me you’ll bring him back,  Mei said to Wong.  She had adopted an air of dread, as if the worst possible thing had just happened to her.

Wong put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry.  I’m not one of those and this isn’t that.  We’re just borrowing him.  I promise.”

Mei searched his face.  The smile he proffered had little impact on her tangible concern.

Can I have a glass of water please? came the hoarse voice from behind the curtain.  My throat is really dry.

Mei nodded, and while she procured some water from a nearby mini-fridge, Wong humored her.  He did his best to explain the girls ghost porting and the burning down of the port and his shop, of his meeting Syrah and treating her infection and the short possession of her body, and of their trip to the hospital as an unlikely Hail Mary.  Meis brow remained furrowed, three little pinches of skin in the middle of her forehead, for the tales entirety.

25

As Nina removed her hospital gown, she relished the feeling of goosebumps.  She had been without skin for so long that it was suddenly novel.  On top of that, she was experiencing a bunch of sensations she had never felt before; the top-heaviness on the male form, the lack of hip flexibility, the extra hair on her legs and chest, and the strange pendulous weight between her legs.  At first, she thought she would respect the guys modesty, but practicality took over and she gave the guys package a good look. 

It was the fourth penis she had seen in her life.  She had vague smeared paint memories of her fathers from bath time as a baby.  She had seen a neighbors little dick when they were both in second grade in an innocent game of show me yours…”  And, most recently, she had invited a boy over who she liked and had given him the shared gift of their first blow job. 

She gave it an innocent tap to see how it would respond and suddenly found herself getting hard.  This was completely new to her.  She had no idea what to do!  Again she tapped at the rising thing but it just bounced up a little bigger and harder.  She tried squeezing it, but that actually felt kinda good and also seemed to fuel its engorgement.  She thought about asking for help, but quickly thought better of it.

She did her best to pull her boxers on over the protuberance.  They tented out awkwardly, and when she moved, the thing bobbed back and forth like a bobber on fishing line.  Then she pulled her jeans on flattening it against her belly, and pulled on a t-shirt which she attempted to pull down over the bump.  Hopefully it would deflate on its own sooner than later.  There was also a corduroy jacket she slipped on.

Satisfied that she looked more or less like a normal boy, she opened the curtain.

Wow, Syrah said with a giggle.  Hottie alert.

Shutup! Nina said with a deeper, fuller giggle.  She shifted her weight, her member still trapped at attention.

“Wait, do you have a hard-on?” Syrah.

“It’s not my fault!” Nina countered awkwardly.  “I guess guys really can’t control this thing.”

Wong and Mei blinked in unison.

Do you feel weird? Syrah asked.

Kinda.  Like wonky.

What about that? she said, lunging playfully for Ninas crotch.  Can I see it?

No! Nina squealed deeply and they fell into another round of curious giggling.

Please be quiet! Mei interjected, hushing them.

I think I know a place we can go to get some information about what happened to your body, Wong said, looking hard into Ninas blue eyes.  Suddenly brought back to the gravity of her predicament, Nina sobered and gulped heavily.  This body, as ridiculous as it was, was only a rental.  She would treat it with respect and return it in the condition in which it was. . .taken? 

Wait, Nina said.  How will we bring this body back once we find mine?

This caused Mei to raise eyebrows and turn to Wong.  Apparently this detail had escaped her as well.

It will be taken care of.  Right now we need to gather more information and your ability to speak and recount the events from that night are more important.  Just not here.  Then he turned to Mei and said, Well bring him back.

Mei took a deep breath.  It was amazing that she would go out on such a limb for them.  Wong must have some serious sway.  Nina could see she was conflicted.

Thank you, Nina said, taking Meis hand.  Ive been terrified.  I just want my own body back.  I promise to bring this one back in perfect condition.

Mei just nodded quickly.  Okay, she said quietly bewildered.  Lets just get you all out of here.

Where are we going? Syrah chimed in.

The lady who ran the Ghost Ports got a brother.  He runs a restaurant called Lus Bright Future Dim Sum Karaoke Hall.  Im sure hell have some information for us.

Outside the window, a low rising sun painted all the buildings a glimmering orange.  The remaining life-support machines pumped and beeped their otherworldly accompaniment as Mei led Wong, Syrah, and the freshly corporeal Nina out to the hall in the direction of the staff elevators.

As Nina walked, she regained some of her equilibrium.  She found her shoulders swaying a bit.  It was dizzying being a foot taller than she usually was, but less-so after flitting around heightless for the past 24 hours.

When she looked down at her white hands, a strand of blond hair fell in her eyes and she pushed it back.  It wasn’t her hair.  The hands weren’t her hands.  Her heart strummed up to a quicker tempo and her chest tightened.

I am me, she thought.  I’m Nina Matthews.  I’m still me.  This body is temporary.  It’s like clothes, like a fancy gown I’m wearing to a party.  I’ll walk a little different.  I’ll talk a little different.  I’m Cinderella.  Once I find my glass slipper, I’ll be me again.  It’s just a white guy suit;  Like a new skin in VR.  I’ll try to enjoy it.

It’s like a game.  I’m already on my way home.  Nothing has changed. 

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Story #49 – saving the Princess

My friend Hal always called it “Saving The Princess.”

I was fresh out of college and I would spend a fair amount of time playing role-playing games on my computer. The premise of these games was often complex and epic, but there was also usually some aspect of a damsel in distress. Hence Hal’s snark.

I understood his intent, though. He was helping me realize that as I wandered around these fantasy worlds discovering magic weapons in caves filled with monsters, I was missing out on some actual real life experiences.

Keep in mind, we had just moved to New York City from Florida. There was no reason a 23-year-old should be cooped up in a loft in Brooklyn playing a hyped up version of Dungeons and Dragons by himself.

I could have been working on my music. Or I could have been out exploring the New York Experience with him.

One night he brought some of that New York Experience home with him and I listened to them bounce and wail through  the thin drywall. Prior to meeting him I had seen it as a nuisance to have to overhear friends and roommates having sex. He advised me one day that it always made him excited for whoever he was listening to. He said he would quietly root for whichever friend was making the score, so I learned to do the same.

“Goooooo Hal!” I whispered. Then I put my pillow over my head and went to sleep.

The next morning I realized he had been banging Lara, an old friend from Florida who was visiting for a week. She had long blond hair an big eyes and was a yoga instructor. She was exactly his type. I mean she was anybody’s type.

Lara smiled at me and said, “Morning, Joe,” and I did not need any coffee that day at the office. My heart was still thumping that evening when I got home and Lara was on her way out—alone.

“Why don’t you come with?” She said.

I tore off my tie and I went with.

Now, it should be said for the uninitiated, there exists a code among males who are friends that dictates that we do not boff each other’s lady friends. It’s about as big a no-no as exists. 

Hal and I were friends, too, but I was at a point where I was starting to not like him so much. He was a little too casual with his flirtations and affairs and the way he spoke about the girls he slept with left a sour tinge in the air. He came off as fairly entitled, and portrayed most women as objects which he would use until he grew bored.

Lara was very attractive and was maybe feeling some of the sparks that I was, so “the code” went out the window. I wasn’t setting out to steal the girl from him, but I wasn’t going to fight nature at this point either.

So I ditched my tie and jacket and threw on some sneakers and followed her out into Brooklyn.

She took me to a small party in a strange squat. There was a lot of raw plywood and the furniture had most likely been acquired from the curb. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar from my own Brooklyn loft.

We drank beers and passed a joint. We also passed a guitar and traded songs. We got high as the lights of Manhattan out somewhere in the distance, our heads just as clouded. 

Her friend Danny who lived there sang a few songs. He had a great voice and I watched Lara watch him sing and I took bigger swigs of my beer to try to drown my jealousy.

But it was cool because soon enough her hand was on my thigh and then so was his and then he was leading us back to a cubbyhole situation where he had a few pillows stacked into a lumpy bed. Lara took my hand and we followed him and climbed onto his pillows and it must have been a closet for real because I’m pretty sure he slid the door closed and we were swallowed by a deep blackness.

And then I was kissing Lara and clothes were coming off and hands were everywhere, hands and hot breath everywhere, and I was hard and wondering how I ended up in this sensory deprivation closet with Lara and Danny and how exactly it was all going to go down because I had never had a threesome before. I had also not intended for my first threesome to include another man, but I suppose that’s pretty chauvinistic. But he also kept trying to get me to touch his dick so I decided it was time to split.

I slid open the door and rolled out of the closet and stumbled back toward the living room in a spinning world.

When I got outside I trudged through a cold breeze toward the subway feeling drunk and high and hoping my hardon would deflate before I offended anyone.

And Lara came up behind me.

“Hey! You okay?”

“Oh! Hey, yeah, that just wasn’t really my thing.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t really know it was going to go that far.”

“It’s cool. I had fun. Danny’s nice.”

“Not that nice,” she said.

She took my hand again and we rode the subway back to my Brooklyn loft and then I’m pretty sure Hal had to listen to us banging the night away from his side of the thin drywall.

I wondered if he was rooting for us or if he recognized Lara’s moans.

He certainly wasn’t rooting for us the next morning when we walked past him on our way out to brunch. His eyes were little icy balls of hate from what I remember.

Lara and I had a great day. We wandered the West Village, in and out of record shops and Tibetan stores. We went to Central Park and ran through the ramble. And when the sun set we headed uptown to a bar where some friends were meeting. Hal just happened to be there too.

“What the fuck bro! That’s my girl” he said as he advanced on me and pushed me.

“Yo chill man,” I said, forever the eloquent diplomat.

“Fuck you man! I can’t believe you! You knew she was mine!”

He pushed me again and I let myself be pushed. From a caveman’s perspective I had indeed fucked his girl. But in real life she wasn’t his belonging and we both knew that. She had fucked me fair and square and she would probably do it again even if I didn’t punch Hal in the face for being a ninny. She was her own woman and us fighting would have little to no effect over which of us she preferred to spend time with.

This time it was Hal who was divorced from reality. There was no screen or keyboard, but he was still not really enagaged with anyone around him. He couldn’t see past his own privilege and expectations. He was too preoccupied with saving the princess.

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Story #48 – Carpe Mortis

Dear World,

I am empty. Sadness does not even begin to describe the depth–

Wait. No. That’s not right.

To Whom it may…

Nah. Hmmm.

If you are reading this note, then you still have time.

Yes! That’s great!

You still have time to take control, to seize the day and turn out (burn out? no.) — extinguish your light. We had no hand in the creation of this world. Why should we have to labor in and suffer from the mistakes of our forefathers? Why should we bear the brunt of climate change when it was exacerbated by our parents and grandparents?

There is nothing good coming to us. Only more shortages of food and water, epidemics and propaganda about how there are no epidemics. We must become our own epidemic to show those who hold rank that we still have a voice in this ever smaller and uglier world.

My friends, like many who have inspired me, I am not depressed. I am furious. I am so mad at everything in the living world that I don’t know where to start. I can’t afford college. The system is rigged against us to keep us subjugated and stupid. Why do we spend our lives online? We post to our profiles and scroll through others to see how we stack up. We obsess over whether or not we fit in, whether our belongings express us properly to the world. We play Massive Multiplayer games for days on end without interacting with any real fleshers.

We don’t do anything to improve our lives, so what are they worth?

I know this isn’t original. I know you already have so many funerals to attend that you are probably having trouble planning your own! But, please friends, you won’t want to miss mine! Like Shannon’s last month, my funeral will have multiple selfie stations where you can take photos of yourself with me from some of my fondest memories — When I hiked the Grand Canyon Dump, When I visited the Red Sea of California, When I climbed the last Redwood!

I’ve arranged for DJ Deadfinger and DJ Wax Museum to rock for you all night after I am put to my eternal rest (If they’re still around, yo!). There will be a cash bar and a crazy light show, and if you stay until sunrise you’re in for a special surprise!

As you celebrate your first day without me, you will start the day with fresh bagels from Annette’s Bagels on Freemont. But that’s not all! There will also be T-shirts with some AWESOME graphics on them of me dancing with God! BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!

You know my mommy has dough, too, right? Well, as long as she doesn’t want me to haunt her for her remaining years, she will have FIVE fresh graves dug alongside mine. At the breakfast buffet, there will be five cyanide capsules for the first five of you who want to join me in the big sleep! (I’m looking at you Martyne! Stop talking about it and just do it before Grenadane gets the jump on you! You know she wants to show YOU up!)

I love you guys. This is gonna be great. We all know the afterlife is gonna be so fire! No more hunger, no more sunburns, no more measles!

And BIG Thanks to all those who went before. Big up to the lawmakers down on Capitol Hump who finally legalized suicide so those of us who actually give a damn can be PROACTIVE! SUCKERS! I’m outie 5000!

But I’m done talking, folks. I’m done. And wait till you see my pimp headstone! It’s gonna be LIT!

Sincerely,

Edgare Alvin Powder

 

(AUTHOR’S NOTE :: I am not suicidal. This is a fictional account depicting a letter written by a misled teen in a possible future where suicide is made legal to deal with the overpopulation problem. It’s not only legal… it’s fashionable… scary, right?)

 

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Story #47 – Jimbo’s Dilemma

Jimbo Jankovich had no idea what was going on.

Stepping in Larry Sharpstein’s office was like walking into a time capsule that hadn’t been dug up yet. Nothing in the room spoke of the current era save his cell phone and Starbucks mug. Even the sunlight struggled to permeate the windows they were so crudded over with years of lip service and snapped judgements.

Books populated the shelves along every wall. Not only were they packed in vertically, but stacks of books were stuffed in every available nook. Many were leather-bound. Most were hardcover. A minority were paperback, but they lobbied for space with just as much dusty enthusiasm.

Presiding over this sprawling library was Larry Sharpstein, Esq., their oafish and decaying Lord. There was no way of telling just how old he was, and so it was conceivable that he might never die. He gave the impression that some of these were indeed the first books and he was there to witness them bound. He was timeless, an institution, fermenting in this realm of paper and leather, hardwood and oily carpet. His grizzled little finger tapped at a paragraph in a court document centered on his desk. It was faded and yellow as his skin, perhaps also from another time and another dimension.

“It says here, plain as day, you failed to fulfill your responsibilities to my client,” His voice was a scratchy whistle, something you would hear from a cartoon beaver who had smoked too many Cuban cigars. His dull eyes rolled from the document to Jimbo Jankovich who stood before him holding his hat.

“He is filing a grievance for damages amounting to but not limited to any and all such provisions garnered, gathered and earned by you and anyone you have had decidedly professional contact with in all days since your conception and first breath of oxygen.”

Jimbo Jankovich took deep breaths through his nose as he puzzled over the words.

Mr. Sharpstein took the opportunity to elucidate, “You have been found to be delinquent in your duties, Mr. Jankovich. And I as a duly sworn representative of my client have been dispensed to ensure you absorb the gravity of the allegations levied against you and to also ensure that you intend to fulfill your end of the bargain which you engaged with my Client once upon a time and so forth and such with.”

“I still don’t understand what’s going on,” said Jimbo Jankovich feeling tense as a coffin rod. “None of what you’re saying makes any sense.”

Mr Sharpstein’s tongue emerged from between his papery lips like a little pink slug checking the air temperature. It wiggled back and forth before disappearing back into the man’s darkness.

“I’m speaking as clearly as I can, Mr. Jankovich! I am merely conveying to you the complexities of your circumstance. I have simplified them to the best of my abilities as required of me by the laws of the great state of Kansas.”

“But what agreement?” Asked Jimbo. “And who is your client?”

“I’m afraid that information is confidential and protected by the Client’s privilege to remain anonymous so as to avoid any undue scrutiny and harassment from you or any associated parties.

“What you need to know is what I have told you and that is all that you need to know,” Sharpstein’s voice rustled out of him like a snake escaping its own dead skin.

“So what? I owe this person I don’t know, like, pretty much everything I have for something I didn’t do and can never be sure that I had to do or not?”

“Precisely,” said Sharpstein, who imminently sipped from his Starbucks mug.

Jimbo realized he was strangling his own hat and loosened his grip. He took another deep breath and searched the little sarcophagus’ eyes for any remaining sprinkles of humanity.

“This is bullshit,” said Jimbo Jankovich.

Unperturbed, Sharpstein replied, “This is the law.”

“And what if I don’t pay? What if I turn around and walk out that door and never look back?”

“Then we will contact the banks and take what we are owed.”

“But I don’t think I actually owe you anything!” Jimbo was losing his patience.

“If you would just read this para–”

Jimbo grabbed the document and shook it in Jankovich’s face.

“Just because you threw a bunch of abstract language on a paper doesn’t make it true!”

“I assure you the language is quite concrete.”

“I don’t even know who you are!”

“But we know who you are. Just sign here to indicate you acknowledge your fault and indicate your intention to ameliorate.

“I didn’t do anything,” said Jimbo.

“And so we will take everything,” said Larry.

Jimbo crumpled up the document and threw it into the rolling mountains of books.

“I AIN’T SIGNING SHIT!”

Tut tut tut, said Sharpstein. “It doesn’t matter. It’s already done.”

Feeling a draft, Jimbo looked down and realized his shoes were suddenly gone.

“You have a lot to learn about the legal system,” said Larry Sharpstein.

Jimbo wanted to respond, but realized he no longer had the words.

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Story #46 – She would live.

“GET A JOB!”

Joana looked up and watched the man walk away down the block. He didn’t look back. He didn’t have to. His words hung over her like a cloud. The square of his black jacket a dismissing punctuation.

She took a deep breath of the blue morning and returned to the task at hand–digging in a trash can. The warm sour smell of stale beer was thick. She pulled out a couple beer bottles. She shook out the remaining drops and put them into the main bin of her shopping cart. Using her elbow, she carefully wiped at the sweat gathered at her temples.

This is her job. Every day she leaves her small shared apartment at 1am. She pushes her shopping cart up and down the blocks of Brooklyn brownstones and row houses til 7am gathering bottles and cans for 5 cents a piece. It wasn’t her dream to come to the USA to dig in garbage cans, but this was a way to make money without too many questions asked. There was no paperwork and no boss with big eyes and sweaty palms.

She pushed her cart to the next building and wiped her big latex gloves down the front of her apron. A few little green bags of dog poop moldered on the top of the recycling bin. At least these were tied. If she got shit on her gloves, the smell would follow her home. She had been lucky today so far.

A squad of blue translucent recycling bags, plump with beer bottles and cans, were huddled around the bins. Someone had had a party last night! This would be a nice bonus to her take. She sorted these into her own bags separating the bottles and cans, glass, plastic and aluminum. Brooklyn was bountiful terrain for her. She always got lots of PBR and Bud Light cans, as well as the colorful craft beer cans and bottles. She re-tied the bags when she was done with them, knowing that if she left things neat she would be less likely to receive any trouble from the tenants.

Then she kicked the actual trash cans to scare away any rats that might be hiding inside. The rats were the worst part of the job. They terrified her. She had almost been bitten several times. She kicked the can again and waited for the telltale rustle. They were the beasts of her mythology, far more real and terrible than Medusa or a Minotaur, trolls or ogres. To her relief there were none hiding in this corner of her labyrinth.

Inside the bin she found some empty Prosecco and Champagne bottles. This was more than just a hipster soirée. They had been celebrating something. Was it a wedding or a baby? A graduation? It was nice to be in a place where people could celebrate life, even if it was just her job to sort out their refuse.

She had come to the USA as a refugee. Her old country was at war. There was no food, no education, no jobs, no future for her there. She remembered waking up there feeling desperate and useless. She left everything and everyone she knew behind and nearly died of dehydration passing through six countries to get here. In her country getting killed by a stray bullet was an everyday concern and the soldiers were more likely to rape and rob you than save you. Here every day was an opportunity. It wasn’t easy, but every morning she woke up there was a little less fear and a little more hope.

It wasn’t the happy ending she had dreamed of yet, but it was a start.

She groped farther into the darkness to see if there were more big bottles hiding. A jab of pain caused her to withdraw her hand quickly. Bright red seeped from a slice in the powder blue of her glove. She looked into the can and saw the glinting shrapnel of a shattered bottle and cursed herself for being so careless.

Cursing softly, she took off her glove to inspect the wound. As she did, the door of the house opened and a young woman her age stepped out. She was dressed in a nice dark suit and her blonde hair was done up perfect. The woman looked up and down the block seeing everything but Joana. Her partner stepped out a minute later and they came down the steps together.

The man actually met Joana’s eyes for a second. She braced herself for another reprimand, maybe this time for bleeding on his property. Instead, a weak smile fluttered across his lips like a dying butterfly. Then they strode off together, the woman’s high heels clicking down the sidewalk.

Joana watched them disappear around the corner, then pulled out a clean rag and dabbed at her bleeding hand. She would need to clean it or it would get infected, but first she had to finish her job. She would live.

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Story #45 – A little birdy told me

The backyard looked like another planet.  A heavy blanket of snow magnified the cold and reflected the ineffectual winter sun.  Ben squinted at the cold vista out his kitchen window while he scoured the burnt cheese from the bottom of an enchilada pan.  A bluebird, blue and luminous as the heart of an iceberg, alighted on the metal and glass feeder strung from a nearby birch branch and nibbled at some seed.  He watched it flit between the two main perches and the base.  Every time it landed it glanced around as if it feared it had fallen for a deadly trap. 

Ben had taken special pains to secure this bird feeder.  The previous one had been dragged into the forest and demolished by some bastard raccoon.  He hated raccoons.  They were thieves who crept through the night and stole without any concern for the order of the world.  He ran to the hardware store that same day lest the birds migrate to another feeder in someone else’s yard.  The birds brought color and levity to his life.  His mother had been an avid birder and he inherited her enthusiasm.  His wife and daughter preferred their cat.

After a few pecks the bluebird flew off and was replaced by a pair of finches.  Their brown and white feathers were a micro version of the snow and wood menagerie surrounding them.  They eyed the seed briefly before plunging their tittering beaks into the holes and emerging with a spray of shell and crumb.  Ben couldn’t say that he ever saw one actually consume any of the seeds from the shells they snapped open.  But their beaks, like petrified lips and teeth and nose combined into one awkward instrument clapped frantically at the shells, somehow managing to separate some morsels from the shrapnel.  It was amazing to watch.

“Daddy!” Megan sang, her small voice flying up from behind him as she came padding into the kitchen. She held their tubby tabby like a small sack of potatoes.  “Charles is hungry!”

Ben looked over to the cat dishes in the corner, still half-full of the morning scoop of kibble.

“How do you know?” He asked her, putting down the finally clean pan and drying his hands on a towel.

“Because he told me.”

“Oh yeah?” Ben asked, kneeling and addressing the bewildered feline.  “What are you in the mood for Chucky-boy?”

Charles flicked his tail and wriggled in Megan’s faltering grip.

“He wants cookies!” Megan said when the cat finally succeeded in escaping her tiny hands.  He fled the room, the tiny bell on his collar tinkling down the hallway.

“He does?” Ben exclaimed with wide eyes, retrieving a cookie from the jar atop the fridge, “Well, how about you bring this one to him?”

“Thanks Daddy,” Megan said heading into the living room, away from the cookie-craving cat.

Ben returned his attention to the birds.  A lone thrush, lemon yellow with little black wings eyed him from the feeder.  A bright yellow spot in the monochrome yard, it could have been a photograph.  He was about to grab his binoculars when it flew toward him, landed on the window sill, and pecked at the glass.  He thought it was an accident until it did it again.  Was there something on the window?

Expecting the bird to flee, he reached to where it had pecked and scratched the spot, as if he might be able to discern whatever was on the outside by scratching the interior.  The bird held its ground.

“Bold little sucker, aren’t you?”  Ben said, leaning in until his nose was practically against the glass.  They stared at each other closely for a second, its tiny black eye locked with his brown.  Its little bird chest inflated and deflated quick tiny breaths, iridescent feathers puffed out for warmth.  Then it pecked again causing him to jerk back.  And then it pecked again.  And again. 

In the living room a cartoon voice began singing about the letter “B.”  B is for balloons, big bubbles and balmy afternoons.  Ben slowly reached out and unlocked the window and lifted it open.  The yellow bird hopped inside and perched on the sink faucet, again eyeing him.

“What’s your deal?”  He asked the bird.  It looked at him and then around the kitchen and then back at him.  A cold draft blew in the cracked window.

“No more seed out there?” 

The bird, still breathing quickly and jerking its gaze around the room, didn’t make a sound.  Ben retrieved a plastic container from the cabinet behind him, expecting the bird to flee at any moment, but resolved to play out the scenario as far as it would go.  It was such a beautiful yellow.  The jagged white stripes on its wings reminded him of the cresting waves on a midnight ocean.

He shook out a small pile of seeds onto a saucer and watched the bird.  It hardly hesitated before fluttering over to the plate and pecking at the various bits.  It craned its head up at him as it ate, as if expecting a floor show, so Ben mimed a short tap routine in his socks.  The bird stopped eating for this, but made no move to applaud.

“Tough crowd,” Ben mumbled.

“Tweating!”  the bird chirped.

Ben stopped breathing and froze.  The bird tittered and pecked some more seeds.  Ben released his breath and ran his finger through his receding hair.

“That was weird,” he said.

The bird stopped eating and looked at him again.  From the end of the hallway came the jingling of the cat’s bell.

“Your wife’s cheating on you,” the bird peeped and flew out the window just before Charles came trotting around the corner with an expectant “Mewl.”

“What the fuck?”  Ben said.  Chuck jumped up onto the counter and smelled the bird seed.  Ben shut the window, cutting off the draft.  In the living room, a cartoon voice sang, “F is for Forks, Farms, and Flags.  F is for your Favorite Figs and Frogs.”

When Shelly came home that night, Ben was working on a puzzle with Megan.  A Charles Mingus record filled the room with soft horn flutters as his daughter’s tiny fingers fiddled with the oversized jigsaw pieces. He smiled at her blissful indifference to the clear patterns of lines and colors.

Shelly threw her coat over the blue easy chair and dropped her purse in the seat.

“Ooh! A puzzle?”  She asked, walking over and giving each of them pecks on their heads.  She took off her heels and squatted, helping guide Megan’s piece into its proper place across the board.  “You’re doing great!”

“How was your day?” Ben asked, taking a sip from his beer.

“Drinking already?” She asked, eyebrow raised.

He responded with his most casual shrug.

“Oh fine,” she yawned, grabbing her heels and standing.

“Daddy ordered pizza!” Megan announced through a blushing smile.

“I guess it’s movie night.” Shelly said.  “I’ll get into some PJs!”  She smiled at Ben and walked down the hall towards their room.  “Open some wine for me?”  She called back.

“Sure,” he said, getting up and walking over to her purse and jacket.

Megan picked up another puzzle piece and again attempted to mash it into the absolute wrong place.  Ben lifted the jacket and sniffed it.  Her familiar perfume, soft and powdery, nothing more.  Dropping it over his arm, he picked up her purse and pulled out her phone.  After a quick glance down the hallway, he checked her texts.  Nothing weird.  She texted him she would be late, and he had replied.  Her mother sent her pictures of curtains for their new living room.  Friends he recognized.  Nothing.  He checked her recent calls and saw a number with no name.  Thumbing over to Messages, there was one from that number.  His thumb hovered over the Listen button.

Charles rubbed up against his leg and he almost dropped the phone.  Quickly replacing it in the purse, he rode out this fresh rush of adrenaline to the closet where he hung her coat.

“Oh, thanks hon,” Shelly said, entering the room in her pink-striped pajamas and plopping next to Megan.  The record needle looped a faint popping.  Ben took a deep breath as he walked over and with shaky hands flipped the record.

“Are you okay?” Shelly asked.

“Yeah!” Ben said, grabbing his beer and shaking it, “Just hungry.”

Shelly helped his daughter place another piece of the puzzle, and he took a big swig.

That night while Shelly snored softly, hugging a pillow, her back to him, the way she had slept for as long as he could remember, Ben stared at the ceiling.  The bird had pecked on the window.  It pecked repeatedly.  Like knocking on a door.  It had knocked so he let it in.  And then he fed it.  And it kept looking at him.  And it said Cheating?  In a very-human voice, Your wife is cheating on you.  But Ben knew she would never do that to him.  There was no way.

Watching Shawshank earlier, Megan asleep on the floor in front of them, they cuddled and laughed softly together at the same parts.  The bird must be misinformed.

Snorting, Shelly rolled over and threw an arm over him.  Its warm weight calmed him down, reassured him that neither her fidelity nor his sanity were in question.  As her hot breath swam around his neck, he slowly succumbed to sleep.

The next morning, he woke up late and Shelly had already gone to work and dropped Megan at daycare.  This was the regular Wednesday routine so he could focus on his novel.  As he made his coffee in the morning, he kept looking out at the bird feeder.  This morning, a giant red-headed woodpecker kept flying over and scaring the little finches, sparrows and bluebirds away.  Just like a redhead to be a bully!  The little yellow thrush did not make an appearance.

Ben had some breakfast and watched some TV, checked his emails and online profile, instagram feed, pinterest, reddit, and twitter feed.  He couldn’t focus.  Not even on the micro-blogs and memes.  He scrolled down Shelly’s profile searching for any strange posts and found nothing out of sorts.  Exasperated, he decided to go for a run.

He took his regular route out the backyard and through the woods.  The snow had melted enough that the trail was passable, but he was still careful to watch for puddles and ice.  As he ran, he let himself get lost in the music of the forest.  Bird calls echoed sporadically high above his head.  The woodpecker interjected its manic tapping.  His running shoes crunched on the dirt and gravel.  The cold air flushed his cheeks and cleared his head.  He was writing about a dogcatcher who was had chased a dog into the woods and gotten lost.  The sun had set, and the guy had left his phone in the truck, and he was now being pursued by a wolf.  It was a dumb premise, but he believed that even a dumb premise could be won over by clever characters, so he was resolute to uncover this poor dogcatcher’s redeeming resourcefulness.  As he ran, he looked around the woods and put himself into the mind of the dogcatcher.  He ran faster as if he were being pursued by a ferocious wolf.  Sprinting now, exhaling giant clouds of steam, he became the wolf, hunting the dogcatcher.  A hunger grew inside him and tears streamed from his eyes.  He bared his teeth, fighting the urge to give up, pushing himself harder, leaping over branches and sharp stones and murky puddles.  He imagined catching the dogcatcher and ripping out his throat and then gorging himself on the guy’s guts. 

Then he tripped.

His daydream was immediately replaced with a blur of frozen forest as his body pitched forward and bounced and scraped itself to a halt. Moans escaped him as he pushed himself onto his back and watched the plume of steam gasp out of him. After a bitter minute reflecting on his stupidity he pushed himself up and began checking himself out. His arms were a little scraped and definitely bruised beneath his winter jogging jacket. His left leg had scraped on a big rock and had suffered a fair gash. Nothing broken, thankfully.

“Fuck me,” he grumbled.

With a little extra effort, he stood up and realized he was a few steps from the river, which was where he usually took a break and then turned around.

He looked down at the slow meandering river and finished catching his breath.  The wolf had caught him and torn him up.  But he had survived.  Maybe the dog he was pursuing would save his protagonist from the wolf. Domestication defeats primal. The dog would die, of course, sacrificing himself for the man, and the man would then have to re-think his career and life’s work.

Ben looked down at his bloody knee and decided to begin the long limp home.

When he got home, he wrapped a towel around his wound and sat at his desk and began hammering at the keys.  A few pages in, once the dog had gotten between the dogcatcher and the hungry wolf, the chill of Ben’s cooling sweat overcame him and he headed to the shower.  Writing about a dog fighting a wolf would be a challenge and he needed to be focused.

In the hot stream of the shower, he scrubbed the dirt from his wound.  It was no easy feat.  To distract himself from the feeling of needles chewing at his leg, he stared into the gathering steam and conjured images of the snarling beasts, the terrified and exhausted dog catcher, the steam of the animals’ breath as they lunged at each other and tumbled in the dark underbrush.  A peck at the small shower window overlooking the yard broke his concentration.  The yellow thrush had returned.  It pecked again.

Ben rinsed the soap from his hands and body and gingerly opened the bathroom window.  Cold air flew in with the small bird.

“Steamy in here,” it said, high voice reverberating strangely on the tiles.  Ben stared at it, unable to come to terms.  It continued, “Sorry to jet yesterday, but you gotta do something about that cat.  It’s not safe for us.”

By us Ben was unsure whether it was referring to birds in general or just talking birds.

“What?”  Dumb was never a more appropriate word for a person unable to speak.

“Your fucking pet cat,” the bird continued, “is a fucking menace.  Do you have any idea what a contradiction it is to both have a pet cat AND keep a bird feeder?  Are you a sadist?  You get off on dead little birdies?”

Ben breathed shallowly.  “It’s got a bell,” he said.

“Oh!  A fucking bell!  You think it doesn’t know that?!”  The bird exclaimed hopping forward and fluttering its wings, “It can sneak its way within pouncing distance without so much as a faint dingle!”

“Fuck,” Ben said genuinely, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Bird said, regaining its composure, “Just keep in mind, it’s a frightful conundrum which should be addressed.” The bird looked at his wound dripping red down the drain. “Took a tumble, huh?”

Ben looked down at the red ooze. “Yeah.”

“Must be a bitch not to be able to fly,” The bird said, turning, about to fly out.

“Wait!” Ben said, moving the colder parts of his body into the spray of the hot water, “Did you say my wife was cheating on me?”

“Oh shit!  Yeah!  Sorry.” Bird said, “Cat just gets me agitated.  Yeah.  She’s banging an old high school friend she reconnected with on facebook.”

“What?”  Ben’s heart froze in his chest and dropped like a fishing weight into his stomach.

“Yeah, sorry man.  I know this isn’t probably how you wanted to hear.”

You mean from a bird? 

“I followed her one day,” Bird continued, “I was bored and there’s a nice birdbath at the library across from the school.  So I was over there trying to peck through the damn ice when I see this redhead chick walk up and put a note on her windshield.”  Bird pecked at a drop of water by its feet.  “At first I thought it was nothing, just like a substitute or something, but then when she comes and checks the note she calls you and says she’s gonna be late.”

A chick?!  Ben shifted his body again.  Goosebumps ran up his arms as the hot water warmed him.

“You okay?”  The bird asked.

“Go on, please.”

“Cool.  Sorry.  Um.  Yeah, so I followed her and they end up at her place and they, well, they did the dirty.”

“My wife slept with another woman?”

“There was no sleeping as far as I know.”

“How do you know?”

The bird laughed a high-pitched tweety laugh.

“Just say I got a ‘bird’s eye view’” it said, it was hard to tell, but it might have winked.

Ben’s head swam.  His eyes wouldn’t focus.  He turned off the water and wrapped himself in a green towel. “No. It’s not possible. She would never–“

He was cut short by a flash of feathers inches from his face. He flailed and stepped backward, bumping up against the sink. “What the–?”

The bird settled on the lip of the tub and eyed Ben coolly.

“Listen, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you can’t actually say that this is a surprise to you. Think about it. The late nights. The lack of a sex life. I mean, forget about poking the hole, she won’t even look you in the eyes for longer than a blink.”

“Poking the–?”

“Listen!” The bird screeched. “If you were standing on the corner and saw two trucks about to hit each other, what would you do? You’d try and stop them right? You’d do whatever you could to prevent an accident that would mangle two people’s, if not more, lives. This is what we do, even animals. We don’t avoid the truth. We dash at it and seize the moment. You stupid humans, however, spend so much time dancing around and avoiding the obvious. You waste your lives asleep at the wheel on a freeway full of drunk drivers. It’s stupid.

“Now I know you’re still grappling with the whole talking bird thing, and that’s what it is,” the bird continued, “but don’t let my interruption into your peaceful ambivalence prevent you from taking this very real moment and realizing that your life has taken a very wrong turn and it’s about time you wake the fuck up. If you don’t, it may be more than your own life that gets fucked.”

“Megan?” Ben asked the space between him and the finch.

The bird stared at him with his tiny black eyes. Ben held the gaze for as long as he could, then sighed and looked down at his wound. He had been daydreaming when he fell and gashed himself. How many of the bad things in his life had happened because we wasn’t paying attention?

“Think about it,” Bird said and flew out the window. 

Instead of returning to his writing, he dressed his wound and sat on the living room couch and turned on the TV. Mindlessly scrolling through the channels, he considered the bird’s proclamation.  He and his wife had drifted apart in the past year.  She was working more and he was always stepping out to write, so they spent little time together aside from meals and sleeping.  She had always been faithful before as far as he could tell.  They were high school sweethearts.  Their sex had been amazing, when they had it, but maybe had gotten a little formulaic. 

She joked about finding women attractive, had even made flimsy suggestions that they attempt a menage et trois, but nothing ever came of it.  He always thought that if he had supported the idea she would think him coquettish, like it must be some kind of trap, but now he felt foolish.  Maybe a threesome could have saved their marriage?

How could she do this to him?  He dug his hand into a nearby throw pillow and bit back tears.  Charles, like most cats, intuited Ben’s despair and climbed into his lap and purred, rolling onto his side and extending his front legs.  Ben released the pillow and stroked his cat.  The TV flashed ads for cereal and underwear at him.  His breathing regulated.

What has he doing?  He was envisioning the end of his marriage because of an apparent talking bird!  He laughed and looked at this cat, “You ever seen a talking bird?”

Charles purred and tugged at an old blanket Ben was half-sitting on.

“Maybe I have a brain tumor.”

At two o’clock he picked Megan up from daycare and brought her home.  He gave her a yogurt treat and worked on his story.  The wolf and the dog went at it, tearing at each other, but, despite the wolf’s size advantage, the dog’s speed and litheness allowed for a few decisive strikes and the wolf bolted away, whimpering.  Now the man faced the dog, his prey-turned-savior, scraped and bleeding, panting, maintaining its distance.  He had chased down dogs like this one for years and put them to their deaths.  His horrible profession clearer than it had ever been.  He put out his hand.  Here boy!   And the dog growled at him and ran away.  In the dark winter forest, the dog catcher was once again alone.

“Daddy?”  Megan appeared next to his writing desk.

“Yes Lumpkin.”

“I’m not a lumpkin!”

“What do you need, Megan?”

“Can we go see Donald Duck again?”  They vacationed at Disney the summer prior and Megan had lost her noggin for Donald Duck.

“Sure thing, Hambone!”

“When?”  She was a smart hambone.

“Let me talk about it with your mother and we’ll see.  Now go play so Daddy can finish his story.”

“I’m not a Hambone!”

“I know Princess.”

At six Ben went into the kitchen to cook dinner and the yellow bird was already on the sill over the sink.  He pecked twice.  Ben walked over and tried to shoo him away.  He pecked again.  “Open up,” it said through the glass, “it’s cold out here.”

So Ben opened the window and let the talking fucking bird back into his kitchen.

“You’re messing with my head,” he said to the bird.

“I could go,” it said alighting on the faucet again.  “You could just pretend I was a delusion.”

Ben thought this over for a second.

“Could you pour me a saucer of water?”  The bird asked.

“How do I know you’re not?” Ben said retrieving a saucer from the cabinet, adding water, and placing it on the counter, “a delusion?”

“Thanks,” said the bird, hopping over and pecking a sip.  “Well, I guess that’s the tricky part.”

“Do you have proof?”  Ben asked, looking over his shoulder, worried that Megan might walk in.

“Well,” Bird mused, “I could stake out the dame’s house in a rusty Chrysler and snap some photos.”

Ben stared non-plussed.  The bird pecked another sip of water.

“Oh wait,” the bird piped, “I don’t have fingers.”

“You’re sarcastic for a bird.”

“Oh we’re all like this.  It comes with the Godly ability to shit on whatever you like.”

“Right.”  Ben eyed the knife block.  “Can’t you just give me her address?”

“Nope.  Can’t read.  Talking’s more natural.”

Ben sighed and looked at the kitchen clock.  It was six thirty.  Shelly would be home by seven or call soon.  As if reading his mind the bird hopped up on the window sill.

“Leave the window open,” he said, “if she calls, grab the kid and we’ll take a drive.  I’ll be at the feeder.  Thanks for the water.”  And he flitted over to the feeder and started munching some seed.

Ben sighed again and walked over to the fridge.  He had been too preoccupied to think about dinner today so he hadn’t defrosted anything.  Now he faced the dilemma of either making some falafel or ordering pizza again.

“Megan?” he called, closing the fridge.  He heard Chuck’s bell jingle down the hall probably coming to get his own dinner.  “You want samosa’s tonight?”  Indian food was a better bet.

On the counter his phone buzzed to life.  Shelly was calling.  He looked out to the bird feeder where the yellow bird was still munching seeds.  He waved, but the bird wasn’t looking.  He accepted the call.

“Hello?”

“Hi!  Are you okay?  You sound funny.”  Her voice was calm as ever.  He attempted to slow his racing heart.

“Fine.  What’s up?”

“Okay.  I’m sorry.  Fucking Jerry has me working late on a PTA meeting.  I probably won’t be home til ten.”

“Oh”, he said changing the phone to his other ear and looking back out to the bird feeder.  The bird had disappeared.  “That’s okay.  We were going to order Indian food anyway.  I’ll just see you when you get home.”

“Okay.  Bye.”  She hung up.  He banged on the window.  Behind him Charles’ bell jingled again.

“Just a second, Chucky,” He said, still scanning the backyard, the trees and bushes, for the yellow.  Then a giggle behind him caused him to spin on his heels.

Megan was standing there with Charles’ collar in her hand.  She shook it gleefully.

“Fooled you, Hambone!”  She squealed, “I’m not Charley!”  And she erupted in an explosion of laughter.  Ben put down his phone and looked back to the yard.  Still nothing. 

Suddenly, the laughter turned to screams.

“AAAAAAaaahhhh!” Megan screamed and ran from the kitchen.

Ben turned.  Charles had entered from the cat door, stealthy and silent without his bell.  In his jaws was the shivering, bloody body of the yellow bird.  He dropped it and pawed it playfully. 

“No!”  Ben yelled, reaching down and swatting the cat on its nose.  It hissed and fled the room.  Ben lifted the frail bird in his palms and carried it to the counter.  “Shit!  Shit!”

He stared at the little thing, red blood splotchy in the ruffled yellow feathers.

“Hold on! What do you need?” He shouted at the bird as its eyes flitted about manic with terror.

It stopped breathing then.  Ben stood there in the darkening kitchen, alone again, unsure of what to do.

Shelly walked in then.

“Who are you talking to?” And upon seeing the dead bird in Ben’s hands, “Oh fuck!”

Ben looked at her and sighed, still holding the bird.

“We should talk,” he said.

Outside, the redheaded woodpecker ravaged the feeder.

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Story #44 – Flying in his Dreams

Before he goes to bed, David must do his stretches. He must do the exercises which will prepare him for a night sleep which is proper and good. He is not the young man he once was, and sometimes Sleep has a harder time finding him.

So David touches his toes. When he does this he remembers when his Mom always told him as a kid that he should touch his toes three times every morning. He would do it with her and giggle when she grunted. Now he too grunts while staring at his own funny knees.

And he swings his arms across his chest and back out, like his arms are wings and he’s preparing for flight. This stretches his chest and back which is supposed to be helpful. He used to fly in his dreams but no longer. He must have pulled that muscle long ago and it has never really healed.

As David does these stretches, his wife walks past him. She is smiling and drying her hair. She does not need to stretch before bed, she is ten years younger and vibrant. Sleep still finds her easily. He hears her climb into bed where the dog, Nori, is already snoring.

Then he lifts up his knees one at a time. He pulls them to his chest which stretches out his butt. These days he leans forward a bit, which is technically cheating. If he did not do this, though, it would be a pointless motion altogether. Either that or he would tear his butt to ribbons and that just wouldn’t do.

As he does his squats, David’s two cats meander by and into the bedroom where his wife’s gentle snoring has joined Nori’s more guttural snout sounds. Squats are important as you get older because they keep the muscles which allow you to both sit on and rise from the commode hale and functional. David would like to maintain the dignity of private bathroom time for as long as he can. The bathroom is where he plays games on his phone.

As David rotates has shoulders in slow circles, his wife’s pet bunny hops by. As he stretches his neck, their two ducks quietly waddle past. When he leans into the wall to stretch his calves, a pot bellied pig trots into the bedroom and springs onto the bed.

Now it’s time for David to go to sleep. He walks into the bedroom and the bed covered with little sleeping animals. His wife is sprawled out and the animals are spread across the mattress in their own little zones. They have left a small space by David’s pillow where he can lift the cover and climb in and under some of the beasts and then curl into a tiny little ball. He can do this because he has stretched and can coax his body into the smallest tightest clump possible.

And when Sleep comes, there are so many other animals on the bed that sometimes, Sleep walks right by without even noticing David there staring at the ceiling, remembering the days when he could sleep with his legs straight and his arms extended like he was flying in his dreams.

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