Form: flash fiction

Ground Control

Ground Control

“What is it that disturbs you, Michael?”

Michael called out a 3D projection of another ten screens, so now his cubicle was filled with fluorescent numbers, lines, and patterns, not unlike ancient aboriginal glyphs painted in the air. “Nothing disturbs me, Lyssa. Everything is all right. I am following my morning routine perfectly.”

“When you logged on,” Lyssa’s disembodied voice continued, “I detected a slight change in your heartbeat, though not something of a critical nature.”

“Otherwise you would have warned me.” Michael made a sweeping motion, like an orchestral conductor, and some of the screens faded out and were replaced by an image of Luca 2050 Resort. “Where should we start this morning? Any suggestions?”

“Mr. Barnes already sent over 20 more requests for improvements,” Lyssa replied, and Michael thought he detected a hint of annoyance in Lyssa’s voice. He had programmed her well. “Simulation of guided space-walk level 2, adjustment of the zero-grav pool, a new feature in the shower facilities for non-binary guests of the Neo-Pagan denomination—”

“Thanks, I’ll just start … here.” Michael glanced at some of the peripheral screens and with a slight gesture, he called them, so they grew in size and were easier to study in detail.

“Can I ask a question?” Lyssa’s voice was neutral.

“If you must.” Michael feigned a slight impatience while he called another screen into zoom, but inwardly he smiled. Lyssa was becoming better every day.

She was becoming more and more … Lyssa. Just like he had imagined her.

“Would you like to go to the high orbit resort yourself one day? In reality?”

Michael paused the procedure he had been working on. The glowing screen faded slightly in front of him. “Good question, Lyssa. I think I would, but you know that for me it’s probably not going to be an option.”

“You could train for it. I took the liberty of reviewing some recent techniques developed by doctor Alexander Schloensky to support sensory reintegration.”

“I’ve read Alex’s work,” Michael said, nodding for the screen to light up again. “And although his autism is more … debilitating than mine, I don’t believe his techniques are useful for me.”

“Have you tried them?”

“Lyssa, we have work to do. I think you are becoming too human. I don’t remember programming you for procrastination.”

“I am not procrastinating, Michael. I am interested in making your work—and your life—function more optimally. Like you programmed me to be.”

Michael sighed. “Look, I have lived all my life with sounds from people’s phones that suddenly turned into raging storms or flashes from vehicle lights that were close to giving me a seizure. I believe there is a way of dealing with that which the good doctor hasn’t really accepted. And that is … acceptance.”

“I do not understand. Don’t you want to go into space yourself, instead of designing a simulation for the training of tourists? Don’t you want to do many things for real, instead of doing them in a simulation?”

“I design the simulation,” Michael corrected.

“But you also use it—often, I might add.”

“I do,” Michael admitted while scrolling through a series of data that looked like a long ribbon of glowing green pearls. “But there are some things I might never be able to do in real life because I could never reduce the element of unpredictability—how my senses would react to any given event.”

“Even with more training?”

“Yes.”

“Do you say that because you have tried before?”

“Yes.”

“But if you could go into space wouldn’t you want to try again? Wouldn’t it be worth the effort?”

“It might. And I might do it one day. Or I might not. Life is not a series of linear improvements, where you can and should get more capable. Sometimes … ” Michael held his breath as part of his attention located and deleted a particularly irritating pearl that did not fit with the others on his dominant screen.

Lyssa waited for Michael to prioritize answering her. She had seen Michael like this before, so she knew she had to be patient.

Or at least she appeared to act with patience. Michael didn’t care which it was.

It made him feel happy, regardless.

Shining Through

Shining Through

Emma gazed at the stately old buildings across the river and wondered who had lived there before—100, 200, 300, or more years ago? She felt like she was slipping into a dream again when reality interrupted.

“You know, a lot of the Old Town was blown up by the Germans, during the war,” Stephen said. He surveyed the Charles Bridge and the Bedřich Smetana Museum as if he was checking off a list.

“We’re in Prague,” Emma said. “I don’t want to hear about war. I just want to see what’s here.”

As on cue, there was a murmur in the tree crowns over them as a soft breeze caressed the park, with its tourists and lovers.

Emma closed her eyes and thought of a number. 1852.

Her autistic brother loved numbers, but to him they were different. Michael said he sometimes felt the numbers had colors, even personalities. To Emma they were gateways.

“Well, what do you see?” Stephen asked, arms crossed.

“Maybe I see two lovers, eloping—running away together, never to come back.” She smiled, knowing what the response would be.

“You read too many romance novels,” Stephen said and shook his head. He checked his phone again. “The guide says we could catch the Beer Museum and the Bedřich Smetana before they close if we go right over the Legion Bridge now. Or maybe—” he looked north “—we should go back and cross over Charles Bridge on the way. Then we’ve done that one, too.”

“Sure, Steve.” Emma still had her eyes closed. Who were these young people? They had run away together but why?

Emma saw the woman clearly in her mind’s eye. As clearly, as if she was right there—between Stephen and her—breathing frantically, running to all that life in front of her she craved, never looking back.

If she could run fast enough could she outrun the chains of her past? Perhaps an angry father who had forbidden her to marry the man she loved? Poverty? Something about a war her man was about to be drafted for but he did not want to go, did not want to leave her …

Perhaps …

“Are you coming?” Stephen snapped the phone shut. “We don’t have that much time left.”

“No,” Emma said and bowed her head. “No, we haven’t.”

Kyrie

Kyrie

The Aubrac Plateau, France

“Except the small hut over there, I can’t see anything in this direction,” Emma said.

“That’s because there isn’t much,” Stephen said. “This is one big empty wilderness. I don’t get why you wanted to go out here – and this bloody early.”

Emma didn’t answer but started walking again, feeling the satisfactory grind of pebble-sized stones under her hiking boots. Before them stretched a sea of moorland, peppered with small wiry bushes and boulders and only stopped by distant mountains.

“Provence was better,” Stephen kept complaining. “I think we should figure out where to go next, once we get back to the hotel. I hear there are some nice facilities in Aurillac.”

“There’s also a quarantine,” Emma said and scouted the horizon. None of the paths she could make out felt right.

“Yeah,” Stephen lamented. “Not enough people getting their shots this time either. You’d think they’d have learned their lesson by now.”

“People don’t learn anything easy,” Emma said and turned to look back at him. She tried to remember how she liked him and was attracted to him, especially his sandy hair and tan and those sharp, clever eyes.

But this was one of the times when she had to try really hard. Stephen dialed up the volume of his laments.

“Jesus Christ, Em. We’ve been vacationing this part of the country like vagabonds for almost two weeks. We’re almost out of money and I still haven’t seen Paris, which was the deal, wasn’t it?”

“The water flask,” Emma said. “Give it to me.”

Stephen was baffled. “What are you talking about?”

Emma took it herself from his belt and then threw it to the ground, so the lid popped open and the water ran out.

“What the fuck are you doing?” He quickly kneeled down and took the flask, saving about half of the water. The day was still burning hot, though, like most August days in the highlands of the Massif Central.

Stephen tried to swat one of the many small flies that had come too close to his sweaty face but forgot he had the still-open flask in one hand and accidentally spilled more water.

“Fuck! Now see what you’ve made me do!”

“I didn’t do anything,” Emma said. “You’re the one who said yes to a morning hike, and you keep saying yes to things and then complaining about them. Well, now you have a choice. Go home to the hotel. You should be able to make it with the rest of the water.”

Stephen righted himself. “Emma, I am not going to have this kind of argument again with you. You’re not going to bait me.”

“It’s not an argument,” she said and tightened the clip to her blonde ponytail, getting ready to walk again. “It’s an attempt to get you to stop saying things you don’t mean.”

“Well, I won’t go home. I will go with you.”

“Then you don’t have enough to drink.”

“We can share. Or we can cut the walk shorter.”

“I don’t want to.”

“What’s … out there, anyway?” He waved his hand dismissively at the moorland. “This is like the asshole of Provence.”

“No, this is the Massif Central. It’s a place where people disappear – or try to.”

“You’re talking in riddles and I’m tired. Go on. See if I care.” He turned and began walking back.

Emma felt a sting of regret. She knew she had been a bitch. But she couldn’t help it. This was supposed to be the dream holiday – her first vacation on her own, overseas, and mostly without having to worry about her health or anything like that.

Maybe she was being a bitch because Stephen was being a dick. So she felt she had the right. And where did that leave her now?

She looked around at the lonely moorland spotting a small puddle of water she had not seen before. Otherwise, it was all the same as it had been in the half-hour they had been walking. And if she went on, alone, it would purely be out of spite.

You have to say what you really feel she thought to herself … if not, we might as well stop this right now. All of it.

Then she turned and walked.

The Maker of Rules

The Maker of Rules

My parents were so afraid I would fight against their decision, and to be frank, so was I. I didn’t want to cause any more trouble than I already do.

Normal people would probably see the rust-fading sunlight over there on Anchorage’s few tall buildings for all of two seconds and then turn their faces away from the bite of the wind and look back to where they came from. Maybe go indoors and try to forget where they are. But not me. I stay here on the rocky beach and feel right at home with the wind.

You see I found out early on that wind is one of the few things that don’t bother me. If you are on the autism spectrum you are usually very sensitive to all sorts of things. My mom used to get fits when I was little because I couldn’t stand that my socks didn’t go all the way up and over my trouser legs and covered every part of my skin.

I don’t know why, I just couldn’t stand it, and because mom and dad got so angry about it at times, especially when they were in a hurry, I also felt bad about crying and howling, which made me cry and howl even more. But I just couldn’t stand it.

That’s what you get as someone on the spectrum. You get a lot of things you can’t predict, and you get a brain that goes in all kinds of different directions. So when I was four years old I had taught myself the sounds of all letters and could read all the roadsigns but I hadn’t learned to talk yet, only scream. Like my mom once said, “figuring out what is wrong with you is like being a detective trying to find a clue on the beaches of D-Day”.

I didn’t understand that reference until we talked about my great-grandfather and the war he was in, but most importantly, I didn’t get it until I understood how much it stressed my parents that I couldn’t talk. I was busy stressing about it myself, I guess.

So now. One jump. Down from the rock, but not too close to the water. I have read that the temperature of the water is actually below freezing point in some places, only it can’t freeze because there is too much wind and too many waves.

The water you see here is Knick Arm and across it is Anchorage where dad now works as a private security man, after 20 years in the police force. Some days during our first winter here, there is so much snow on the road you can’t even get around the water which is like a long deep bay, or one of those lochs from mom’s home. You can’t get over to Anchorage, before they clear the roads, even though you can see it perfectly.

Then we call back and forth and dad assures he will get home, we just have to be patient and wait. What has changed?

Anyway, on one of those days, you get the feeling, ‘maybe I should just walk across the ice?’

Because by that point even the wind can’t stop the water from freezing. But of course, you wise up. It would be stupid to walk across the ice. You would probably not make it. Yet still, sometimes I think about it like that. Because that’s what it feels like for me. Every day I walk across the ice, never knowing when it will crack.

What new trick is my mind going to play on me? Is a tiny little noise going to feel like an explosion? Is a flash of sunlight a carving knife scratching my cheek, but warm on the back of my neck?

But I didn’t fight Alaska, not when dad said he couldn’t stand another year in the police. And he had this offer, albeit in the other end of the country. As far away from Yuma as you could possibly get in the same country. From fire to ice.

I didn’t fight it. I didn’t like change, sure, but I knew exactly now how the sun in Yuma worked. I knew when it felt like it should feel and when it was just me, who felt that the light was wrong on my skin, even when everybody else said it was a ‘fine and mild day’. Fuck them.

I also needed to try something new. I wasn’t sure if Alaska would be it. Sounded too extreme. Why would I freak out less over sensations on my skin here with all the cold, then down in the oven of Yuma?

Turns out, though, I’m actually better with cold than with heat.

Mom is always fussing, of course, and sure enough, I already have been close to getting it wrong and getting frostbite. However, I get along better with the cold. It feels better. It is less unpredictable. Not like socks.

Of course, the new school is important, too, but I have found out that some of the native classmates here are actually more accepting of a weirdo like me than many of my ‘friends’ back in the old school.

Apparently, according to Chugachigmiut tradition, I am one of their ‘two-spirit people’. Historically that is a name for people, you know, who could be both men or women. But it is also just a description. Like “Tyakutyik” which means “What Kind Of People Are These Two?” It’s a name for many types of people in the community who are a bit … different.

Which is nice.

Especially because Kira told me about it, and I like to get her to tell me more. About everything …

I smile when I think of her, and then count my own steps and the stones. There is a special stone just for her. And now I turn and walk, and turn and walk, back and forth on the same spot on the rocky beach, counting every step.

I know all the stones, and I know exactly how the wind feels here, no matter which direction it comes from. I can see our house and I can see Anchorage and the mountains over in Chugach State Park, sprinkled with white.

I have found out how Alaska works. For me, anyway. It only took me a couple of weeks. Whereas I never got used to the desert. I never found a way of playing with its rules. They changed too often.

The heat was too unpredictable. You could feel it in too many different ways, and sometimes they contradicted each other. Don’t ask me why cold is calmer. I couldn’t tell you.

Only that I am at fault. It’s because my brain is playing against me. There is nothing wrong with you, or the weather, or mom or dad. I take it all on me.

That also means I should be allowed to make my own rules, so I can stand being in the world.

I have walked exactly 47 paces now and it is time to turn. There is a place close by on the beach where the cold isn’t my friend yet, but I will get there. Maybe tomorrow. Right now I will stay in familiar territory. Then in six more minutes, it is time to go back in and do my homework.

But first I want to enjoy what I still can of my special nest here on the beach. I have made it my home and nobody is any wiser.

And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay that they don’t know what is going on with me.

More Mileage

More Mileage

What I have found out after I started on Taekwondo classes and got the black belt in marriage repair in record time, was that I am not a failed artist unless I make myself be one.

This is not my mother’s early New Age fluff. It is real. But you have to work for it to understand why the idea is worth it.

First of all, I have to acknowledge that I have a bit of time here and there and I have some space to work in, the attic if nothing else. Those are two of the Big Three when it comes to trying to draw or write, or any other creative shit.

Time and Space.

The third?

Energy.

I don’t often use my bits of time creatively because I don’t have the energy. I use them on Facebook instead, or watching telly or masturbating.

There. I’ve said it.

There is nothing wrong with masturbation, except that I do it alone. Whether I masturbate in the shower or whether I masturbate to the excitement of seeing my own opinions liked on Facebook, Twitter, and whatnot.

Sometimes you just need to jill off. Fine.

But the energy is gone.

And I think it’s gone because I’m still angry. Of all the shit life has dealt me. And about all my own mistakes. And about my children acting like crazy, and my husband being a jerk.

Well, I guess I am a crazy jerk, too, sometimes and if I expect them to live with me, I have to love to live with them even if they are crazy, angry jerks at times.

Or in the case of the kids, small mobsters.

One thing that Laura taught me in TKD-classes was that the girl (or guy) who is the most focused, usually wins. It’s about training yourself not to be thrown off balance and to continue to look for weaknesses in your opponent’s defenses.

So, like, what if I stop to go to the bathroom and have sex with myself during a difficult sparring match? Will it help me when I come back?

Sure, for all of two seconds until Devon kicks my teeth in. That guy is brutal – I wouldn’t want to spar with him even with all the gear we are wearing, but sometimes … I have to.

It’s that, or don’t show up.

I have been neglecting to show up for my own creativity because I thought that I needed all of Time, Space and Energy to be creative.

It would be nice if I had them all. But I probably never will. So either I search for the next thing to like, or I try to retain at least some focus in daily life.

On drawing.

First priority is doing an aquarelle.

If I can’t do that it’s a pencil drawing.

If I can’t do that it’s a sketch.

If I can’t do that it’s a quick study of some anatomical detail or a bird’s leg.

As long as it’s part of the overall story I am still trying to draw. At long as it is part of the whole.

It has the following benefits:

I get some shit done, instead of getting nothing done.

I get more energy by drawing what I can instead of nothing.

I get to accept myself more, because I practice accepting my fucking weaknesses every day, instead of getting paralyzed by them. And eventually, I will grow stronger.

Last but not least, I get to feel better about living, even if I never finish the story.

And today again I failed in all of that because Michael had an autistic fit and Emma said she hated me for not allowing her to visit Miriam for a whole weekend in LA. And Jon … well, he just hasn’t come home yet because some asshole had run his truck into a bus full of kids out near Ligurta …

And laundry has exploded all over the house and I am a crazy bitch because I can’t help myself and I yell at everyone. Not good for Michael, or Emma. Not good for me.

But tomorrow is a new day, and I will try again. Because what’s the difference between this and when Devon kicks me in the face during sparring and says it was an accident and I know he is not really sorry.

He is just a careless man, like Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby smashing things and then retreating back into his day job as an accountant where he is not careless but this keeps him from beating up his annoying wife, his annoying boss, and everyone else who is annoying because he can get out his frustrations during TKD class. Then he lets other people clean up the mess he has made, including blood on the mat from my face.

I asked Laura the other day why she allows a brute like Devon to attend class at all. I said, “He is fucking irredeemable. He will never learn discipline. He thinks this is a game!”

And Laura looked at me and said, “I am allowing him here for the same reason I am allowing you and all your whining about how things are with your family. Now get your ass back on that mat and take his guy down, or I’m going to throw you out of this class first.”

I got back and went through all rounds. Next Sunday I will be back for more.

This Day’s An Invitation

This Day’s An Invitation

It was summer in Berlin and time for a family to disintegrate. Emma, 16, had refused to even pretend she was with the others because after the way Martin had treated her she wasn’t interested in patching things up, only breaking them down.

She deliberately went five paces ahead of everyone else whenever they dared sortie from the hotel to navigate the bustling metropolis that seemed to have gotten a second lease of life after the pandemic.

If only there had been a second lease for her parents, it might have gone differently, but despite Jon and Carrie walking hand in hand, Emma had no doubt that it was all for show and that the recent arguments about divorce were about to come true. They might as well just get it over with like Martin had when he dumped her – by text message – just before they were to fly out of JFK and head for her second trip to Europe.

Making out the rearguard were grandmother and her new man, Marcus Chen. Well, he wasn’t that new. This was the third time, apparently, they were a couple and Emma could never really figure out what it meant. Were they good friends who had sex? Were they lovers? Were they, well, a real couple? She wanted badly to figure it out because it would give some stability to her world. It would show her that things could be for real and forever and all the things you could read in the books, at least.

She turned left and the ugly slab of concrete that was the Bahnhof Zoo station greeted her, but she went right past it hardly bothering to look at the map on her phone. With a bit of luck, she thought, she might stumble into a jungle part of the actual zoo on the other side and become lost if she kept going without looking. Or lose the others. She almost stumbled into a truck instead, as it pulled out from the parking lot behind the station.

“Wait up, young lady,” her father called. Voice firm as always, even if joy had long since left it.

Emma reluctantly slowed, feeling more caged than the animals in the Zoo they were going to gawk at any moment now. Or so she imagined. 

She suddenly felt all energy leave her. Even her anger at feeling lost and alone for the nth time wasn’t enough to keep her moving. Her heartbeat like a heavy machine and the sound of the traffic around her was like a silent dream. Dust from the park ascended in the heated afternoon, and the whole day felt tired from the lead in the air. Like it was seeping into her pores. She hated Yuma but at least they had clean air in the desert, even if it was always hot as hell to breathe this time of year.

In Berlin, the air was just heavy, and there was no redemption. It was supposed to be a marvelous chance to see an old city in Europe …

“You feeling alright?” Marcus Chen asked as he came up. They had all stopped in the parking lot as if they dared not go any further. As if there had been a crack in the collective agreement to have a conciliatory family trip to the zoo, as the first of many sights. 

“I’m okay.” Emma brushed away Marcus’ hand as she felt it closing in on her shoulder. 

Marcus sighed and looked at Emma’s grandmother. “Well, it’s just over there. But if you feeling like going someplace to sit down first, have a cup of coffee … ?”

“We’re fine,” Carrie said through thin lips before her own mother could answer. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah.” Emma’s father nodded but it was clear the lead had gotten into his pores as well. 

Then Emma’s phone buzzed and, of course, it was from Martin. Messaging her all the way from his safe hideout in some desert suburb on the other side of the world.

Emma held the phone up and looked at it as if it was a cockroach. Then she muted it.

“Who was that?” Her father asked because he needed to ask about something that had nothing to do with the decision they had to make. To go on, into the zoo. To be tourists, normal, find something to smile at.

Her mother had looked like she wanted to ask, too, but instead, she had fallen back on her usual ask-me-no-questions demeanor, as if she was the one everything devolved around. Emma wanted to ask her many things. Like, what was going to happen with her and dad? Emma and Carrie had always been able to talk about anything, but right now that was almost non-existent, like a muted Facebook message.

Emma’s screen kept lighting up with one more message. Then another. Then she realized she was looking at it and hadn’t pushed the button that darkened the screen.

“Perhaps we should go ahead?” her grandmother suggested, smiling her wizened smile, her gray-green eyes not having lost any of their steadiness. “I’m sure Emma can find us. You have those tracking things in your fancy phones, haven’t you?”

“I’ll text you,” Emma said, not sure why she said it. She was definitely not going to forgive Martin. But she wanted to be alone.

“You can’t stay here in this … ” Her father looked around. A steady stream of cars passed them, trying to find space either to park or a way around other cars that wanted to find a way out.

“I’ll sit over there, on the bench,” Emma said and pointed.

“Let’s go,” her grandmother urged, letting her hand rest on Carrie’s shoulders that slumped a bit.

It was a done deal then, and the rest of the family were led away by grandmother, as usual, like driftwood for uncertain destinations. 

Emma said the standard things she needed to say to reassure her father especially and then she was finally free. She looked at the messages: 

<Can we talk?> The last one said.

Emma hesitated, then began typing:

<What is there to talk about?>

She smiled, but it was a sad smile. He had a guilty conscience because she had refused to talk to him after he broke up like that, and it was kind of sweet. Also kind of useless.

But if she refused to talk and at least try to mend some things, what then? School would be so awkward … 

She gazed after the others. They were out of sight, probably standing in line somewhere in the zoo.

There were other things that had to be mended, which she had no control over. But at least she had this.

Emma typed again.

The lead felt as if it was evaporating slightly in the summer air.

Reunion

Reunion

“Let’s nae talk about Tim now.” Carrie’s father put the land rover to a firm halt in the small yard with gray and white pebble-stones.

“Sorry, I have a liiitle bit of jetlag, okay?” Carrie muttered under her breath. She hadn’t meant to mention Tim, but as they drove up the final road to her childhood home, her daughter Emma had asked if she was to sleep in Carrie’s old room and if her little brother was to sleep in Tim’s old room, and then Carrie had answered without thinking.

“So this is the house? Wow – do you have sheep, grandpa?” On the backseat Emma was bubbling with excitement.

Carrie cast a quick glance at her father before she answered. “Yes, Emma, that’s where I grew up, with the sheep. And with your uncle.”

“Ye’re breaking our agreement on purpose, Caroline.” Her father sighed in exactly that tone Carrie hated. She knew it would be coming. Perhaps that’s why she had felt like striking first.

“What agreement?” Emma was there immediately, almost crawling out between the front and passenger seat.

“Nothing,” Carrie said with enough venom in her voice that Emma drew back. “Use the door if you want to get out. That’s what it’s there for.”

There was a slight drizzle, and Carrie remained seated as Emma struggled to open the heavy backdoor. Her grandfather went out from the driver’s seat and around the car to help her, too. Carrie could also hear Jon, her husband, get out of the other land rover behind them, presumably to help Sheila with the luggage (and with Michael).

So Carrie was the last person inside any of the vehicles. Like a piece of forgotten luggage.

She looked out through the rain and the front window and took in the contours of the house. She noted that she didn’t feel anything. Not yet. She noted that was good. She went out to the others.

“No, that one!” She could hear Michael cry out, pushing a suitcase back in the trunk of land rover number two. Sheila looked confused. “Take that one instead,” Michael said and pointed to a big grey suitcase – his father’s. Carrie bit her lip but said nothing since Sheila looked as if she was determined to figure out how to do it right. Jon had stopped and looked unsure how much he should interfere.

The flight from the States had been surprisingly unproblematic for Michael, and then he had freaked out because the suitcases got off the plane in the wrong order. ‘Autism without borders’ Jon had joked, referring to that Doctors Without Borders secretary job she mused about on the way over. Carrie had sent him a withering glance and then they were both busy helping Michael cope with another painful interruption in his world’s order, while Emma withdrew to a bench to see if she could get a signal on her phone.

But at least they were finally here, after another half day of travel from Glasgow and up into the highlands. Carrie and Jon, their children, and the children’s grandfather along with his new wife.

It should have been the moment of relief but Carrie felt tense as a wire.

Emma was already striding towards the small white house, her pink backpack bumping up and down for every step.

“Emma!” Carrie called, “let granddad go first so he can open the door.”

“The garden path is still big enough for two,” Carrie’s father said. “I’ll get the young lass in first and then Jon and I can take the luggage.”

“Just be careful about the order-” Carrie started and carefully glanced in the direction of Sheila and her son.

“We’re fine, mom!” Michael waved and looked as if he had had an epiphany. Their suitcases were now ordered according to a certain sequence of colors that absolutely had to be correct. So all problems were over. Michael’s glasses were slightly foggy due to the drizzle and when he grinned, braces and all, he reminded her of a kid from one of those science fiction cartoons that he reveled in every weekend. Carrie wondered if they could watch them on YouTube and what they would do if they couldn’t. There had been so many things …

And from that point on, the logistics of unloading their baggage and getting everybody in before Scotland’s famous five hundred varieties of rain had soaked them all unfolded with remarkable speed and efficiency. Emma’s enthusiasm even seemed to have a strangely contagious effect on her brother, who was usually quiet and reserved when confronted with new places and situations. It was not long before the kids were roaming around the house, admiring everything with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as if they had been dropped into a toy store.

“If the wee ones weren’t 9 and 11, I’d give them a good drink to calm things down,” Carrie’s father remarked, followed by one of his trademark wry smiles, as he came in with the last suitcase. “And if I still had good drinks in the house.”

Then he stopped, as he saw Carrie standing frozen in the small hallway, looking at the faded drapery with the Lone Shieling verse on it:

From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas
Yet still the blood is strong,
the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides

“Dad, why is Tim’s jacket still here?” she asked.

Her father stopped; suitcase only half over the doorstep. Small droplets of water formed underneath it then disappeared into the mat.

For a long time, her father was silent. Then he said, “I don’t know, Caroline. I guess I thought it was wrong to remove it. It’s right under the drapery.”

Carrie crossed her arms. “I can see that. So much for the agreement, eh?”

“I’m really sorry,” he offered, sounding genuinely out of it. “I guess I have a bit o’ permanent jetlag about that one. It’s been hanging there for so long, I … ”

Carrie didn’t hit back this time. Apparently, there were some things you could try to agree to tell a certain story about, and then you would discover soon enough that there were other authors working around you.

Inside the living room, she could hear Jon trying to calm the kids, while Sheila was rummaging with something on the stove in the kitchen right beside it. But she could only see the jacket. And the drapery.

“Shall I put it away?” her father asked, bracing himself.

Carrie opened her mouth like she was trying to find a breath. “No. No, it’s okay.” She put on her best smile.

“And if Emma asks?” Carrie’s father continued. “She’s an inquisitive lass, I can already see that. What should I tell her?”

“It will probably be Michael,” Carrie said. “He’ll tell you it isn’t your size. Emma may wonder about the Metallica logo on the back, though.”

“Aye, well, I still think I should put it away,” her father said. “I wouldn’t know what to tell them, anyway.”

Carrie breathed deeply. “Tell them the truth. I should have done that already, but I thought it was best to focus on this … reunion.”

“I reckon we both did, Caroline.”

Carrie worked to get her coat off, suddenly feeling how tired she was from the journey. “You know, Michael will tell you that Reunion is a French island in the Indian Ocean. He knows pretty much all the islands in the world. Right now it’s the ones starting with ‘R’ that he is most interested in, though.”

Her father helped her with the coat. “My grandson seems to be good at remembering the right things, then. That’s nae bad start.”

And so they went in, to be together.

Crystal

Crystal

Every day my four-year-old son counts the all numbers on all the 78 houses and on all the 21 cable boxes on our route as I take him from kindergarten to our house, and he begins to cry if I don’t count along with him.

It’s been a little over a year since Michael got his autism diagnosis, but I mobilize a determined hope every day that it is not that bad. 

After all, Jenna’s son scarcely looks at her when she tries to communicate with him. Michael is fairly eager to catch our eye, but only if he wants something. Like me saying the numbers of cable box 345128 just like I have done every weekday for five months now since this particular habit started. He has loved numbers for a long time, but the boxes came in later.

“At least he finds new things to count,” Jon says. “He doesn’t count the same stuff over and over again.”

“It feels that way some days,” I say.

And then we get into an argument because we are both stressed out of our minds and arguing seems to be something that has now become a trap we can’t get out of. Something as basic and instinctual in order to cope in some fucked-up way when Michael has been crying or howling all day for reasons we don’t understand because he hasn’t learned to talk for real and we don’t know what ails him, or in what way those multiple problems autistic kids have with sensory overload affects Michael.

And then Jon goes to work, and Emma goes to her room, and I’m not sure if it’s because she doesn’t know how to deal with her brother or with her parents.

And yes, I am thinking about all this as I count house number “fifty-threee”.

Michael loves drawing out the pronunciation of this particular house number – it’s as if normal kids were offered ice cream. The same joy – every time. Michael doesn’t like ice cream. In fact, he doesn’t eat much but bread, and we are worried sick but that’s how it is with autistic kids and there is a very long wait to get some help from anyone who can, especially in Yuma, and especially if you are not the richest family in the world.

So you see, I’m thinking about all this, and it’s not as if Jon and I just had that conversation, but we might as well have had it. We seem to have it every other day. We definitely have the argument.

If only we could use our energy, the little we have, to help Michael. To help our son. But it feels like we are stuck in quicksand and it doesn’t help that I’m unemployed again or that Jon shot a guy in the chest two weeks ago when said guy tried to rob the grocery store with a shotgun.

I try to tell him that the man will live. I tell him that even if he didn’t live I’d much rather have that reality than the one in which Jon’s head had been turned into pulp by the same dumdums that went clean through the big Halloween pumpkin by the door two seconds after Jon came in to buy a soda while in uniform, and the robber panicked and fired at him without warning.

It later turned out the guy—Carlos was his name—had pumped as much cocaine into his veins as I did myself over an entire year back in the early 2000s. But what does it matter?

It doesn’t make you any less dangerous just because your brain is to fried to even register what you are shooting at.

And my head is like a fucking beehive. Why can’t life be easy for more than five minutes?

Why can’t I get … peace?

“Fifty seeven!”

“Fifty-seven, sweetheart.”

“Fifty-seven!” Michael looks at me with mounting sadness and a stint of anger, unable to grasp that I just told him I love him in one extra word, but the extra word does not go with the numbers. You have to say them exactly as he does, or his world falls apart.

I wonder when Jon will come home. I wonder if we will argue. I want to shout at Michael now.

Fuck fifty-seven. Fuck that number.

But I don’t. Not today.

I walk on with my son’s hand in mine, and Yuma’s winter sun is mild and I wonder when he will learn to understand what ‘sweetheart’ means.

That’s what I use to chase the bees away for a little while, even if it hurts to think about, too, when I pass so many other parents on their way home, with kids babbling away and being aware of the world in a way I don’t know if Michael will ever be.

But this is a hurt that is better. So I choose it.

 

When The Moment Arrives

When The Moment Arrives

I didn’t think she’d come. And frankly, I didn’t know if I wanted her to come.

But now – when the flight from Houston is actually marked as “landed” on the screen up there … now it is for real. In about 30 minutes, max, she is going to walk through those doors and back into my life. And I’m still not sure if that’s the right thing – for both of us … Can a 15-year black hole in a friendship be mended just like that?

In the years that have passed, I’ve thought like crazy about the ‘why’. Yeah, she got married, with kids and all like the rest of us … but that wasn’t the entire explanation. And whatever it was, to me it was ultimately betrayal. After the accident, everybody said I was not to blame, but in their hearts, they felt I should be blamed. ‘Two careless kids playing on the cliffs … ‘ – that’s what they thought. One chases after another. And suddenly the world ends as we know it.

Few people stop to wonder why there is a chase, to begin with, perhaps because they don’t want to acknowledge that kids can be so cruel to each other. ‘It’s a period of innocence, don’t spoil the picture …’ But Siné said she trusted me – that she would always be my friend – even after I locked myself inside myself, after coming home from the hospital. All the more reason it hurt like a knife twisted in your gut when she stopped writing – only a few months after we had fled from Scotland, back to a Cleveland family that didn’t really want mum to return.

And now … do I want her, to step through those doors?

It’s moot, isn’t it? I can’t just butt out now. No, I have to go through with it, but after weeks of thinking, I still don’t know how I will go through with it. The first part is forgiveness, isn’t it? And how do we go about that? ‘Uh, I’m glad that you found me on Facebook and that we got all talking again and all, but I really still have a problem with the way you just cut me off back in ‘95. But hey – let’s go have a cappuccino and talk it over.’

After she ‘friended’ me on Facebook and we began talking again, we haven’t even touched on this, not in any mails, messages, nothing – just pretended, I guess, that it wasn’t so important. We were teenagers. Lifetime ago, right? But it was all the time like a dead man buried in a garden, we all knew he was there and that we had to dig him up and now we’ve decided to meet in the garden and we have to do it. Don’t we? Maybe I should have told her how I felt about the past before I said ‘Oh, so you and your husband are staying in Houston with some of his business pals? Well, Texas is not so far away from Arizona … you could drop by, just for a few days … ‘

Why do you always end up agreeing to such things, out of politeness or whatever, way before you get to talk about all the essential stuff? I mean, I really can’t – I just can’t imagine giving her an honest hug, even if … well, I just can’t imagine that. Because we have to clear that dead man out first, get him properly cremated before we can move on. But what exactly does she have to do before I can forgive her?

15 years … I’m never going to get past those years …

“Carrie?”

Oh, my … there she is, behind those two black mamas …

“Siné – over here!”

There she is … small green bag, flung over her shoulder; her short, blonde hair slightly faded but still looks soft; a little plumper around the belly and hips; a few more thin lines under the eyes, but her face still … shining like a bright spring day. All of that and a blitz of memories about secret curled-up paper messages under our school desk; salt-water sprints in our faces as we raced our little dinghy out to the island on the far side of the bay; Girl Guide campfire tales until the wee hours … and when we got older: Taking beautiful, aching pride in being ‘lonely together’ on school prom nights while Steve Tyler sang about why it was all so ‘Amaaazing’.

I still have to forgive her, though.

She walks towards me, slowly, perhaps sensing my hesitation.

“It’s good … ta see ye again,” she tries.

I still have to forgive her. She owes me an explanation. We have to get it sorted out.

“It’s good to see you again, too … Siné.” It doesn’t sound better when I try to say it …

She then tries a smile in return … but I can see that it’s about to die before it even comes alive on her lips. All my fault, I know, because I’m standing here, frozen as a corpse, hands glued to my side. This is already going so bad. I should never …

“Ye’ve not … changed much,” she then says, voice thin as a gossamer thread, probably sensing that her own worst fears are already coming to pass. “- Well, except ye’ve got that funny Southern accent now … ” A new smile to go with that statement …

For a moment neither of us make a move.

Then she drops her bag, opens her arms. They tremble a bit.

… And I fall into them.

*

I think I shivered like I had been ill or something … or maybe it was her. Or maybe I cried. Or we both did …  Or maybe … we just stood there clutching each other tightly, jabbering incoherently, completely ignoring the heavy-weightlifter from Tampa commenting loudly behind us why the two “whiny chicks didn’t just clear the aisle …. ?”

Maybe because we didn’t need to dig up the dead man anymore.

*

Last updated: 9 Feb 2016

Carrie’s Theme

Carrie’s Theme

Detective LaPorte quashed his cigarette in the lonely ashtray on the cafe table. Then he looked at the blonde woman who was sitting across from him.

Well, ‘sitting’ wasn’t quite the right word. More like ‘hunching’.

If this had been a grimy alley in New York the woman’s bearing would have been indistinguishable from one of the bag ladies after she had combed the trash containers and found nothing.

It didn’t fit with her blood-red lipstick, the icy green mojito in front of her, or the lazy breeze in the palm trees above their corner.

And LaPorte didn’t miss New York.

“So, miss … ” He looked at her skeptically. “You say you work for Jeremy Banner. What exactly is it that you do here?”

“What does it look like I do?” She gazed out at the beach which was the next stop for every one of the noisy clientele around them after they had downed enough drinks.

LaPorte looked around, too, but at the man with the slick hair over at the counter who was in close communication with another woman of the same age, one hand on her butt and another waving impatiently at the bartender for more to drink. He looked at other men and women who looked the same. Different kinds of hunger in their eyes, different reds, different bikini thong cuts. It didn’t matter much.

“Look … ” LaPorte leaned slightly over the table. “I’m too old and too busy for games … ”

He let it hang in the air.

“Jeremy is … okay,” the woman said. “He has had some problems, sure—” She looked down and LaPorte could see that she hadn’t quite been able to cover the bruised left eye with mascara and sunglasses “—but it’s not his fault. It’s these … Montioso goons. They come here and scare the shit out of people. They are a real, real bad deal. Jeremy just wants them to go away.”

“Then he should come to us,” LaPorte said, looking straight at the blonde. There was a steadiness in his voice that was easy to hear, even above all the noise. “Why hasn’t he?”

“I don’t know. Why are you asking me?” The woman took off her sunglasses.

LaPorte didn’t flinch. He sensed a strength in this girl that was not yet quenched, but he also knew exactly what she was doing.

And although he had made an effort of will to forget Ella, and what had happened to her, he knew he would do it again.

“I want you to do what’s sensible,” he said to the woman, and his voice felt hoarse. He reached for his own drink but found it was already empty.

He saw Ella’s bloody face again. Heard the zipper of the black bag that the paramedics had put her in.

“You’re one of the girls I still have hope for—” he looked around again “—you’re not from here. You’re not part of … all this.”

“I am now. How do you know I’m not going to tell Jeremy about you?”

“Look, Carrie …” LaPorte took out another smoke from the packet “… You’re just some good girl from up North who got in with a lot of bad company. You don’t need to be here. You will do what is right. You will let us know if Jeremy is selling us out to the Montioso’s. They come in here all the time.”

“And if I don’t?”

For a moment LaPorte hesitated. But felt tired. He wanted to … help. He didn’t want to see another Ella. But maybe what had happened to Ella had happened because he wanted to help? Because he had gotten too old for these kinds of things?

Then he thought of what Bridget was going to cook when he came home. Or what furniture she had smashed this time.

He rubbed his brow. “The key of coke we found last night in your car … it has your prints all over it.”

Carrie looked down. “He said he’d beat me if I didn’t do it.”

LaPorte held the cigarette without lighting it. A sudden gust of wind from the sea blew a few ashes out of the tray and onto his white jacket. He dusted them off quickly. “I believe you and I just want to help.”

There was acid in Carrie’s voice now. “But if I don’t spy on Jeremy for you again, you’ll throw me in prison?”

LaPorte threw the cigarette away. “What’ll it be?”

Carrie looked at him, and he thought he saw something glint in her eyes. It wasn’t the sun, but it felt just as searing.

“You know, I wanted to be a lawyer once,” she said coldly.

“You can get back to the life you want again,” LaPorte said. “There are mitigating circumstances. And if you help us, you won’t go anywhere but home.”

She looked out over the ocean. “Or somewhere else …”

LaPorte nodded, but all he saw was Ella. The blood. The body bag.

He coughed. “You know, you can go back to your education. Maybe even be a lawyer. There are programs … “

“No,” Carrie said. “That life is gone forever. But I will still help you because it’s what I once wanted to be. Not because of that stupid key.”

He nodded again and felt a heaviness that only came in the late hours, not in the middle of the day like this.

Carrie put back on her dark glasses. “Guess a cop like you wouldn’t understand a crazy attitude like that … “

LaPorte stood up. His voice was still hoarse. “I guess I wouldn’t.”

That Imaginary Desert

That Imaginary Desert

MissCarraway: Hey bro, I thought you military men weren’t allowed to use ICQ? What if the brass suspected you of divulging state secrets or something?

BlackRock245: Haha im on leave this week, remember? What time is it over there anyway? Shouldn’t you be in bed?

MissCarraway: Only about 7PM. Don’t worry about me.

BlackRock245: Caroline its been like six weeks since we heard a peep from u. Dad is freaking a bit out. Where are you? Brazil?

MissCarraway: Close. Buenos Aires.

BlackRock245: OK well just here on good old Skye. But going back to Inverness tomorrow.

MissCarraway: They going to send you off to war soon?

BlackRock245: Only the seasonal drills this year. Dont think there’s goin to be another dunkirk in 2001.

MissCarraway: Careful what you wish for. Granpa’s stories aren’t exactly fun.

BlackRock245: Sis, when are you going back to the states?

MissCarraway: Soon. A little more time.

BlackRock245: Deborah must be worried, too.

MissCarraway: Mom is okay. She emails a bit. She’s not on chat.

BlackRock245: She is. She chats with us sometimes.

MissCarraway: Dad talks to mom?!

BlackRock245: Course not. But Sheila does sometimes. Her and mom always got along. Crazy huh? But don tell dad they do it. Hell go bananas. 

MissCarraway: I won’t. I don’t talk to dad, remember?

BlackRock245: He wants to talk to you u know. He wants to know if u are all right. He asks me all the time if i talk to u and what do i say? ‘yeah like every 6 months’ lol 

MissCarraway: Tell him I’m OK. I’m coming home soon. I’ll email mom about it tomorrow. Just need to figure out which plane so I don’t end up in Timbuktu haha.

BlackRock245: Funny sis as always. What have u been up to? Wish I could travel as much as u. See the world!

MissCarraway: I only went away because I had to. You know that. But yeah, I saw all the touristy sites. Machu Picchu and such. You’ll hate it.

BlackRock245: I hate crowds alright. Glad u remember that 🙂 Still would be nice to go sometime

MissCarraway: Hey, don’t they send you on exotic overseas on missions?

BlackRock245: I don’t think theres goin to be anything ever, tbh. Well be chewin highland grass this year again. Was thinking about quitting actually, getting a wee job or somethin

MissCarraway: Now dad *will* go bananas!

BlackRock245: Not his call. Im here because I want to, but if nothing much happens I may change my mind. All that bollocks about the Falklands was a long time ago anyway. He doesnt talk about it anymore, btw, and i dont let him

MissCarraway: About the Falklands … I was thinking about going out there.

BlackRock245: What? Isnt it like a 1000 miles furhter south?

MissCarraway: Just kidding. I don’t even think you can fly there from Arg. Probably still pissed about the war.

BlackRock245: And u always yap about how I should stop letting dad

MissCarraway: I don’t!

BlackRock245: Ur the one wanting to go to the bloody falklands.

MissCarraway: It was just a thought. I am here, so why not? And

BlackRock245: What?

MissCarraway: Maybe it’ll make a difference to him, you know? Maybe he’ll stop being an ass if I came home and told him that I was actually there. That I wanted to see where it happened.

BlackRock245: Dads not goin to stop being dad. Or an ass.

MissCarraway: Haha. Good one.

BlackRock245: Look, are u goin to come home to bonnie ol Scotland? We miss u.

MissCarraway: I am pretty broke after this, but I think I will. Yes. That’s a promise.

BlackRock245: FInally. 🙂 🙂 Look, I got to go now. Sheila & dad just came back. Unless u want to say hello?

MissCarraway: Tell dad I will call him soon.

BlackRock245: I will. And Caroline

MissCarraway: Yes?

BlackRock245: Its been 7 years and dad’s been an ass. But we want u to come home safe ok? No matter if its US or 

MissCarraway: You’d better log off now. And tell him I’m fine.

BlackRock245: I will. Take care.

MissCarraway: You too. I’m coming back to Scotland before they send you to Dunkirk, okay?

BlackRock245: Dont worry. I think there arent goin to be any more world wars.

MissCarraway: No, war is over.

Ashes Are Burning the Way

Ashes Are Burning the Way

I go home to our empty condo after the funeral, because I have something to deal with, and it isn’t grief.

Well, not only grief. My heart is a pit, but while we were there in the church an idea struck me: What if I went away? Far, far away …

I would ditch law school, right now – and never go to the summer examinations.

I would go … elsewhere. Mexico or somewhere like that and just walk the roads and see what happened.

For a control freak like me, this idea felt like a snapping alien monster in my mind at first, and I tried to push it away. But it kept coming back all afternoon at the reception after the funeral. I didn’t even notice the last guests I said goodbye to.

I take off my shoes and throw them into a corner in our hallway.

I close the door to our home and lock it.

My mother said she would stay at a hotel, even though I know she can’t afford it.

‘In case I changed my mind.’

And wanted to go home with her – to Cleveland. That’s what she meant.

Well, I won’t and I won’t.

We almost got into a row there, in front of all the other funeral guests.

I shouldn’t have yelled at her. She only wanted to help me. If only she could get it in her head that I am not taking comfort in the fact that Lin will be reincarnated in time.

Possibly. Maybe.

I don’t know what I believe.

I drop the keys in the bowl on the small drawer in the hallway and for a moment I freeze again, seeing my haggard face in the mirror above it.

Lin’s coats are still on the hanger. I put mine beside hers, but not so that I cover any of them.

I drift into the living room, drop down on the couch where we sat so often and watched videos and talked, and just goofed off. It feels cold now.

I get a little warmth by congratulating myself again on how much more in control of my emotions I am, than Lin’s mother.

I felt for her at the funeral, but it is hard to forget all the times we talked about how awful she was, and how much more of a friend I felt each time I affirmed it.

I curl up.

*

I don’t know for how long I lie there on the couch, crying. But when I come to myself and look out the window I can see that it’s dark.

And the couch still feels cold.

I get up, walk through the silent living room on bare feet and open the door to Lin’s room.

I have nothing left to do on my own, so I go into hers and just sit on her bed for a long time, taking it all in. How does a room feel when the one living there is no longer … living?

I’m suddenly overawed by the austerity of her room. In fact, the mega-bookshelf is the only real decoration. But it doubles as wallpaper – it fills the entire wall beside her bed – and paintings or posters.

In fact, there is only one other such decorative thing on her walls, right opposite the bookshelf.

I turn around in the bed and lie down so I can see both of them, the huge shelf and the picture.

It is an old photo, but the lake in it is still so blue that it hurts. She bought it on a flea market we went to just for fun, last summer. I thought it would absolutely not fit into her room and it would absolutely not fit her.

A lake in the Andes. Why would someone afraid of flying have a picture of that?

And now you will never get to see it … Lin.

I lie there on the bed, hands folded on my stomach and suddenly I feel the tears streaming down my cheeks again.

I feel it is hard to breathe so I try to sit up a little and then I notice that the bed actually feels warm.

Like you just slept in it.

Like it wasn’t a week ago when I found you here. And you were colder than …

It is odd and it gives me something to hold on to for a moment. Some peculiarity to turn over in my mind.

I look at the shelf and the back to the flea-market picture of Lake Titicaca in the Andes and I feel something that must be a ghost of a smile trying to come to my lips.

You always were a bundle, Lin. You loved old strange odd things, like that picture. Things that never fit in.

You never fit in, Lin.

You wanted wild and crazy things and times and places and people who never existed or who had ceased to exist.

I only dared to want that when you pushed me.

I loved you for it.

I close my eyes and when I open them again, all I can see is the blue in the picture to the right of Lin’s bed. And the white of the snow-capped, jagged Andes above them. Blue and white.

Azure dreams and snowy drops of heaven sprinkled on the rough edges of our life.

I can feel something that is … life. A spark, but it’s there. It is what I desperately grab for, like I could hold a random spark from an extinguished match, safely here in my heart while the hurricane dies.

I have to. I have to.

I have to go South.

I have a life here. I have friends. I have a scholarship that will be lost. I have the promise of getting a job that is so much more important and better paid than what my mother could ever get.

I have it all. Except what is at that lake and in those mountains.

*

Photo by Kirill Balobanov on Unsplash

The Things We Find Behind The Door

The Things We Find Behind The Door

“I would like to talk about last night,” Lin says.

“Well, I’d rather not.” Carrie leans back heavily in the chair at the dining table, squeezing the ice bag closer to her head.

“I’d like to,” Lin says again.

Like is looking directly at Carrie from the bag chair near the corner of the living room, where she always sits and reads and contemplates the world. And when you pass her she can sit in silence for several hours a day and you begin to wonder: Is she contemplating you?

“Okay,” Carrie says and puts down the ice bag. “I guess I feel bad about it … “

Carrie doesn’t feel like she is very convincing in trying to sound rational and courageous and it’s is not just because her head feels like somebody split it with a hammer.

It’s a dreary Sunday morning in September in the 3-room condo in Columbus.

But those thick, oily drops just keep surfacing. Like last night.

“Do you think all this is a sham?” Lin asks.

Carrie opens her mouth says nothing.

Lin clarifies. “Our friendship.”

“Lin, why would I think – “

“It’s not what you think, Carrie. It’s what you try not to think. It gets through sometimes. Like last night … “

“I don’t remember.”

“’We can’t all be rich’. You said that.”

“Maybe I didn’t mean it, Lin. Not like that. Maybe I was drunk, okay?”

“Why don’t you say what you really feel about me, Carrie?”

“Okay, I got pissed because you said I could just buy another dress than the one I puked on earlier. I still don’t have that kind of money, and you know it.”

“I don’t have that much.”

“– You say you have given it all away, but I know you still have a lot stashed.”

“Not a lot – 30,000 dollars.”

“Well, it’s like 100 times more than I have, and only because I got that scholarship.”

Lin looks away. Like she is irritated. Like there is a pain that she has felt a thousand times before, but all she can do about it is to look away.

Carrie grabs the ice bag and smacks it back onto her head. She seeks refuge in their kitchen.

Open the fridge. Nothing new.

Carrie pulls out a cola and discovers has fizzled. She drinks even so and feels the cold in her throat and it feels like it is clearing something.

Back in the living room, there is only a silent Lin in her bag chair. Tiny and slim, black curls, that serious face. Carrie loves that face. She loves her sharp wit, her ability to see and think and talk about all the things Carrie herself can’t.

Carrie stops and leans against the doorway, the fizzled cola in one hand. “I have thought a lot about this in the past months since we moved in together. And I think you are right.”

Lin almost whispers. “In what?”

Carrie looks down.

Lin closes her book. “Okay,” she says. “Okay … you want to find another place?”

“I guess … ”

“Fine. Then do that.”

Carrie shakes her head, then storms off into her room. She closes the door tight and sits down on her bed to stare into the air. That’s the plan, now.

At some point, she begins to listen, though.

Lin should’ve gotten up from her chair, gone into her own room. She should’ve done that or gone out. Waiting somewhere perhaps, until she can come back and Carrie is no longer there.

How do they even do this? Carrie signed a contract because Lin’s mother insisted. Neither of them took it very seriously at the time. Friends for life, right?

Not then, not after. She had signed. They had signed. It was a ticket to freedom.

Carrie is thinking about where she could go now.

Back to her mother’s in Cleveland, presumably … But what about her studies? She’d have to find a room here, temporarily. Did she have the money for it? Maybe … At least for a little while but it would quickly be spent.

She slowly gets up from the bed. She opens the door.

And sure enough, Lin is still in the living room. In the chair, reading.

“Lin … ”

She looks up.

“Yes, Carrie?”

“I’m sorry … ”

She comes over to me, pulls me close.

“I … we are … friends,” Carrie says and almost chokes on it.

“We are,” Lin says.

“We are – we are … “ is all Carrie can say.

“That’s … a good start.” Lin smiles with some effort.

“But … ” Carrie says … “I have to prove that I … ”

“You don’t have to prove anything,” Lin says. “It really doesn’t matter that I … pay – ” she makes a loose gesture towards the rest of the condo “ – or the other things.”

“It does to me,” Carrie says.

“So what are you going to do?”

“Stay. What else can I do? I want to stay … with you. But it matters.”

Lin nods. “I also want you to stay. And it matters to me, too. If you don’t feel right about this, it matters.”

Carrie withdraws, wipes something from her eye. “So we good, partner?”

“We good,” Lin says. “Always good.”

Splinter In Your Eye

Splinter In Your Eye

“Why do you think you are a loser, Lin?”

Lin Christakis sank down in the round chair, and for a moment she thought of throwing Gerard out of her room. 

Even if her mother had paid for a psychiatrist to come home to them it didn’t mean Lin was obligated to answer stupid questions, especially when it was Gerard Lithgow. 

“I don’t think,” Lin said, “I know.”

Doctor Lithgow scribbled another note on her pad and then leaned back on the office chair that he had taken from Lin’s desk.

“When I look at all this,” he said, “your room—with all the classic books, magazines, even comics—I see the room of someone who is not a loser. Few girls your age have read a 10th of what you have here.” He pointed to a stack of papers on the table between them. “Few have even dared write their own books, although many say they have.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lin said.

“Why can’t you focus on all those things, you have?” doctor Lithgow asked, looking over his big round glasses, “you focus continually on the one thing you don’t have. One thing.”

“And what is that?” Lin said, her hands holding tight onto the bamboo frame of the round chair.

“Your sense of not being good enough. It is like that troll in the Hans Christian Andersen tale that puts a splinter in your eye, making you unable to see clearly—to see what everyone else sees. Look, the shock of losing a parent can often be—”

“I’ll tell you what is clear,” Lin said, not waiting for him to finish. “It is clear that all of this is bullshit.” 

She felt far away now. She felt the Eyes on her. Not fucked up Gerard’s eyes. 

Some other Eyes …

Gerard frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Here.” Lin found the remote beside the paper stack and turned on the television, which was perched above her bed in the far end of the big attic room. “I’ve got it on tape.”

And on it was. Once the VHS video player on the shelf below Lin’s TV came to life, the bald, grinning head of Sky Flight Records owner, J. D. Hetchler, emerged from the static. He had been taped in the middle of an interview with the local News 5:

“—and I can tell you it makes me extremely proud to support The Power of Music Program by highlighting the talent Cleveland has to offer. We’re the home of rock and roll a lot more than anything else …”

“Will you be looking favorably upon the young band from Cleveland who is going to play at Star Searchers, then?” the interviewer, a 30-something woman, asked.

Hetchler laughed heartily. “I’m not the only judge, but I can tell you that when I give my opinion it is based on the merits of those young guys, what they can do on stage—not anything else. I’m only here, as a native son of Cleveland, to help create some buzz around the Power of Music program, which is a great, great initiative, and I would also like to thank the generous sponsors behind

Lin turned it off.

“Why have you taped that?” Gerard asked. He put down his pad on the table.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“It isn’t to me,” he said, trying to look straight at Lin, but Lin was looking at the table.

Doctor Lithgow’s notepad looked small beside Lin’s eternally growing manuscript for her first novel, but to Lin, it looked as if the novel was a bunch of leaves that could be blown away by the wind at any moment, whereas the doctor’s pad looked like a brick.

“Lars Anestad and his friends are going to be in that competition,” Lin said. “They are not losers. They are going somewhere.”

“You can go somewhere, too,” Gerard said, “whatever that means to you.”

“No, I can’t. I will never finish my novel and if I do it won’t be good enough.”

“What about that game of roleplaying you talked about?” the doctor asked. “You were writing adventures—scenarios— for that, too.”

Lin dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “It’s nothing. It’s even more nothing than my book. Everything I do is nothing.”

“If you feel that way because your father died—” Gerard started, but again Lin broke him off.

“It’s got nothing to do with my father. I have always felt this way—always. And that’s because it’s true.”

Gerard frowned again and genuinely looked like he didn’t want to be there any longer, no matter what Lin’s mother had done to persuade him, aside from paying his considerable fee.

“Okay, Lin, but before we end the session for today, I’d like to ask you one question.”

“I can’t stop you,” Lin said, looking into the growing darkness that she saw in all corners of her room now. She decided to concentrate on it. She would not be afraid.

It was in the middle of the day and outside a new magnesium white layer of snow covered the park-like lawns around the Christakis mansion. But that didn’t matter to the darkness …

But Gerard Lithgow’s final question stopped Lin’s attempt to escape into the darkness.  

Lin felt herself floating in the eternal twilight, only she could see, looking down at the white of the lawn, thinking about what it would feel like to lie down in the white cold, and then … she was pulled back by the question. The only question she really feared.

“Lin, is there one thing—or person—who makes you feel worth something?”

Lin swallowed.

“Carrie,” she whispered.

Gerard nodded, picking up her pad again. “We’ve talked about her before. She is very important to you.”

“She is,” Lin said, her voice still faint. “I would do anything for her, only I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“She doesn’t want … well, I have money, you see …”

“She doesn’t want money from you? Gifts?”

“She is poor,” Lin said, “dirt-poor, in fact. But too proud.” Lin smiled. “I love that about her.”

“What have you been trying to do for Carrie?” the doc asked, formulating every word with precision.

“I’ve been trying to help her not become a loser, like me.”

“Oh?”

Lin stood up. “She feels like me, but for reasons that can be dealt with. She is talented—she draws. She has a good heart. And she is not rotten inside like me.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I just did.” Lin looked coldly at the doctor. “Is this all for today?”

“I guess it is,” Gerard sighed and stood up, too. He picked up his attaché case, which had been left on Lin’s bed, and then he put the notepad in it and closed it. “If you want, I will come by next Saturday, but …”

“But what?” Lin stood rigidly watching the doctor. She wanted Gerard to disappear in the darkness. That would hurt her mother, too. 

And he would never come back from that darkness. Only Lin had been able to. So far.

“Are you trying to prevent Carrie from becoming a ‘loser’—by playing match-maker between her and Lars Anestad?” Gerard posed the question as if he had just remembered to ask what Lin might have for lunch.

“Get out,” Lin said. “And never come back.”

The Light Where You Belong

The Light Where You Belong

“This is an absolutely terribly awful idea, Lin.”

“Then why did you say yes, hmm?”  Lin rubbed some more dye in Carrie’s hair.

Carrie tried not to feel the cold in her stomach as she fumbled for an answer. She didn’t want to say no to her best friend, but what they were about to do made her feel both dizzy and excited at the same time.

In the mirror, she could see her hair gradually turning perfect pearl white while Lin kept rubbing dye in with effortless ease. It looked like a strange reflection of the sharp white winter outside Lin’s attic window.

“Ye are so crazy,” Carrie blurted. “And this is so fucked up.”

Lin rewarded Carrie with a quick smile but kept her laser-focus on the dying. “Little Miss Salcroft is going to get fucked up in her mind when we arrive at her party, and she can see that it was her fault you got to be the coolest girl of the evening. A regular punk-star stepping out of her time machine!”

And that was the plan. Carrie had felt restless, as usual, and called Lin if she could come over, and Lin was more than happy to oblige. Of course, they got talking about Lars, and the party, but to Carrie’s surprise, Lin had an invitation.

“Ann wants to split us,” Lin said matter-of-factly. “Probably thought I wouldn’t come.”

“Aye, but she’ll kill me when she sees ye brought me along,” Carrie said, trying to focus on her hair that became more and more punk-like, exactly as she had wanted it.

“No, she won’t,” Lin said, rubbing harder. “She’ll not say anything because she promised I could bring a date.”

“What?”

Lin stopped the rubbing temporarily. Her hands were all white. She wiped them in the old t-shirt she had put on for the occasion.

“Come on, Carrie. There have to be some advantages of that little ‘secret’ email correspondence you were so worried about. I have been working hard to undermine the enemy, so to speak.”

Carrie swiveled around on the chair, almost as if she was about to get up and get out.

“Ye make no bloody sense. What is all this ye have been writing with Ann about, then?”

“Anything really to get her attention. She says she doesn’t care any longer, but I know she is still envious because I’m richer than her – or my dad was, at any rate.” There was an ember of something in Lin’s dark eyes but she quickly blinked it away.

“Look,” Lin continued, “I have been talking to Ann by this new email thing and occasionally in school. And she thinks, I am something else – and that I have a crush on some boy from my old school, who I have finally managed to get to go on a date with me.”

“So she thinks it is him ye will bring along?”

“Exactly.”

“But didn’t ye say to her that-“

“Carrie, will you relax?” Lin put her hands on Carrie’s shoulders and pressed her back into the chair. “I told her enough so she thinks I’m coming with Yannick Floberg of all people.”

“Yannick who?”

“Never mind. He is a jerk I haven’t seen him since my previous high school, but his family is very much into the art scene and Ann’s father is also buying a lot of art these days. He is something of a hobby collector.”

“Okay. I still don’t know about being a ‘date’, though.”

“Call it what you want,” Lin said. “‘Company’ for example. The literal meaning of having a ‘date’ is not just romantic. It can mean meeting with a friend, too.”

“I bet ye looked that up.”

“I knew it beforehand. I’m a writer, remember.”

“Yes, ye are.” Carrie leaned back on the chair and closed her eyes.

She kept quiet as Lin finished her hair.

“There,” Lin said, satisfied. “Now we just wait for this to dry and my mom is going to make you a perfect mohawk, just like she had herself when she was dancing with the Sex Pistols back in good old Britain.”

“I did not know your mom had been into punk music,” Carrie said.

“Did you think she had always been an English lit professor?” Lin chided.

Carrie got up and leaned over Lin’s writing desk, which had become a temporary make-up table. She inspected the white hair in the mirror Lin had brought in from the bathroom.

“It looks … good,” she said.

“It’ll look better once we get that mohawk done.”

“I’m going to regret this,” Carrie said, smiling.

Lin put a hand around Carrie’s shoulder and her head next to hers so they both looked in the mirror at the same time. “You are going to love this. The teachers are going to freak out on Monday.”

“I didn’t say I’d keep it!”

“Just kidding,” Lin said quickly. “And now, while we’re on the subject … what do you think of this?”

She went over to a big bag that had been lying suspiciously on her bed for all the time Carrie had been there. Lin turned it over and a leather jacket and a pair of trousers fell out.

“These are my mom’s, too. She is just your size.”

“Good grief,” Carrie blurted. “Does she wear these?”

“Not since 1978, I think. But she has kept them since, in good condition.” Lin smiled, and for once she didn’t look sad at the same time. “My mom does have some good sides. She said I could just borrow whatever I wanted for you.”

“That’s crazy.”

“What?” Lin sat down on the bed and took hold of the leather jacket. She held it up. “That my mom was young once, or that we can borrow her clothes?”

“Ye have your own clothes, dummy.” Carrie grabbed the jacket. “Ye can afford them.”

“I don’t look as good in my clothes as you do in any kind of clothes,” Lin said, sitting totally still, just watching, as Carrie slipped on the old leather jacket.

“That’s BS, and ye know it,” Carrie said. “I look awful no matter what. And this new hair-do your mom is going to make – even if I keep it, it’s just so people can see I don’t care.”

“You mean Ann?”

“I mean anyone, really.”

“Even Lars?”

Carrie pulled off the leather jacket and threw it back hard towards Lin. “I don’t care about Lars. How many times do I have to tell ye?”

“He’ll be at the party,” Lin persisted.

“I know it,” Carrie said. “All the more reason that I get this done.” She ran her hands through her hair and only a little white came off now. “When is your mom finished with that meeting so she can finish this?”

“I think my uncle said half an hour more,” Lin said, looking down. “My dad’s finances are a bit tricky to figure out, it seems.”

“Ye were never good at math, anyway,” Carrie said and flumped down beside Lin on the bed. “Promise me ye will stick to writing, okay?”

“Okay,” Lin said and looked out the window.

The winter was still there, waiting for them. Like a blank piece of paper.

Point Of Divergence

Point Of Divergence

She had turned the other way at the crossing. Quickly she biked west on the 884 instead of going to the school in the village. When the tension of just going on without a definite goal became too great, she stopped and left the bike in the tall wiry grass on the hillside, then made her way down to the beach. She felt that she should go to the water’s edge. But she had to cross the stones first.

She carefully stepped from one big gray boulder to another, each of them protruding from the naked wet sand like small islands. It had not rained last night so the surfaces of the stones were dry and hard, unlike the sand below them which was continually soaked in the shallow surf that breathed in and out from. It wasn’t much of a hide-out here, she had to admit – probably only a few miles from the house.

Eventually mum would find her if she stayed here much longer. She knew mum would soon come looking. She also knew that pa – if mum had called him first –  would have told mum in no uncertain terms why it would be best for mum to find “the wee brat”. And without something else to do, except roam the house looking for dust and the remnants of a dream, it would for sure be mum who came a-looking. She wondered how much time she had left.

The red wristwatch which gran had given her for Christmas already reminded her that it was more than an hour ago that she was supposed to have been at her table beside Siné. She scolded herself for looking at the watch again. She should make a decision on which way to go – now.

But the truth was, she knew, as she stood still here at the edge of the indifferent gray-blue waters of the loch – that she could not decide where to flee. Maybe when she got older, but how much older? When you are 10 a year or two is a long time, and even then running away seems like a frightening liberation, like running into one dark room – away from another.

No! She could do it this morning! She could go back up the hill, pick up the bike, and … there was Siné parents’ boat down at the pier in Milovaig. She knew how to turn on the engine or make the sail work. Sinés father had shown her countless times. And Siné would understand … she hoped. So she turned to go back up – quickly stepping from one imaginary island to another, on the stones. She had been a fool to go down here first, to think about it, but she hadn’t been decided. And maybe … she still wasn’t decided?

She began running. If she moved quickly enough, perhaps she would outrun the doubt before it could delay her again. She couldn’t bear the indecision anymore. She had to try something. Unfortunately, immovable and dry as the stones were they didn’t exactly invite for a sprint. She had to slow down again when she almost fell.

That’s when she recognized the car up on the road. It stopped. Mum had spotted the bike. There weren’t many other things to spot out here, except a few lazy seagulls. Blast it! She might as well have put up a road sign for her mum on where to find her. Her mother stepped out of the car, slowly … as if she had seen a wild animal that she was now afraid of chasing away.

“Carrie – why aren’t you in school?”

“Because I hate school! Because Rory an’ Sid an’ – an’ I wish … I wish they’d all die.”

“We talked about this, with Mrs. Gregory – remember?” her mother tried, soothingly. “They promised they would leave you alone.”

“They lied. They’re nothin’ but a bunch o’ liars!”

“Come, honey – I’ll drive you to school. We’ll put your bike in the trunk.”

“I am ne’er going back ta school!”

Mum looked tired, her voice sounded tired:

“Should I phone dad, then? Let him pick ye up?”

“I’d rather be spanked a hundred times by pa than be chased by Rory and that gang o’ his one more time.”

“Well … what do we do then?”

“I do nae know.”

Her mother thought a bit about it then said:

“Maybe we could go home and I could bake ye some of gran’s pancakes? Then I’ll call Mrs. Gregory and say ye are ill?”

Carrie stood still for a while, feeling under her feet the big smooth stone she had stopped on. It had been smoothed by countless millions of waves running over it, like an ancient rhythm repeating itself again and again. It felt as if it lay very still, but everybody knew that the stones and rocks were moved by the eternal surf, even if it was just a few inches a year. Where they eventually would end up was another question. But it was almost certainly in a fixed area near the beach or in the loch. There was nowhere else to move but within the fold, that nature dictated.

Unless you didn’t need the surf to move you. Maybe that was scarier, though, because even with a completely free choice you might just end up repeating the same old mistakes over and over, and end up at the same old shore where you came from. Then it would be your fault if you never got off the beach.

“Please, honey – “ Mum looked like she was about to cry again, like last night.

Carrie looked down at the stone she stood on.

“Okay,” she said and stepped off it.

Streets Full of Actors

Streets Full of Actors

“Does your father know you are here, chère?” Henri looked at Deborah with somber concern in those dark brown eyes.

“Why no – non!” Deborah wanted to say something more, but stuttered and then Sophie cut in for her.

“Deborah’s parents think she is with me.” Sophie smiled at Deborah “Which is, of course, not untrue.”

Outside the small cafe, soft summer light bathed the cobblestone alley. Only inside there was conspiratorial darkness. The few older patrons who were there seemed to shun the four young students as if they hoped they would go away soon if they were duly ignored.

“We should be at the university,” Francois said. “They are going to occupy L’Odéon tonight. It will become a proper debate forum for the people.”

“The National Theatre?” Deborah gasped. She had been there with father and mother just last month to see The Nutcracker. But it was the Moulins who had invited—the whole family—and father could not say no if he wanted the deal to go through.

“The very one,” Henri said and held Deborah’s gaze. “So, chère, it is good that Sophie looks after you. Tonight is going to be a dramatic night.”

“Mm-mm,” Sophie added. “Being a revolutionary and a nursemaid has its advantages.”

“You’re not my ‘nursemaid’,” Deborah said, trying not to sound irritated. Her French was halting but she had especially keen ears when Sophie talked to the others behind her back.

“How do we best support tonight’s action?” Francois asked. “To be honest, I am not very thrilled you suggested this place, Henri—” he looked around “—I do not understand why we could not go to the university straight away.”

“If we don’t plan our input to the working group, Leland will just shout the loudest and get his way,” Henri said, looking at Francois like he was not really there.

Francois merely shook his head and gazed around impatiently. “We could have stayed in my apartment. This is too … public.”

Henri poured some beer into Deborah’s panaché. “Do not worry. I know what to do.”

“You don’t know when to stop but now you must.” Sophie put her hand over Henri’s. “I have my responsibilities, you know.”

“Cut it out, Sophie. I’m almost 18—!” Deborah took the drink and downed it. Then she looked around eagerly. “So let’s get started planning how to change the world, shall we?”

*

Image credit: Tarik Haiga – Unsplash

J’ai Pas Peur

J’ai Pas Peur

The brick missed Deborah’s head by only an inch and then smashed into the shop window behind her.

She didn’t even have time to be shocked before Sophie pulled her away from the street and into cover behind an overturned car.

Like an angry flash flood, the mob of students pressed through Boulevard Saint Germain, throwing more bricks, and pushing the frantic police back towards the Montparnasse cemetery.

“He – they – almost … ” Deborah suddenly had trouble breathing. She rummaged through her long hair as if on reflex, to assess how hurt she was. But there was nothing. The brick had strafed her hair. But Deborah felt as if it had gone straight through her soul.

“You are all right!” Sophie called, and she was very close by – that much Deborah could tell, even though she herself felt far away as if she was trying to leave her body, to get away from this place of madness.

The students roared on, a few feet away calling for ‘liberté’ but also calling the police names that would have shocked her law-and-order father if he had bothered to learn French before moving the whole family to Paris at the behest of the company.

“They almost hit me,” Deborah finally managed to stammer. “But I am just here to … watch.”

“It was an accident,” Sophie said and held her. “We got too close. Let’s go back to the university.”

“No, I want to go home.” Deborah struggled to keep her composure. She was 17. She was not supposed to die from a brick to the skull. She just wanted to see what all the ruckus was about. “Let’s go home.”

Sophie scowled as if Deborah had suddenly become the enemy that the students were trying to drown in swear words and the occasional barrage of bricks, but she acquiesced even so. She held out her hand as she got to her feet, urging Deborah to take it.

“You are right. And your father wouldn’t forgive me if something happened. Let’s go. The revolution is over for you, ma chère.”

Deborah brushed off her jacket and gazed after the student protesters, who had now moved further down the street. The police were now throwing something back against them. Then there were explosions of white smoke and awful cries of pain from the crowd.

“I just wanted to watch it,” Deborah repeated, looking transfixed at the billowing smoke that resembled fumes from the geysers she had seen in Yellowstone last summer before they moved.

Sophie took her hand firmly and pulled her away. “When there is a revolution going on, you can never ‘just watch’.”

*

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Music tip: cover version of this story’s musical inspiration – I’m Not Scared performed by MusicGenomics