Skinwalkers, VI

In truth, the smile was still not the sort Nathan was accustomed to seeing in his mirror at home. Another man’s high cheekbones lifted slightly, a stranger’s ears shifted, and someone’s symmetrical features were the ones expressing pleasure.

It was his eyes, he realized. Despite the effects of his eye drops, a sort of relaxed, inner light shone through. He’d assumed there was nothing left inside, nothing he would describe with words like light, anyway.

He looked down, unnecessarily adjusting his antique wristwatch.

Merely seconds after closing, the lift sang its pleasant tone again. Nathan watched his reflection shimmer and pull to one side, to be replaced by the reception area of whatever level he’d been ferried to. This one also held plants, swaying and contributing to the delectable taste of unpolluted air.

The artistically arranged plants stood a balanced sentry against a paneled, daylight-glowing wall. Exiting and turning to look around, Nathan noted a vacant podium of sorts to his right. It stood near two large, closed doors. Accordingly, he approached. He withdrew his comm and ran it along the top and sides, but nothing activated.

He frowned, and walked to its backside. Still nothing. He looked, instead, to the wall-sized entryway. How would he get in?

Nathan paused for a few seconds, indecisively. Then, he recalled his morning-long mantra of confidence. He walked forward, and pushed at the doors. They moved inward, without any resistance. If he’d been in his own, lightweight skin, he would have fallen forward onto his ugly, imperfect face.

He would have landed right at the feet of a small audience, as well.

Three well-dressed, well-shod, and handsome business executives stood waiting. They seemed completely unsurprised to see him, a sentiment Nathan did not share. Suspecting surveillance equipment of some sort, he chanced a careful half-turn to look behind. The doors he had moved so easily were nearly transparent.

He looked back to the waiting party; attempted a level expression. The woman stepped forward slightly. “N. Reed.” Her cool voice said. It was a statement. “Welcome.” Nathan returned her greeting with a barely-perceptible nod. She smiled an executive smile, the sort that lifts one’s mouth but never reaches above that point.

One of the men straightened and clasped his hands together. “Well,” he began in a deep tone, “Shall we?” In eerie accord, he and the other two turned and began walking down the hall and away from Nathan.

This was it. will do this, Nathan reminded himself. Squaring his shoulders and suit, he followed the crushed carpet footprints of his potential employers.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, V.

Skinwalkers, V

Nathan walked forward, gawking in the wonder of expensive surroundings. He sensed the door slide quickly and silently closed behind him. The expanse in front was more interesting, by far.

His basic-slipshod feet sank slightly into an opulently clean path of carpet. A solid, reflective flooring ran to either side of the path. Both led past a spacious, plant-furnished foyer to an impressive, raised reception desk of dark wood.

Daylight-simulation glowed from the walls, floor, and ceiling. He didn’t know how it could or how anyone could afford the affect.

In fact, any small corner of the area cost more than Nathan expected to earn in a lifetime. He couldn’t imagine, even, the price of actual plants; the price of keeping them living was another phenomenal consideration.

“N. Reed?” a polite voice called from the desk. Her voice echoed pleasantly around the room to reach him, despite the foyer’s polished appearance.

Nathan swallowed; closed his slightly-agape mouth. He realized he’d been standing much like a castaway first waking on a beautiful island. The air felt so fresh, he could almost hear waves and taste airborne sea salt.

Straightening, he tried to regain some dignity as he walked toward the receptionist. The floor caving at each step distracted his feet. Green fronds swaying in the delicious currents whispered to his ears. Everything fought for his visual attention.

He reached the desk at last, and found that the young woman sitting there was yet another distraction. She smiled, making things worse. Mentally blessing the horrible Suspension Drops, he attempted to keep the rest of his face composed.

“Yes,” he answered. “I am Nathan Reed.” He tried to look collected, yet casual. All this must be normal. No, he wasn’t surprised by these settings. He couldn’t be; not someone as important as he.

“Wonderful!” she said, and appeared to mean it. Either she had the best skin money could buy -highly likely, considering what surrounded him- or she was very good at acting. “If you’ll scan your comm, here,” she tapped an unobtrusive panel at the top of the desk, “You’ll be able to proceed to the level you need through the lifts.”

At mention of her last statement, the receptionist brought her manicured hand from the panel to wave behind and to her right, at the wall. Squinting slightly, Nathan could see the outline of a door in the paneled wall.

His hand still held his comm. Nodding, he drew it to scan where she had indicated. A green bar briefly glowed, then faded. The lift, as it truly was, chimed a pleasant sound and its panel slid open. He pocketed his comm.

“Good luck,” the receptionist said, again seeming sincere. She also smiled again, which was unfair for someone with such flawless teeth and vivid eyes.

“Thanks,” he couldn’t help responding. He smiled, and wondered at the naturalness of it. Turning, he walked to and into the waiting lift. Its panel slid shut; his side was reflective, as he had hoped this morning.

Nathan was surprised at what he saw, though not for the reason he’d assumed while dressing. Yes, his appearance was strange for many reasons; however, it was the expression of lingering happiness that caught him the most off-guard.

When was the last time, he thought, that I smiled?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, IV.

Young Love

Rock Valentine

Tanner felt nervous.

He hugged his robot Valentine’s box tightly. Mom had helped him paint it yellow last night, and he had added sparkly stickers and funny eyes. Inside were cards for all the boys and girls in class.

Tanner looked at all the boys and girls in his class, safely, from the doorway.

“Well, hello, Tanner!” Mrs. Foreman called. “Come on in!” He could see her waving from her desk.

He held his box closer.

“It’s all right,” his teacher said. She stood and walked over to him. Bending, she looked at his eyes. “Would you like some help?”

Some of the children glanced over, including Ella. Tanner’s mom had helped him make a special card for Ella last night, too. It was a pink heart that said, “I love you.”

Mrs. Foreman smiled. “I’ll walk with you,” she offered. Together, they went to his seat. He set the yellow robot on his desk.

“All right, class!” Mrs. Foreman clapped. “Time to hand out Valentine’s!”

Quickly, the children pulled out all their cards. They began happily filling each other’s boxes.

Tanner pulled out the pink heart. As soon as no one was looking, he dropped it into Ella’s unicorn mailbox.

He still felt nervous, but also happy. He hoped she would like it.

 

(Entry for Susanna Leonard Hill’s Valentiny Contest.)

Plantae uel Animalia

Forget me not
(Picture from Memory Foundation.)

If you were to assign a flower to my childhood personality, you might search among the less-desirable weeds. I wouldn’t have minded; I’d have stuck my prickly, unwanted self even further into your business.

My grandmother, however, was a soft-spoken, kind-thinking sort. I never heard her raise her voice nor speak insult. She was more like the gently-swaying field flowers of springtime, shyly smiling to a beckoning sun.

While people greeted my coming akin to a dandelion outbreak, we all recall my grandmother’s mischievous blue eyes with forget-me-nots.

At least dandelions are my son’s favorite.

Dandelions

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge.

Skinwalkers, IV

His newsfeed was not as interesting as Nathan had hoped, or he was simply too anxious to be captivated by its stories. He suspected a mix of both. Perhaps it would help if something newsworthy happened besides the unending reports of famine, over-pollution, rising costs, and no jobs.

Too bad he couldn’t risk watching something more interesting, but he wanted to appear confident and collected for the interview. He wanted to radiate the impression felt during his last glance in the mottled bathroom mirror.

The humming transport moved in measured automation down its predetermined strip. Strips of light, both natural and artificial, panned through the thickly-tinted windows and played across his comm, his suit, and the back of the operator’s head. Nathan was distracted by their movement, in part because his eyes still felt over-sensitive to strong contrasts of dark and light.

Not a minute too soon, they pulled up under the street shade of a grey office complex. The door immediately to Nathan’s side popped open, and he shifted over and out. Pocketing his comm, he carefully looked up to the heaven-reaching monolith.

A gray building tapered up to a gray pinnacle, surrounded by gray clouds against a gray sky. Nathan felt slightly mismatched in his dark blue garments.

The transport door closed and it left in a near-silent hum, a bit faster than regulation. Nathan snorted derisively at the operator’s obvious desire to get back, and hopefully ferry a more lucrative client.

Straightening his lapels, coat, and sleeves compulsively, he strode forward under the shade. It was a nice, expensive, semi-translucent roof that covered the entire width of the building’s front, and led from street to entrance. Remembering the brief precipitation during his drive, Nathan realized and marveled at the costs of maintaining the shade’s transparency.

The doors, too, were immaculate. They were guarded, by a man better-dressed than a hotel concierge. Nathan felt trepidation raise his heart rate; his palms threatened to sweat through his skin.

I can do this, he told himself. Considering, he altered his mantra, will do this.

Forcing himself to keep his nervousness thoroughly internal, he walked an even gait up the steps to the formidable front. The guard barely granted him a glance, but Nathan knew the man had already measured him up and down since he first stepped on to the curb.

The guard offered his tablet, expressionlessly. Nathan scanned his own device, matching and surpassing the man’s seriousness. A green bar flitted across the tablet’s surface; its owner blinked in acknowledgement and returned it to its pocket. Reaching somewhere behind his person, the guard activated the doors.

Resisting the urge to breathe a relieved sigh, Nathan cleared his throat and strode forward. The opening split rapidly, pushing surprisingly-fresh air gently against his body. He almost stumbled, stupidly, with the flavor of the expensive building-breath. Knowing, however, of the guard’s continued scrutiny, he fought natural reactions and continued walking. Internally, Nathan couldn’t help but marvel.

How would it be? He wondered, To breathe this well every day? He couldn’t wait to find out.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, III.

Jeweled

Jewel often asked what her name meant; why Mother also carried it.

“You’ll see,” Mother demurred.

Their crumbling dictionary said Jewel was a stone that refracted light into color; but what was refracted? What was color?

Other things, odd things -things Jewel couldn’t quite define- also set them apart.

“Cheer up; tomorrow’s another day,” Mother reassured a stranger, in passing. How did she know he was sad? Jewel wondered, looking back at the black and white face.

One day, at school, Jewel finally knew. Amidst the monochrome playchildren; her friend, Tom, smiled.

In that glittering instant, he glowed yellow.

 

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge

Skinwalkers, III

Dressing was more difficult than Nathan had planned. The task was exacerbated by myriad factors, including lack of a full-length mirror. He grunted, twisted, pulled and straightened like a possessed interpretive dancer.

“At least I’m not in a dress,” he mumbled, finally groping with the outercoat and its attachments. The full suit would hide most of his glaring, epidermal defects.

The wristwatch beeped again, at an antique half-hour, and Nathan knew it signaled a few ticks before morning traffic began. If he didn’t get to a transport soon, he wouldn’t beat the better-paid commuters.

He grabbed his slipshod footwear and his comm. Rushing through the three small rooms of the apartment, he sincerely hoped everything appeared in order about his person. He also hoped the appointment was in a building with a reflective lift.

Just before exiting, he slapped the defunct doorscan to activate lockdown. The trick was applying enough force to get the cracked reader to work, but not depress it to a further state of disrepair. He wanted to get back in later, after all.

Nathan paused outside his exterior door, listening. Traffic echoes swirled like engined ghosts down the cement stairway and circled, trapped for moments, at the basement landing where he stood. No sounds of human movement came to him. Franks must have gone back to sleep.

Leaning to one wall, then the other, Nathan slipped his feet within their slipshods. He felt the contoured fabric lifting and shaping up his foot and ankle. Once the sole hardened with its habitual click, he immediately climbed the cracking steps to mainground.

What luck! A transport sat waiting, anticipating the impending work crowds.

Striding forward purposefully, he focused on the memory of confidence. His eyes blazed. His steps were measured and certain. Artfully, he withdrew and scanned his comm, immediately entering the vehicle when its activated door popped open.

The man up front seemed startled as Nathan sat and the vehicle tipped slightly. Nathan, however, appeared unperturbed.

“Er…” The operator began. Clearly, the man needed authority. Nathan felt happy to oblige; this would be great practice for later.

“Walls and Pruitt, at 34th Beta,” he enunciated, looking past the slack-jawed operator and to the dashboard computers instead.

All business, the dash responded in light patterns and beeps. “Destination acknowledged,” its female tones confirmed.

Nathan deigned to grant the still-surprised transport operator a raised eyebrow -a question of the man’s choice of High British female voice command, perhaps- before turning his attention to his more-interesting comm feed.

A shifting of garments on seat-cloth told Nathan the man up front had decided to face forward. As he should, Nathan thought. It’s not like the man needs to do anything, anyway.

Nathan had even considered an operator job, before Franks’ cousin’s friend had gotten him such a good deal on the outfit. Imagine someone seeing him in a transport! Nathan shuddered, and resumed panning through stories.

Thunk, thunk, thunk, drummed at the semi-transparent roof. Nathan didn’t bother looking up, as the commonplace acidfall splattered and spread harmlessly above him. Internally, he felt relief.

If not for recent loans, he would have been walking right now. Showing up in drips.

Nathan shuddered again. He’d make this work. He had to pay everyone back, or face the reality of shuttling friends around in the only occupation left to someone like him.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, II.

The Real Illusion

Dragon

(From draconika.com)

Her nightdress billows in moving mists of rainbows; toes curl precariously over cloudforms.

She cannot see, so closes her eyes.

And now, appears the wooden bridge. It skips across to the sandy seashore
-the shore outside a castle’s wall
-whereat lies a fearsome dragon, curling smoky out-breaths in the sun.

A shining knight advances, drawing schlinking steel to fight the fiery, glinting, scalesome beast.

“Oh, dear,” cries Princess, from above. Her swooping scarf-hat trails the crumbling window ledge.

The nightdressed girl smiles, treading where adults fear. She perches, perfectly happy, at the cliffside edge of fantasy.

And jumps.

 

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge

Skinwalkers, II

The trouble with Suspension Drops, Nathan prematurely recalled, was that one’s eyesight became somewhat blurred for several hours.

He’d remembered this the instant he left the tiny bathroom and entered his bedroom to dress. For, once there, the flush fixture overhead illuminated within a circle of its own influence, and hesitated to stretch its wattage beyond. Nathan’s floor, bed, and cave-dark closet were imperceptible to his altered vision.

He cursed, quietly, and decided to find his comm. Pillowed barefoot shuffling drew him and his outstretched, groping arms slowly toward the nightstand where he’d last seen it. He hit the bed; grunted, turned, and walked along it to the head.

There! Nathan pawed at the shiny device; grasped it clumsily. Drawing his comm to his face, he said, “Light.”

Nearly instantly, he yelled in a different sort of ocular agony as the light activated. He’d not known, of course, that he’d picked up his comm upside-down. The beam had blared out obediently, directly into his strained and straining eyes.

Nathan closed them. A square of blinding white flashed repeatedly against the dark undersides of his eyelids. He wished for tears; for the ability to squint away the blinking spots.

After taking a few calming breaths, and dropping his hand to point the light downward, he squinted his right eye open a slit. He could make out somewhat more of the bedroom now. Thus directed, he walked gingerly to his closet.

He panned the tiny spotlight ’round the door-less alcove that passed for clothing storage in this cheap apartment, noting a muted glint from drywall patches and exposed wall-pipes. The light reflected shabbily from a plastic-bagged suit hanging between a few wool warmers and two basic liners.

“Some boss,” Nathan mumbled. He re-thought, remembered his reflection from the bathroom mantra. He straightened, and determinedly whispered, “I’ll have a full wardrobe, this time next week!”

Nodding to himself, he reached his left hand forward and withdrew the suit. It shushed in a slithering sigh across the uneven floor as he carried it to the bed. Carefully clumping his bedthings to a disorderly pile, Nathan lay the rented costume on the mattress.

Ironic, he thought, that this suit was his ticket to actually paying for it upon its return to the shop.

He set the light in the blankets, pointing harmlessly at the wall. Holding his breath, he slit open the plastic suit-covering, and began the hurried carefulness of awkwardly dressing himself.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, I.

Boots

They were nearly there, near the sunlight-glinted theatre doors. An overhead clock pointed to ten-past starting.

She looked back, down the warm-yellow sidewalk. Slowly but always steadily, he came with his slanted plodding. He’d never had an impeding injury; she teased that he walked in unknown imitation of his own, flat-flooted father.

Sinking sunset rays flared an occasional reflection from his eyeglasses as he turned to look behind: at their parked car across the street, to either side: interesting geological landscape, and forward (finally): to his waiting wife.

She held out a hand; smiling, loving. “Let’s go, Boots.”

 

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge