The little boy with the black hair ran about the campsite in his Superman cape.
The boy jumped from a rock, rolling in the dirt.
“Pow! Pow! Look mommy, look!”
But Mommy didn’t look. Mommy was trying to start the camp stove, her face lined with frustration.
“Jon! I told you this clicker doesn’t work!”
“It works!” the father replied, his voice tinted with frustration.
“Then you come do it!” replied the boy’s mother.
Jon grunted, he was bent over a smoking fire pit. The wood was damp and refused to light. He muttered profanities and said, “Paul, help your mother!”
Paul, the boy’s twelve-year-old brother, sat staring at his iPad, shouts and gunshots rang out from the screen.
“Just a minute.”
“Not just a minute. Help her now. What, do you think you’re at the goddamn movie theater with the other moviegoers and you’re somehow going to miss the important part?”
“But I’m at the GOOD part.”
“It’s fine,” said the mother.
“No, it’s not goddamn fine, Sara,” said the man.
Jon gave his son a look.
The boy slammed his screen down on the table and dragged his feet over to the camp stove.
After clicking on the button for a few moments, the boy said, “Oh! I see what’s wrong with it!… It’s BROKEN just like mom said.”
He stomped back to his movie and pressed play.
The little boy’s fifteen-year-old sister lay rocking in a hammock, her phone stretched out in front of her.
“I told you this was a dumb idea,” said the girl, her eyes rolling. “You wouldn’t even let me bring my makeup and there is totally no reception up here. I told my friends I would call them, and I can’t even do that.”
A look of fury overtook her mother’s face quickly followed by defeat. The woman’s face sunk and quietly she muttered, “I’m done. I’m going for a walk.”
“Jeez Sara, fine! I’ll come look at it,” said the husband.
“Mommy, watch! Watch me be Superman!”
The woman’s eyes were on the ground as she wandered off into the forest.
The father went to the camp stove and began to tinker, trying to make it light. The teenage girl went back to her phone. The older boy stared at his screen.
Only the little boy watched as his mother wandered past the trees, losing sight of her deep green sweatshirt.
“Mommy, wait!” called the little boy, chasing after her.
The trees were thick and dark and he could not see her. As he turned around, he could no longer see the campsite. He could not see his daddy or his brother or his sister.
The forest began to talk around him; the chattering of squirrels, the squeak of mice, birds cawing, trees rustling.
And then the little boy heard a cry; his mother.
“Mommy?” he said. “Mommy?”
Her voice echoed around him, layered and overlapping.
“Help! Someone please help me!”
He continued to walk forward, seeing a dark hole hidden within the trees.
As he came closer, her voice refracted out at him, loud and close; bouncing from the entrance of a cave.
“Oh, Xander, is that you? Go and get your daddy”
The boy didn’t know where to find his daddy, and so he walked into the darkness of the cavern, looking for his mommy.
The space was dark but the boy could see a glimmer of yellow light far in the back corner.
“Go back, Xander!”
The boy continued to move forward. The cavern continued to get brighter. Suddenly and without warning, the boy felt the earth give way beneath him.
He felt himself falling and screaming.
Down and down the boy fell, tumbling head over feet. His scream only lasted for a few short moments as he ran out of breath. He could feel his Superman cape flapping around him and he thought, I’m Superman! And Superman can fly!
He stretched his arms out which stabilized his little body. The cape flew up behind him. He turned his hands into fists, as he had seen the superhero do in the movies.
“I coming to rescue you, Mommy,” he called out.
He was not sure how long he flew, but the glow around him became brighter and he saw the crystalline shapes of the walls. The air pressure became stronger and his ears adjusted, popping as he fell.
Finally, he began to slow, as if the pressure below him was simply too great and was becoming a cushion.
He landed in a soft growth of golden plants with a thud, his air knocked out of him and a sharp pain in his knee.
When he could catch his breath, the little boy let out a wail.
“Oh, my baby, my baby…”
His mother, Sara, drug herself across the floor to the child and struggled to sit, gasping as she tried to roll over onto her bottom, her ankle lay at an odd angle and there were abrasions on her hands and face.
“Are you okay, oh Xander, are you okay? Speak to me.”
The little boy wept and said, “I hurt my elbow, mommy. It hurts.”
She carefully and delicately cradled him into her lap.
“Let’s see,” she said and he stuck out his little arm. “Oh, it looks like you scraped it. But its only bleeding a little bit. Can I kiss it?”
The little boy nodded his head.
She kissed his wound and said, “Is that the only thing that hurts?”
Again, he nodded.
“Well, I think you are very lucky then. That was a very long fall.”
They were sitting in a large open cathedral space within the cavern. There were plants, thick and golden, growing along the floor. A stream meandered along a naturally carved trough, the edges striped with crystalline minerals. Along the edges of the space were sharper plants with tall orange flowers on single spikes. What drew the boy’s attention though was the tree.
A tree larger than any the boy had ever seen grew in the center of the cathedral space. Its bark glowed a deep golden light, its roots stretched out to every wall. Its leaves were shaped like fans and moved as if a gentle wind filled the space. The leaves and branches stretched up to the roof of the cathedral and even beyond, into darkness.
But there were also bones, bones along the walls and in every nook and cranny. There were animal bones and human bones. There were ancient books, a broken yardstick, pieces of toys, a canvas pack, all laying along the edge near where they had landed.
“Mommy, I came to rescue you,” said the boy.
“I know, Xander, but I told you to go get daddy.”
“I didn’t know where daddy went. Everything was dark.”
“It’s okay, baby.”
Sara hugged him and began to rock him, humming softly. The time passed.
Finally, the little boy said, “Mommy, I thirsty.”
“I know. I am too.”
She looked over at the water flowing through the cavernous space.
“Can we drink from the water, mommy?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, looking at the bones around the walls. “I’m afraid it might make us sick.”
“But mommy, I so thirsty!”
“Xander, I hurt my ankle.”
“You have a boo-boo?”
“I do have a boo-boo, and I don’t think I can get to the water. But I don’t want you to drink first. I think, if we are going to drink, we need to drink together.”
The mother looked at her little boy. If the water was going to make them sick, if it would kill them, she didn’t want him to watch her die and to be left alone down here, afraid. She also didn’t want to watch her child die.
“Xander, over against the wall, I see an old backpack. Do you see it?”
The boy nodded his head.
“I want you to go and bring it here. Can you do that?”
Again the boy nodded his head.
She hugged him, and as he climbed out of her lap, she again gasped in pain.
The boy stepped carefully through the deep cushion of plants and then began tiptoeing through the litter of bones. As he reached the pack, he bent over and suddenly stood up again in surprise.
“Mommy! There’s a cup over her!”
“That’s so good, baby! Bring it here too.”
The boy slipped his arm through the strap on the bag. It was old canvas and seemed flat and empty. He picked up a silver tin mug in the other hand and began to make his way back to his mother, over the bones and through the thick soft plants.
Sara took the pack and laid it next to them, and then took the mug. It was dusty but did not appear damaged, there was no rust or decay. She wiped it with her green sweatshirt.
“When you go to the stream, I don’t want you to drink it right away. I want you to tell me what the water looks like first.”
The boy made his way over to the stream and sat on the edge.
“What color is the water?”
“It’s see though, like a swimming pool,” he said.
“Good. Do you see any plants or fish in it?”
“No, mommy, it’s just see though. And it’s running really fast.”
“Okay, I want you to lay on your tummy, so only your hands can go in the water. I don’t want you to fall in, okay?”
The boy laid on his tummy and stretched his arms into the water.
“I want you to stick the cup under the running water. We have to make sure the cup is clean. I want you to hold it tight and shake it in the water.”
“The water is so cold, mommy!”
“You can take your hands out when you need to.”
“No, it feels good.”
The mother smiled to herself, despite the torture within her ankle.
“Okay, that should be good enough. Now, you are going to fill the cup with water. Set it down next to you, away from the stream, and very carefully get up.”
The little boy did as he was told, rolling over and sitting up. He lifted the cup carefully and cautiously walked it over to his mother.
Sara took it in both of her hands. The water was clear and sparkling, reflecting the golden light of the tree.
“I know you are thirsty, but I’m going to take a little drink of it first, just to be sure that it tastes okay.”
The little boy nodded and watched her hopefully as she took the tiniest of sips.
The water had a slight mineral taste but it was cold and refreshing and she found her body craving it. She desperately wanted more. First though, she allowed her son to drink.
The boy was cautious at first, but as soon as the sweet water touched his lips, he could not help him himself, he drank the cup entirely.
“I sorry mommy, it tasted so yummy. I couldn’t stop. But I go get you more!”
He seemed to be brighter somehow, a glow had returned to his dirty cheeks. He bounced as he walked to the stream and confidently scooped up more water without laying down or even sitting.
“Be careful!” his mother called.
“I am!” he called back, carrying the water with confidence and agility.
Her mouth was watering for it, her body crying for it.
When the cold tin touched her lips, she quickly drank the contents. Her body wanted more, needed more, and as the little boy ran back to the underground river, she felt her anxiety relax. Her fractured ankle began to tingle, the pain softening.
The little boy drank a full mug at the streams edge before bringing back the mug for his mother. She drank deeply.
Her ankle began to itch, but the swelling was going down and the pain was fading.
“My elbow’s itchy,” said the little boy and he rubbed it with his other hand.
Sara realized the scratches on her hands and face were itching as well, but it was mild compared to her ankle and so she hadn’t noticed.
“I think the water is making our boo-boos better,” she said to her son.
The scratches and abrasions still stood out against their skin, but they were not such a bright red as they had been.
“My ankle is feeling better, and I think I might be able to walk.”
The boy helped his mother as she worked to stand. While it was tender, like a bad sprain, the foot no longer stood out at the wrong angle.
“Yay!” said the little boy. “I told you I came to rescue you! I bet all those other bones over there didn’t have a Superman.”
Sara had hoped her son hadn’t recognized the bones for what they were, had wanted to shield him simply by ignoring them.
“I bet you’re right,” she said. “I bet they couldn’t get to the water, or maybe they were afraid to drink it.”
“But we’re better now, aren’t we?”
She thought about her words carefully.
“Well, I think the water helped, but we have to figure out how to get out of here. The water is good, but we can’t live down here forever, baby.”
“I know how to get out! We just climb the tree.”
Sara looked up at the golden tree, pulsating with light. It disappeared into the darkness of the ceiling.
“That’s a very tall tree,” she said.
“It’s like a ladder,” the boy said.
She saw that he was right. The branches started low and seemed to wrap like steps up the trunk.
“But we don’t know if there’s an exit at the top,” said Sara.
“There is!” the boy said with confidence.
“How do you know?”
She couldn’t help but smile. He suddenly seemed much more grown up than her little boy at the camp site.
“The river told me, when I was drinking the water.”
Sara was taken aback, but did not want to show her surprise, and so she asked, “Did it tell you anything else?”
“It said the spiky plant would help us too, that it was medicine.”
Sara had seen the plants, lined up against the edges of the cavern and growing at the base of the tree.
“Let’s go look,” she said and felt a sudden possibility, a sudden hope.
The plants had dense angular leaves and reminded Sara of the shape of an aloe vera plant. The leaves themselves were a rich amber color and light flowed like blood pulsing beneath the surface. A single bright orange flower grew in a single stalk from each plant.
Sara thought about aloe, and how the liquid inside its leaves were healing to the skin and often considered healing internally as well.
“The plant seems alive,” she said, and as she did, the stalk leaned down, the flower caressed her hand. “I can’t just break off its leaf, what if I hurt it?”
Sara wasn’t really talking to her son, and she wasn’t talking to the plant; she was simply talking out loud to herself, trying to figure out what to do.
As she said these words, the flower again seemed to bow to her, and then one of its leaves bent until it snapped off at its base.
“Oh! Thank you!” said Sarah.
Xander began to pet the plant, as if it were a companion animal.
Sarah looked at the leaf, thick and dripping at it’s base. Some of the gel ran over her hands and as it did, the abrasions and scratches began to heal.
“Xander! Give me your elbow.”
The boy stuck out his arm and his mother smeared the gel over it.
“It’s not itchy anymore!” said the boy.
“And look, the scratches are healing!”
“Let me put it on your face, mommy.”
Sara hadn’t realized, other than the itchy skin, how she must look to her small son. He began rubbing the gel across her forehead and cheeks and nose.
“That’s better, mommy. You had a lot of blood on your face.”
Her ankle still itched terribly, and so, Sara began to rub the gel into her skin and her foot. She hadn’t noticed the deep bruising before but as the plant’s medicine soaked into her skin, the bruises faded and the itching disappeared.
“Mommy, can we taste it?”
As the boy asked, another leaf broke off a nearby plant.
“I think the plant wants us too,” she said. “Thank you, all of you, for helping us.”
The flowers all seemed to nod at them in varying degrees.
The boy put the broken leaf to his mouth and began to suck on the gel. Another plant broke a leaf off near Sara and she also began to suck on the plant’s medicine.
“It tastes like food, mommy. It makes me feel strong, like Superman!”
Sara could feel the energy in her muscles, could feel the strength he spoke of. She looked at the tall tree and it seemed not only possible, but easy to climb the ladder of its branches.
“Are you ready to climb, mommy?” asked Xander.
“Almost,” said his mother.
Not only could she walk now, she could run.
Sara ran back to the canvas pack and looked inside; it was empty. She returned to the wall where the various broken toys and books and bones sat. She looked if there might be anything that could help them.
Sitting back, underneath the broken yardstick, she saw a thermos, still intact with its lid. She also found a journal and when she opened it, she found drawings of all the plants in the cave with notes and descriptions.
The tree had been much smaller whenever this journal had been written, it did not reach the ceiling of the cathedral cave as it did now.
She also found an old twisting bundle of rope.
She put the journal and the rope into the backpack and took the thermos to the crystalline stream. She washed it well, filling it with fresh water, and returned to her son.
She found him sitting at the base of the tree with three flower plant babies, they had only a few tiny leaves and defined roots that they walked on like legs. They were rubbing against his hands like puppies. He was giggling and playing with them.
“Can they come home with us?” Xander asked.
Sara was unsure, taken aback.
“Where did you get those?”
“They followed me!”
The boy’s mother looked around at the plants.
“We can’t take the pups from the mothers,” she said, but as she did the flowers again began to bow and move.
“They want us to take their medicine outside the cave!” said the boy. “I hear them whispering. It’s what they want.”
Again she looked carefully at the flowers.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
The was a rustling amongst the plants and she heard what sounded like whispers.
“I promise to take care of them, then. Thank you, friends.”
“Here, mommy! We can wrap them in my Superman cape!”
They put the plant pups into a front pocket of the canvas pack, wrapping them gently in his cape.
She wrapped the rope around her son’s waist and then, allowing several feet of length, she tied it around her waist as well.
“Mom! Why do I have to have a rope around my waist?”
She could hear the teenage whine the boy would someday have and was grateful knowing that he would make it to his teenage years.
“It’s only a precaution, baby. I’m going to let you climb first and I will be right behind you. If you slip, the rope won’t let you fall too far.”
“I won’t slip!” he said, and then thought it over. “I’m Superman. I came to save you. I guess if you slip, then the rope won’t let you fall too far.”
Sara smiled and placed her hand on the glowing trunk of the tree. As she did, the lowest branch seemed to bend down for them. She looked at the golden fan shaped leaves.
“It looks like its in the Ginkgo Biloba family.”
“What’s a Gin-Ko Bill-Oh-Buh?”
“They are a tree from China, originally, and they have been used for medicine.”
“See, mommy, this is a good place.”
“It is a good place,” she said.
The little boy began to climb the branches with his mother close behind, the rope allowing her the security of knowing that the boy would not fall far should he slip. But she didn’t need to worry. The tree bent its branches, allowing them to step higher and higher through the cave while providing them branches to hold on to.
The river and the beautiful living plants began to disappear in the distance, becoming memories below the leaves. The tree continued to glow but the space became darker as they moved higher. The branches became thinner, and while the mother and her son continued to be supported, the branches bent more deeply.
“I think I see it, mommy! I see an opening and the sky looks purple and pink!”
Soon, Sara saw it too; the sun appeared to be setting amongst the forest trees. The opening was narrow and she hoped her shoulders and hips could squeeze through the space. The tree extended about four feet from the hole and while the branches here were fragile, they seemed to lift them the final distance.
Xander crawled from the hole in the earth first and reached his little arm down to help his mother. She handed the canvas pack out to him first.
“Be careful with them,” she said. “We don’t want to squish the babies.”
The boy took the pack carefully and laid it next to him on the forest floor. Then Sara squeezed her way through and found herself laying beneath the trees.
She felt a tap on her foot and saw that the top of the glowing tree was trying to get her attention.
“Look, mommy! The tree is giving us something!”
A branch stuck up from the deep hole and placed something in the boy’s hand.
“What is it?” asked his mother.
He held it up or her to see.
Between his fingers, around the size of a golf ball, was a single round golden seed.
“Can we plant it when we get home and see if it grows?” asked the boy.
“Yes,” and she turned to the tree, “ and I promise we will take good care of your baby. Thank you for saving mine.”
Together, hand in hand, they walked back to their campsite; the boy with unlimited treasure carried in the pack on his back, his superman cape protecting souls he’d already grown to love.
As they arrived at their site, they saw that the boy’s father had given up on the camp stove and was sitting in front of a well built fire, dozing with marshmallows and chocolate sitting at his side. The teenage girl was still on her phone. The older brother was still watching a movie.
And nobody ever seemed to know they had been missing.
This Week’s Prompt
Week 20 – A young child makes a discovery
Include the words: Superman, ginkgo biloba, cavern, clicker, aloe, moviegoer, stretch, fury, yardstick, makeup
When my niece and nephew were little, much littler than they are now, my niece said something along the lines of, “I’m Batman!”
My nephew quickly responded, “You’re not batman, you’re batGIRL.”
To which she responded, “I not a BAD girl, I a Good girl.”
I was reminded of this as I imagined little Xander in the story running around as a superhero, connecting his identity to Superman. I didn’t plan on Superman being a running theme throughout the story, but realized he could take the role of saving his mom, and that was where my story began to form.
The words this week had me in a bit of a tailspin. I could not figure out how to use them together in a cohesive story. Superman,… ginkgo biloba,… moviegoer,… clicker? It just didn’t lend to a story I wanted to write.
However, once I imagined them camping (and how camping in today’s world of technology is not what it once was), I could see the mom’s frustration. I could see the little boy who just wanted to be noticed. The word “cavern” gave me a place for the story to develop, and the gingko biloba tree growing in the cave gave me a visual anchor to the story. The other words just had to find their place.
As I imagined the boy falling through the cave, I was inspired by the world of Alice in Wonderland. This allowed me to imagine a world of fantasy deep underground, a land with living flowers and healing streams.
I grew up camping. Perhaps it was the time period (late 70’s/early 80’s) with parents who had grown up as teens in the 60’s. Perhaps it was our community of lower to middle class families, where camping was an affordable option over higher priced vacations. We didn’t have all the fancy equipment. We had tents and sleeping bags, we played cards at the picnic table.
I don’t remember cook stoves–although I’m sure we had some option other than the fire pit–but I do remember food wrapped in tin foil and buried in the coals, I remember s’mores over the flames. I loved that my parents bought the really sugary cereal in the tiny boxes because you could cut them, fold open the flaps, and have your own little bowl. (We never got that type of cereal at home, and so camping was a special treat.)
I remember trips with friends and our tiny church renting out spaces so that we could all camp together; the kids crossing thick logs over rivers, playing in the trees, singing around the fire at night.
My experiences growing up camping are probably a big part of why I love the outdoors so very much.
When I got married and had our daughter, we camped some, but my bones protested nights in sleeping bags on the ground. Even layers of pillows and mattresses couldn’t take the pain from my joints. I’ve noticed “camping” has become fancier with all the needed comforts, with the technology. (Although a mattress and a bathroom are delightful comforts that I never considered as a child.)
Camping seems harder these days, the planning seems more intense, the discomfort more overwhelming. Perhaps, in part, my memories are so fond because I just got to be a kid without responsibility, playing with my cousins and sister and friends.
As I decided I wanted the mother and her son stuck in the cave, I knew that I wanted them to find some sort of treasure, but not in the traditional sense. The idea of the backpack being full of money or jewels seemed cliche. Pirate treasure and booby traps were too “Goonies” and didn’t fit the mother-son relationship of the story.
I couldn’t quite figure out what the treasure would be. I knew they would find healing in the cave, but would it be wrong to remove the healing elements? How much water could they take? What about plants?
One of my closest and most wonderful friends is a folk herbalist and we have been deep in conversation lately about Mugwort. I’ve been working to establish an understanding and a relationship with the plant. I dream of growing a magical garden like she has. My friend, Ivanna, shows such love and reverence for her plants, I realized that I wanted to cultivate some of the same for my characters. (You can find a link to her website and offerings here, or in the links below.)
I didn’t want them to just take from the plants, I wanted through their kindness, that the medicine would be given freely. I did not want them to just take (as is so often the case of humanity). I realized, the treasure was to bring these medicinal plants to the surface, to care for them and nurture them and allow them to grow children of their own.
This allowed my characters to really come to the surface with a treasure beyond money, something that connects them to the Earth and their experience.
A last note; I’ve always loved caves. I grew up visiting Crystal Caverns in Sequoia & Kings National park. I’ve repelled in Moaning Caverns near Columbia in California and have taken several journeys into Black Chasm near Placerville, California. In Alabama, we had the opportunity to visit DeSoto Caverns, and in Ohio, we got visit Ohio Caverns. In Krakow, Poland, we visited Wawel Hill where the Smok Wawelski (the Wawel Dragon) lives. And in Germany we visited sandstone caves, The Schlossberghöhlen in Homburg, that were used as hiding places during war and are now used to help children with breathing problems, as the minerals help to open the lungs. Caves, for me, are not frightening or unknown, they allow me a sense of our history, of humanity and art. There are the fundamental starting place of life, the womb of Mother Earth.
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“I suspect some pain killers would help,” my husband said.
We were driving through the dark central valley cornfields, late at night, on our way to visit family. We had been driving for over five hours, the light of the sun had faded long ago, with only a few stops to stretch our legs.
“I suspect that you have no idea what it is to be in my body,” I replied.
“Just take something!”
“Seriously, I wish I could just pop a pill and my body would somehow calm down. But it doesn’t. You know that.”
He was quiet.
I was quiet.
My right hip was not quiet.
It was big and loud and never shut up. My left ankle was talking tonight too, talking of fire and electricity. My shoulder was yelling at me as it pulled on my spine. My body ached in the loud angry way that no one else got to hear.
I’m the only one that gets to hear my body talk. I often wish I could plug it into a microphone, plug it into someone else’s brain, find a machine that reported back on every nerve commentary.
Instead, I sat silently adjusting each muscle, stretching and kneading and rubbing.
The road was two-lane and dark, the shadow of the corn stalks waving to our right and our left.
“What’s that glow?”
The fields ahead of us, along the horizon, radiated a soft yellow light that seemed to have appeared from the deep darkness.
“We’re not near town yet, are we?” I asked.
“Not enough for that kind of light,” he said.
“Maybe they’re harvesting tonight?”
The light ahead of us began to brighten, going from a soft reflective glow to something more defining. The cornfields around us began to have shadow and definition.
Suddenly, the light was gone, as if a switch was turned off and the night was silent.
“That was weird…”
As he said the words, a pinpoint of light lifted from the horizon before us. Lifted, levitated, it seemed to hover. Colors shimmered around it, reflective and translucent. The dash lights of our car began to flicker as the engined sputtered, finally turning dark, leaving us only with a focus of that single point of light.
“Are you seeing this?”
His voice was awed, seemingly unaware of the car’s failure. I noticed the death of our engine, but the ball of light was more important. It engaged me. It wanted me to step from the car, to stand amongst the stalks.
I found myself standing in the middle of the road, my husband’s hand in mine, not knowing how it was I got there.
The circle of light lifted higher, a rainbow of color trailing behind it.
Without warning, the light shot skyward. At its pinnacle, the glowing orb seemed to hit a barrier, crashing through our atmosphere like a pebble hitting a still pond; waves of rainbow energy radiated outward. Light filled the sky, the colors streaked as if a paint brush stroked the heavens, floated outward from the pressure wave.
I had never seen the Aurora Borealis, the shades of blues and purples and greens, but I felt that I was witnessing its glory.
Swirling and twisting, the colors became a dome over us, the light descending, melting through me and my vision, until I could hold the color in my hands.
As the color swirled behind my eyes, I lost all sensation of pain. I was filled with beauty and wonder. My skin glowed, my husband glowed. I felt divinely connected to something more, something greater than me. My body relaxed into oneness and I understood how hard it was to exist in a human body, how much work it took being alive.
I don’t know how long I relaxed into the light, how long I stood in the middle of the road holding my husband’s hand, tranquil and at peace, when my hip let out an internal cry.
My hand ripped itself from his, clutching at my leg. My ankle, my shoulder, my back, they were all talking to me, burning and throbbing. How, for just those moments, however long those moments were, had I forgotten? How had my body misplaced the pain of living?
“Well that was weird…” I began, turning to my husband. Still he looked up at the sky, his mouth slightly slack and his eyes unfocused. “Hey,” I said, rubbing his arm. “Are you okay?”
He didn’t respond to me and his eyes seemed to be glowing with color. Color that swirled as if a reflection, but the sky was clear, there were no lights, no variations, only the stars stood out brilliantly against the blackness.
His eyes emanated color as if from the inside. Light flickered from his nose with every breath, there was luminosity in his ears. Even light escaped from his slightly open mouth. Under his skin, he seemed to glow.
He didn’t respond to my voice, so gently I moved my husband back to the car, helping him to sit, putting his feet into the passenger side. When I went around to the driver’s side, the key still in the ignition, the car started easily.
“We’re maybe 30 minutes to town, just hold on in there, I’m going to take you to the hospital.”
He didn’t respond within his world, wherever he was. His eyes swirled with unfocused radiance.
We came to the end of the cornfield, to plowed open land. Clusters of rabbits stood looking up at the sky. Beyond them was a pack of coyotes. The coyotes stood silent, their muzzles pointed at the stars. There was one however, it seemed to have a broken leg, that limped around the others, sniffing them.
“Pain,” I said quietly. “The poor coyote is in pain.”
As we drove closer to town, I began to notice more cars parked in the middle of the lanes and along the sides of the road. We came to the bridge that marked the town boundary; it was impassable with people, lined up and hypnotized by something I could no longer see.
I parked our car along the edge of the road and carefully helped my husband out. The hospital was only a few miles from here, I could guide him there.
As we crossed the river, weaving in and out of these empty bodies, the water itself seemed to reflect swirling light, as if it had absorbed the phosphoresce.
In the distance, I heard weeping. I left my husband standing amongst the others and tried to find the small little cries.
Curled up against the edge of the bridge was a little girl, her brown pigtails curled up on top of her head. She wore a thick purple cast on her arm.
“Hi,” I said quietly.
“I want my mommy and daddy!”
“I know, can I help you find them?”
“They’re right there, but they won’t talk to me.” She began to sob now and I saw a few of the women on the bridge move, tiny movement, as if the child’s tears was awakening something within them.
The girl pointed to a man and a woman, holding hands and staring at the sky.
“I see your cast,” I said to the girl. “It’s pretty. Did you break your arm?”
The little girl nodded, “I fell out of a tree.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“It hurts and I want my mommy. And I’m hungry. And I have to go potty.”
With that last statement, the child let out a wail. A few more women began to move, as if struggling to wake from a dream.
“I have an idea,” I said to the little girl. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”
I made my way back to my husband.
“I’m sorry sweetie, if you can hear me, but I have to give this I try.”
And then I raised my hand and I slapped him.
The rainbows took a moment to melt away, but his eyes cleared.
“What the hell? Did you just hit me?”
He looked around at the people on the bridge, confused. I smiled as he rubbed his cheek, gave him a quick kiss, and returned to the little girl, still sniffling.
“I think your parents will wake up if we can make them feel something that hurts. But I don’t want to hurt them.”
“I had a sticker in my shoe once, it hurt,” said the child.
“That’s a great idea. It may take a little longer for them to wake up… can you help me collect some sharp rocks?”
The little girl and I began to gather rocks from the roadway, slipping them into the space of her parent’s shoes, where the rocks would press against the tender flesh.
My husband was once again staring at the sky, his eyes radiating a gentle glow of color. Apparently I hadn’t hit him hard enough and he was back in his bliss. I found a particularly sharp rock and placed it against his ankle bone, making sure the shoe applied pressure.
The awakening was slow. Eyes cleared and then eyes returned to rainbow translucence. It was a cycle of pain and awareness, a cycle of disappearing into tranquility.
When the aliens came, they did not come in fancy ships or human form. They came as bliss and joy and beauty. They came to distract us. But they did not know pain.
The pain took the rainbows away.
The hypnosis spread like a virus, circling the globe in a matter of days. All one needed to do is look in the swirling colors behind the iris of the infected and the light awoke in them.
There were deaths, although not as many as you might imagine. The lights in the sky made vehicles inoperable for only those few minutes. Crashes were avoided simply by the refusal of machines to operate. The radiating light encompassed only a small area of sky, and whether it was luck or divine planning, no aircrafts were flying in the waves of tranquility.
Some pilots reported no fly zones in the area and others reported aircrafts refusing to start. The aliens, if that is what we saw, wanted to survive. Crashing would kill the host.
The body could not stay in this state forever, it is too strong for that; but many did slip in and out of consciousness over time. There were those that stood in the glory of the color until the sun began to burn their skin. Hunger becomes pain in time, bladders become full, muscles begin to cramp, discomfort grows.
Most people have some sense of pain now. There are bracelets that give a steady mild shock, enough sensation to keep from disappearing into the light. On the opposite side, the development of pain management has grown and many choose to sleep in the radiance of the light, the removal of discomfort has become a sedative.
It has become a drug in a sense, a place to escape from the sadnesses of the world. For those living in chronic distress, new medications allow pain to dissolve and thus, the user to disappear into a few hours of bliss.
I tend to overlook my pain these days. When the aliens came, we expected them to come in ships and bodies. We did not know if they would be friend or foe, if they would bring with them wisdom or destruction. Never did we anticipate that they could teach us that on somedays, our pain can be a gift. Pain is the tether the connects us to this body and I am not ready to let this body go.
Several years ago, my husband, daughter, and I were driving to see my parents who live in the Sierra Nevada foothills, away from light pollution and having minimal neighbors. The skies above their home is considered military airspace. (This is not as unusual as many might suspect. I’ve included a link to military airspace over the United States.) Military airspace is used in training and support of military mission and requires different permissions for general aviators.
It was late at night, around 11 pm, and as we drove up their road, we noticed a glow of light softly lighting up the base of mountains in front of us. From our distance, the light must have covered several miles and couldn’t have been from a small source.
I thought there was fire. The glow was broad and yellow and stretched along the base of the mountains from East to West. I don’t remember seeing it turn on, it was more that it gradually became apparent.
We were all discussing the light and where it could be coming from when it abruptly turned off and a small ball of light shot directly up into the sky. The light stopped and hovered over the mountains before shooting to the right, crossing a huge distance and hovering over a different set of mountains. The light then dropped low, out of our site, before shooting up again and disappearing.
My husband was a pilot for the USAF at the time and he had never seen anything move like this. I certainly hadn’t either. We arrived at my parent’s home within minutes and were excitedly reliving for them what we had seen. At first, they assumed we were playing a trick on them. We weren’t. All three of us had experienced this object and none of us had an explanation.
I don’t know what it is we saw. Being military airspace, perhaps we witnessed an aircraft with amazing speed and maneuverability. Perhaps we were in the right place at the right time to experience alien technology. Whatever it was, it impacted my view around life outside our current existence.
I didn’t want to write a standard alien story, they have been done well and trying to rewrite one feels like reinventing the wheel. So I began to consider an unlikely alien living within our midst.
I live with chronic pain, and while I often have it under control, there are times that I have flare ups. I’m in one right now which made this idea closer to my thinking. It also made writing this week exceptionally difficult and I wanted to quit this story more than once.
What if pain itself were the alien. Or a virus. Viruses themselves seem to be perfect possibilities within the realm of an alien living and hiding among us. Viruses are often stealthy and can present differently in different people.
Looking at what we know (or don’t know) now about Covid, and long Covid specifically, we can see the different presentation in different populations of people. What if my pain were actually a defense against the virus in the story. What if my active pain receptors kept an alien virus at bay?
I can’t really find a happy ending here; living with pain really isn’t a happy ending for anyone.
The little girl woke with a gasp, her heart pounding, sweat running into her eyes. She looked around her room, stuffed animals piled in the corners, a little pink nightlight glowing next to the bed. She grabbed her favorite bear, Honey, nestled next to her, and dragged him from the twin size bed, across the floor, across the hallway, and into her parent’s room.
The little girl crawled up the steep side of the bed, snuggling in next to her mom.
“What’s wrong, baby,” said her mother, wrapping her in her soft arms, her voice slurred with sleep.
“I had a bad dream.”
“What happened?” responded her mother, holding her more closely.
“I dreamed I was an old lady.”
“Not yet, my baby, not yet.”
Her mother’s began to softly snore and Aubrey’s eyes grew heavy, safe against her mother’s breasts.
Aubrey woke with a gasp, her heart pounding, sweat running into her eyes. Her room was different; no pile of stuffed animals in the corner, the walls were no longer pink but a deep blue, there were posters of bands she had never heard of on the walls. Her body felt different; longer, fuller. Honey sat, thread-worn, on the top of a dresser.
“Aubrey! Wake up! You’re going to be late!”
Aubrey didn’t know how to move in this body. She pulled back the sheets and saw… breasts! Her legs stretched down to the base of the bed. She awkwardly tumbled out and saw clothes crumpled on a chair; jeans and a tee-shirt. There was a bra there and it took her a few moments to figure out how to put it on. It was binding and pinched her skin.
“Not today,” Aubrey said to herself as she took a few more moments figuring out how to remove the torture device. She saw a green sweatshirt on the floor in the corner and pulled it over her head instead of the t-shirt. She pulled on the jeans from the chair and groaned at their tightness.
“5 minutes! If you want me to drive you, you have 5 minutes,” her mom yelled from beyond the bedroom.
Aubrey threw open her door and ran to the bathroom. Seeing herself for the first time in the mirror, she was paralyzed. She remembered her eyes, but her hair had darkened from her childhood blonde into deeper brown and it tangled down to her waist. She had curves; not just breasts but hips and a butt. She was frozen in time, staring at her reflection.
Her mom peeked into the bathroom, “Hurry up, I have a meeting and I can’t be late.”
Aubrey turned to her mom, her face more lined than she remembered. There was grey at her temples and her hair had been cut to a shoulder length style, not the long curls she remembered.
“You okay, sweetie?” Her mom’s voice dropped in concern. “You look pale.” Her mother stepped into the bathroom and touched her face. “You don’t feel hot.”
“I’m, I think I’m okay.” Aubrey looked at her mother in wonder. “I just need to brush my hair and I think I’m ready?” Aubrey asked it as a question, because she wasn’t sure what else there was to do.
“No make-up today?”
Aubrey saw the brushes and pallets scattered on the counter, not having any idea where to start. She looked back at her mother.
“It’s good. You know I like your face better without make-up anyway.” Her mother smiled. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, just give me a sec.”
Her mother gave her a second look as she walked from the bathroom.
“Don’t forget to brush your teeth! Your breath is atrocious.” Her mom smiled at her as she closed the bathroom door.
Teeth! When she was smaller, her mom had to always remind her to brush her teeth and helped her get to the backs. She wasn’t sure which toothbrush was hers in the cup, there were three. She grabbed the purple one and covered it with paste, shoved it in her mouth and began to scrub.
The door burst open and a little girl burst in. She looked like Aubrey used to look, with thin blond hair and a sprinkle of freckles across her nose. The little girl stopped when she saw Aubrey and her face wrinkled into a tight knot.
“Mom!!! Aubrey’s using my toothbrush.”
“I’m… oh, hi, I’m sorry.” Aubrey pulled it out of her mouth and stared at it for a second.
The little girl crossed her arms.
“You are so gross,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re my sister.”
Her mom dropped her off near a fence line where groups of kids stood scattered. She saw smoke drifting up from one circle, another group was all in black. There was a group of cheerleaders and, next to them, tall muscular boys throwing a football.
One of the cheerleaders came skipping over to Aubrey, she had a high blonde ponytail and endless perkiness.
The girl gave her a quick hug and then stepped back, raising her perfectly manicured eyebrow.
“Oh my God, you aren’t wearing a bra! And… why aren’t you wearing any makeup? Where’s your portfolio?”
“My portfolio?” Of all the things this strange girl said, it seemed to be the strangest of all.
“You have your presentation today. In art… Why are looking at me like you have no idea what I’m talking about?
Aubrey was silent, her heart far too loud in her chest.
“I’m taking you to the office, I’ll tell the teacher you’re sick. Seriously Aub, maybe you need to lay down and take a nap.”
Aubrey woke with a gasp, her heart pounding. There was someone laying next to her, his body behind her, pressed against hers. His bare legs were wrapped around her legs, tangled together. His hand cupping her naked breast under her green and blue argyle sweater.
“What’s wrong, baby?” came a sleepy voice.
Aubrey froze. This room was not the nurses office where she had fallen asleep. Not her bedroom. They were cuddling tightly on a twin bed, another twin bed was unmade across from them.
“Where am I?” Aubrey whispered, afraid to move.
She felt the male shape nuzzle into her neck, kissing her.
“What do you mean?” he whispered back, his hand moving from her breast and tracing her belly.
Aubrey didn’t speak, unsure that she could even breath.
His hand stopped moving, frozen.
“Aubrey? Aub? Are you okay?” His hand pulled back suddenly. “Oh! Oh, my God. Aubrey. I’m sorry. I thought you wanted this! I thought, last night…”
The boy climbed over her wearing only his underwear, frantically pulled on his jean that were crumpled on the floor. She couldn’t see the front of his face, only the softly curling brown locks that lay at the nape of his neck.
Aubrey found her voice, pushing herself to sit on the edge of this little bed, “No, I didn’t mean that! I, I just felt like I was dreaming for a moment. I didn’t know where I was. I feel a little… disconnected?”
The boy turned around and Aubrey could see that he wasn’t a boy, not really. He wasn’t a man either. He inhabited some in-between space. He was tall and thin and the look on his face felt desperately like hope. His eyes were a strong blue and she felt like she knew him, knew his eyes. She was captivated and felt, the only way she could describe it, she felt thirsty for him.
“Aubrey,” he got down on his knees and held her hands in his, “I know it sounds crazy, but I have loved you from the moment I saw you. The fact that you are even here, in my dorm room, feels like a dream to me too. I love you.”
Aubrey looked deep into his eyes. She had no idea what his name was, but the familiarity was there.
Maybe this is all a dream, she thought, as she traced his face with her hand.
“I love you too,” she said, “come lay back down with me.”
The young man smiled softly and crawled back into bed.
Aubrey woke with a cry, her heart pounding, sweat running into her eyes, pain bearing down as she pushed and felt pressure that felt to split her in two.
“Push! You have to push, Aubrey! One more and the baby’s head will be out!”
Aubrey pushed, if only to satisfy what her body was telling her she must do.
Standing on her left, holding her hand, was a man with deep blue eyes. Blue eyes that she knew, worried and full of anxiety. He was older now, his hair a bit darker and his face stronger. He no longer had the face of a boy.
He looked down at her, wiping her forehead.
“Aubrey, you are doing so good. She’s almost here.”
“That’s it! Your baby’s head is out.”
Aubrey looked down and saw the great swell of her belly, her legs spread into foot stirrups, the top of a head with a surgical cap between her knees. A face looked up, a woman’s face. She smiled.
“You are doing wonderfully, on the next contraction, you are going to push your baby out.”
Aubrey could hear the beeps of a monitor and saw a nurse standing back.
“Alright, one more big push,” said the doctor.
Aubrey pushed and the man on her left squeezed her hand, as if he was trying to give her his strength, or perhaps match her own.
There was a baby’s cry as Aubrey felt a piece of her soul leave her body.
The baby was laid on her chest, wrapped in a towel.
“You have a healthy baby girl, congratulations,” said the doctor.
Aubrey looked at the man to her side, tears were running down his face.
“She’s perfect,” he said as he bent down and kissed Aubrey. “You didn’t even think you were fertile.”
“I guess I was wrong,” said Aubrey.
“Best mistake ever,” he said with a soft smile.
Aubrey cradled the child in her arms and instinctively lifted her to her breast. The newborn mouthed her mother’s nipple, not ready to latch but already aware.
Aubrey woke with a jerk as the door to the bedroom softly slid open. A strong body lay to her left, and she felt warm and comforted under the umbrella of his deep even breath.
“Mommy,” came a soft voice.
“Hi baby, what’s wrong?”
“Come cuddle with me,” she said.
Light from the moon through the window showed Aubrey a little girl with brown hair curling about her shoulders; she had her father’s eyes.
The little girl crawled into Aubrey’s open arms, laying her head onto her mother’s shoulder, nestling deep into her warmth.
Aubrey snuggled closer into the man she loved, wrapped in the love of this child.
She felt safe.
Aubrey woke softly, as the world came in focus around her. The room was full of golden light and she could make out the form of people around her bed.
“It’s okay mom, we’re here.”
Aubrey’s eyes began to clear and she saw the woman, with big blue eyes, was holding her hand, tracing the lined and worn skin with her finger. Her daughter.
“You are so beautiful,” said Aubrey. Her voice was cracked and unused, her throat felt dry. Her daughter’s hair was streaked with grey and she had lines around her eyes.
“No mom, you are the beautiful one.”
“And who is this?” asked Aubrey as she saw three teenagers, two leaning against the wall, a boy and a girl, and the smallest, perhaps around 12, sitting with a bear in her lap, her hair a soft brown. A man stood at the doorway, perhaps a bit older than her daughter.
The bear was worn and loved.
“Helen brought you Honey, mom. She thought you might want to have her back for awhile.”
“Hi grandma,” said the little girl as she shyly brought the bear over.
“Why, I don’t remember when I last saw this bear.”
She lifted him up, her arms were lined and deeply bruised, the wrinkles carved into her flesh.
“Mom, you gave Honey to Vincent when he was born, do you remember?”
The boy against the wall gave her a little wave. He looked so much like the man with the blue eyes, his eyes perhaps a bit smaller, his hair a bit straighter.
“He looks like your father,” said Aubrey.
“He really does, doesn’t he mom.”
The girl leaning against the wall with long blondish hair spoke up, “And they always say I look like you, grandma!”
“Oh, I don’t think I was half as beautiful as you are,” said Aubrey. The girl blushed and was silent.
“Honey has been loved by all of your grandbabies, mom. You gave him to me, and then you told me that he should be loved by my babies. So Vincent had him until Genevieve was born, and then Genevieve gave him to Helen. Helen has been holding onto him until you were ready to have him again.”
“Where is your father?” asked Aubrey.
“He’s not here with us anymore, mom, don’t you remember?”
Aubrey could see his deep blue eyes, eyes that had been passed to her daughter and to her children.
“I miss him,” she said.
“I know, mom. You are going to see him soon.”
“I would like that, I would like to see his eyes again.”
As the light of the room began to fade, Aubrey heard her daughter as she began to cry. A different light began to glow around her, and Aubrey saw that she was witness to her own life; the five sided pentagram of experience. From infancy to childhood to teenager, to her own adulthood and now old age, she had lived.
Beyond the light, Aubrey began to see shapes taking form. Stepping from a sort of misty transparency, the man with the blue eyes stepped out to meet her. He was holding the hand of a little boy, the little boy who had been meant to be a part of their lives, but hadn’t made it past pregnancy. She remembered how much she had loved this little soul and wanted him to join them.
She saw her parents standing back, young as she had remembered them. Around her husband’s feet sat a myriad of dogs and cats; a giant Rottweiler, a fat little Corgie, a German Sheppard, and a tiger striped shorthair that she remembered as her best cat friend, Molly.
“I’ve missed you all so much,” she said, as she made her way into their arms. She realized that she was still holding her bear, holding her Honey. She bent down to her son, the son she had never met, “This is for you.”
Aubrey woke with a gasp, her heart pounding, sweat running into her eyes. She looked around her room, stuffed animals piled in the corners, a little pink nightlight glowing next to the bed. She grabbed her favorite bear, Honey, nestled next to her, and dragged him from the twin size bed, across the floor, across the hallway, and into her parent’s room.
The little girl crawled up the steep side of the bed, snuggling in next to her mom.
“What’s wrong, baby,” said her mother, wrapping her in her soft arms, her voice slurred with sleep.
“I had a dream.”
“What happened?” responded her mother, holding her more closely.
This story is dedicated to our little boy that never grew past pregnancy and the daughter I’ve had such honor to watch grow into a young woman.
I didn’t start this week thinking it was going to be generational, I started this week thinking about a nightmare (since I am prone to nightmares) and how this nightmare could become real.
I imagined a little girl waking up, climbing into bed with her mom, only it’s not her mom and there is some sort of monster with her mother’s voice and red glowing eyes. She jumps out of bed and runs through the dream (using the required words to create the dreamscape) only to wake up and have the same nightmare start again in the same way.
As I read the words, I realized they were really words that fit into our lives. They weren’t fantasy words that led to nightmares. The hardest to naturally include was pentagram. Pentagrams have 5 points, so what are the 5 points of life and how could I use them to tell this story; infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age.
I divided my words into these 5 sections, leaving out infancy as Aubrey was past that stage of her life. I could have ended the story circling around to her birth, but really wanted to end it with her death… looping to where she wakes from her dream and crawls into bed with her mother; almost a life flashed forward.
I want to clarify, this is a fictional story where I have added connections to my life. I chose to add my personal photos in honor of the real lives we all have, from birth to death. I wanted to connect the ideas to something real and tangible, and for the reader to exchange those faces with the ones that they know. I wanted to add the generations, making this story larger than just the words, making this story about the cycles of life. I included the names of some of my grandparents as Aubrey’s grandchildren; it seemed the right thing to do. The bear in the title photo is my mom’s childhood bear, Smokey.
The part of the story closest to me is the end, where everyone is waiting for Aubrey. It brought up a lot of emotion and continues to every time I edit. I imagined the boy I lost in pregnancy waiting with my husband, waiting with real animal companions that have touched my life. I miss this son, even though I never met him. I miss my cat, Molly.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers reading this. Happy Mother’s Day to my own mom, and my grandma, and my great grandma, and all my mother ancestors before me on both my maternal and paternal side.
If you liked this story, I hope you’ll share it with someone you love. I publish a short story ever week and send it out on Fridays in my weekly newsletter, you can sign up for it here.
I am also in the process of building an art website for originals and prints. If you’d like to know when that is up and running, you can sign up now at Loscotoff Art.
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