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.) 

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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.

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“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.

 

 

Tockless

Like the Prose: Challenge #24 – Write a descriptive piece about an object in your home/room.

 

It stands a silent sentinel just to the left of the front door. Tall. Brown. Regal. Its curved headpiece provides a warm welcome to all who enter, and its gold-inlaid face serves as a gentle reminder of the graciousness of an earlier age.

The carved corners and straight lines of the main case are petite for such a figure, lending a feminine cant to the piece. Inside the central glass, shiny brass weights rest, frozen outside of time, unused, unusable, but somehow conveying a sense of willingness.

“Fix me,” the timepiece seems to whisper, as the daylight turns to night and the shadows lengthen on the wooden floor. “Make me useful again.”

And if the twilight deepens to just the right shade, if the evening is quiet enough, the air almost seems to echo on the hour: the four bars of the Westminster Chimes followed by the resonant bongs that mark the specific time.

But then the magic is gone.

The hands, behind their glass, are still unmoving.

The chains don’t carry the weights up or down.

There is no ticking or tocking from this Grandmother Clock.

Switching Gears

Like the Prose: Challenge #23 – Include your personal philosophy in your story. (I didn’t. My story is completely off-brief because I’ve had my Mom visiting from Mexico, and I’ve been spending time with her. So you get a Basil-Zoe story instead.)

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The thing about spaceships is that when you’ve lived on one long enough, you learn the places you can go when you want to be alone, but also be able to be found. And when you’ve become friends with a line officer who also happens to be both prone to brooding and a synthetic lifeform, you learn where they are likely to go in similar situations.

Which is why I found myself climbing a ladder inside an maintenance crawlway in heels on the night of my eighteenth birthday, in order to access a little-known observation alcove where said synthetic lifeform  had often brought me to practice music “… because the acoustics here are quite excellent, Zoe.”

He turned when I stepped off the ladder, and the starlight on his pale-silver features made my breathe catch. I’d been reacting that way a lot lately. “Had a feeling I’d find you here,” I said by way of a greeting. “You didn’t come to my party.”

“I did not wish to intrude upon the fun you and your friends were no doubt having.”

Basil,” I made his name into something like an admonishment. “You’re my friend, too, aren’t you? I wouldn’t have invited you if I didn’t want you there.” I moved closer to the tiny bench he was occupying. “Move over a little.”

He did as I asked, making room for me. “I had planned to contact you once I had returned to my quarters. I came here to determine what I wished to say.”

“Well, ‘Happy Birthday’ is the typically used phrase, but if you had something more original, I’m sure I wouldn’t object.” I could tell he meant something more. I was keeping my tone light on purpose.

“You are human.”

“Kinda knew that.”

“I was not finished. You are human and you are now eighteen. In all of the aligned worlds, achieving that age marks you as an adult.”

“Is this the part where you remind me that when I complete this semester, I’m no longer considered my mother’s dependent and lose my residency eligibility?”

“No,” he said quietly. “It is not.” He changed his position on the bench, angling his body so that he was facing me. “It is the part where I tell you that I have enjoyed the friendship we have forged in the past few months. It is the part where I share that while playing music with you has enhanced my emotional and intellectual growth, so has the time we have spent ‘just talking.'” His eyes flashed ruby, then gold, then back to the cool sapphire they usually were. “It is the part where I ask if you would consider altering the paradigm of our relationship from friendship to romance.”

I reached for his left hand and wrapped my right one around it. “You skipped my birthday party because you wanted to ask me on a date?” I was only half teasing. The truth was that we’d been having regular lunches and dinners together, and even movie night, when mom’s duty shift kept her busy, for weeks. I was pretty sure his friends among the crew assumed we were dating already. I knew mine did.

“No, Zoe. While we never named it thusly, by any definition, we have already been dating. I skipped your birthday because, as I said, I did not wish to intrude upon your celebration. But also, because I wished a more private assignation with the woman I hope is my… girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend?”

“If you are amena – ”

I interrupted him the way I’d wanted to interrupt so many conversations over the past few weeks: I kissed him. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Metal? Plastic? But… kissing Basil didn’t feel physically different than kissing any other humanoid-shaped person. His mouth was warm. His lips were soft against mine, then firmer as he joined the kiss, becoming a participant. His tongue met mine, and I tasted something faintly sweet, but nothing I could put a name to. It was just… just him.

I broke away when I had to breathe.

“May I assume that was a ‘yes?'”

“You may.” I realized I was still holding his hand. I let it go and scooted closer to him. “You know I’m going to have some questions… and I don’t want… I don’t want to seem invasive or rude when I ask.”

“You have the right to ask me anything, Zoe.”

“Oh, Basil… then I guess… how far can we go? Is sex on the table? Is this only until I leave for university or work or whatever I do at the end of the school year? Are we – we don’t have to hide this do we?”

“We do not have to ‘hide’ anything, Zoe, though as a line officer, a certain level of decorum is expected. I do not believe we should define a schedule… it may be that we are not as compatible as lovers than we are as friends. It may be that when you leave our relationship ends naturally.”

“That’s fair.”

“And you would be welcome to visit, should you wish to. Even if your mother were to transfer.”

“And sex?”

“Anatomically, Zoe, I am little different than a human male. You know this.”

“I know it intellectually.”

“And you wish… first-hand experience?”

“As you pointed out earlier, I am human. But, I don’t… I don’t want to go there if it’s something you’re doing only for me. Either it’s for both of us, or it doesn’t happen.”

“I would have it no other way.”

“Good.” We sat in silence for a few moments, though Basil put his arm around my shoulders, drawing me closer to his body. The warm solidity of him was something I’d always noticed in friendly hugs. Now it was mine to experience in a whole new way. “Basil?”

“Yes, Zoe?”

“Is sex even something you’re interested in?”

“With you?”

Basil.”

“Forgive me, Zoe. Perhaps it was inappropriate to attempt humor at such a moment.”

“Only a little.”

“Then let me be clear… I am interested in exploring whatever you wish to explore, Zoe Harris.”

“You know this doesn’t get you out of giving me an actual birthday present.”

“I have a gift for you in my quarters. We can go retrieve it whenever you are ready.”

“We can go to your quarters in a bit,” I agreed, “but it’s late so I think my present might have to wait til after breakfast.” I caught his reaction to the real meaning of my sentence and smiled slightly. “For now, staying here is good. Especially if you kiss me again.”

“I am happy to comply,” Basil answered, and he did.

As his lips met mine for another delicious kiss, I considered whether it was too soon to sleep with him. I might have just turned eighteen, but I wasn’t innocent. I also knew that if Basil was declaring himself in this way, he meant it.

This wasn’t an impulsive hookup.

This was just us… switching gears.

Spooning

Like the Prose: Challenge #22 – Write something nonsensical. (I did not succeed. I merely managed to be silly.)

lizardmug

Morning comes too early. I’m pulled from sleep in the middle of REM sleep. I stumble to the kitchen in that half-aware state between sleeping and waking.

The dogs are barking at nothing.

Or something.

Maybe they see things I don’t.

Maybe the leaves three blocks away really are a threat.

Coffee.

Coffee won’t listen and understand but it will make the morning feel less like razor blades and more like something merely annoying, like when I get a hair caught in my eyelash but I can’t quite grab it, and it keeps irritating me until I’m ready to gouge my eyes out with rusty spoons.

Dull ones.

Because fruit spoons would make it too easy.

I’ve been using that line for years and I’ve never revealed that I actually stole it from Swoosie Kurt’s character in a filmed-for-tv production of The House of Blue Leaves where she threatens to commit suicide by slitting her wrists with spoons.

Except that’s not quite right.

Spoons.

Coffee.

Milk.

I pour the milk into the cup first and the coffee on top, because I’m lazy and don’t want to have to wash an extra spoon. I watch the abstract patterns form and I have the line from that Carly Simon song riffing in my head, “I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee,” and suddenly I’m on a sailboat on a coffee sea and the sails are cocktail napkins held up by masts made of balsa-wood stirrer-stick masts.

A wave of café au lait washes over the boat, and I pick up a teaspoon oar and try to beat it back, but it drenches me.

But even worse… it’s decaf.

* * *

Beeping. I hear beeping. Maybe it’s the emergency beacon and someone is floating me a stack of shortbread to float home on.

Or.

Maybe it’s the alarm, and my REM sleep was never interrupted.

And it was all a dream within a dream.

And the only spooning I’m doing is being the inside one in the stack formed with me and my husband.

Who is snoring like foghorns, loud enough to wake the dead.

And the dogs bark.

And he rolls on his back.

And I pull him back to me.

“You have to stay on your side,” I say, “because there are lizards coming to scoop out your brains. And they drink decaf and it’s awful.”

He holds me tighter.

I go back to sleep.

And in the morning, he brings me caffeinated coffee in a mug with dinosaurs on it.

 

Tea

Like the Prose: Challenge #21 – Today was about doing the opposite of what you usually do. I typically write in bed and work in a horror or sci-fi twist. I wrote this in the living room and it’s completely human and earthbound.

matcha tea

The teabag arrived in a pink envelope on a gray day. The sender had wrapped it in a page of lined notepaper and scrawled a brief message, but it had gotten wet, and she couldn’t really read the signature. The message was clear, however: it was Penelope’s turn for the tea exchange,  that she should sip the tea and think of someone she loved and then send a bag of her own favorite tea to the address on the note.

The address was surprisingly clear.

She looked at the green envelope. “Pukka,” she read. “Supreme Matcha Green.” She’d had matcha before, when visiting her college roommate’s family for the holidays. Though Emi had been born in America her parents had left Asia shortly after their marriage – her mother was from Taiwan and her father from mainland China – and they’d had packets of instant matcha powder in a basket on the counter.

Penelope had fallen in love with the stuff, searched all over it, finally told her friend she loved it, and asked how to get it. Beginning that Christmas, and every year in the decade since, she’d received a box of the stuff every December and she measured it out over the next year until the next box came.

But this wasn’t her treasured matcha powder; this was a bag of green tea with matcha in it. Still, it seemed like a lovely rainy-day sort of tea. She filled the kettle and turned it on, took her favorite mug from the cabinet, and sliced an apple and some cheese to nibble with her cup.

Never a patient person, Penelope forced herself to follow the directions on the bag and let the tea steep the required length of time. She took deep breaths of the deepening brew, absorbing the herbal scent. She appreciated the deep emerald color.

Finally, she pulled the bag from the water and discarded it.

Taking tea and snack to the dining room table, she sat facing the window and watched the rain on the street. Think about someone you love; the note had said. There were so many people! Her husband, obviously, her parents, her local friends. But afternoon tea with Emi had become a ritual in college that continued through their grad school days.

They’d rented their first apartment together – a horrible sixth-floor walkup with a toilet that whistled for three full minutes after every flush and a clawfoot bathtub that rocked back and forth when you stepped over the side to get in it.

Both sets of their parents had been mortified by the choice, but despite the apartment’s quirks, it was in a safe building in a decent neighborhood, and they had a small balcony that held two chairs and a bistro table they’d found free on the sidewalk.

On days when it wasn’t raining, they’d bring glasses (okay, bottles) of wine out there, and trade their boyfriend woes, complain about classes, share fears about work and life after graduation…

And on days when it was…

That’s when they’d sit in the bay window and drink tea.

Penelope finished the last wedge of apple, the last square of cheese, and the last swallow of the tea.

Then she picked up the phone and punched in the number she knew almost as well as her husband’s.

“Hello?” It was as if ten years had dropped away when she heard that voice.

“Hey, Em? It’s Pen. It’s raining here, and I was just sipping tea, and thinking of you. Do you have a free weekend anytime soon? It’s been too long. We should get together.”

 

Ione

Like the Prose: Challenge #20 – Write smut. (Well, really, write erotica. But I didn’t, quite.)

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There’s a subtle secret about violets. Their scent contains a chemical that turns off the human sense of smell. For this reason, you never perceive them as a constant presence, like roses or lilies. Rather, they flirt with you, tickling your awareness in subtle bursts.

The girl on the train reminds you of violets.

At first, you aren’t certain you’re seeing the same girl every day. You catch a glimpse of her calf above the top of a scuffed boot, her delicate hand holding her commuter pass to be punched, the wisp of an errant curl against her cold-reddened cheek.

You know you shouldn’t be looking. Because this girl – and she is a girl – likely sixteen, seventeen at the oldest – is a student at your school. Because she’s underage, untouchable, unspoiled. And you are none of those things.

But once you give in, once you do look, you realize, it’s not only the same girl on the train, it’s the girl in the third row of the biology class you teach.

And your interest becomes an obsession.

You study her in class, watching her when her eyes are not on you. You note the way she holds her pencil close to the tip, which cramps her fingers. You memorize the particular way she loops the letter ‘y’ in the word ‘biology.’ You make a mental catalogue of her facial expressions – happy, sad, frustrated, confused – her fresh, young face is so emotive.

You alter your schedule to ensure that you are on the train one stop before her in the morning. You watch her laughing with her friends when she boards. You bristle when she bends her head close to the black-haired boy’s on the journey home in the afternoon. You observe her sadness when he discards her for her blonde friend and then her return to joy when the handsome-but-geeky brown-haired math whiz expresses an interest.

And through all this, you consider that she is like the aroma of the violet. Something to be appreciated in fits and starts, but never in long moments.

Something to long for, but never quite have.

Alley Cat

Like the  Prose: Challenge #19 – Use an obituary to inspire a ghost story. (I used the obit of a random veteran who happened to share my birthday (8/17) about thirty years prior to my birth.)

Bugler silhouette via 123rf.com

If there was one thing that Catfish hated it was “Taps.”  He’d been a bugler in the army drum and bugle corps and switched to drums just to avoid ever having to play “Taps” again. He couldn’t help it. Every single time those first three notes rang out, every woman in a three-klick radius dissolved into tears.

And the thing is, he couldn’t hit on a woman at a funeral.

He just couldn’t.

Even if he knew she was single, and kinda into him (because he heard his buddy Frankie mention that her best friend was his girlfriend’s sister and they’d mentioned his name in the powder room at that dance o.c. the other weekend (not that he was attending the dance – oh, no! – he was enlisted – but the band was short a drummer and they knew he was good with the sticks as well as the horn so he was there).

And Pamela was the kind of woman that would make even a champion bowler like him throw all gutter balls just to make her look good, or just because she looked so good, he couldn’t concentrate.

He’d never been sure which it was. That first time.

But she’d laughed at him.

Laughed and called him Alley Cat, riffing on the nickname his buddies in the unit had given him. A nickname based on a nickname. Why not?

Of course, after the laughter came the kissing part and Catfish  – Alley Cat to his Pamela (and only to his Pamela, and god, she was gonna be so pissed at him for leaving her alone this way. So pissed. So lonely. So… STOP IT!)

The kissing part had been amazing. Forty-seven years of her kisses. Slightly fewer years of weekly trips to the Ocean View Lanes for bowling with their usual group. The group was just couples at first… then it was couples and kids, then the kids grew out of it, then they came back… then it was them and the grandkids and lately… well, lately the group had dwindled. These youngsters didn’t like bowling, The Lanes were gonna close next year, probably. Not enough business.

But that was the way of the world. Popular pastimes peaked when people needed them the most and then they waned in popularity and then maybe they spiked again, or maybe they didn’t. Roller rinks. Stick ball. Bowling. All the things he’d grown up with… they were fading.

He was fading.

He just wanted to make sure they didn’t play it. Cuz Pamela knew, but oh, god, there was the bugler standing by his grave.

And there was his Pamela, his Pammy. Her brilliant blonde hair was silvery gray now, but still as soft and silky as the first time he’d stroked it, just like the skin of her cheek,  and her skin, he knew still smelled like rose petals. God, Pam. How am I supposed to find peace without you? he wondered.

He didn’t precisely have ears anymore, but he remembered what they felt like, so he craned them to listen.

“If there was one thing Catfish hated it was ‘Taps.’  He made me promise, military funeral or not, that we wouldn’t play it for him. Said if we did, he’d haunt us all forever. As much as I might like the notion of my Alley Cat lingering nearby until I’m ready to join him, I can’t let him have unfinished business. So, my darling, wherever you are, this is for you…”

And the bugle played.

And Catfish laughed.

Well, he would’ve if he had a body that could laugh.

Because the guy with the horn played the opening from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

No, Catfish couldn’t laugh, because he was done with earthly things.

But everyone standing near his grave, everyone listening to the horn player… they would have sworn they heard his laughter anyway.

 

 

 

 

Adelaster

Like the Prose: Challenge #18 – Write a gothic horror story in a contemporary setting. (Please note. This is a very rough draft. I had a concept, a main character, a plot, but I was having a bad writing day, a bad migraine, and couldn’t make it flow. It’s something I’ll come back to. I’m posting it anyway, for completionist’s sake.)

house fire

Adelaster

 

It ended in fire of course, but then, these stories always end in fire. At least the great mansions in them always do. That is, when they don’t tumble into the sea or crumble into the mines upon which they rest.

In the case of Adelaster, however, there was no sea, despite the fact that the great, gloomy structure was situated on a private island, and there were not mines, so it had to be fire.

Standing on the mainland, I could see the flames turning the night sky as orange as the setting sun… ah, but I digress. My name is  Hugo Gleason, an unlike those who travel to the island to steal video footage or illicit photos of the denizens thereof, my time there began with an invitation.

Well, that’s not precisely accurate.

It began with a job hunt.

In any case, I arrived at the island mansion as the latest tutor to a fifteen-year-old girl, the only daughter of the renowned neuroscientist Elizabeth Lassiter.

The child herself met me at the door wearing a toque to cover her bald head and chattering at breakneck speed. “So, you’re Hugo, huh? I’m Emmaline, but you can call me Emma. Mom says you have a degree in folklore. Does that make you kind of like Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

“I do have a degree in folklore,” I confirmed, “but I’ve never met an actual vampire. Maybe we can find some here if we look. It seems like the kind of house that might have secrets.”

The girl’s face flashed a haunted expression, then cleared. “Yes, there are secrets. But I don’t think we have vampires. Maybe we can go looking. I haven’t ever checked out the old chapel on the north shore.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Jessie can get you a map, if you like.”

Jessie, I knew, was the island’s caretaker. She’d been my pilot on the boat ride over, and she’d explained that there was a cleaning staff and a kitchen staff, and she was in charge of everything else. “IT, basic handyman kinda stuff, that’s all me. I even take care of the dogs.”

“Dogs?”

“We keep a collection of border collies on the island. If you’re so inclined, I’m sure you can choose one for yourself. I’ve got two that are mine, specifically, and Morris, the head chef, has a dog named Jasper that sleeps in the kitchen while he works.”

I had always enjoyed the company of dogs and told her as much.

“Well, that’s great, Hugo; you’re gonna fit in just fine,” she’d responded. “Just… don’t worry if Emma seems a little strange from time to time. She’s a special kid. Been alone a lot. Sometimes it gets to her.

But that had been on the ride over, and now I was faced with Emmaline – Emma – herself. “I’ll ask about the map,” I promised.

“Cool, cool. Let me show you to your room now. You’ll meet Mom at dinner, and she’ll give you all the rules and regs, but it’s Friday and we won’t start real work until Monday, so you’ll have the whole weekend to get acclimated.”

The girl turned and headed up the left-hand stairway and I had no choice but to follow. (My bags, Jessie had informed me earlier, would be taken to my room before I ever got there.)

Over the next several weeks, we established a routine. Jessie, Emma and I would breakfast together and then take the dogs for a walk, then Jessie would go off to her work and Emma and I would focus on her studies. Her best subjects were English and literature and her imagination was incredibly vivid, but she was hardly shabby at math or history, either, and we incorporated technology into all of our courses. Science was her mother’s forte. Twice a week, Emma would spend the afternoon in Dr. Lassiter’s lab working on things I knew not of.

For the most part, it was a typical tutoring assignment. My weekends were my own. I had access to a boat if I wished to go back to the mainland, I had, in fact, adopted one of the dogs, I got on well with the doctor and my young student, as well as Jessie, but I also noticed a few oddities…

The dogs, for one… I knew they were all the same breed but even within a litter there should be some variation in markings. These were all nearly identical. My own Tiberius (named, I admit, for Captain Kirk) was virtually a twin to Jessie’s pair though hers were at least two years older than my pup. It was spooky.

And then there was Emma.

I knew she was homeschooled because she had a health condition, but because of her hair loss I’d assumed it was some form of brain disease or cancer. When I questioned her, she was vague. When I asked the doctor, she brushed me off. “You’re a tutor,” she would say. “Teach.”

And so, it went on, but Emma grew thinner and frailer.

Our morning walks with Jessie soon required that she use a wheelchair. I didn’t mind pushing her. Neither did Jessie. A pack of pooches joined us. It was still pleasant.

But when her nose began to bleed during an algebra class, I new something was terribly wrong.

Dr. Lassiter was called over the intercom.

Jessie and I helped get Emma bundled into bed.

Before I was told to take a long weekend so the girl could rest, I sat with her at her bedside. “You’ll get better,” I said. “You must. We still have to check out the chapel.”

“Do it for me,” she whispered. “I need to know what’s there.”

I promised her I would.

I left the house, planning to head to the dock and take a boat to the mainland. I hadn’t seen my parents in a while. I thought Emma might like a comicbook I remembered telling her about… maybe I’d get her a few issues.

Sunday night brought me back to Adelaster, but I was told Emma was still unwell. “Take Monday to rest,” I was told. Morris made lasagna… comfort food.

Jessie wasn’t available to take our walk that morning, so I kept my promise to Emma and went north toward the chapel. I was surprised to meet the caretaker returning from the direction I was heading, a shovel in the back of her golf cart.

“You would pick today…” she said. “Well, better you find out from me.”

“What do you mean.”

“Hop in.”

She turned the cart around, and we went north.

The old chapel felt like something out of a novel. Ivy covered stone. Carved figures of angels. It seemed old and damp and somehow … wrong.

And yet it was also compelling.

And strangely beautiful.

The kind of place a vampire would love.

But I was certain that Emma would be disappointed. There were no vampires there.

“This way,” Jessie said. She stepped out of the cart and led me to the churchyard behind the building. Several old gravestones dotted the area, and then, closer in, several newer ones. Six of them, and at the end of the row, a fresh grave.

“Emma… died?” I asked. “No one told me. There was a funeral already?”

“There won’t be a funeral.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at the headstones.”

And so, I took a closer look at the first row. Emmaline number 1-A. Emmaline number 1-B. Emmaline number 2-A. 2-B. 3-A. 4-A.  Suddenly the dogs made sense. And suddenly I knew Emma would be fine when she returned to class.

“I have to leave.”

“Best if you don’t try.”

“Why?”

“Oh, don’t worry, you won’t be murdered or anything. But you won’t work again. Doc’s connections are deep. Best thing to do is show up for our walk tomorrow like nothing happened.”

“But she can’t… a new Emma won’t remember…”

“Oh, she will.”

“But… how?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

I managed not to vomit until I was back in my own suite of rooms.

As Jessie had promised, Emmaline was just like new on Tuesday morning.

“I have bad news for you, Emma,” I told her. “No vampires at the chapel. New target?”

“The south tower. Next time there’s a storm.”

“It’s a date,” I promised.

Our days continued. Another six weeks. Another cycle. Another Emma fading out and a new one brought in. How long, I wondered, could this go on?

And the Dr. Lassiter told us at dinner that she’d be going away on a speaking engagement and would be gone for a week. I knew it was time to act.

I knew where the lab was even though I’d never been in it. I waited for the third day of the doc’s trip… just to make sure. Then I headed down there. The code on the door was easy to figure out – Emmaline’s birthday.

I don’t know what I expected to find… gurgling tanks of murky fluid, I guess, like in a horror film. The reality was much worse. Six Emmalines-in-waiting in glass stasis boxes, and a seventh lying in state in the center of the room. Except, I realized, the seventh wasn’t waiting to be a fresh replacement. The seventh was the original.

I approached that one. The girl who wasn’t dead but wasn’t alive. My proximity triggered something because a monitor awakened above her… station… and a video began to play.

This is this the last wish of Emmaline Lassiter, age fifteen. I don’t really want to die; who does, but I know it’s gonna be hard for my mom to say goodbye. So, when it is my time, I want to be very clear: it’s okay to let me go. It’s right. I’ve had a disease my whole life. It’s made me hurt and bleed and lose my hair. I’m so tired. Just… let me rest, please?

And then it ended.

I had never been the most tech savvy of men, but I understood several things. Emmaline the original was alive because Dr. Lassiter couldn’t let her go. The clones were her way of holding on. But when you clone a sick person, you clone their sickness. So, the clones didn’t have a great shelf life. But they were all connected through a neuro transmission system. That’s how the new ones had all the memories. The doc was a neuroscientist, after all.

“Can you do it?”

I heard the doctor’s voice behind me.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have intruded….”

“I expected you to. So many tutors. No one can do it. I can’t can you. You and Emma get along so well, but can you do it? Can you turn her off?”

“It’s wrong that you did this. She wanted to let go.”

“She’s my daughter.”

“She’s done.”

“She’s everything.”

“You have your work. You have so much….”

“Can you do it?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Yes.”

“I can. For Emma I can.”

I pulled the plug. I left the room. And the next morning Dr. Lassiter “returned early” from the trip she’d never been on.

Together, we watched this last Emma die.

And this time there was a funeral.

I woke up to the smell of smoke and the sound of dogs barking and someone pounding on my door.

I went to open it, standing there, bleary-eyed in only my boxers. “Jessie?”

“Get dressed. Get Tiberius. Get downstairs. Crazy bitch is torching the place. We have to go.”

And that was my last hour at Adelaster. A mad rush of smoke and chaos and grief.

 

It ended in fire. Jessie and I stood on the opposite shore, on the mainland, and watched Adelaster burn with Dr. Lassiter still inside.

She’d be with Emmaline again.

She’d be with all the Emmalines.