4:33

The clock ticks. The countertop herb garden’s pump grinds: it needs more water. The owner of the house grunts slightly as she rises from the couch, which creaks in response. The faucet gushes into life and there is a soft click as the woman fills a plastic pitcher. The rubber cap of the herb garden pops loose. Water dribbles into the dark cistern. Water meeting water  – the splashes are muted by the container. A hiss: the grommet is sealed.

Ping. Pling. Plink. The faucet wasn’t turned off entirely. Drip by excruciatingly slow drip, water meets the metal of the sink basin.

The dog scratches himself, then shakes, ID and rabies tags jingling. He settles onto his bed with a soft flop. Slurping sounds emanate from it as he begins cleaning his privates.

The woman picks up her iPhone and texts a friend. The return sound is a whistle-ping. Ah, she’s using WhatsApp.

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She is still in the kitchen. She opens the fridge and it, too, emits a soft pop – louder than the herb garden. She stares into the chilly, white, landscape of possibilities. She slides open the deli drawer with a faint sound of metal on plastic, extracts cheese in crinkly plastic, and swings the door shut. A low click means it bounced open again.

A few seconds later, there is beeping from the fridge. The woman takes several seconds to recognize the sound, then bumps the door closed with her hip: a soft thud, followed by a more solid one.

Outside, thunder rumbles. The dog grumbles in response. The woman hushes him.

Another beeping sound begins but it’s external, a neighbor backing their golf cart out of the carport. (The vehicle’s headlights double the illumination in the woman’s house.) The cart whirrrrs into forward motion that fades away.

Birds sing in the trees outside. A sandhill crane calls to its lover. An owl screeches a warning to a squirrel. Lizards come out and make their soft gek-gek-gek sounds. Bug-zappers across the back yard at that neighbor’s place make their distinctive sting-pzzt sound as mosquitoes meet a sudden and violent end.

(No one mourns the mosquitoes.)

Somewhere in the distance, an ambulance siren is heard, the doppler effect obscuring the direction it’s coming from.

Thunder rumbles louder, and there is the electrical crack of a close lightning strike.

The dog whimpers – he hates storms – and the woman picks him up and rocks him like a human infant. His tags and her bangle bracelets click, clack, clank together.

The clock ticks.

Written last summer for Like the Prose 2021. Prompt # 24 – Crossover Art Form
Inspired by composer John Cage’s musical composition of the same name,
in which he simply let the audience listen to ambient noise for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

Shadow

artist: scaf_oner - https://www.instagram.com/scaf_oner/“I have a little shadow
That goes in and out with me
And what could be the use of him
Is more than I can see.”

“He is very very like me
From his toes up to his head
And I see him jump before me
When I jump into my bed.”

The words of the old Robert Louis Stevenson poem circle through my head in my grandmother’s voice. She used to make me recite them at night… not just “My Shadow” but all those children’s’ verses. We would recite them with Grandpop, too, “to help keep his brain stimulated,” the old woman would say.

In my innocence I had no idea they were meant to be protective spells. I would just become entranced by the rhythms and rhymes and the time spent one-on-one with the old woman. The images would swirl around in my imagination, but I never paid attention to the meanings of the words.

I also had no idea that my grandfather was slowly slipping away from us as Alzheimer’s ate his brain. Some days, he couldn’t remember how the percolator worked. Other days, he couldn’t remember my name.

Then there was the night of the big storm. The power went out and the world felt deadly still without the usual electrical hum that most of us don’t notice til it’s gone.

I saw my grandfather downstairs, checking to make sure all the storm doors were shut, and the windows closed and latched. It struck me as a comforting scene until the lightning flashed outside and cast his shadow – his true shadow – on the wall near my bedroom door.

Looking down, I caught the old man staring at me the way I’d have stared at a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles from Carvel.

As if I wasn’t human.

As if I were FOOD.

And his shadow… it looked more like that creature from ALIEN than the old man who happily hunkered down on the floor and played trains with me just a few hours before. And it… it was looking at me, too, the way a predator analyzes its prey.

“Get to bed!” Grandma came out of nowhere to push me back into my room and slam the door shut. “You must never let Grandpop’s shadow touch you.” Unspoken was the other half of the admonition, the half I was still too young to hear: “and never let your shadow cover anyone else.”

Sitting in my bed, in the dark, I noticed that my grandmother’s shadow wasn’t with mine, that only my form showed in silhouette on the bedroom wall. Through the crack under the door, I saw flickering light and comprehension dawned. Her shadow was out there, defending me from my own grandfather’s inner demon.

“Recite,” she ordered, though there was affection beneath her commanding tone. “How do you like to go up in a swing?”

Up in the air so blue,” I dutifully continued. “Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing, ever a child could do.” The words calmed me. I imagined myself swinging away from the weird shadow battle to a place of peace and light.

When the storm ended and the power returned, Grandpop came to check on us. I checked the wall, and saw the lamplight throwing only the expected, human forms of all of us there. Grandma smiled at him, and said, “It’s alright now.”  And we all went on as if everything was the same as before.

Except… I am  different.

I know things now.

The shadow curse runs in my family – I learned that later – but it’s been steadily weakening from generation to generation.

And the rhymes? They protect us and repel the monsters.

If that seems a bit far-fetched, consider: “Ring Around the Rosie” defines the symptoms of the Plague, and “This Old Man” warns us about a pedophile. “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush,” on the other hand,  refers to how female prisoners once got exercise.

My own demon shadow is a rare visitor, a puny and ineffectual thing compared to my grandfather’s.

Still, when the weather guy on tv warns of an impending storm, I sit on my daughter’s bed, take the video game out of her tiny hands, and teach her a rhyme:

“The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.”

None of him at all… Perhaps by the time my daughter has children, it will be so.

 

*All italicized verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
Art by  scaf_oner

Hot Toddy, Cold Ground

CreativeFest

 

The ground was moist from recent rain, but she’d brought one of the thick, wool blankets from the old cedar chest and it was enough to keep her dry. She sat down on the folded fabric and pulled the thermos from inside her cloak.

There was barely any moon, just enough to let the gravestones show as reverse silhouettes – pieces cut out from the surrounding dark. Pieces that seemed to exist in a world where the light never reached.

Cemetery at by ELG21 via Pixabay

Or maybe that was her grief speaking.

It had been years since she’d lost him, not to any plague or pandemic, but to the very mundane condition of extreme old age. He’d admitted to being ninety; she had been certain he was over one hundred when he died.

Not that it mattered anymore.

She lit a candle and placed it on top of his stone. Then she opened the thermos and poured steaming liquid into the cup that was also the lid. The first pour, she gave to the ground, and the scent rose around her: cinnamon, cloves, alcohol, damp earth.

The second pour was hers to drink. She lifted the plastic vessel toward the gravestone in a toast and forced a smile. “I brought your hot toddy, Granddad, just like always.”

Spiced tea, honey, and bourbon warmed her from the inside out. Between sips she told her grandfather what had changed in her life since her last visit.

When the candle flickered out, she drained the last of her drink, replaced the lid, and rose to leave. Folding the damp blanket over her arm, she bid a final. “Good night, Granddad. I love you. See you next year.”

She walked away, unaware that, beneath the bourbon-laced earth, frail, fleshless hands were reaching upward, and a withered, rasping voice was speaking.

“Love you too, kiddo.”


Written for the October 2021 #Creativefest. Prompt: silhouette.
Special thanks to Fran H. for a line suggestion.

 

But Old Towns Are Always Haunted, Aren’t They?

CreativeFest

That one stretch of Highway 75 across the corner of Nebraska between the Kansas Turnpike and the turnoff to cross the river and connect with I-29 always spooked her.

When she made the trip alone, she would make sure she had enough gas to drive that section of her journey without having to stop. When she was with her partner, she still got the heebie-jeebies, but at least she had another human being, real and alive, sitting next to her.

Ralph's Market by Daniel RitterSometimes, she even let him drive.

“I’m just going to shut my eyes,” she’d say, even though they both knew she never slept in cars. “Wake me when we get to that rest-stop with the fancy Japanese toilets.”  She’d pop headphones in her ears, and squinch her eyes shut, and pray she could keep them that way until they’d crossed the Iowa state line.

Invariably, though, she would wake up just as the speed limit slowed and the road narrowed to two lanes as it crept through the old town.

Tonight, they hit that part of the trip just as the sun was setting, and she couldn’t help but watch as the dying rays illuminated the creaky old buildings with their ghost signs still evident on long-derelict buildings.

“You okay?” her husband asked, more focused on the road ahead than on her.

“Yeah. I just… this town makes me sad.”

Sad was an understatement. She could feel the neglect like a weight upon her shoulders. The town had been cute once – the remnants of it were still here – the old bones of a place that was too far from any city to be a suburb, and too small to thrive.

The post office was little more than a phone booth – or maybe one of those roadside ice cream stands that are only open in summer. She imagined Ralph, from the market still bore his name even though it was long since closed (replaced by a Walmart up at the crossroads between this tiny town and the next), rushing over to handle the mail or sell some stamps in between customers picking up their grocery orders.

She could almost hear the happy voices of children playing tether ball in the yard of the schoolhouse across the street – the school that no longer hosted lively classrooms. A few windows were broken, and the chains for the balls hung limply.  Probably the kids would have trooped over to the market when they were done playing, and spent their allowances on penny candy and the kinds of pop they didn’t sell much anymore: Mr. Pibb, RC Cola, Grape NeHi.

Up at the corner, the motel still had lights on, and one lonely car was parked in the criss-cross of broken paint lines that was its parking lot, right in front of the payphone – an actual payphone! – and the sign promising free ice. Those lights were a beacon to her, a sign that the oldest part of the town was behind them, and the next block would hold the Tast-e-Freeze and Dog House  – two stops on an endless march of fast food.

They waited at the light – the only one in town, and she could have sworn she saw shadowy figures in the background, the essences of the people who had lived and worked here once upon a time, but then the red switched to green, and she realized it must’ve been a trick of the light.

Still, she shuddered, glad they were back up to speed.

Old towns always made her feel like someone was watching her.

And who knows? Maybe they were. Old towns are always haunted, aren’t they?


Photo credit: Daniel Ritter
Written for October 2021 #CreativeFest. Prompt: Ghost

 

La Signora della Luna

CreativeFest

 

When I was little, my grandmother kept the moon in a glass on her bedside table. She kept her teeth in another glass right next to it.

girl-5760295_1280I always wondered what would happen if she mixed them up, and put the moon in with the fizzy tablet that cleaned her teeth. Would it wipe away all the craters? Chase away the mares and level the Archimedes mountains?

But she never mixed the glasses.

I asked her once, why she trapped the moon that way. She told me that after my grandfather left this world, she was lonely. During the day, she had friends and neighbors to visit with, and family to talk to on the phone. But in the deep, darkness after bedtime, she missed having someone right there, with their head on the pillow next to hers, to share her thoughts with.

“But don’t people miss the moon, when you have it in the glass?” I’d asked.

“Oh, no,” she said. “Because the moon isn’t just the moon;  it’s the quiet listener we all need from time to time. I have the moon in this glass, and we talk, and then the moon goes to the next person who needs it, and I drink the moon-water.”  She paused and smiled at me, and her teeth were shiny in her mouth, in a way they never were in the glass. “The moon-water is what makes it possible. Your grandfather used to snatch the moon from the sky when we was away at war, and keep it in his canteen.”

“He didn’t!”

“He did. He sent me a drawing of it, once. I think it’s in the bottom drawer of my bureau.”

I went to the bottom drawer, the one where my grandmother kept her treasures and found the manila envelope of my grandfather’s drawings. We never found the picture of the moon in his canteen, but we flipped through pages showing the anatomy of flowers and insects in textbook detail, and a sketch he drew of my grandmother when they were young and newly married. He’d written La Signora della Luna in the top margin. It meant “Lady of the Moon.”

“Would the moon listen to me, if I needed to?”

“Maybe.” My grandmother rarely gave definitive answers. “If the mood was right and you asked politely.”

Of course, I resolved to ask.

I tried and tried – constantly that summer, and less frequently as the years turned and I grew older. In time, I forgot all about the moon being in my grandmother’s water-glass, and when I did remember, I assumed it was a trick of the light, a reflection shining through her window.

But after she left this world to go be with my grandfather again, I found the thick, heavy glass in a box of things to be donated, and I asked my mother if I could have it.

“I guess so,” she said, puzzlement in her voice. “But it’s just one glass. We were never sure, but we think she took it from the Officer’s Club dining room.”

That didn’t surprise me. My grandmother had many mysterious acquisitions among her belongings: a tiny milk pitcher from a favorite bed and breakfast, one purple satin shoe, a pair of gold bracelets that didn’t seem big enough for even her tiny wrists, yet somehow, magically, she managed to wear. A stray glass was nothing by comparison.

Except that I knew the secret.

Alone at home, a year and a day after the funeral, I filled that glass with water and put it on my bedside table. I wasn’t even thinking about a possible lunar visitation. I just remembered that it had been hers.

That night, I dreamed of my grandmother, not the way she’d been in the last years before her death, but vibrant and relatively young the way she’d been when I was little. Her cheeks were barely lined then, and her eyes were bright and shining. She didn’t speak to me, but I felt the edge of the bed dip when she sat down, and I smiled at the touch of her cool fingers on my forehead.

I woke up to dim light, certain that I could detect her rose-scented perfume in my room. Reaching for the water glass on my table, I froze. Because instead of just water, the moon was there, just floating as if it belonged there instead of the sky.

Moon-water doesn’t taste any different from plain old drinking water,  I discovered later. But drinking it makes you feel lighter inside. It’s as if gravity isn’t pulling on you quite as hard as it should.

And the moon… well, it’s an excellent listener. It never talks back, of course, but the next morning I always wake up with an answer to whatever problem I had told it about.

I bet if I had a lover who could draw, instead of one who played music, he’d call me the Lady of the Moon, now, and I guess that’s how it should be. I don’t have a granddaughter to pass my legacy to, but one of my nieces has the soul of a dreamer. Maybe I’ll ask her what she sees in the glass, next time she spends the night.

My grandmother used to keep the moon in a glass of water on her bedside table. Now it’s my turn.


#Written for the October 2021 #Creativefest. Prompt: Moon. 

Menage a Trois

Menage a Trois

I found her waiting for me at the table when I got there. I hung up my coat and had, and went to join her. “Oh, it’s good to see you…” I half-whispered. But she didn’t answer.

She was wearing a green dress that flattered her curves in all the right ways, and I couldn’t stop staring at her. She glowed, especially around her neck where a maroon choker rested, right around the hollow of her throat.

I reached out to touch her, but I could tell she was too cold. Better to wait, better to let her get warmed up, better to give her a chance to breathe.

And for me to breathe her in. Her scent, intoxicating. Her hair, like the softly burning embers as a fire is nearly out. Her curves…

I shook my head to clear it. This wasn’t an affair, and she didn’t need foreplay.

I reached out and stroked my fingers down her neck, her side. So smooth. I did it again, felt the change from her silky green to the colorful fabric wrapped around her middle. I couldn’t help it, I moaned.

I’m not sure if I would have touched my lips to her neck or not, but even though I knew she was receptive to the idea, I didn’t try it.

In all honesty, I didn’t have a chance.

Bright lights came on and pulled me out of my reverie, and the voice – the voice I hear every morning and fell asleep with every night, spoke to me in sweet tones.

“Is there some reason you’re in the dark? Oh, hey, have you tried the new pinot noir yet? I got it for eight bucks at Costco. I’ve heard it’s really good.”

I sighed. I love my wife, but sometimes you just want to enjoy a glass of wine alone, or at least, enjoy a quiet fantasy.  Maybe next time.

“Shall I pour for both of us?” I called to the other woman in my life.

“Please!”

I looked back at the one in the green number. “I guess it’s three of us tonight.”

Parched

Parched via Flash-Prompt

Parched.

She could no longer remember a time when she was not parched, when her roots did not dig so far into the earth that they nearly breached its molten core.

Sometimes she had flashes of memories of being supple of limb and well-coiffed with lively green leaves. But those recollections were dusty like the ground to which she remained anchored.

No. Tethered.

Still, she held out hope. A rumble in the distance spurred her to lift her desiccated limbs skyward and plead in a mental voice as scratchy as her peeling bark. “Rain! Rain before the last of us is gone!”

The sky remained unrelentingly clear. In the distance, she saw one of her sisters crumble to ash. She would cry, but she couldn’t spare the sap.

“Rain,” she croaked.

It came, but too late.

Doing the Right Thing (a Basil and Zoe story)

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“Why does doing the right thing never feel good?”

“I do not understand.” Basil’s voice was mild as always.

“Well, take us for example. We’ve been dating since I was seventeen, but until I was eighteen, we never went farther than kissing. Seventeen is legal throughout the Coalition of Aligned Worlds, so why did we wait? It made me antsy and worried you didn’t feel as much as I did. We waited because we were concerned your reputation would be…”

“… besmirched?” Basil interrupted, his tone amused.

“Yes, thank you.” I took a breath. “But it turned out no one cared. So why did we do it?”

“We did what we felt was right at the time,” he reminded me gently. “And we went farther than kissing, Zoe.”

“Well, yes… if you want to be technical.”

“I am technical,” he reminded me. It was an old joke, and one that he’d never cease making. “And you are using the fact that we did not ‘jump into bed’ as a deflection for your true concern. I cannot help you work through it if you do not tell me what it is.”

“See, you’re doing the right thing, and it doesn’t feel good.” I paused for a beat. “Well, it doesn’t feel good for me right now.”

“You are still deflecting.”

“Must you always be right?” I grumbled.

“Yes, even when being so doesn’t ‘feel good.'”

“Brat.”

“Sometimes,” he agreed. “But you have yet to tell me what is troubling you. Dearest, whatever it is, it cannot be ‘that bad.'”

I paced back and forth in front of his console for a few minutes. Then I stopped, and said, “It’s the Kazoines.”

Basil’s last mission – the ship’s last mission – had been an attempt to relocate a colony of twenty-thousand people. The Kazoine sun was failing, and the Stellar Navy had been sent to rehome the colonists. Except they refused. Well, some of them. Some had come aboard the Cousteau and a few of the other ships in the fleet, but not enough.

“You believe we should have enacted a forced evacuation, pulling people from their homes, even though they understood the danger of remaining on Kazo Prime.”  Basil wasn’t asking. He knew how I felt. He knew a good number of the officers and crew felt the same.

“Yes.”

“But you know that those who chose to stay were honoring their faith, and their commitment to the homes they built on their planet. And you also know that the vast majority of those who remained behind were disproportionately aged and infirm. The rigors of space travel and resettlement may well have caused as much harm as staying on a planet that was losing its sun.”

“I know,” I said. “I know it was an informed choice. I know they would likely not have survived planting a new colony and all the work that entails. I know that even now the Kazoines who did come with us are complaining about lack of space and creature comforts.”

“Do you believe living on the Cousteau is a hardship?” Basil changed the subject, but I knew we’d go back to my issue.

“Well, no, but I share private quarters with you. And this is home to me now. The colonists have been ripped from their homes and are basically living in dorms.”

“That is true, but it will only be for two weeks, and they are aware the situation is temporary.”

“I still feel awful about it all,” I said. “But especially that we left those people to die.”

“It is alright to feel that way,” Basil assured me. “We had little choice in this mission because Coalition regulations do not permit us to supersede local authorities unless criminal acts are being committed. I, too, regret the loss of life and separation of families that will and has happened as a result. But we did rescue seventeen thousand people who will continue to live fruitful lives.”

“And you believe those seventeen thousand negate the three thousand who stayed?”

“Not at all, Zoe. But saving those who were willing to come was the right thing to do.”

“I know,” I said, collapsing onto the couch. “I know. But it still feels pretty awful. Why does doing the right thing always suck so much?”

“It does not,” Basil said, “always.”

And I had to accept that.

Written for Brief #23 of Like the Prose 2021:  First line prompt.

 

 

 

 

 

Prose and Cons

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We’re supposed to be writing about con artists but I have no CONfidence that I can pull it off.

May I CONfide in you? The only con artists floating around in my CONsciousness are the characters in “Guys and Dolls,”  and that movie Leonardo DiCaprio did about the guy who CONvinced people he was a pilot for PanAm , among other things. It was a true story. I think it became a musical due to some strange CONfluence of events. Funny, I can remember if he was ever  CONvicted. Not Leo. The real guy.

After some CONtemplation I’ve determined that Will Smith’s character in “Six Degrees of Separation” could be CONsidered a con artist. Oh! And Wimpy from the old Popeye cartoons! I’m CONfident that he never paid anyone Tuesday for the hamburgers he was CONstantly eating.

(There was a hamburger stand called Wimpy’s across the street from my high school. CONtrary to rumors, there were no human body parts in the meat. And the French fries there were always hot and crispy. They served them in paper cones, like at the boardwalk.)

But that’s the sum-total of my less-than-CONsiderable knowledge about con artists and why I’m the worst person ever CONscripted to write about one.

If you’ve read this much of my CONvoluted tale, you will now be slightly CONsternated.

Why? Because I’ve used my CONniving ways to CONvince you that I’ve written a story about con artists.

And thus CONcludes my CONcept piece.

Written for Brief #22 of Like the Prose 2021: Con Artists

Five More Minutes

Dreamer

“Five more minutes,” I demanded, and the Faceless Man nodded. “It’ll cost ya,” his voice came from nowhere. And everywhere.

“How much?”

“Ten seconds of attention.”

Attention was one of the highest currencies. If the time was taken from your account at the wrong moment, you might blink and miss an ID scan or turn your head and get clipped by a teenager taking the family flitter out for a spin.

“That’s a lot.”

“You know my prices rise every time you come to me for more.”

I couldn’t help it. Like everyone else in the Belt I was tired, hungry, and chilly all the time, even though I had a cushy office job and wasn’t actually running the water makers or mining ore.

“I know.”

“Maybe you should buy five degrees of heat instead. It’ll only cost you two breaths and being warm might alleviate your other… problem.”

Tempting. It was tempting. But I needed the dream-time with my  lover out on patrol duty beyond the Rim more than I needed to be warm.

“I’ll pay your price,” I said. “Five full minutes.”

“Have I ever stiffed you?”

“No. No, you haven’t.”

“Alright then. Your hand?”

I put my hand in the cold machine and felt the prick of the needles. Two of them. One to give me what I wanted and one to fulfill my payment.  “Thank you.”

I pushed the com-set away and rolled over in bed. Five more minutes of sleep and happy dreams.

I never noticed that the elevator car wasn’t there when the doors opened.

I never knew that’s how the Faceless were created.

The next time I used a com-set, I’d be the one with all the time in the world.

Written for Brief #21 of Like the Prose 2021: Fantasy