On January 1st of this year, my writing partner and I embarked on a journey of 52 weeks, 52 short stories.
The honest reflection on this, here at the halfway mark, is that it has been really hard for me. It has been a battle, a battle between me and my creativity. A battle of creativity.
My mind is a jumble. I am in constant transition of the things I want to create. It’s almost like ADD, but exclusively around creativity.
A few years ago, when I was a member of a local gallery, I would disappear into the creative process, moving into the “zone” where time disappears and everything softens and every bit of art-making calms my nervous system.
The gallery gave me a wall and it was my job to keep that wall filled with my art. In time, however, that requirement became daunting. I was creating art to fill the wall, not because I wanted to create art. I was honored that my art was selling fast enough that I needed to fill those empty spaces, but I was becoming empty.
Julia Cameron in The Artist Way requires artists to commit to the weekly artist date; a way of refilling the creative bucket. It seemed that I was emptying myself faster than I could refill, like a pail with holes down to its base.
One way to keep my creative attention deficit focused was by making new things for the gallery’s gift portion: hand-dyed silk, fairy wands, hand-crafted lavender oil, polymer clay creations, and more. But suddenly, like the art, these became obligations.
Apparently, I do not do well with obligations.
I found myself crying more. I found myself resistant to doing my work days. I found myself not fitting in so well with the other gallery members. I tried to find ways to make it work, but changes in the way the gallery was run pushed me further away. One night, after the gallery Christmas party, I cried hysterically the whole way home; unable to describe how hurt I felt by many of the people there.
And so, just before Covid hit, I left. I said I was leaving because I wanted to write. That was true, but it was also that I had become empty of visual creativity. I was exhausted. I was terribly unhappy, feeling like an odd-shaped puzzle piece sitting in the wrong box.
I took a creative break from art, believing I would take the time to recharge and return to a novel I started years ago. Suddenly we found our world turning in a new direction; Covid. Would they close the schools? Certainly they would only be closed for a few weeks and our kids would be back before the end of the year. I was on the prom committee. We would still have prom, wouldn’t we?
How naive I was.
My husband was deployed, so it was just me and our daughter (plus a dog, cats, and chickens).
Honestly, it was glorious to have no place we had to be (says the overtired introvert.) We watched a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race, starting with the first season, and gloried in their creativity. In Julia Cameron’s words, I took the role of the shadow artist.
We ate goat cheese and chocolate. I started taking a picture of every sunset. Being quarantined can be glorious in that the sunset is a very reliable friend. Even on foggy days, I knew it was there through the mist.
I took a lot of pictures; of the seasons as they changed, of flowers as they grew, of insects and chickens sitting on my lap. I took pictures of my daughter; at a virtual prom, wearing a wig and colored contacts because there was no one there to judge her, in the fog, dressing up.
I asked friends to join me in the Artist Way online, with me acting as facilitator. I also started an online book club. Both groups were large to start but faded in time.
I faded too.
I began to feel like I wasn’t doing either of them for me, I was only doing it based on the obligation of the commitment I made. As long as there were others fully participating, I would follow through on my commitment.
Finally, there were only three of us left; myself, my writing partner, Bridgette, and Deborah. Deborah is able to stick through every commitment like she has uttered an unbreakable spell. (Bridgette commits to not let me or herself down, Deborah commits as part of the fabric of her soul.)
I don’t know if it’s the obligation that drains on me or how much energy I’m putting out in comparison to my intake. I never got tired of the time with my daughter or RuPaul or the sunsets, but those things all fill my leaky bucket.
My commitment to Artist Way and our book club faded. As people began to come out from quarantine, I could no longer maintain either commitment. I think perhaps functioning in the real world is one of the things that drain me.
This last November, I finally finished a commitment that I could feel proud of; I completed 50,000 words in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I didn’t finish the story I was working on (a rewrite of Wizard of Oz) but I did finish the month-long commitment. Eight months later, and I miss the work I was doing on that story. I also miss the work I did the year before, even though I can’t remember if I completed 50,000 words in 2020.
Artist Way helped grow my relationship with my writing support, Bridgette. She stuck it out with me until I faded away. She stuck with the book club too. The last two years of NaNoWriMo have only been successful because of her support.
We had the opportunity to get together this year, at the end of week 25/ the beginning of week 26. It was so wonderful to see her. I honestly felt sad though, sad that I wasn’t done with my week 25 writing and had to focus on that instead of focusing on her. When I talked to her about “maybe we should take this week off and catch up next week?” She firmly set the boundary that she needed to finish.
Honestly, my commitment to her commitment is what got me past week three and has kept me going since. Not only do I have attention deficit when it comes to my creativity, but I am also avoidant and reluctant and can go for years without finishing a thing if I don’t have external goals.
And so here we are. It is week 27 as I write this (week 28 when I finally post) and I have had the opportunity to come and sit on a porch in the cool humidity just a few houses from the Jersey Shore. I’m working to recharge and fill my ever leaky bucket.
I have stories for the first 25 weeks and I fight to find something to say for the week 26, 27, and 28 prompts. I’m behind on those stories, but am also trying to honor this vacation by letting it be a vacation. Week 25 with Bridgette didn’t feel like the retreat I hoped it would be because there was a story hanging over my head.
Writing these stories have started to make me feel like I did at the gallery; a bit resentful at the words and topics, frustrated at what a slow writer I am, resistant, and a bit empty of ideas. I have learned to push myself. My writing is improving. I’m faster. My skills at editing are getting better.
Through this process, I’ve learned that I really miss making art. Isn’t that the way it goes?
I’m starting to think I don’t just have one creative bucket.
I have many creative buckets.
Right now, my short story creative bucket is pretty drained, but my general writing bucket (about life and travel) is still full. My art buckets are also pretty full, having had a few years to fill and repair–and I have a lot of art buckets.
As I photographed New Jersey earlier this week, I was inspired for a series of abstract oil paintings I want to create when I get home based on sunsets here.
The part I struggle with the most is that I committed to 52 weeks, 52 stories. I made a promise not only to Bridgette but to myself. And so, each week (until week 26), I’ve put that commitment before any other creative process. Because I just barely finish my stories on Saturday, it means I take a rest on Sunday (generally to wash dishes that have also been avoided in the name of writing) and then try to start again the following week.
If I could find a pattern of getting my story completed earlier in the week, perhaps I could find time for my other creative buckets. But I do have a life outside of this, and I want to exist in that life too. It is why I probably won’t commit to NaNoWriMo this year; I’m just too tired.
I really miss the other creative aspects of my life. I’m trying to figure out how to balance this experience while also staying true to my goals. My daughter is graduating from high school at Christmas and possibly going away to college next summer. She is my only child, and I’m grateful I’ve found identity (beyond being her mom) in writing and art because while I will miss her desperately, she’ll know that I have goals I am working towards.
I have to continue my work on the 52 stories, even if I don’t end up with a full 52. (I really like the prompts for weeks 26 and 27) but with less rigidity on a time. I have to let go of my guilt at trying to be ready to publish at the same time as Bridgette and give her the freedom to post when she’s ready, even if I’m not.
I have to figure out how to create my own goals, commit to myself, fill the creative buckets and just acknowledge when one is empty and not judge myself too harshly.
263M watched as 274F pushed her mop across the factory floor. The cans of carrots were backing up, but his hands had broken into a slippery sweat. His job was to check for quality; was each can sealed properly, was the simple label on straight?
The labels held no words, only images. The man could not read. Could not remember what words were.
Every day, 274F came through, pushing her mop, her long brown braid tucked under a hairnet. In and out of the steam she moved, always focused on her mop as it danced across the floor.
Every day, his heart beat faster.
Every day, he grew more distracted.
Every day, he questioned this sensation, this desire to look at the woman with the number 274F stamped on her sleeve.
Every day, the burning in his chest made him want to hold his breath until his heart calmed among the sounds of the factory.
Worker 263M had no name other than the one stamped on his uniform. He had no history that he remembered, and up until a week ago, he had no emotion or thought.
These had been taken from him.
He had no memory of the before, and so it had been no great loss.
“263M! You’re falling behind!”
In that moment, she looked up at him. Her eyes, a pale grey, linked with his. Her forehead wrinkled as she tilted her head.
She tilted her head.
An image flashed through his.
He was surrounded by golden grasses, tall to his waist. A young girl stood in front of him. His body was small and they looked eye to eye. The sun was setting and trees lined the horizon.
She held something up to him, a round object with brown hard spikes that curved inward.
Pinecone he thought, finding the unfamiliar word.
Her eyes were pale grey and she tilted her head. She smiled as he took the prickly cone into his hands.
263M felt something heavy come down on his right shoulder as the pain radiated into his hand. He heard the heavy clunk of the can he had been holding as it hit the floor.
The factory came into focus, the whites of the walls, and 263M realized that everyone had slowed their progress. Everyone’s cans were backing up.
“Back to work!” yelled the man at the top of the stairs, overlooking them all.
274F looked back down to the floor, her mop moving side to side, as she disappeared beneath the stairs.
263M’s arm burned. He reached down to pick up the can of carrots, now dented and unsuitable for domestic consumption. He tossed it in the bin under the conveyer belt and continued to check the cans.
As 263M lay down in his bed, the top bunk in a long room, the walls lined with other beds and other numbers, he thought back to 274F’s pale grey eyes.
These sensations were unfamiliar, foreign.
Building inside him, they seemed unreasonable, and yet there was a part of him that sensed unknown pleasure.
He rubbed the scar on the back of his head, a small raised ridge. Each of the male numbers had one, easy to see under their shorn hair. He found himself wondered if 274F had one under her long dark hair.
Other women worked through the factory; cleaning, doing laundry. All carried the flat affect of the men. All wore hair nets and, as he rubbed the scar on the back, he began to wonder if they all had the mark as well.
He lay there, his eyes closed, and saw his hands reach out to her hair, the woman with the pale grey eyes, his hands caressing the back of her neck, testing with the tips of his fingers for the ridge.
The girl in his mind turned to look at him, she was taller now.
She wore a simple linen shift and he could see the shape of her breasts and the curve of her hips. Her pale grey eyes held his gaze.
“Why must you always play with my braid, Gideon? You know that the elders say we aren’t to touch.” But her voice was sing-song and teasing.
A forest of trees stood behind her, a yellow blossom was tucked behind her ear.
“Let’s go in the forest,” she whispered, “where no one can see us.”
She brushed her hand against his and they each turned back, looking through the field, checking for any eyes upon them. Seeing no one, she grabbed his hand and pulled him, laughing towards the trees.
The thick forest surrounded them with dappled light.
As they moved into the shadows she turned and pressed her body into his, pressing him into a tree. She pressed her mouth onto his lips, warm and sweet.
He felt an old ache, deep in the pit of his groin.
“Let go to the treehouse,” she whispered, her lips tickling his ear.
He couldn’t catch his breath and allowed her to lead him, deeper into the forest. She continued to look back at him with her pale grey eyes.
They came to the ladder, branches that they had pieced together and wound with twine when they were children.
This was their hidden place, their childhood home where they snuck to tell stories and imagine their lives together.
It was where they found their first kiss, where their intimacy grew.
He followed her up the ladder to the nest they had made with old blankets.
“What’s this?” she exclaimed as he climbed through the small opening within the wooden planks.
He smiled, knowing she had found his surprise.
He pulled himself through the hole and sat next to her, tracing her ear with his finger. She was focused on a small bark box, with a bow of twine.
“Can I open it?” she asked.
He nodded, watching the light reflect in her pale grey eyes.
“What is it?” she asked, staring at the dark lump sitting at the base of the box.
“One of the traders had it. He said we are supposed to eat it, something called chawk-uh-late. He said it came from the other side of the world.”
“Why did he give it to you?” she asked.
“Because I was willing to trade.”
He smiled, “Let’s try it.”
“Gideon! Those morels were hard to find and they were worth more than this little clump of… chawk… what did you call it?”
“Chawk-uh-late, …something like that.”
But he leaned in and kissed her, stopped her from reprimanding him.
As he pulled back, he said, “The morels will grow there again, and it’s our secret. How often does the trader come through with something new?”
She knew he was right.
She took the piece chocolate from the box and took a tiny bite.
Her forehead wrinkled and she tilted her head in the way that made Gideon love her.
“Bitter,” she said. “But warm and melty. Here, you try.”
Instead of handing him the box, she bit a piece off and held it in her mouth. She pulled Gideon on top of her, pulling his face down to hers, pressing her mouth on his, the warmth of the chocolate melting between them.
The alarm pulled 263M from his dreams.
The men around him sleepily climbed from their bunks in their white shorts, bare feet on cold concrete, and headed to the showers.
263M was slower today, his mind remembering the dream where 274F pulled him to her. He felt himself blush among the emotionless faces, quickly washing in the cold shower.
Today, he felt the cold, felt it run over his skin and felt the discomfort. He wanted to be warm, wanted to be wrapped in her arms again with this food called chocolate melting in their mouths.
“263M!” came a yell from the man at the doorway.
He tried to straighten his face, tried to look empty like the other.
He couldn’t remember how he would have once responded.
“They want you in the infirmary, 263M!”
The men, washing in the cold showers slowed, seemed to shake their heads a bit as if unaware of where they were.
263M wrapped himself in a towel and pulled on a clean uniform, labeled with his number hung at the far end of the hall. Everyday a new jumpsuit, every night the white uniform was thrown in a large cart for washing.
He passed a guard at the door, his face shielded by a dark visor.
“You are expected in the infirmary, 263M.”
263M said nothing but an expression must have shown on his face. The guard looked at him curiously and began to speak, but then seemed to think better of it and said nothing.
263M walked alone down the hallway.
A woman pushed a cart with laundry down the hall. She didn’t acknowledge his existence, only looked straight ahead, her face expressionless.
Sentries stood at different points along the way. As he passed them, they ran a hand held device behind his head.
“Infirmary,” each little machine said and the guards shuffled him off in the proper direction.
The walls were white, the halls were long, and the 263M did not know where he stood within the building. He began seeing red crosses marked in the hallway with arrows pointing in the direction he moved.
There were more women here, washing and cleaning. He watched for the girl with the grey eyes, hoping he would see her again, see her away from the factory. He imagined bumping into her, touching her hand.
He came to a large door with a red cross on it. It opened for him and he found himself inside a large empty white room with hard chairs seated around the edge.
He stood for a moment, looking around, unsure on what to do. Finally he sat. He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He imagined the sensation of her hair. Imagined his feet tangled with hers in the treehouse; just a dream but so real. He could smell the chocolate on her skin and taste the bitterness.
“263M?” said a deep voice.
He jerked up into his chair, eyes opening.
A man with glasses and a clipboard stood in front of him. His hair was light and slicked back as if it were wet.
“I’m Doctor Mislio. You had an event yesterday?”
263M wasn’t sure how to respond. He had never had someone ask him a question before. The men on the floor didn’t speak. The guards directed them and no one spoke in return.
“Come into my office?” said the doctor, and he turned and walked through a white nondescript door.
There were no guards here.
As he walked through the door, he let out an audible gasp.
The walls were not white, they were a deep shade of blue and there was a picture window that looked out past a large concrete field. At the edge of the concrete were two layers of barbed wire fencing. Beyond that stood dense trees, a forest.
Forest, the man thought. Another unfamiliar word.
On the other wall was a dark mirror and 263M was intrigued by the the man staring back at him. He saw the reflection of the doctor behind his desk and understood that the other man was him.
He was tall, much taller than the doctor. He looked strong. His hair was darker than the girls and his eyes a deeper grey. He thought he saw movement behind the glass, and so he turned away.
“Do you like the color?” asked the doctor, sitting down. “Of the walls? I heard your breathing get a bit heavier as you walked in. You must get so used to the white–everything white. I’ve told them they should add some color as enrichment, but they don’t think your people need it.”
263M stood in the middle of the room, unsure on whether he was to respond.
“Sit. It’s all right.” The doctor pointed at a soft grey chair against the wall.
263M sunk into the cushion and immediately felt himself relaxing. He had not know what it was to feel comfort.
“You’re here because you had an event yesterday in the factory. Do you remember?”
The doctor waited, staring at him, saying nothing else.
263M waited, and finally, after minutes seemed to have passed, he nodded.
“Ah! There you are! There is something happening in there. I thought there might be, I noticed you looking in the mirror. You wouldn’t do that if the chip was still functioning properly. Wouldn’t look out the window either.”
263M continued to say nothing, realizing that the little nod of his head was all the man needed to confirm he was now different than the others.
“Tell me, what was it that triggered you to start feeling again? Do you even know?”
263M stayed silent but thought of the woman’s grey eyes.
“No matter, your chip needs an extension. I think you’re fine for today, but we will schedule you for tomorrow, first thing. You will return to the line.”
263M continued to sit in the chair, staring at the doctor behind the desk.
The doctor didn’t look up when he said, “You can go now, Gideon.”
Gideon. The girl with the grey eyes called me Gideon in my dream. Is my name really Gideon then?
The doctor pressed a button under his desk and a guard came to the door.
“Escort him back to the factory line. Keep a watch on him, he’s starting to remember. We’ll fix it in the morning.”
The guard nodded and pulled 236M from his chair, grabbing him by the upper arm and moving him out of the office, out of the empty room, and down the hallway.
As the guard led him through the white halls. He saw more women here, pushing carts, cleaning floors. They seemed to glance at him, make eye contact, and then look away. Their faces were not as empty, their faces showed life.
They gave a little scratch of their ears or cheeks. They pulled up an eyebrow or the side of a lip. But always, they returned to flat affect as quickly as they had shown him emotion.
The guard took him to the factory floor.
“Find your spot, work your day. Whatever you think you’re feeling will be gone in the morning. You might as well enjoy it.”
The guard released his arm and pushed him in the direction of the other men. He moved to his spot at the conveyer belt and the wave of cans began. He checked them, he tossed them in the bin if there was an error, he pushed them on if they were in good shape.
He daydreamed of the woman.
Daydreamed of his fingers in her hair, of her mouth on his.
He daydreamed of her hand tracing his arm.
They sat on the forest floor, a book spread out between them. She was older again, her hair loose now around her shoulders.
“I can’t believe you were able to trade this for the morels,” she said.
“I can’t believe no one has followed us and found our spot,” he said.
She traced her finger over the illustration in the book; a heavily muscled man with a thick beard holding a scepter. Lighting bolts flew through an illustrated sunrise, an eagle sat on his shoulder.
“I wish I could read the words,” she said.
“The trader said it is called a book, from a land called Rome, and this was their king. His name was Jupiter. It was said that Jupiter struck down his enemies with lighting and eagles.”
“Eagles?” she asked doubtfully?
236M felt something tap against his foot. He had managed to keep the cans moving, although he didn’t think he’d given them any glance. He was sure he had allowed bad ones through, but no longer cared.
Looking down he saw a mop, pushing back and forth against his foot, slopping water over his thin shoes. His eyes moved up the mop to the woman who held it.
Her pale grey eyes looked intently at his. Her mouth smiled slightly and for just a second, she reached her right hand out and delicately touched his hand which held a can of carrots.
“Remember me,” she whispered and then moved away with her mop.
He saw her under a canopy of trees with yellow blossoms. Their hands were wrapped in twine and she wore a crown of flowers, her hair cascading to her waist. He slipped a thin golden ring on her finger, a negotiation from the trading wagon.
“We are bound, Gideon. You are my husband and I am your wife, forever.”
He looked into her pale grey eyes.
“We are bound, Rebecca, forever. You are my wife and I am your husband.”
They kissed under the yellow trees.
“263M! Pay attention!” yelled a voice from the stairs.
Gideon forgot the cans and begin to turn, looking for the woman. She was near the wall now, near the stairs.
“Rebecca!” he yelled. She looked up at him, her eyes widening.
He felt hands close on his upper arms, pushing him down.
They were back in the forest, hiding in the depths of the shadows.
“You have to run, Gideon. I’m not as fast as you are.”
“I’m not going to leave you.”
“You have to,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “Come back for me, if you can. But you have to get away.”
Hoods came down over their heads. Hands tightened around his shoulders. In his memory, he heard her screams.
The tide of memory came down over him.
His childhood friend, his Rebecca, playing with toys in the dirt as their fathers farmed and their mothers processed the yellow grain. Running through the fields. Running through the forest. Building a ladder that could be pulled up and hidden in their little playhouse in the trees. Finding where the morels grew, sneaking there together, having enough for the village, having enough to trade for exotic treasures. The morels brought attention to their little home. They were no longer hidden from the world.
The hands pinched into his flesh, pushing him down. He was back in the white walls of the factory. The men moved like robots as they checked the cans of vegetables moving down the conveyer belt.
Rebecca, standing under the stairs, was looking around frantically, like a bird searching for escape.
Gideon heard a thunk, the hands loosened on his arms, and the man holding him sunk to the floor.
Behind him stood number 102M; older, grizzled, grey. He held a can up in the air, its lower rim dripping red blood.
“Run,” the old man said, his expression flat.
Gideon turned to Rebecca, her hand reaching out to him.
Whistles blew. Guards ran in, down the stairs, from corners.
The men at the conveyor belts slowed until they were frozen and flat.
And then a can flew through the air.
And then another.
The air was full of heavy projectiles. Cans of carrots and potatoes knocked the guards to their knees.
Gideon reached Rebecca and she dropped her mop, leading him to a side door hidden just beyond the staircase where she stood, the inner workings of the factory.
Women inside were cutting the vegetables, steam filled the room as they were blanched in huge metal cauldrons. The women did not look up from their cutting. A guard lay dead on the floor, a paring knife jutting from his neck.
An older woman, number 212F, stood holding the door open on the opposite side of the room.
This led to a long white hallway and as they ran, more doors opened. More women ushered them silently through, saying nothing, leading their way through a maze of hallways, upstairs, downstairs, through open rooms and tiny closets.
Finally, they found themselves in a dark hallway with a single light at the far end. This light was different. It was golden and reflected through a barred pane of glass.
They reached the door together, a key stuck out from the doorknob.
They turned the knob and saw the expanse of concrete stretched out before them. A gate stood at the end of the concrete pad, unlatched and slightly open.
A guard stood at the gate.
Rebecca slipped the key from the door into her hip pocket and said, “Are you ready? We have to run.”
“What about the guard?” he said.
She reached up and felt the scar on the back of Gideon’s head. “The guard is like us, he was implanted this morning.”
They ran, hand-in-hand across the expanse of concrete.
The guard stood silent, his eyes glazed over, no expression on his frozen face.
Gideon and Rebecca slipped through the gate and into the forest. They ran through the duff, under the dark canopy, and finally, hearing no one behind them, stopped to rest in the hollow opening of an old tree.
They slid to the ground, catching their breath, slowly calming their hearts.
Finally, Gideon turned to the woman with the grey eyes. He reached his hand up to caress her face. She rested her cheek into his hand and gazed at him, her head tilted in the way he had come to love.
Rebecca leaned forward, pressing him against the inner bark of the tree, pressing her mouth to his.
“I knew you could remember” she whispered against his mouth.
“What about the others?” he asked.
“Our rebellion has only begun,” she said and pulled him down into the warm earth.
When I was a little girl, somewhere around third grade, I used to spend the night at my best friend’s house. It was a two-door house—one in the front, one in the kitchen—two bedrooms and a single bath with a combined living room and dining room. Just past my best-friend’s bedroom was another room. A dark room with little light and old wood paneling on the walls.
I imagine the room was something else at one point, perhaps an add-on or something unfinished, maybe an old storage shed.
They set it up to be a guest bedroom with a bed and a TV. That’s where we would sleep.
My best friend had something my family didn’t, and I looked forward to every moment we were allowed to watch; HBO. MTV. These were the days of unending music videos.
We would lay in that bed with music videos running all night.
It felt secretive. It felt like lying to my parents. Was I allowed to watch MTV back then? I don’t think so; that and Three’s Company were off limits.
It also felt creative and exciting and mind bending.
One night, and it is possible it was a dream, a video came on long past my best friend had gone to sleep. Even now, some 40 years later, I remember the impact it had on me.
The entire video was in shades of white and involved humans without emotion. It was very long to my child’s mind—like a short film—much longer than the other videos of the time. I believe it was all instrumental.
The subjects were workers of some sort and they moved in 80’s stilted robotic fashion.
The man, the focus of the video, soon began to feel. He fell in love with a woman still trapped in her numb automation. He tried to wake her up, tried to make her love him back.
She reported him to the authorities, not understanding emotion or love. The authorities took him to surgery, opened his brain, and disconnected the center that allowed for love.
He went back to his routine robotic life.
Suddenly, she woke up and realized she loved him too.
He was simply a robot once again and she was heartbroken.
That was my inspiration for this story.
I never saw that video again in my life but I’ve always wondered what it might be. If you have any idea what this was, please leave a message below or email me; email@example.com
I will die soon. The sign over the door predicts my fate.
I sit amongst the bones of six million Parisian. I have become frail and tired. I miss the sun. I miss being warm.
I remember the day that the world changed. May 30, 2041. As the world woke, from time zone to time zone, people were missing. Those who saw it said it was like watching a picture fade until the person was gone. Wives, husbands, children, whole communities.
I was hiding in Paris. Hiding from my old life. Starting a new one.
I’d dreamed of freedom as a little girl, watching the buffalo as they wandered across the plains of Montana. My parents made me always wear a dress and keep my hair braided and clean.
I wanted the braids to come loose. I wanted to wear pants and dance under the moonlight.
But there was no escape from my tiny Montana town. No escape from our church that had wrapped me in its communal arms; the motherboard of our community, the backbone in which everyone and everything connected. No escape from my rigid parents, the role of dutiful daughter, one of three girls; me, the youngest.
Until I became the dutiful wife.
I was only 17 when the new youth pastor arrived. He was beautiful and mysterious to my small world. He was 22 and I imagined him giving me the freedom I had always craved.
He kissed me under a sycamore tree and carved our names into the bark—Jeremiah and Jenny—sealing our commitment to each other.
I remember our wedding.
It was my 18th birthday and I wore my mother’s yellowing wedding dress; high collared and buttoned at the wrist. My hair hung in long brown braids. The Montana Tulip was in bloom and I wore a flower crown picked from my mother’s front yard.
My parents sat in the first row looking proud at their place of honor—their new stature within the church.
The very first night, he hit me.
I didn’t know how to leave or what life could look like beyond the plains with the buffalo.
I stayed for another year, hiding the bruises under long sleeves and long dresses. He began to talk about children, and I knew I couldn’t bring them into this world, not with him as their father.
One night, after dinner with my parents, I excused myself to their bathroom. I snuck into their bedroom and lifted a secret loose board in the floor.
I took $300, hoping it wasn’t enough to be missed right away, and folded it into my restictive bra. I saw an envelope tucked beneath the old tin box. Inside were our birth certificates–one, two, and three–my sisters and I.
I took them all.
I went home with my husband and allowed him to beat me one last time.
As he lay snoring, I slipped out the back door and ran to the end of our country road where my sister was waiting for me. She drove me to the bus station in the next town over.
She kissed me goodbye, told me to go with God, and slipped another $103 into my hand.
It’s all I had, she said.
I tried to give it back to her.
You need it more than I do, she said. Don’t tell me where you’re going. I won’t be able to lie to them.
I gave her the envelope with her birth certificate and that of our sisters’.
Now you can go somewhere if you want to, I said. Give it to sis for me?
A bus left for Idaho at 6 am, and I was on it.
I made my way to New York, always looking over my shoulder. I thought I could get lost there. I took a job as a waitress and saved every penny I could, sleeping in a crowded women’s shelter at night with screaming babies and exhausted women.
But I was free, as free as I could be.
I applied for a passport.
I had seen the Eiffel Tower in an encyclopedia at school once. I’d only been allowed to go to school through the 6th grade.
Why do girls go to school? my father used to say. You need to learn from your mother, how to churn butter and care for the land.
But still, I dreamed of looking out over that dreamlike city of Paris.
Never did I imagine that I would die in its underbelly.
My passport came and I carried it like treasure, tucked into a cloth belt that sat hidden at my waist along with the money I made.
I didn’t feel safe, but I was afraid to fly; didn’t know how to buy an airplane ticket or what an airport even looked like.
Until the day came that I walked into my waitress job and another waitress said, A man came looking for you today, Jenny. He left this for you. Said he’d be back.
A red tulip.
I slipped out the back, didn’t even collect my last paycheck. I had seen the signs for JFK on the subway. I asked other women for help and they seemed to understand the terror in my eyes. They called me honey and darling and directed me each step of the way.
The airport was huge with people moving everywhere. I didn’t understand how to buy a ticket or how to ask questions and finally slumped into a corner and began to cry.
An older woman in a uniform came up to me, a cap on her head and a pin with wings on her chest.
Are you okay? she asked.
What could I say that could explain my ignorance.
I’ve never been to an airport before, I said. But I need to get out of the city.
Do you have a ticket? she asked.
I shook my head. I have money though. And a passport.
The woman smiled.
Do you know where you want to go?
I’d like to see the Eiffel Tower. I saw it in a book once.
She pulled her phone out of her pocket and I thought perhaps she’d forgotten me.
Finally, she said, There is a flight leaving for Paris in about 5 hours, I can show you how to buy a ticket. I’m Lisbet, you can call me Liz. Do you have a name?
She must have seen the panic on my face, but seemed to understand my thoughts.
Once you’re through those gates, she whispered conspiratorially, only someone who has bought a ticket will be able to go through. Whoever you’re trying to get away from, do they know you’re here?
I shrugged. They had found me in the city.
Come on, she said.
She took me to a counter with a woman who had on a uniform with the same logo.
Hi Celia, she said to the woman behind the counter, this is a friend of mine. I’d like to buy her a ticket for the 13:20 to Paris. And I want to make sure she can wait in the VIP lounge until the flight leaves. Can we make sure this happens?
She pulled out her credit card.
I tried to protest, but she turned to me and said, You don’t look like you have much. Let me help you.
Thank you, I whispered.
For the first time in my life, I felt loved, loved by someone who didn’t even know me. Someone who wanted nothing from me.
The woman behind the counter asked for my passport and the idea of taking it from my hidden belt terrified me. I realized I was still wearing my apron. I used it to hide my legs as I reached up under my simple dress and pulled the passport from the belt.
Both women averted their eyes while also making a barrier so that others wouldn’t notice my caution.
Do you have any bags? The woman behind the desk asked.
I shook my head no.
Soon, I had my passport back.
You’re going to need that to get through security, said Liz, and again to get on your flight. I recommend we get you some other clothes so that it’s easier for you.
I nodded my head.
I saw your name was Jennifer, on your ticket?
I go by Jenny, I said.
She took me through security, flashing a card that seemed to stop all questions. She bought me pants with elastic at the waistband and a soft sweatshirt. She tucked my long hair up into a baseball cap and put sunglasses over my eyes.
I tried to pay, but she wouldn’t let me, claiming she had needed to use the points on her card. I didn’t know what she meant but felt a growing excitement.
There, I’m going to take you to the VIP lounge, but even if whoever you’re running from sees you, I don’t think they’ll recognize you.
She turned me to face a mirror on the wall and I didn’t even recognize myself.
She took me to a room with soft chairs and TVs on the wall, coffee and tea next to cookies and sandwiches. Then she went and spoke to someone in another uniform.
Returning, she said, When it’s time for your flight, I’ve arranged for someone to come and get you. They will get you on board. Someone will meet you on the other end and help you get settled for the night.
Then she held her hand out to me as if I were her equal.
I hope you find a good life in Paris, she said.
I remember that sensation of the plane lifting off as if it were yesterday. Holding my breath, my body feeling heavy, and then seeing the world grow smaller beneath us; the ocean stretching out in all directions.
I slept. The first solid sleep I’d had since marrying Jeremiah.
When I arrived in Paris, a woman met me at the gate, holding a sign that simply said, Jenny.
They took me to a small hotel, hidden amongst the other buildings of Paris, and told me that my room had been paid for a month. There was a shared bathroom on my floor and the room was the size of a closet, but the sheets and walls were clean.
The front desk gave me a card, the name of a restaurant, and told me they may have a waitress job for me.
I started small, serving drinks and seating diners. But I worked my way up and could survive on my small salary, eating baguettes and cheese and fruit.
I lived a simple life, a good life, a safe life. A few years passed. I turned 21, then 22.
That was the year the rapture came. May 30, 2041.
Half of the people of Paris disappeared. Just faded overnight. Half of the people I knew were gone.
And I was left.
This Christian girl from the midwest who still prayed but wasn’t sure that God actually listened. I lived in a space of doubt; why would a God who loved me let a godly man hit me? Why would my parents keep me meek?
Why would God make the buffalo to run wild and free but keep me locked up? A servant to those who wanted to control me.
The scientists were gone. The atheists. All the world religions that did not believe in Christ had simply disappeared.
I didn’t know what I was or what I believed, I was somewhere in the middle space of confusion.
Those of us who were undecided were also left behind.
Food was in surplus. Homes were in surplus.
Travel stopped. The skies cleared.
We all lived in a state of survival.
I didn’t waitress, who would I waitress for? I learned to bake bread at what had been a local bakery. We gave it freely, while other places made soup and stews. Farmers gave of their crops. Gas was plentiful, traffic was sparse.
Still, they lit the Eiffel Tower, my beacon of hope.
In exchange for bread and my help with cleaning and errands, I was allowed to move into a room that, if I stood, just right on a small balcony, I could see the Eiffel Tower. I had my own bathroom. It smelled of mildew, but it was mine.
I knew that I was safe.
But I was wrong.
We lived like this, for almost two years.
Travel began again, although limited. You couldn’t simply walk into an airport and buy a ticket. Trains once again connected Europe.
How simple our lives had been. How convenient.
The churches took over the government. And why shouldn’t they? There was no one left to argue the division of church and state.
Laws reverted to those the church thought relevant.
Abortion was outlawed. The LGBTQ community was quieted and made to go underground. Different sects in different regions enforced their own laws, and the laws reflected a different time of history.
Birth control was stolen and hidden, passed along secretly between women.
Female doctors secretly implanted IUDs that would last for years and men began to undergo vasectomies.
There were too many uncertainties.
The devout believed they must convert all of us, all of us who sat in the middle. They believed that Jesus would come, but only when we hade all have been saved.
Almost two years passed, then, in March of this year, it seemed that the whole earth began to shake. Buildings fell, and the oceans rushed onto the shore of every continent.
More died. The face of the planet shifted.
My small apartment stood, although with cracks in the walls.
The Eiffel Tower continued to light.
I continued to bake bread.
I continued to live.
We were told that the earthquakes brought an island to the surface in the middle of the Atlantic. We were told the governements believed it to be the lost island of Atlantis, sunk into the ocean before the first coming of Christ.
Rumor said there were people there and research vessels headed to rescue them.
Ships ready to spread the word of God.
And we waited. Waited to hear about this new world of myth. Waited in hopes of understanding.
The trees turned golden and then lost their leaves.
One night, only a few weeks ago, near the beginning of December, I found myself walking along the Seine. The moon was overhead and I watched her reflect her light in the flow of the river.
It was quiet here, near the Musee d’Orsay.
In the distance, I began to hear what sounded like the squawk of ravens, a calling and trilling and alerting.
Raven did not fly at night. I stopped and listened.
Suddenly, a flock of birds flew overhead, shadows reflected by the now limited lights of the city. They followed the Seine, traveling its twisting form as if it were a guide, from the west and heading east, a larger flock than I had ever seen, blotting out the sky.
Ravens, flying at night, trying to escape. Or perhaps a warning.
I ran to the next set of stairs, heading up to the street level. I watched as the ravens flew, calling their alert, and watched as the flock appeared to turn south, to follow the Seine out of the city.
Then the screams began. Coming from the same direction the birds had.
It was getting louder as it came my direction.
I felt frozen, the world dreamlike.
What was coming for me? Where could I hide?
I looked back towards the Orsay and thought I saw movement.
People; stumbling, falling.
I turned, looking in the direction of the birds, now out of the sight.
A mechanical roar began to rise, the sound of a motorcycle came from behind me, passing me and skidding to a stop.
Montez! Allez! Allez!
He was waving his hand at me, telling me to get on his bike.
I did not think a second more. I ran and climbed on the back.
I found myself holding on to this body in front of me as the wind tangled my hair.
The motorcycle moved down foreign streets, turning and shifting with confidence.
We turned a corner and there was a woman helping a child as she climbed down through a manhole, the cover pushed aside. Another man stood to the side, frantically looking up and down the street.
He waved to us and began to yell, Vite!
My driver came to a halt, next to the hole.
Allons-y, he said. Let’s go.
Vite! Vite! the man with the street cover again yelled.
Leaving the bike, I swung my legs into the hole. C-shaped bars clung to the walls, descending into darkness.
I began to climb, the ladder seemed never ending. The motorcycle driver came next, holding a flashlight, and then the man at the top followed, pulling the cover and sealing us in this underground world.
I began to see light below me; two children—girls that looked like twins—, a woman, and a teenage boy, all stood at the base of the ladder, silent and holding on to each other.
Louise and Emma, Elaine, and Henri. They would become my life. And Alexandre, the man on the bike, who would never give up.
The ground and walls were covered in thick dust. There was a metal gate and the walls had numbers and letters carved into them; coordinates to identify where you were.
When the last man arrived, he began to lead us along the cold and dark hallways. There were compasses carved into the walls, showing north and south. There were occasional street names, showing the roads that ran above our heads.
We came to what looked like the end of the tunnel, with only a catlike hole at shoulder level.
I thought we had come to the end when the man stuck his head and shoulders through the hole and seemed to slip through. He reached back and helped the children, the teen, the woman, and finally, me.
I found myself in a cavernous space, with stairs and arches and graffiti on the walls.
There were more people here, perhaps 20, all speaking in whispers.
As a group, we began to move.
The man from the motorcycle came to stand next to me.
Where are we? I whispered.
You are American? he whispered back.
Yes, I’m sorry. I can speak French, I’ve been here for years, I just, when I get scared, I have trouble finding the words… Je suis désolé, je divague.
It’s okay, you don’t have to apologize, and you are not rambling. I can speak English, he said in a strong French accent.
Where are we? I repeated
The catacombs, he said.
Why? What was all the screaming?
The monsters, he said. The monsters have come.
What monsters? I asked.
The monsters of Atlantis, and then we continued to move deeper in the world of the bones.
The weeks have passed. Time down here makes no sense and the tunnels seem endless. We can not wander on our own, it’s too easy to become disoriented and lost. We stay mostly within the two manicured tourist miles, despite being surrounded by the dead. This area is safer. Other tunnels, over 200 miles worth, are more confusing, many have collapsed and still others have floors covered with the bones of the French. To be lost in the catacombs is another form of death and insanity.
The entrances are locked with metal bars, but there are so many unknown entrances and exits to these mazes.
Discovery parties look for secret exits, bringing back food and water when they can, looking for safety. But the supplies have dwindled and our population is getting smaller; many of our discovery parties come back with fewer people, if they come back at all.
I hear a rumbling in the guts of the catacombs.
Moans, grunts, echoing through the hallways.
There are rumors that one of us was eaten; rumors that the creatures can take our memories, and when they do, they will know the secrets of the catacomb.
Alexandre comes running into the room.
“Il faut courir!” We have to run!
And now I hear the screams, echoing from distances in the catacombs.
Louise and Emma cuddle closer into my body. They have adopted me as their mother.
I look at them both, “Soit brave, il faut courir.” Be brave, we have to run.
Echoing up through the tunnels, wails of agonly, we don’t know how far or how long we have.
I take their hands and run behind Alexandre, up the spiraling stairs to the exit the public used to know.
He unlocks the gate and I feel the fresh air, want to breathe it in, but there is no time.
I feel sunlight on my skin, am blinded by the suddenness of the light. For weeks, I have been a creature of the dark.
Everything is a blur as my eyes struggle to focus.
I make out the outline of a car as my eyes begin to adjust.
Elaine, clutching the wheel, her eyes are locked forward in an intense focus. Henri standing with the back door open, he leaps in, his arms spread to take the children.
Alexandre lifts Emma and I lift Louise and we run in the warm daylight, Henri pulling hem into the back. I follow them and slam the door shut while Alexandre climbs into the passenger seat.
Elaine begins to drive.
There are automated bodies dragging themselves down the street, their skin greenish and peeling.
One looks up and makes eye contact.
There is thought behind those eyes. A smile on his lips.
I will die soon, but not today.
This Week’s Prompt
Week 24 – The early days of the zombie apocalypse.
Include the words; motherboard, buffalo, Eiffel Tower, raven, motorcycle, envelope, tulip, moon, reflect, sycamore
Week four of our 52-week challenge gave us the prompt, “a missionary in a remote village.” My story that week could have easily fit this week’s story of “the early days of the zombie apocalypse.” I came into this week with the goal of continuing the original story.
Finding a place to start was my challenge.
I began by continuing with the story of the missionary, his thoughts clear but his body disintegrating. He was plagued by hunger but knew that if he ate everyone on board, there would be only him and a failed mission to bring “the truth” to those left in the world.
I was going to have him turn the captain into this new way of being and bring the captain “food” so that the captain would take the memories. I would have them turn any vital members of the crew into the thinking version of the zombies, save the rest as food, and then turn around and head back to Atlantis. There, they would rescue the Atlantians, stopping in the Canary Islands to eat the population before heading to dock in Barcelona.
But I couldn’t find a rhythm. Neither the journal entry form of the first story nor a first-person narrative worked for me.
My daughter suggested an approach of several different viewpoints; newscasters around the world, journal entries from different people, and newspaper articles.
I then began to imagine journal entries from an opposing force, someone different that the missionary of the first story.
I kept imagining a story that took place in the catacombs of France; a place I am so grateful to have visited in my life. Tunnels that date back to the 13th century. Bones of humanity are stacked like art, bones that date back more than 1,200 years. It is a reverent place despite the macabre.
Then my daughter and I discussed a more sentimental story. She talked about a mother and a daughter waiting for death as the zombie apocalypse happened around them; reliving their life together. She is of the opinion that my sentimental stories are better than the twisty ones.
This took me back to a single subject, a young woman, reliving her life. It started as journal entries, but I wanted to give you, the reader, a chance to read of their escape and that didn’t work with the journal. I also wanted to work with the sentimental ideas that my daughter talked about.
I removed all reference to her writing (why would she have a journal down there with her anyway?) and chose to let us live in her memories until the time of escape came.
This brings us here, dear reader.
We visited the catacombs in 2016. All pictures are from our trip.
We walked something like 22 miles that weekend, walking along the Seine across the city. It was one of the best weekends of our lives.
One of the neatest links I found this week was about the illegal trips into the hidden entrances of the catacombs. There are miles of tunnels that are forbidden, with unexpected entrances. I’ve included a link to a really neat article with lots of pictures in the links below.
I hope you enjoyed this continuation of the story. If you did, I hope you’ll share it with someone you’d want to explore the catacombs with.
We set out early, the ocean calm and the sun just rising over the horizon. The colors of the sky and water mimic each other’s pastel blues, the puffy white clouds reflect in the clear flat ocean.
Every year we meet in paradise; always somewhere with crystalline waters and a turquoise sky. Beautiful locations with thick green leaves and various shades of sand, where the sun beats life into a yellow glow.
I marvel at the clarity of the colors; away from the dry desert heat, the grey city skies, the congested desiccated lives that we all live.
Four of us, best friends from college, come from different parts of the globe—different lives, different commitments. Sarah, Jess, and Mae.
Sarah married her college sweetheart and moved to France. Jess jumps from partner to partner, always falling in and out of love; in love with being in love, traveling around the world for a new face. Mae married her job, and moved to New York; she is attached to her phone, her computer, her online meetings.
Alone and bored.
In the same town I grew up in. I didn’t know what to do after college, so I went back to the place I always dreamed of leaving.
I work. But that is all it is; a daily cubical with a screen staring back at me.
I date. But that’s all it is; occasional dinner, occasional sex. The faces aren’t new, most of them are the same faces from high school.
My life has faded into routine, and not a routine I like.
Even this trip, with Sarah, Jess, and Mae giggling over champagne and strawberries.
Sarah talks about her husband and her kids, about wanting to have more babies, about how they have tried and tried, but the last baby is starting kindergarten and maybe she can’t have any more children.
Jess flirts and talks about her insatiable sexual appetite, imagining what the bartender and waiter would be like in bed; one, the other, both together.
Mae checks her phone with every vibration, telling us about upcoming meetings and mergers and unreliable employees.
It has all become predictable.
The same trip every year under slightly different skies. The hoards of tourists litter the beaches like an invasion of cockroaches.
We are cockroaches like the rest.
The thing that keeps me coming back is the sea; the familiar weight pressing in on me as I listen to my own breath, in and out, a meditative silence. To dive is to find my center of balance if only once a year.
If only with these three women.
The sun lingers over the horizon as our skipper drops anchor in the shelter of a secluded bay. He raises the red flag with the white diagonal stripe, letting other boats know there are divers in the water.
I’m partnered with Mae, clinical and organized. We go through our partner BWRAF checklist.
We check that our quick releases and toggles are clear with no binding or tangles, looking at the low-pressure inflators to be sure we know how these specific ones work and that the air is flowing.
We check our weight belts, checking the releases should one of us get in trouble.
Mae tugs on my tank to be sure it’s secure and then turns for me to do the same.
We check that our valves are fully open with a tiny turn back, check our tank pressure and each take some full breaths, to be sure that our oxygen tastes and smells normal, and that we are getting our necessary air.
We each breathe from the other’s alternative air source, our life supply should something happen to our own.
We check our dive watches, our masks, and give each other and the skipper our final okay.
All four of us ready, we move to the platform which sits slightly underwater on the back of the boat. I go first, placing my right palm over my regulator and fingers over my mask so they don’t get dislodged as I hit the water. I hold my weight belt with my right hand so that it doesn’t unhook and sink.
I take a giant stride, my left leg stepping far from the platform as I feel the water swirl up around me; my breathing and the bubbles of the water the only sound. The ocean water fills the spaces between me and my suit, cool against my skin.
I glimpse the underwater world, my refuge, and bob back up to the surface.
I put my fist on my head, the signal that I am okay. I paddle my feet, moving away from the boat, and feel the familiar power of kicking that fins provide.
Mae steps in next and swims to where I am, away from the boat but close, so that we can come together as a group before we descend.
While Mae is my partner, the four of us tend to stay close together, each finding animal life and pointing it out.
I feel a certain peace with the weight of the water splashing over my shoulders. The excitement of the dive is building in me.
I want to descend; am ready to descend.
Even with the others at my side, I feel alone when I’m beneath the surface. I long for that feeling of isolation.
Together, we face our partners and begin to release air from our vests. Keeping eye contact, very slowly we sink, the sea covers the tops of our heads. We move steadily, adjusting the pressure in our ears and we become a part of the depths.
This is not a deep dive, our first dive of this trip. Most of the ocean floor here sits between 30 and 50 feet, moving deeper towards the open ocean. We have come to the bay to see an old wooden ship, sunk hundreds of years ago, and the plant and animal life that has formed around it.
Sinking slowly, we find our equilibrium, our feet hovering a few feet from the bottom. We are always careful to keep our fins from touching, to leave that white sandy world alone.
Our bodies are leaning forward now, our feet stretching out behind us. Mae and I give each other the signal that we are okay and she points in the direction of the wreck. I signal my yes and together we begin to move.
Brightly colored fish dance around us as we glide through the water.
You must always know where your partner is in this underwater world. You are their safety and they are yours.
I still pretend that I am alone down here; that this is my world. The only place I feel at home.
Mae points and makes the hand sign of a sea turtle.
I see it.
We move toward the creature, gliding easily through beams of yellow light.
We watch with reverence, keeping our distance, but following gently as it heads in the direction of the old wooden ship, now broken and decayed at the ocean bottom.
The turtle makes a sharp turn to the right and in the distance, in the direction it is headed, I see something glimmer. It appears to be an arch, but within the light of the water, I’m not sure what it is I’m seeing.
I get Mae’s attention and point in the direction the turtle is headed, now away from the wreck.
Mae shakes her head and points back to the broken wooden remains. This is why we came, I can almost hear her words echoing in my head.
I point again towards the turtle and the arch, curious. I put my hands together like I am pleading with her. It is not a standard scuba signal, but she gets my meaning.
She waves to Sarah and Jess, and points in the direction I want to go. They give us the okay signal and turn to come with us.
The archway becomes clearer as we move closer; a complex curving stack of stones on the ocean floor. They reflect black, like obsidian.
It appears to be shrouded in golden mist, which makes no sense to me, being underwater.
Everywhere else down here, the water is clear.
As we move closer, I point to the arch, but Mae shakes her head and shrugs her shoulders. She points back to the sunken boat.
I swim closer. The water seems warmer here.
I point again at myself and then at the arch. I want to go closer.
She shakes her head and points back to the underwater boat.
Sarah and Jess are just behind Mae, but they seem disinterested.
There was nothing in the guidebooks or websites about this unique structure. We can’t be the first to see it and I can’t understand their lack of curiosity.
I swim back to Mae and take her hand and with the other point back to the arch.
What I can see of her face appears annoyed. She shakes her head, shrugs her shoulders, and then waves her hand in the direction of the arch.
She seems to be signaling that she doesn’t understand what I’m looking at, as if what I’m seeing isn’t even there.
I point at myself one last time, point at the arch, and then point to her and hold up my hand. I am trying to tell her “Give me a minute to look, but you can wait there.”
She seems to understand, although I can make out a face of confusion behind the mask. She signals an okay with her hand.
I feel like the turtle as I swim to the arch. It is perhaps 8 feet tall and another 8 feet from base to base. I want to swim through it, feel the need to swim through it. Then I will go back to my friends, go back to the undersea wreck.
The closer I get, the mistiness seems to clear. But when I look back at my friends, they are the ones who appear cloudy.
Just a quick swim through the arch.
The water is colder as I reach the beautiful structure of black rock.
I rarely use my hands when scuba diving. My head leads the way, my hands hold together at my chest, helping me correct my balance, and my feet propel me forward.
My head moves through the arch first.
The light through the water changes.
No longer does the sun beam as rays through the water. It is as if the water itself glows yellow, like honey.
I turn back to my friends, feeling a sense of accomplishment, a satisfaction of doing what I wanted to do. I feel free.
My breath catches, and for a moment I almost let go of the respirator between my teeth.
Behind me, the landscape is different.
The arch lies as a pile of rubble, scattered black rocks on a black sandy-bottomed bay. Cliffs jut out among deep shadows that look like caves.
My breathing quickens as I look for my friends and begin to swim back in their direction.
No friends, no sunken boat that I can see.
The bottom is stretching further down, becoming deeper. The plant life is nestled next to the black rocky cliffs.
It is yellow and gold and red, autumnal under the sea.
A creature, squat and round with tiny legs and what appear to be wings soars in front of me.
Penguin? I think. That’s impossible, there are no penguins here…
Another swims past, darts past.
As I turn beneath the honey-colored water, trying to follow it visually, I see that there are more swimming among the cliffs.
They are shaped like small penguins, darting among the crags and caves.
I look up to the surface, I am deeper than I was; deeper than I should be.
While the water is golden, there is no light shining in from the surface. Beyond the water appears dark, a deep shade of purple.
Oxygen, I think. Oxygen runs out faster at deeper levels.
I look at my pressure gauge. No, that doesn’t make sense.
Time goes quickly when diving, but I haven’t been down here long enough to be this low.
I must start ascending, and I need to do it slowly so nitrogen doesn’t cause bubbles in my blood. If I drop my weight belt, I will rise to the surface too quickly. If I start to fill my vest with air from my tank, I lose precious oxygen.
The risk of the bends is more real to me than running out of air. If I get too low, I can drop the weight belt and face the consequences.
I press the valve to start my gentle ascent. The vest increases slightly in pressure, not too much air, only enough to give me lift. Slowly, I begin to move upward.
Something moves in the shadow of the caves.
Something like a face.
I can’t be sure, it looked like a primate of some sort.
But that makes no sense. I am afraid that I am losing oxygen; perhaps I am hallucinating all of this.
Calm my breathing. An excited person takes more oxygen. Breath deeply and slowly.
I see it again. Another face.
Something is swimming towards me.
I feel myself starting to panic, I reach toward my weight belt.
What is that?
It swims towards me like the iguanas of the Galapagos island, its reptilian tail stretching out behind. The face that looks at me is almost human, partly primate, primal with a broad forehead and wide-set eyes. The skin of its face and hands and feet, almost human, appears to be covered in scales. The rest is covered in soft golden hair that moves with the water.
I push back against the water, trying to move away, trying to make distance from this creature. I refuse to turn my back on it.
I begin to scream, unaware of the water around me, as my regulator falls from my mouth. Bubbles rise from my open lips, but when I gasp to take in air, my lungs are filled with sweet amber liquid.
The creature, a bit smaller than me, stops just a foot ahead of me. It turns its head as if contemplating.
The edges of my vision are turning dark and my body fights for oxygen.
From behind me, I feel hands grab my shoulders. I look down to see that they are scaled and reptilian.
But I have nothing left.
The world fades as the animal before me moves the last bit of distance.
I can not move back as the hands of the creature behind me hold me in place, there, deep beneath the golden ocean’s surface.
The creature before me moves its face closer, pressing its lips to mine.
I cease to remember.
To be continued…
This Week’s Prompt
Week 23 – Adult friends on vacation in the tropics
Include the words; scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease, mist
Check out these two other versions of the Week 23 prompt:
First note… this is not the end of this story. I don’t know what the end is yet, but I expect to use another prompt in these 52 weeks to figure it out.
I had an idea to take my limited experience with scuba certification (back in 2011) and play with the quiet of the underwater world. While I have only scuba dived once (and all of these photos are from that single trip), I loved the quiet and isolation of the experience.
Despite the fact that I was with my husband and his family, I felt essentially alone and recharged beneath the water. Something akin to parallel play, where you are having a deep and personal experience along with others having their own experience.
Seeing the word archway, I could imagine an underwater arch as a part of ruins, Atlantis perhaps. However, I wrote about the rising of Atlantis back in Week 4 with Rapture in Reverse.
I wanted to figure out if I could connect this story to that story, but it was an internal fight. Plus, next week’s prompt centers around Zombies and I really want next week to become the sequel to that original story.
So then I started seeing a different world through that arch, a different world for my protagonist to experience.
About 10 years ago, I was working on a middle grade novel where one of the main locations is an undersea villiage with a creature called the Simi. They are a mix of chimpanzee and Galapagos iguana, brilliantly smart, and vital to the movement of that story.
Perhaps, I thought, this arch can take my character to the bay that the Simi live in; a bay of honey gold water and purple skies. I haven’t visited that world in a really long time, and it’s a world I need to revisit in a book that I also need to revisit.
I don’t have an answer as to what will happen to this character in the underwater world. I’m not sure if she’ll stay, or perhaps return to the world she comes from. I’m not even sure she could return to her world if she wanted to, and honestly, why would she want to?
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of a story. If you did, I hope you’ll share it.
“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.
Driving along the curving ocean road, the cliffs to my right and the crashing waves to my left, I head north, wondering who it is I’ve become.
Chartreuse succulents with purple flowers line the highway and I see a sign for a lighthouse turnout. I pull into the dirt parking lot and see the trail that winds along the rocks and the plants, twisting out to a lighthouse on the edge of a cliff; painted white and red, the glass at the top reflecting the sun’s light.
I wear so many titles; wife, mother, writer, artist, teacher, chef, maid. Wear each like a uniform, often dirty without time to throw it in the wash. I keep pulling these identities over my head.
There is an old worn sign, 2.3 miles at the trail head. The cold wind whips my hair around my face and I clip it into a bun. The sun is warm against my skin, contradicting the wind. Just as I am a contradiction, a little piece of many opposing stories.
Before I threw my things in the truck, before I started driving up the California coast, I called my friend and told her that I no longer knew who I wanted to be. She blamed motherhood and my dedication to my child; prefacing that it was not “bad” but that I had left no room in that relationship for me. It feels like a backhanded compliment; you were such a brilliant mom that you stopped existing as anything else. Why does it feel like an insult?
I disagreed. Still disagree. Will probably always disagree.
My muscles are tired from the driving. I stretch as I walk along the trail. The flowered ocean fauna is sprinkled with tiny lady bugs. A flock of cormorants sun themselves along the crags beyond the cliff edge. I look at the inside of my wrist, a tattooed reminder of my creativity, my muse. A tattooed reminder of who I am, who I thought I was, who I will someday become.
You see, motherhood has not been about letting myself go. It has not been about losing myself. It has been about becoming something more, someone more. That is part of my question, who am I today? Who am I when all these puzzle pieces pull together and create something larger, something more than they were individually.
I am not going through this question of identity simply because my daughter is starting her own life. The truth is, I have never known.
I get bored with identity.
I can feel the skin on my neck beginning to burn, despite the ice of the wind. My skin has always been a sort of villain in my story, blistering and rebelling, crying out as if the sun were pricking it with daggers. I keep going. I am closer to the lighthouse now and can hide inside, give my skin a moment to convene with the shadows.
The lighthouse is small, perhaps only two stories tall with a lean-to type building on either side of the tower. A small straw colored cat sits on the steps leading into the lighthouse, holding a mouse in her mouth.
“Hello, friend,” I say to her.
She drops the mouse which scurries along the step, only to be stopped by a small orange kitten, batting and playing and practicing.
The mother cat mews at me, gracefully moving from the steps and rubbing against my legs.
I squat down to scratch her neck, morphing her body to fit into the curve of my hand. Her purr is louder than the wind or the waves.
“She likes you.”
I jump a bit, having lost myself in the moment of affection. Standing in the door is an ancient man, the lines carved deep beneath a grey shaggy beard. He’s wearing faded overalls over a thick sweater, a black knit beanie on his head and an unlit pipe hanging from his mouth. His eyes twinkle and dance.
“Sorry to scare you,” he says. “I see you met Cheetah. If she thinks you’re safe, you probably are. You might as well come on in.”
The moment he said the cat’s name, she pranced up the stairs and into the lighthouse. The kitten had it’s nose pressed up against a wooden crack, it’s tiny paw batting at something just out of reach. I smiled to myself, imagining the relief of the little mouse as it taunted the kitten beyond the lighthouse boards.
I stepped up the wooden planks into the lean-to style quarters attached to the tower; my eyes take a moment to adjust to the light. A small bed with thick woolen blankets neatly made sits in the corner. A small kitchen shares the room. There is no wall separating the room from the tower and I can see the spiral of the stairs moving upward, tracing the inner walls. On the opposite side of the spiral stairs is another room filled with tools and what appears to be containers of kerosine. A small round table with two cups and a steaming tea kettle sit in front of a window that looks out over the ocean.
“I’m sorry, I thought this was a museum?”
The old man chuckles. “Aye, it is. You might call it a working museum. I show people around. But you’re the only one today. Call me Abe.”
“Are you expecting someone?” I gesture to the cups of tea.
“Oh, I saw you coming some 20 minutes ago. I thought you might like a drink before you see the tower.”
I laughed, “Do you treat all your visitors like this?”
“Only the ones feeling the weight of the world.”
That makes me pause, and my face must show some sort of surprise.
“Oh, you wear it around your eyes. You don’t know who you are, you’re on some mission to discover yourself.”
“Is it that obvious?” I stutter, and suddenly I find myself holding my breath. I hadn’t realized how much tension I wore in my skin, how rigid I felt. I start to laugh.
Again, I see the twinkle in his eyes.
“Let’s have a bit of tea before you go up to see the lens and the view.”
We sat at his little table and for a few moments, we were just quiet. Cheetah curled up at the base of the bed and I could still hear her purring. The old man poured tea from the kettle, filling the little china cups to the brim. The tea smelled of herbs and had a golden glow. He began to drink and sat back into his chair, his eyes closed, in perfect contentment.
He’d poured us both from the same kettle and so I trusted that it must be safe. I took a sip and found myself relaxing, the tension is my shoulders letting go. The tea had an earthy taste, woody yet sweet.
“What is it?” I asked. “It’s almost familiar, but not quite.”
The old man kept his eyes closed, but responded as if it were a sacred secret.
“It is the root of one of the sea cliff plants. They grow in abundance, and you don’t need to kill the plant to take a bit of root. When you cut a bit, it seems to grow back faster. Or perhaps that is because I always thank the plant.”
We drink in silence for a few moments. Finally the old man opens his eyes to refill his cup. As he does, he says, “So, what is it you think you need to find?
“I’m not sure it’s finding anything,” I say. “It’s more that I feel like there is something I’m supposed to do, but I don’t know what that is.”
“Ahhh, the dilemma of purpose.”
“The dilemma of purpose?”
“Yes, some people walk through this world never giving it a thought. They just live their lives, work their jobs, and move through the experience. Some live their lives like it’s a cliffhanger, everything is a drama with a great climax. Some know their purpose from their earliest memories; they know they were meant to be a doctor or an actor or a writer or a pilot, and they do everything they can to achieve that. Some, like you, never quite know.”
“What am I supposed to do about that?”
“What do you want to do about that?”
That makes me pause. I take a sip of my tea.
“I don’t know?”
“What if you aren’t supposed to know? What if that is the great cosmic joke? What if the ones who want to know the most are the ones that spend their lives searching?”
“Well that isn’t very fair, is it?”
The old man laughed.
“Who said life was fair? What if this life is only the seed and you become a seeding in the next?”
“But I want to know what type of plant I’m growing into.”
“Does it matter?”
I thought about that for a moment.
“I don’t want to be a weed.”
“Weeds are only plants growing where someone doesn’t want them. Do you think you are a weed?”
I smiled, “No. I don’t think I’m a weed. And some of the most beautiful plants are considered weeds.”
“This tea, for example. There are many that rip it from the ground, but when we treat it with love, it helps us heal.” He took another sip.
We drank the rest of our cups in silence.
“Why don’t you go up to the light room and see what you see?” said the old man, Abe.
“Thank you for your kindness,” I said, still unsure on what my journey was but also feeling a sense of peace.
He walked me to the lighthouse stairs and patted me on the shoulder.
“May your journey be safe,” he said.
I look up the steep spiraling staircase. It seemed to go up and up, much taller than the two stories I saw from outside. I began to climb. With each step, I think about my life so far. I think about my gifts at the arts and at writing as a child. I remember falling in love with my husband, thinking he was my perfect match. I remember the birth of my daughter, and how much love I had in that moment. I remembered the moves, the trips, watching my family change over time.
I come to top and enter the inner gallery surrounded with glass. In the center sits the lens, ridged glass that focuses the light as it spins to warn sailors of danger. It is not moving now, not on this bright sunny day.
I turn to look through my reflection, through the glass at the top of the lighthouse–before me is the wild ocean, a rough world of hardship and beauty. And then I pull focus back to the woman staring back at me. Her freckles stand in hard relief from her skin, ruddy from the wind and sun. The lines have deepened around her eyes and through her forehead. Her lips have thinned and the hair at her temples has become white and kinked. She is also one of hardship and beauty, beaten by a rough world, softened by love and age.
I think about the man’s words, Abe’s words, “the dilemma of purpose”. It often sits on the tip of my tongue, an answer I just can’t quite find.
Perhaps this life, which has stretched late into my 40’s, has only just begun. Perhaps I am still only a seed with all my potential still before me. Perhaps this is not my only life and my only chance to get it right. Perhaps there are lives before me.
Perhaps I am here to just question.
I smile at the woman in the reflection, and turn to head down the stairs.
The climb down seems shorter, the floor comes more quickly. I hear voices talking and wonder how long I spent staring into the sea and my own reflection. As I come to the final turn, I realize a rope has been tied across the base of the stairs. The room is now painted bright white and where the bed had been is bookshelf next to a postcard rack. Where his table sat is a countertop with a register. A teenage girl sits behind the counter, staring intently at her phone.
“What are you doing up there!”
I turn and see a woman standing where there were once tools; now filled with glass cases and written descriptions. She is frozen behind her name tag, her face flushed. There is a family of four staring at me.
“You are not allowed up there!”
“I’m… I’m so sorry. There was a man here, and he told me I could go up.”
The look on the woman’s face changes from a sort of shock to red and angry.
“I have been here all day,” growled the woman as she marched over to the stairs. “There have been no men working today, and I would have seen you.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a photo on the wall in black and white. It is of a middle-aged man in a thick sweater and overalls. He stands in front of the lighthouse with the ocean behind them, a small cat leans against his leg, posing for the image.
The woman sees my eyes shift.
“What are you looking at?”
“Him,” I said. “The man in the photo. He’s the one who told me to go up. He was much older, but it was definitely him. And that’s Cheetah, his cat.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said the woman, but her face had gone pale.
I walk to the photo.
There he stands, much younger, less lined. I traced my finger over the gray tones of his face.
Attached to the base of the frame was a little gold plaque;
Abraham J. Williams
1872 - 1965
The Keeper of the Lighthouse
Serving 1893 - 1965
"May your journey be safe."
As I walked the path back to my car, the sun setting along the horizon, the fog rolling in, I looked back at the tower. The silhouette of a man stood up in gallery, preparing the light to guide the ships. I could see his grizzled beard. He raised his hand to me and I raised mine in return. The light of the lens lit up and began to turn.
This Week’s Prompt – The Dilemma of Purpose
17. The main character goes on a trip alone to gain perspective
I had a tough week last week. Sometimes I am just overwhelmed with this idea of whether I am on the right path, whether I am doing whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing, and what my purpose even is. So the arrival of the prompt this week seemed like synchronicity.
When I started writing, I just started writing as me. I posed it as a “what if my daughter was in college and my husband was busy working and I just went on a road trip to try and discover who I am and what I will do next?” I dumped some of my thoughts and feelings into the keyboard, following the inspiration of the required words while still being within me as the character.
It was interesting that one of the words was “wrist”; how am I going to incorporate the word wrist, I thought? My inner wrist in the real world holds a tattoo of great importance to me, and that tattoo is important around my feelings of who I am. Perhaps my writing this week is helping me find the answers to my own questions, and that tattoo and the story behind it are perhaps part of my answers.
Whether it was this story, or my thoughts on who I am, this week did inspire me to take a new step in my art. I’m working on creating a second website, linking it to this one, that will highlight and offer professional prints as well as original pieces or my art. Is this my journey? I don’t know, but art and writing have always been a part of my path.
The idea that Abe wasn’t in our current time, or of this plane of reality, didn’t occur to me until I had basically finished the story. I originally had him in more of a museum like space and couldn’t figure out how she would say her goodbyes, or honestly that they would even have this philosophical discussion.
As I pondered their ending, it occurred to me that perhaps he was the spirit of the lighthouse. Perhaps he only came to those who needed a good talk and a good cup of tea. Perhaps, once she came down the stairs, she would see the museum as it really was.
One of my favorite books is “Jonathon Livingston Seagull”. I quite literally changed my life in high school. While I haven’t read it in many years, I recommended it to a local teacher a few weeks ago. This story has me feeling like I need to go back and read it. I think I found a certain inspiration there, even if that inspiration is some 30 years in my memory. It is a book on the philosophy of life and learning.
Finally, I leave you with of a picture of me and my grandpa Mike. The man in the story reminded me a bit of him, even without the bushy beard. Perhaps because we would always take him to Bodega Bay when we would go and visit him at his farm in Santa Rosa, and I imagine this lighthouse somewhere around that area. We used to sing his favorite silly songs as we drove. I think what reminds me of him the most is that my grandpa always had a twinkle in his eye.
I believe my love of words was passed down from my grandpa Mike, through my dad, directly to me. My grandpa was the first US born son of Russian immigrants, born in 1908. They were Molokan religious refugees, immigrating for freedom to follow their faith. Despite being raised in a Russian speaking community, and leaving school after the 6th grade, my grandpa loved words.
My dad recently showed me photo albums that my grandpa filled with quotes, philosophy, and jokes, cut from American magazines and newspapers. My dad also has note card boxes filled with 3×5 cards, covered in his favorite quotes. I did the same as I grew up, and still keep those journals. I honor my grandpa for this love.
If you liked this story, I hope you will share it with someone you love. Thank you for spending a bit of time with my thoughts, dear reader. If you’d like to read more, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter here.
We married in Vegas; my forever love, my soulmate. The nights were long and when our eyes locked, we knew. We knew it was meant to be and we both fell hard. We knew we were bound by something we would never understand. His touch was all I could feel, his sparkling eyes all I could see. All the years we had both been alone, finally meeting in this loud and dirty place. It had all been for this.
We slept together that first night in the dark of a hotel room, the shades drawn from the hot Nevada sun. Having this man next to me, loving me, wanting me. There was nothing else; would never be anything else. Together we were electricity.
The second night, we married. He proposed, down on one knee, in front of the Bellagio as the fountains hit their climax. The ring was a large heart-shaped ruby, red as blood. I kissed him fully, knowing he was everything I had ever wanted, ever imagined. I would marry him today, tomorrow, for eternity. As long as he would have me.
Elvis said our vows, “I now pronounce you…”
That was when my husband sliced the man’s throat, and gave me my wedding gift. Elvis tasted of whiskey and smoke. It was comical really, you could almost imagine the thought bubble of surprise, exclamation marks in his half-glazed eyes as he realized a moment too late.
Las Vegas is an easy place to hunt. The drugs keep the minds numb; communities living in tunnels beneath the city. We are aware of others like us, but I had never seen him before, my love. We live solitary lives. Until you find your soulmate, huddled in an alley, teeth in the corpse of a prostitute. I had heard her last breath, a beautiful echo on the still night air. He looked up at me and we both knew this was our destiny.
On the third night, under the light of a full moon, we hired a pilot. He knew us for what we were, but you can get anything in Vegas, especially when you are beautiful and rich. He didn’t fear us, he was confident in his place in the cockpit, treating us as if we had souls.
He flew us to San Francisco, a place I’d dreamed of yet had never been.
Our hotel looked out over the Golden Gate Bridge, the misty fog swirling as it ebbed and flowed. Mysterious and beautiful. A place to escape. A place alive at night with numb, wandering souls. A place for us.
We watched from our window as the sky filled with an early morning glow, purple to orange. We pulled the blackout curtains and went to our bed, wrapped in each other’s arms. Loving each other, trusting each other. Believing, finally, in something more that our next fix.
We awoke as the sky filled with stars and made our way into the city. Our first real night of honeymoon. His touch made me feel alive again. It had been so many years. So many years alone.
Japantown and the Buddhist temple, a couple’s shiatsu massage in the darker corners of society. When I kissed the woman’s wrist, she did not pull away. Our eyes were locked, hypnotized, and I watched the light leave them and she collapsed to the floor.
We drank our wine and danced along the bay. Drunk on each other’s love, drunk on the life energy of the souls we took. How I have waited for this man.
We watched the tourists snapping their selfies in the city, watching this human expression of saving a moment. What are these moments when time has lost its meaning? We will never change. We will never grow old. The hourglass to these humans is but a fraction of a moment for us.
We stole kayaks and paddled to Alcatraz, exploring the island in the dark, making love on a picnic table. I could imagine the men, trapped behind the bars. Willing to swim the cold water just to be free. And here I lay in the cold arms of my lover, my husband, willing to give everything for him.
We will stay here for awhile, in this beautiful city by the bay. We can move unseen in the deep fog. No longer will I wander this world alone. How many years I have painfully longed for companionship; forsaking motherhood, forsaking community, forsaking family. Giving it all for immortality.
I was lonely. I can see that now.
Perhaps, someday, we will make our way down the coast of California at night; Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexico. We will move south. I dream of seeing the tip of Argentina in winter. We will move at night, unseen and unsuspected.
We are in no hurry, reveling in the passion of each other. Hungry for love. Hungry for life. Hungry for blood.
This week started with several different possibilities.
There was a somewhat dramatized personal lament. It is unfinished. The required words were driving me crazy because they just didn’t fit into the emotions I wanted to write about. (I’ve included a small bit of it at the end of this blog, if you’re curious about the initial direction I was headed.)
Bridgette and I discussed being less attached to the words, perhaps committing to 5 of the 10, or allowing ourselves to leave out one or two each week. I did end up using all the words in the above story, but freeing my commitment to those words may be a change we consider for the future.
Another idea was two people meeting in Vegas at a poker table and both think the other is rich. It would have been written in a sort of back and forth dialogue, with spoken words in bold and thoughts in italics. The spoken words would have been them playing some sort of relationship poker, but the thoughts would have been all about stealing the other person’s money. They would have run off to marry at the Little White Chapel, only to discover the next morning that they are both poor thieves, fallen into their own manipulations.
I really loved this idea for a story, but it seemed bigger than I was able to do this week. I was limited on time, I was limited on energy, and I honestly don’t know enough about Poker to write that story.
My third idea was the story you find here; a love story that glosses over the bloody parts because they are just life and it’s the love that matters. I wanted a sort of run-away romance between two vampires, where the blood eating is the norm and love is new. I also wanted to hold off on letting you know they were vampires, so that there was some mystery about the story. My drawing of the Vegas sign gives you that foreshadowing, but hopefully in a mysterious way.
Last weekend was my parents 50th wedding anniversary, so this story came at a good time for thoughts on honeymoons. They have film of their honeymoon on Super 8, silently watching my mom with her long brown braids as she wore miniskirts, swinging on a set, their wedding, the little bronze Toyota with cans tied to the back. Time is passing quickly and I need to find a way to make those silent films digital. (For their 25th anniversary, I had the Super 8 transferred to video, but who has a video tape player these days?) I’ve been working on a drawing for them, and hoped to post it here, alas it’s just not finished yet.
My own 20th wedding anniversary is next month. Our life together has both been beautiful and complicated; as I think all marriages are. We’re all just human, after all.
Happy 50th anniversary to my parents. Happy 20th to my husband.
Unfinished First Attempt
It wasn’t the proposal I wanted. It wasn’t the honeymoon. I didn’t care about the ring. It was just him; I just wanted him.
You could almost see a thought bubble when I told him, some sort of exclamation mark radiating like electricity from the top of his head. The fear in his eyes, a look of terror.
“Time,” he said. “I just need time.”
I didn’t want time. I wanted commitment. I wanted to know that he loved me as much as I loved him. I wanted to envision a future together. I wanted to wander the world with him. To discover motherhood with him. To create some sort of temple to our connection.
“How much time?” I asked, as if he knew.
It was a long distance relationship. Passionate together, quiet apart. He wasn’t good at phone calls, didn’t write letters. Busy with following his dreams. Not really knowing much about mine.
His true love was in the cockpit, freedom in flight. He wanted me to experience his passions, to love them all as much as he did.
The air currents made me sick, the wings wobbling, the small hot space.
The men in the white coats, they’ve been watching me. Watching me while I watch them. Watch them go in and out of that office.
White coats. From the government. They are listening to my thoughts.
I hid in the alleyway with the wires beneath my coat. Watching for the men who are listening to my thoughts, who are telling me to mind my own business.
But I can’t. I must save the children. Save the children from their screams.
I hid the bombs from my mind, so they couldn’t sneak in and find me out.
It’s all a front, you know, that office. The hearts on the doors, the palm trees lining the walk.
I try to write, but the screams. The screams. They echo through my brain as if the children were in this room.
I see them, the mothers, lattes in hand, as they lead their children through the door. The door with the rainbow and the hearts.
They should be carrying cactus, their hearts are sharp. Leading their children who have no idea. The mothers are in on it. Leading their children to the screams.
I try to write, but the faces of the children.
They are watching me, the adults who trick their children into eating beets. Tricking their children into this unsafe world. The men from the government. The men in the white coats. They watch me while the children scream.
They took my teeth and replaced them with radio wire. Radios to hear my thoughts. Radios to tell me what to do.
But I was smarter. I took my teeth and buried them beneath the trees.
Now I try to write.
Try to keep my thoughts from the government, listening to me through the TV. Listening to me through the radio. Listening to me through the windmills that cause cancer.
I threw the TV from the window. The radio is dead in the tub. The windmills will be gone in the morning. Gone with the wires.
They see me watching from the window, trying to write. They usher their children into the office as they see my eyes. I know they are watching me. I hear them whispering in my ears as the children scream.
There will be an explosion. An explosion. I will save them. I will save the children from the man who steals their teeth. Tried to put radios in their teeth. Steals their souls, to sample them to the highest bidder.
The horizon will be different tomorrow. Through the smoke.
You’ll notice we changed the format this week. If you are new here, we (my writing partner and I) generally put the prompt and a link to our writing partner’s work at the very top. Sometimes the prompt and the words give the story away. If you read “dentist” before reading the story, you might have had a hint of where I was headed. In an effort to make the story the important focus, we are moving our prompts and our partner’s link below the story. I hope this will give a sense of mystery as you wonder which are the required words and what was the inspiration.
I hadn’t given my story much thought, it was spring break and I went to visit my parents, planning my trip around accompanying them to doctor appointments. As we sat in the doctor’s office, my dad asked me what the prompt was this week. I told him what I remembered (a writer with noisy neighbors) and that the only word I could remember was “dentist”.
My dad is apparently a random idea generator just like my daughter is. He immediately responded, “the writer lives next to the dentist and he can’t handle the screams.” That is where this story was born. I thought the idea was brilliant and decided to play with it. I wanted to build on the idea of conspiracy theorists and mental health.
This story is short, but it came quickly and reminds me of my week 5 story, “Drink the Kool-Aid“. I loved that story because it told the story in so few words. I feel the same about this one. They feel like they belong in the same collection.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s story. If you did, please share. I send out a newsletter every Friday with new blogs from the week. You can sign up here.
The woman had grown old in the Victorian house along the sea.
She walked with a cane now, making her way into the drawing room. They had once entertained here when the days were young. The furniture had been covered in the finest of fabric, the wood was dark and imported. A gilded gold mirror hung over the mantel. Now, her easel stood in front of the bay window, looking out over the ocean; an unfinished watercolor reflected the green of the sea.
She caught a glint of silver reflecting from the center of the oriental rug; worn and a bit threadbare. Her hands and spine were twisted with age; swollen and angry.
Slowly and with much bodily protest, Eleanore stooped to pick up the silver cufflinks, turning them in her palm.
She had given these to her first husband, Stanley, as a gift.
“Hattie!” the old woman yelled.
There was pounding on the stairs as the young girl hurried to her mistress’s aide.
“Yes, Lady Eleanore?” The child was only 16, her apron crumpled and her hair falling loose about her face.
“How did these come to be here, in the middle of my drawing room floor?”
The girl stepped closer.
“Why, I don’t know?” The girl looked frightened now.
“I have told you not to go through my drawers.”
“I didn’t, Lady Eleanore! I promise you!”
“Then why are these laying here?”
“I swear to you…”
“Do not swear, it is unladylike.”
“I only meant…”
“I know what you meant. Take these up to my room and place them at my dressing table.”
“Yes, Lady Eleanore.”
The girl took the cufflinks and headed up the stairs.
It was only her and the girl now. A cook came in a few hours each day to prepare supper and to leave food for the following day’s breakfast, dinner, and tea. There were no visitors, and the money had dwindled over time. Hattie was all the woman could afford.
Eleanore turned back to her easel, remembering her first husband.
He had been a banker, tall and handsome, with soft curling blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She was the daughter of a politician, 20 and beautiful. He had built her this home, looking out over the sea. He had Copper Beech imported from Europe and planted around the back of the home, saying the leaves, when they turned, reminded him of the copper in her hair.
Years past, and she thought they had been happy, until she found him kissing a maid. She had pretended to ignore it, to continue her life in the comfort of wealth and privilege. What was it to her that he sometimes chose to share his bed with other women? She was his wife. Until the night of the ball, when she had found him pressed up against a girl no more than 16, the daughter of an investor.
At home, they had quarreled. He told her that she was becoming tedious, that he thought she would have given him children by now. Perhaps, he said, he would take another wife.
She had these cufflinks made, a gift for her husband.
Before an opera, she had given them to him.
“I do not wish to quarrel with you, my dear husband. Please do not put me aside for a younger woman. I have had these made for you, a token of my forever faithfulness.”
Stanley smiled, turning them over in his hand. Sterling silver with Roman coins as their front face.
“They are finely made. Who is the man?”
Eleanore smiled her beautiful smile, “Why this is Emperor Claudius, my love. He was the ruler of Rome and helped to reestablish the Roman finances, just as you have done here. He was an ambitious builder and began the conquest of Great Britain. He was worshiped, just as you will be worshiped, my husband. May I put them on you?”
That night, Stanley slipped from their box at the Opera, leaving Eleanore alone. He did not return at the end of the show, and while Eleanore waited patiently, the theater emptied.
There soon came a bloodcurdling scream from backstage.
Stanley had been found, blood trickling from his nose, laying on top of a young ingenue, his pants around his ankles. The girl had laid underneath him, silent, afraid to be found, afraid of the wrath of the wealthy. While she lay there, she slowly went mad.
Eleanore came from her memory and seemed to catch a glimpse of a shadow as it moved through the room.
“My eyes have become old,” said the woman.
She opened her paints and dipped the brush into the water, looking out over the shapes of the ocean.
When she looked down at her canvas, the glimmer of silver caught her eye. Sitting on the lower handle, where the canvas sat, were two cufflinks, the face of Emperor Claudius looking up at her.
Eleanore gasped slightly, picking them up in her old hands. She had watched as Hattie took them from her, had heard her ascend the stairs, yet here they sat.
Eleanore turned and looked around the room. For a slight moment, she thought she saw the face of a man peering out of the gilded mirror over the mantel. She blinked and the face was gone.
He had black hair and his eyes reflected green, like her second husband, Thomas. Thomas was a politician and well liked in society. When Stanley died, Thomas swooped in and made sure that Eleanore was supported, finding lawyers to make sure she received all she was due from Stanley’s estate. He also made sure that Stanley’s death was covered up, paying off the members of the Opera and legally binding their secrecy. It was reported that he had fallen victim to a heart attack while leaving the theater, allowing Eleanore the discretion of staying within society without scandal.
She did not love Thomas the way she loved Stanley, but he did care for her and had kept her out of society’s gossip. So, when he began to be rough in the bedroom, she thought perhaps this was what some men did. She did not want to insult him, but time came when she begged him to stop. He hit her. Bruising her legs and arms, but never her pretty face. She threatened to take him to the police, but her reminded her of how her first husband had been found, pants around his ankles, over a young girl who was now in a mental hospital. He stated that he would be happy to tear up the legal document keeping members of the Opera quiet, and that he was quite sure the local newspaper would be happy to print the story.
Eleanore withdrew, only appearing in society as was required. The household saw the change, saw the mornings when she did not seem to be able to get out of bed, saw the way she limped through the house. They were afraid of Thomas as well, and wished to keep their jobs, so they kept quiet.
Finally, the night came when Thomas was to speak at a dinner in front of his supporters.
“I have a gift for you, Thomas.”
She stood in a gown of silk and brocade, her copper hair twisted and piled on her head.
He was ill mannered, trying to tie the bow at his neck.
“Let me do that for you,” she said.
She fixed his collar and knotted the bowtie before giving him a little box tied with a blue ribbon.
“Just a gift. They are antiques, passed down from royalty in England, and seemed perfect for you.”
He opened the box and saw the cufflinks, not knowing they had once belonged to Eleanore’s first husband.
“They are made from Roman coins, of the Emperor Claudius. He was a great Emperor and sat among the men of the Roman Senate. He reminded me of you and how you have continued to rise within the world of politics.”
Thomas looked at her with tenderness she had not seen in many years.
“Thank you my wife, will you do me the honor of putting them on?”
Later that night, Thomas stood in front of his donors and began to speak of their plans, to rise from the local constituency, to become a senator and perhaps even president. He spoke of their arsenal of men, of lawyers and donors and influential spokesmen, and how they would all climb to the top, no matter who got in their way.
Eleanore watched from her table and, when Thomas began to gasp through his speech, asking for water, and then spitting up blood, Eleanore cried and tried to rush to his side; the affect of a woman in terrible grief. She was held back by men, trying to protect her the sight of her dead husband, lying on the stage.
Eleanore looked at the cufflinks in the palm of her hand, and then dropped them into a tall decorative vase which sat on the mantle, imported long ago from China. She heard them clink through the narrow porcelain neck and settle at the base.
Turning back to the room, she thought she saw a shadow pass the drawing room door.
“Hattie? Is that you?” asked the old woman, walking with her cane to the door.
“Did you call me, Lady Eleanore?” The voice of Hattie drifted down from the bedroom.
Shaken, Eleanore called up, “No, child. I’m going to go walk through the garden.”
“Let me help you with the stairs!” Hattie called back.
“I can do it myself, I’m not feeble.”
The old woman moved slowly down the stairs, using her cane to balance while holding tightly to the banister in her left hand. She came to the landing and passed the dining room on her right, walking to the front door. She stepped out, looking at the sea in front of her. The garden was around the side and the Copper Beech, now a grove, grew tall behind the house.
Eleanore looked at the overgrown plants. There was no one to care for them now, no one to love the land except her, and she rarely stepped from the house. The herbs had become tangled bushes, the broccoli was a mass of yellow flowers going to seed. In the dirt, Eleanore caught the glint of silver reflecting in the cold light.
Careful not to fall, Eleanore slowly bent to investigate what was lying in the garden bed. She brushed back the dirt. Emperor Claudius looked back at her. Digging her nails into the ground, Eleanore grabbed the cufflinks from the soil and with a scream, threw them as hard as she could towards the ocean. Her arms were weak and she felt the protest from her shoulder. The cufflinks did not travel far, but they landed somewhere outside the fence in the tall weeds.
Eleanore no longer wanted to be outside, she felt tired as she slowly walked with her cane back to the house. She seemed to see the shadow of a man as he walked past the corner.
Eleanore thought of her third husband, Edgar. Edgar was young and thin, a bit mousy, but he made her feel beautiful.
Eleanor was moving into her 50’s when she met Edgar. He was in his 20’s and she knew he was more interested in her money that he was in her, but she didn’t care. She was lonely, and very few men looked at her after being widowed twice. Edgar took her to dinner and showed no embarrassment at their age difference. Edgar gambled with the possibility that he could, should he be patient, inherit everything Eleanor had to offer. And so they married. However, in time, he not only gambled with her affection, he gambled with her money.
At first, Eleanore discovered items that seemed to be missing; jewelry and bits of cash she hid throughout the house. Edgar questioned whether perhaps a maid was stealing, or perhaps even Eleanore was confused at where she had left her items. When she went to the bank and realized her fortune was diminishing, when she saw that her husband’s signature marked the transactions–small amounts, again and again–she knew he would take her to poverty.
Edgar was going out one night, he said to play cards with the fellows. Eleanore knew what that meant now, that he would continue to gamble with her fortune. And so, she gave him a gift of cufflinks.
Edgar’s eyes shone with a greedy desire.
“These were my first husband’s, Stanley’s. I hope you will care for them, my dear.”
Edgar could not take his eyes from the precious treasure, and wanted to feel their weight in his hand.
“Will you wear them tonight? For me?” Eleanore asked.
A smile spread across Edgar’s face. He cared nothing for the coins or who the man looking up at him was, he cared only that he could gamble them away.
“Will you help me with them?” he asked.
Edgar died at the gambling table. He had been winning, for once, and when his body was taken to the morgue, the cufflinks were still at his sleeves. Eleanore collected the links and buried him next to her first two husbands; three men in a row.
As Eleanore climbed the steps to her decaying home, she caught a glimpse of the face of an old man peering down at her from at upstairs window. She stumbled, caught herself, and put her hand to her heart; the beating was frantic. When she looked again, the face was gone.
She made her way into the morning room and collapsed into a deep chair. She closed her eyes and imagined the face she thought she had seen, the face of her fourth husband, Nathaniel.
“Are you okay, Lady Eleanore?”
Eleanore opened her eyes and saw Hattie in the doorway.
“I am quite tired today,” Eleanore said.
“You look pale, as if you’d seen a ghost,” the girl responded.
“Perhaps I have?” said the old woman. “Will supper be ready soon? I think that I would like to go to bed straight after I eat.”
“It’s early yet,” said Hattie, “but I will go ask the cook if she can be ready more quickly.”
“Thank you, dear,” said the old woman, and closed her eyes.
Hattie didn’t know how to respond. The old woman had never called her “dear”, wasn’t sure she had ever thanked her genuinely.
Eleanore thought of Nathaniel, her fourth husband. He had done nothing wrong. He was simply old and he bored her. He did not like to go out, he did not like the opera; he liked puzzles and reading before the fireplace. And so Eleanore asked him one night if they could perhaps dress for dinner as they once had, in their finest clothes.
“Perhaps, after we eat, we could put on a record and dance in the drawing room?” Eleanore asked.
“My dear, I would love to dance with you. There is a man of science who speaks of relativity, and how the functions of the world interact. I simply wish to be near you. It is that relativity in which he speaks.”
“I have been saving these for a special occasion,” said Eleanore, and she pulled the Roman coin cufflinks out.
“They are beautiful,” he said, “ and perhaps even an important piece of history?”
“Yes, I do believe they have been instrumental in the role of men,” she responded. “Can I put them on you?”
And so they ate dinner, and that night, while they danced in the drawing room, Nathanial died in Eleanor’s arms. He went quietly, with very little fuss. He simply said that he was tired and slumped into her arms.
“The cook says that we can start supper now, if you wish?” said Hattie, pulling Eleanore from her memories.
“Yes, dear, please help me to the dining room.”
Eleanor sat in her accustomed place, first being served a bowl of soup. As she sipped the broth, she felt stronger. Until, that is, she came to the bottom of the bowl.
There, sitting in the curve beneath the broth, sat the cufflinks. Emperor Claudius seemed to be staring into her eyes.
“Oh!” she squawked.
“Is everything okay?” asked Hattie.
“Can you look into my bowl, and tell me if you see anything unusual?”
“Of course, Lady… oh! I swear, Lady Eleanor, I took them up to your dressing table as you told me! I did not do this. Please don’t fire me!”
The old woman simply nodded her head.
“I am not going to fire you. But I do think I am full, and wonder if you would help me to bed?”
The young girl helped Eleanore, undressing her from her day’s clothes, dressing her in her night gown. She brushed the woman’s long grey hair and braided it, tucking it under a fine cotton nightcap. She pulled back the blanket and helped the old woman under the covers; slowly laying the woman back into her deep pillows.
Eleanore gave out a little cry once fully laying in bed.
“Are you alright?” asked Hattie.
“My bones are just old, that’s all. I’m ready to sleep now.”
Hattie said goodnight and closed the door.
It had not been her bones that caused her to cry out, it had been the prick of something sharp behind her left shoulder. She could feel it cutting into her, sharp into her skin. It didn’t matter what she did now, her death was close at hand.
She remembered when she had had the cufflinks made for her dear Stanley. She remembered how she had asked that one of the toggles be made hollow with a sharp point that would not be noticed when it hid between the post and under the face.
When she had put the cuffs on Stanley, he had cried out as she scratched his skin with the sharp point, drawing blood. She apologized and said that she would have the cufflinks checked and fixed. But he had died, and so the cufflinks had never been returned to their maker.
Thomas had struck her with his belt the night that she helped him with his cufflinks. He had called her stupid and clumsy when she scratched him with the sharp end, and she had agreed that it was all her fault. It was the last time he hit her.
Edgar hadn’t really noticed the scratch as she helped him with the cufflinks. He had sucked the blood from the wound, perhaps hastening his death. He said it was nothing, for his eyes were focused only on the uniqueness of the coins, and wondered what he could get for them. They brought him only a hole in the ground.
Nathanial had looked at her sadly when she had scratched him. His skin tore easily, like tissue paper, the aged bruises standing out against his wrinkled flesh.
Eleanore remembered dipping the hollow toggle into the poison, being sure the well was filled; knowing that the scratch would allow the poison into their bloodstream.
Now, she lay, with the hollow toggle pressed into a scratch in her shoulder. It had been many years since she had dipped the sharp point in poison and a part of her wondered if it was enough to kill her the way she killed them.
She did not wonder long, for a tall shadow with faded blonde hair and blue eyes stepped from the corner of the room and began to walk towards the bed. Then a thick shadow, black haired and green eyed, emerged from the wall and moved closer. The third figure, thin and mousy, stepped from the window. Finally, the ghost of an old man moved through the door.
They all came and stood around her bedside, looking down on their wife, looking down on their killer. Four men, four graves laid side-by-side.
She had nothing to say to them in death, and so died silently.
In the morning, when Hattie came to wake her, the woman was cold, a single trickle of blood dried around her mouth, a cufflink embedded in the flesh of her shoulder.
I wanted to leave a certain ambiguity in this story until the end. Is Eleanore murdering her husbands? Or is there a curse on the cufflinks? Perhaps there is a curse on the Roman coins. Could Eleanore be a victim in this as well, grieving for each husband despite the fact that they were all (except one) terrible husbands? Perhaps, if I had included an old, faithful maid, the maid could have actually been the murderer and the last husband died naturally in his wife’s arms.
I chose to make the murderer Eleanore simply because the story was clear in my mind. I was stepping into the shower (where I do all my best thinking) and I saw the whole story laid out before me. However, should I ever rewrite this story (or publish it in a short story collection), perhaps I will give you a different ending. One of the above or perhaps something even further from the original truth.
I love antiquity and own two Roman coins myself (the ones you see in the title photo). There is something really special to me about artifacts, the idea of all the people who held that coin; how it was probably lost through time, buried, and rediscoverd by someone in a field with a metal detector. I think perhaps I was meant to be a archeologist or anthropologist.
I wanted the Roman coin to bear the face of Emperor Claudius, as history believes he was murdered by wife, Agrippina, on 13 October, 54. I worried that the idea of a cufflink being able to introduce enough poison into the human body may push the limits of reality, however Agrippina may have used a poisoned feather to kill Claudius. I wanted the use of Claudius to be an element of foreshadowing. If you know his story, you will suspect Eleanore in the murdering of her husbands.
Thank you, dear reader, for joining me on this week’s journey. I am publishing a short story every Saturday this year in my 52 week project. If you liked this story, please share it with a friend or loved one. I send out an email every Friday with any stories or blogs I have posted during the week, please sign up for it here.
Some of these links may seem random, but they are all sites I visited this week to research various questions I had for this particular story. Some stories need no research, others find me searching every little thought. This was one of those weeks.
Analytical cookies are used to understand how visitors interact with the website. These cookies help provide information on metrics the number of visitors, bounce rate, traffic source, etc.
The _ga cookie, installed by Google Analytics, calculates visitor, session and campaign data and also keeps track of site usage for the site's analytics report. The cookie stores information anonymously and assigns a randomly generated number to recognize unique visitors.
Installed by Google Analytics, _gid cookie stores information on how visitors use a website, while also creating an analytics report of the website's performance. Some of the data that are collected include the number of visitors, their source, and the pages they visit anonymously.