Best Friends Forever

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Miriam was fed up with men that morning; particularly with her husband, Stan.

“You can’t talk to any guys,” he’d told her over breakfast.

It was the day she was to start her new job. “I have to, for work!”

“Well, only about business matters,” he’d warned.

Miriam wasn’t born yesterday, of course, but she was born in the era of technology. She had a brain. She had a job using her brain, to write software code for computers. What’s more, she worked primarily with males, since females didn’t seem to enjoy the same things she did.

“I have to actually be nice to them,” she explained.

“It’s only an invitation,” Stan said. “Also, don’t wear those jeans. Or, your-”

“I know, I know,” she cut him off. “Don’t wear my heels.”

Her mother didn’t understand, when Miriam tried to text-complain what was wrong. I think Stan’s right, dear, to be worried. Miriam could almost picture her mother wagging a finger. Women these days wear things I don’t even swim in, then skip off to a job and never think of having children. You know I would make an excellent grandmother, don’t you, dear?

Her friend, Jill, understood. At least, she understood Miriam. Stan’s just old-fashioned, Jill wrote back. He thinks women ought to stay home and feel satisfied ironing their husband’s work shirts while they have guy AND girl friends.

It wasn’t like the men in Miriam’s line of work were smarmy. Most of them were lucky to pick clothes with patterns that didn’t clash; some were lucky to remember personal hygiene. It also wasn’t like Miriam hadn’t experienced computer science lab flirting. How did Stan think she’d met and married him, after all?

He’s just jealous that I got the job at Sanutech and he didn’t, a small, inner voice suggested.

“Have a good day,” Stan said as he left for his own job; flimsy encouragement atop a towering pile of admonitions, criticisms, worries, and warnings.

“You, too,” she grumbled. He left. She watched him from their basement window as he mounted the stairs to the carport and his feet entered his reliable sedan. She waved to his tires before he drove away down their suburban street.

Upstairs, above her head, she heard the scuffle of shoes on bare wood floor. Stan’s mother was up, then, and getting ready for work. She’d had to ever since Stan’s father had filed for divorce ten years previously. Stan’s father had run off with the only female on his engineering team; a scandalous woman who joked with the guys and wore jeans and high heels.

Sighing, Miriam looked into their only mirror. She pulled a frumpy sweater over her nondescript dress shirt and slacks, touched up her plain hair style, and gave her reflection a half-smile.

“Time for work,” she told the empty apartment, and then headed out to her own reliable sedan.

She’d call Stan at lunch. It’d be nice to have a conversation with the one guy she ought to be friends with, after all.

 

Skinwalkers XXXI

Nathan laughed, a quick, short chuckle. “I’m sorry, Shin.” He walked forward the two paces that separated them and placed a light hand on his friend’s shoulder. Even at such a delicate touch, Nathan felt Shin’s muscle flinch slightly.

“Speaking of secrets, Shin,” he began, but Shin pulled his arm and his person from Nathan’s reassurances.

From a guarded, withdrawn expression, Shin said, “It’s nothing. Probably wound the muscles up too much fixing your antique station.” He flashed Nathan a wry, hooded smile.

Nathan noted how his friend stood somewhat off-balance, favoring the arm Nathan had just touched. It was also the arm connected to the shoulder Lizard had slapped that premeal, and the one Nathan himself had punched in jest on their return from their workcycle. Still, none of those hits had been heavy enough to warrant the reaction Shin had. Nathan felt a pang of concern. “Shin,” he began.

“It’s nothing.” Shin moved away to the wall. He picked up the scanscreen and its wires and dumped them into his satchel.

Sighing, Nathan bent and carefully gathered a few modules. He carried them to Shin and set them on the floor. He returned and repeated the gesture till all were clumped just outside the bag.

“Thanks,” Shin grunted while packing the autodrill and the remaining tools.

“Shin,” Nathan said again.

“Hm?” Grunt. Pack.

Nathan thought for a full jiff before continuing. “I… might know someone you can sell to.”

Shin glanced up, sensory wires looped over his wrists like rainbow bracelets as he gave Nathan his full attention.

Nathan shuffled his slipshods, watched their dance, and tried to think of the right words to say. He cared for Shin, he really did, but wasn’t certain how far he could help without risking his own future plans. “You saw the skin…”

Shin nodded, his actions still poised above the satchel opening. “And the comm,” his friend prompted.

“Right. That, too,” Nathan said, allowing the illusion that the two were related. “Thing is, my neighbor hooked me up with the sk- with them.” He looked around, mostly to the wall he shared with Franks.

Shin defrosted, setting the mods into his bag and straightening. His expression appeared hopeful.

Internally, Nathan groaned. His conscience kicked briefly at his next words, though he could have sworn it had died a full year ago, at the last funeral he’d attended. “Yeah, his name’s Franks. He’s got a cousin or something at Fantastique.”

Shin flinched slightly at the name, as any sane city dweller did. Still, he swallowed and tried to look more determined. “I do need to sell them,” his eyes fell to the remaining coils on the floor. “Especially since their absence will be noticed, like, imminently.”

Nathan laughed. “True.”

“So… can you mesh me with this Franks?”

Kick, went Nathan’s conscience. “Sure,” said his mouth. “I’ll walk over there with you right now.” He paused. “Er, you may want to pack everything in tightly and only show him one or two.” He turned to Shin, noting his friend’s awkward gestures around his arm’s condition. “I’d hate for you to get hurt.”

Shin met Nathan’s gaze. Each man’s eyes spoke of an open honesty the other would never voice aloud. Instead, Shin nodded. “Thanks.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXX.

 

Who’s Driving?

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I was supremely confident as a child that I could drive a car. All I needed, I’d say, was the green flag from the government for seven-year-olds to operate a vehicle and I’d be off!

Oh, I had experience: My parents occasionally allowed me sit-on-their-lap steering privileges home from church on Sundays. And at fifteenish, I pulled a few turns unassisted in that same church parking lot.

Man, I was set!

By the age of nearly-sixteen, however, shift got real. My mother may have realized this, as I was enrolled in Driver’s Education at school and had grown tall enough to look her in the eye. One day she took me to a quiet neighborhood side street, steered herself for the worst, and told me we could switch places.

Even on the best of days (as in, post-op heavily-medicated) my mother does not handle other people driving. When my annoyingly patient and meticulous father is navigating the roads at a rate that would put a sloth to sleep, she’s frantically kicking the floor of the passenger side in phantom braking actions.

Turning the wheel fully over to me is on my mother’s list of Bravest Things She’s Ever Done.

For my part, I was counting on my first time driving as heading the list of Epic Life Adventures or Most Awesome Experiences Ever. Right? Instead, as I sat in front of the wheel completely on my own, I was gripped with terror. The awesome power of everything I was now in charge of washed over me and my mind blanked. My foot convulsed at the pedals the same way it did when I tried to navigate a sewing machine. The wheel was strangely hyper-sensitive. All of the cars parked calmly at the sides of the street were trying to leap out in front of me.

“I thought you knew how to drive!” My mother screamed as we jerked along and sashayed from right to left.

I thought I did, too, I told myself. I felt sad, confused, surprised, and hopeless. We pulled over and returned to our former roles. My confident plans of self-dependency and road freedomness dissolved forever. Maybe we should’ve used an automatic.

Luckily, my driving actually improved from there. I throw that out, in case anyone has determined to never set wheels on pavement when I’m out and about.

This morning, however, I was thinking about life. Specifically, if at all, I was pondering on my decades-long feeling of directionless discontent.

I kept thinking, Who’s driving, anyway?

I have been a stay-at-home mother for thirteen years, ever since being fired in the first trimester of my first pregnancy. I have felt motivated some days more than others. Lately, however, my life has felt completely out of my hands. My children cannot legally drive (yet), but I’ve put them and my husband in the front seat, crawled back over Cheerio crumbs and Hot Wheels cars to the dirty back of the car, and wondered why I keep getting car sick.

And yet, I don’t move.

What do I do?

Well… I pretend to be useful. I hand around a few snacks, break up fights, give the pretense of modeling good behavior, and pick up loose wrappers now and then. Oh, and sometimes I tell the person steering exactly what’s wrong with his driving.

As the tension in the car rises, I withdraw to less activity. I tell myself I am not sleepy when the suns sets over our dented hood, intentionally tiring myself to a state of drunken drowsiness when that same sun rises over that same hood. I eat the bad car snacks. I forget to shower at camp sites. I wonder why the floor cannot stay clean even though I’m snapping at everyone to please pick up your garbage!

Who’s driving, anyway?

Shortly after that first, fateful day at fifteen when my mother gave me full control, I attended the driving portion of Driver’s Ed at school. Perhaps because I was the tallest female, our instructor picked me for the first turn. I don’t learn well by going first; I’m an observer.

The rest of our small group piled into the small sedan, buckled for safety, and waited for me to start the engine. I gulped. I adjusted everything I could think to adjust: seatbelt, steering, seat, side mirrors, rearview mirror, headrest. We’d been walked through this in instructional videos during class, and I was determined to get all the steps right. Then, ignition -with foot on brake pedal, of course. My hands flew to 10 and 2 like boot camp soldiers. I looked forward through the windshield, and waited for whatever hell the instructor at my elbow would direct me through.

My turn didn’t last long then, either. Another boy in the class took over after a few blocks and did marvelously. He drove better than the instructor! It turned out that he’d been allowed to man tractors on his grandfather’s farm since thirteen years old. Cheater.

Who’s driving? Floats through my mind when I wake up and get ready for the children’s day. They need to dress for school, eat breakfast, sit up at the table, not punch their brothers, pick up their shoes, do their homework, eat right, not talk back, feel loved, and then understand that I am a person and I love their father and our relationship is the most important of all.

Yeah, we’ve been seeing a marriage counselor. She’s a good driver.

Who’s driving? My mind recalls the sappy Country Song “Jesus Take the Wheel.” That’s a subject for a few pages all its own, so I’ll summarize with: I may not be in a great place discontentedly backseat driving, but I trust that spot a lot more than the places He might take me.

I know others in a similar state. Their reactions have varied from meekly asking for a turn at steering, to pushing the special Eject button James Bond-style and parachuting irresponsibly to a new adventure.

I’d love to end this personal reflection with a determined statement; a wonderful aphorism on life to pass on. Unfortunately, all I’ve got are chocolate almonds, yesterday’s clothing, and criticisms.

Perhaps you know a good solution? Anything’s better than here.

Maybe.

“Life… has to be lived for something, not just against something.”

-Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (137), in discussing the perspective of Martin Gray, holocaust survivor.

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Wilhelmina Winters, Fifty-Nine

A few minutes later, the Winters sat together in Cynthia’s neutral-toned hospital room. This one had a different print hanging on the wall over the bed, a nice one of a girl with two braids standing among a garden of flowers. Its life and color stood out against the stark sage-beige theme that otherwise permeated the chilly room, and drew Wil’s interest at once.

Cynthia sat resting where she had for their last visit, and many before that for her entire life: propped up in the bed with IV and oxygen tubes dripping life into a body that seemed to repel it. Wil looked down from the picture of springtime to the face of her favorite person. Her mother’s misty blonde hair reminded Wil of a halo, even against the ugly bedspread of green sheets and paper pillows. Wil began to cry.

“Oh, Wil,” her mother began, opening clear blue eyes of concern. “It’s all right.” Wil cried harder, knowing otherwise. Rob and Jakob shifted uncomfortably; trying to find distraction in the tan walls, off-white window shade, or interlocking squares of cream and blue-green printed uniformly across the door curtain.

Cynthia offered her left arm to Wil, and Wil hurried to it. She tried to hug her mother gently, to not weep so deeply. Self-control seemed futile. They had talked about death, given it a name, and said it was coming. The moment she’d seen her mother laying there and thought of angels, Wil felt how very close Death actually walked. His form stood near enough that his cold shadow made her shiver; his voice whispered from the corners of their lives of imminent loss and despair.

“That’s enough, Wil,” Rob said sternly. He came around the bed and pulled Wil gently but firmly from Cynthia’s arm. Wil collapsed on him, instead. His rough face melted from surprise to a quiet pleasure. He shied from emotion, overwhelmed at his daughter’s level of expression; receiving it only when caught off-guard as Wil had done.

“I..” Wil choked, “I’m trying.” She lifted her wet face from her father’s chest, sniffed loudly, and breathed raggedly. “I just … it’s so… I didn’t want to actually lose Mom!” Wil concluded in slight wail, and dropped her face back onto Rob. He patted her back, a bit awkwardly, trying to ignore Jakob’s sigh.

Turning to give him a reprimanding look, Rob was surprised to see that his stepson was sighing because there were tears streaming down his cheeks as well. He hadn’t seen Jakob cry in public for a decade. Rob adopted Jakob after the baby years, and often thought the boy just didn’t cry. He looked over at Cynthia, and was not surprised to see her smiling his favorite, sweet smile through her own tears.

Despite the oxygen, Cynthia began another coughing fit. Three sad faces -two stained with tears- immediately lifted to look at her. She raised a hand of reassurance as she coughed, and they relaxed slightly.

Incessant beeping began from behind the bed. Wil realized that her mother was on monitoring equipment, and that the erratic oxygen levels induced by coughing had set it off.

Cynthia finished in a few seconds that lasted forever. The machine quieted. In the absence of noise, Wil heard thumping from a neighboring room or two receiving treatment, then picked out approaching footsteps. The door opened and Nurse Bea rushed in, clinking the door curtain to the side. She looked nearly as out of breath as Wil’s mother, though much more cheery.

“Ah,” Nurse Bea breathed in relief, “I see it’s stopped now.” She looked around at the somber assembly, and her expression became more bittersweet. “Don’t y’all worry for now.” She met Rob’s and Cynthia’s eyes. “The doctor will be in in a few minutes. He’s just finishin’ up on down the hall. I’ll leave you to it till then and you just holler if that ole machine acts up in the meantime.”

Leaving them with a parting smile and wave, she slid the separator back, left the room, and quietly pulled the door closed behind her.

 

Continued from Fifty-Eight.

Encounter in the Alley

A fine mist dances across the dark street gutters. A cat calls. An angry woman answers it. Besides these, nothing.

Just the way Julias likes it.

He checks his watch, knowing full well what time it is by the nighttime noises; playing at patience in an impatient mood. Where is that boy?!

Just then, in the absence of cat and woman mewls, his keen ears make out the soft pattern of Wal-Mart sneakers on misty sidewalks. He pulls against the cool stucco of the nearby house, pulls out of view of any wandering streetlamp circles.

The sneakers draw closer, stop, scuffle, squeak, scuffle again. Julias hears a hissing, whispered, “Julias?

Won’t the kid ever use the code names? He steps out; Sneaker Boy nearly yelps out of his skin. Julias gives the youth a look. “Use the names, Squirt.”

A nod, barely perceptible in the drifting fog. “Right.”

Julias sighs, slouches. “Did you get them, or not?”

Squirt grows animated, and pulls a rustling, bulging grocery sack from his jacket. The contents nearly spill all over the dirty, cracked, moodily-lit gutter.

“Shhhhh! Careful!” Julias admonishes, almost losing his normal, chill demeanor. Man, I really need my hit.

“Sorry, Juli- I mean, Sorry, Emperor-Maul-of-the-Alleys.”

Julias stares at the runt for a full five seconds, and then sticks out a hand for the bag.

Gulping, Squirt appeases the empty palm. He watches Julias (AKA Emperor Maul of the Alleys) close his fist on the handle and withdraw his arm. Squirt gulps again. “So… erm, about payment….?”

Julias fixes the boy in another silent stare. The cat and woman from a few alleys over converse again in the silent, swirling air. Slowly, Julias sticks the other hand into a deep pocket. It returns, bearing $40.16. Squirt lifts his own hand to receive it; counts the full amount in the dim lighting.

“Hhh- how’d you know the current exchange rate?” Squirt asks, his voice full of awe.

Julias looks up from rifling through the grocery sack; pauses. “I always do,” he says, in a mysterious way. “Now, get outta here before I use yesterday’s rates.”

Just remembering not to yelp again in fright, the boy jumps and takes off down the dark sidewalk, down the fog-lit alley of night. His retreating sneakers echo a more rapid pace than the percussive song they played at their entry.

Smirking beneath the guise of darkness and mists, Julias pulls out his prizes: 1 packet of Fox’s Glacier Mints and 24 cans of Diet Coke. It’d been a steep price to also pay for the kid’s gasoline, but a man doesn’t haggle when he needs his fix. Thinking on this, he sets the cans and package at his feet and carefully withdraws an empty bottle from yet another pocket.

For the first time that night, he hears only the occasional passing car or burst of wind. The dame and her pet must have gone to bed. Uncapping the bottle and opening the package of mints, he fills one with a few of the other. Next, he removes a can of soda from its plastic ring and tilts the tab till it opens in a satisfying *ptissssh*. He pours the Diet Coke into the bottled mints, caps the top, and allows himself a few seconds’ pause.

With an expression of pure bliss, he suddenly shakes the contents like a madman. He uncaps the bottle and dances, grinning fully, in the sticky shower sparkling down amongst the mists and streetlights.

Laughing, quietly, he dumps the remaining solution down the gutter and turns again to his purchases. One down, 23 to go…

Receipt

 

In response to Fractured Faith Blog’s Flash Fiction Challenge.

Feral Natives

The small natives, unkempt and unruly, peer from a shadowed arch. They stop, keenly watching an inert female creature just ahead.

The first whispers, “What’s she doin’?”

His companion checks. “Nuffin’. Sleepin’, most like.”

Urrrrhaghaaah! She moans. They scamper back to shadow’s safety.

“Did she see ya?” The younger sucks a finger.

A quick peek. “Nah. I think she’s fakin’.”

One second later: “Now what’s she doin’?”

He looks again. “Rolled over.” He scowls. “-Wait! I saw a light. She’s got her phone!”

“She’s awake!” Excited, the younger boy grips his brother’s arm.

Drat, she says.

“Let’s get ‘er!”

 

Carrot Ranch Literary Society Prompt

The Teacher’s Child

The teacher’s child is up too soon,
Eyes a-rubbed and cereal spooned.
He’s all his clothes laid in a line,
All washed and pressed with Mother’s iron.
He knows the sun, both ‘rise and ‘set,
He knows who’ll be the teacher’s pet.

The teacher’s child can never shirk;
Can’t hide the notes about late work.
Can’t even hide behind his name;
The teacher’s clearly called the same.
And all his friends know this too well
When he’s greeted by the principal.

The teacher’s child must quietly chew
Another meal from the drive-thru.
“How was your day?” is not his own
When they fin’lly meet his dad at home.
Then he will always share his desk
With thirty other pupils’ mess.

The teacher’s child will wash his sheets,
Will feed the pet, will brush his teeth.
He’ll tuck himself into his bed,
Will tell himself a book he’s read.
And, though her time is far and few,
Will cherish his mother’s, “I love you.”

Skinwalkers, XXX

Nathan coughed, choking. He stumbled mentally as well, in the absence of the quick-thought and decisive actions to which he was accustomed. Shin merely stood, waiting, watching; prepared to do so until Nathan answered to his satisfaction.

“Well, I …” Nathan began; stopped. “How…?” was another attempt. “Shin, I …?” He met his friend’s expectant gaze and abandoned most of his excuses. Beyond Shin, he saw the functional food station. He considered the stolen sensory modules and recalled many wise, subtle looks Shin had cast his way during past conversations. How could I have been so stupid?

Shin’s half-smile pulled at his serious expression as if he could read Nathan’s thoughts, and fully agreed with them.

“You saw the skin?” Nathan asked after the half-moment’s silence.

“Yup.”

“What about the comm-?”

“One on your bed got a note when I was stepping past your lazy, tart-eating corps.”

“Huh.”

Shin’s smile grew more pleased than humored. “No amount of theatrics study can replace good, old-fashioned observation.” Folding his arms, he repeated, “So, why, Nathaniel?”

Nathan’s brain came out of its reverie in a snap, quickly making up for its earlier behavior. He cast about, dithered, shrugged, and then admitted, “Nothing much. I tried for a job.” Feigning some embarrassment, he added, “It was at Carapace.”

Shin’s eyes widened and his mouth nearly dropped open. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Nathan continued. “Trying to rise up a little is all.”

Shin was quiet for half a moment, no doubt recalling Nathan’s anxiety en route to the job precycle. “And the extra comm?” he asked.

“Aren’t we fresh early on?!” Nathan teased. He paused, folding his arms, pretending consideration of the matter. After a jiff, he breathed in, then sighed loudly. “Nothing big, really. I worried about the work files on the old one.”

“Oh.” Shin turned this information over in his mind. “So…” he paused. “You were avoiding the stench of Ware Tech association.”

Carefully, Nathan nodded.

“Ha!” his friend said. “And I thought you were turning into a crime lord or something!”

“What?!” Nathan was truly surprised by this assumption, and showed it.

Shin chuckled a bit more, then trailed off to another awkward silence. He looked at his impressive display of illegal electronics. “Damn.”

“What?”

“Well…” Shin rubbed the back of his head. “Now what am I gonna do with them?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXIX.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXI.

The Eye of the Beholder

Good day, fellow art-lovers. On this fine morning, as you are all well aware, we gather to consider the latest artistic offerings one might find in his local market. Our pieces this day are all found in a curious shop named KSL Classifieds.

Without further ado, then, ladies and gentlemen, let us begin.

Our first sample is titled “Orange.”

Orange

Yes, yes it is. ‘Twould seem the artist felt no other explanation was necessary, and the seller as well. For $45, this… erm, orange, may be yours for the picking. (So sorry; it was too tempting.)

 

If obvious statements are your cachet, then our second item (for a mere $10) will leave you feeling …fabulous.

Fabulous

No, madame, I will not pronounce it as written. Anyone who cannot spell, nor include a photograph instead of a screen shot deserves to be shot. What’s that, sir? No, no. I was simply mumbling about the weather. Terribly hot day, this.

 

Of course, we are not simply purveyors of paltry paintings at this establishment. Those who wish to open their pocketbooks slightly wider may appreciate an original …print of an artwork, crafted by a man known as The Painter of Light.

Kinkade

I can’t help but feel the vendor did little to forward that reputation, by want of a clear lens for photographing. Ah, well, perhaps you may all picture its beauty, and thereby feel compelled to pay the $250 price tag.

 

Although I have studied and promoted creative works for many years, I’ll admit that some popular items still elude my personal preferences. Therefore, if any here express interest in Colombian paintings for their bathroom (as suggested by the seller), I’ll do my best to back them up.

Bottom

I’d say to move quickly on this $135 oil painting, but I imagine she’s not going anywhere in a hurry.

 

Our organizers thought this wall “art” might do well to follow the woman at her toilette; I can’t imagine why.

Moon

 

But really, what better place to rid oneself of an entire paycheck than on secondhand art? Take this print, for example, at $300:

Urn

“(B)eautifully framed urn artwork in pristine condition” advertises the owner. I agree. Tai Pan Trading did an excellent job purchasing framed and glassed-in Chinese merchandise, selling them to willing buyers, then closing down once said buyers could pick up their own through Amazon dealers.

 

Esteemed collectors such as you fine people know the value of a good piece. You know, for example, that a Renoit or Rembrandt is worth its sticker -provided one may prove its authenticity.

Therefore, you also know that a piece by an up-and-coming artist no one has heard of (and a name the vendor himself will not list) is most certainly worth $7,000.

Expensive

Since it is also un-titled, we will refer it is as Bird Merchant with an Extra Hand in the Shadow of Random Nudity. Don’t be shy, now; step up and part with the minor sum post-haste.

 

All you fine patrons who have held out for true genius, this final artwork will not disappoint:

Twilight

Twenty-five dollars, ladies and gentlemen. Twenty-five United States currency is all that separates you from artistic perfection.

 

As our session draws to a close, I wish to thank you all for your kind patronage and generous manner. Please feel free to join us in future, whenever we may have material enough to promote once again.