before it ends
I put my head to his chest
and relish in every single heartbeat,
each sound an unending delight,
the warmth of his heart melting the ice in my veins
and setting mine into motion,
his skin feels like satin against my cheek
I feel his blood rush in his body
in endless loops
like an infinity of not yet broken dreams,
I let my fingertips brush against his arm
and curl by his side
like a scared animal too wild to ever feel safe,
scars too deep
to share his peaceful slumber,
he rests under my love,
his slow breaths bringing relief to my strained muscles
and I wonder silently,
how long before they take him away from me,
before I am ripped away
from his arms,
before my nails drag across the floor,
like ragged wounds
in a blazing flesh
how long before once again
I am denied this moment
To Wait and Weep
Pearly drops of water were falling from gunmetal gray clouds on the day I found the old farmhouse. I was going to pass it by but its windows drew me in. Drops of water rolled down the glass to form a tiny pool on the pane. It looked as though the windows were weeping. For who or what I did not know. I only know how their sadness spoke to me. The siding on the roof was weathered. The middle porch step was broken. The torn cover of a “Play The Trumpet, Book 1” was caught in the lattice beneath the porch floor. A few shingles blown off the roof lay scattered on the ground. Whatever was left of a hand-painted sign was propped against the porch rail. The words, “Welcome”, “Music” and “Family” were legible. The rest were gone. The windows in the house wore no curtains, adding to the signs of abandonment. However, in spite of its state of unkemptness, the house retained an air of grace and gallantry.
How long had it been there, stuffed full of silence? It was void of voices and laughter. No longer did it contain echoes of quarrels and apologies, scuffles and scoldings. Nor could be heard the snoring of a farmer after a long day in a hayfield under a hot summer sun. The house was more empty than the vacated bird nest that rested in the branch of a nearby sapling maple tree.
The farmhouse stood alone. Still. Stoic. Waiting. For something. Maybe for its family to come back? One suspects it had known happier days. That it had once thrilled to the sound of a child practicing a trumpet. It’s possible the house had even welcomed the sour notes, for it knew that by struggling with strange off-key sounds, the child would learn how to coax sweet haunting music from the shiny instrument. Could it be that the house wanted once again to hear the family sing together? Or that it was listening for the mother’s soprano blend with the farmer’s bass and the children’s alto that had once filled its space with harmony? Maybe it was remembering how in the early evening, after chores were done, the voices of the family’s music drifted across the lawn. Perhaps it wanted to hear the clop of shoes and boots coming up the porch steps as people dropped in to listen or join in the singing.
And, oh yes, the children! Perhaps the house was waiting to hear them as they scrambled up the stairs. And the squeak of the fifth step from the landing, when on Christmas Eve, they crept down at midnight, hoping to see Santa Claus. Could it be anticipating the aroma of coffee perking on the wood stove? Maybe it was waiting to hear the scrape of the farmer’s chair on the linoleum when he pushed away from the breakfast table. It might be hoping he would hurry to the barn and call the cows in from the pasture to be milked.
Or perhap the house was just tired. Much like Mr. Sanders, the gentleman whose 99thh birthday I had helped celebrate last week. He was a resident of the nursing home that could be seen from the porch of the house. When I entered his room, he was gazing out the window. He wore his farmer’s striped bib overalls. The straps were loose around his thin shoulders. On his head was a worn billed hat, with the words, “Old farmers never die. They just go to seed.” I stood beside his wheelchair and strained to look through his window. I wanted to see what he saw. But the only thing that stood across the half-mile stretch of green grass was the old farmhouse.
I looked closely at him. Gone from his face were the lines of determination and strength that marks those who spent their lives wrestling with the wind, the sun and rain. One who understood, as only a farmer can, that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. The weather might cooperate or it might not. The harvest would be plentiful or the cupboards would be bare. From the half-smile and soft chuckle that had punctuated our conversations in days past, I knew this farmer once carried optimism on his shoulders as easily as he could hoist his young son high above his head. It wasn’t always visible, but it was always there. For, without it, no farmer could survive.
On that day, however, as he gazed at the old house, I saw his face change from stubborn determination to resignation. It was as though he and the house were completing a pact they had made with each other. They were connected by a shared realization. Restoration for the two of them was no longer an option. They both knew it. They were too far gone. Their usefulness in this world had expired. The old man began to weep. Silently. He closed his eyes and whispered, “It is time.”
I left the nursing home and returned to the farmhouse. At the end of the driveway a beat-up metal mailbox on a weather-worn wooden post leaned slightly to the left. On it I saw faded letters. “S-A-N-D-E-R-S”. I looked again at the windows. Beads of water still stood on the glass. Something about them reminded me of what I had seen on the old man’s face. They too, were waiting. They too were weeping. Because it was time.
And in that moment I realized the old man and old house were waiting and weeping for each other.
We were lying on the bed. It was dark. I looked up at the ceiling and it was covered in glow-in-the-dark stars. If I had known this, I don’t think I would have kissed him the way I did at the club. I was drinking, the music was pounding, the crowd was exciting and exotic. Voices chattering foreign languages ebbed and flowed with the thumping music.
It was my first time to a dance club in Europe. My date was Italian. He had been watching me, I had noticed. Whenever I got together with Marco, there he was, eying me intently. He obviously liked me. And I liked the way he would say, “Dai!” in that whiny way, when he laughed with his Italian friends. I figured out it means, “Come on!”, or “Stop!”, as in stop teasing. I didn’t know for sure, but I supposed.
He had a pouty lower lip, thick, dark, curly hair, and a tall, slim frame. He looked a bit like my father in the pictures I had seen of him as a young man. I noted this almost subconsciously.
When he buzzed my door, I didn’t hear at first. I had been blow-drying my hair, planning to stay in for the night. I was feeling a little like I might be coming down with something. It would turn out to be the flu, but I didn’t know that yet.
And now here I was, on his bed. In the dark, looking at fake stars. Waiting while he put the music, a drifting melancholy tune, a clarinet maybe? A flute? I wasn’t sure. But I was quite sure I about to be one of many in a long line of girls to bed this gentleman.
He put his arm around me and pulled me close to him, “If you could be any animal, what would you be?,” he asked.
“Ummm, a polar bear, maybe?”, I replied, having never pondered this idea before.
“No,” he said, “You would be a dolphin.”
“Fair enough,” I laughed.
“What animal would you be, then?,” I countered, snuggling up to him.
“I would be a donkey.” He stated, proudly.
“Ahhh. Confirmation,” I thought to myself.
I guess I better make sure I’m memorable, at least.
It’s Silly, Isn’t It
A scarf sitting in midair
As if wrapped cozily around someone's neck.
A little shirt rests under it,
Seemingly hugging a set of arms and torso.
Now you see the pants
Hanging idly onto an invisible pair of legs.
Don't forget the shoes,
Diligently tying the outfit together.
It's silly, isn't it?
Yet in the case of rape,
That's the primary question.
What were you wearing?
As if the victim truly is invisible, after all.
From Now On
She was terrified when it happened.
It happened all at once. There she was, sitting in front of her best friend as she repeatedly did on Sunday mornings. They would meet for coffee and mimosas and to vent about the unfair demands at work or husbands who didn’t seem to grasp the basic human concept of cleaning up after themselves. The cafe down the street, two blocks away from her small studio apartment, sold the finest pancakes on the east side of the river. The candied scent of blueberries paired with the savory flavor of goat cheese was only cleansed by the sharp, tangy citrus of lemon zest sprinkled on top. It made her mouth water in anticipation as it carried through her open window, riding on the back of the morning breeze. And just like every other Sunday, she would scramble out of bed, throwing on an already prepared outfit, and sprint through the two blocks separating her from enjoyable company and satisfying delicacies.
But this morning was different.
As she sat enraptured by her friend’s animated storytelling, a low humming pulsated in her ear. The sound felt buried, she could practically feel it in her throat, but began to amplify, growing and growing until her world was enveloped by a cacophony of high-pitched whines and ear-shattering vibrations. She stood suddenly and stumbled. Her equilibrium felt off. Her head was swimming and stomach churching. She felt as though she was underwater, engulfed by a suffocating pressure and trying desperately to claw her way out. Everything became muffled. Everything became stifled.
And within a few hours, everything became silent.
The doctors said it was an infection, something she had contracted when she was just a baby; undiagnosed, untreated, and unchanging. Even through the silence she could heed the heavy words echoing through the room.
"There's nothing we can do."
She thought it was something that was only said in movies, tv shows, fantasies concocted to give birth to despairing, overemotional situations. It was something so far-fetched, so theatrical, so unbelievably cliche that she couldn't believe it.
And she also couldn't conceive it.
And she also couldn't hear.
Friends and family considered everything within their power to help. Her fathers invested hundreds of dollars on every advanced hearing aid science could develop but to no avail. Her friends prodded her towards sign language classes, but the rapid gestures and miniscule movements were overwhelming. She couldn't hear the sharp strike of hands as the teacher taught them the phrase for losing your temper. She couldn't hear the soft scratching of graphite as the person next to her took notes. She couldn't hear the rhythmic clacking of drumming nails; the cushioned thumping of a tapping foot; the abrupt roughness of a wheezing cough; the sticky smacking of chewing gum; the repetitive humming of a breathy murmur.
It was all too much, the sound of nothing at all.
She spent most her days lying in bed with the curtains drawn, enfolded in comforters, and ignoring the absence of rustling as she tossed and turned for hours. Messages went unanswered. Visitors were ignored. Her apartment was littered with unopened boxes of whiteboards, notepads, and multicolored pens, scattered with personal notes of sorrow and sympathy. She was wasting away in a winter of disquieted depression and still, staggering silence.
She was terrified when it happened.
It hadn't happened for a while. Her time began bleeding together. Minutes turned into days, days turned into months, and once again it was a Sunday Morning. Her window was shut, her curtains still drawn, and yet the scent nevertheless infiltrated the modest studio apartment. The affectionate, fragrant smell of blueberries caressed her like a lifelong friend. The flavorful savor of cheese greeted her with open arms. The zesty tang of citrus washed over her with a striking clarity. It was frightening but it was compelling, invigorating, and she felt as if she was being pulled by an invisible string as she detangled herself from her refuge. It wasn't long before she was up, dressed, and languidly ambling her way through the two blocks that separated her from the finest pancakes on the east side of the river.
Her best friend was there waiting for her when she arrived. They had been every Sunday morning since the incident. When she was spotted, she couldn't help but grin at the exuberant flails and the eager smile that greeted her. There were already two cups of coffee and mimosas waiting on the table. She lifted her own hand weakly and sat in the usual chair that almost seemed foreign to her. Her friend offered nothing as she adjusted to her surroundings. No talk of customers or unruly, troublesome children. No mention of the days she spent wallowing in her darkness and self-pity. No notation of the hours waiting at this very table every week, wondering if it would be the day she walked around the corner. Just one hand that grabbed onto hers softly, and with the other, signaled the waitress over and pointed to what they wanted on the menu. They sat for a while in silence, one forced, one chosen.
And that's when she felt it.
The onslaught of emotions. The bombardment of awareness. There was no sound of cars on the street right next to them but she felt the fleeting whip of the air as they sped by. The was no conversations of the cafe's brunch rush but she witnessed the animated hands that expressed their passions, the bouncing of their shoulders as they contained their laughter. When their waitress finally returned, placing a large stack of Lemon Blueberry Goat Cheese pancakes in front of them, she couldn't hear knocking of porcelain hitting glass, the "Is there anything else you need?" she knew they were required to ask, or the click click click of shoes as the waitress briskly sauntered away. But she drank in the sweet, savory, zesty aromas that carried into her window in the morning breeze. She observed the muted blues, vibrant yellows, and milky whites that molded harmoniously with the rich golden browns. She felt the fluffy textures give way to the fork as she carved into it, the stickiness of the syrup as it dripped onto her hand. And when she ultimately took a bite, the explosion of flavors overcame her and she couldn't help but cry. The hand that never left hers squeezed tighter as tears rolled down her face. She was still frightened. She was still devastated. But there was an acceptance in her that she hadn't been capable of finding until then.
From now on she was experiencing a different life, and she was going to make the best of it.
A cigarette in the evening
There are moments in life; snapshots. Small, insignificant moments that somehow feel as if they hold some overwhelming significance. Tiny pieces of time that will forever be branded in your mind with astounding clarity. This is one of those moments.
It was night time and his room was enveloped in darkness. There is something immensely palpable about the dark which creates an entirely different atmosphere; evoking completely different experiences, provoking thought and encouraging reflection.
He wasn’t exactly sober but he hadn’t touched a drink all night. Pressing, but not uncomfortable, silences stretched between the two of us. The thick, silent atmosphere of the night dissuading either of us from breaking its peace. He sits behind his desk in his favourite chair, swivelled just slightly in order to better see out of the solitary window. His silhouette was darker than the cloudy sky outside but I could still make out the tight ringlet curls atop his head that I loved and he hated. I could distinctly feel the cold emanating from the window from my seat atop his desk. I had my legs crossed, right over left, and a ghost of a smile on my face; recognizing this moment as something special.
He was not a smoker but he held a cigarette loosely between his two fingers and lips. Its red embers appearing startlingly bright in the dark room, unwittingly and inevitably drawing our attention to it. My eyes watched the glow of the cigarette unerringly, waiting for the bright flare as he casually raised it between his lips and took a drag. Watching the smoke curl from his mouth as he exhaled was satisfying in a way that few things are. Unique, perhaps, only to fire. The blue-grey smoke curled towards the ceiling, moving hypnotically and unpredictably, moved by an invisible force before dissipating and vanishing from my scrutiny.
He had his eyes closed, completely immersed in the blissful experience. I hated that he made smoking look so appealing. The clouds were lined with silver as a watery moon emerged slightly from behind them, bathing the room in an eerie silver light. Another drag of his cigarette, another flare, more hazy blue smoke slowly unfurling upwards. I watched as the cigarette was slowly consumed by the orange glow. A casual movement of his hand and a lazy flick of his thumb transfixed me. The silence continued to drag on. It was still a comfortable silence; all of our silences were. I was glad neither of us felt the need to fill the space between us with words. In a moment like this it would only have tainted the atmosphere.
We were content to remain immersed in our own thoughts. I do not know what he was thinking but I marvelled, yet again, about the intense awareness I had of this moment. It was a small snapshot in time; barely a glimpse, shared between two. It was a moment that could not and would not be forgotten. I did not want to forget this. Us. At that place, at that time.
I couldn’t forget his dorm room, enveloped in darkness or his relaxed figure lounging in a chair and lost in thought. I would always remember sitting on his desk with my legs crossed; refraining myself from tugging at that stray curl over his forehead. I wanted to memorise the lazy enjoyment he got smoking the cigarette, the smouldering red glow of the ember, its vivid flare, the blue-grey smoke curling slowly, unfurling towards the ceiling. It was a moment I truly wished would last forever and so I relished in the atmosphere, savouring every second and cherishing these special moments, just for me.
In some ways, pain is a universal language. What causes pain can vary, but pain is that which we all understand. Devon had a way of identifying people’s pain. Possibly because he himself was in a constant (yet hidden) state of despair. He knew the signals. Could recognize the small facial changes and energy shifts. And he would often take it upon himself to bring smiles wherever possible. It never seemed enough to satiate the growing void in his own heart and he had come to accept that his void would always be there. But the idea of eradicating such a feeling for others became a source of livelihood for him. He had a light-hearted nature that he maintained even after two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, this boyish disposition helped keep the nightmares at bay. He would play theme songs from the movies and shows of his childhood to aid him in getting through each night. In many ways, he had remained unchanged as the chipper and starry-eyed 17 year-old who fantasized about saving the world as a patriot. In many other ways, he was ruined. Stuck with the memories. The taste of a baby’s blood after being blown up in a stroller bomb; The dying words of his comrades, some he believed to be men much more deserving of life than he. Devon was someone who became complicated by way of experience. His core self (if one would like to argue that such a thing exists) was not intricate or heavy. It showed no signs of neurosis or anxiety----just depression. Brought on by the juxtaposition of his inner exuberance and the outer realities of his childhood and each numbing experience after. Perhaps this innocent simplicity lent to his reckoning. He had always dared to hope. Tasked himself with ending the suffering of others, even though he would never know such a feeling in his own heart.
This urge combined with a charming flirtatiousness is what led him to stop Lima on the street. She was, by any standard, a fat woman. Devon thought it looked good on her though, and he found that bigger women often let their guard down pretty fast if they felt desired. He caught a glimpse of exhaustion and sadness in her face--which he took as an opportunity to offer some dashing comfort. He found out her demeanor was due to a long day’s work, so he offered a consoling hug-- an excuse for touching-- which he thoroughly enjoyed. Lima had both a coltish and serious disposition: warm, intense, and grounded. Like hot Lava cooling on water as it turned to earth. She didn’t seem particularly giddy or impressed, but rather offered a genuine and curious interest in Devon. He had an affinity for genuine women. It helped him make up for his own deficit. What began as a transitory chance to put a smile on a pretty girl’s face, led to Devon considering an entire courting process. He had, in spite of himself, felt something. Hope reared its beautifully ugly head again. And in a fit of hopeful doubt, he took the bait.
Days later, Devon had arranged a date with Lima. He picked her up from her job and they set off for pizza and conversation by the lake. It was an evening in early November, so it was rather cold to be by the lake, but Devon had to bring her here---this particular beach offered many nostalgic memories for him and he needed to relive them. The pizza they had was also from a place he had frequented in his childhood--only befitting. Lima recognized this pattern of relived memories when Devon then drove them to a mall nearby that he used to visit as well (though she wouldn't analyze how pathetic and sinister this contrived list of destinations was until much later). If Lima had known any better at the time, she would have--for personal enjoyment--counted the number of times Devon said the word "SEAL." He would find ways to slip it in to parts of their conversations "when I was a SEAL..." or "As a SEAL..." or "SEALS are trained to..."
In spite of his incessant need to relive the past and his sadly obvious peacocking, Lima found Devon to be quite charming. In actuality, she subconsciously saw a project...a challenge to help the bruised veteran become whole again. For Devon, she would do. Lima was comforting and inviting--she could scratch his itch.They both unknowingly provided sufficient artillery for the other's complex.
They entered a whirlwind romance. Devon had professed strong feelings very early on. Lima, swayed by the persistence and consistency and his seemingly open and vulnerable communication, followed suit. They spent time together mostly at night after Devon got off of work. The first time they had made love, Devon proclaimed to be able to feel Lima's heartbeat and said their night was perfect. Lima had felt quite unsure and was numbed from nervousness and uncertainty. She didn't quite understand how the night was perfect for him. But he seemed so sure and his affections felt so nice that she assumed it to be so. Devon had a tendency to be quite confrontational with other men. On three different occasions, she had to diffuse situations where Devon almost got into fights....a passing car didn't slow down enough, a passerby didn't get out of the way fast enough...Devon had to be sure these other men respected him. Lima was pained at these useless displays of macho behavior and often wondered if this would be their future.
She never quite understood how the male ego worked…all she knew was that there was one, and that it was quite flimsy. He talked a lot. Mostly about himself--old memories and ever present feelings of despair. She listened. She gathered that most men do not have friends that they can vent to in this way. And wanting to feel needed, she readily accepted the opportunity to "be there." One day, as they were driving back from a day-long road trip out of town, Lima pushed herself to discuss her own turmoil. She had started to talk about her weight and struggles with wanting to feel admired. "You're beautiful" and some blanketed advice were all Devon could offer in that moment. A consoling compliment that would lighten the mood was often how he approached Lima's attempts at vulnerability. He figured women were easily appeased in this way. Validation was key. The conversation lasted 5 minutes. While she appreciated the affirming statement, she didn't feel quite comfortable enough pushing the subject or any of the deeper implications. She hushed. And Devon used the opening to reminisce about the day he completed his training "as a SEAL" and of a lover he used to know and how she broke his heart. For the next hour, he told story after story and when he stopped, Lima looked over to see that he had started crying. She felt many things--annoyance, curiosity about his past, a weight from the somber nature of his words, and a genuine appreciation for his story telling. She could not focus too long on any of these feelings for she felt a bigger need to help eradicate whatever sadness was sweeping over him and leading him to tears. As Devon let the tears fall down his face, he stated: "I'm finally ready to die." Panicked, Lima tried all of the flowery words she could, but Devon had seemed content with the hopelessness and preferred to turn on the proper song that he usually listened to in those moments. A song he discovered when he first fell in love with this girl and when he first joined the military. Lima stifled her own disturbed feelings as Devon parked in front of her apartment. They ascended the stairs and as they laid down in her room, he began removing her pants and expressed gratitude for her presence and support. All was well. She felt loved through feeling needed.
Devon came home pretty late that night. As he left Lima’s apartment, he drank an elixir of whiskey and NyQuil on his drive home. He rustled through the refrigerator to find something to eat…something to help cool the heart burn, the stomach ache, and the voices. He noticed a plate of leftovers wrapped in foil. He ripped off the foil and devoured the food. He washed it down with some old wine. He popped three Tylenol then went to his room. "Hi Steven" he heard from his bed, as he undressed, not bothering to wipe the juices of sex and sweat off of his body. He nestled under the covers, then leaned over and made love to his wife.
I want to show you what’s inside of me, something that’s deeper than my heart.
I want to let you in but I don’t know where to start.
I want you to understand me.
The way I think, the way I move.
Understand why I make the decisions that I do.
I want you to know my deepest fears.
Understand what brings forth my tears.
And never second guess my motives because of wounds that never healed.
Just let me show you something deeper, it’s much deeper than us.
The deepest thing I have to offer, let me show you trust.
#WritingToStaySane #FeltLikeSharing #Introvert
A Dragging, Groaning Love
Andy gazed over at the crouched figure across the abandoned parking lot. His milky eyes focused with interest and his fingers twitched, hanging by his side like waiting spiders.
Vehicles were strewn around the area like toys but he could still see her clearly. The sun was high and bright and displayed her proudly beside a red minivan with shattered windows. She was facing him, hunched over an unrecognizable corpse and eagerly shoving handfuls of bloody flesh into her mouth. A gore spattered cardigan that used to be yellow flapped around her in the breeze as she ate. From this distance he could see dark streams running down her face and front and heard her frequent grunts of satisfaction.
She was picturesque against the backdrop of the deserted shopping mall and endless blue sky. He had never seen anything more beautiful.
Could he approach her? He shuffled his feet nervously on the hot asphalt.
Introducing himself to girls really wasn’t his strong point, even when he was human. He tended to mumble and blush. Not that he really remembered – ever since he woke up as a drooling zombie his memories were few and far between, scattered like old photographs in the wind. He was sure of two things; his name was Andy, and he was dead.
In the beginning the only thing that had scared him more than his own slowly decomposing body was his terrible desire for fresh human flesh. Brains in particular held an uncanny hold over him. They were all he thought about, at least before he learned to control himself. They practically danced in his head like bloody sugar plums. Until that time he was falling upon everything he came across, living or dead, and cracking heads like melons. It took a few weeks to get used to that - transitioning from burgers to brains was a pretty big leap.
After the city cleared out of living survivors, there wasn’t much left to do but amble around. Andy travelled aimlessly through empty suburbs until he had found her one day in a dumpster, drawn to the thuds within. She was gnawing on a dismembered arm and didn’t even notice him peering over the edge at her. His first thought was that she looked like sunlight streaming out from behind a dark cloud, pure and lovely. Sure, part of her skull was exposed and garbage was sticking out of her hair but Andy had been smitten. Her glazed blue eyes weren’t full of life exactly, but still held a vigor that he appreciated. She was just like him, alone and purposeless. From that day on he followed her like a lost dog.
Doubt and insecurity kept him at bay, though. Days of stumbling around the streets wearing the same faded t-shirt and jeans were unforgiving. The remains of his own previous meals were smeared down his chest and the smell coming off him was quite potent. However unlike most of the other undead around here he still had most of his skin and all of his limbs, which was a definite bonus. Actually his pretty pursuit didn’t seem to care about much at all. He had been following her for weeks and she had barely glanced at him. Her gait was as lackluster as his was, slow and dragging unless a human strayed in front of her or she came across something dead. Then she would become a little more animated.
Was it love? Andy didn’t think he could ever fall in love in the state he was in. All he did was shuffle around, tailing this girl like some kind of creep. Not exactly dating material. As he watched her chewing happily on those intestines from across the lot however, he began to have second thoughts. Maybe this was meant to be.
Without fully planning on what he was going to do, he clenched his fists and began moving forward. This was it. His split chucks dragged on the baking asphalt and he gritted his teeth. All he had to do was greet her in a non-threatening way and indicate he did not want to steal her corpse. Nothing was worse than having someone come up and try to drag your meal away. Andy wasn’t that kind of guy.
All ways of introducing oneself was flying through his maggot-riddled head. Name first, joke later? Or should he open with a funny one-liner and hope for the best? Maybe she wasn’t the kind of person who liked jokes. He just didn’t know. The sun suddenly seemed too hot and his collar felt tight. She now seemed to be at the far end of a tunnel that was steadily constricting.
As if she sensed his hesitation she suddenly jerked her head up. Strings of innards dangled from her chin and her eyes narrowed suspiciously. A feral whine rose from her throat.
Crap, she’s onto me, Andy thought wildly. Knowing he had nothing to lose now, he quickened his pace. His previous dragging gait turned into a clumsy sprint. This was about as romantic as he could get, throwing himself at a girl he had been shuffling after for days and he didn’t even know her name. He tried to make himself appear friendlier by smiling as he ran.
Alarm filled the girl’s face and she leapt up from the bloody pile. To Andy she was the picture of perfection; up to her elbows in blood, skin graying, bit of skull showing on one side, looking like some kind of gorgeous siren.
Her body was poised to flee.
Andy had almost reached her, bony arms outstretching happily, when she darted away with uncanny speed like a deer regaining its senses. She disappeared in a flash of faded yellow around a corner of the mall and Andy lumbered to a stop beside the body on the pavement.
Dismay filled him. His body was no longer affected by labor or activity; he could run for miles and feel nothing but hunger but his heart wasn’t so lucky. This had been his first real attempt at introducing himself and he had blown it. Possible mistakes flew through his mind; maybe he was too abrupt, or really should have opened with a joke. The defeat was bitter and he felt it sinking in his chest.
Without realizing it he had squatted beside the dead body and begun to eat from it. Maybe he would try again tomorrow if he could find her. His nerves and pride would probably have recovered by then and it gave him time to think of a better approach. He also had high hopes that after sleeping on it she would be forgiving and willing to hear him out. There was also the mall; if he could get in he might be able to clean himself up a bit and maybe find her a present. He wasn’t a total monster.
As he chewed thoughtfully on a nameless organ the sun began to set. It alighted on the tips of the trees that lined the perimeter of the parking lot, making them look like bright coals. Majestic rays filled the dying orange sky, giving just a glimpse of the immense breadth of it. Andy’s chest ached with disappointment but burned with hope for tomorrow. It was also being spattered with blood.
Unbeknownst to him as he gazed at the orange flare of last light, a familiar face peered around the corner of the mall. Her blue eyes were wary but curious as she saw Andy feasting on her corpse. She didn’t really mind. He was kind of cute.
Stronger Than Me
Why would the committee choose me? My resumé touted skills like ‘proficient in Microsoft Word and Quick Books.’ Nowhere did it say anything about diapers.
Rewrapped in a soft, gray blanket, the child looked up at me with uncanny focus, and I turned away, gaze darting out the bay window and into the evening sky. Stars dotted the horizon, peeking between silhouettes of mountains and outshining the more distant speckles meant to bedazzle the heavens.
These stars were fake.
“It won’t grow if you don’t feed it,” chided a warm, slightly grated voice. Time had bent the nurse’s back while laughter had drawn crow’s feet from her eyes and lips. Wisdom had dyed her braided hair the color of the moon.
Clucking at my bewildered expression, she placed a tepid bottle in my grasp and guided it to the baby’s mouth. The contents smelled like paint thinner, and despite the beige tint, I doubted it was milk.
The infant guzzled it, eyes never closing. I wouldn’t meet that gaze, not again.
“Ma’am, what’s in the bottle?”
“Food,” she chuckled, “and that’s all you need to know, Mr. Lane. Just don’t try to eat it yourself.”
I frowned. “Please don’t treat me like an idiot.”
“No, not an idiot. Of course not,” she cooed with a pat on my arm, “but you are very ignorant, and your superiors have designed things to keep it that way. Will you listen to an old woman’s advice?”
Always look people in the eyes, my papa said time and again. That’s where you’ll find the truth hiding.
So I did, and despite the sagging skin that made her eyes appear closed and the cataracts that clouded her pea green irises, a brightness and energy greeted me. Her eagerness jumped to my heart, her desire for me to succeed, her confidence that I could.
I nodded, and she smiled.
“Love conquers all.”
“I’m sorry?” I questioned. What did love have to do with this?
Her hands folded behind her back, immaculate, bleached scrubs glowing like a specter in the sunset’s rays. She was the only brilliant thing in this small, dull room. My black suit and tie seemed sinister in comparison.
“Do you know why the first nurse told you to hold the child?”
I shook my head. I would have preferred to leave it in the clear cradle.
“It’s the power of the human touch.” She repositioned my arms, pressing the infant tighter to my chest as she pushed me onto a rocking chair. “One gains strength from knowing they are loved. This child will need that strength.”
“I can’t love it,” I sputtered. “It’s not human. I can’t even tell if it’s a boy or girl.”
“It’s neither. That child has one purpose, and reproduction is not necessary. If we need more, the scientists will craft them. Your job is to ensure we don’t need more.”
“By loving a monster so it grows up nice and strong?” I grumbled and made the mistake of looking at it. Deep brown eyes met mine, vertical pupils flexing and contracting. I fell into them, a spiral slide with no end, breath abandoning me as the ride grew steeper, faster.
“Would it help if it had a name?”
Her words gave me something to grasp, a lifeline. All my strength poured into tugging on it. I felt like an ancient sailor hoisting the rigging, but it was only my eyelids that moved. As if tied to them, my jaw followed, opening, but I couldn’t quite control my voice yet, so I nodded.
“This one’s the hundredth of the batch, so I call it Cien.”
“Do you call the one right before it”—I searched my limited database of Spanish and found ‘ninety’ conspicuously missing—“uh, nueve-nueve?”
She laughed, a throaty, warm sound like freshly buttered toast. “You don’t need to know what I call the others, only this one. Cien is your only responsibility.”
The yellow notebook given to me when I left the building that night contained row after row of thick black lines, and I wondered how such a thing was supposed to help.
“Keep it healthy,” it said at the top of the first page. Everything else appeared censored.
It scared me nearly a year later with an incessant buzzing and the stench of bacon grease left idle. Fearing it might self-destruct like in an old spy movie or worse, bees, I flipped it open with a long pair of tongs.
Beneath the first admonition, where there had only been a black bar, were the words, “Prove it can learn.”
To whom am I supposed to prove it? I wondered. Are they watching me?
My superiors never responded to my emails.
There, dressed in flannel pajamas, fuzzy slippers, an apron, and armed with a hot pad and barbeque equipment, I pulled out my phone and sent them another one.
If they read it, they didn’t let me know.
I had never thought of myself as a teacher. In school, I preferred to work alone, and until the committee’s summons to the lab, I had been gleefully occupied in my corner cubicle, double checking formulas. Finding errors only validated the need for my position.
The child was a sponge, devouring all I could give. Phonics, arithmetic, vocabulary, history, biology, algebra, chemistry, literature, calculus, philosophy. Rarely did I have to explain a concept twice, and the more knowledge it gained, the easier it fit new pieces of the world together.
I stayed up all night researching so I could keep ahead or answer its questions.
I sent reports, amazed, enthralled, frustrated, but no one ever replied.
Years passed, and the notebook’s message remained the same. “Keep it healthy. Prove it can learn.”
So I fed it the packaged meals delivered to my doorstep each week. I taught it to play fetch, catch, then more complex sports. Through games, it learned to apply its studies to scenarios, to move smarter, not necessarily faster, than its opponents.
One didn’t have to take out every pawn, knight, and rook if one simply cornered the king.
The false stars still waited above. Could they see us? Did they fear this twisted creation molded from their DNA? Were they as monstrously beautiful?
The child looked mostly human aside from a few too-sharp angles. Its skin was albino with a wet, glossy appearance, stark against inky, shoulder-length hair.
Yet its true charm was in how it moved, like water, a stream. It wasn’t confined by gravity, instead using this ever-present force, repelling or attracting to augment its leaps.
When it fell, the spell that held me rapt broke, and I was reminded this was still a child, growing, adjusting, figuring out the definition of possible.
We sparred, me grateful for years of mixed martial arts training. I wondered if the committee had known of those night classes omitted in my resumé since they hadn’t seemed relevant for a cubical number cruncher.
I’d already corrected Cien’s stance twice this session, and again it stood too open, too forward, too close. The heel of my hand swooped in to punish the mistake, and those mesmerizing, russet eyes flicked to me, seeing the error too late and already wincing.
It’s just a child, I recalled, a seven-year-old not even a third my size.
I balked, hand slowing, and Cien dodged, spinning aside with a chuckle.
You know you can’t let it get away with that. Its skills won’t surpass yours if you always pull your punches.
We needed something stronger than me, stronger than us, to defeat the false stars if they ever attacked. That was this child’s purpose, something created from them to destroy them if the need ever arose.
What if that day came before Cien was ready because I didn’t push hard enough?
What if that day never came? What if we only created weapons we couldn’t control?
Sharp weight crashed into my spine, knocking me flat, followed by another giggle. “You’re not paying attention, Mr. Lane.”
“Why must I go to school?” Cien questioned as I parked in front of the brick cube that was the junior-high’s main campus.
“You have to learn to interact with others.” I pulled the yellow notebook from my briefcase in the backseat and placed it in the twelve-year-old’s lap, tapping the newest exposed line, the last on this page.
Cien stared down at it, gaze darting over the many mandates. “How do you know doing what the paper says is the right thing?”
Because you belong to those who wrote it, and you’re our best hope in the worst case.
But I had learned a teacher did not tell. A good teacher reasoned.
“Do you think what it has said thus far has been wrong?”
Cien shook its head, long hair fanning across its back. With it tied in a low ponytail and the school’s androgynous uniform draping Cien’s rail-thin frame, I saw equal amounts of feminine and masculine traits in this almost-teen. It was neither, but sometimes I wanted to see one or the other.
“If you skipped any of these steps, I would not exist,” it determined, eyes huge as they fixed on me. My heart fluttered like a flock of startled birds, but I had learned how not to fall into that gaze.
I concentrated on the sharp tips of the pupils, my own reflection impaled on them. “Is there something you think would work better than what the paper advises?”
With another shake of the head, Cien undid its seatbelt, passenger door clucking as it opened. “Can I keep the paper with me?”
Of course not, sat on the edge of my tongue, but as Cien hugged the yellow pad to its chest, I saw the faint tremor in its hands, and only, “Of course,” escaped.
Of course there was a fight.
I felt not a smidgen of pity for the boy wheeled away on a gurney. The other students’ testimony claimed he taunted Cien all day, striking it multiple times before Cien retaliated with a one-hit KO.
Unwise to upset an unsheathed weapon.
The worry surging through my gut was only magnified by the hissing crowd in the hallways as I made my way to the art room in the far back corner of the school. Cien had locked itself inside and knocked out anyone who came near.
This was the opposite of getting along with others. Had Cien lost all reason, all control? Would we have to fight?
Could I win?
The principal jiggled the locked handle, but his commentary sounded distant and distorted, like a deep whale song. When my fingers touched the door, it swung open. No light rained from the fixtures above. The sun barely dared to peek through closed blinds.
I wandered between leaning canvases, nose crinkling at the astringent smell.
“Cien?” I croaked, throat stinging. “I’m here for you.” I kept my stance wide and hips bent, ready.
Canvases fell like dominos, fortress walls crumbling. Behind them, rays streaming through a crooked shade shone upon pale skin, dark hair, and glittering bronze eyes. The navy jacket was torn at its shoulder and elbow, coral tie lopsided and frayed.
I knelt before this ethereal creature, crumpled papers crackling beneath my knees. The yellow notebook lay on its lap, held with reverence like a gospel by a saint.
“Cien, do you think it’s right to hurt so many people?”
Its gaze jumped to me, glossier than I had ever seen it. “They were annoying.”
“I didn’t ask why you did it, only if you thought it was right.”
My legs trembled in the silence, papers beneath whispering their fear. If this weapon decided we were not worth protecting, what would I have to do?
Its eyes caught the light and flashed. Vertical pupils convulsed, reminding me this wasn’t a simple child.
This was the hundredth imperfect copy of a captured alien soldier. And it was crying.
“They follow no logic,” it sobbed, and I sighed.
“When you cry like that, you look so very human.”
Cien’s long arms wrapped me in a hug. Warm tears seeped through my shirt. I was raising this thing that would one day be able to crush me, rip me apart, yet its embrace was so gentle, arms shaking, so scared.
A whisper wafted into my ears. “Would it be a bad thing if I wanted to be human?”
Yes, I thought. We need something stronger than a mere human.
The odor of old bacon grease permeated the square porch as I stepped out the door. It latched behind me with a subtle click, but Cien gave no response to the sound, no greeting for me. Beyond my child’s motionless silhouette, the tired sun sunk beneath a crown of ruby clouds and false stars filled the sky like spilled rhinestones.
Tomorrow’s sunrise would mark eighteen years with Cien at my side.
This beautiful, lithe creature faced the west, arid breeze tugging at light, loose fabric and unable to lift the thick braid cast over one shoulder. The yellow tablet rested in its large hands, and a hot spark of curiosity pushed me forward, nibbling at the rope of dread that held me in place.
What did the last line on the last page say?
Cien’s posture possessed a rigidity rare for this nimble being. My heart clenched. Bad news. Something Cien didn’t want to do, but what?
Eighteen. How many young men had gone off to war at the same age? How many of them never returned?
I wasn’t ready to let this child go. Maybe if the false stars had done anything other than hover, if they destroyed cities, stole precious resources, or kidnapped citizens, I might have seen the need, the urgency. Was I selfish? Yes. I would have admitted that if it meant I could have kept Cien a little longer.
Brown eyes turned to me, squinting as they scoured my expression. I stood straighter and smoothed out my face, trying to appear stronger than I was.
“Do you think it’s right?” My voice cracked.
Cien shook its head. “I don’t want it to be.”
I swallowed. “Do your wants outweigh the needs of the world?”
Its chin tilted. “It says, ‘Destroy Lane and return to headquarters.’”
I tried to swallow again, but my mouth was dry.
“It can be interpreted in many ways,” Cien said quickly, notebook dropped beneath rushed steps. I stumbled back, avoiding those eager hands, heart strangled in my throat.
My, “How?” escaped as a squeal. I had raised this warrior to be stronger than me in every way. I wouldn’t have stood a chance now, even if I had wanted to fight.
“We could destroy your identity, go on the run.”
Vision blurring, I realized this was a final test. I was not strong enough to let Cien go, but was it strong enough to let me go? Would the selfishness planted in this child’s heart by my example flourish? Or was Cien stronger than even that?
“Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one,” I whispered through a sob.
Firm arms encircled me, and I felt their tremors, the quickening of Cien’s heart beneath its ribs.
“It’s okay,” it assured me. “I’ll take care of everything.”
A sharp rap met the back of my neck, and the world faded.