Category Archives: Short Stories
Druids Or…by Clark HumphreyI’ve lived in the Northwest long enough to know that even when the light of the sun is almost all obscured and covered, it still mostly comes through. Yeah, it was cool to look through the special glasses and see only a sliver of the sun behind an invisible moon. But that loses its novelty, even if it’s real and it’s rare.So I was bored.I’ve long since stopped feeling ashamed for being bored.Besides, it helps me to discover things around me I’d otherwise miss.Like when I went from looking at the eclipse to taking my viewer off, giving it to some kid, and looking around at the other sun gazers.That’s when I saw the upper-floor condo balcony. The one with eight or nine people, men and women, all in those horrible “business casual” suits (I mean, really: choose one or the other, c’mon on!), dancing.I used my cell phone camera at full zoom mode to get a better look at them. They were still a far ways off, and from my angle down below I couldn’t tell for sure what kind of dance they were doing, at least at first.It didn’t look like any ballroom or barn-dance routine. But it was more formal, and more interactive, than your rock or hiphop routines.I decided, even though I hate to talk up strangers, that I had to learn a little more about this.I deduced which floor they were on. I got to the building. There was no doorman on duty. When I got off the elevator, I could hear music of some strange kind from the end of the hallway. A door there was wide open. Nobody noticed when I walked in to a very normal looking condo unit.All the accoutrements of mass-produced “luxury” were there—the faux marble countertop on the “kitchen island” unit, in front of the big fridge with stainless steel doors. The faux-gold doorknobs. The blandly “tasteful” framed art prints along the walls.Whoever lived here either didn’t have a burning desire to customize the unit, or happened to like its generic default appearance.Nobody was inside here. They were all out on the balcony. That door was also wide open.The music turned out to come from one young woman on a set of bongos and one young man at a small sampling keyboard. They seemed to be ad libbing some abstract ambeint noodling.The dancers I’d seen turned out to be seven in number; four women and three men. Their motions toward and away from one another seemed more like a really slow square dance than any druid ritual; not that I’ve seen any real druid rituals.Someone finally spotted me. It was the apparent leader of whatever this was. She stood to one side of the dancers. She was late middle-age, with greying blonde hair, with a burnt orange long dress on. Her broad smile was almost terrifying. What have I gotten myself into? And could I explain my way out of it?Instead of asking what the hell I was doing there, she motioned for me to approach her. Which I did. She took me by the hand.While the dancers and the musicians continued, she spoke in a lilting sing-song intone. She said their affirmations had come to pass. Their group now had an eleventh member. It’s a prime number. And it converts in numerology to two, the yin and the yang, the one and the zero, the day and the night, combined as they are at this precious hour.A regular baby-boomer spiritualist mixtape of ideas, I thought.That was one of the last conscious thoughts I had for a while.When I regained my mind two hours later (according to my phone), I found myself on a bed, in the condo unit or a place just like it. I was still fully dressed; everything was still in my pockets. As far as I could tell, I had no cuts, bruises, or incisions.The music’s stopped. I hear nothing but the ambience and traffic noises from outside.What could I remember? Anything at all? Anything?Did I consume any drugs? Anything that might have secretly contained drugs (even a simple glass of water)?The room is dark. I fumble around for a light switch. I finally find a desk lamp next to the bed.I see a small window on the wall in front of me, with a heavy curtain over it. The bedding is more nondescript upscale design. No way to tell whether a man or woman or a couple, or anyone, regularly sleeps in here.I try to sit up in bed. My upper body hurts, in places I didn’t know could hurt.Yet I also feel fully rested, as if I had slept longer than I—how long had I slept?And there’s a sort of peaceful feeling in my head. I wasn’t bored. I was accepting the quiet, the stillness in my mind.In just a couple of minutes, the body aches fade away.I no longer want to investigate anything. Do anything. Think anything.I feel a sense of peace overtaking every aspect of my being.No, not quite peace.More like an emotional numbness.I glance at the room’s floor.I can make out some crumbled up papers. My eyes are too blurry to see if there are any words on them.And there are three small wads of plastic. My eyes eventually focus enough to identify them as used condoms. I don’t feel or see any evidence that my own body had been involved in anything of that kind.I fall asleep again.When I awaken, I find I’m physically able to stand up and leave the now empty condo.The lobby has a doorman on duty now. He says nobody lives in that unit.
by Ren Felman
Callista shook her head.
“I’m not ready to give up piano skills. What else?”
“Hmm. Those will get you the most credit. I have lots of orders for those right now. And, frankly, your piano mastery isn’t very fresh…I could get you a decent price right now because I have so much demand. Now would be a good time to sell. It might not be worth much a year from now.”
“No. Something else.”
“Okay. If you eventually want to sell them you’d better put in some practice. It’s hard for me to sell rusty skills.”
“How about some math?”
“Multivariable calculus? I’m not using that. Nonlinear dynamics?”
“Could probably sell the calculus. I’d need to gauge the freshness. How much credit do you need?”
“Yeah, we’re not going to be even close, even if those skills are perfect.”
Callista leaned toward the monitor, “Help me out here, Al.”
Al rolled his eyes.
“I’ve already offered to get you top price for some very questionable piano proficiency. You should take it. Is it really so important to you to play piano?”
Callista stared and didn’t say anything.
“Okay, here we go,” Al looked toward a second monitor. “Baking? I can get you six thousand for that. Horticulture seems to be very popular at the moment and I remember you have some gardening experience. All those weed operations, I guess. Looks like I could get you four thousand, give or take. You speak some Mandarin, right? Not well, as I remember, but even piss-poor Mandarin has a price right now. I could probably get you 18,000 for baking, horticulture, the calculus and the Mandarin.”
Callista sighed heavily.
“Done,” she said.
Al grinned, “You don’t want to be baking biscuits or digging in the damn ground anyway, right? And I bet you’ve never even use that math or Chinese. This way you can still play the piano! And you’d better play, if you ever want to sell it down the road…”
Callista gritted her teeth, “Which extraction location?”
Al looked back at this other screen, “Looks like there are openings at the SODO expertise bank tomorrow. Shall I schedule you for the afternoon? 2:00?”
“I’ll be there. Can you run the credit now?”
“Sorry, Calli, gotta’ wait until the skills are banked.”
“Listen,” Al’s voice softened, “why don’t you try to get ahead of this? I can send you the hot list of skills. I can get top price for the newly-learned. Get some tantric expertise or master FX+ coding…and then sell it. Get some skills you won’t miss and sell them to me for the credit. Otherwise, you’re going to end up as a hole-head. Calli, you’re a smart person and we could clear all your debt if you want to sell everything in your brain, but I don’t want to do that to you.”
“Yeah, thanks for the concern, Al. I’ll be at the bank at 2:00.”
“Okay, okay. Can I send you the skills hot list, at least. Just look at it.”
Callista hit the exit button and her screen went blank. She walked into her tiny kitchen and began rummaging through her cupboards. She had all the ingredients to make a cake…better do it now ‘cause tomorrow she wouldn’t remember how.
Callista took the muscle relaxers as soon as she woke up. The extractors claimed that expertise removal was painless, but if you didn’t take something your head felt like it had been bashed in after. She drank some reheated coffee and ate a piece of the chocolate cake she had baked last night. It was delicious. Callista had always enjoyed baking. She’d been doing it for close to fifty years and she was good at it. She should have pressed Al on the price. Her baking skills were worth more than 6,000. Oh well. She ate the last bite of cake and put the plate in the sink.
The muscle relaxers helped her manage as she boarded the human mover. It was so crowded today, full of hole-heads. There was no place to hold on, but that was okay as her shoulders, back and chest were pressed so tightly against other passengers that she couldn’t possibly fall. She knew that many of them, like her, were en route to the expertise bank and she wondered what, possibly, they had left to sell. She tried giving herself a pep talk…she’d feel lighter after the extraction. Someone would actually be putting to use the expertise that she hardly ever used. Well, she baked often but it would be okay if she stopped. Someone else would appreciate her experience and technique, honed over half a century. The buyer would be lucky.
“SODO skills bank…SODO banco de habilidades” the recorded voice intoned over the human mover speaker. The muscle relaxers were in full effect now and Callista felt as if she weren’t walking at all, but just being carried by the throng of people headed to the large turn-of-the-century building that served as the skills bank. It was all glass and awkwardly not square, as had been the architectural style in the early 2000s.
Once in the door, her body took her to the familiar counter where she added her thumbprint to the extraction waiver and was then directed to one of the red sofas in the waiting room. Another remnant of a dated aesthetic.
There was an elderly gentleman sitting next to her. She may have overdone it with the muscle relaxers and was having trouble producing a smile as he nodded to her, but he seemed to understand her plight and put a kind hand on her shoulder.
“Nǐ hǎo péngyǒu. Nǐ hái hǎo ma?”
“No,” Callista managed, “no, I’m not.”
Commencement Day – by Dalmatia Flemming
“Daddy, here’s your cold brew.”
“Beer in the morning? Thanks Baby!”
“No Daddy, it’s not …
Daddy took a sip and spit it out. “God damn it! It’s lukewarm coffee. Who drinks lukewarm coffee?! Fire him! Didn’t I fire him? Somebody fire him God damn it!”
“Daddy, calm down.” Baby said quietly. Anticipating more pushback, Baby slowly turned from Daddy and moved away from his space.… “You know, Barry decided to transition this house to net zero energy consumption and there are bound to be a few bumps and inconveniences along the way, like lukewarm coffee.”
“What the … God damn it! … What did you say?!”
“It was his Master’s thesis.”
“God damn it … OoOoOohhh” … Damn it …damn it …. Why do I have to drink this God damn cold brew anyway?!”
“It’s easier on your stomach.”
Daddy stealthily glanced over at his daughter, in the same way that a child does when reading the adults in their presence to determine exactly how much drama to turn on for the upcoming temper tantrum. “… AaAaAawww …!” The show had begun.
There was an awkward pause.
Baby slowly made her way to the back side of a large overstuffed chair, acting as a barrier between her and Daddy. Baby glanced at his expression, it was just as she expected, and continued. “Daddy?”
“Now remember, Barry has chosen another name to be listed in the program …. Phoenix Greene.”
“… OoOoOohhh … AaAaAawww …!” Daddy was now clutching at his stomach while sneaking a peek at his daughter out of the corner of his eye.
“… OoOoOohhh …!”
“I already told you about this.”
There was another awkward pause. This time longer.
Baby started to slowly make her way from behind the chair. “Daddy?”
“You should be happy and proud of him. I am. We all are. He’s the first in his class.”
“Damn it! He should be the first in his class in Business!”
“Daddy, he can major in whatever he wants to. And what was it that you always used to say to us … ‘Be the best you can be at whatever it is you want to be’, or something like that.”
“I said that?”
“Sure you did! Pretty sure you did.”
“Well, you kids weren’t supposed to take it so literally!”
“Daddy … come on now!”
There was another awkward pause.
“What are you going to wear?”
Daddy, mumbling, pointed half–heartedly over to the butler’s rack where a suit, shirt and tie were hanging.
“Daddy, I bought you a new tie especially for this very occasion!” Baby said in her best cheerleader’s voice.
“It better be red. You know I always wear a red tie.”
“Well, maybe you can mix things up a little for this.”
Daddy, rolling his eyes, released a slow, heavy sigh.
Baby rushed over to her oversized purse, opened it and pulled out a box. Inside was the tie. She excitedly held it up. “This one” she exclaimed.”
“It’s green?! … aaaAaaahh… “
Baby ignored him.
“Oh, all right” Daddy said sheepishly.
“See, it’s very nice. All the men in the family will be wearing one just like this. It’s high quality silk, of course.” Baby walked over to Daddy and draped it over one of his hands.
Daddy rubbed the fabric between his fingers. “Yes … very nice, very nice …. What’s this say? Daddy held the tie closer to his face … ‘Make America Green Again’?!”
In the past it had been easy to believe in Mother Nature. The science of the natural world hadproven to be true even through unbelievable natural phenomena since the mythologies of ancient times. But now we all talk about it, photograph it, discuss it, speculate about it and hope that nature as we knew it should be, would go back to how it was.
I stood in my small kitchen holding a fresh cup of black coffee, excited about my upcoming camping trip to the southern Oregon coast. The Interweb reported on forest fires in the Cascades but this was nothing new in this west coast of twenty-first century America.
Green areas were off limits to humans anyway, guarded by teams of experienced “Sandy’s,” a term first used in the movie “Logan’s Run,” to describe the police who captured “Runners” escaping the inevitable, and then handed down to the protectors at Burning Man who stopped runners into the pyre. The new Sandy’s job was to put out the self-immolators whose ranks were increasing with so many people protesting every dangerous regime in the world.
Tomasino had been a Sandy until his narrow escape a couple of months earlier. His suit protected him but the strain from unsuccessfully trying to put out a family of burners, women and children chained together who breached the fence and threw themselves into the raging forest fire, had been the last straw.
Janey wanted to see the eclipse, maybe the last one of the century. “Whatever you do Janey, don’t go. I can feel something evil coming with this eclipse. Dreams, my dreams portend…” This was almost the last thing Tomy-o said to her before he completely checked out of reality.
Janey held her phone up to her face. The usual screens flashed on one after another. It was six-fifty, everyone used military time because day and night could fool you if you had been sheltering for a few days and the ash from the burns obscured the sky. The screen next showed the outside temperature. It was already ninety degrees. These days the temperature stayed between a high of ninety-five to a low of eighty-five depending on the intensity of the sun, the nearness of the fires and the amount of debris burning in the streets.
The date flashed and then the city page with graphs showing electricity available, areas of outage, water levels and how much and for how long these necessities would be available in the area. The food pages buzzed in on availability of everything from cooking oil to apples and where garbage could safely be dropped off.
The most important notices then lit up the screen indicating where the fire points were located, first, close by and then fanning out through the northwest. This was the function of the Internet in this generation. They had only heard of the good old says of fun and games on sites called Facebook and Instagram. Information these days meant survival or death.
Tomy-o, that’s what everyone called him, hadn’t left the safety of his basement shelter since “IT” had happened. Being on the front lines had deeply scarred his psyche although his flesh had survived without a single singe, not like some of his front line friends whose bodies were traumatized by burns, crushed by falling trees and rocks or tumbling buildings.
Being a Sandy was a coveted job and paid a huge amount of cold hard cash. The job was short lived as most lives were cut short. He had walked away after that particular nightmare. At first the fires were caused by nature, lightening strikes in the “droughted” forests or by delinquents with illegal fireworks.
Suicidal terrorists were the latest scourge who figured out they could die in a blaze of glory by strapping emollients to their bodies in the form of a specially formulated gel that exploded into fiery shrapnel, creating a firestorm destroying everything around them.
Janey checked her preparations. Her car secured in the metal clad garage had been gassed up last week when the getting was good and the gasoline truck was in the neighborhood.
Since these days of disaster had begun and fire attacks had become the norm, from man-made chaos to natural acts many things had changed. Houses that were once charming bungalows were now fronted with heavy-duty sheet metal to protect from fire. What were once well-tended lawns and gardens were now armed moats. Communities now resembled medieval fortresses.
Tomy-o’s basement bunker was well protected. He had everything he needed in a space smaller than a tiny house. Janey made food for him and left it outside the door. They had installed self-composting toilets throughout the house and were hooked up to the main water supply but had an efficient emergency water system. He had planned to be hide away for only a few days but as the weather and chaos outside increased he had stayed in his cell the past few months.
Lately he had been dreaming stranger, more prescient dreams. The last dream frightened him and he told Janey, “It was like this,” he said when she brought him his morning oatmeal. “You are dead but come back as a ghost to tell me that you are going to die. You take my hand and we fly along the coast. The sun is sinking in a fiery blast. And the world below is erupting. I see crowds of people floating up into the air passing us by their mouths open. A strangely beautiful sound crashes around us getting louder and louder. Suddenly there is nothing but a wall of fire that vaporizes all of the other people in the air, while you and I become transparent floating gently back to earth.”
“I really don’t want you to go to the Eclipse. I have a really bad feeling about it.”
Janey listened to him carefully but since his withdrawal didn’t exactly trust him anymore. She was tired of being under siege inside and outside the house. “Tomy-o, I know you are stressed out but I’ll be just fine. I can take care of myself. Just because you had a hard time doesn’t mean I can’t take it. I have taken all precautions. I am armed. I feel that you are just trying to keep me here, somebody to feed you and take care of you.”
Well, she didn’t actually say this to him but thought it and thought about her options. He was very persuasive and had been right there on the front line. But this was a special thing, The Eclipse of the Sun. She had been getting her degree at the University in Astrophysics before these latest disasters. This event spoke to her heart and she so wanted to be there.
Tomio’s dream freaked her out. Some of the things he dreamed in his bunker had come true. Little things like their missing cat, Mr. Big. He said the cat was alive but didn’t want to come home until Tomy-o was feeling better. And funnily enough when she put some cat food on the porch that night the food was eaten. And then there were other things like lost keys and messages from people he knew she would get before she got them.
Tomy-o fidgeted in his little cell after Janey left. He couldn’t eat the oatmeal. He couldn’t swallow any coffee. He was worried and felt his heart racing like it had done when he first got the jitters. He thought he would throw up and sweat broke out on his forehead. He shivered like he was cold even though the temperature in the little cell stayed at a comfortable seventy-one degrees.
For the first time in many months he felt he had to leave the room, to plead with Janey to stay. This resolve made Tomy-o feel better. His thoughts were clearer and he felt strong with resolve. He put on normal jeans and a t-shirt. Barefoot he left his self-made prison and went upstairs. “Janey, Janey are you still here? Oh Janey it’s me. I’m better. Where are you?”
Janey turned around from her seat at the kitchen table. She was in the process of unpacking her backpack. She looked up and smiled so relieved to feel that life could now be endured. His need for her eclipsed the eclipse.
The Fault of Yesterday
George always needed something else, something extra. Today was no different, tomorrow might be worse and yesterday, well yesterday, none of his needs were met, at least by his standards. The only difference was his realization of this fault, and why did this special realization happen today. Well, maybe it was the fault of yesterday.
He hadn’t meant to tell his wife of twenty some odd years how he really felt about her. He would have to confess about Aliss, his girlfriend. Aliss, Aliss sweet Aliss almost fulfilled him, even though it was evident that her own narcissism was greater than his.
“George, Georgie, I thought I’d wear this new shirt tomorrow night to the club. What do ya think, too much skin, do my boobs look too big?”
On the screen of his iPhone 7, face-timing the call from her, her whole body looked psycho-erotic, her big –girl status in full splendor, those dark-brown arms oozing in and out of the red satin cold-shoulder skin tight top. He was jealous of her over the top sex appeal.
“Sure, sure, go ahead and wear that and some skin tight black jeans. You’re always the star, baby girl and don’t I know it.” Well, Everybody knew it and when they hit the club they made it happen every Saturday night. Lately, she seemed to not need him as much. She dressed more provocatively than before and he sensed something was not quite right.
Aliss was just his Saturday night girlfriend, someone his wife was clueless about or even if she knew, he was clueless if she would actually care. Saturday nights for Merry were sacrosanct. Her life as a telepathic masseuse/naturopath was full of caring for others in need. By noon on Saturdays she was done with people and preferred to cut herself off from caring especially for him, from thinking about anyone else but Merry Darling. And yes that was her real name. The name helped her business. Just saying the words “Merry Darling,” made people feel good even before any treatments. The more popular she got the less attention George got and that too true fact was making him feel tossed aside.
“Georgie, you’ve got to understand.” Last week, she actually told him how she felt, something she rarely broached, and much less to him. He was touched as she said “It’s not that I don’t appreciate all that you have meant to me over the years but I just need… You know, right?”
Thinking about this today he felt touched but unfulfilled. His phone dinged an email message. It was Joycelyn, his art studio landlady. “George, just a reminder that your rent is way past due, actually 3 months this month. Not a good thing right now, really. Thought I’d send you a little reminder. TXT me ok.” Her usual Emoji’s followed: brown peace sign, smiley grin but only one big heart not three as usual.
“Oh shit.” George suddenly felt like a rat that couldn’t quite reach that Reese’s Peanut Butter piece in the trap and even though he couldn’t reach his “cheese,” he was still feeling trapped, caught and unfulfilled. He felt depressed and vulnerable. This wasn’t the first time he had been late but with everything else, this day was becoming unrelenting especially because he could usually talk to Joycelyn. She of all people appreciated his talent and had even before he had married Merry. Even though she was many years his senior, Joycelyn had been his lover and even in his married years a source of succor.
“Damn, I can’t afford to lose her patronage I’ll have to do something about this right away.” This Saturday morning was turning out bad. “My wife has dismissed me; my girlfriend is ready to conquer the word without me. My patroness best friend is ready to un-patronize me for a few bucks.”
George paced the floor of his room. It wasn’t even ten in the morning. He went so far as to prepare a bong with some of his heartier sativa strain, Tangie, but thought better of that. He thought about the bottle of emergency Hennessey stashed in the bottom drawer of his dresser thinking, “what the hell do I have to lose,” and did succumb to a full jigger, coughing after the hit.
George sat back against the headboard of his bed, kicked off his house shoes and crossed his pajamaed legs. He was worried, seriously worried. Nothing was going his way today. He usually kept a positive attitude but lately the charm wasn’t working.
The small buzz from the morning brandy really wasn’t pleasant in his stomach. He groaned and thought he might be sick. “I’d better take a toke, after all, what have I got to lose?” He fixed himself a huge bowl of different substances. In this new world of cannabis the connoisseur could enhance his high with a variety of gels, tinctures and oil derivatives.
He lit the bong with the extra special torch lighter and inhaled a huge hit. Outside the spring weather was roaring. Rain, hail and darkening clouds cast a spell over the room. He pulled the heavy duvet over his skinny, skinny but fit, body and closed his eyes allowing the heavy high to take him over.
The sound of the relentless rain provided a natural hypnotized state in George and sent him back in time. “Green-eyed greedy gut gonna eat the world up.” His two tormentors chanted as he ate his second ice cream sandwich. His mother always made sure he had extra money for treats since she felt so guilty leaving him with the neighbor until she got home from work.
He recalled that the two girls, Barbara and Carol, so skinny and so dark skinned, made it a point to tease his fair-skinned fatness with the mocking refrain “Georgie Porgie puddin and pie, kiss the girls and make them cry.” That would be the secret signal to chase him into the darkest corner of the cool garage. Their cruel game was to pinch his chubbiness and tickle him until he peed his pants. That was Barbara’s specialty. At the same time Carol would lay on top of him thrusting her narrow hipbones into his pelvis grunting “umph, umph, umph, umph.” They both worked him over until he was crying like a lost puppy.
George hadn’t thought about that particular incident since he swore to himself to bury that particularly cruel memory when he was all of fifteen years old.
Aided by the strong cannabis George drifted off into a deep sleep until a strong ray of sunlight caressing his face woke him. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and the pelting rain had been replaced by white clouds sailing on a brilliant blue sky.
He picked up his phone from the bedside table. No one had called, messaged or texted him in the past four hours. “That’s funny,” he said to himself “no one called me.”
He got up and went over to the full-length mirror, pulling up real close in order to look into his eyes, “That was some funny dream,” he said to his reflection. “I hadn’t thought about that little boy for years.” His light grey eyes squinted like he was trying to see his younger self in his present state.
Puzzled he sat back on the bed. That ancient memory slowly became an enormous revelation. All at once, George saw who he was and understood where he was coming from.
George showered and dressed. He knew what he had to do. “I guess I’d better start with Merry and then deal with the luscious Aliss and then get straight with Joycelyn,” he told his mirror image closing his bedroom door behind him.
Forward – by Dalmatia Flemming
Ellen took a sip of coffee. It was lukewarm. Instantaneously she was transported back to reality; this coffee tasted awful. She realized that her stomach was not feeling quite right, the coffee was making it acidic. Ellen thought she better eat something, that’s what the problem was. She had been anxious and it seemed to have dampened her appetite so she didn’t eat. Ellen opened her backpack and found some bland crackers. She ate some.
Ellen picked up her phone to text her husband. “Hi Mark. On second train now. I’m nervous! I’ll meet you at the restaurant around 7:30 for dinner. Have a fun day! Xo E”.
Ellen looked out the window of the train. The landscape looked familiar, yet different. It had been twenty years since she was last here and the circumstances were very different then. She heard that the compound in which she had grown up was now a nature preserve. This relieved her a little; maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to face her past after all. Perhaps all the bad cult mojo had been broken down to atomic particles, rearranged into goodness and consumed by beautiful plants … maybe?
Ellen nervously assembled her things in preparation to leave the train. She checked her phone for messages. Mark had answered back; “Hey E. You’ll be awesome. Remember what your counselor said. Now you can move forward. Xoxo M.”
The five minute warning whistle blew and people began to work their way towards the door. Ellen noticed three adults fussing over about thirty kids all about the same age. Ellen figured it must be a class field trip. The kids were cute, so innocent looking. Ellen thought back to when she was their age. Suddenly she was beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea after all.
The door to the train opened and everyone began to file out. Ellen held back a little and watched them all exit, watched the teachers gathering up the kids.
“Miss, is this your stop?” the steward asked.
“Um … yes it is. Thank you.”
Ellen exited the train. She turned and looked back at the steward. He gave her a big smile and waved. How nice to not be fearful, Ellen thought. She smiled and waved back. The train pulled away.
There was the entrance. It looked peaceful enough. Was it a trap? Ellen slowly walked forward. “One ticket please …. Thank you.” Ellen walked through the gate.
It was beautiful, so far anyway. The plantings were very lush, with blown glass sculptural forms artfully intermingled with the plants. Wow, Ellen thought. What a change. It was so sparse in the cult days.
Ellen picked up a trifold pamphlet and opened it. Inside was a map of the preserve. Ellen studied it. It looked as though most of the buildings were still intact, the same layout that Ellen remembered. It had been a school campus prior to being donated to the cult, so Ellen had been told. The map reflected that sort of arrangement and feeling. Ellen looked around. But the buildings looked different, they no longer looked like the bunkers of Ellen’s memory.
The current preserve café and gift shop was the former cult mess hall. Ellen’s mom had spent hours there preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for hundreds of cult members. Ellen’s former dormitory, the children were separated from their parents in the cult, was now a desert vivarium. Ellen decided she must at least go and see this.
The old dormitory was almost completely glass now, as much glass as was structurally possible and still be able to stand. Ellen could see cacti, some that looked familiar and some exotic looking ones she had never seen before. It reminded her of the area surrounding her current home in Southern California. Well, maybe she should go inside.
Upon entering, Ellen could feel the sudden change to arid air with her first breath. And the heat. It felt good on her skin. Ellen slowly began to walk through the displays. She saw some lizard-like creatures, some that reminded her of the ones at home and again, some exotic looking ones.
Was this the theme for the day? Maybe the theme for more than just this day? Everything was the same and different at the same time. She was the same person, but different after twenty years had passed. This place was the same and different compared to before. But truly better than before. The cult was gone, it was really gone and Ellen decided right then that the cult would no longer have a grip on her. She would be free of it.
Ellen saw the teachers and school children. She approached them and started up a conversation in their native language. She had learned a little as a child and completely mastered it while working as a hostess in a bar when she first escaped the cult.
Ellen pulled out her phone to text Mark; “Hey Mark. A-OK over here. Maybe I can meet you earlier. I think I’ll leave earlier. Check your phone. Xo E.”
This was worse than she had imagined
Dina watched her sister float down the aisle. Her shoulder blades poking out from the top of her strapless gown and her spine curving up to an engineering feat of curls, weaved in a curious Escher-like pattern. Dina was transfixed by the hair arrangement. Was there some structural support under the extraordinary bun/waterfall? What miraculous hairpins could hold hair like that? Rachel had asked Dina to help her prepare for the ceremony, but the dressing room had been crowded with sorority sisters and female members of the groom’s family, and Rachel had slipped out when the hairdresser arrived with her kit of curling and flat irons, shellacs and mousses and, apparently, magic.
It was dark in the church, despite the many candles and lanterns, and the white of Rachel’s dress made her glow. She was walking a little too quickly, not quite in time with the music (live, but with a tinny PA that belied the human musicians). Dina was willing her to slow down when Rachel tripped, a strappy sandal catching on the hem of her ridiculous train. Their father caught Rachel before she fell and he tried to steady her as she approached the steps to the altar. The minister made an off-color joke about the bride’s haste to get to her wedding night, and Rachel’s fiance, universally accepted as a decent guy, stood there grinning like a monkey. Dina wondered if the minister was a pedaphile, and if Rachel’s fiance had once been the object of his affections.
The ceremony was long and full of trite aphorisms and mild sexual innuendo.
“May your marriage be like a kitchen table…four bare legs and no drawers!”
Gina looked around at the young, smiling people in the pews, then back up at Rachel. She looked beautiful, but also a little too animated. She nodded her head enthusiastically at each of the minister’s comments and it looked to Gina that one of her false eyelashes had come loose. Gina wondered to herself if all the people here were part of the minister’s cult, and if Rachel were about to be initiated.
And then Rachel fell down the stairs.
No one moved for what seemed to be several minutes, and then Gina noticed herself sprinting up the aisle. Her patent leather pumps click-clacking on the slate floor.
“Get out of my way. That’s my sister! Out of the way, please!”
Gina ran past two 20-year olds in blazers and skinny jeans, pushing one into the other as they stepped forward to help.
“Don’t touch her!”
The minister was startled and pulled his hand back from Rachel’s collarbone, almost falling himself from his precarious perch on the last step.
“I thought I should check her pulse…” he mumbled.
Gina leaned over her sister, “Rachel, Rachel, can you hear me? RACHEL!!”
“Call an ambulance, can’t you?” she yelled up at the fiance, who had finally snapped out of shock and was fiddling with his phone.
Gina’s mom was at her side on the floor, holding Rachel’s hand.
“I think we should pray,” she said, tears streaming down her face, “please, Lord, this was going to be Rachel’s perfect day.”
“Shut up, Mom. She’s probably just fainted from how tight this dress is.”
“Oh, and I bet she hasn’t eaten today. I told her she needed to eat something. Oh Lord, please keep my baby safe!”
Gina couldn’t see her dad anywhere, or anyone who might help. With Rachel supine on the floor, her strapless dress had shifted sideways and Gina felt an overwhelming need to get her away from the minister’s gaze. Away from all of these people crowding around. Rachel’s chest moved ever so slightly as her lungs inflated.
“Back up, people. She needs air!”
Gina pulled the sequined cardigan sweater from her mom’s shoulders and wrapped it as best she could around Rachel. Then, after looking around once more for her father, she shoved her arms under Rachel’s torso and legs and stood up. Why was she wearing these ridiculous shoes? Gina kicked them off and started walking, barefoot and with Rachel in her arms, back down the aisle.
For some reason, the musicians deemed it appropriate to resume playing (were they high?) and Gina let the Pachelbel Canon guide her wobbly steps. Rachel was thinner but taller than Gina, and Gina wasn’t sure how far she could manage to carry her. But she kept walking, between the rows of pews and out through the narthex, the church doors, and into the cool night air.
“Gina, where are you going?”
“The ambulance is coming. They’ll be here soon!”
A Ford Torino pulled up just as Gina stepped off the sidewalk, and the passenger door swung open.
“Get in, quick,” said her father. “Let’s get Rachel the hell out of here.”
Terra’s lips felt weird. It was the first thing she noticed; before the dust, before the sirens, before the pain. Her lips were gritty and stiff and dry. Terra tried to lick them, but she couldn’t muster enough saliva to get through the thick coating of filth. She closed her mouth, counted to ten, licked her lips and opened her eyes.
She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision. The air around her swirled brown and grey in puffs and filthy gusts. She rubbed her eyes in one of her first attempts to somehow clear her vision. Chunks of stone and dirt and bricks and mortar and a bunch of other stuff Terra had no interest in identifying were dropping all around her. She took a few panicked breaths, counted to ten, then sat up.
Everything around her was a swirling ball of chaos, but also strangely static. Terra grabbed the end of a twisted steel beam and pulled herself up to a standing position. The ground lurched and she gripped the beam tighter. She looked around and didn’t like what she saw. Just about every building in Pioneer Square was leveled or damn near leveled, like a bunch of deflated balloons. Well, it was old down here, she thought to herself, how could anyone expect anything else.
Terra looked north, up First Avenue, towards the big hotels and new office buildings. She almost smiled. The marvels of modern engineering. Ha. Although most of the buildings were still standing, the glass curtain walls were shattered, with gaping holes where floor-to-ceiling windows used to be. It reminded her of her smile when she was six, when she had lost four of her upper front teeth all at once. She looked the same, more or less, but there was something off if you looked long enough. Also, many of the buildings were in flames. A key difference.
A wave of nausea hit her, and she bent over and threw up. She steadied herself with the steel beam, idly wondering where it was from, until her head cleared. Her thigh throbbed. Terra looked down at herself and wondered how long she had been unconscious. Her jeans were covered in blood. She thought about how pissed off Ryan was when she first bought them and he caught her trying to sneak them into her closet so he wouldn’t notice.
“They’re jeans,” he said, shaking the receipt at her like it was a dirty pair of underwear she had left on the bathroom floor. “I don’t care of if they’re made in America and they’re organic and Carrie Brownstein wears them too. They’re JEANS.” He shook his head and tossed them on the bed. “When we’re trying to retire–I mean when I retire and you’re still working–I want you to remember where all your retirement funds went.”
She had always thought Ryan was being ridiculous, hoarding his funds away for some distant time in the future where they lived in a veritable Shangri-La with group of other old people who somehow managed to save for this middle-class dream future by denying themselves simple pleasures. At least she had been right; Terra excused all her extracurricular spending with the caveat “nothing is certain.” Look who was right now.
Terra’s head started clearing. Her thigh was throbbing, worse, so much worse now that she was standing up. The upside, if you could call it that, was that she wasn’t as groggy as when she first opened her eyes and stood up. She mentally thanked her injuries for that.
The downside was that she could feel her heart beat in her thigh where she was hurt the worst. She looked down at her bloody jeans again. There was a deep gouge on the top of her left thigh where denim and a fairly big chuck of flesh was supposed to be. Gouts of blood seeped out the hole in sync with her heartbeat. Terra stared for a while as the blood pulsed. She pulled off her belt and looped it around her thigh, pulling it tight. Another expensive item she’d have to throw out or give to Goodwill. Dammit.
She wondered where Ryan was right now. Maybe he was at home with their dog. Maybe he was trying to contact of her. Maybe he was hurt or maybe he was even dead. Terra’s heart beat faster and she felt sick again. What was happening, what the hell was going on, what did she have to do? She had to focus. Terra considered staying calm and carrying on was for fools and people who collected throw pillows. She was neither a fool or an expert at interior design. She just had to figure out how to turn this current screwed up situation to her advantage.
Terra ran through several scenarios in her head. Her anxiety kept her up at night; she always had several half- dozen worse case scenarios to ruminate about during sleepless nights. Was it an earthquake, the fabled “Big One” that occupied the imagination of so many local newscasters and most Pacific Northwest residents? Another 911, one more terrorist attack by jihadists? A bomb set off by a group of angry anarchists sick of Amazon techies and the desecration of the Comet Tavern? Terra had no idea. Whatever it was, it was worse than she imagined. She had always hoped any emergency would take place when she was on vacation.
What time was it? Terra freaked out and grabbed her phone. The shiny black screen was dead, reflecting only Terra’s dirty face. No time, no signal. No Facebook. She shook it hard, like maybe it would jerk back to life with a little movement. It didn’t. The last time she looked at a clock was when she glanced at the little read-out at the bottom right corner of her computer screen. She was at work. It was 2:09. Afternoon coffee time. She grabbed her purse and told her assistant she was going to Starbucks. It seemed like a long time ago.
The sky was different now, and it wasn’t just the dust and the smoke from the fires. It felt a lot later than that to her. The sun was in a different place, the light had changed from when she left the building and walked to her Starbucks. Before she went to sleep and woke up in someplace completely different. Her Rinpoche had urged her toward embracing a dreamlike state, a waking meditation. Terra found the notion ridiculous when she attended her weekly dharma studies. Now waking mediation seemed to be a competent defensive position.
Whatever happened, it was not what she expected for that day. She catalogued the day’s events. She didn’t think there was a warning. No big bang, no big blinding explosion. Nothing in the New York Times or on NPR that morning about Trump fucking things up that varied significantly from the day before. No amber alert. The birds weren’t acting weird before she blacked out. The only thing she knew for sure was that her jeans were ruined, everything had fallen down, her leg was hurt and she had no idea what to do next.
Her hearing came back in a sonic wave that left her dizzy again. Not that she had missed it. There was a little background noise for a while, maybe. But the noise hit her in an instant. Sirens and screaming. Some sort of message, a deep male voice repeating over and over again, “This is not a test.” Who in hell thought there would be a test on this type of situation, Terra thought. It seemed like an outdated luxury of the baby boomer era, all the drills and practicing for an emergency that would never come. Baby boomers, she thought. I hope they’re all fucked now.
Terra lurched forward away from the beam. She was going home. This was enough. She mentally made herself a promise never to complain about work again. Terra began walking south toward the iron pergola, the symbol of old Seattle. Remarkably, it was still standing. Even the glass lights at the top were intact. It was louder in the square, more activity. Terra had gotten used to her nook between the rubble pile and the iron beam. Things were a lot different out in the street.
As she walked down the middle of First Avenue, she once again admired the energy and tenacity of the city’s youth. Roving packs of young women and men, some obviously injured but operating on sheer adrenaline, were running through the streets bashing in windows of the retail stores and small plate restaurants, the essential components of Pioneer Square’s thriving tourist trade and hipster local scene.
Terra watched as a cop, in some seriously misguided adherence to the pre-situation old rules, pulled her gun and tried to stop 15 or 16 people from smashing in a toy store window and grabbing whatever they wanted. Terra wasn’t exactly critical; it was “being in the moment,” as Rinpoche would say.
Someone jumped the cop from behind, and the crowd pulled the cop to the ground with her bullet-proof vest. A couple kicks to the head, bricks smashed into her face, and the cop stopped screaming. Triumph, the crowd ran on in a joyful frenzy. Terra ran over and knelt down next to the injured officer. She brushed the cop’s hair away from her face. Only one green eye remained intact, the other clouded with blood and splintered bone. She moaned, twisting and turning, her mouth pulled over to the side in a left grimace.
Terra held her hand, glancing nervously around, watching chaos reign as the cop’s hand jerked clockwise in a semi-circle until she was still. Looking around one last time, Terra rooted through her clothes and pulled the cop’s gun free of its holster. It was a cheap Beretta, one of Terra’s least favorite guns. It would have to do. Terra rooted through the dead woman’s pockets and police-issued pleather fanny pack. No ammunition. Now what.
He was a needy child, maybe because his parents strictly controlled his drinking. They drank out every night–they had to in order to get through the weekend. On the weekends, they allowed the child to drink his fill. At home. No going out. They made that mistake once and the results were disastrous. His cravings had been so bad, he’d gotten away from them and drank just down the street from their home. They’d barely managed to explain that away. If it happened again, they would have to move–sooner than they usually did. The child’s drinking problem was their fault, but they never talked about what had happened, never mentioned it. What was done, was done, and couldn’t be changed. The alternative was inconceivable to them. They had never even brought it up. So they lived with the mistake they had made so many years ago now, and would for the rest of their lives…and his. It had been early on, in the first few months when they were young and inexperienced. Things had gotten out of control. THEY had gotten out of control. Transitioning to their new life had been difficult. They had only focused on the advantages and didn’t anticipate feeling the disgust doing what had to be done, didn’t anticipate the incredible NEED. The night it happened, they hadn’t had a drink for a week, and had resolved to go out that night after the child had his bath and was tucked in for the night. The father had forgotten to put away his razor before bath time and when the child mistook the razor for a bath toy, he grabbed it by the head, cutting his palm on the blade. It wasn’t a bad cut at all, just a little slice, just a little blood. The mother stared as a few drops fell to the white tile floor. Red, dark red, so beautiful. So thirsty… The father got to the bathroom just after the screaming had turned to muffled crying. From the doorway, he saw the mother cradling the child, his hand to her mouth. He had begun to speak, then stopped when the mother looked up from the child’s hand, a smear of red on her chin, eyes wide, black. Before he realized he’d moved, he was next to the mother and child, kneeling on the cold tile floor, pulling the child’s cut hand to his mouth. So thirsty… When they became aware again, aware of where they were, who they were, it was too late. Almost. No words were exchanged. The mother and father stared at the child, then at each other, then did the only thing they knew they could do. The alternative was inconceivable.
The Coming Darkness
Hillary and Donald lay side-by-side.
“It’s too much,” she sighed.
She rolls on her front, pulling at the light blue nightie that is riding up her thigh.
“I mean, Bill deserves whatever anyone can dish out, but I thought we weren’t going to let this thing get so out of hand. The whole campaign has gotten too ugly. We’re making people depressed.”
He kisses her temple, and then her neck behind her ear, nudging the nightie back up her leg with his knee.
“I’m serious, Donald. You act like this is all fun and games, but the goal is for me to be president, not for us both to be excommunicated from the country.”
“That’s your goal, my darling. I have to say I’m having the time of my life. I get to use big words, I get to find out all of the shit people have on me – especially the shit that I didn’t make up. I get to take the names of all of those shriveling little republicans who didn’t have the balls to take me out in the first place and now I’ve got my middle finger up their assholes and they’re spinning like circus freaks. It’s delicious, my love. If you can’t take back congress after this…”
“I don’t know. I am THE MOST QUALIFIED candidate ever to run for this office. If this were a spelling bee, I could spell all of the words backwards while standing on my hands and juggling chainsaws with my feet. Instead, I’m struggling to beat you. Maybe I should’ve just run against a normal person. Not the crazy, racist, sexist clown man.”
“My dear, if the electorate weren’t so fucking stupid, that’s what would have happened. I didn’t intend to be debating you – nice touch to withhold the handshake tonight, BTW – I honestly can’t understand how this all happened. This was supposed to be funny, not the campaign from hell.”
Hillary coughs. Donald rolls over and pulls something out of the nightstand drawer.
“Here are these throat drops I got you. Supposed to be magic. That soprano at the Met swears by them.”
“Is that the same soprano they sent you with their last fundraising ask.”
“Yeah, yeah. Her. Baby, you know I don’t care about singers. She gives good advice about cough drops, though, trust me! Plus, I worry about you and all this coughing.”
“It’s nothing, I told you.”
Hillary pops a cough drop into her mouth and sucks for a while, lost in thought. Donald sits up and turns to her.
“I could drop out of the race.”
“Don’t be silly, Donald. That would leave poor Mike Pence, and voters are in such a crazed state now, he might actually get elected. He’d have to jump off a building or something. What would he do?”
“I know. I knew he was a poor choice from the beginning. But the logo thing with our initials was just too fun to pass up and I couldn’t find any other running mates with P names. Okay, if I’m not going to drop out of the race, why don’t we just go for broke.”
“What do you mean ‘go for broke’?”
“We could leak a sex tape of you and me.”
HIllary laughs and then almost chokes on her cough drop.
“I’m pretty sure no one wants to see either of us naked, but I like where you’re going with this.”
Hillary climbs on top of Donald and he grins. He grabs her ass.
“It would be incredible, right? Put the rest of this show to shame. I keep trying to figure out how I can up the ante, but it hadn’t occurred to me how hilarious it would be to become totally transparent.”
“Well, not the sister/brother thing. I would probably draw the line there.”