Skinwalkers, XXXV

Lizard’s hand slid back to his side, his face showing some confusion at Nathan’s reaction. Nathan suppressed a rising smirk and continued to blink at his coworker with a trusting expression. He saw the ring of men relax shoulders and scowls; the newer addition he called Giant even stuck his hands into liner pockets.

From a face scrunched in concentration, Lizard finally said, “Uh, we gotta talk business.” His three cronies nodded and stances became more serious again.

“Okay,” Nathan answered, and waited.

“Look. We wanna know-” began Tod, but he was silenced by a hard elbow jab from Lizard. The two shared threatening glares till Tod turned away.

Lizard studied Nathan, and Nathan ensured his only threatening movement was a slow, occasional blink. At last, Lizard said, “That was funny what Shin did precycle. The guys’re still talkin’.” Giant snorted and received his own poke from Tod. “Yeah…” Lizard drawled, “We miss your mate. You seen him, after?”

Nathan considered. “After Mons gave him the liner, we walked to the edge of the slums, then had to split.” He shrugged. “He said he was goin’ home.”

The big man thought about Nathan’s answer. “How ’bout after that? He message you?”

Heavy-handed was obviously the way to get through the thick skulls surrounding him. Nathan placed his pointer finger on slightly-pouted lips and furrowed his brow. “Yes, before workcycle.”

Lizard’s tone grew excited. “And?”

“We-e-e-ell,” Nathan said, framing his features as apologetically as he could. “Sorry, but all he said was, ‘Later, eunie.'”

The half-circle of men shifted. Its two leaders frowned and Nathan could sense a rising emotional response. Quickly, he added, “He also included a dancing eunie pix.”

Giant burst out laughing, joined by the man to Lizard’s left. Nathan allowed himself a smile as well; and was relieved to see Tod, then Lizard reply in kind.

Lizard put his hand on Nathan’s shoulder again and rested it there. They locked eyes and Nathan was surprised at his opponent’s severely bloodshot-rimmed gray irises. Think dumb. Think dumb, Nathan willed to his own blue pair.

“Funny guy, that Shin.” Lizard said. His gang quieted down. He looked back at Tod, who nodded. Once. “Thing is, the guy owed us a little something.” Nathan saw Lizard lick his bottom lip before continuing. “Something dope. Get it?”

“Oh.” Swallowing, Nathan continued looking up at the bigger man with as much open trust as he could pretend. “Shin never told. I thought he was clean.”

The fourth man in the group broke into a laugh again, cut off by something Tod did that Nathan could not see. Lizard’s mouth twisted into a hard smile. “Not clean by a ways.” He backed up and removed his hand but kept watching Nathan’s face. “I like you, Nathaniel. You’ll tell us when Shin messages, won’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, and Nathan knew it.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXVI.

Skinwalkers, XXXIV

The next workcycle proved as hellish as any other Nathan had endured, with the added benefit of Shin’s absence. Not only was his friend not there to take the edge off Choms and the remaining grunt work at the Carapace job, his replacement was Lizard.

Lizard and Tod had wriggled out of their halfway-completed Fantastique assignment. This didn’t surprise Nathan since underhanded deals, blackmail, and outright threats were more frequent than employee turnover. Rather, he felt wary and confused that Lizard would want to work with him. The scowling bully of a man didn’t appear very bright, but Nathan knew better than to take people at face value.

Lizard had not spoken beyond a loud, “Looks like me and you, Nathaniel!” after Choms paired them, a, “Schweet!” when they entered Carapace, and a loud-whispered, “It don’t talk much, do it?” when their grumpy guide led them down the service elevator and hallway. But perhaps he was a better actor than his comments demonstrated.

As the pair returned to Ware Tech later in the dusky premeal light, Nathan tried to study his partner without drawing too much attention to his actions. He also ensured Lizard walked closest to the buildings and right in the path of the autoads.

With the exception of the female Sultronous video, at which he let out a catcall, Lizard seemed unaffected. Another mystery, Nathan thought.

He felt edgy. Besides worry over Lizard’s motives, he had not heard anything from Shin. Guilt or conscience or curiosity had prompted Nathan to message his friend before work. Similar motives had found him pressing his ear to the shared wall a few times before workcycle more than he would admit to anyone. Still, nothing.

No one at work seemed to care. This was also not surprising, yet Nathan felt the sting of Shin’s absence more acutely because of it. Loud sounds of postcycle relief and jocular teasing surrounded him as he deposited his gear in the locker and slammed the door closed. He was about to sprint back to the slums for an imperative rest when something clapped him on the shoulder.

“Nathaniel,” Lizard said.

Nathan looked up from his thoughts to discover a half-circle of workmates penning him. He and they were the only men in the locker room. His eyes flicked to the three possible gaps through which he might escape, his adrenaline suggested panic. His mind and training, however, overrode his other instincts.

Leaning against the lockers and smiling with a pleasant expression, he faced the group. “‘Sup, guys?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXV.

Do You Believe in Magic?

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Here, he sits. The screen reflects his fat fingers, his glasses, his balding head.
Between lines of numbered reports, his memory sees small hands, perfect sight, full hair. Laughter.

There, she pauses. Against the mopped floor rest her orthopedic shoes, her sore cankles, her ample midsection.
Mundane mind-wanderings recall barefoot summers, skinny legs, an inverted belly button. Happiness.

Where, do we stand? Honest bathroom mirrors capture our eye lines, our neck bulges, our long wrinkly faces.
Fleeting cognizance remembers smooth skin, thin necks, unblemished features. Smiles.

Fairy dust? Hardly. Evaporating imagination pulls us ever farther from Never-Neverland.

 

Carrot Ranch Literary Society Prompt

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.

 

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, XV

Nathan exchanged the wristwatch and his original comm for the one resting secretly in the nightstand. “‘Bye, Grandpa,” he said, just before closing the drawer with a secure *click*. He retrieved his slipshods from the floor and rushed out into the bathroom.

This time, he yanked open the topmost drawer to locate his toothwash. Whilst he swished and swirled it inside his mouth for the recommended moment, he studied the reflection of a very human face in a very splotchy mirror. His cheeks bulged slightly with wash, but he thought that abnormality actually helped his plain and pockmarked visage.

After spitting out the solution, he made a hurried check for unexpected stubble. He wasn’t due to burn again for another week, but the odd case of a hair or two somehow avoiding purge did come up.

With or without extra facial hair, it was time to go. Nathan returned the toothwash to its spot, grabbed his new comm and slipshods, and headed out the door. He paused just long enough to slap the doorscan to lockdown the apartment, and to dress his feet.

The traffic sounds reaching him now were steadier, though an occasional large vehicle-bellow interrupted the vehicular white noise. He skipped quickly up the cracked cement stairs and began jogging down the block.

Many a strung-out street dweller turned his head at Nathan’s rapidly flying form. Those too far gone to know up from down or side from side merely dreamt a vision more real than life, of a skinny laborer sprinting past their cardboard home.

Puffing, panting, and pausing to collect his breathing brought Nathan within reach of his employer’s station. He continued jogging, albeit more slowly. He came to a large, black doorway at the building’s sunside. A green light flitted briefly across the panel he scanned. The door pulled to the side and he entered.

When he’d first been accepted to this job, he’d worked nights. Each time the door had opened then, he’d felt he was walking into an unknown cave. Surely something was lurking; waiting to grab him. Maybe his nightmares lay around, wanting to jump out and yell, “Boo!” They’d have a contest to see who was scariest, invariably ending in a draw.

Aftermeal sunshine, however, often shone at the lucky time he began this new shift. It lit up just enough of the space to lead him in a glowing path to the beginning of where autolights finally took over illumination.

Nathan walked forward quickly. He stopped outside a door reading Check In. Scanning his comm, he entered as soon as the door moved to allow him. A few, lingering coworkers were just finishing gear-up. The rest milled noisily about. As he moved to his own locker, he saw his friend, Shin, sitting on a bench.

“Sup, Shin?” He asked pleasantly, opening his assigned locker with his comm.

Shin looked up, and Nathan could see that Shin also appeared smaller and sadder than usual. Despite that, the older man smiled wryly.

“Hey, Nathaniel,” Shin answered. “Long time no see.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XVI.

It Could Always Be Worse

She lay on the bed, pregnant and bored. She wasn’t to move, the doctor had said. “Let’s see how things go with complete bedrest,” he’d told her.

“Easy for him to say,” she grumbled, shifting. He was walking around. He had a job, his health, and the fact that he’d never be pregnant in his life. It’s not like she’d asked for this time around to be high-risk.

“It could always be worse,” her husband said, kissing her before going to work. He tousled the hair of their first child on the way out, oblivious to their son’s fully wet diaper and hunger whines. “Try making a list of what you’re grateful for,” he added, then popped out the door to work.

Her mother came in. “Oh, Sammy, you need a change,” she told her grandson. Scooping him up; she, too, headed out the door. “I’ll bring you breakfast in half an hour, dear,” she called back to her pregnantly-prone daughter.

Thinking hard, the bedrested woman pulled out her notebook. Maybe she did need a better attitude. It wasn’t like having a poor one helped her situation at all. “I’ll list all the reasons why it’s good I’m home, and not in a hospital,” she decided.

She began with, “1. Able to see my son every day.” By the time toast and eggs arrived, she’d gotten to, “15. No nurses waking me up all night long for tests.”

That night, her placenta previa worsened. She was checked into the hospital, to stay until her due date: five weeks hence, at the earliest.


“I can’t get to work,” he coughed into the phone. He sounded like Darth Vader with asthma.

“We-e-e-ell, I’m sorry you’re sick, but I need you there,” was the reply. His boss sounded cheerful, well-rested. “You see, I’m off tonight, and we’re short-staffed if you don’t make it.” He heard swallowing; a satisfied exhale.

Shifting the cell phone to his less-congested ear, he eyed the bottle of cold medicine he’d been able to pick up a half hour ago. It recommended against operating heavy machinery. It suggested he might be dizzy while taking it. He wished it had a warning about trying to function at all.

“Look,” he croaked out, “I have a fever and can’t breathe. I just started this medication and it recommends against driving.” He coughed to the side, then thought to cough closer to the receiver. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”

He closed his eyes, silently praying. Today would not be a good one to trek around the canyons, citing law-breaking hikers. The temperature was dropping by the minute.

“It could always be worse,” his sergeant said cheerfully. He heard a fireplace crackling in the background; saw his boss rest two slippered feet near the flames.

His boss terminated the call. Rising slowly, groaning, he pulled on his uniform.

It could always be worse, he thought the next morning, in the doctor’s office. “Looks like pneumonia,” the Physician’s Assistant told him, wearing his commiserating smile.


The morning had gone badly, even for her. Her boyfriend didn’t believe in bad luck; told her she was too superstitious. She’d noticed that those who scoffed, like him, didn’t have the sorts of days she usually did.

That day, the alarm had not gone off. Rolling out of bed too late to shower, she had grabbed at it. She’d intended to give it a scolding, to restrict its late-night beeping privileges. The casing came apart in her hands. It beeped a dying beep, leaving behind a broken body, and leaking battery acid.

She quickly dropped it into the garbage and ran to wash in the bathroom sink. “At least I have water,” she told herself. It ran, trickled, stopped. Frozen pipes, again.

“Good thing I didn’t try to shower,” she mumbled, running to dress. She spritzed a few extra squirts of body spray, to be safe, and left her apartment in a rush.

“I’d better text the landlord,” she said. Walking to the front door; she checked her purse, her pockets, her hand.

No phone. She sighed.

“Well, I’ve got my house keys, at least,” she told the closing door. It locked as she descended the front stairs.

“I think I have my keys,” she added, searching her purse as she walked. She dug in this corner and that, pushing empty lotion bottles and old receipts round and round.

She was so preoccupied, she didn’t see the barriers. She did see the open manhole, just before falling in.

“Whoa, lady! Are you all right?” A man asked her, down the hole. She looked up to his dark outline, from the filthy tunnel floor. She thought he was one of the construction workers, but she couldn’t be sure. She’d left her glasses home, as well.

“I think I’ve broken my leg,” she called painfully in reply, not moving it. Fortunately, she’d had enough life experience to diagnose most of her medical issues.

“Well, it could always be worse,” he called.

She looked around the dim sewer. “How?!” She yelled back, incredulously.

A pause. “Well,” he said, less confidently. “If you’d fallen in tomorrow, none of us would have been here to help you.”

The faint echoes of an approaching ambulance came down to her. She had to admit, he was right.