A Pulse in Oblivion, and Other Stories
by A. A. Khayyat
Published by A. A. Khayyat at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 by A. A. Khayyat
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Table of Contents
A Pulse in Oblivion
Audrey opened the door and peered outside. Debris and refuse littered the streets. Reddish-gray clouds shrouded the sky, until a drifting, luminous orb pierced through the horizon, followed by another, and then another.
Slowly, Audrey shut the door, and traipsed toward a cracked window.
“They’re coming, aren’t they?” said Tom, sitting by the window and gazing ahead.
Audrey pulled her hair back and nodded. She tossed away her jacket and sat beside him. Tom turned his head toward the window. “What do you think happens after we die?” he said.
“I don’t know,” said Audrey.
Tom pulled his knees up and hugged them. “How long do you think it will be before they get here?”
“Less than an hour,” said Audrey, sniffing and rubbing her nose. “Thirty minutes, maybe.”
“You can cry if you want to,” said Tom at length.
Audrey bit her lip and glared at him. “I will when I feel like it,” she said, wiping a tear.
Tom’s body heaved as he sobbed. “I’m sorry, Audrey,” he said. “I’m so scared.”
Audrey threw her arm around him and drew him close. “It’s all right,” she said, kissing him on his head.
Shooting to her feet, she meandered around the room. Slabs of wood, broken glass and cracked tiles littered the small interior. Peering into a dark corer, she tossed some old clothes aside and bent down. “Look at this, Tom” she said out loud, reaching for a leather-bound book lying on the ground. It was battered and charred. “I can probably read something out of it.” Squinting at the cover, she gasped. “It’s ‘The Pulse in Oblivion,’” she said, prancing back to Tom.
Glancing at her, Tom eyed the book and turned away. Audrey sank beside him and leafed through it. “I loved this play. So did you. Remember?”
“I don’t care anymore,” said Tom.
Audrey shot to her feet, clasped Tom’s arms and pulled him up. “We’re going to act out the end of the story, Tom,” she said. “I’ll be Helena, and you’ll be William.”
“What?” said Tom, wiping his own tears.
Audrey skipped around the room and kicked away at the planks of wood and broken tiles. She wiped her dirty face, raked her hair and cleared her throat. Tom stood hunched, staring at her.
“Get into character,” said Audrey. “We never finished the play in school.”
“I don’t want to act out that stupid play, Audrey,” said Tom. “We’re going to die.”
“William,” said Audrey, gesturing at Tom. “They’re coming for us.” She pressed a hand over her stomach, grimaced and stumbled. “If you run now, you’ll make it over the barrier. Go.”
Tom watched her drop to the ground and groan. He then limped to the door and opened it. A glowing orb drifted toward them. Immediately seized by panic, he lost his footing -- the pain in his leg shot up like a dagger to the spine, causing him to lean against the doorframe.
“Go, William,” said Audrey. Her face straightened as she glowered at him. “Come on, Tom. I know you remember your lines.”
Tom closed his eyes and strained. Looking in all directions as discreetly as possible, he grew frustrated. “I don’t,” he said.
“Yes, you do.”
“I can’t remember,” he said, punching the wall.
They both froze. Tom stuttered, and Audrey scurried over to the book and flipped through the sheets to the end. The last few pages were missing. She shook her head as the windows shattered. Light flooded in.
“Go, William,” said Audrey. “Go, and be at peace.”
“Our death is a new bond,” said Tom, staring at the light. “A pulse in oblivion. I can go, and die.” He faced Audrey. “But I would rather stay and sleep alongside you for a moment.”
Audrey smiled and wiped her tears. “You lied to me,” she said. “You knew your lines all along.” The door shattered and the entire building shook.
“We’ll awaken with a pulse in oblivion,” said Tom.
The foundations of the building tore from the ground and Audrey and Tom clasped one another.
“Look at me,” Audrey said, lifting Tom’s head. “I’ll see you there.”
The light swallowed them.
A Dance by the Lake
Clayton sat on a bench clasping his cane. He breathed deep and watched the falling leaves morosely, then glanced down at his wristwatch. The hands were stuck at about 7:50, twitching in place. He cursed and tapped the watch.
A young woman, with a jacket over her patterned scrubs, approached the bench and sat beside him.
She yelled jokingly. “A little too windy,” she said.
Clayton continued to tap his watch. “When did we change the battery on this thing? Two days ago?”
“Yeah, about two days ago,” said Katie.
Clayton shook his head and cursed again.
“Don’t be mad, Georgie,” said Katie. “It happens. Maybe it’s the watch.”
“It’s not the watch,” said Clayton defensively. “I’ve had this thing for years and it never once acted up like this. And I can’t go on with a twitchy watch, it’ll drive me insane.”
After several minutes of Clayton’s complaining, Katie took him by the arm and led him at an easy pace down the path. Trees arched into a canopy of red, yellow and brown, all of which was dancing to the whim of the wind. The surrounding grass could barely be discerned underneath the leaves.
Eventually, the path curved into an open field with a lake ahead. Ducks and geese occupied the water.
“She loved to dance here,” said Clayton.
“My wife, Karen,” he said. “Soon after the war, we danced here. And I proposed to her.”
“You never told me,” said Katie.
“We all danced back then. Let me show you.” He wiggled in Katie’s arms. “Will you let go of me?”
“I believe you,” said Katie. “You really don’t have to show me.”
“Don’t be a sissy,” said Clayton. “Let’s go.” He clasped her hand and wiggled again.
“What about your watch?”
“We’ll go right after.” He swayed and sang loudly.
Katie chuckled. “Okay,” she said. “But, please, take it easy. I don’t want you hurting yourself.” She faced him, cautiously placed an arm around the small of his back and held his hand.
They shuffled slowly, and Clayton hummed a soft tune. The lake reflected the soft afternoon light, filtering delicately through the clouds overhead. When Clayton looked up, a youthful strength returned to him. Both time and the landscape had changed.
Flowers bloomed in many places around the lake, dotting the scenery with red, white and pink. The pedestrians, now in post-World War II attire, returned with vigor. A poster endorsing Harry Truman for the presidency hung on a nearby signpost.
Karen laughed. “I’m glad all the fighting in the Navy didn’t spoil your manners.”
A much younger Clayton released her and dropped to one knee, fishing out a tiny box from his pocket.
“What are you doing?” said Karen, giggling.
“Karen,” he said and swallowed. He opened the box, revealing a ring. “I promise I’ll get you something nicer when I can. But for now, I’m afraid this’ll have to do. And this,” he faltered. “Give me a minute.” He produced a folded piece of paper from another pocket. “Hold this for a minute, please.” He handed her the ring in its box, unfolded the yellow sheet of paper and cleared his throat. “I love you, Karen,” he said, his eyes squinting at the paper. “I can’t even read my own handwriting. I love you so much it makes my head spin. All the fighting in the ocean was like a cold, harsh winter. But knowing I’ll someday come back to you was like the anticipation of spring. You’re my springtime, darling. Will you marry me?” He folded the paper and placed it back in his pocket. Reaching forward, he grabbed the ring back and held it out for her to see, grinning sheepishly. “This is how they do it in the pictures, right? I don’t know. I’m just a sailor.”
Karen stood flabbergasted, staring at Clayton with a furrowed brow, then crossed her arms and shook her head. “You are the silliest romantic I’ve ever met, Georgie.”
She nodded awkwardly and flashed a bright smile. “Yes, Georgie, I’ll marry you.”
Clayton ecstatically clasped her by the waist and twirled her in the air. He then ran his fingers tenderly over her cheek. “I love you, Karen.”
“I love you, too, Georgie,” she said. A loose, white rose petal danced in the air and landed on her head. It quickly got caught in her hair.
“You got something there,” said Clayton, plucking the petal off of her head.
They kissed by the shimmering lake underneath the blue sky.
Clayton’s fingers shriveled and he pulled his face away from Karen. Tears ran down from his eyes. The red, orange and brown of fall, and the overcast day, were back.
“Are you okay?” said Katie, cupping his face with her hands. “Why are you crying, Georgie?”
Clayton pursed his lips and he struggled for breath. “Take me home,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” said Katie, alarmed.
He stooped in her arms and sobbed. His shoulders heaved.
“Let’s go sit down, honey,” she said urgently, and led him to a bench nearby. “What happened?” she said.
“I miss her so much,” he said. “I’ve been alone ever since she passed.” He stammered.
Katie threw an arm around him and drew him closer. “You’re not alone, Georgie. You know I’m here for you.”
“You have your life to live,” he said.
“Look at me,” she said, turning his head slightly toward hers. “Anytime you need me I’ll be here.”
A soft breeze blew as Clayton wiped his tears. A lone white petal flitted in the air and was caught in Katie’s beanie. He gazed at it, plucked it off and held it in his hands.
“Where did that come from?” said Katie, running her hand over her beanie.
At length, he smiled. “Thank you, Katie,” he said.
Katie smiled back. “Anyway, let’s go get that battery changed,” she said.
He flicked his wrist to look at his watch. The hands were moving again.
What Good Is Arithmetic?
Plumes of smoke mingled with gray clouds. They draped the foundations of the ruined buildings that stuck out of the ground like rotten teeth. André breathed in some ash and coughed.
Trudging over fallen bricks and debris, André stumbled upon a mangled car, its furrowed frame an amalgam of gray and black. A woman lay under a bloodied blanket in the driver seat. The windshield and passenger window were gone. She wheezed, clutching some rosary beads. The rumble of bombers faded overhead, and she glanced at André.
“Hello,” said André.
“André,” she said. “André Marchand.”
“Madame Madame Bernard?” said André.
“What on earth are you doing here?” she said, coughing.
André took off his hat and ran his hand through his greasy hair. His eyes opened wide. The blanket covering the woman was stained brown with blood and dirt. “Are you all right?” he said. “I’m going to find a doctor for you.”
“I will be fine,” she said. “What are you doing all the way out here?”
André clutched a bent signpost. “I’m not going to a shelter,” he said.
Madame Madame Bernard slid the rosary beads from one thumb to the other. “Where are your parents?”
André clenched his jaw. “They’re gone,” he said, punching the post. “So is my brother, Leo. They never made it to the shelter. Why should I? I’ll just wait here for a bomb.” He crossed his arms.
“I’m sorry, André,” said Madame Bernard. “Come. Sit beside me.”
André tiptoed over to the car, shook the handle, and the door swung open with a creak. He brushed some glass shards off the seat and slumped into it, flinching at the din of an explosion.
Madame Bernard held her hand out. “Give me your hand,” she said.
André clasped her lacerated palm.
“Would you like to review some arithmetic?” she said.
“I hate arithmetic,” he said, pursing his lips.
“Why?” said Madame Bernard. “You used to love it.”
“It’s all worthless and stupid.”
“All right, André,” said Madame Bernard. She shifted underneath the blanket and whimpered. “Is there anything you would like to talk about?”
“Leo,” he said. “I remember how we drew things together. Before everything turned gray, and the airplanes dropped bombs, we drew with crayons. But we griped at each other. ‘I draw better,’ Leo would say. But everyone knew I drew much better because I was older. And he always stole the blue crayon.”
“What did you do?” said Madame Bernard.
“I hid it and told him he couldn’t use it anymore. But he kept complaining, so I beat him.” He ran his hands over his eyes and sniffled hard.
Madame Bernard nodded. The sky grew darker. “How many crayons did you have?” she said.
André’s lips parted as he extended each finger in succession. “Twelve,” he said. “I think.”
“I see. You both shared one set?”
“Yes. One set of crayons.”
“It must have been stressful,” said Madame Bernard. “If you had two sets you would have had, what, twenty-six crayons to share?”
“Twenty-four,” said André. “But Mama and Papa had no money to spare for two sets. The one I had was a birthday present from Uncle Jacques before he got sick. He got Leo some toy soldiers from Paris. I was jealous, but I never stole any of them. I only took one after the bombs took him away.”
From his pocket, André fished out a toy soldier, standing stiff at attention, with a musket propped against his right shoulder. André ran his thumbs over it. Machine gun fire echoed in the air. “Sometimes, I miss him too much.”
Madame Bernard coughed up blood. “And the toy soldiers,” she said, wiping her chin with the back of her hand. “How many of those did Leo have?”
“Lots of them,” said André, putting the crayon and soldier back in his pocket. “Thirty.”
“More than enough for him to share. Let’s do some more arithmetic.”
André began counting with his fingers.
“Don’t bother,” said Madame Bernard, raising her hand. “You would have had nineteen and he would had eleven if you split the thirty in half.”
“No,” said André. “We would have had fifteen each.”
Madame Bernard leered at him. “No,” she said. “You’re wrong.”
“No, I’m right. Two fifteens equal thirty.”
Madame Bernard coughed and heaved, spitting more blood. “Oh,” she said. “You are right. Bravo, André.”
“You taught me arithmetic,” said André, giggling. “How did you not know that?”
Her tears mingled with the blood on her lips. “I guess it slipped my mind. See, André? You’re very good at it. Maybe someday you’ll be an engineer.”
“What’s that?” said André.
“It’s someone who uses arithmetic to make all sorts of things. Houses, cars, trains, all of it.”
“You can do all of that with arithmetic?”
“Of course,” said Madame Bernard, coughing and heaving. “After arithmetic you’ll learn algebra and physics, and then you’ll be building houses and shelters for people.”
“I want to be an engineer,” said André, hopping to his feet. “I will build houses that are stronger than all the bombs in the world.”
“Then go back to the shelter,” said Madame Bernard. The air raid sirens moaned. “You can’t learn to be an engineer out here, silly boy.”
“All right, Madame Madame Bernard,” said André, hopping away. “I’ll send someone for you as soon as I can.”
“No,” said Madame Bernard, closing her eyes. “Just go. I need to get some sleep. I am very tired.”
About the Author
A. A. Khayyat is a short story writer. Focusing on science fiction, fantasy and slipstream, his work has appeared in online publications. His flash fiction stories, “What Good Is Arithmetic?”, “A Pulse In Oblivion,” “A Dance by the Lake,” and the short story, “Do You Wish To Proceed?” have been published by Bewildering Stories. His fourth flash fiction piece, “Alchemy,” is slated for publication in the Story Shack in 2018.
He can be reached at or through .
A PULSE IN OBLIVION AND OTHER STORIES combines elements of drama, science fiction and fantasy into a collection of stories with a shared, universal theme. They all convey hope in times of great adversity and follow the personal journey of the protagonist in their mental quest for finding that lost spark of salvation. In the eponymous story, "A Pulse In Oblivion," the two protagonists find themselves in a hopeless situation that is only slightly ameliorated by the accidental run-in with a copy of an old play. In "A Dance By The Lake," the protagonist, George, is an old man with only a fleeting connection with his younger days and deceased love: a broken watch. As he reminisces of those old days, the presence of his wife becomes the only comfort and remedy to an aging mind. Finally, in "What Good Is Arithmetic?" -- set in war-torn France -- the protagonist André rummages through the rubble and encounters his old teacher who suffers from mortal wounds. They exchange a few words and André learns that only through these troubled times that his mind can learn to nourish.