Clock Watcher

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

They call her the Unturnable, because she will not change her mind. Once someone has reached the end of their allotted thread, she whisks in to snip it.

They call her the Inevitable One. The Inflexible.

Rarely do they use her name: Atropos.

Most times, the cut is a gentle one, and she catches her charge as their weight is untethered from the cable holding them to life. Sometimes, she misses the catch, and there is a metaphysical thud as though a weary soul has collapsed to a less-than-ethereal floor.

People fear her, but her calling is a necessary one.

Time and technology have changed how she works, over the years, decades, centuries, and epochs. Her sisters have changed their methods as well.

Clotho was so excited to be able to use a 3-D printer to create lives, rather than merely spinning them. And Lachesis was immediately taken with any number of Rube Goldberg-esque measuring devices involving chutes and troughs and scoops and bins and rolling parts that bounce and glide  – the middle sister always had been a bit of a tinkerer.

And as for Atropos, herself? Somewhat ironically, the Unturnable had become enamored with the turning hands of clocks. A clock for each of her charges, each of her targets, every living soul, with the correct allotment (as proscribed by Lachesis and created by Clotho) pre-programmed into the perfect number of ticks and tocks or bleeps or blinks (some of the clocks were digital).

They didn’t chime hours, these clocks, but showed how a thread would be snipped. The Shears were merely a symbol now – there were so many other Ways in the world.  Look at that one, it’s got lots of time left before the hours wind down to Doesn’t Wake Up, or that one over there, just a few minutes left before it chimes Old Age.

But then there are the more ominous clocks, the ones with darker Ways. Those are the lives that are tortured and broken. Some are sad, some are angry, some have been harmed, some wish to cause harm. Some wish to take other lives with them when they go, some wish only for their own endings.

And Atropos is the Clock Watcher who sees them all.

Tick, tock, it’s half an hour ’til Poison.

Tick, tock, it’s a quarter to Gun.

They call her the Unturnable, but some clocks, she wishes she could turn back.

Just Desserts

666 - Route 666

They were somewhere in the desert, the one that spanned Nevada and Arizona but changed names, or spellings anyway, at the state line. Mojave, Mohave, either way it was Mo-freaking-hot-as-hell.

Tracy could even see the heat waves rolling up from the ground, making the endless stretch of empty road look more like rolling sea than a black asphalt river bleeding its way across the parched flesh of the empty land.

Sure, there was another car from time to time, but mostly the only thing that punctuated the monotony was the occasional mournful whistle of a cargo train – they were automated, those things – and over a hundred cars longs – and their whistles made Tracy shiver every time.

“Too much a/c?” Steve asked? The outside temperature gauge read 106 but it was 72 in the car.

“No, just the train whistle.”

“You like trains,” Steve reminded her.

“I like passenger trains,” she said. “These cargo things… they’re more like ghost trains. Sometimes I think maybe it’s just one endless train on a loop, never ending or beginning…”

“Drink some water, babe; you’re dehydrated.”

“I’m not!” she insisted, but she reached for her water bottle anyway, and took a healthy swallow. “How’re we doing on gas?” The design of the dashboard meant she couldn’t read that information from the passenger seat.

“We can make to Flagstaff.”

“Oh. Goo – Shit!” A red sports car had come zooming up beside them in the wrong lane, nearly clipping her mirror. “That wasn’t the same car we saw leaving Vegas?”

“I think it was… ”

Tracy reached out and teased the nape of Steve’s neck. “Crazy.”

“I know.”

They kept on driving, stopped at a couple of truck stops for bathroom breaks and gas. And then, just outside Flagstaff, they turned off the interstate, following suggestions to a tourist destination on the old Route 66. “I-40 parallels it along this stretch,” Steve told her, when Tracy questioned the detour. “There’s a ghost town with a burger joint that supposed to be to die for. They keep it open for tourists.”

“What tourists?” Tracy wanted to know.

“I guess there are more than we think.”

Tracy shrugged. “Sounds fun.” They weren’t in a race, after all.  They were headed to a new life in a community of artists and writers in Taos, New Mexico, but their schedule was their own. So why not enjoy a slight diversion?

Unlike the Interstate, the road they turned onto was faded and crumbling at the shoulders. The paint marking the lanes was barely discernible, but ruts in the road marked the divisions as well, or better.

The burger joint – a roadhouse, really – had a rusty highway sign on the top, Tracy froze looking at it after they got out of the car. “Steve. There are three sixes on that sign.”

“What?” he said. “Baby, we really need to get some protein in you.”

When Tracy looked again, the sign was a normal Route 66 sign.

Inside, the place was full of tourist kitsch. Stuffed jackalopes and Route 66 t-shirts were everywhere, and the song – that song – blared from the speakers.

A tired waitress in a polyester uniform greeted them with a dusty smile. “Welcome to the Roadhouse.” She reeled off a list of specials and left them to decide while she went to get drinks. A few minutes later, they were sipping iced tea and waiting for bacon and cheddar burgers.

“You headed somewhere specific?” the waitress asked, when she brought their food.

“Taos,” Tracy said.

“Nice town,” the other woman answered. “You’ll like it there. Best cheese enchiladas ever come from Gloria’s. Don’t miss them.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Tracy said.

The burgers were wonderful. Steve ate his own and half of hers, but that was typical. She ate all of her own fries, though. They had garlic on them. They watched people come and go as they ate – families mostly, and a few couples like themselves – but then he entered.

Tracy could tell he didn’t fit. Didn’t belong. His teeth were too white. His sunglasses were too expensive. His t-shirt had a logo that meant it had cost more than their typical electric bill.

“Can I get service?” he asked loudly. He’d barely been waiting fifteen seconds.

“I can seat you at the counter,” their waitress offered. “If it’s just you.”

“Fine, I guess. Could you wipe the grease off it first, though?”

Tracy couldn’t see his face, but she could practically hear him rolling his eyes.

“Asshole,” Steve muttered under his breath.

“Bet you anything he’s the guy in that red penis-car that keeps almost killing us,” Tracy whispered back.

In an attempt to wait him out, to not be ahead of him on the road, they decide to order pie and coffee. Tracy went for peach – her favorite – Steve was excited that they offered strawberry-rhubarb. “Good choices,” their waitress approved. “You want a la mode? It’s on me.”

“Because we’re going to Taos?” Tracy asked.

“Sure. That.” The waitress gave asshole-customer a furtive glance. “And because I know you don’t want to be on the road with him. I can tell.”

“He’s… we keep running into him. I guess the upside is that he’s the one who’s been caught in every speed trap since Vegas,” Steve said.

“Don’t doubt it.”

“A la mode sounds fantastic,” Tracy smiled. “It’s summer, after all. Thanks.”

“You bet.”

They finish their dessert, by which time the guy with the attitude has disappeared. “Bet you anything he’s from L.A.,” Tracy said, as they paid the check. “Leave the waitress a generous tip.”

“I left twenty-five percent,” Steve said.

“And that’s why I love you.”

“Not for my hot body?”

“Well, that too.”

They paused for a selfie in front of the roadhouse. It was dark by then, but there was so much lighting in the parking lot that it might as well have been noon. There’s a mark on the ground telling people where to stand so they can guarantee the sign is in the picture.

Back in the car, they headed back to the Interstate, only to be halted by flickering red and blue lights. “Sorry folks,” a highway patrol officer says, coming up to their window. “Gotta redirect you. To get back on Eastbound 40 do this…”

Tracy took down the directions with the “Notes” app on her phone. “Can I ask what happened, Officer?”

“Bad accident,” he said. “Speed demon in a red car wrapped himself around the signpost on the ramp.” He took a beat, then added. “These roads… they may seem flat and empty, but they make you cocky. You drive safe, hear?”

“Sure thing, Officer.” It was Steve who answered.

They follow their detour directions which take them to a ridge on the other side of the Interstate. Looking down, they can see the car that was smashed. No surprise, it was their “friend” from the road. The asshole from the  roadhouse.

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Steve said.

“Hush, honey. No one deserves that. Not really.” She paused. “We should go.” But their vantage point also let them glimpse the sign from the roadhouse, and Tracy shivered when she saw it. Checking her phone, she confirms what she’d seen before. The sign on the roof. One side was the normal road sign for America’s most famous highway.

The other? It had three sixes.

Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.

Uneasy Lies the Head

662 - Uneasy Head

“They whisper,” the Crowned one heard her confession. “They whisper all sorts of things to me, and I’m never which advice to follow.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Big Nose said I should trip Samuel as he was reaching the top of the stairs. I thought he might tumble and slide. I didn’t expect to hear the cracking sound. Or for his head to turn all the way ’round like that.”

The Crowned One frowned. “Samuel died at the bottom?”

“He was very pale… and so quiet. There wasn’t any blood though. I thought there was always blood when people die.”

“Not always, Georgia. Not always. What other whispers have you heard?”

“Twisted Lip said Nanny was plotting against me and I should switch my teacup with hers.”

“And did you?” the Crowned One was concerned as well as curious. What would the child’s answer be?

“Yes, I did. We’re looking for a new Nanny now. Because that Nanny started foaming at the mouth and then went all twitchy and fell off her chair. She’s not dead though, just really sick.”

“I see. It would seem Twisted Lip’s advice was wise, then.”

“Yes, but… I miss Samuel.”

“I am certain that you do. You and he have always been good friends.”

“Except he said that he would ascend to the throne because he’s a boy even though I’m six weeks older,” the little girl announced. “And Mother said those rules don’t matter anymore, because she sits on the throne now, after all.”

“Yes,” the Crowned one confirmed. “Yes, she does. Have you spoken to your mother about these things, Georgia? Told her what the Advisors are whispering to you?”

“I have,” she told him, nodding her head up and down. “She said it’s the way of things. People always try to eliminate the people who have power so they can have power instead. And sometimes we must act to protect our own interests.”

The Crowned One understood his role in Princess Georgia’s life. As a former head of state and current, well, state head, albeit a disembodied one, he was to offer the child as much wisdom and guidance as he could. He had hoped this could have happened without so much intrigue. He had fervently wished for a lot less murder. But it was the way of the world. The other heads – former guards and statesfolk, all – would whisper to the Heir, their advice to be heeded or not, as the child’s will dictated.

But his counsel was given openly.

At that moment, he wished he could give more than counsel. A friendly hug, perhaps. A pat on the head. But the reality was that this small girl was, at ten, already more ruthless than half a dozen mercenaries. She had to be, if she truly meant to take the throne someday.

All he could hope was that his wisdom would temper her more… expedient… choices.

“Dark Eyes also whispers,” the young princess offered, perhaps to assuage his obvious unease. “Dark Eyes says I must remember to be compassionate, when I can.”

“That is wise advice,” the Crowned One said.

“I’ve tried to heed it. Benjamin and I have been playing together since Samuel left us.”

“Since he died, you mean?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s good that you’ve reached out to his little brother.”

“Benjamin will never sit on the throne.”

“It is highly unlikely that he will.”

“But… he makes me laugh, and when we are together, I don’t focus so much on the whispers I hear from the Heads.”

“It’s good,” the Crowned One said, “that you can still be a child from time to time. Stay young as long as you can, Georgia.”

“I will try.”

“It is late. You should rest.”

“Yes…”  She released the magic holding him in place, and the Crowned One floated up to the Keeper’s Space. “Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, Georgia.”

The little girl was soon asleep. But the Crowned One was still fretting. She was becoming too hard, too cold… he was concerned. A leader must be able to act swiftly and make tough decisions; it was true, but a leader must also be able to be lenient, to know when kindness was the better path. He would speak with Dark Eyes in the morning. They would push Compassion at her a bit more heavily.

A line from Shakespeare went through his brain, and he chuckled softly. Old Will had really nailed it with that one.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

 

 

 

 

Eternal Companion

656 - Eternal Companion

You’re the same in every city. Every country. Every continent. You have been so ever since Velázquez first used you as the model for one of his gods.

You knew he would.

How could he resist?

Your flowing platinum hair. Your alabaster skin. The faint glow of otherness about you. These things made you compelling to men and women of all walks of life, so why not one of the world’s greatest painters?

But then his vision changed.

Ever the storyteller, Diego chose to tell different stories with his paintings. Instead of capturing encounters between gods and men, he focused on the earthiest of the earthbound. The kind who most people made a point of never seeing: the poor, the ugly, the ill, the malformed.

But you; you were beautiful, and you knew it.

So, you went on a mission to show off your terrible, dangerous beauty.

Killing sprees across every city in Europe. Milan. Paris. London. Madrid. Amsterdam. Rome. Berlin. There was no pattern. You went wherever your bloodlust took you, leaving your crimson stain on the statuary, since you couldn’t leave a tintype or photograph.

And I watched you.

I watched you grow paler and more luminescent as last vestiges of humanity were bitten from the necks of your victims and spit, sizzling, to the ground.

Your humanity, not theirs.

And I began to wonder who the real victim was: those whom you killed; you, who did the killing; or I, who allowed it all to continue.

If I were a stronger person, if my resolve were better fortified, this is the point in which I would inform my readers that I’d left you, or better, that I’d committed the ultimate act of altruism and driven the final stake through your marble-esque chest.

But I am not that strong.

And love can be so weak.

And so, because through it all, my angel, my demon, my eternal companion, I do love you, I offer you my neck, and hope beyond hope that in doing so, some of your madness is abated.

After all, the blood is the life.

 

 

La Petite Mort

Like the Prose: Challenge #30 – Write a cheerful story about death.

Robot head looking front on camera isolated on a black background

“Was it good for you?” Basil asked me when I came back to myself after our first ‘intimate joining,’ as he called it.

I burst out laughing. “Are you really using that line?”

His silver face was guileless. “Is there something inappropriate in the question, Zoe? I wished to ascertain if I pleased you adequately. I know of no better way than to simply… ask.”

I rolled over in his bed and propped my head on my hand. “Aren’t you supposed to be the galaxy’s greatest observer? Couldn’t you tell from the way I was practically unconscious?”

“I was aware you had… become somewhat absent… but inducing a physical response is not the be-all and end-all of sex, Zoe, even for a synthetic lifeform like myself.” His tone softened. “I wish to know if you were  – are – emotionally satisfied as well.”

“Oh, Basil…” He really was so caring. “Yes… and… no.”

“I am confused.”

“Yes, I was in the moment. For a first time… it wasn’t terribly awkward, we fit together rather well, I think?” I paused to let him respond.

“I concur.”

“Good, and you read my responses really well. And… god, you already know I love you.”

“I love you, also, Zoe, but I am not a god, only Basil.”

I grinned; this was his default response to my colloquial invocation of a deity, and it never failed to amuse me.

“Okay, good.”

“But why did you also say ‘no?'”

“Because, Basil, darling, we – you and me, as a couple – as lovers  – we’re just beginning. And complete emotional satisfaction would imply there’s nowhere else to go, nothing left to experience, and that’s not true, because we’re constantly growing and changing. Even artificial lifeforms like you.”

“That is true.”

“You know, some people refer to that blissed-out, semi-conscious, post-orgasmic state as la petite mort. The little death.”

“I am aware, Zoe. And you are no doubt aware that the term is not limited to post-coital bliss, but also refers to the sense of satisfaction on might feel when connecting to a great work of art or completing a piece of literature or connecting with a scientific theorem.”

“Basil…”

“You were not finished with your thought.”

“Not exactly, no.”

“Please continue.”

“I only meant to say that I observed your circuits getting a little frizzled there after you came.”

“‘Frizzled?'”

“Your auditory processors weren’t working correctly, and you were blinking a lot.”

“Ah. Perhaps it would be sufficient for me to simply say that… it was good for me, too.”

Carob and Peppermint

Like the Prose: Challenge #29 – Revisit one of your previous challenge pieces and rewrite it from a different POV. (I chose Carob Drops.)

wrinkleintime

“I will check on her,” I say, “Stay by the fire. Enjoy your wine.” I leave my wife on the couch and move into the kitchen. Calling up the stairs, I assure our young houseguest, “Sophie, it is just a power outage from the storm. You are safe.”

A tremulous voice responds, “Okay.”

I’ve already got the kettle on – fortunately our stove is a gas one – and a mug ready with a bag of fragrant peppermint tea. Peppermint was my favorite, as a boy, and I suspect the child in our loft will appreciate it also. If you stir in just the right amount of turbinado sugar or organic honey it is as if you are drinking a candy-cane.

The kettle whistles. I pour the water over the bag, agitate it with a spoon, and gather the rest of my supplies: a storm lantern, a battered paperback novel, a zip-lock bag of tiny brown candies. Separately these things seem ordinary. Together, they are an arsenal meant to battle a small girl’s fear of (I chuckle to myself as the clichéd phrase comes to mind unbidden) a dark and stormy night.

The tea is ready. I remove the bag after pressing out the water, and decide honey is better than sugar on this night, though I’m generous with the sticky sweetener. In doing so, I become the little girl’s co-conspirator, and perhaps, one day, a friend, rather than the strange brown man who married her mother’s college roommate.

I light the lantern, and place it, and everything else on a bed tray – the kind the with the fold-down legs. So armed, I leave the candle-lit glow of the kitchen and climb the stairs to the loft where our bedrooms are. Sophie is in the smallest one. It’s not more than a nook, really: a small space for a small child. Perhaps, one day, the child will be his child. (I spend a moment imagining a daughter with Emily’s bright blue eyes set into tawny skin slightly lighter than my own, but with my jet-black hair. Or a son, with my dark eyes, but his mother’s soft features. It doesn’t matter… but I hope… oh, I hope….)

“Sophie?” I balance the tray on one arm and knock on the open door. “May I enter?”

“Hi, Rajesh.” Her dark eyes seem huge in the flickering lantern light. They’re not as dark as mine, and yet, I feel a kinship with this child. “Is Mom okay?”

“She is fine. She called earlier. Her conference is going well, and she said to tell you she loves you and to be good. Your Aunt Emily is so cozy on the couch that when you called out, I asked her if she would let me come keep you company for a few moments. Do you mind?”

She shakes her head, and I see her golden braids bob back and forth. “No. I don’t mind. What’s on the tray?”

“Supplies,” I say, making my voice mysterious. “The storm is loud, but you know it cannot get in, yes?”

“Yes,” she agrees. “I know.”

“Still, it makes it difficult to sleep. When I cannot sleep, I like to read, and your mother has mentioned that you, too, like stories, so I have brought you one of my favorites.” I place the lantern on the desk near the bed while I talk to her, just far enough away so that an errant hand cannot knock it over, and then I show her the cover of the book. “A Wrinkle in Time,” I intone. “Have you read it? It’s about a very brave girl, a little older than you are.”

“Is there magic in it?”

“Not precisely. There’s science in it. And sometimes science can seem like magic. Would you like to try it?”

But she’s already taken it from me and is reading the blurb on the back. “I think I’ll like it.”

“I think so, too. I first read it when I was nine.”

“I’m only eight.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh. Okay.” She sniffs the air. “I smell peppermint.”

“Ah, yes. More supplies.” I take the mug of tea from the tray. “Peppermint tea with honey in it. It’s still quite hot, so sip it carefully.”

“I will.”

“And one more thing.” I dangle the bag of candies in front of her.

“Chocolate?”

“Not quite.”

“Then what?”

“Carob drops.”

“What’s carob?”

I smile at her. “It’s a sort of bean from my country. It comes from a kind of evergreen tree, but not the kind we have here. It tastes a lot like chocolate, but it has its own flavor, too. Try one?”

Her small hand reaches into the bag and pulls out a carob drop. She pops it into her mouth, and I watch as her face first grows serious – she is analyzing the flavor – and then lights up: she approves!

“It’s a little… earthier? Is that the word?” I nod and she continues. “It’s a little earthier than chocolate. And there’s something else in the flavor. But I like it. Thank you, Rajesh.”

“You are welcome, Sophie. Now, cuddle up with your book and your tea, and let the storm become a friend instead of a foe. When you’re ready to sleep again, the carob drops will bring sweet dreams, and in the morning your mother will be back.”

She nods at all of that, her eyes wide like saucers and her face so serious. But before I can leave, she puts her hand on my arm. “Rajesh, wait.”

“Is something wrong, Sophie.”

“No. Only… Emily is Aunt Emily.”

“Yes.”

“So, aren’t you Uncle Rajesh?”

“If you wish it, Sophie.”

“I do, please.” And she stretches up and presses her little-girl lips to my cheek.

One day, I think, my own child will give me goodnight kisses like this. Sticky with honey or carob. And I will do to my child what I do with Sophie: I reach out and tug gently on her nearest braid. “You are very welcome, Sophie.”

And I leave her there, wrapped in quilts, in the tiny loft bedroom that is her nest for the night. The little girl with book and peppermint tea.

And carob drops.

* * *

Dark-eyed little girl
Golden braids, serious face
May I be your friend?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surfer

Like the Prose: Challenge #28 – Write a Lipogram (A story where you eliminate a specific letter. In this case, the actual story does not use the letter ‘t.’)

jeremy-bishop-_EBv1BKtbvs-unsplash

Sun.

Sand.

Sea.

She feels her skin baking, feels her scalp burning, feels her lips cracking from marine chemicals, from sol’s inferno, from her own obsession.

She and her board are one.

Endless waves command her focus, her balance, her prowess, her finesse.

Her braided hair flows behind her as she flies over boundless blue and pale foam.

Her body hums ocean music, and  her deep blue sea responds in kind.

Her parched lips spread in a broad grin.

She is joy embodied.

She is free.

She is a surfer.

* * *

Hours pass.

She wakes in her wee beach house.

Inhaling, she recognizes cooking aromas.

Her lover has arrived, dinner is in progress.

A fresh smile appears on her face.

She padds on calloused soles and kisses him hello. “Smells awesome.”

“Me? Or my chicken?”

“Mmm. You. And your chicken. How long?”

“Mmm. Mere seconds.”

“Wine?”

“Yes, please. Chardonnay.”

* * *

She knows his body as well as she does her ocean.

He surfs her body as ably as she does each wave.

As one, rising, falling, laughing, sighing.

A kiss.

A lick.

A nudge.

Ahhh.

Sleep comes only when each has given pleasure and been pleased.

* * *

Dawn wakes her. He remains asleep, snoring.

Dawn is shark hour.

She should be concerned.  She will be careful.

She crosses cool, damp, sand, board under her arm.

Pink rays warm her morning face.

Her waves welcome her.

She and her board are one.

She surfs.

And she smiles.

Stripes

Like the Prose: Challenge #27 – Use metaphor to explore a mental illness without naming it. (Special thanks to my friend Fran H. for her assistance & insight.) 

geran-de-klerk-fpC5Jq7LLL8-unsplash

If you look at a zebra, you might think you’re seeing a white animal with black stripes. After all, these not-quite-horses have white underbellies, don’t they? So white must be the dominant color.

That’s the order of things.

People often associate white with order. Because it’s clean and fresh, I guess. And maybe, maybe if you’re talking about bedsheets with hospital corners that’s true.

But if you’re creating the lightshow of your life, aligning the prisms so they bend and refract at exactly the right angles, you know the truth. White isn’t order at all. White is chaos. The presence of all colors. White is what you get when you spin the top and everything blurs, and you can’t think or process or feel because everything is too much and too loud and too fast…

But you come out of the white, at the end, and you realize that you’ve amassed this collection of art – writing, paintings, light sculptures – but you didn’t really get to experience them because you were in a frenzy of creation when they sprang into being.

And so, you sink.

You sink into black.

And at first… at first the black is soothing. Because you recognize that the black is your true color. Underneath the white fur, there’s black skin holding everything together.

But sometimes there’s too much black.

Too much darkness.

Because if white is the presence of all color, all light.

Then black is the absence.

The bleak nothingness where you are disconnected.

And while a touch of black is soothing, too much becomes a weight, like an anchor pulling you too far down, or, no, not an anchor, but a lame hoof, causing you to lag further and further behind the herd.

Intellectually, you know they’ll watch out for you.

But in the blackness, if you sense anything at all, it’s the predators you recognize. The ones that live on the edges of the dark forest and spring at you just when you’re starting to emerge from total nothingness, pulling you backwards.

They have stripes, too. The tigers. Or spots. The leopards and cheetahs. They have bits of blackness in them. But it’s a different sort of blackness. Still, it’s enough. It allows them to find you at your weakest point.

Eventually, though, there’s a shift.

Dappled sunlight breaks through the darkest part of the forest.

The herd circles around you, protecting you while your lame hoof (lame head) heals itself (maybe not forever – you’re kind of a klutz – but at least for now).

You catch your reflection in the pond before you take a refreshing drink of the clean, clear water, and you realize your stripes aren’t meant to be isolates. You are not black with white punctuation, or white with black interruption.

You are Zebra.

You are black and white, and when you move your shoulders, sometimes the white dominates, and when you stamp your hooves, the black ripples ominously, but both are parts of the whole. And when you manage to accept that, you also find balance.

Maybe not forever.

But at least for now.

Good Kitty

Like the Prose: Challenge #26 – Find a picture and use it to inspire your story. (My image is from the Flash-Prompt Facebook group.)

Good Kitty

They’d looked at ten other houses, but finally settled on that one. It had everything they needed: three bedrooms, so each of the kids could have their own, two full bathrooms, plus a half-bath downstairs, pool in the fenced-in back yard, even a proper front porch where they could sit and sip morning coffee or evening wine and watch the neighborhood go by.

The mural at the top of the attic stairs didn’t thrill them, but they could always paint over it.

Besides, the price was unbelievable.

“I have to ask,” Karen said, almost afraid of what the realtor would say. “Why is this place so affordable?”

“You do know you’re required to disclose any deaths on the premises,” her husband Chad put in.

The realtor seemed slightly flustered. “There haven’t been any deaths. No injuries either, I promise. But there have been… reports.”

“Reports? Of what?” Karen wanted to know.

“Well, really more like rumors,” the older woman amended.

“I think you’d better explain,” Chad said.

“Previous residents mentioned hearing odd noises in the attic. Some said that their pets were always on alert. No one ever found anything, though. I guess, you might say the house is haunted.”

“Haunted?”

“As I said, it’s just a rumor.”

Karen and Chad consulted for a while, privately. “It’s too good a deal to pass up,” they said. “We’ll take it.”

* * *

“Mommy, why are there eyes at the top of the stairs?” Karen rolled over to find her pajama-clad daughter staring at her with frightened features.

“It’s probably just a reflection. The eyes of the cat in the painting glow in the moonlight. Go back to sleep, sweetie.”

“I can’t go back to my room alone.”

“You want me to walk you back?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why were you up?”

“I heard purring… and then I had to pee.”

“Purring?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You didn’t bring home another kitten, did you?” The little girl was prone to finding stray animals.

The child shook her head no. “Uh-uh.”

Karen rolled out of bed. “Alright. Let’s get you back to bed.”

Mother and daughter walked hand-in-hand down the dim hallway. The nightlight in the bathroom cast weird shadows that almost seemed to move, but Karen shrugged it off. It was just her daughter’s overactive imagination affecting her perceptions, she was sure.

Still, after she’d tucked her little girl back into bed, Karen paused at the bottom of the attic stairs and peered up into the darkness. She was about to head back to bed when she caught the gleam of something that did, in fact, look like two eyes staring back at her.

Startled, she took a step backwards, her hand colliding with the wall, but that reminded her of the switch that was right there. She flipped it on.

And laughed.

The painting on the wall at the top of the stairs was the image of a cougar in tall grass, it’s green eyes eerily realistic in the light of the single bulb.

Damn, that thing is realistic, she thought.

Shaking her head at her own skittishness, she turned out the light and went back to bed.

* * *

“Did the cougar sneak into your room last night, Scarlet?” Karen’s son teased her daughter at breakfast several days later.

“Marky! That’s not funny!” the little girl protested.

“Mark, I’ve told you not to tease her. You know it’s just a painting.”

“Yeah, but it’s a painting that moves or haven’t you noticed that it’s never in quite the same position, or that the grass keeps extending down the stairs?”

“Mark, that’s enough.” Karen uttered the words in the patented warning tone all mothers have. But secretly, she knew her son was right. There was a patch of jungle at the top of the attic stairs and it was growing closer to the upstairs hallway every day. It was subtle, but it was true.

“Sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?” Karen asked. She and Chad had read in a parenting book years before that generic apologies were meaningless. They had to be specific.

“I’m sorry for scaring you, Scarlet,” Mark said, sounding almost sincere. “And I’m sorry for not listening to you, Mom.”

“Thank you, sweetie. How will you change your behavior?”

“I’ll try not to tease Scarlet and be better about being more responsive.”

“Alright.”

“It’s almost time for the bus,” the boy pointed out.

“Alright then. Your lunches are on the counter. Watch out for your sister.”

Both kids ran from the room.

* * *

Life went on. The grass on the wall crept steadily downward. The cougar sometimes appeared below the top step, as if they’d caught it while on patrol. Scarlet suggested that they make friends with it, and so one night, when Chad was on a business trip, they left a saucer each of milk and leftover hamburger (cooked) on the landing. Just to see what happened.

Both saucers were empty in the morning, and both children swore they hadn’t touched them.

Karen repeated the process every few days… she didn’t want to make offerings every day, she said, because she’d read in a book that wild animals shouldn’t get used to being fed by humans. They had to know how to hunt.

It was about three weeks later that Karen and Chad woke up to find an offering of a dead rat outside their bedroom door.

Chad had never owned pets, but Karen had grown up with cats. She understood. The cougar at the top of the stairs had accepted their offer. They were friends.

* * *

A stormy night. Another business trip for Chad. Like the horror stories Karen and her friends had told at slumber parties when she was a girl, there was an escaped serial killer in their neighborhood. She and the children were a bit spooked, but they’d checked the locks and set the alarm, and her cell phone was charged.

She wasn’t surprised when Scarlet had crept into her bed during the height of the storm. Lightning and thunder were still scary to the little girl.

She was slightly surprised when Mark joined them a bit later, but by then the power had gone out, and even though he was ten, he was, after all, still a little boy. And Mom meant safety. Always.

They heard the rattling at the door at the same time.

Karen reached for her cell, but there was no signal. Stupid storm. She tried to remain calm for the children.

The yowling and screeching came at the same time that the door burst open.

“Jesus, fuck, what kinda creature is that!” they heard a male voice say.

And then there was more yowling. And more screeching, both feline and human.

And then there was silence.

“Stay here,” Karen told her kids. She tip-toed to the bedroom door and cracked it open. The cougar was sitting on a prone human form, licking its chops. It turned its head toward Karen as if to tell her it would keep her safe. Her and her family.

“Good kitty,” she told the creature. “Good kitty.”

The power came back. The police were called. The lock on the door was fixed.

“Good thing you have such a mean cat,” the officers said.

“Yes,” Karen said. “Yes, it is.”  She couldn’t wait to tell Chad all about it when he got home.

 

 

 

 

Beautiful

Like the Prose: Challenge #25 – Write a contemporary YA piece.

Beautiful banner

“Did you get the tickets?” I asked my mother as I dropped into the seat opposite hers in our favorite café. Friday afternoon mochas had been a ritual of ours practically since I’d been weaned. Well, it hadn’t always been mochas. Originally, it had been a spoonful of her coffee mixed into my milk, but, the Friday afternoon thing was sacrosanct.

Through her first marriage, her divorce, her brief dating life, and her marriage to my stepfather (which seemed like it would last), we met for coffee after school on Fridays. I’d tell her about my day, she’d tell me about hers. Then I’d go off to music lessons or community theater rehearsals, or, more recently, a date of my own, and she’d go back to work for a couple of hours, or head home, or go out with my stepfather for a date of their own.

“I did.”

“In the zone?” As a theatre brat I was kind of a snob about seats. The zone meant that the seats were between rows six and sixteen, inclusive.

“Center section, row G, on the aisle. Sweetie, you didn’t have to use your savings on these.”

“Mom, please. It’s the Carole King musical. I grew up with her music. You grew up with her music. How else could we celebrate our last Mothers’ Day with me still living in your house?” My high school graduation was only a few weeks away. I’d already signed on to be resident ingenue in a summer stock theatre company in some cutesy rural town for most of the summer, and then I’d be home long enough to do laundry and pack before I headed off to theatre school. My path was set. “There are some ground rules, though.”

“Ground rules? You’re going to tell me what I can or can’t wear.”

“I don’t care what you wear, as long you don’t feel the need to demonstrate that your underwear matches your outfit while you’re driving.”

“We were stopped at a red light.”

“All my friends were in the car.”

“It was all girls.”

“Daniel isn’t a girl.”

“True. But he’s gay. Also, Veronica is bi.”

“Is she?”

“She announced it last week in the leadership meeting. Brought cupcakes and everything. They were a little dry.”

My mother rolled her eyes at me. “Fine. What else are you going to restrict? Am I allowed to speak? Should I walk three paces behind you? Are you sure you even want to be sitting together?”

Mom!” I filled the word with my exasperation. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”

“Don’t you think you’re over-controlling?”

“I call it ‘having strong leadership skills,’ and where do you think I got them from?”

“Fine.”

“Okay, so… Mom, the thing is… I know you know all the lyrics, but… this is a musical. Not a concert.”

“And…?” her tone was dark. Like, one step away from straightening her glasses at me dark.

“It’s totally okay to sing along with the music at a concert, but you don’t do that at a musical. Except during the curtain call, when they invite it.”

“I can sing if I want to.”

“Mom, do you really think that’s….”

“What?”

“Well, it’s just that your singing is…”

She actually did straighten her glasses. “What about my singing?”

In an almost robotic tone I said, “You sing with great joy and enthusiasm.” Mentally, I added, “and absolutely no sense of pitch, whatsoever.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Mom – ”

“Yes?”

“Never mind.”

We finished our mochas in silence. Maybe when I was older, I’d be better at picking my battles. Maybe I’d never win with her. Or, maybe, there would come a time when I’d realize that as tone deaf as she was, the fact that my mother would never stop singing along with musicals, with the radio, with the stupid sound system at the grocery store, was somehow beautiful.

Then again… maybe not.