Butterscotch

0299 - road not taken via flash-prompt“Where are we going?

My mother looks over at me from behind the steering wheel. It’s barely a glance, but I see the indecision in her face, even if I don’t know to call it that.

What I do know is that she woke me up in the still-dark of my room and had me put shoes and socks on with my pajamas and bathrobe. She packed my slippers and threw some of my clothes and underwear and my Winnie-the-Pooh into the big suitcase, already half-full with the silkier fabric of her own stuff.

“We’re going to see Charlotte and Greg,” she tells me after a moment.
“Is Daddy coming?”

“No, he had to stay home.”

Daddy hadn’t come to the door to say goodbye, but it would be years until I put it all together. My parents screaming matches had been a near-constant part of my childhood, but that night – that night – I’d gone to bed with the covers all the way up to my ears and my big koala bear and bigger lion on either side of me.

I’d heard their normal yelling turn into something else. Something dark and scary with the sound of something cutting through the air, followed by breaking glass and slamming doors and then a weird *pop* before everything had gone still and quiet, like someone had siphoned all sound out of the world.

If I looked back at my mother, at her hands gripping the steering wheel, would I see the remnants of energy crackling around her fingers? Would I see her eyes glowing slightly green in the not-yet-morning light?

Daddy had called my mother a witch so many times. Not witch-with-a-b like other people said. Just the regular word. But when Daddy called Mommy that, it wasn’t just a mean word. It was Meant. He’d say things like he Should Have Known Better than to Marry a Witch. And he’d scream that Solving Problems with Magic Wasn’t Really Dealing. And he’d flinch sometimes when she tried to touch him.

It was the flinching that bothered me the most.

When I got older, if my eyes started glowing green when I was upset, or my fingers sparked when I was angry, would Daddy pull way from me too?

I had a feeling we would.

The car moves ever forward, toward Charlotte and Greg’s place. They live in a house in the woods, and whenever we visit they bundle me into a loft bed at the top of the house with tons of pillows and quilts and books, and Greg pulls flowers out of the air and gives me bags of chocolate drops if he thinks I’m sad.
“Mommy?” I break the silence that has settled. “I’m thirsty.”

“We’ll stop in a little while,” she says. “For a snack and a potty break.”

“But I’m thirsty now!”

“I forgot the bottled water,” my mother confesses. But she reaches behind my ear, and then opens her hand, where a wrapped candy rests. “Suck on this, for now.”

I take the candy and unwrap it, popping it into my mouth. My favorite kind: Butterscotch.

I look out the window, and I smile. Charlotte and Greg will keep us safe and maybe Daddy will learn that a little magic isn’t so bad after all.

The Shape of You

0315 - smoke ink via flash-promptYou’ve been gone three years, and yet somehow, you’re still here.

 

The shape of your body lingers in corners, caught in glimpses out of the corner of my eye.

 

I see you kneeling for a goodnight kiss at our daughter’s bedside, catch your reflection in the mirror, the window, the glass of the microwave door.

 

At night, when I lie shivering in what was once our bed, but is now solely mine, is it your hands that pull the covers up, protecting me in a cocoon of cotton sheets and quilts as you once sheltered me in the curve of your body?

 

You seem so substantial in my dreams. We have conversations that never quite stick, though the feeling of having conversed often lingers for days.

 

Your touch is there, too. Your scent – cashews and spice. Surrounding me. Encompassing all that we were when you were here and alive.

 

“Find me,” you whisper in my ear after you kiss me. “Bring me home,” you urge.

 

I reach for you, wishing for the solid reassurance of your body.

 

And I wake. Alone. Bereft. Sad and angry and missing the reality we had, while your ghost slips through my fingers, like smoke.

Fragment of a Diary Found in the Wreck of the Lucy

0308 - The Lucy - via Flash-promptDay 13

My fresh water is nearly gone, and I haven’t been able to catch a fish in two days. While the night brings welcome respite from the blazing sun, other, less welcome visitors arrive with it.

 

The sharks appear at dusk, ever circling, biding their time. I’ve bound the cut on my leg with one of my shirtsleeves, but I fear it’s beginning to fester. Can they scent my blood even though this dinghy is watertight, or are they tracking my fear?

 

Last night – this morning, really – just before dawn, I thought I saw the outline of a ship, an ancient three-masted vessel, the kind from centuries ago, before we sailed the solar winds as easily as we ride the white-credited waves.

 

She should have been a welcome sight, anachronistic as it was, but something about her threw me off: what I thought was sunrise filtered through her sails, which were billowing despite the lack of breeze (a puzzle in itself) seemed more like flame after several minutes of staring at her through the sonic spyglass.

 

And then there was the way her seemed to be leering at me, as if she was not a ship – or not only that – but a trapped soul yearning to be set free.

 

I chose not to hail her in the darkness, but hunkered down in the bottom of my boat, keeping my head below the gunwales, and I believe we passed alongside each other without her taking any notice, but I remember a strong odor, kelpy and dank and altogether disconcerting.

 

In the morning light, I was half-convinced I had dreamed the strange vessel, but for the lingering scent of wet wood and smoke.

 

Should I glimpse this ship again tonight I will have no choice but to hail her, and beg for assistance: water and food, at least, or perhaps passage to shore – any shore.

 

Day 14

She saw my hail and her ghostly form became one of solid strength. A rope ladder was dropped over the side and I hitched my meager belongings and climbed aboard.

 

I expected a crew. I hoped for humans, or at least humanoids, but there was no one.

 

Day 15

Alone on an empty ship that shows signs of a battle, fought long ago, and bitterly won, I begin to hear voices.

 

They are whispers, really, insinuating themselves into my consciousness by sliding between auditory perception and something almost psychic.

 

I should be wary, perhaps even terrified, but instead I feel welcome. I feel as though I belong here.

 

Day 21

This strange ship has been speaking to me. Flirting with me.

She says I am her other half, the sun to her moon, the wind to her sails. Each morning I wake to the scent of lingering fire, and I go on a search of the entire vessel. The captain’s chamber always has fresh food laid out.

 

In the stories, people who eat such food are chained to faerie-land or somehow altered, but except for feeling stronger and more confident behind the wheel of the Lucy – for that is her name – I am much as usual.

 

It is odd, though, that we have seen no other vessels, as our course is centered on the common shipping routes. Not even a freighter with a robotic crew has crossed our wake.

 

Day 25

Lucy has taken on the form of a woman, one who has been telling me stories about her life. Last night, she was as solid, as substantial, as any woman, and we danced on the deck as the moon shown down.

 

We shared a kiss. Her breath wasn’t the dank, rank swamp-gas we’re told such apparitions exude, but rather, was sweet, like jasmine mixed with evening primrose.

 

Arm-in-arm, we entered the captain’s chamber together, and our romantic interlude continued, but when I wanted it to go on all night, when I wanted to merge with her the way only two humans can, she demurred.

 

She was regretful but insisted she must leave.

 

I reached for her hand, but only caught her sleeve.

 

This morning, I woke in the grand salon with a piece of lace, yellow with age,  clutched in my hand.

 

Day 31

I am her, she is me. I long for shore, she resists. I know now that my thoughts control our destination, and whether we sight other ships.

 

Lucy whispers to me all the time, now fearsome, now flirtatious. We continue our dance each night. Both dances. I am quite certain that our joining is inevitable, but I do not know what it will mean. I fear I am losing my humanity.

 

I fear I will be one with Lucy forever.

 

I have experimented with directing our path toward civilization. It is nearly nightfall, and I can glimpse the flickering of Lady Liberty’s torch in the distance.

 

Tomorrow, I will attempt contact with the US Coastguard and ask for safe harbor.

 

Day 33

News Report:

The wreckage of the Lucretia Borgia, known to historians as Lucy have been found on the northern beach of Sandy Hook, the sandbar that is home to the country’s oldest continuously operating lighthouse.

 

The Hook, the sandbar that separates Raritan Bay from the Atlantic Ocean,, has been the location of several shipwrecks over the years. Two cement ships, part of the defense of New York Harbor during World War II, can still be glimpsed in crumbled glory during mud tides.

 

Researchers are puzzled by the skeletal remains found in the ship’s wheelhouse as they date from contemporary time, and appear to belong to horror novelist Alan Perkins, who went missing from his pleasure yacht late last month.

 

No explanation exists for the advanced state of decay of Perkins’ body. “It’s as if he stepped into the ship centuries ago,” said the team leader, Corrine Warriner of Woods Hole, MA. “We may never solve this mystery.”

Grain

0219 - Marcy - via FlashPromptAt first, they assume the rifle she carries is for show. No one actually uses projectile weapons anymore, do they? It’s just part of the costume, they tell themselves, like her crisp white hat and pressed jodhpurs and shiny black boots.

 

Later, as the hippogriffs circle closer to their open-sided buses, the kind you used to see laughing tourists riding on their oh-so-expensive photo-safaris, they find comfort in the fact that she is armed.

 

After all, those leonine paws have claws sharp enough to eviscerate a man, those beaks – adapted from birds of prey, she explains – can snatch a bleeding leg of lamb right from her hand.

 

“Let’s hope they don’t miss,” she says, with a sort of half-chuckle.

 

She wants you to think she’s kidding.

 

You force yourself to believe in her white-toothed smile and shining brown eyes.

 

Finally, you make it to camp – all those white tents on wooden platforms, reminiscent of ancient photographs – the two-dimensional kind – of hunters who came years/decades/centuries before you, who captured their quarry with rifles and crossbows instead of tri-d cameras and holographic video recorders, who celebrated the end of a day with beer and barbecue, and posed with their prize corpses, all sweat and pride and cluelessness.

 

But there is no beer here, only tea – proper black tea with milk or lemon – and instead of barbecue they are offered a selection of grain dishes, root vegetables, and textured protein.

 

They watch as the pilot of their bus folds the wings against the wind and tethers it to the ground. They continue to watch as he produces a staff, traces a circle around the camp, lines the circle with coarse salt.

 

“Stay inside the circle,” she warns. “We’ve had a couple wild bovines stray close to the campsite, but the salt-wards will keep them out.”

 

Someone asks if they can trust the magic of a guy named Gary.

 

“What choice is there?” She counters rhetorically. “You trust the gun of a woman called Marcy.”

 

They agree she has a point.

 

And so, they eat and drink, they share stories of who they are and why they’re there, and finally they disperse, coupled up, to the tents, where one by one the lanterns are dimmed.

 

No one expects the wind to pick up. No one expects the rain that follows. The storm is unscheduled.

 

Still, they huddle together in the biggest tent, terrified, but dry, until morning, and hoping for safety in numbers.

 

It’s the pudgy accountant who hears the bells first. Deep, and kind of tinny. It’s his wife, the one with all the wrong clothing and that ridiculous straw hat with the daisies bobbing on the brim, who realizes the wind has stopped. “I hear… mooing.”

 

As dawn breaks they venture beyond the opaque canvas walls.

 

Gary is nowhere to be seen. The salt circle has been trampled by hooves. And there, by the flipped-over carcass of the bus, is the creature who caused it.

 

It takes them a while, because farm animals have been extinct since the twenty-second century, before magic was weaponized and the whole world changed, but they identify it as a cow.

 

“We used to eat these creatures,” Marcy tells her frightened charges. “Raise them and slaughter them and eat their meat. History books say they used to be gentle… “

 

“What now?” Accountant-guy looks ready to piss his khaki shorts.

 

“We wait. And hope it’s not hungry.”

 

Days later, a cleanup crew finds the bloody remains of the safari group. They watch the video from the one intact recorder and shake their heads. “Wild cows ain’t nothin’ to trifle with.”

 

They stay in the area for a while, shooting pictures from within their heavily protected trailer.

 

Just before they pull out, they see it. A cow, standing placidly under a tree, munching on the remains of that absurd straw hat, the woman’s perfectly coiffed head ignored between its front hooves.

 

“Oh, my gods,” the communications officer says. “We better call for backup. The cows are killing people to protect their grain again.”

 

In Memoriam, National Geographic, July 2047

0309 - Anchovies via Flash-PromptMarine biologist and underwater photographer Jacqueline Casey, a frequent contributor to our magazine, found herself the subject of colleague Arnie Stein’s capture of never-before-documented occurrence: that of a school of anchovies and other baitfish coalescing into the shape of the oft-misunderstood White Shark.

 

Casey and Stein had been studying the aquatic phenomena for the better part of a year after watching such a group descend on an injured hammerhead and devour it in seconds.

 

The pair, who met on a post-doc project studying shrimp in the Gulf of California, were attempting to prove that the anchovies had developed a communication system, whether through behavioral cues or dispersed scents, that led them to take on the shape of an apex predator and work together to conquer other fish that would typically view them as prey. If you look closely at this image, you will note that many of the fish in this school are swimming in apparently random directions.

 

In a recent paper Dr. Casey presented as biologist-in-residence at MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), she theorized that the increased toxicity of near-shore ocean waters in tropical and subtropical climate zones had forced the former baitfish into new behaviors as a means of survival.

 

Sadly, this coalescent group chose Dr. Casey as their next target minutes after this photograph was taken. In his emotional report of the incident, Dr. Stein, who grew up in Texas and began his photography career documenting the end days of America’s last remaining cattle ranch, said it was ‘like watching fire ants strip a cow in minutes.’

 

Stein managed to return to the research vessel Zephyr unscathed.

 

We join him in mourning the loss of his partner in marriage and in work, and in celebrating Dr. Casey’s contributions to this magazine, and to our greater understanding of our oceans and their denizens.

 

RIP

Not In Oz Anymore

0202 - Not in Oz Anymore via Flash-prompt

 

No one knew there had been a fifth witch. Blame Lyman Baum, if you like, or just chalk it up to the fact that “Witch of the Midwest” sounds neither scary nor reassuring.

 

Seriously, it conjures the image of someone coaxing casserole after casserole out of an oven that couldn’t produce enough heat to roast a child. (Not that she would roast a child, mind you, but she’s heard there was a witch in this world who was famous for such things. )

 

It makes you think of an old woman in homespun hobble skirts and a ridiculous hat, and okay, her face isn’t green or covered in warts, and her tits still retain their youthful perkiness (she’s not a DAY over three hundred, after all). But no one’s going to accept that her cheery “Ya, sure, you betcha,” holds as much power as a charmed kiss, or believe that when she wields her wooden spoon and tells you to “Scoot away now, pesky child,” it has as much malice as a shaking broom “… and your little dog, too!”

 

Still, travel via cyclone is hardly reliable, and the one thing you learn as a witch – even the fifth, forgotten witch – is, “Ya gotta bloom where you’re planted, don’tcha know.”

 

And so she does.

 

But not in Kansas, because, really? Kansas? Grasshoppers and wheat fields are just NOT her thing. Instead, she settles in Minnesota, where she’s attracted to places called Blue Earth and Faribault. She finds love with a tall wizard named Paul who has a pet ox – odd choice for a familiar.

 

“That’s different,” she said, upon first meeting the creature. (Babe isn’t really blue, of course, he has the same coloring as a blue heeler, all silver-grey and kind of mystical.)

 

“You’re different,” Paul countered.

 

Well, that wasn’t far from the truth.

 

So, when he’d had his fill with adventuring, they settled down and started the first organic farm on the American prairie, with a first-year yield that was positively magical.

 

And if, during the summer when they ran their farm stand out on the Interstate, she had this tendency to loom behind buyers and demand, “So, whatcha doin’?” no one objected.

 

Because she might have traded her pointy black hat for a straw model with a wide brim, but they Knew – especially the children – that she was something other.

 

A witch is still a witch, after all. And she’s not in Oz anymore.

The Final Passage

0206 - Final Passage via Flash-Prompt“Are you sure we have to pass through the gates to get to the city?”

 

“Well, technically, we could pass over the gates, but, damn! I left my airship in my other cloak.”

 

“You didn’t tell me the city was guarded by vorpal bunnies.”

 

“Bunnies? Are you nuts? Those are serpents. See the scaly heads and the bodies that flow back, and the slitty red eyes?”

 

“I see the red eyes, of course. Clever the way the stone is chipped away just so. Just to let the light of the city shine through.”

 

“Pretty sure that’s not light from the city.”

 

“Well, how would you know?”

 

“Because everyone knows the stone serpents’ eyes shine with the light of Hell. Only the truly pure of heart may pass between them.”

 

“Pure? You? That’s hilarious. Why just last week you had two of the serving girls from the tavern sharing your bed.”

 

“I said pure of heart, you idiot. Anyway, the angle of the sun is wrong. That can’t be light from the city.”

 

“Oh. Well. There is that… You don’t really believe in all that hellfire nonsense, do you?”

 

“Oh, gods, no. Sounded pretty cool though, didn’t it?”

 

“Yeah. Well. Except for the bit about the bunnies being serpents.”

 

“That again? How do you even see bunnies?”

 

“Well, look at the soft noses and the super-tall ears.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“What?”

 

“I suppose they could be bunnies.”

 

“Told you.”

 

“Does it matter?”

 

“Well, no. I mean really, they could be serpents, bunnies, or the tits of Queen Matilda. We still have to pass between them.”

 

“Yeah. True…. So, how much longer, you think?”

 

“Hard to say. Objects carved in stone are often farther away than they appear.”

 

“Oh. Okay.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, it’s just that I have to pee.”

Just That

0220-Escher meets Okeefe - via Flash-PromptHe’d wanted to be an artist for as long as he could remember. He colored until his crayons were stubs, painted his way through canvas after canvas.

 

When natural talent couldn’t take him far enough, he performed magic on street corners, pulling quarters out of little boys ears and making bouquets appear from nothing to present to little girls.

 

In college his excellence at card tricks led him to the poker table, where he was careful to lose every few games so no one would accuse him of cheating.

 

He never cheated.

 

Magic and poker paid for art classes. Technique. Practice. Materials. He tried sculpting for one semester but it didn’t appeal. He liked turning lines into pictures more than clay into objects.

 

An art appreciation seminar gave him his heroes. He fell in love with Escher’s skewed reality – Möbius stairs and the like – mixed math and art, while O’Keefe made cow skulls beautiful and flowers sexual.

 

In grad school – an obscure private institution on an island off the coast of the northern USA – he found HIS art. He combined the math and the magic and the lines, but paper wasn’t big enough for his ideas.

 

He puts his art into the places where it’s least expected. Balancing on a log, he’ll sketch a shape in mid-air, suspending it on a fractal dream. Turn your head and it’s a flower. Blink your eyes and it’s a woman’s face.

 

When people caught him Making Art, they all asked the same question. “What is it?”

 

And he would counter, “What do You think it is?”

 

Whatever they said, so it became.

 

“But… how did you know?” They would demand.

 

“Art is subjective,” he would answer. “It doesn’t matter what I see, it matters that you see something, and respond.”

 

Then he’d make a balloon animal out of a piece of sky, and hand it to a little old lady. “Just imagine…”

 

Yes.

 

Just that.

 

The Tiger Inside

0241 - Inner Beast via Flash-Prompt“You know how Rottweilers think they’re really lapdogs, and chihuahuas believe they’re the most ferocious beasts ever?”

 

“Yes. What’s your point?”

 

“We all, every one of us, have our own inner vision, our own perception, of what we are. It’s sort of the reason Gran lies about her age. In her head, she’s still the dewy-eyed, smooth-skinned twenty-year-old Gramps fell in love with.”

 

“Okay, but Gran lies about her age for so long she forgot how old she really was, and got pissy when we all missed her 75th birthday.”

 

“Well…”

 

“And you can’t expect me to believe some wild rabbit living in a suburban hedgerow thinks it is a twenty-year-old virgin bride. I mean… do rabbits even get that old?”

 

“You’re missing the point.”

 

“Oh, please… Enlighten me, then, oh wise one.”

 

“We see a timid, little, bunny caught outside it’s burrow. But look at it – REALLY- look at it. Ears alert, paws flexed to pounce, nose twitching… in that bunny’s head, it’s not potential hawk-lunch. It’s a fierce lion. It’s the king of beasts, ready to defend its entire domain.”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

 

“Well… either that, or it believes it’s Bunnicula. Seen any exsanguinated veggies in the garden recently?”

Conversations with Ghosts: Father and Son

0280 - CWG - Father and Son via FlashPrompt

 

“Kafka said that writing letters was like having a conversation with a ghost.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“Is it?”

“No. Yes. Maybe.”

“Come on, son. Be decisive. Tell me what you really think.”

“Dad…”

“No, really. I want to know. We used to talk, didn’t we? Sure, we told your mother we were going fishing, but I don’t recall either of us ever baiting a hook.”

“No. We didn’t. We’d come here, and you’d give me a couple of dollars for the pinball machine or let me blow my allowance on pool while you played old jazz songs on the piano and drank yourself into oblivion.”

“Ouch.”

“You said to be honest.”

“So I did.”

“Why…?”

“Why what?”

“Why didn’t you ever play music at home? Katie would have loved your music. You know she’s at Julliard now? And Mom… she kept that piano dusted and tuned for you, not for us. Why did you hide that part of you? Why didn’t you come to our recitals? What closed you off from this thing that you loved?”

“Life, I guess.”

“Ironic.”

“Well… life was the reason then. I wanted to be the next big thing. I studied and practiced, and I was rising… I had a label come listen to me play at a high-end club. I met your mother that night. I think she was attracted to the possibility of my success.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been your sparkling personality.”

“Son…”

“Sorry, Dad. Go on?”

“It’s the classic story. I met your mother. We started going out. Things got serious, she got pregnant. And I had to choose. Did I want to chase a dream that might not come true, or do the responsible thing and settled down, be a husband and a father.”

“So, you settled.”

“I chose, son. I looked at what I had and what I might have, and I chose the sure thing.”

“Mom would have supported your dream, you know.”

“I know.”

“Then why? Dad, I found your records – you were good. You had it… that thing… that spark. Your playing was transcendent.”

“Fear.”

“Of failure?”

“Of success. Isn’t that why you haven’t tried to publish any of your stories?”

“I…”

“You write them in letters to your mother, to your sister, but you should be sharing them with the world. Yeah, some of them are not so flattering to me, some are not so pretty, but that’s what artists do, son. We use our pain to make beautiful things.”

“You didn’t… well, you did… but you stopped.”

“No, I stopped playing gigs. I made – well, your mother did most of the hard work – two very beautiful things.”

“Dad?”

“You’re one of them.”

“Oh… I… “

“So… is it?”

“What?”

“Writing letters? Conversing with ghosts? Are they the same?”

“I don’t… I’m not sure.”

“Well, when you figure it out… drop me a line.”

“Drop you a  – Dad? DAD?”