Smoke Rings

Pascal never saw her coming.

She was half his size and ethereal. She had eyes as large as her smile and twice as sharp. It was she who sharpened his mind. It was she who let him get cut.

She filled his head long before she knew his name. He had always known hers: Tora, Tora, Tora. He would always remember the day she saw him, really looked at him for the first time.

Pascal had been smoking, leaning on his doorframe three rooms down from hers. She had passed him without a glance, pausing at her door to bend and dig her key out of her boot. He blew a couple of smoke rings in her direction, hoping as usual to catch her attention. For the first time in two months of trying, it worked.

Tora coughed and spun at him, hazel eyes tattooing the back of his skull. She marched to within an inch of his nose, glared up at him, seized his hand, and heaved him into her motel room.

“Your smoke rings are crap,” was the first thing she said to him.

The second was “I need a friend.”

Helpless, Pascal followed her rose-gold hair wherever it danced. Through alleys, across backyards, over fences and onto the pier.

“Roads are for humans.” Tora’s favorite sentence. He never quite knew if she was joking.

It was on that pier that she showed him how to converse. Every night she explained the human condition, analysed the stars and forged paths through memory. She taught him how to breathe deep, how to see with his hands, how to slow his heart with his mind.

She handed him his cognizance, breathed life into his soul, and then left him forever. Tora disappeared, leaving him tender and aching like a broken nose reset or a muscle stretched too far. She had taught him how to live, how to love and finally, how to lose. Her final lesson, and it left him broken.

Pascal never saw her coming.

Dixie

People influence us…

 

            She was the brightest light in the county, my Dixie. A born genius, they said. Who they was, not a person would say, but whoever they was, I sure as heck believed ‘em. She could do polynomials in her mind faster n’ I could shout “Howdy!”, write a poem more beautiful n’ the stars, and sing better ‘n that redhead  fish lady in that Disney movie.

She could have done anything she wanted.

She could have changed the world.

She stayed in Riley County.

Now, don’t go misunderstanding me. Riley County is a great place, if you like wheat, corn, wheat, and more wheat. But it sure as heck ain’t a place for a born genius. A born genius oughta go somewhere like New York or Boston or one of them big cities, not stay in the heart of Kansas.

I tried to talk her into going to one of them nice colleges that wanted to give her money, but she refused. Bright as she is, my Dixie could be stubborn. She said she couldn’t leave me, what with her mama dyin’ and her brothers too young to help with the farm work. I told her I could handle it, I did. But she just wouldn’t listen.

At least, not until Eric came along.

She met him when she was singin’ down at the bar. Said he came up to her after a set and bought her a drink. From then on it was “Eric this” and “Eric that”. My Dixie said she loved him, loved that boy to the moon and back, but I didn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.

He stunk of entitled wealth. He came from Los Angeles, and his parents owned a casino. He wanted to take my Dixie away to live with him there, no doubt to gamble and drink her life away. She was too beautiful for him, too kind and brilliant. But she was young and in love.

I watched her forget her promises, forget the farm work, forget her mama. All she could see was him, and all he could see was… certain parts of her. She told us, when she came home one morning with the stench of whiskey on her breath, that she was gonna run away with him. She said they were gonna travel the globe, see the wonders of the world, taste every wine. I told her it was a waste of her mind, a waste of her heart. I tried to remind her of her promises but the light in my Dixie’s eyes was gone. All I saw behind them was a mind drowned in alcohol.

My Dixie told me she didn’t wanna hear another word from my mouth ever again, not if I was gonna go crushin’ her dreams. She pulled out a cell phone I didn’t know she had and called that Eric right in front of me. When he pulled up on that big black bike she ran to him and got up behind him, without even a word or a glance for me. I had to cover my eyes as gravel spurted from beneath them great wheels, and I kept ‘em covered long after the roaring of the bike faded away.

I couldn’t go inside. I couldn’t face my dying wife and my boys too young to understand why their sister was gone. I couldn’t tell them I had lost the best thing that had ever happened to us. I stayed on the porch steps, head in my hands, and was still there when the cop car pulled up.

I saw the look in Sheriff’s eyes, that look of pity and disgust. I knew before he ever opened his mouth what he had come to tell me. I watched his moustache move, studyin’ it as them words came out of his mouth. All them words bounced off of my ears, all words but one: Dixie. Dixie.

Dixie.

She was the brightest light in the county, my Dixie. A born genius, they said. Or used to say. Now they say what a shame it is that such a beautiful girl could let herself go so hard. They ask how I could let that boy influence her so. They say it was my fault. My fault.

It was my fault.

Books and Birds

In this dim little room

Filled with books and birds

The world is as far away

As a teardrop on the moon.

 

In those books, adventure engulfs,

Envelopes, ensnares.

Skies crack, armies march,

Silver swords swing.

 

The birds, they sing, tell stories,

While mine simply stare, perched.

 

In this dim little room

Filled with books and birds,

No gods weep, no dreams awaken,

No demons crawl.

 

The world is as far away

As a teardrop on the moon.

Pretty Prison

It’s a pretty cage, a beautiful prison. Maybe they figured hey, she’s a girl, she’ll like loads of fluffy pillows and chocolate and paintings of kittens and puppies, right?

Wrong.

I should be outside shooting things, not inside reading books on baroque music. But I “won” the lottery. I’ve been given the opportunity to survive. Great.

***

My mother had been about to turn the TV off when the “Breaking News” ribbon had flashed across the screen. It had been yet another fancy man in a white coat with a soothing voice telling everybody things they already knew. Yes, the virus is untreatable so far. No, we shouldn’t go outside. Yes, they’re working on a cure. Big whoop. But breaking news, now that was something to care about. That was something to listen to.

“This just came in: the CEO of the MediSoft Laboratories has just announced that there will be a lottery. The two winners of said lottery will be guaranteed survival and comfort. They will each be put into a self-sustaining isolation chamber designed to keep a single human being alive for an indefinite period of time…”

I looked at my mother. Her mouth was open and her fork was frozen halfway to it, almost comical, beans sliding off and plopping onto the plate below. “You’re not seriously thinking of entering, are you?” I asked, feeling a headache forming behind my eyes.

“Well why not, Samantha? Guaranteed survival, that’s huge these days. That’s worth more than just about anything.”

I winced. She was serious; she almost never called me by my full name. “Mother, it may be survival but it’s hardly living. You’d be like a fish in a tank, all alone, bored, probably eating nothing but beans—”

“I like beans. You like beans. Anyway what does it matter if you’re alive?”

“You would go mad!”

“Would not.”

“You would.”

“Would not.”

I sighed. My mother could be so infantile sometimes.

“Fine. Enter the lottery. It’s not like you’ll win anyway. There’ll be millions of other lazy idiots who would rather rot away in a little white room than be bothered to defend themselves.”

My mother cringed. I had gone too far. “Look, I just think it’s a bad idea, that’s all.”

“Well I don’t. Now be quiet, she’s saying something important.” The news lady was rattling off information on some website you could go to if you wanted to enter the lottery or look for more information. I pushed my chair away from the table and made a show of yawning and stretching.

“Tired already, Sam?” she asked, warm brown eyes narrowing in concern.

“Yeah. I’m gonna head to bed now.” I started up the stairs.

“Sam,” I paused, then turned to face her. “Don’t forget this.” She tossed me a semi-automatic assault rifle.

“Right. Thanks, mom.”

“Goodnight, honey.”

I turned and nearly ran up the stairs. Once I was in the seclusion of my room, I set the assault rifle on my bed and heaved my laptop onto my lap. It was a huge, ugly thing, my laptop. But I had built it for functionality, not aesthetic value. It worked, and that’s all that mattered.

I typed in the web address the news lady had mentioned and clicked through the pictures of self-satisfied scientists and the promises of comfort and safety. By the time my eyelids were drooping and I was yawning more than I was breathing I had learned everything there was to know about these self-sustaining isolation chambers. Everything except one thing: why?

I knew exactly how the chambers produced food and water, how they cared for their human ward if they became ill, how they “entertained” their human, kept them clean. I just didn’t know why these scientists had wasted their time on a pretty little prison instead of researching a cure for this cursed plague that was driving people insane.

I practically collapsed into my bed. I slept on my side, cradling my rifle, listening to the lullaby of screams and gunshots outside. When I opened my eyes, the sun was streaming in through my window and my mother was standing in the doorway, looking simultaneously sheepish and euphoric.

“You won.”

“Won what?”

“The lottery.”

I sat up, squinting at my mother’s flushed face.

Deliberately I stood. I walked slowly to her, looked into her face and said carefully, “I did not enter the lottery.”

She averted her eyes. “Well I just thought—”

“Mother.”

“-maybe once you’d slept a little—”

“Mother.”

“-you’d realize what a good opportunity this is and maybe—”

“Mother!”

She stopped talking, pinching her lips together as though they were all that was keeping her heart in her chest.

“I can’t do this. I won’t do this.”

“Please, Sam.”

“Don’t you ‘please Sam’ me. This is my decision, my choice and I don’t want-”

“Do it for me.”

I felt all the fight go out of me. I sank to my knees. “I don’t want to leave you. I don’t want to leave you all alone.”

“Sam—”

I started to cry.

“Samantha, it’s ok.”

I let her comfort me. I let her sit and pull me onto her lap like she did when I was a toddler. She had known exactly what to say to make me give in. She had manipulated me, but I didn’t care. I was going to do it. I was going to do it for her.

***

I did it for her.

Do I regret it? Of course. But I would do it again in a heartbeat. Yes, it’s lonely. Yes, I realize I’m pretty much eating my own poop. Yes, I’m bored. But I did it for her. I did it for my mother.

I’ve had a lot of time to think. I’ve had a lot of time to figure out why those scientists decided to create this torture room, why they did this instead of finding a cure.

They gave up.

They realized there would be no cure. These two isolation chambers were their last attempt to save the human race.

That’s another thing, another important fact I’d overlooked. Why two chambers? Well it’s obvious, isn’t it? The continued existence of the human race would be the responsibility of me and whatever poor boy they trapped in the other chamber.

So here I am, alone in a pretty prison, thinking about the fact that in order for the scientists’ plan to succeed, every single human  being on the planet outside two isolation chambers would have to die. The infected ones. The healthy ones who, no matter their resilience, would find themselves tearing each other apart on the streets among the infected one way or another. My mother.

I should be outside shooting things, not inside reading books on baroque music. But I “won” the lottery. I’ve been given the opportunity to survive. Great.

Himself

He was himself.

That was rare. It was difficult. But he was himself.

That was all he could be, so he hung onto himself like a sailor hangs onto a piece of driftwood after his boat capsizes. He made damn certain that himself was a person he could be proud to show a king or a pretty girl or the mother he never knew.

He was honest, yes he was. Honest enough that he had fewer teeth than he had been born to have. He was bold. He did not complain. Not when his wife died giving birth to a child who came out disfigured, broken, lifeless. Not when his new home burned down with his new wife inside three weeks after the marriage. Not when his dog, his best friend and often his only friend, was shot in the street because she “looked mean”. He was kind, kind like the mother he had never known, kind like his old sweet nursemaid who had hung herself while he watched. He knew these things to be true, and he was proud.

That’s not to say he was perfect, oh no. He was far from perfect.

He was selfish. He blamed others for his mistakes. He blamed the man who built his house when his cigarette cost his second wife her life. He was jealous, jealous enough that he could not work, for somebody was always better at his job. He was blunt. He lost many friends over petty arguments and brutal honesty.

He accepted every aspect of himself. He knew who he was, and he did not lie to himself. He did not love himself, nor did he hate himself. He did his best to be the best he could be, although he made mistakes and started fights.

He was himself.

Yearn for Freedom

She lost her future in a flash,
She drove it away with the smoke from her cigarette.
She was running from her past,
She said its a blessing it hadn’t caught up yet.

She lost her friends in a blink,
She drove them away with the stench of wine on her breath.
She never stopped to think,
She wanted to live but what she got was living death.

She doesn’t even know enough to yearn for freedom.
She knows she’s in too deep but she doesn’t have the strength to care.

She’s trapped in her mind,
She’s lost and alone with the smoke and the wine.
She knows she’s gonna die,
Her life has been replaced with pain and fog and lies.

She doesn’t even know enough to yearn for freedom.
She knows she’s in too deep but she doesn’t have the strength to care.

Now all she’ll leave behind are regrets and memories,
Maybe when she’s gone she’ll finally be at ease.
She was blind but now she sees,
Maybe when she’s gone, she’ll finally have some peace.

She and the Lake

They were friends, she and the lake. They understood each other. They respected each other. She often felt as though the lake was part of her, or she part of it. It represented her better than any words ever could.

She loved it most when the lake was flat and calm, mirror-like in its serenity. On the surface it would be as smooth as glass, but under the deceptive stillness a world of fish would flick and flit like flying thoughts.

In storms she would huddle in a little nest of reeds and gentle cattails, watching the angry green waves hustle across the aching water as lightning split the sky like thrown knives. She would not cry at the roaring wind and the bellowing thunder, for she knew that as long as she stayed in her safe little cocoon of flora she would be safe.

On clear, windless evenings she would walk across the glistening water or lay on her back amongst the reeds, breathing in the beauty of the lake, listening to the throbbing call of a mournful loon. She would watch as the dying sun bled purple light across the mirror-smooth surface of the lake, and wait for the moon to cry crystal stars onto the waiting turquoise sky.

One morning, the sun rose as red as the blood she could no longer spill. The lake was as silent as her heart, seemingly void of life. No birds sang, no trees whispered. No breath of wind could be felt, and no fish broke the crimson surface of the lake. She was alone. She felt a tear make its winding way down her pallid cheek and knew that this day would be the day she slept.

She walked into the water whence she came, returning to her long forgotten bones. She felt her shining hair become weightless and knew that the lake had closed around her. Her eyelids were heavy, and she laid herself down to rest for the last time.

She whispered her final goodbye to this lake, this beautiful lake. She would miss its waters, for it had been her only friend and her home. When those whom she thought she loved looked right through her and the beds of the living felt as hard and cold as ice, this lake had been her only solace.

She closed her salty eyes.

She slept.

White Picket Fence

Falling asleep was always the hardest part of the day. Curled on the damp cardboard with my shivering siblings, listening to their stomachs growl, my mind was always whirring with plans and doubts and hopes and dreams. Every night I dreamed the same dream: a white picket fence, clean windows, a door with a shining knob. I saw my sister’s cheeks flushed with joy, my brothers eyes alight with happiness.

Of course, waking up was hell.

My eyes would fly open at the first sliver of gray New York light and I would don the mismatched clothing and large, pitiful eyes. I would sit on the step outside the cafe and make sure to shiver loudly as I clutched the tin can and the scrawled misspelled sign. I watched every day as the shining shoes strode purposefully past me without so much as a pause or hesitating step.

Four, maybe five times a day a pair of feet would stop, turn towards me, and a coin would hit the bottom of the tin can with an empty clank. I made sure to sniff pathetically as I thanked the self-satisfied mouths, and once or twice a week one of them would order me a hot cocoa or a croissant from the café.

Of course, I never ate what they bought me. I would bring it home to Sam and Lily and divide it between us. We practically lived on croissants and bagels, although every Sunday I would count out the coins and buy us some bread and maybe even a toothbrush or a can of soup.

And every night, I dreamed the dream. It broke my heart, that dream. Every night it would raise my hopes, only to dash them like a broken piggy bank when the light of the morning streamed into our cardboard home. And yet, in a way, that dream was all I had. I held onto it, because I knew that the night I stopped dreaming would be the night I gave up.

One morning, a worn pair of practical boots stopped in front of me. I held out the can, expecting to hear the dull ring of metal on metal. Instead, the boots and their owner walked over and sat down next to me on the filthy step. Surprised, I looked over and saw bright eyes peering over a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. A smile appeared on the old man’s face as he sensed my confusion.

“Hello, dear.” He had a soft, crackling voice that reminded me of the leather of his boots. “How long have you been sitting here?” I swallowed, not sure what to do. Hesitating, I answered.

“Since about dawn, I would s-”

“How many years, chéri?” He had a soft French accent.

“’Bout nine years, I guess…” He let out a soft tut.

“Why chéri,  that just won’t do!” Standing, he placed a small leather pouch in my lap. “I won’t be needing this much longer, my dear. Why don’t you put it to good use for me, oui?” Unsure, I nodded. He stood and strolled away. I watched him go, forgetting for a time about the pouch resting on my legs. I peeked inside and gasped.

White picket fence, here we come.

Painless

As it turns out, a life without pain is a very painful life. It is agony to avoid stairs, nails, door jams and glass bowls, old wooden benches and clawed creatures. The anguish of escaping pain is worse than the pain itself.

When she was diagnosed with severe agliophobia, we as parents took the phobia upon ourselves. Escaping pain became a sort of panicked game. Our wedding china was replaced with plastic dishes. Someone else’s one-story house became our one-story house, soon to have its dangerous doors ripped out of it like splinters.

Once our house was gutted of everything sharp or hard, breakable or heavy, we felt like we could breathe. We thought we were safe, we thought she was safe. We thought nothing bad could possibly happen to her, because we were there. We were there to keep her out of pain’s way. We wrapped ourselves in soft naivety and hoped it would shield us from the truth.

It didn’t.

We couldn’t keep her with us forever. She grew and changed like a butterfly in a children’s book, and eventually she flew away. She went to college.

She had friends, a luxury we could not afford her in our safe little pillow of a house. They convinced her that what she needed to do was face her fears. They showed her sunlight, but they let her get burned.

She took it too far. She wanted to be free of her fear, but instead of picking the lock, she blew up the prison. She sought after pain. She started to enjoy it.

She collected knives.

She drove too fast.

She drove too fast.

When we walked into the little white room, we knew what we would see. We had been warned of the torn skin, the lifeless body, the sounds of the machines. We had decided before we went in that we would give ourselves only five minutes to say goodbye. Five minutes. Four minutes. Three. Two. One.

Goodbye.

There was no saving her, they said. Soothing voices told us that her release was gentle.

Painless.

Fairy Tale

You are my sunshine,
The Jack to my Jill.
You are the only one
I would follow down that hill.

For you, I’d cross the hundred-acre wood,
And climb the tallest tree,
But I wouldn’t look to the sky,
‘Cause it’s you, you’re all I see.

You’re a fairy tale,
A nursery rhyme,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
I love you more
Than my favourite song,
And all the books combined.

So let us dive down the rabbit hole,
Embrace the Jabberwock.
Let’s dance until midnight,
Except this time we’ll ignore the clock.

It’s the second star on the right,
And straight on till morn,
We’ll stand and fight with our wooden swords,
Together we’ll hack through the thorns.

You’re a fairy tale,
A nursery rhyme,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
I love you more
Than my favourite song,
And all the books combined.