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.

Good Talk

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“Ya know, there’s just something I kind of think’s concerning about that boy, Honey…”

Gabi waited for her mother’s usual hedging manner. She pulled a fitted sheet from the laundry basket and wadded it into a fold, of sorts.

“That’s not to say I have anything against him. I think that shows real responsibility to buy a car the way he did and drive it.” Her mother absently pulled the lumpy sheet from Gabi’s side and re-folded it by its elastic corners. “Not to mention him driving you places like that. Shows a dedication and affection and such.”

Sighing, Gabi pulled a more-harmless pillowcase from the freshly laundered pile and flopped it into a square. It was passable. She decided she could chance another, and withdrew a green one. Then, a yellow.

“Mind you, boys and girls didn’t just climb into one another’s cars like that when I was your age,” her mother said. She pulled Gabi’s completed pile over to hers, straightening its wrinkles as she spoke. “Oh, sometimes a boy’s parents had a bit more to go around than others and he got his own vehicle.” She leaned forward conspiratorially to Gabi; added, “They often regretted it once there were accidents -which, accidents will happen, especially when parents encourage that sort of irresponsible behavior, spoiling a teenager like that…”

Amused, Gabi watched her mother’s train of thought derail slightly at the sight of her neatly finished laundry pile, ready for the cupboard. Gabi rose, scooping the bedding recklessly. She was rewarded with an audible cringe. Pretending ignorance, Gabi put them away and returned to the laundry, and lecture.

“Gabi,” her mother began, but left the name hanging without resolution. They started on the socks.

A blaring *HONK* sounded from outside. An entire second passed before another *HONK* *HONK* backed up the first.

Gabi dropped her unmatched socks. She scrambled to her feet and over to the entry table. Another impatient car noise called from the driveway as Gabi picked up her phone and house key.

“See, dear? That’s just the sort of problem I -”

“‘Bye, mom,” Gabi cut in, coming back and pecking her mother affectionately on the cheek. A few steps and a shuffle into sandals later, and she’d successfully gotten out the door.

“Hey, Babe,” Gabi’s boyfriend, Mike, said once Gabi was seated next to him. He put his arm around her seat to watch behind them as he backed the car down her long driveway. “What took so long?”

“Oh, nothing,” Gabi said. “Mom and I were just having a talk.”

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Easter Hunt

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The scratched wood floor finally looked clear, though that status didn’t extend to its edges. A bit of green poked from a nook. Pink showed from an under-couch cranny. A wrapper crinkled from directly beneath her slipper.

Ann sighed, and stooped to free the purple foil from her sole. It stuck a bit stubbornly, finally releasing itself with a parting gift of caramel. At this moment, she felt a small tug at her left pant leg. She looked down at a three-year-old-grin looking up.

“Can I eat this?” A chocolate-mouthed creature asked. It proffered an unwrapped egg in its brown-tipped fingers.

Ann thought it might be her youngest child, and addressed it accordingly. “Sure, Jane,” she tiredly answered. Jane, as she proved to be, smiled the beatific smile of the sugar saturated young, shoved the chocolate into her mouth, and ran off. Ann cringed, hoping Jane would not feel inclined to touch or kiss anything. Realization hit; pants examined. She sighed, telling herself the brown barely showed against the natural, washed-out black of the yoga pants. If anything, it matched a few other spots.

She kneeled to extract the pink object under the couch. It made a light rattling sound. Sitting widened thighs against middle-aged cankles, she carefully opened the plastic egg. Broken bits of candy shell rained a light powder upon her lap. Two half-clad Hershey’s eggs rolled inside the plastic halves within her grip.

“Those are mine!” Will said, suddenly at her side. Ann hadn’t heard him approach; had, in fact, been calling the boy for the last half hour to come clean up his mess or she was going to throw it away. As always, she was amazed at how quickly the children could move when given their definition of “proper motivation.”

Will stuck out a hand to accept the shells’ inner contents. His mother obliged. He closed his fist; she winced. Leaving her with a parting scowl of entitlement, he ran off after his sister. Into thin air, she couldn’t help thinking. Distractedly, she looked down. She brushed at the dust, which removed the larger bits.

Thinking she ought to take advantage of her current position, Ann ducked to search the remainder of The Land Beneath the Furniture. She carefully ran a hand along the floor, internally recoiling at the questionable feel to unseen objects her fingers brushed against. Bravely, she pulled a few into light. Two broken Hot Wheels cars, hair elastics, Lego bricks, stale bread crust, a doll head, and half a plastic Easter egg tumbled out with an escort of crumbs and dust. She looked at the mess, extracted the half shell, and pushed the rest back out of sight. They’d know where to find Barbie’s head if they thought to ask for it.

Ann kneel-crawled over to the green egg in the corner of the room. She picked it up; opened it over the hardwood. Some loose change was exposed. It looked to total 57 cents. She considered keeping it -payment for a morning’s maid-work. She knew, however, that this was the very 57 cents her eldest had collared Will over just an hour prior.

“Mary!” Ann called, from her sit-squat on the floor.

“Whaa-aaat?” a pre-teen answered. The response seemed to come from Ann’s bathroom, upstairs.

Two reasons now presented themselves for bringing her daughter hither: the money, and removal from whatever of Ann’s makeup Mary was surely testing upon her face. “I found your money!” Ann shouted.

A pause, then, “Okay!” Overheard; a drawer closed, an item dropped and was scraped against the floor as it was retrieved, a drawer opened and closed again, and footsteps exited across hard tiles. Soon, Ann’s keen ears heard Mary’s soft footsteps majestically skipping down the stairs.

A deeper-lipped twelve-year-old than Ann was accustomed to seeing sauntered casually into the room. Mary also seemed to have tried some blue eyeshadow and pink blush. The results were somewhat frightening, but Ann pretended as much ignorance as her daughter. She held the egg and its change out, waiting for Mary’s deliberately slow walk to bring her close enough to accept the offering.

Mary finally reached her mother, took the egg, and studied her face for reaction. Little sleep and years of practice with Will’s antics had trained Ann well. She simply nodded, then intentionally exaggerated her attempts to rise from the floor in order to give Mary time to exit.

Sure enough, Ann got to her feet just as Mary was walking out the arched doorway of the family room. Ann sighed, but proudly noted the progress she’d made with the room. It had taken the better part of two hours, but the dusty floor was finally clear of all the leftovers of the morning’s hunt and after-party.

She walked over to the garbage and threw away the wrapper, half shell, and some more pants dust. “Mo-o-o-o-o-o-om!” Jane sang loudly, entering the room as she did.

“Yes, Jane?” Ann asked.

“I just lo-o-ove Easter egg hunts!” Jane sighed, grabbing both her mother’s legs and swinging a bit. She paused, and looked thoughtful. “Do you, Mommy?”

Ann looked down at her still-filthy angel. She could still feel the bits of under-couch detritus on her fingertips, the sensation of a coin-filled egg upon her palm, and could see her oldest’s smeary-lipped expression of nonchalance. Ann glanced at the pile of discarded plastic egg shells she’d gathered in the hours of cleaning. Finally, she looked back to her innocent child’s face.

“Of course I do,” she answered, smiling in return.

Secret Mission

The lights were finally out, and the moon had gone behind a cloud. Finnegan knew what he had to do. Pulling his ridiculous green hat more tightly over his red curls, he tiptoed up to the silently swaying dog door.

Nothing seemed to move but the wind. He checked the surveillance unit on his wrist, just in case. All clear. Swallowing nervously at the thought of who the flap was built for, he pushed through it and into the sleeping house.

The plastic barely shushed, but it was a shout to his keenly-tuned ears. A clock’s second hand banged around the face. Whooshing hurricane gales sprouted from a metal floor vent near his entry. And, above it all, he could hear the annoying clink, clink of the useless brass buckles atop his manmade-materials shoes.

Fortunately, he hadn’t far to go. In the glaring light of streetlamps barely shining through the windows, he could see his goal. From here, in shadows, it had the very appearance of a hangman’s noose. Leave it to man’s imagination to force his children to construct such a thing, Finnegan mused. But he was a professional; a child’s invention couldn’t scare him.

Carefully, he drew close to the table upon which the trap rested. Equally carefully, he withdrew a jar from inside his scratchy felt overcoat. The silly coat was cut in the ugliest style, barely covered his midsection, and hardly had space for the job’s necessary pockets.

Mostly by feel, he removed the jar’s lid. Bending, he applied its contents to his right foot’s sole. He repeated the process with the left foot, though he made certain to place his feet apart from each other once they touched the ground. It wouldn’t do to have the painted prints right together, after all.

Finnegan straightened. He replaced the lid, then returned the container to its pocket. Pulling within for a bit o’ magic, he took off -straight up the table leg. Once at the top, he slowed to a light jog. Each bouncing step drew the trap nearer, more menacing.

It wouldn’t have killed them to line the thing with glow sticks, he thought, pausing. These sorts of setups always had gold coin lures or other sparkly objects, but never something illuminating them.

A small yarn ladder hung haphazardly from the side. It looked to be held on with transparent tape; hardly up to building code. In fact, the entire contraption had to be supported by a child’s faith alone. Given its instability, Finnegan decided to make a quick run for the sake of prints, but return and use his equipment for the rest of the job.

Again, he ran vertically -up the yarn and the side of the tube. It was a pit trap design, with the added element of a coin hanging from an extended fishing-pole toilet paper roll. He wasn’t sure why its designer had attached the pole to the side of the pit, but was fairly certain that inexperience had something to do with it.

Once at the shaky zenith, he chanced to flash his finger-torch inside the pit. Sure enough, a myriad of stick-on jewels, plastic coins, and one or two dirty pennies could be seen. He swiftly removed his shoes to his left hand, and ran back down in striped green stockings.

Finnegan paused to wipe the remaining green paint from the shoe soles against the cardboard sides of the trap. He bent and re-shod his feet. Then, he raised both hands over his head and focused on the memory of fake treasure. He lifted it all in his mind, and saw it rise from the trap’s hole in real life.

A few years ago, he remembered, they’d been told it was regulation to actually enter the pits to retrieve the children’s lures. A few months of glue-covered or pin-stabbed employees changed the policy quickly. Finnegan felt fortunate that the worst he’d suffered was falling ill from child-infected loose change.

He drew his hands toward his body now. The “treasure” followed the gesture. In this fashion, he soon had it all before him on the table. Drawing a gadget from the other felt pocket of the ugly overcoat, he pointed it at the pile and pushed a button. ZapThe useless junk disintegrated.

Turning a dial atop the same gadget, he pointed it above the hole from which the junk had been extracted. He pushed the button again. A man’s handful of chocolate coins fell out of the air and into the pit. Finnegan smiled; he’d always been a good aim.

Pocketing his tool, he turned and ran back across the tabletop. He skipped down the table leg. As he sprinted to the dog door, he heard a dreadful noise above the cacophony of night sounds: the click, click, click of canine toenails on kitchen tile.

Fortunately, no animal had ever caught Finnegan O’Boyle. He wasn’t about to change his untarnished record tonight. Night and grass and blessed shadows were already enveloping his retreating form when the dog’s curious nose was just poking through the swinging flap.

Flat-Footed

Black and white

“Ee-ew! What’s wrong with your toes?” The sneery-faced girl scrunched up her nose into, well, into a sneer. Her voice was just the right timbre to draw the envy of large, braying barn animals -had there been any around.

Instead, she and I were part of a different sort of farm, one at which children gathered for instruction in reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. The sunny rays of late spring shone between us; upon her freckling nose and unkempt hair, and likewise upon my sandal-shod feet with their exposed toes.

I wiggled my posterior phalanges innocently. The movement drew an encore exclamation from my tormentor. “Ew! They’re so weird! Stop it!” Feigning repulsion, she ran away.

I considered following. Had I been of a different personality, the thought of continually chasing her might have occurred to me. Being myself, instead, I looked down at my flat, splayed toes in shame. I tried placing one foot over the other, but could see how that would hamper movement.

The toes returned my scrutiny innocently; though, to my new perspective, they had somehow morphed to resemble dead slugs or ugly bits of log. I had always known my toes were a little different, of course. They didn’t look precisely like my mother’s, or my father’s; though they did resemble my sister’s and brother’s somewhat.

Given that small scientific sampling, I’d concluded that everyone must have some toe issues. Mine weren’t all that odd.

The bell rang, signifying the end of recreational outside time for schoolchildren. I returned inside, a small germ of doubt forming inside my innocent mind. Little was I to know how important my foot fringes would prove later in life; how much of that life they would come to affect.

Of course, they had a few problems in childhood beyond immature condemnation. Those poor, flat slugs jostled against each other too freely inside my shoes. The second and third toe’s unusual length, coupled with the movement, caused them many an ingrown nail pain.

My grandfather, from whom I inherited the flatness, was a podiatrist. He’d look over my feet with the air of a great scientist. Invariably, he’d comment, “Should’ve taken out that first knuckle when you were a baby.”

In response, I’d study my elongated digits. Were they so out of place? Were they so wrong, that they needed tampering with? Editing? Removal?

It wasn’t until my teenage years that my feet became more obvious, and brought again to vocal scrutiny. Most of that was due to an unreasonable social silence I received from peers for most of my childhood. It was like they could sense my feet were different. Perhaps I kicked a soccer ball differently at recess. Maybe the pigeon-toedness of my walk was more pronounced than I’d imagined.

That was when I would recall another way the affronting basal extremities had interfered in younger years. Fearing the extreme way I thrashed my legs inwardly at some moments, my parents had agreed to purchase and shoe me with special footwear. My toes were hidden beneath covered fronts, fronts so obscuring that one could not easily tell the right from the left. Thus split and kept from each other, my gait was altered to tilt more outward, more normal.

As I was saying, however, I could not hide the abnormalities from fellow teenagers. They walked brashly round the high school campus; showing me that, yes, my anatomy was not like most other’s. Most female feet were attractive and small; with cute, curling toes of descending length.

Again, I viewed my primate-like offerings. “Love yourself,” my mother admonished. But, what was to love about my obviously abnormal feet?

Feet like mine

I tried. “I can write with my feet,” I told some friends. I even practiced. The parlor trick was somewhat amusing, but ultimately served to repulse most listeners. No one wants to hear about feet touching pencils and paper, if one wants to hear about feet at all.

I began hiding my shoe size, disguising my walk, and curling my toes when viewable. I pretended to be like those with smiling, happy leg-ends. I mimicked the way they moved. Hopefully, my defects would somehow conform and truly be like everyone else one day.

Eventually I got married, to a man with smaller feet. “They’re so fuzzy,” I commented.

“All men have hairy feet,” he responded. He was normal.

I knew all women did not have my anatomy. Silence was golden. Though I’m sure he could see the size; odd, webbed second and third toes; and bath mat-like nature of mine, he never admitted repulsion. He never admitted love, of course; no closet foot fetishes. Instead, I felt he ignored their presence and focused on what had a better appearance.

Perhaps he, too, hoped they would simply change to different parts if avoided.

Maybe because of their insistence on extending farther than they naturally ought to, this was a defect that could not be overlooked. It was one that began to affect my life, including our married life.

“So you feel your feet are causing problems?” Our counselor queried, concerned. “Do you find yourself picking objects from the floor with your simian second-toe spacing? Are your children trodding on them; not giving you the space you need? Have you ever felt like harming your toes?”

I remembered my grandfather’s wishes to shorten the offending toes. I had to admit, “Yes.”

The good news is that I was referred to a hormonal replacement podiatrist. It’s ongoing news, really, since I’ve come to realize I will always have different feet than more foot-functional humans. But, the initial treatments have helped.

“Oh, I just love your nails, Heidi,” a woman comments to another. We’re at an ongoing outdoor recreational time; a social gathering of neighborhood women. The person she is complimenting happily displays the toenails that drew attention. They sit in even rectangles atop curling, descending toes at the ends of perfect, petite feet controlled by slim, even-stepping legs.

perfect feet

I glance at mine. My toenails still retain most of the strengthening polish I have to douse them with, else they break and peel. They grace my flat, elongated, obscurely-shaped foot profile. The feet are large for a woman, and point inwards the way my knees do.

I shrug.

I can’t fight genetics blessing me with thin nails. I’d rather have oddly-long toes than agree to surgically alter them. Perhaps my shoe size helps my balance -especially when I forget to focus and trip over my pigeon-toed gait.

And, should the world ever be captured by alien invasion and our arms pinioned uselessly to our sides, my apelike toes will come in handy for untying the bonds of my fellow prisoners.

If nothing else, they’ll be able to write a plea for help.

My Muse?

The screen flickered, blown by magic breath or electric-grid blip. The cursor blinked. Blinked again. And again. I held my breath, expectant.

The same thing happened that had happened a few minutes before, yesterday, and every day since I’d committed to writing daily: NOTHING.

I leaned a disappointed elbow onto the desk, straight into the crinkling pile of candy bar wrappings and chocolate crumbs. Face rested in hand; cheap, upbeat computer music mocked my efforts.

I sighed.

A loud belch nearly unseated me. Thanking the good, solid seat The Lord blessed me with, I turned to see a large, rumpled, hazy apparition tottering to the right of the computer desk. It was dressed like a messy pirate, complete with overcoat and large boots.

He? held a bottle, equally transparent. Distractedly, I wondered if it contained only fumes.

The personage looked in my direction. I think. I returned the glance, attempting eye contact. Neither of us spoke. Both of us blinked.

“What are you?” I managed. Mentally, I reprimanded my manners.

“Whaddya mean?” a deep voice responded, slurred. I decided he was probably a man -er, man’s ghost. Wavering slightly, he jabbed a translucent finger my way. “YOU dragged me over here!”

Surprised, I considered. Apprehension dawned.

“I didn’t summon you, that I know of,” I defended. “Unless,” I hesitated, feeling sick, “You’re my muse?”

Grating laughter broke his scowling face. My expression of confusion and concern deepened. Who was this? Finally, his mirth subsided. Taking a long swig of emptiness from the bottle, he returned to the task of hazy staring. “Nah,” he supplied.

I blinked. My puzzled expressions were getting a lot of practice.

“So….” I began, allowing him the chance to take up the thread. He didn’t. I swallowed, and tried a more complete sentence. “So, if you’re not my muse,” I paused, “then who are you,” another pause, “and how did I summon you?”

I sat back, creaking the cushioned chair. I was determined to wait for his response without further prompting.

He lifted the bottle, studying its water-soaked label. “I’m Muse’s, er, relation,” he answered, casually, but more quietly. “Name’s Motivation.” Hiccuping, he tried another bottled inhalation.

I turned this over mentally, silently. “Muse’s relation?” I wondered aloud.

He seemed upset by my question. Well, he looked huffy. “‘S right.” He stuck out his incorporeal double chin. “Through marriage.”

I could sense this topic would only lead to more offense, on his part. Frankly, however, I didn’t know what to do with this unexpected guest. He didn’t seem willing to offer more than moody stares.

“Look,” I began, “I don’t want to be rude here, but I was …expecting someone -you know, different.” I watched the face, and wall behind it, to be sure of comprehension without affront.

Instead, he shrugged. “You get what you get,” he stated; laughed, “and you don’t throw a fit.”

Now was my turn to be upset. “What do you mean?” I had difficulty keeping my voice civil. “I followed all the steps I read about!”

He chortled, sipped air, and gave me a knowing look.

“I… I read books!” I defended.

“How many?” he demanded, keeping his eyebrows at their sarcastic bent.

“Er,” I floundered, “Well, I started a few, then didn’t really have time to finish, so…”

“What else?” he interrupted, amused.

I thought over the recommendations. “I sat down, committed to write.” My voice sounded a bit whiny, even to me. “I mean, I’m writing, here!”

His face softened a bit, and he leaned through the wall before realizing that did nothing to help support him. “True,” he conceded. “However,” he snickered, “I don’t think that game you have running in the background helps.”

I looked at my screen, out of Motivation’s view. “That’s my music,” I said, hastily clicking to Close Window on Fallout Shelter. His expression was back to its mocking amusement.

“Which is another thing,” I continued. “Music! You can’t say I haven’t been trying that.”

“Also true,” he said. “Although, your stuff’s garbage. I like me some Nirvana, myself.”

I sat, processing that information. Somehow, I couldn’t picture this sodden spirit rocking out. For one thing, wouldn’t that be extremely painful once the morning-after headache hit him? Of course, one had to have a solid head to get aches.

“Point is,” he continued, “You’re going about this all wrong.” He tucked the empty bottle into his overcoat somehow. Placing his hands on his hips, he explained, “You can’t get a decent muse with halfway measures.”

His large, airy hand waved at the littered computer desk as he expounded. “Finish books, only write during writing time, try good music, and lay off the chocolate.” Satisfied, he leaned back away from me.

“But,” I began, sorry to lose the only being I’d successfully summoned, “I got you. That’s something.” I realized how rude I’d sounded, and glanced up to apologize.

He, however, was laughing again. “You did. Sort-of.” The outline of his arms and hair seemed to be fading. Yawning and scratching at air-torso, he added, “Thing is, you can’t wait around for Motivation. And, you can’t actually have me.”

The wall behind him was becoming clearer as he was becoming less so. “Good luck, Chelsea,” he echoed.

Though hardly visible at all, I heard his distant chortle. “Though, Luck doesn’t come without work, either!”

 

 

Cosmic Chatter

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“So, who’s the guy?”

“Girl, Mikey. Girl.”

“The broad, then.”

“She’s only eight. Jeez!”

“Well, I can’t see. Someone’s bright, pulsing keister’s in front of me! Ya mind turnin’ it down a bit, Eve?”

“Right, right. Just give me a billion more years.”

*Sigh*

“She wants a pony. That’s it. Just a pony, is all.”

“Ha! Ha! Well, go on, Mrs. I’m-so-much-older than you.”

“Funny.”

“That’s what you get, ya know.”

“What?”

“Ya don’t know? You really don’t know what I’m talkin’ about?”

“Well, Mikey; you gonna sit there, smug as eternity -or, ya gonna tell me?”

“It was cuz of that night, Eve.”

“Jeez, Mikey, which night? It’s not like we’ve had a few million up here.”

“That one a few thousand back. When you tried that helium. You don’t remember? You don’t remember -what happened?”

…..

“See? This is why I didn’t wanna tell ya. Now, you’re blushin’. Just like that night.”

“I didn’t blush, Mikey.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what happened and then you-”

“Mikey!”

“Right, right. Somethin’ happened that we’re not sayin’ and I’m sayin’ that’s why we’re hearing a wish.”

“You think, ’cause part of me lit up that she wants a pony?”

“Yeah. And, I think we’re going to hear more about it before tonight’s done. Your little light show took awhile to get to them.”

“Gee, thanks, Mikey.”

“Hey, you asked. I didn’t ask. I’m just floatin’, here. If you don’t wanna hear some hundred wishes a night, just wait till you run out of fuel in a few thousand more.”

“Wait, why?”

“Oh, nothin’ really. I just heard from Tony who said Buster told Suzie-”

“The point, Mikey?”

“Something about falling, that’s all.”

“Falling.”

“Yeah, and then whoever’s watching down there thinks it’s like that time we was talking about when they saw light all sudden-like, and then we’ll hear all this noise again.”

“Mikey?”

“Yeah?”

“You know that means you’ll be front and center, right?”

…..

“What’s the matter, Mikey? You don’t look so hot anymore.”

“I think I just dropped a level.”

“C’mon, Mikey. Like you said, who wouldn’t want to hear wishes all night, huh?”

Photo credit: Alessio Lin on Unsplash

Burning Autumn

“Mommy, why are the trees on fire?” His three-year-old eyes look concerned, in my rearview mirror.

I glance back to smile, reassuringly, as we pause at a stop sign. The red and orange leaves of street-stalking maples fill my periphery as I do.

“They’re not on fire, Honey. It’s autumn.” He seems to be thinking, as I pull onto the main road. A seasonal gust dances clusters of brown, red, purple, yellow, and orange around our moving car.

“Why are the leaves blowing away?” He asks next. His eyes dart from one window to another to follow the erratic wind-paths.

I think over my answer. ‘The trees are getting ready to go to sleep,” I say, stopping at a traffic light. I watch the leaves as well, a happy warmth glowing inside at this vibrant change to mundane landscapes.

I watch his tiny face scowl. “Trees sleep?”

“Yes, Sweetheart. The leaves fall off so the trees can sleep when there’s snow on the ground.” His face lights up at the mention of snow. “They need to sleep or they get too cold,” I explain.

Just before the light changes, I catch my own eyes in the mirror. They’re dark, like my hair; like my son’s.

Memory-image immediately draws me back to that morning, when he’d walked in after my shower.

“What are you doing, Mommy?” He’d wondered. Still wrapped in a towel, I’d been anxiously pawing through my reflection’s scalp.

I’d found my first gray hairs while brushing.

We’re nearly to his preschool when he asks, “Will the leaves come back again?”

We slide back and forth against the seat  belts’ embrace as the car bumps over the parking lot entrance. I wait in a minivan queue.

“Mom! Will the leaves come back?”

No, I think, I’ll keep getting gray. Aloud, however, I tell him, “Of course, Honey! The trees grow new leaves when the snow melts and it’s spring again.”

That’s too far away for his mental reach. He’s trying to puzzle it all out, scrunching his lips and small, dark eyebrows.

I park, exit, come round to his door. Rustling leaf-rain sweeps under my feet. A few blow into the open sliding door as I unbuckle my thoughtful child.

“I like it,” he finally decides, smiling. He laughs; and, clutching my hand, skips and crunches through the leaf storm all the way to the school doors.

He goes inside, to his waiting teacher’s arms. Through the glass I see him point backwards, waving his stocky little arm in a swirling motion. He’s explaining autumn to his teacher; while she intently watches his face, smiles in return, and nods dramatically.

They head off to the classroom, hand in hand. I turn to face the wind and its accompanying leaves.

Everywhere a deciduous tree has been planted, I see color. They’re shouting on their way to the death of winter.

I absently run a hand through my hair, just about where I’d found the gray strand. I smile, as my son had.

When I die, I plan to go out like the burning autumn.

Literary Prescription

“I need a new book to read,” a friend asks. “Do you have any to recommend?”

I have to steady myself against a wall; tell my thudding heart to slow. Almost euphoric, I compose myself. It simply wouldn’t do for a bibliophile of my standing to be caught drooling.

I straighten my posture and eyeglasses, immediately donning my physician’s overcoat. My pipe rests gently against my lip, held in my right hand. The left, of course, finds a casual perch halfway in a front pocket.

“What have you read lately?” I query.

The friend’s response is crucial. “Oh, I just finished up This Popular Novel,” she may say, telling me of an interest in mainstream, feel-good stories. Or maybe she admits to perusing dystopia, sampling science fiction, catching a guilty whiff of fantasy, or snitching a teen romance before dinner.

Without prompt, the information is almost always followed by, “I liked these details or this character, but am looking more for less violence or more of that world.”

I liked, but… is the imperative response to furthering my prognosis.

“Ah, yes,” I muse, pondering; filling the conversational space as my eyes wander a few titles. “Would you like another of that same genre?”

Yes or no will sort my mind to a flow-chart diagram of question, response, action. Yes leads to more of that section; then Same author?, Want another female lead?, or What about this one?

No, of course, follows an arrow to What other type would you like, then?

I’ve been out of practice for a tad longer than I’ve wished, life circumstances being what they are. I try not to allow this lapse to show, however. Professionalism is paramount; poise essential.

I clear my throat, nestling the unlit pipe in the right pocket. Striding excitedly to a shelf, I begin extracting pharmaceutical samples.

My patient listens, keenly, fully prepared to ignore my advice once within access of internet searches. For now, she watches my sorting hands move through the pile of books. She is judging appearances as I detail contents.

My calm demeanor is more difficult to maintain. I had thought my raised pressure, sweating palms, and nervous movements to be results of an overexcited reaction to a question. Instead, I realize I’ve dipped into the medicine cabinet a few times more than was healthy. I’ve become attached.

“I think you’d really like reading this one,” I say, feeling the shaky stress of a salesman’s position as I proffer a favorite.

A shrug; a, “Meh.”

I hock a few more titles. Strangely, I begin to view the rectangle-bound writings as closer friends than the human patient before me. In judging and dismissing these fragments of my soul, she has become an unwanted interloper at our private family party.

If she snubs another book, I may have to show her the door.

“I think I’ll go with your first one, here,” she finally says, drawing out the prettiest cover.

“Excellent,” I say, nodding. I gather my smock more snugly round the buttons; find the pipe with my right, and the pocket with my left. I attempt a businesslike smile.

“Thank you, Chelsea,” she smiles, holding a hand out to hug.

“Of course,” I respond, embracing. “Let me know how you like it.”

My friend departs, smiling. I close the shop door; its bell tinkles. Alone with my books, I collapse into a handy overstuffed armchair.

I pull an illicit title from a nearby shelf, immediately recalling its pleasurable side effects. I’d love to share it with another.

As I pass through the first chapter, I eagerly anticipate my next patient.

 

Let’s Stay in Bed Today

Snow1

“Snow! Snow-snow-snow-snow-snow! Mikey, snow!”

Small padding thumps descended the dirty stairs and crossed the short space to Mike’s sleeping head. Their accompanying arms pushed, insistently, at his body. Mike groaned and rolled from the thin camping cot. Cold, solid boards against his back completed his abrupt awakening.

He cracked open an eye to acknowledge the bouncing child. “No, Tommy, not snow,” he croaked, squinting.

“Yes, snow, Mikey!” Impatient toddler legs ran back across the room and up to the thick, semitransparent Plexiglas at the end of the tunnel. Mike turned his head against the floor. Tommy was pressing his face eagerly against the plastic, to see what he could never clearly see.

Good thing Dad has the access key to the door, Mike thought, then swallowed. Though, it hasn’t worked out with Dad not being here now. He pushed the thoughts away quickly, and groaned again. He stretched his hands up till they nearly brushed against the splintered boards just above his reaching arms.

“Mom! Mom-Mom-Mom-Mom!” Tommy stumbled down to push at the sleeping woman, instead.

“Mmm?” she queried.

“Mom, snow! Can we go play?” Mike sat up to watch from an obliging elbow, amused, as his brother leaned over her. Tommy’s tiny nose barely touched their mother’s. He breathed in her face expectantly.

“Mom, Mom! Mikey says it’s not snow, but it is. Can I go play?”

Her eyelids fluttered, opened. She made out the blurry, impatient face and sighed. “Oh Tommy, sweetheart. Come here.” Pulling her arms from their sleeping bag, she lifted them to either side of her crouching son.

“No, Mommy!” He pushed her arms; sat back. “I want to play in the snow! Open the door!”

“I can’t honey. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can! Make Daddy come back and open the door!” Tommy started crying, punching at her arms and bouncing on her body.

Mike quickly heaved off the floor, stooping; came over, stopped Tommy’s arms. He lifted his flailing, sobbing brother against the low ceiling.

“I’m so sorry, my Tom Thumb, we can’t. We can’t.” The tears ran slowly down their mother’s face. She sat up and reached out her arms still, wanting to hold her son.

Mike bumped against the roof boards, straining against the angry child. “Hey, Tommy,” he said, on inspiration, “Did you know snow is really cold?”

Tommy stopped resisting. “Cold?”

“Yes, very cold. Remember?” Mike saw he had Tommy’s attention. Tiny mental wheels were turning as Tommy’s face scrunched in the dim lighting. Mike loosened his grip and they sat together on the dirt-covered floorboards.

Mike continued. “Remember when we played in the snow and you got wet and your fingers hurt? They were red.” Tommy stuck a finger in his mouth, remembering.

“But I want to play,” he spoke, plaintively, around the finger. Tears ran down their mother’s face.

“I know,” Mike said. The muffled silence filled their ears as Tommy thought.

“I’m sorry, mommy,” he whispered, finally hugging her. She sniffed, wiping her nose against her shoulder, trying to smile.

“I love you, Tommy.” Together, they rocked. Their slow-moving forms slowly swept the shushing sleeping bag against the floor.

“Come help me make breakfast,” she offered. He nodded and moved to the side. Carefully, she peeled her legs free and hunched upright. They padded over to the wall of shelves.

Mike sat, watching them open the cache in the floor, pulling out the cans, hunting for the opener. Then he turned again to the end of the tunnel; the only source of natural light, watching the swirling, dancing storm of particulates drifting by.

 

Particular