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By L.E. Henderson
Text copyright © 2014 L.E. Henderson
All Rights Reserved
To Donnie, with love; infinite thank yous for all your support and giving me the idea for this book.
Recently I began a project in which every weekend I would allow myself to work on a short story. It has been wonderful fun, and I look forward to weekends now because of them.
On Saturdays I exist in a world of “what ifs.” What if a girl meets the misfortunes of her life by telling stories to the point that she begins to create herself as she would a fictional character What would a cat think if she became human and encountered a Christian determined to save her? If I could write a journal entry right after my death, what would it say ? What would a futuristic race of immortals think of a human baby if, by some freak accident, immortal parents gave birth to one of them: a mortal atavist?
All of my weekend “what-if” experiments have been exciting. But beyond momentary fun, is there another, more pressing drive to tell stories?
Fun aside, I believe the title of my book is apt. For many years now, I have written almost every day, through depressions, vacations, financial disasters, holidays, and moves to other states. And the more I have written, the more the way I view the world has changed.
I could not help it; writing is a focused form of thinking. When I think, my perspective changes. When my perspective changes, I change. Putting ideas into words forces me to observe; to imagine how things could be different; to re-evaluate; to wonder. No one can write every day in an honest and concentrated way and not be changed.
In a way I am the girl in the title story, “Becoming the Story.” For her, telling stories is a matter of emotional survival. But the same is true of everyone, writers and non-writers alike. Few people are able to accept life as the jumble of meaningless details that it sometimes appears to be.
Most people seek context and meaning, and that is what stories are, whether they are read, written, or told aloud; the quality of our lives rests upon the kinds of stories we tell ourselves or let others tell us, whether they are “deep” or shallow, good or bad. Writing stories turns the natural human striving for context into a focused and deliberate activity; turns empathy into a lifelong occupation; and promotes the quest for understanding.
Furthermore, every good story belongs to everyone. Regardless of the specifics, they all deal with the problems of being human and the emotions such as love, fear, anger, and sadness that come with it.
I like being part of that effort, and I am excited about sharing these stories with you. Though many of them have appeared on my blog, those of you who subscribe will find unpublished stories here as well.
Since my weekend project continues, there are sure to be more books of stories coming from me. Although I am happy to present these, I am even more excited about the stories yet to be written that will keep pace with my life as it changes and I learn more.
Until I get back to you with more stories, whether in a few weeks, a few months, or a few years, enjoy.
Becoming the Story
and other tales
Table of Contents
Becoming the Story
The Final Word
Rational Therapy, Inc.
The Eternal Twine
Walls Evaporate Sometimes
The Season of Militant Shyness
At 44 Maxwell was the most ancient person on the planet. Behind the curtain he waited uneasily for his name to be called.
“Hi there, Ladies and Gentlemen,” the host began. “A special treat for you tonight. Heartbreaking, yet fascinating as any of you who have been following the story of Baby Josie and Maxwell Farnsworth already know. Without further ado, please welcome to the stage our favorite mortal and inspiration to all, Maxwell J. Farnsworth.”
Max swept the curtain aside. Applause thundered in his ears and bright lights stung his eyes. He moved toward the host, who welcomed Max with a grin, looking down at him from his elevated chair near the edge of the stage. Max stopped short of the identical guest chair.
He shook his head. “I prefer to stand.”
Lenny tossed his head back and bellowed laughter toward the ceiling. “Are our 10 foot chairs a bit high for you?” he said. “No worries, my friend. We thought of everything.”
A second man emerged from behind the curtain wearing grey overalls and rolled out a padded swivel office chair.
“There, is that better?” Lenny asked. “Our research indicates that this type of chair was common in the U.S. circa 2051. No stilted chair legs for you, no sir, and no need for a ladder. We want you to be as comfortable as possible.”
Max settled into the padded chair as Lenny, looking down, shot him a winning moon-bright smile. “Can you hear me from way up here?” Lenny chuckled. The audience rippled laughter. “Well, just let us know if you change your mind and decide to join us.”
The smile faded softly. “As I believe any of us here would agree, you are quite an inspiration. You are a relic, a symbol of our past, our distant ancestor, and even a different species as examination of your DNA suggests.
“When you froze in the Arctic wasteland, you were engaged in a scientific expedition. You were an engineer recruited as part of a team searching for undiscovered organisms able to endure extreme conditions. Our technology allowed us to resuscitate you, and it has turned out that you were one of those organisms. We unearthed you, of course, for a reason other than our historical curiosity. Two of our audience members, Myrtle and Wilhelm Banks have given birth to a curiosity. An atavist.
“As you already know from your reading, here, in the year 7056, what you call humanity has changed quite a bit, to the extent that when we first exhumed you, you were unable to understand us. Our experts of ancient history had to teach you our language and, despite your primitive brain, you absorbed our current syntax.
“Afterward you shared your fascinating story about the day you froze. We learned about your depression, and how you lost your trail, and how the sheets of snow blinded you, and how at the time you were too depressed to fight the onslaught of cold. It all sounded like a quintessentially mortal problem and therefore, hard for us to understand.
“Given your history, it must all be quite a shock to you that we are able to stay eternally young. We have conquered disease and hunger, and – barring extreme physical trauma like fire – we are as immortal as the vampires of your myths.
“Short of our devastating ennui epidemic, which too often leads to suicide, we live for many hundreds, and even thousands, of years, which has allowed our greatest minds time to gain the expertise needed to colonize distant planets.
“But to Myrtle and Wilhelm Banks, a baby has been born who, unlike us, suffers from pain. Real pain, not just ennui.”
“Please, Monique, if you will bring out the subject.” Max turned his head and saw a white-clad blond woman emerge from behind the curtain, rolling a rose-colored bonneted bassinet onto the stage. Lenny nodded to her, and she gathered a pajama-clad bundle from the blanketed interior.
“Josie, say hi to the audience,” Monique cooed.
At first Max could see little of the baby, except for a single unruly curl of peach hair secured with a pink bow.
But the nurse turned Josie around. The infant looked at the audience with large, curious eyes, but when the spotlight struck her face, she began to cry. She turned, latched onto the lab coat and planted her face shyly against the woman.
Max could see how the baby had bluish cloud-shaped markings that marred the back and sides of her neck.
The nurse pried the tiny fingers away and yielded the squirming bundle to the stage hand who had appeared next to her. He held her away from his body, dangling her from beneath her arms. The baby reached for the floor and emitted a pleading wail.
The nurse withdrew a syringe and plunged it into the skin on one side of the baby’s pale tender neck; the infant screamed and kicked her pajama-clad feet. Max lifted himself a little from his seat and looked on with horror as the audience burst into applause.
“Pain,” the host said. “That is what real pain looks like. Fascinating, is it not? And it was born to one of us. It should be impossible, but it happened, and we all want answers. Give a warm round of applause to the parents of Baby Josephine, who have allowed us to conduct these experiments which should shed some light on this mystery.” The parents nodded to the camera, and stood smiling and proud.
“And to anyone concerned, our experts warned us to sterilize the needle since pre-immortals have incredibly delicate immune systems. An examination by our geneticists has verified that this infant’s cells will one day begin to die more quickly that they can be reproduced. As you know, this is a phenomenon called aging, which will generally limit its life span to less than 100 years. And unlike us, she is biologically equipped to shed tears.”
“But enough about Baby Josie for now.” Lenny turned back to Max. “Maxwell, these concerned parents are anxious to hear from a real mortal, a living fossil, to ask questions about what kind of life they can expect for their infant.
“This is educational for all of us and we are all wondering, if I may be so blunt, how could you endure it? The disease of mortality. Knowing you would die within a span of mere decades, yet going about your daily tasks as if that day would never come? Mind you, I have only admiration for your effort to find meaning in your – if I may say so – insignificant lives. How did you go on?”
Max frowned. “Before I answer, I want you to know that I am only answering your questions so that you will treat Baby Josie with the respect and tenderness due to her. Otherwise, I would prefer that you had left me where I was.”
“Quite alright,” Lenny raised his eyebrows. “Please proceed.”
“We went about our lives as if we would never die.” Maxwell shook his head. “We thought about death only when it happened. We loved our families and most of us spent our time working to cover living costs. None of us saw being human as a terminal disease.”
“Please forgive me,” Lenny said, “but it sounds like you were all in terrible denial. How is mortality not a terminal disease?”
“When we were healthy, we enjoyed our lives. There was music and beauty and something called ice cream. When someone was terminally ill, we pitied them, not ourselves.”
Lenny gave the audience a droll expression. “Did you hear that, Ladies and Gentlemen? They pitied those diagnosed to have only a few years less to live than they had. Absolutely fascinating.” He looked out over the silent audience and then back at Maxwell. “But did you not pity all of your fellow humans? The undiagnosed? After all, you were all in the same deplorable situation. You all suffered, knowing that your lives, so important to you, would end. Did you treat each other with compassion?”
“I wish I could say we did,” Max said. “There were compassionate people. But not all.”
“One thing that fascinates me,” Lenny said, “is the phenomenon of war. Your lives were already so short. Yet you took the lives of your own species. Why were you so angry? Why were you constantly killing each other?”
“Not everyone killed.” Max sighed and squirmed. “But when we did, it was over a lot of different things: land, power, wealth, and even religion. Sometimes we killed each other over beliefs. Beliefs about what life meant, or who God was, or what happened after you died.”
Lenny made a “tsk” sound with his mouth. “Cutting life even shorter than it already was,” He shook his head, “and over arguments over death itself. So terribly ironic. Where was your compassion for each other? You were all doomed, all on the same sinking ship.”
“We were not all murderers. There were many good people, wise people, and even heroic people.” Max fought to steady the quaver rising in his voice. “But they are gone now, all gone. I wish I could show them to you, how good they were, how much I loved them.”
“I understand,” Lenny nodded. “You are entitled, in fact, to believe anything you wish. You have earned that right, and we are tolerant here. Are we not?” Lenny waved beckoning hands at the audience, which burst into dramatic applause.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, it is all a little alien to us. In our millennium we are always kind to each other. When someone, for example, complains of ennui, we try to comfort and entertain them as best we can. This show, for example, is therapeutic because it is entertaining. And funded by a non-profit organization dedicated to combatting ennui, “EES” or “The Ennui Eradication Society.” Why do you think our chairs are so high? Studies have shown that frequently changing perspectives amuses people. They are also a bit wobbly to evoke the primitive emotion of fear, even though falling is no real threat to us. And the chairs in the audience – as you can see – are arranged in a lovely spiral.”
“So boredom is your worst problem? No wars? No one disagrees? Without arguing, without struggling, how do you learn?” Max clamped his arms on the edge of the chair and looked up, but the harsh lights forced his gaze down again.
“Incredible how, despite the misery and hopelessness of a severely limited life span, this creature rationalizes the need for conflict. As you can see, too, pre-sentient creatures are easily riled. Despite that, we should all remember to treat him with compassion.”
A murmur of agreement followed and a smattering of polite applause. At the sudden sound the baby let out a soft wail.
“Pre-sentient?” Maxwell said. “Is that how you view us?”
“Forgive me,” Lenny said, “but your intellect and sensory capabilities are severely limited compared to ours. You are less evolved. For example you are capable of seeing only a short color range. Just as we do you see colors like yellow, red, and blue. But you are unable to distinguish aber-moorish and flu-escent. To you, having no frame of reference, they would be impossible to describe.”
Maxwell frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came.
Lenny continued. “Of course, I mean no insult. Members of your species are among our ancient ancestors just like our piscatorial predecessors and for that we are all grateful to you. But back on point: What do you think is the best thing we can do for Baby Josie, aside from finding a cure for the disease of mortality appropriately delicate for her fragile cells?”
“Well,” Maxwell leaned toward the audience, “you could start by treating her with respect and not pity. You could love her, play with her, and teach her that her short life on earth is a gift. Let her know that she may suffer at times, but that she will learn from it and that there will also be joy. And do not ever treat her like a freak. She is not an atavist, she is a baby. She was not born to soothe your boredom, nor is she is a pin cushion. For the love of God, stop poking her with needles and making her cry for your amusement.”
“How, then, should we amuse ourselves?”
Maxwell looked around. “This show is an outrage. For a species so evolved, you are a bunch of idiots. Fuck this place. Fuck your ennui.”
“My goodness.” Laughter rang out from where Lenny was sitting. “I am so glad that we decided to have you on our show. You are, quite simply, a delight. Audience, do you agree? Is he not the most entertaining guest we have ever had?”
Cheers exploded from the audience. “But,” Lenny said, “I think he is more than entertaining. His visit has been educational. In our time, most everyone knows too much. Maxwell here has proven that even for us, life can be an adventure, full of discovery. And Max makes another excellent point. Folks, we have no reason for ennui. None, whatsoever. New horizons of knowledge exist, if only we can dust off our curiosity and explore them.
“Furthermore, I believe we may be poised on the brink of a revolution,” Lenny continued. “And it began in such a surprising way, with Baby Josie and the wildly popular holo-vids of her being injected with needles and crying. Given her primitive status, she is an unlikely savior for those of us gripped with ennui, but that is what many have called her, facetiously, a savior.” Lenny chuckled. “And I must say, I agree.”
“Regrettably, the talking portion of our show is now coming to an end. In a moment the holographic pyrotechnics will commence. But to remind all of you suffering from ennui of how spectacular your lives are, allow us to leave you with a final image of hope.” He motioned to the nurse at the bottom of the stage and she looked up expectantly. “If Baby Josie would perform for us one more time.”
“There is no more room on her neck, Lenny.”
“No problem. I hear that the tender skin around the eyes is especially sensitive.”
Maxwell was standing, legs apart and shoulders hunched, as the nurse headed toward the bassinet with her needle primed. He marched toward the bassinet until the stage hand blocked his progress. Max stopped, turned his head, and set his gaze on the laddered chair in the front of the stage, the one where Lenny sat.
“Wait.” Max strolled back to his seat beside Lenny. “I answered your questions. Now I have a few for you.”
“Questions?” Lenny turned toward Max with an amused expression. “Why of course. Hold off a moment Nurse. Our recently exhumed artifact is curious about us.” He chuckled and stared down at Max. “Curiosity is celebrated here. But time is running out, so ask quickly.”
Max circled the chair as he spoke. “How can you endure a life so vacant, you are compelled to jab a baby with needles to distract yourselves from it? How do you love? How can you bond over your mutual boredom?”
“Fair questions,” Lenny frowned. “Indeed, the ennui epidemic is a terrible scourge. I am afraid I have no good answers for you, other than the spectacle of Baby Josie and the warmth her beautiful tears has brought into our lives. What else do you wonder?”
“I wonder why your intelligence never made you wise or good, and why you thought you knew so much, you stopped asking questions. I wonder why you are wasting your immortality on silly talk shows. And I wonder,” he looked down, “how such an advanced species could build such a poorly designed chair,” Maxwell said. He rattled one of the wooden supports. “And,” Maxwell lowered his voice, “I am wondering if you are as immortal as you say.” Max grabbed hold of two of the legs that supported the tall chair and, leaning forward, he shoved them and the chair toward the audience.
“Hey, wait, no,” Lenny said. “Max. This is highly inappropriate.” The chair wobbled and bucked as it slid and screeched along the stage, with Max moving one side forward, then the other. It scratched the stage with the resistance of wood against wood, and squeaked in places as Max fought its weight. Max stood back, then leaned in and pushed the full force of his heft against the chair.
The chair went over. As it toppled, Lenny flung out his arms in unbalanced circles and tumbled out of his seat into the crowd, a complex blur of flailing limbs, knocking against one of the chairs in the audience.
The chair that Lenny fell on toppled too, and the one behind it teetered and collapsed, setting off a magnificent clattering procession of chairs knocking over chairs. A chorus of gasps and screams erupted. Movement passed through the audience in a great spiraling wave that was almost beautiful.
But Max did not stay to see. He grabbed his office chair by an arm rest and, pushing it, rolled it toward the back of the stage. Behind him the stage hand and nurse were still staring, dazed, at the debacle, but when the stage hand saw where he was headed, he unfroze and his eyes widened.
The stage hand put his massive bulk between Max and the bassinet, and as Max went forward, the man grabbed Max by his shirt.
Max wrenched away, lifted his chair, pulled it back, and swung it as hard as he could at the stage hand, knocking him backward and into the gasping nurse. The stage hand did not cry out but, struggling to regain balance, he stared at Max in amazement.
Before the stage hand could fully recover his senses, Max gathered the bundle of baby from the bassinet, her weight warm and soft. He pulled her close against his chest as her fists latched onto his shirt.
“Come on,” he whispered as he headed toward the door. “No more needles.” The down of her hair felt soft against his chin.
The baby babbled as he moved behind the curtain toward the doors in the dressing room that led outside. As he made his way into the alien streets he could hear, behind him, a terrified cry, “The atavist is gone!”
In the darkness Max hurried as fast as he could without dropping Josie. There were no streetlights to guide him, but the full moon cast a silvery haze into the mist. The white, luminous particles reminded him of falling snow.
As he ran, he remembered the day he lost his trail and could imagine that his new life had picked up where his old one left off. Once more, he had to find a way to safety. But this time he would not fail. Before, he had no purpose. Before, he had no path.
But he was on a road this time, and roads led places, even dark ones.
He knew there would be many more to cross. But he would cross them, all of them, no matter how dark or treacherous, to keep Josie safe, the hopeful, squirming weight of her, the whole of humanity vibrant, warm inside his arms.
They called him “Alf the Calf.”
But not for long, he hoped. Alf set his palms flat on his desk, careful not to touch the test until ordered to begin. The guidance counselor, standing in a cloud of perfume near the whiteboard, gave him a tight smile.
He tried to smile back, but smiling was hard for Alf. He always worried that his mouth would make the wrong expression. But he had always wanted this, to be someone. It was about time, too. He was eight, and so far his life had been unpromising. There was the matter of his sunken nose, a hollow, a dip, where the defining line of bone should be.
He was bow-legged, too, and his jeans never fit quite right, always baggy in places, and too tight in others. Hence, the nickname.
When he was around, frowns appeared, the kinds of scowls you would expect of someone who has just eaten a whole lemon in one bite.
But he was unable to tell himself that the rejections were due only to his looks. A boy in his class named Mack must have weighed 200 pounds, but he was always joking and everyone loved him.
But Alf was afraid to tell jokes. Afraid he would shut down, lose his train of thought mid-way. He was too conscious of his flaws, and always confused, especially by the doe-eyed girls with silken hair who seemed too pretty not to be nice, unless they had a good reason.
But now he had hope that he was not just a lemon. He had written a story that was, the teacher said, beyond his years.
He read a lot, books that were beyond the grasp of most kids his age. He lived in the library, seeking to escape into other worlds. Alf thought of books that way: like planets, each inhabited by a separate mind. The teachers said his use of metaphors indicated a talent for abstract thinking that eluded many seventh graders; and that his depth of emotional maturity was highly unusual for an eight-year-old.
There was talk of promoting him two grades ahead, where maybe his nose and legs would not matter anymore. The other kids would know he was smart and would like him. Best of all, he would have a reason now to snub those who had snubbed him.
But the rule was that, for him to be moved ahead, he had to score exceptionally high on the test. No one said the word “genius,” but Alf knew. Knew that everything pivoted on the number that went with that word.
He sat at the round table in the office of the guidance counselor, just her, him, and his dad. The best thing about his new status was how his father was treating him differently. His dad had always [_tolerated _]Alf like an old piece of furniture he had promised to never give away, but that had changed.
Alf suddenly found himself being showered in gifts: brand new books with crisp glossy pages, giant hardbacks with bright colorful photographs of animals; a junior chemistry set in a box the size of a small television, full of vials and magnets; a microscope; puzzles; and even an elaborate magic kit with trick boxes and two-faced cards.
His father and the counselor both were looking at him, eyes shining with approving expectation. Alf rested his forearms on the round pinewood table as he gripped his sharpened number 2 pencil, but like a worm it had a life of its own, trembling and squirming in his fingers.
What if he failed? What if he was not extraordinary? Not a genius? That word, genius, a word edged in gold leaf, a word that glowed with power and richness. If he was exposed not to be one, everything would go back to the way it was before.
He would return to Lemon-hood.
The more he thought about it, the more his worm of a pencil squirmed in his fist. He ordered it to relax and it almost did, until the guidance counselor pulled a large-faced watch from the pocket of her caramel hip-long cardigan and set the alarm.
Alf felt the muscles inside his forehead go painfully taut. He had not counted on time pressure. He hated being timed because his dad was always rushing him. It made Alf anxious, and when Alf reached the breaking point of anxiety, he sometimes fell asleep, which made his father angry. His father always blamed him but Alf knew there was a word for what he had: narcolepsy. Alf forced his eyes wide open and pleaded with his brain not to go to sleep during the test.
After a tense smile, the lady cleared her throat and became all business. “You will have 20 minutes to complete the test,” she said. All of her sunny warmth had slid into shadow. There was a forced formality in her tone, an authority that brooked no argument. “When I tell you to stop, you will lay down your pencil immediately, or the test will be invalid. Are you ready?”
Alf tried to nod, but his head was slow to budge. For a second, he was afraid his stomach would swallow his head, because his lower abdomen felt hollow, a churning black hole below his rib cage. Worse, his rib cage seemed to strain against his lungs. He struggled to yawn, to get a good breath, but his yawning muscles were out of order.
“You may begin,” the counselor said.
Alf imagined a gun going off, like in races. His impulse was to sprint instead of write. But he continued to sit.
The questions blurred into an inky mass, ran together like a group of runners on a track. He took a deep breath and ordered his eyes to focus, until the blurry edges sharpened into legibility. He could comprehend better now, so why did he feel like he was drowning?
He glanced at the clock. Two minutes had already passed but his trembling hand was slow to move. How had that happened? He could hear the clicking of heels and the breathing of the counselor as she paced behind and beside him, the floral smell of her like a smothering fog. Why did she have to pace? There was no one in the room to cheat from.
He looked at his father sitting in a chair beside the closed door. His father, who rarely smiled at anyone, smiled encouragingly, even proudly, at Alf.
The smile and the pride of his father’s eyes terrified Alf, because he could too easily imagine losing them. He had to do well. Ace this. He had to.
He glanced down at the sequences of shapes, the processions of numbers, and the made-up words like “sloom” or “gornack,” which were used for logic problems. He began to think them through, and write quickly.
He was going too fast, but he was painfully aware of the wall clock ticking out its damning rhythm. He tensed in his chair, because he knew his hands, and not his mind, were doing most of the work, and hands could never be trusted.
He looked at his father again, whose legs were crossed, one over the other, his large pale hands resting on the arms of the chair.
Alf tried to think harder. Instead, he wrote faster. He had the feeling that a hidden world of depth flourished beneath the text and symbols, but that he was not touching it.
In the next problem, he decided to reach the depth, if it was there to reach. He stared at it, a sequence of shapes to be completed: a parade of circles, squares, and triangles with four multiple choice answers. He slowed down in his mind, fell into a world of curves and straight lines, and the answers began to clarify themselves.
He could see how the test was a conversation or a game, where someone rolled a ball to you and you rolled it back, in just a certain way.
He forgot about the clock and the clicking heels and the cold cloud of perfume that reminded Alf more of funerals than pretty flowers. But his newfound concentration lasted only for a few problems.
The clicking of heels snapped a final time, leaving a vacant silence, and for a moment Alf thought that the instructions must have been, not for him, but for the shoes.
“Put down your number 2 pencil and leave it at the top edge of your test.” Alf obeyed and the counselor swept up the test booklet. It bothered him that he had not gotten to finish the test. In class, he usually finished first.
“I am violating protocol,” she said, “but I feel comfortable doing it because you are such a special case. Normally, I would score this after you left. But,” she smiled, “given your track record, I am confident you will have a stellar score, and I can see that your father is anxious. For that matter, so am I.”
She sat down at her desk at the front of the room and smoothed her skirt over her knees. Alf watched her intently, the slightest impression of a smile still etched on her face.
He watched as the smile faded, then disappeared, observed how the muscles around her mouth tightened, and the way her forehead crumpled. With the next few beats of the clock, Alf wanted to fade too.
He could hear her pen skidding across the surface. Alf wanted to snatch the test back from her. She was working too hard, taking too long.
Her eyebrows were doing a strange dance. All at once, she laid down her pen, forced a smile at Alf, and turned her head away. He looked at her face for some sign of reassurance, but her eyes, lost in the glare of her bifocals, were avoiding his.
“Well done,” she told Alf, but there was no emotion in the words. She turned to his father, who looked back with eager eyes. “Mr. Tyler, may I talk to you alone for a minute?”
She pointed to a door behind the test room, leading into an office, where Alf could see the dark corner of a desk and a lily bending in a vase. His father rose and followed the trail of clicking heels. The counselor shut the door.
Alf could hear the surge of voices, a back and forth like a game of ping pong, a woman and a man paddling words back and forth. His father was clearly the most aggressive opponent, but it was hard for Alf to make out the words. He could make out only one: overachiever. When he heard the word, it sounded to him like the final slam of a coffin. As if to complete the image, Alf closed his eyes.
He tried to find the space that he retreated to whenever kids called him Alf the Calf. Instead, the room blurred and he fell into a kind of half sleep, lulled by the ping pong cadence of voices. The room he was in fell away behind his lids, and he suddenly found himself in another place.
For a dream, the detail around him was crisp and vibrant. He was standing in a brightly lit yard in front of a log cabin. He looked away from it and could see, far away, the jagged tips of mountains.
The splintered door was already opened, but he nudged it open wider and found a large muscular man asleep in a rocking chair, head back and mouth hanging open, his denim-clad legs sprawled. Below him a dark four-legged beast was chewing on something that looked like a chicken thigh.
The dog gazed up at him curiously, meat hanging from the corners of its mouth. Its eyes were an eerie red color. Alf began to back away and knocked over a fire poke leaning against the wall. He exited the room quickly, consoling himself that the dog already had what he wanted: the meat-covered bone.
Still, Alf was shaking as he fled across the yard. Hard to do since he had no idea where he was going. He fled toward the forest that lay in the shadow of the mountains, where it was dark and cool and mossy.
But as he went forward, he found himself blocked. It was the dog. No, not a dog; it was too big and feral-looking. A wolf. Alf could only stare at the creature, at its dull black fur and red eyes. The wolf was high enough to meet Alf at eye level.
Alf was too fascinated to do anything but stare at the beast and the red intensity of its eyes. “You were afraid of me,” the wolf said. “May I ask why?”
Alf stumbled back a little. “I thought you might want to eat me.”
“Would that have been so bad? You look so unhappy. Would I not have been doing you a favor?”
Alf seriously considered the question. Yes, sometimes he had wanted to die. He had. But right now he was too curious. “I want to live,” Alf said. “I just wish I could be someone else. I want to have a normal nose. And straight legs. But I can’t, so I want to be extraordinary. I want to be…a genius.”
“A genius? What is a genius?”
“Well, you take a test with puzzles in it. And if you solve enough of them in a certain time, it means you are a genius. Everyone is impressed with you. And if you have any terrible flaws, they stop mattering.”
“Ah,” the wolf said. “I know nothing of this test. But solving problems for a reward: that I understand. Perhaps what you mean is cunning.”
“Cunning? Well, I suppose.”
“Wolves have a lot of that. We have to. Cunning is the reason I waited until the man was asleep to steal his food. Sometimes we use it to corner our prey. Of course, cunning is not enough to make a wolf what it is.”
“No,” Alf said. “You have tails, pointed ears, and four legs.”
“No, more than that. Far more. A wolf must have courage.” The wolf turned to the side and Alf could see a patch of singed fur, with raw pink skin beneath. Alf stepped hesitantly forward, but the wolf emboldened Alf with a nod.
Alf reached out tremulously and ran his fingers along the rough scar. The wolf spoke again. “The first time I robbed the man you saw he burned me with a fire poke. I should have bitten him and grabbed the food. Instead I yowled and limped away. Two of my cubs starved. That day I was a coward. It was only much later that I returned, because I had to.”
“But I thought you said wolves were always courageous.”
“Wolves are lots of things, beyond cunning. We are vicious and kind. We eat and are eaten. We fight and retreat. The challenge for a wolf is to be a wolf, with all that it means. To know struggle and survive. For all that cunning is useful, but not enough to make a wolf a wolf, and especially not an extraordinary one.”
The wolf stared at Alf with dangerous eyes. “We corner. We persuade. We intimidate. And sometimes we are cowards, because sometimes we have to be. We are wolves. If you want to be extraordinary, if you want to be a [_genius, _]then stop trying. Instead, be human. Be human with all that it means, and never flinch from it. Be human, be cowardly, and be brave. Then be honest. As honest as you can possibly be. If you can do that, your kind will see you as a genius. And in every way that matters, you will be.”
Alf stood speechless, looking into the glare of earnest red eyes. Alf felt a burning flush, yet a shiver rippled through him from his neck to his spine. “Thank you,” Alf said. “I will try.”
“What will you try?” the wolf prompted.
At first Alf was confused, until he realized the wolf was testing him like his teachers did sometimes to make sure he understood. “I will be human. Always human. And then honest. But…tell me more. Help me understand.”
“You can start by looking out the window.”
“Huh? What window?”
Alf turned around and saw none of the grass and no mountains – only the large office picture window with its cracked mini-blinds and the sun winking through them. He turned back around and could see the round clock mounted to the wall, and hear the voices.
He wiped the bleary confusion from his eyes with his fists. The door cracked open a bit so he could make out what the woman said, though she was whispering. “Bear in mind, Mr. Tyler, I am not a licensed psychologist. It was only one test. The discrepancy tells me something else was going on with him. Please. Even if he is only an overachiever, you have every right be proud of him.”
Though the woman was defending him, the words that struck Alf the most was the phrase “only an overachiever,” confirming his impression that it was not what you did that defined you, but who the world said you were.
When his father emerged, Alf desperately searched his face for any vestige of the pride and approval he had seen the last few weeks. But his father kept his head down. His face was drawn and pale above the starched collar of his shirt, his tie askew.
His sudden pallor made the network of lines around his mouth look deeper. There was a look of pain in his blue eyes.
He looked so old and tired, Alf wanted to comfort, to hug, and reassure him. “I can take the test again,” Alf said, but his voice broke up on the last two words.
His father sighed wearily and shook his head. “Get your coat, Alf.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can do better. Please, let me try again.”
“What did you do with the bags?”
“Huh?” Alf thought his father meant book bags, but Alf only had one of them, which was slung across his shoulder.
“The bags. The ones all your new brain toys came in, the ones I bought you. I need the receipts. All of them.”
The words burned like a fire poke inside Alf. They scorched and scraped his heart raw. And he thought about the dream wolf and the red power of its eyes, containing all the courage and cowardice of every wolf who had ever lived.
Alf remembered the jagged scar scorched into its flesh as if it were his own and felt again the rough warmth of furless skin against his fingertips.
And he remembered what the wolf had said. Be human.
Alf knew right then that the test was wrong; that the world behind his eyes went far and deep beyond what any test could ever tell. He imagined the fire poke sinking low and hot into his skin, the fire-heat burning away everything inside him that could be burned and illuminating everything he was or ever could be.
Never in his life had he felt so brilliantly burned; so raw and so defeated; so determined; so cowardly; and so courageous.
He had never felt so human.
All her life she had heard stories.
Most of them she loved; the fairy tales with happy endings; the ones about people who had struggled and triumphed. She loved epic poems full of heroes.
But some stories she hated. Her least favorite stories were not the ones in books, but the ones that life had told her. Usually these stories of life drifted down to her from other people.
She could see pieces of a story in a glare of contempt or a roll of the eyes. Those story features followed her into her dreams and played themselves out in blurs of imagery and shame. Life whispered stories to her even as she slept. And she believed them.
The story life had given her was that she was not pretty; her hair was a mass of brittle curls, and her features too angular. Her eyes were nice, some had said, even beautiful, but that hardly made up for the rest.
Her mother had often made it clear to her that she was the product of an unplanned pregnancy, and that if she had not come along when she did, her parents would not have to struggle so much to put food on the table.
She sometimes felt remorse for having “come along.” If she had had a choice, knowing what was in store for her, she might have opted out. She had not meant to come along.
Since her parents offered so little love, sometimes at school she would smile at a boy to let him know she liked him. In every case, her smile was met with a glower, so she stopped smiling at boys. In fact, she stopped smiling at all.
Her one escape was the stories, but she had stopped believing in the fairy tales. In them, princes never glowered at the princesses, so the fairy tales must be untrue.
Instead, she focused on the tales of struggle, but the heroes always seemed too courageous and too strong for her to identify with them. They rushed into danger with brave words and swords, and no self-doubts, ever. They were mostly men, all brawn and bravado.
Since the stories she had once loved so much were untrue, she decided to write true ones, or at least the ones she thought were true. So she wrote down the stories life had told her. They were all about an un-pretty girl who had come along and ruined things, and then smiled at boys and got glowered at.
She wrote the story again and again, in many different ways, but however she wrote it, she was unsatisfied. She did not like the story. She thought of returning to her fairy tales, but there was no going back. It was like she had been cast out of Eden and was barred from it by cherubim holding flaming swords.
She asked herself, “What makes a story good?” She asked herself that question a lot. She started to read books meant for the older kids, which seemed truer, at least some of them, because not all of them ended well.
She also found some books on writing and studied them. She learned that stories had plots and resolutions. Finally, she got an idea. She would not write a fairy tale, nor the story life had given her. She would write a story she liked, but one that would be believable.
For the first time in her life, she felt the wind of inspiration blow through her, tinged with a minty chill. With a pencil and a sheet of spiral notebook paper, she wrote about a girl who was not pretty and had come and made everything awful. But in her story, her parents were bad people for telling her so, villains.
It was not until she wrote that down that she realized: she had not just been hurt; she was angry. She had had no choice but to come along. No one had ever asked her what she thought about it.
The revelation was so stunning that she stopped writing and stared at the sentence for a long time and took it in. It was not her fault. She was not to blame.
The angrier she became, the more she began to believe that she was virtuous and her parents bad. In her new story she made herself better than she actually was, and her parents worse than they actually were. In her story her mother was secretly an evil witch that boiled babies in her cauldron full of nasty things. And her dad was a bank robber who slaughtered kittens for fun.
Her own character was practically a saint, a beautiful avatar of goodness and light who never asked anything for herself. In her stories she went around giving candy and medicine to sick children and even though she was not pretty and had come along and made a mess of things, everyone loved her because she was doing so much good for the world.
Meanwhile her parents went to jail and received lashings and were imprisoned for life for eating babies and robbing banks and killing kittens.
After she wrote the story, she glowed inside. Her mood soared to the skies. It was her first truly original effort. She had finally written a story she liked.
A week later, after a receiving a good glowering, she took out her story and read it again to cheer herself up. But instead of it making her happy, it upset her. She read the story several times. Something was wrong.
She asked herself what is was and finally understood: the story was not true to life. She remembered, uncomfortably, moments when her parents had been kind to her. Her father had brought her a puppy once, squirming and warm, its heartbeat thumping into her hand as she held it close. And there had been a time, when she was ill, that her mother had baked her a crumbly cake and made a smiley face on top with yellow lemon icing. She had never seen either of her parents kill anything except for bugs.
Even her own character was questionable. The part about her giving candy to sick children triggered an uncomfortable memory. When she was five, her kindergarten teacher had brought into the class a piñata of a reindeer filled with candy.
A boy had broken it apart with a stick and the children had descended on the candy like ants on honey. She had been slow to act and ended up with no candy at all. The disappointment had been unbearable.
Afterward, she had seen a boy lay down his candy on a table in order to bend down an tie his shoe. While he was not looking, she had swiped his tootsie rolls, lollipops, and bubble gum. All of it. And stuffed it into her pocket. She had not given it back even when the boy looked around for his candy and began to cry. She had not enjoyed the candy after that and had not eaten most of it.
But if she remembered correctly, that same boy had had a terrible cough that day. He had been sick.
She was so sickened herself by the memory, she did not write anything for days. But she still had a hungry imagination, so she read instead. The new books she read were more complex. She noticed that some of the characters in them were not all good or all bad.
Even the most likable characters had flaws. She had a revelation. Maybe she did not have to be a saint. But maybe she could still be a likable character with flaws. And maybe her parents could be villains who sometimes did good things.
She wrote a story about a girl who stole candy from a sick boy. But the girl felt so remorseful about what she had done that she grew up and gave candy to all the sick children she met. One day she met the boy she had stolen candy from and she gave him candy tenfold what she had stolen from him, and they became best friends.
She liked that story.
Meanwhile, life began throwing its own stories at her. Boys continued to glower at her even when she did not smile at them, and now she never did. She was not popular with the girls either. Most of them were pretty. They did not read much on their own, and she had little to discuss with them.
She did have one friend, a girl in a wheelchair named Rita who had been born unable to walk. During recess she would talk to Rita. Rita fascinated her, because Rita was like the characters in her favorite stories, a kind of underdog who had not soured on life but seemed because of her situation to have found strength.
Rita was never bitter about not walking. She was a humorous girl who did not care what the popular girls thought of her. Maggi was inspired.
Maggi realized, too, that she did not have to make herself the main character of every story. She could write about dogs or birds or imagine how the world must look from the point of view of Rita. Maggie started to look around and observe other kids. The creativity this allowed was liberating. Some of the stories were silly, and others too serious. But she kept writing anyway.
But life was an insistent author; it had its own ideas. Her mother died. And afterward she could not even bring herself to say the words “die” or “death” for many weeks. Even in her thinking, she substituted the expression “went away.”
The “going away” was sudden and stupefying and incomprehensible, an accident caused by a shaky ladder that occurred while her mother was painting the window shutters.
And after the funeral, Maggi could not think of any of the bad things her mother had done. Maggi thought about the smiley face cake and all the dinners her mother had cooked for her, even when she was tired. And Maggi thought about the grieving face of her father and how much she wanted to comfort him, even though they had always been distant, and she did not feel free to hug him.
She wrote new stories, stories of tragedy and forgiveness; of loss and hope. Her teachers began to praise her stories, and Maggie would have beamed, except grief was a dark seam in her pride.
By this time Maggie was thirteen, and her appearance had changed. She was still not pretty in any conventional way, but the way she carried herself had changed. Her figure had rounded out, and her eyes were curious and sympathetic.
She did not hunch but stood straight, and she did not bow her head anymore the way she had when she was younger. And when she started to, she thought of how Rita had never pitied herself, and how – though physically weak – she had somehow seemed more whole and more beautiful than any of the other girls in the class.
Maggi was still awkward in some ways. She had gotten taller. Her limbs were gangly like that of a puppy that had grown too fast and had not processed the change.
The rejections of her life still haunted and in many ways shaped her, and they could be seen in the hesitancy of the gestures, a tendency to pause before speaking, and the softness of her voice.
But something had changed. She had a dream now. An ambition. Her dream brightened the colors around her and enhanced the flavor of her meals. The glow of her cheeks might have been expected of a girl in love, but she did not have a crush. She knew what she wanted to do with her life. She was going to become a writer.
Writing was power. It was the power to take the stories life had told her and change them.
She had a new story in her head. It was about a girl who had come along and got glowered at by boys. But then she met a girl in a wheelchair and realized she could make choices about what to do with the circumstances life had given her.
She became more compassionate because of her personal rejections and befriended others who had suffered from them. Or suffered from anything. And that included her dad.
The girl in the story named “Margie” was estranged from her dad. So she made him cookies and went to him with them. And they were such good cookies he told her he loved her and was proud of her, and he gave her a hug.
She reread her story but it did not sound true. And she did not know how to make it sound true, so she decided to try doing what the girl in her story had done.
So that night did bake cookies, chocolate chip. They were soft and warm, and the chocolate had melted. When she left the kitchen she was filled with happy anticipation. Then she went to her dad who was reading on the sofa and set the plate of cookies on the coffee table. He glanced at the cookies mildly. “What is the occasion?” he said.
She told him she had made the cookies for him. She told him thank you for the puppy he had once bought her and how she was sorry she had never thanked him more, and asked if there was anything she could do to make him feel better.
His eyes seemed to soften as he stared at her, but all of the sudden, his face became mask-like until he grimaced. “That dog I got you, it was a mutt. No need to thank me, the damn dog was free. In fact, the guy who gave it practically made me take the damn thing. I figured it would be my dog, but what do you know? You took him over. Just like you and your selfish mother have always done. Nothing in this godforsaken house has ever been mine.”
She did not know what to say to that. A lump formed in the back of her eyes and moisture clouded her eyes. She picked up the tray and offered it to him. “I made these for you,” she said in a tremulous voice.
“Cookies?” he said. “You think what I need is cookies? Little girl, if you want to help me, bring me a beer. In fact, bring me the whole damn carton. Cookies. Shit. They look like organ meat.”
The words might as well have been a physical blow. She felt like she had been knocked off a precipice. She lost her grip on the tray. It fell on the wooden floor with a clatter. She stared at it in alarm for a moment, then ran from the room and through the front door and into the darkness, where her body shook with the sobs that broke from her. Who knew how long she stayed there?
She heard a rustling and a chirp, and she looked around. Nestled into one of the cracks in the brick wall of the carport was a baby bird, just a ball of blue feathers really, with tiny searching eyes.
She stared at the bird for a long time and listened to its little cheeps. After a point the tears stopped coming, and she became painfully sober. She stood, took a deep breath, and went back into the house and into her bedroom where her desk was.
She had planned to write the whole exchange with a new ending. She wanted to replace reality with a happy ending, but she found that she could not. The notebook paper blurred as she took up her pen. She had to write something, so instead, she wrote about the baby bird.
She pretended she was the baby bird and it told its story of how it had come to be in a darkened carport with a crying girl.
She knew that one day she would have to write the story about the exchange with her father but she could not do it now. The pain of rejection was too fresh. And she did not know how to make the story end.
Her story endings simply could not always match reality. They could not predict it. They existed in their own bubble. And sometimes, that had to be enough.
She entered high school and noticed that boys did not glower at her anymore, and even if they never asked her out, she thought she had made progress.
In high school, though, a boy did ask her out. It was shocking. What was he thinking? The boy was good-looking, and she did not think she was in his league. The ordeal caused her so much anxiety, she said no to him. He was taken aback, as if no one had ever said that word to him before.
He continued to stare at her in the classes she shared with him, with a look of longing that baffled her. A week later, the bullying began. A former girlfriend of his began to taunt her and say things like, “Do you think you are too good for him? What are you, some kind of tease?”
She did not know what to say to that, so she said nothing. Soon afterward, rumors began to spread that she was having sex with him and that she was a tease and a slut. Books were knocked from her hand as she walked down the hall. Fake blood was smeared on her locker.
And even the boy who had asked her out participated in the taunting. Afterward she went to her locker to get her books for the next class. The words “ugly bitch” were scrawled on her locker. She got through her classes the best she could, and luckily no one ever assaulted her.
But real damage had been done. She had endured a lifetime of rejections. She did not think she could take one more. She even felt guilty for rejecting the boy who had liked her. Who was she to say no to him?
For the first time, she wished she had never been born. She wanted to die. Instead, she went to her room and wrote a story.
She wrote a story about an unattractive girl who had “come along” and gotten bullied and was called an ugly bitch, so the girl swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and died and had a small funeral. Not even her father was there. She reread the story. Once. Twice. Three times.
She did not like the story. She tore it up and wrote another. Like the first, it was about a girl who had been bullied. The girl was hurt and considered overdosing, but she changed her mind. She remembered legions of bullied kids she had grown up with, others like her who had been teased and ridiculed.
She had always been afraid to talk to them for fear the more popular kids would like her even less. But her alter ego “Margie” in the story decided that the fear had been silly, so Margie befriended others who were bullied and tried to make them feel better.
The story character Margie made it through the persecution to graduate from high school and became an acclaimed writer and everyone who had ever hurt her was ashamed because of her glowing success. And after the graduation, she and her bullied friends all went to dinner to celebrate and they all ate ice cream for dessert.
Maggie liked that story. So left her pen and paper on the desk. In the following months she reached out to everyone she saw who was bullied and compared experiences. They were all unhappy and she tried to encourage them and told them it was not their fault. Sometimes they listened.
She was able to endure the bullying better because she felt obligated to take the advice she had given them. She told herself the encouraging words she said to them: It is not your fault.
That was hard for even her to remember sometimes: It is not my fault. At school she put on a brave face. She thought she had to because the bullied kids were now looking to her for morale and guidance.
But as soon as she got home, she would drop her book bag on the kitchen floor and head to her room. There she would lean against the wall while taking short quick breaths and let herself slide to the floor where she muffled sobs into her palms until her fit of emotion had run its course. Then she would rise, make herself a sandwich, and write.
Maggie decided to apply her insights to writing. Her fictional character Margie weathered her abuse although, when alone, sometimes she cried. At school she bore the abuse with as much dignity as she could. She graduated and afterward, she turned all of her attention to becoming a writer.
Maggie liked that idea, about becoming a writer.
After Maggie graduated, she wrote story after story and sent them off to publishers. She would wait with happy anticipation, until one by one, her stories came back to her with form rejection slips that said, “Not what we are looking for,” or “It is not right for us,” or “it does not fit our editorial style.”
All her life she had heard that writers got rejected. But experiencing rejections from faceless industry experts was a different matter entirely. They hurt. She had always gotten effusive praise for her writing in school.
But the guardians of the publishing world were playing a different game than the one she was used to. Some of the rejections were caustic: “self-indulgent” or “trite” or “tedious.”
She read magazines with titles like “Current Marketing Trends” or “What Publishers Like,” or “Ten Ways to Impress an Agent.” She followed their advice and looked at the magazines to discover the editorial styles of the publications in order to mimic them as much as she could.
She tried writing about topics from a list of “What Publishers are Looking For” or “What is Trending This Year.” Many of the suggested topics bored her, but she tried writing about them anyway, because writing what she wanted to write was considered “self-indulgent.”
She became blocked. She could not write anything anymore without thinking “self-indulgent,” “trite” or “dull.” The power that she had used to understand and change her life had abandoned her.
Writing was no longer a way to cope; instead, it was painful. She had never in her life felt so helpless. Being unable to write was worse than being bullied; worse that being accused of having come along, worse than being glowered at, because she had no defense against them now.
For many months she went through life in a daze. She had experienced so much rejection in her life, but she could not get over being rejected by writing, her one power and the thing she loved most in the world.
For the first time since she had discovered the power of writing, she had no story. She could taste her meals and do her chores and read. But her activities had no context. It was like the world had broken into tiny pieces that had no association with each other anymore.
She had wanted so much to make a living writing, to be an “official writer,” but the stories she had to tell were not the stories the publishers wanted to hear. She felt silenced.
She saw herself as living in a fragmented world with skewed lines and disorder and uncertainty. It was intolerable.
She picked up a pen again and wrote. They were scrawls at first, nothing special, just marks. She looked at them, and they seemed as broken, as fragmented as her life had become. Where had the power gone?
She wrote every day, even though it hurt her to read what she had written. The effort to record her breakfast or the temperature seemed hardly worthwhile, but she did it anyway.
Those broken attempts to put together the scattered pieces of her life somehow mattered. They mirrored a problem inside her that she wanted more than anything to fix, although looking at that reflection hurt more than anything, and she left each writing session feeling so drained, she could barely lift her feet to walk.
She tried to remember what she had once loved about stories. She remembered the fairy tales with their beautiful princesses and dashing suitors and the epic poems full of dauntless heroes. She remembered the tales of personal struggle and triumph, and she remembered Rita, and the day Maggie realized she could create her own stories rather than accept the ones she was given.
Her mind got hung up on that thought. Create her own stories. Although she was indoors, she felt a kind of wind blow through her. It chilled her spine and warmed her heart. She grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen.
She wrote. She wrote about an unattractive girl who had come along and got glowered at and loved to write stories; a girl who had been bullied and befriended bullied kids and made cookies for her dad. She wrote about a girl who wanted to write for a living and show everyone they had been wrong to glower at her.
She wrote about a girl who sent her stories to publishers who ignored her or said they were not drawn in or that her stories were self-indulgent.
She wrote about a girl who was so discouraged she gave up forever and lost the thing she most loved and lived out an unhappy, fragmented life where nothing she did, touched, or felt had any clear relationship to her.
She reread what she had written. She did not like the story. She did not like it, and she never would. She tore it up and began to write a new ending. It was harder this time.
She wondered if the girl in the story Margie was the right character to solve her problem, too passive, too prone to the stabs of rejection. Maggy thought maybe she needed to make some changes. Who was the right heroine for her story? What traits did the ideal and successful heroine possess?
She thought her character had to be dauntless like the heroes of the epic tales but still sensitive like the characters in stories about personal triumph. Maggie did not think she was dauntless; rather, she was easily hurt.
How could she become dauntless? What did dauntless girls eat for breakfast? What did they do with their time? She got out her notebook and wrote down all the questions, but she could not be sure about the answers. That girl did not exist yet.
So she went to her books about writing and read about what made a hero a hero. Usually, it was that they loved something beyond just themselves and were willing to go through hell to obtain or preserve it.
What did she love? She loved stories. What did she fear? She feared rejection.
She tried to imagine rejection as a monster, something with glassy eyes, drooling pea-green poison, a behemoth of an epic poem to be slaughtered. In her imagination it was prone to glowering.
She wished fear of rejection was not so intangible.i It would be much easier to deal with a real monster. You could go at it with a sword and when it was dead, it would be dead forever. She did not think that was true of fear.
She went back to love. That was easier. She had loved writing before writing had become about pleasing others and matching her work to fit editorial styles and tweaking her work based on what the “experts” were expecting.
All of that had hurt her love of writing, so that when the rejections came along, her love was not strong enough to counter the all the hurt and fear. The power of her writing was less her verbal skills than her love for it.
She returned to her notebook and found she could not write this story the way she did the others. This one was different. She was baffled.
She wrote plot outlines and character sketches. She tried to imagine what it looked like on the other side of fear. What did being a hero feel like? Were heroes really not afraid?
Or were they afraid but went ahead and did what they wanted anyway? She tried to imagine feeling fear and going ahead and doing what she wanted, but just imagining the fear was painful.
She remembered Rita, Rita who spent her life in a wheelchair, yet had met her face with grace and patience. Rita smiled a lot, but what must it have felt like underneath? Did she feel fear, inside? She must have, sometimes.
Maggie still did not know how to defeat an antagonist inside herself, but she wrote anyway, story after story, simulations of what it must feel like to win the battle with her fear of rejection.
However, there was an interruption. She received a call from the local hospital. Her father had been admitted after drinking himself into a coma. The nurse said he might not make it through the night. Suddenly, it no longer mattered that her father had hurt her.
She went to the hospital and sat by his side through the night, sitting in a hard, straight back chair that wobbled. Still comatose, he did not know she was there. In movies, she had seen scenes like this. In movies, the dying person would always wake to say good-bye. Meaningful words would be exchanged, and even if the person died the viewer would smile through her tears.
She sat and sat and waited for him to wake so they could have a magical moment of resolution, but he never stirred, and not an eyelid fluttered. Her mind was flooded with memories. He had not hated her always, she remembered. Once, when she was five, some music had begun to play on the stereo.
He had just gotten a raise and he took her by the hand and danced with her as she giggled. He had twirled her around and lifted her high and asked her what she wanted most in the world, anything – A boat? A mansion – he could afford it now.
But she did not answer, because at that moment she had everything she wanted: a dad who loved her. Unfortunately, he had lost his job soon afterward and strife had commenced. But now, sitting next to her father on the bedside, she could see what she had missed before.
He was not a fiend, just a broken man full of disappointments who had never gotten the success he wanted and who had lost his wife and drank himself into a coma.
She did not believe him anymore about the puppy. She could remember the light in his eyes that day when he had presented it to her. At that moment, at least, he had loved her. And now, beside him, she squeezed his hand and touched it to her cheek. His hand was cold. And she had a thought: I love you anyway.
She had lived her life in fear of being rejected by him, by anyone. And now none of it seemed to matter. She loved him. That was enough.
It was months before she continued her story about Margie. After the funeral it was hard to think of much else. But the urge to write never left her for long. Her dream of writing for a living still burned bright in the darkness.
She asked herself again: What does it look like on the other side of fear? Was it a place free of pain? Then it would have to be a place of death. Was it a place of relaxation? Then no courage was required. What did it look like? Her story alter ego, Margie, had to know.
Maggie set aside all the character sketches and plot outlines and simply began to write. She picked up where her story left off, with Margie being afraid of being rejected by publisher after publisher.
But Margie, the alter ego, did something that surprised Maggie. She wrote a story of her own. Margie wrote a story about a girl who had been rejected, and dealt with the pain by writing.
Like Maggie, Margie had gotten blocked and was separated from doing the thing she most loved in the world. And that word “love” was key. Because Margie loved writing, she could not write for publishers or squeeze herself into a narrow mold of their choosing.
Whether she ever got published or not, she would write for herself. Writing was a power too priceless for Margie to let anyone take it from her. Writing was how she dealt with life; it was her context; it was her story.
Margie continued to send her work to publishers and risk rejection, but she refused to compromise her own style and vision. Margie knew that as a result, she would get rejected over and over but in the end Margie wanted more than anything to master writing. And writing well what she wanted to write was how she would succeed, and the only way she would accept.
Maggie now thought she knew what the other side of fear was. The other side of fear was love: love for writing, love for her father, love for anyone. Love was essential to true courage; maybe love was courage.
Maggie set down her pen, feeling satisfied. She was Margie. She knew what Margie knew. And like Margie, Maggie would ultimately succeed.
There would be many trials ahead, many mistakes, many faltering detours, but when in doubt, she would always return to her love for writing and the power it had given her from the early years of her life.
All her life she had heard stories. All her life, she had loved stories. Had written them and read them and lived them, until finally she had become a story.
She had finally become what she loved.
For most of my life, especially since college, I have kept journals. Most of my major life events since then have found their way into notebooks.
But I will have to omit the most major life event of all: death. This is unfair. I think I should be able to write a journal entry afterward saying what it is like and what I think of it, and if I learned anything. For obvious reasons, that is impossible. But there is nothing to stop me from writing it early. I have made some creative “predictions” in this piece, some of which I hope do not occur. But it is all in fun.
Let me be absolutely clear: I love life and I have every intention of living until I am 120, and even longer if I can. But whether my death happens tomorrow or 1000 years from now, I want to make sure than I, and not it, have the final word. This is it.
From the Journal of L.E. Henderson; final page:
Damn. I knew this was going to happen. But not today. Not now. I had plans.
I have half a box of chocolates left over from Christmas, and I still want that other half. Two of them are maple creams. They are my favorites so I was saving them for last. Bad idea.
Besides I was working on a story that was sure to be my magnum opus, an opus to end all opuses, a scintillating story about a sentient banana who goes to the zoo and gets chased by escaped monkeys.
But this gets in the way of everything. Okay, I get it, everyone dies. Someone first told me that when I was around four or five. I did not believe them, not at first. How could there be no me?
But I should have had more warning. I like to sip coffee in the mornings with my cat in my lap and read before I write. I want my coffee and I want my cat. Everything I had planned, my entire routine is capsized by my inability to, well, move.
I still cannot get over it. This really happened. I had kind of thought the singularity might happen and would save me. Ray Kurzweil said as much. The singularity was going to be a point where humans united with computers and achieved immortality. Some even suggested that humans could download their minds into computers and live out beautiful cybernetic lives forever after, in a digital fairy tale happy ending.
Okay, maybe it was a long shot, but it gave me hope. And it was inspiring. Throughout history, there was a lot of talk about immortality. Religions promised it. Horror writers created fantasies of immortality experiments gone awry, featuring Frankenstein monstrosities and demonic pets.
In literature it seemed like immortality always came with a terrible price. It offended the gods or set off disorder in the spiritual world. It required unthinkable acts of evil or the sacrifice of souls.
How many millennia did it take for someone to have the guts to say, “Who cares what the gods think? Dying is a bad idea. Maybe we should stop doing it. Maybe we should figure out how to live forever.”
I admire Ray Kurzweil for saying that and trying so hard to figure it out, even though he died before the singularity ever happened, despite taking 150 vitamins a day in order to stay alive for long enough to experience it. Ray Kurzweil, sorry it did not work out. Maybe the singularity was just around the bend. Could you not have taken one more pill?
A lot of people think God grants immortality to those who believe in him, and maybe that is why none of the greatest minds such as Tesla or Sir Isaac Newton never turned their attention to living forever.
By the way I am currently searching for the bright lights I have been told to expect and, so far, nothing. God, if you exist, now would be the time to appear, you coy bastard. Where are you?
I cannot even see my grandmother. She was supposed to be waiting for me under a rainbow or something, with a beatific smile on her face and a retinue of winged seraphim. And unicorns. Okay, I never heard there would be unicorns, but if I am going to go to the trouble of dying, there should be unicorns.
Hell. This is boring. I want to finish my story about the banana, not not be.
Oh no! That did not just happen. I am going to try to pretend that someone did not just put me in a box. I am a person, not a pair of shoes. And why are they nailing it? Do I look like I am about to escape?
Granted, I would if I could. It might even be kind of fun to go lumbering around, arms outstretched, saying “Rroww” or “Arggh.” I have the best Halloween costume ever now, because it is authentic. Unfortunately, I do not feel scary, just kind of helpless. The living scare me to be honest.
Who puts someone into a box?
Well, I do have one consolation: all the writing I did. Maybe a part of me lives on inside the printed ramblings I produced over the course of my lifetime. Maybe some vestige of me remains inside them where they can still affect people.
Okay, so I never got rich for my writing, but I am confident that one day someone, maybe hundreds of years from now, is going to wonder: “Who was this fascinating person who wrote these awesome stories? How unfortunate that she never finished the one about the banana! Perhaps our renowned literary experts will piece together what she was trying to say by extrapolating her point of view from her copious journal entries.”
About the journal entries: I produced a ton of them during my lifetime. And I was conscientious. To make it easier for my biographers, I have labeled my journals by the year on the bindings. That way they will be easier to reference in academic literary journals. It was a trial to be so far ahead of my time, of course, but posthumous glory is nothing to sneeze at. A girl takes what she can get.
If I had known what was going to happen today, I would have typed them up for clarity and legibility. Otherwise, I might end up being egregiously misquoted.
I guess it is pointless to regret things. I made plenty of mistakes but, for the most part, I did the best I could.
There are some people who say you should live every day as if it were your last. Bullshit! If I had done that, I never would have finished college. Why study? I would never have finished writing a single novel. I probably would have annoyed the hell out of everyone saying things like, “Please, do not mourn for me when I am gone. I want my funeral to be a happy funeral, with clowns and mariachi bands and puppies with little party hats. And of course, it would all be lies. If I am going to go to the trouble of dying, somebody had better cry about it. In fact, wailing and the rending of sack-cloth clothing would not be excessive. And yes, you heard me right. Sack cloth.
I hate good-byes anyway. I even hated it when my college classes would end, because I would get attached to my professors and their weird sense of humor or their bad comb-overs or how they would start talking about their vacations to Europe instead of the DNA double helix or the Emancipation Proclamation.
All endings suck, except the ones that end pain, and even those are not ideal. Like with me now. No more toothaches. No more worrying about what anyone thinks. No more gum on the bottom of my shoes, no more waiting in longs lines or cleaning up hairballs left by my cat.
But here I am. And I still want to finish my banana story.
This may sound weird, but I used to mourn my own death sometimes, at night. I would think about how sad it would be for people to lose me or for me to lose myself, and tears would spring to my eyes.
So for to any of you who are mourning me, I am kind of mourning with you now. Like I said, I hate endings. But I am still glad I got to be alive, even for a little while. I am glad I got to eat ice cream and pet my cat and fall insanely in love and watch bad movies and swim in the Gulf of Mexico.
But to do all that, I had to be bound up with this rattly caged wagon called “time.” I spent too much of my life grappling with the uncomfortable knowledge that life was always in motion and looking for something that does not really exist called “stability.”
Finally, I am free of time. At least, my psyche is. And I think that was true before I was born, for the billions of years following the Big Bang when there was no me. In fact, the universe did not seem to be in any big hurry for me to be born; I am a little insulted, to tell the truth.
So maybe I am not so much leaving as going back, reuniting with the cosmos. Fortunately, I am a fan of the cosmos. I think the cosmos is kind of like this toy I had when I was a little kid called a “Lite Brite.”
It was a light box that had a flat black surface with holes in it and it came with these little colorful beads. Actually they were called pegs but I always thought of them as beads, and I am the dead one here, so I get to choose what to call them.
Anyway when you put the beads on the surface and plugged in the screen, the beads would light up. You could make patterns or images with the beads, and there was no limit to the designs you could make.
I was never any good at making the impressive images on the box like bunnies and castles. But I think that maybe the cosmos is like that: kind of like a Lite Brite trying to discover itself.
The patterns it makes might be pretty, but if it wants to make new ones, it has to break the old ones down and start again. But the beads are the same beads; in that sense, nothing ever really goes away.
I admit, it is not much consolation. I was always so upset when in kindergarten another kid would knock down my “palace” of wooden blocks. If someone had told me “Stop crying! The blocks are still there,” I would still have cried.
But back to the Lite Brite: I like to imagine that one day, after an infinity of infinities have passed, maybe the universe or multi-verse will want to try my pattern again. It will say, “That was a weird experiment but kind of interesting. Maybe I should give it one more try.” And I will find myself alive again and eating chocolate and reading Ray Bradbury.
But maybe just having been here, this one time, was enough. Some people think you get a kind of immortality by having kids. Bullshit!
Sorry. I have noticed that Dead Me cusses a lot.
Okay, this is one of my pet peeves, so bear with me here. I decided in college not to have kids. Babies are super cute, but the world has enough people. I wanted to devote my life to creative pursuits like writing.
But every time I would read a book on biology, I would see the same irritating word repeated over and over: “successful;” The successful organisms were the ones that reproduced.
I am all for Charles Darwin, but that word “successful” slaps a value judgment on a blind natural process. According to this definition of success, Sir Isaac Newton, Emily Dickinson, and Nikolai Tesla were unsuccessful.
After reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, I think this definition of success is all wrong. According to him, the real winners in reproduction are the genes. Genes only want one thing: to make copies of themselves. They do not really care how they do it. In fact, the whole point of making people at all is so that the genes will have a host that will fall madly in love and send them marching out into a healthy new host.
If the first host dies a horrible, agonizing death afterward, that is all perfectly fine with the genes, as long as they get to escape into a new person first. Wake up, people. Our genes are farming us.
Richard Dawkins compares genes to viruses. When you have a bad cold, the virus hijacks cells for the purpose of copying itself and makes you sneeze. When you do that, you spread the virus into the air where other people breathe it in. The whole self-copying cycle begins again. Same with genes, except that the genes create their own hosts, which includes you and me.
Genes are sketchy bastards. Never trust them. If you ever see a gene coming at you, at night, in an empty parking lot, run like hell!
In fact, I am pretty sure I know who made the writers of the biology textbooks use the word “successful” when it comes to reproducing: A gene made them write that. In fact, I would not be surprised if a gene seized the pen from the writer and wrote the whole thing itself.
If I could be really be immortal by reproducing, I should be able to see the world through the eyes of my far-future grandchildren. Through them, I should be able to eat moon-rock ice cream and taste it. Through them I should be able to skim the surface of Mars in a jetpack instead of being a dusty and earth-bound remnant of the distant past.
But it seems silly to vent about that now. Here I am. This really happened. The big “D.” I think I expected more of it, but now that I am here and can see it for what it is, it all seems very… disappointing. But not in the way you are thinking. If I have any major complaint it is that it is not scary enough. No pain. No irrational obsessions. No worries about what I need to do next. Just a kind of sigh.
Still, it is hard to look back over my life and wonder what it was all for. All of my petty jealousies, silly compulsions, my fretting over bad hair days, and anxiety over slights from other people, real or imagined.
I think about all the journals I kept throughout my life, all part of my effort to make sense of the relentless march of days. And I think about all of my stories, conceived in great ambition or in a frenzied bid for fame or wealth or admiration.
Would I have done anything differently if I had truly believed this day would come? Really believed it down to the core of me? I really cannot say. For the most part, I think I did the best I could.
The actions that stand out gold-rimmed in my memory are the ones where I was able to step outside my routine and say, “What a strange and beautiful and horrible and fascinating thing it is to be alive. Maybe I should look around. Maybe I should enjoy this while it lasts” – not when I was rushing from one frantic activity to the next.
Those were the times when I made the best and most conscious decisions; the times I was most alive and most acutely aware. Maybe that is also why I wrote in journals, to recreate that state as often as I could, although I did not get to write in my journal every day.
I never got to write a journal entry about how it felt to be born because when it happened I barely knew. I did not even know it was going to happen. It just did, and I was stuck with the way things were.
Then, as soon as I got used to the idea of being alive, someone told me that someday I would die. But in the time between those two points, I had options. I had no say over my destination, but I could create my own path. And my path has brought me to this point where I have decided to take what I have sought, and fought for, and longed for: the final word.
Maybe that is the real meaning of everything: that in all the confusion, in all of my comings and goings, in all of my stumbling progress, I was able to have some say in how it all happened.
Enough ruminating. This Lite Brite pattern is dimming fast. I feel like I should say goodbye. Adios. Au revoir.
But those words are too boring, too expected, too dull. I would rather select my own. So, what do I want to be my final word? I have always loved the onomatopoeia words like “moo” or “crash,” but those will not do.
If I am going to get a one-up on death, I need to be more thoughtful. Maybe a longer word would be better, like “sussuration,” meaning a soft murmur or a whisper. But no, it is not quite right. An idea is whispering to me, like a breeze, a sussuration that is getting louder.
Hey, I think I have it, the perfect final word, eloquently succinct, unforgettable, and deeply felt. Hey death: Thpppffffff!
Yeah, that one. I really like that one.
26 year old Katy stared at the “Pythagorean playground” with mistrust, a yard full of soaring geometrical structures leading to cube of a clinic. This was not like any psychiatric office she had ever seen. But then, that was the whole point.
Normal psychiatrists had failed her, had given her sedatives and asked her questions, which were pointless since she had already answered those questions to herself many times.
She needed therapy that could tell her things she did not already know. She had been told that this was the place for that. Here, she was told, therapy depended on learning. What she would be learning, she did not know.
The Rational Therapy Institute was secretive and reputed to be “experimental.” Patients could only enroll by invitation, though visitors, attracted by the unusual park, could explore the exterior grounds and take photographs.
The secrecy, some conjectured, was a publicity stunt. The patients who had received treatment from the institute had been forced to sign a contract promising not to divulge the type of treatment they had received.
The media had a field day. The institute stopped cars with its towering geometrical structures, its pyramids and orbs of blue and red marble. Katy followed the stone path to the rectangular door, went up a short set of stairs, latched onto a circular door knocker, and banged.
A tall man opened the door, his hair steel-gray, sideburns framing his face severely next to an unsmiling face. “Ah. I see that you came,” his voice was deep and flat, but his eyes were alert and appraising.
She had expected “hello” or “how are you doing?” and had been prepared to answer accordingly. But what was the answer to the non-question, “you came,” a simple and obvious observation? She opened her mouth but nothing would come out.
She stepped inside, expecting soft lighting and antique furniture to match the door knocker. Instead she found an almost empty foyer with severe white walls and white marble floors. The only furnishing was a small wooden table next to the door stacked with papers. A mirror graced the wall across from her. The lighting above it was harsh and revealed her every flaw. She turned away.
“If you will come with me,” the man said. The flatness of his tone unnerved Katy. The office at her previous psychiatrist had been lushly furnished with puffy carpeting, soft lighting from lamps, and bucolic landscape paintings.
But here, nothing had been done to comfort patients. No flowers adorned the foyer, no magazines were displayed on a coffee table, and her host reminded her of Dracula, except not as charming. Still, Katy could do nothing else but follow.
Her sandals thumped self-consciously against the hard surface of the marble floor. The marble tiles made Katy anxious because tiles had lines and Katy did not like lines on floors. She tried to never to step on any of them. She could not explain why. But then, that was part of why she was here.
She expected to be taken to a waiting room, doctors always had waiting rooms, but instead she was ushered directly into a spare office with straight hard-back chairs, a desk, and sedate bookshelves made of plain, unfinished wood next to a whiteboard. The nameplate on the desk said “Maxmillion Elmsworth, Logical Practitioner.”
There was a rustling sound from an adjoining room. She tried peaking to see who it was, but before she could, a man emerged, wearing the same kind of suit men wore at funerals. He was younger than her original host. His hair was darker, a shoe polish black. “Oh good,” he said. “You came.”
The same mild surprise, the same unwelcoming greeting. This was like no medical facility she had ever visited. Where was the friendly “customer service” she had been taught to expect? She wondered if there was a manager she could complain to.
As if reading her thoughts, the man forced his lips to smile, though she could see little warmth in his eyes.
“Um, hi,” she said. “Good to meet you.” She held out her hand. The doctor only stared at it in mild amusement until, suddenly self-conscious, she settled into one of the hard wooden chairs.
Standing above her, he peered at her through a set of wire-rimmed spectacles. “So tell me,” he said. “What brings you here to Rational Therapy, Inc.?”
She stared at him. Though Katy remained wary, the question had put her on more comfortable, familiar ground. The truth was hard to say, but Katy made herself say it. “I am neurotic and afraid of life,” she said. “I am afraid of cars, water, and lines on the floor. Ever since my divorce, I have been afraid to get up in the mornings, afraid to do anything.
“I have abandonment issues from when I was little and my father left my mom, and my own divorce brought all the bad feelings back. Since then, I have destroyed all of my relationships. My friends said I was too needy and started avoiding me. And when I step outside myself and see what I am doing, I can see how awful I am acting, but I am unable to talk myself out of it.”
“I see,” the man said, “Perhaps I can help you.”
“Please,” Katy sighed. “I have tried everything, the anti-depressants and tranquilizers, the talk therapy, the group therapy, the self-therapy. I even read Freud, who is supposed to be the expert on this kind of thing.” She unsnapped her purse. Hoping to impress, she withdrew a dog-eared copy of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and showed it to the doctor.
When she held the paperback out for inspection, the doctor stared at the book. Then he took it by one corner and dangled it as if holding a dirty sock. Sensing reproach, she reached for the book, but he made no move to return it. Instead he opened the book and tore out the first page, then another.
“Hey, what are you doing?” she said. “I paid money for that.”
“Treating it as the rubbish it is.” He walked over to the paper shredder on his desk and fed the page into a slot. The machine whirred on reception and clacked. It was the loudest paper shredder Katy had ever heard.
Katy had stood without realizing it and stared at the “doctor” in frozen horror. “What the hell?”
With relish, the doctor tore out a new page and fed it into the slot, which clacked some more.
“You just ruined my book. You…you owe me another.”
“I assure you,” the doctor said. “I am doing you the biggest favor of your life.”
“Oh yeah? How do you figure that?”
He tossed the rest of the book into a wire waste basket next to his desk. Then he sighed, pulled a chair from behind his desk, and moved it forward to face Katy.
He sat down and studied her. “Despite its claims, the history of psychiatry has been mostly the history of human denial.
“Our society has done a terrible job of treating mental illness: the talk therapies that encourage emotional excess; the pills to alter unpleasant moods; the self-help books that promise easy answers. One day people will look back on all of it and think of our current methods the way we now think of bloodletting to cure disease.
“The goal of modern psychiatry is, itself, misguided. It seeks to create well-functioning and efficient citizens who can hold a job, raise their kids, and fuel the economy until they die. Our goal is different: to help you discover what is true. Psychiatry purports to do just that, but it has been lacking an essential tool.
“The answer to mental illness has been staring us in the face all along, but most of us have been unable – or unwilling – to see it because learning it takes effort and dedication.”
“Well? Go ahead, tell me,” Katy said. “What is the answer? What do I need to learn?” She leaned forward, propped her elbows on her knees, and stared beseechingly at him. “I will try anything.”
The doctor stood, moved toward a bookshelf, and selected a hardback before returning to Katy and handed the book to her. She took it and scanned the title: Principia Mathematica. “Math?” She shook her head. “Why are you giving me this?”
“I am answering your question. What is the real answer to mental illness? Considering that mental illness has its basis in reality distortion, the cure, the aim, and the prescription for mental illness must be the truth. And what truth is more timeless, more reliable than mathematics?”
Katy stared at him, expecting further explanation or some hint that he was teasing her. “Math? You are proposing to cure me of my phobias and insecurities with math?” Katy studied the doctor, but he still did not smile.
“Indeed.” He continued to look seriously at her. “And not just any kind of math, but the kind that requires the faculty of logic.”
She waited for him to say more, but he was silent, waiting for her response. “Please tell me you are kidding.” She began to look frantically around the room. “I failed ninth grade algebra.” She stood. “Math hates me, I avoid it whenever I can. Oh my God.”
Her host regarded her calmly.
She felt claustrophobic suddenly. She stared at the door, thinking that if she did not leave at once, the walls would come together and crush her. “Oh my God, this a nightmare, I thought you had real answers. I need fresh air. I feel dizzy.” She took a few steps and braced herself against the wall nearest to the door, her breaths coming quick, her heart thumping. “What is happening to me?”
The doctor stood and stared at her calmly. “It is commonly referred to as the fight or flight syndrome, activated by the autonomic nervous system during times of inordinate stress. Math induces that reaction in some. But I assure you: the feeling is quite normal and will pass.”
“Like I said,” she said between gasps, “math hates me, it will never cure me, you must be insane.”
“I suspect that your attitude is largely the source of your problem. Had you not succumbed to mathematical indolence, perhaps you would have had a better life and would not need to be here.”
She glared at him. “Look, I did not come here to be insulted. And who uses math as therapy?” She stared accusingly at the doctor. “No wonder you people are so secretive. If anyone knew what you really offered here, they would stay the hell away from you. No one has said hi to me since I got here. You are the unfriendliest doctor I have ever met and your office…,” she sniffed, “smells funny. What is that, licorice?”
“I was only speaking out of concern for you, because if you are as disinclined to math as you say, remediation may be necessary as a first step to your emotional recovery,” he said. “Without an adequate foundation, you will be unable to comprehend the essential course work.”
“Course work? You want me to take courses in math? What is this, a zoo? I already graduated from college, mister. That part of my life is over, thank God. No deal. You are crazier than I am. I am going home.”
“Very well.” The man stared placidly at her. “But if you leave here, where will you go? What kind of life will you be returning to? Will you return to your phobic, friendless, loveless life so easily? Are you going to give up so quickly, without at least listening to what I have to say?”
She took a long deep breath. Her shoulders felt heavy and limp. She had to admit, he had a point. She moved back to her hard chair and almost stepped on a line but caught herself in time. She settled back into her chair.
The doctor stood and strolled once more toward the bookshelf against the wall near the door. He ran a long pale finger along the bindings and pulled a new book from a shelf. “For the duration of your treatment here, you will be required to keep a journal.”
“I already keep a journal,” she said. “I have since high school.”
“This journal will be different from any kind you have ever kept, a journal of logical statements. Have you ever heard of the fallacy called affirming the consequent?”
“No,” she said.
“Well, I will get to that in a moment.” He stepped over to her and offered her a thin book with a glossy cover. “Normally I like to start my patients off with Principia Mathematica as a primer. But given your mathematical disinclination, perhaps you would prefer this one, Fun with Numbers.”
She glared at him. “I know basic arithmetic.”
He exhaled. “Oh, excellent.” He set the book his desk, “that should make our task easier. However, what I am about to show you requires no math but only the ability to comprehend logic. It is an excellent starting place for showing you what we do here. You said your problem was that you are needy and afraid of life. These fears of yours can be written in the form of statements.”
“Statements? What kind of statements?”
“Formal assertions.” He stood, went over to the whiteboard, and erased some scrawled formulas that were already on it. “Can you give me a specific example of a time when you drove away people whom you loved? Suspected you were behaving irrationally, but were unable to stop yourself?”
She tensed. “No, not at the moment.”
“Well, tell me about one of you failed relationships.” He studied her. “When did it end and how?”
Resisting the impulse to bolt, she thought about the mess her life had become and forced herself to stay put. “My husband, he cheated on me.” She struggled to keep her voice steady and failed. “Denied everything, but I knew.”
“You knew. So tell me. There must have been clues. Was there any anything in particular you noticed? The smell of perfume on his clothes? Strange phone calls?”
“No, nothing like that. But he lied.”
“He lied. Please. Elaborate.”
“Well, when I first met him, he was already engaged to another girl. He told her he had been other places when he was really with me. After a while he broke up with her.
“Months later, I married him. He worked late sometimes. One day he told me he would be spending the night at his office. That night I missed him, so I went there to visit him. The office was locked, but I had a key. The building was dark, there was no one there. I was afraid he might have gotten into an accident on the way.
“But the following morning he came home as usual. He looked and acted fine. I asked him if he had spent the night at the office like he planned. He said he had. He lied to me, and I knew. Knew he was cheating on me.”
“Ah,” he put his fingertips together. “You were afraid. Afraid because you suspected the same thing could happen to you that happened to his ex. The lying. The silence. The unpleasant reality. The devastating revelation.”
He nodded. “Your fear can be viewed as a kind of emotional prediction then. A belief. A premise. To you, an axiom. Therefore, we can write it as part of a conditional statement: If my husband ever cheats, then he will lie about where he has been. Though this is a highly questionable assumption, let us assume, for now, that it is true and write it out as a formula.”
The doctor picked up a marker and on the board wrote:
1. If P, then Q.
3. Therefore, P.
He looked at her.
“Well go ahead,” Katy sighed. “What does it mean? I have a feeling you’re not going to let me out of here until I know.”
“Affirming the consequent is a fallacy which says that given a conditional along with its consequent, we are able to deduce its antecedent.”
“Please,” Katy said. “Can you talk like a human?”
The man sighed. “Maybe I should start with an example. Take this one: If an object is a star, then it must be hot. A candle flame is hot. Therefore, a candle flame must be a star.” He looked pointedly at Katy. “Do you see anything wrong with this reasoning?”
“Other than it not being true? I agree, it makes no sense.” She sighed. “No more than anything today has made any sense.”
“Good. Then we agree thus far. Let P – as the antecedent – represent the first part of our statement: ‘If an object is a star.’ The next part of the sentence, Q, is the consequent: ‘then it must be hot.’ But if you reverse the two parts of the statement and say, ‘If an object is hot, then it must be a star,’ it is obviously untrue. Agreed?”
“The inability to make a valid deduction by reversing the two parts of a conditional statement is called converse nonequivalence. But people use this false reasoning all the time to try to prove things that are less obviously false.”
“Let us apply the principle to your situation. The reverse of the your original statement is, ‘If my boyfriend lies to me, then he is cheating.’ Do you see? You have used faulty reasoning to reach your conclusion. A fallacy.
“To put it simply, there could be many reasons your husband lied to you. Perhaps he was going to A.A. meetings in secret. Perhaps he wanted time alone. Maybe he was planning a surprise birthday party. Given the complexity of human behavior, many scenarios are possible.”
At first she only stared at him. She looked at the letters on the board and they began to blur.
At the same time, something inside her shifted, alarming, almost electrical. She felt the way she sometimes did when a roller-coaster crested the rise and dropped her into space.“The day I broke up with him, it was my birthday. He seemed happy and excited that day, before I made him leave. Before I yelled at him.
“I remember so clearly how he changed, how his face looked, first hurt, then anger. What if he was planning a surprise birthday party? I never let him explain. I screamed at him. When he tried to talk I just spoke louder to drown him out. I remember the hurt on his face when I pushed him out the door, told him to never come back, said I never wanted to speak to him again. Oh my God, what if I drove him away for no reason?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. But clearly your unfounded assumptions have been affecting your decisions, indeed your entire life.”
Those words “your entire life” settled into her mind and would not leave. Every self-doubt she had ever had seemed to pull together and condense inside them.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I have been affirming the consequent all my life and I never knew. What if the biggest decisions of my life have been made based on – what did you call it – a fallacy? What I think and do because of it are what make me who I am. Who am I? Most of my memories, my interpretations…”
“Are probably false.” He paused. “My apologies. You seem distressed. Would you like some licorice?”
Katy raised her head and stared at thin black rope the doctor dangled in front of her nose. “You think licorice is going to help me? My whole life might be based on a lie, I am falling apart, and you offer me licorice?”
“No pressure. I will be more than happy to eat it myself.”
“Oh God.” She snatched the string of licorice from his hand. “I should never have come here. Before I came, I knew. I knew he was cheating, it was so obvious, the divorce, it was such a nightmare. But I felt good about breaking up with him. What if I was wrong?”
“Congratulations, my friend. You have made significant breakthroughs on your first visit, despite your aversion to my formulas, which you must overcome if you wish to progress. You must begin to keep a journal of logical statements. Whenever you make an assumption based on your feelings, I want you to write them down as conditional statements. If one of them contains a fallacy, you will become aware of the illogic that has been governing your life.
“You must also examine your assumptions, such as ‘If my husband cheats, he will lie.’ Given the complexity of human behavior, it is impossible to make those kinds of predictions with reliable accuracy. But writing your thoughts in the form of conditional statements will expose flaws in your thinking and bring you closer to the truth.”
She sniffed. “I always thought I was intuitive.”
“For many people, the word intuition is only a way of saying that their emotions grant them special knowledge. But feelings tell you little or nothing about the outside world. Logic is a powerful tool for breaking through confusion.”
Katy raised her head. “So, what, are you saying that mathematicians are the sanest people on earth? I have met some crazy people who are good at math.”
“Mathematicians too seldom apply what they know to their emotions. For too long there has been a dichotomy. Feelings and logic are viewed as mutually exclusive. But emotions can be brought into adherence with logic. You said that you cannot talk yourself out of irrational feelings.
“Emotions and logic do argue quite frequently, but your emotions are winning all the arguments. If you want to think and act reasonably, then your logical voice must become better at arguing. The disciplined study of logic expressed in the language of mathematics will strengthen that side of you. But I am warning you: your emotional recovery will not be easily won. You must study. You must calculate. You must commit.”
Katy stared at the book the doctor had given her, Principia Mathematica.
“Mental illness,” he went on, “is only a form of the irrationality to which all humans are prone. Many people deemed sane by society delude themselves in order to go about the daily practice of living. But to look reality in the eyes, full on, and still embrace life, is a rare ability. So is embracing uncertainty, when uncertainty is all there is. The goal of this therapy is not to restore you to productive denial, but to open your eyes. The only cure for mental illness worth pursuing is the truth.
“I am going to encourage you to question your own thoughts and what others have told you. By the end of your training, you must question me as well. When you have tested your most basic assumptions, subjected them to the uncompromising light of logic and even been brutal to them, you will look at what remains and may catch a glimpse of the truth, which is hard won, but the greatest treasure there is. And when that happens, you will change, and your life will change too.”
Katy sat still for a long moment. During the speech, she had been clutching the book Principia Mathematica to her chest. Now she lowered it to her lap, sighed, and shook her head. “Okay,” she shrugged, “What choice do I have?”
The doctor grabbed a prescription pad from the desk, withdrew a pen from his shirt pocket, and began to scrawl. “You will need to purchase a scientific calculator, a book of annotated writings by Aristotle, and a book of graphing paper.”
“Graphing paper?” Katy looked at him. “Why on earth would I need graphing paper for a mental illness?”
He stared at her with eyes full of unblinking candor.
“Okay.” The word was almost a whisper. “But this is running up a bill.”
“If the 2.99 cost of graphing paper presents an insurmountable challenge for you, I heard the office supply store down the road is having an excellent sale.” He withdrew a sheet of paper from his desk. “Coupon?”
Katy stared at the coupon for a long moment. Then she sighed and took it. Was her whole life really just a fiction she had told to herself? She had nothing to say and felt heavy, like she could barely contain her own weight.
The doctor ripped out the prescription and handed it to her. “Next week, same time?” he asked.
Katy thought about her life at home, all the insanity, the moods, the uncertainty, the fear, a life forged from bad decisions. Beside all that, a little math did not seem so bad. “Yeah, okay.” She rose and took the prescription. “Next week.”
“Very well. You can pick up the schedule for the course work at the table next to the front door.”
On her way out the elderly man who had opened the door was sweeping the floor in the foyer. When he saw her, he lifted his head in mild surprise. “Ah, I see that you are leaving.”
She picked up one of the schedule sheets from the square table beside the door. “Ever heard of the words hello or goodbye?” she said. “Some people find them useful.”
The man stared silently at her.
She shook her head, folded the schedule, and stuffed it into her purse. When she opened the door, the sun-warmth struck her face, and she had a thought. After the agony of betrayal, after years of questioning of her self-worth, after all the phobias and destroyed relationships, it turned out that maybe it was all for nothing.
All for nothing. In the office, this revelation had been a nightmare. But now the words “all for nothing,” said to herself again and again, were like a song, tragic and melancholy, but also lulling.
There was no good reason to think her husband had ever cheated. No proof. No logic. What had the doctor said? She had affirmed the consequent. She had been doing it all her life.
She expected tears, but none came. Instead, her tense muscles yielded to the warmth of the sun and the lulling song inside her head. She stepped outside, shut the door behind her, and raised her head, startled to see that the sky looked bluer and clearer than it had in years.
Once every thousand years, a cat asks itself a human question. In the case of Muffins, who was cleaning between her toes with her tongue, the question was, “What is the meaning of it all?”
She had cleaned her front toes the day before, working hard, and they had somehow gotten dingy again. How many times was it going to take to get them clean for good?
Once every thousand times a cat asks a human question, the universe answers. It had been a while since the universe had responded to a cat, so maybe that is why Muffins became human that day.
It was January and dark outside. She had was stretched out before the fireplace to ease the chill coming in from a crack in the broken window pane. As she was licking the gaps between her toes clean, she had a new thought: Ow! At first she felt the burning scratch of her tongue, and she looked to see a stretch of raw pink skin where her fur used to be.
She stopped licking. Her front paw was a paw no longer. She had an expansive, flat palm with fleshy fingers instead of claws. She held them up to her eyes and flexed them, and stared at them in disbelief.
Meanwhile, the air was pressing down on her like lead, but she tried to stand anyway because she felt she needed to do something. She swooned and clung to the brick mantle for support. It was a different kind of standing, anchoring herself with her hind legs and stretching herself tall and vertical, but for some reason it felt natural, like she had been doing it all her life.
Desperate for reassurance and possibly a scratch on the head, she made her way into the room where Evie, her servant, usually slept.
Evie was not there and Muffins remembered that she had gone out. Muffins caught a glimpse of something silver on the wall. She leaned toward it for a better look. Inside the guilt-framed “window,” a strange creature emerged, a girl with golden hair and a delicate nose, large green eyes, and long eyelashes.
When Muffins stared at the girl, the girl stared back curiously. When in surprise Muffins pulled away, so did the girl. Muffins had no real concept of the word “reflection,” but it was not hard to recognize that the girl in the mirror was somehow Muffins, or at least her mocking twin.
In either case, the sight alarmed Muffins and she stepped back. After recovering she continued her self-examination. She glimpsed the upper curve of her breasts and the blush on the apples of her soft, firm cheeks. She pulled her lip down and examined her bottom teeth, a white and even row of them. Even as a cat, she had never seen her teeth before, although biting was something she did every day.
She recognized the form of the girl in the window. Evie, her feeding servant, resembled the golden haired creature, but only roughly. Evie was plumper, with a round face and greying hay-blond hair, and an emerging network of thread-like lines around her mouth and eyes.
But there was another big difference between Evie and the new Muffins. Evie always had most of herself covered with a kind of loose second skin made of pastel colored linens. These “skins” changed from day to day, so they must not have been stuck to her.
Muffins looked in the direction of the open closet and saw multiple “skins” that draped from hangers. Muffins did not care about wearing covering per se, but she was ashamed of her hideous new form. She missed her glossy coat of fur and the more hidden her new, raw, pink skin was, the better.
She selected something violet and floral and slid it over her head. It was far too big for her, and folds of cloth hung loosely at her sides. She did not bother with shoes. She did not think of them.
Her furless shame hidden, she took a deep breath and looked around. She glimpsed a glass vanity table and found on it an assortment of things that glistened and sparkled, ornate bottles among them.
She picked up one of the bottles, purple and fat with a narrow neck. It was open, and a strong floral smell came from it. She had noticed that, until now, she had not smelled anything since her transformation, but the scent that came from the bottle was bold. She had seen Evie dab it on her neck so Muffins tipped the bottle and spilled a little above her clavicle, just a drop at first, cold and sweet. She liked the smell so much she splashed more of it on herself.
In addition to bottles Muffins saw an open cabinet full of sparkling things, long loops of golden “string” with stones brightly colored and almost translucent. When she was a kitten, she could not resist shiny objects or string, and it was hard to resist them now.
She grabbed a chain which to her was the Holy Grail of twine, shiny and good for dangling. This one had at one end a golden cross shape with a red oval stone set into the center. She held the “twine” up and batted at it a moment, but she did not have as much fun as she thought she would. Still, she liked it and slipped it in her pocket with a sigh.
She missed her sharp sense of smell. It was like a giant swath of experience had been taken from her. She took the bottle of scent and inhaled it again. The fragrance reassured her and she wanted to have it with her, always, but was afraid it would spill. She saw the cap not far away.
After a moment of fumbling, she figured out how to snap the cap on it, and she slid the sealed bottle into her pocket. She liked having pockets. Now she knew why people wore clothes.
Aside from her discovery of shiny and fragrant baubles, she was enjoying the delight of her new, consistently elevated perspective. At her new eye level was a new kind of window. From inside its frame, the pale face of a man stared at Muffins. Or seemed to.
The portrait had an uneven texture. The man featured in it was immobile, and clothed in something luminously white and draping. His eyes were a deep honey brown, soulful and compassionate. His smooth and shiny brown hair fell below his shoulders. She placed her palm on the face.
She sniffed the man. The smell was not warm and alive, but harsh and toxic. She concluded that he was not real and lost interest.
Her stomach began to feel hollow. She thought of her plastic food dish which rested in front of the fireplace in the living room. She moved toward it, saw it with delight, and fell to her knees. It did not even occur to her to use her hands. She stuck her face into the pile of kibble directly and munched.
Her teeth zinged from the fowl taste and she coughed out the meaty abomination in disgust. Someone must have changed it because before, the food had been, if not flavorful, at least not repellent. She wiped her lips with violent revulsion, trying to remove every trace of the vileness.
She lapped up some water next to her food dish, but the water was dirty and stale-tasting and had bits of fur floating in it. It was clear that she could not stay, or she would starve.
Something soon occurred that made her resolution to leave inevitable. As she was gagging, Muffins heard a rattle and the main door swung open. Good. Maybe her servant that called itself Evie would refresh her food, which had obviously gone bad. She rushed into the living room, prepared to rub her cheek against Evie and purr, which had always gotten attention before.
But instead of welcoming Muffins with the usual gentle and coddling voice, the woman stared at her at alarm and dropped the plastic bag in her hand. “What are you doing here?” she said. She backed away. “Is that my dress?” She clutched her purse close to her chest.
Muffins was frightened too and tried to summon the vocalizations that had always charmed before, in particular a sort of “flirrrp.” Instead, something unexpected came out. “I-I am sorry. Please. The food. It tastes spoiled. I need help, or I shall starve.”
Muffins was shocked to realize she could speak a new language and a little embarrassed. She covered her mouth and began to tremble. At first the woman gave her what was almost an expression of sympathy. But then her gaze dropped to the dress. Her face hardened. “Get. Out,” she said, “Get out before I call the police.”
Muffins had never been spoken to in so harsh a tone, not even when she had once jumped on the dining table and accidentally shattered a porcelain pumpkin. Her teeth began to chatter so much they hurt. She fled through the door where the woman had entered. Gasping, she entered the darkened streets.
The cold rocks were jagged on her bare feet, in a way that they never had been before. They hurt with pricks and stabs. Not helping matters, the night was alive with mysterious sounds, hoots, skittering, and chirping noises.
To calm herself she dug out the ornate bottle of scent and inhaled it gratefully. But a new step forward brought a new electrifying stab to her foot. The bottle fell from her grasp, landed on the pavement, and shattered. The liquid that emerged formed a fragrant puddle.
She gasped. The sudden clatter had terrified her and she did not know where to go. Fog draped the blackened street, making it hard to see her way forward. A dewy moisture condensed on her face, and she swept it away with her paw. Er, hand.
Once or twice small, scampering mammals passed. They were close enough for Muffins to track them with her eyes, but she was having trouble placing their scent. Oddly, they seemed to have none. Even more oddly, she had no urge to chase them, even though she was hungry. They did not look appetizing.
Though she did not know where to go, there seemed to be nothing to do but walk. After a while, the fog thinned, enough to see by the haloes of lamplight that she had come to a street lined with shops and brightly lit, colorful signs.
She did not know what a shop was but she was attracted by the warmth of the colors and went inside one of them. Her feet hurt terribly from walking on the small rocks and jagged stones, so she was happily surprised to find the floor smooth and, not far away, a bin full of furry slippers.
The “toe” parts were in the guise of various odd creatures, most of which she had never seen. She recognized a rabbit and a mouse, but the rest were unfamiliar to her. She selected a pair of plush mouse slippers with pink noses. A string bound the furry rodents, so Muffins bit it apart and slid her feet deliciously into the slippers. She raised one foot, flexed it, and smiled.
As she headed out the door, Muffins did not know she was stealing the slippers. She had seen them as a sign of good fortune. The experience of walking through the gravelly streets was much more comfortable, so much more. She thought the snug slippers were the best thing she had found about being human.
“Hey!” A voice behind her startled her. “Hey miss! Where did you get those?”
The voice was a sharp blow to her senses. She turned. A man with chunky sideburns was eyeing her suspiciously. Muffins did not know why and she did not ask. She sensed he meant to harm her.
She fled. Through the lamp lit street, past stores and statues, panting, she went. The slippers were far less comfortable to run in than walk in. At one point a slipper flew off and she almost tripped on it. She should have left it. But she loved those slippers so much and again, the jagged stones pierced her soles.
When she went to recollect it, she was grabbed violently by the waist and pulled back. She gasped and clamped her teeth on the arm of her captor as hard as she could.
The man unleashed a barrage of curses Muffins had never heard. “I was going to go easy on you, but now you have done it! I am going to call the police.”
Muffins did not know what a “police” was but from the way the man said it, she suspected it was not favorable and struggled even harder against his grasp, but he was too strong for her. Soon another man, taller and even more muscular, arrived to assist in the escort back to the shop. Between the two, each hairy hand clamping one of her arms, Muffins had no hope of escaping.
The first man grimaced. “How much perfume are you wearing, Miss?” Muffins did not reply as she was led back into the store.
The shop was well-lit, in contrast to the outside. Muffins had to squint to adjust her eyes. A woman at the counter that Muffins had not seen before gave her a stern look. It reminded Muffins of how her mother used to nip her when she was tired of giving milk.
The stocky man made Mittens sit down on a bench against the wall, and he sat next to her. Though he had released his grip on her, everyone was staring. Beneath their wary gazes there seemed to be no possibility of bolting through the door. She was hopelessly outnumbered. She missed her old life. What had happened to her? Why had she changed? She had only wanted to clean her toes.
She had never cried before, but now puddles welled in her eyes. While wiping them away with her sleeve, she had a flash of memory from another time she had been in an alien place, a fond nostalgia for her first day at the house she had just been forced to leave.
Muffins had been torn from her mother and siblings, and was terrified. Evie had set Muffins on the bed and dangled a string for her. The string had had sparkles on it, and Muffins loved the way the light danced along with the string.
Any wariness about being in a new home evaporated. Tentatively at first, Muffins batted at the string, but before long she lost her shyness. She crouched, wiggled her hind quarters, and began swiping without reserve, scampering, nipping, and chasing as Evie laughed. Since that day, string and even the thought of string had filled her with a delicious warmth.
Muffins dug into her housedress and retrieved the chain with the golden cross and its red stone. She held it to one of the ceiling lights and watched the luminescent shift, and smiled a little through her tears. In honor of nostalgia, she batted tentatively at the cross and watched the pendant swing back in forth, predictable and calming.
A shriek came from the counter. “No, no, no! What are you doing, you delinquent child? You should not do that, not ever. You do not punch a cross! Oh my dear! Lord forgive her!” In a moment, the lady was by her side and had snatched the cross from Muffins.
The tears came on again. Was there no comfort for Muffins anywhere? Was all that she loved to be taken from her?
“What is she doing now?” the man with sideburns who had caught her said. “Never mind. I am calling the police right now.”
“No Dirk.” The woman held up a hand. “I just realized something. If we do that, we are missing an opportunity. Clearly this young lady is lost. If she has never known the blood of the lamb, it is our Christian duty to tell her about it.”
Muffins looked up sharply. Lamb? She wondered if a lamb was something to eat. She was terribly hungry, despite the stress of the day.
The woman knelt to meet Muffins at eye level. “My girl,” Muffins felt the warmth of caring palms on her cheeks, “tell me. Are you lost?”
Muffins thought yes, there was no doubt about it, she was definitely lost. Even if she was welcomed home, she had run here without thinking. She doubted she could find her way back. With a sniffle Muffins nodded.
“My dear,” the lady said gently. “What is your name?”
Muffins only knew what Evie had always said when addressing her. “Muffins.”
The woman blinked in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, you poor, poor dear.” Her eyes became moist and she dabbed at them with a tissue. “Were you never given a proper Christian name? What have your parents done to you? I bet I know. Were they atheists?” A flash of fire crossed her eyes. “I bet they were atheists.”
Muffins did not know the term so she supposed it was possible. She had never known her father, but if her mother had been an atheist, she had never told Muffins about it. Muffins mainly remembered her mother as a wall of warm fur that bore milk. “If they were atheists, they never said so,” Muffins said.
“Well,” the woman said, “they must have been. Must have brought you up to be like them. That would explain why you were going around shoplifting mouse slippers and punching crosses.”
“Please,” Muffins said. “I beg you. What is an atheist?”
“Do not be silly, child.” The woman looked at Muffins sharply. “Everyone knows what an atheist is.”
“Please. Tell me.” If Muffins was an atheist, she certainly wanted to know about it, especially since the woman seemed to think it was so important.
The woman took in a sharp breath and held a hand over her heart. “An atheist,” she breathed, “is a wicked creature who has rebelled against God by not believing in him.” Her eyes were wide with caution, as if just reciting the definition was a dangerous act. “They are bad people who murder and burn Bibles and hate prayer.”
Muffins had no memory of ever defying anyone, but it was true that she did not believe in something called God. Mittens had never believed in anything other than what was in front of her face: her food dish, strips of twine, or a plush blanket to lie down on and clean herself before the hearth.
But she had never killed anything except a few mice and would not have known how to burn anything if she wanted to.
She had never heard of God but asked, “How can an atheist rebel against anyone that they think is not really there?”
“Because,” the woman said, “everyone knows God exists, no matter what they say. How could anyone not know they have a maker? Like those mouse slippers you tried to steal.” She pointed to the checkout counter where the twin mice now sat. “They did not come into being all by themselves. They had to have a creator. Anyone who says otherwise is just being ornery. Especially if they have heard the good news and rejected it.”
“Good news?” Muffins would certainly have loved to hear some of that. She felt terribly alone and confused.
“The gift of God to humanity. Eternal life.” The woman took Muffins by one hand. “Oh my dear, have you never heard?” When Muffins shook her head, the lady said, “Then perk up those ears.” Her eyes glowed. “I have a story to tell you.”
Muffins was excited and leaned forward. She had never heard a story before.
“Well it begins with God making the world, and he was so good at world making, he did it in just a week. Made humans too, and gave them clear instructions, but they disobeyed. And because they were disobedient, all their kids and grand-kids were too.”
“Ah,” Muffins said. “Do you mean they taught their kids to disobey the way they did?”
The woman frowned. “No. The disobedience, the wickedness, they passed it on in their blood. And all their offspring after that were sinners.”
Muffins tried to imagine what sin looked like when suspended in blood. “So they had no choice but to sin?”
“Well, yes and no. Once the evil got into their blood, they were bound to sin. But everyone has free will, child. Otherwise, being moral makes no sense.”
“But how?” Muffins felt even more confused that she had before. “How can it be both ways?”
The woman dismissed the question with a wave of her hand. “Such questions we of mortal flesh were not meant to understand. The good news is, God will forgive you; all you have to do is ask.”
“Please, if I had no choice but to sin, why must I be sorry for it?”
The woman heaved an impatient sigh. “So that you can receive the gift of eternal…” A new customer came in and a bell chimed, which made the last word hard to understand. Mittens was still thinking of the string she had played with as a kitten, and maybe that was why she thought the word was, “twine.” Eternal twine.
Muffins had never heard a phrase so lovely. “Please tell me. What is the Eternal Twine?” She was thinking of the calm she had felt when introduced to the sparkling string long ago, and how afterward Evie had treated her to a warm bowl of milk, rich, more like cream really, and how perfectly at home and at peace she had felt, all warmth, cream, and sparkles. To her twine was not just a string; it was a feeling. And a twiny feeling that continued forever sounded wonderful.
“Twine? My goodness, no,” the woman said. “Something much better. Eternal life.”
Muffins was confused. “Do you mean some lives are not eternal?” Muffins had never heard of death and had always assumed her life would go on forever.
“My lord, child, have you been living in a cave? Death was the penalty for disobedience. All living creatures die, as punishment for the first people sinning.”
“But if it was the humans who sinned, why did he punish all the creatures? Like cats, say?”
The lady huffed. “Stop talking so much and listen. You, Miss Muffins, are a terrible sinner. That makes you an abomination in the sight of God. But he loves you. And if you ask him to forgive you, he will. And you will get to live in a pretty mansion with floors made of gold instead of writhing around in fiery agony in the stench of hell for all of time.”
Muffins was more confused than ever and afraid of the fire the woman described. She had walked across a hot stove once. She had never done it again. “I do not remember sinning,” Muffins said, “or disobeying anyone.”
“Well, let us look at the facts. Not long ago you shoplifted a pair of slippers and slapped a holy cross. Not to mention,” the woman sniffed, “that you are reeking of the harlot stench. What are you wearing anyway? Oh, my lord, did you raid a perfume factory?” She sneezed. “Never mind. It is easy. All you have to do is ask God to forgive you, and he will. And give you the greatest gift of all: eternal life.” The woman smiled beatifically. “Pray to him. Ask him to save you. And because he is gracious, he shall.”
“What is pray?”
“I will show you. Come, child. Bow your head with me.”
Muffins only blinked and stared blankly at first. But then she thought of the Eternal Twine, which was really eternal life; she did know better now. But to Muffins they were one in the same, a feeling of comfort and love never-ending, and security against having to turn into other things without warning.
The woman had bowed her head, so that Muffins could see the soft billows of neck beneath her chin. She had cut her eyes toward Muffins. Muffins bowed her head and the woman closed her eyes. “Okay now. Repeat after me,” the woman said.
“Dear heavenly father, hallowed be thy name.” Muffins did not understand what the words meant, but she said them anyway. She was particularly baffled about how a name could be hollow since names were usually not solid to begin with.
The lady went on, with Muffins repeating every word. “Dear Lord, I know that I have sinned and I humbly beg your forgiveness. In particular, for shoplifting a pair of mouse slippers and batting at your holy cross like it was a dirty old carport rug.”
Muffins was not exactly sure what sinning was, but at that moment, she was deeply remorseful about having done it.
“Thank you,” the woman continued, “for dying on the cross for my sins and washing them away with your precious blood.”
Muffins dutifully repeated the words, although she could not see how blood could wash away anything. She thought about the last time she had decapitated a mouse. There was blood everywhere, all in her fur. It had been sticky and had taken a while to lick off.
“Amen,” the woman concluded. Mittens opened her eyes, half expecting to see a room awash in endless glittering string, the Eternal Twine, and a saucer of creamy milk. But everything looked, disappointingly, the way it had before.
She became aware that the woman was staring at her. “Well? How do you feel, my dear?”
Muffins blinked. “Where is it?”
The woman frowned deeply, and Muffins watched how the corners of her mouth slanted, creating little puckers in the surrounding skin.
“I would feel better if there were twine,” Muffins said.
“I am sorry. I have no idea what you mean. What I want to know is, do you feel forgiven? Do you feel pure? Like a newborn babe?”
Muffins thought about it. She wanted so much not to disappoint the woman, she even tried to feel what the woman meant. But Muffins had not been human for long enough to lie. “I feel nothing,” she said.
The eyes that stared at Muffins flashed, and she had trouble identifying the emotion: Disillusionment? Anger? Pity? Or maybe all.
The eyes that looked at Muffins softened as their owner reached one hand forward and touched Muffins on the knee. “It can be tricky when there is nothing for the eyes to see. I think I know what will help.”
Before Muffins could respond, the woman got up and disappeared into a room behind the checkout counter. Muffins heard water running and soon the woman returned with a damp cloth rag. “Where did you put your perfume, honey?” Muffins pointed to the spot above her clavicle and the woman swept the warm rag over it again and again until the rough texture hurt. “Consider this your baptism,” the woman said.
The woman finally set the rag aside and withdrew something shiny from her pocket. “Now you are ready. Hold up your hair and bow your head.” After a moment of confused hesitation, Muffins scooped up the locks that fell down her back, bent her head forward, and felt something cold against the skin at the top of her spine. After a moment the woman said, “Okay, now you may raise your head.”
The woman handed Muffins an oval handheld mirror, which she had taken from one of the shelves. Muffins could now see what the woman had done. Aside from a red patch due to all the rubbing, a gold chain fell toward her breasts and at the end, at the topmost point of her cleavage, hung the golden cross pendant with the red gem set inside.
“There,” the woman said. “That is what you are supposed to do with a cross necklace. At last you are pure, for you have made yourself worthy of it in the sight of God.”
Muffins performed an emotional self-examination. And this time she did feel something, a shiver from a kind of nonphysical wind. The air glittered. She felt strange. Her skin tingled. “Yes,” she said. “I do feel different.” She felt…great. She felt a sense of rightness. She felt…furrier. And hotter. The room was either growing taller, or her eye level was sinking, but not so far down that she could not see the look of alarm – and even horror – evident on the pale grey eyes that stared at her.
She was becoming too small for her clothes and soon felt herself engulfed in a sunken tent of fabric, and struggled to extricate herself. She no longer had hands to grip. When she tried to use her paws, her claws became hooked into the fabric, so she was forced to use her nose to sniff and push her way out of the darkness.
When she finally did, the woman could only stare at first, her face frozen. When Muffins mewled to try to ask what had just happened, the woman let out a piercing shriek, “Get thee behind me Satan!”
The way the woman had said “Satan” Muffins had a feeling that if he was around, she had better run, and that is what she did. She jumped down to the floor and hurtled herself through the open door. She fled through the streets, the wind in her face, seeing better than she had before in all the darkness.
She hid behind a metal garbage can in the back parking lot of a square building and tried to catch her breath. She clung to the cool shadows, but after a few minutes it became clear that no one was chasing her.
Cautiously, she emerged, a world of scent open to her now. She smelled old meats and boiled cabbage, and distantly smelled a trace of lilac perfume she had dropped before finding the lamp lit street where she had begun her adventure.
She followed the subtle scent of lilac and got closer, until the scent gathered into a definable cloud of density. And she followed the path of scent away from it, trotting, until she found herself at the house where she had lived.
At the door she trembled, remembering too well her former treatment. She was betting she might be better received now that she was walking on four legs again, but emotionally she was not so sure.
She did not think she could bear to see, again, the alarm in the eyes of her former servant Evie. Evie might have been a servant, but she was bigger than Muffins and could do harm. Muffins worked up her courage and stroked the door screen with her paw, mewling as loudly as she could.
At first there was no response, but just as Muffins was about to turn away, there was a rattle and the swinging sound of a heavy door.
At first Evie looked at her with blank confusion, but in a moment comprehension registered and her face changed and the outer contours of her eyes expanded. At first Muffins thought it was from anger and began to back away.
Meanwhile, Evie expelled a heavy breath and rushed out the door. Muffins felt herself gripped beneath her belly and lifted, and soon her fur was wet with kisses, and it was hard not to struggle against the fierceness of the welcome.
Muffins was carried inside. She let herself go limp for the ride, staring at the familiar surroundings, until Evie set her on the floor. “Oh Muffins, I was so afraid that awful girl had stolen you, that thief. Can you believe that bitch stole my dress? Who does that, steals a used old dress? But you must have escaped, because here you are! Such a smart kitty!” She leaned down and stroked Muffins on the head and kneaded the loose skin on her neck as Muffins unleashed a rumbling purr. “Such a smart, smart kitty!”
Within hours Muffins was sprawled in front of the fireplace hearth, her forepaws stretched across her carpeted scratching post stand. Her food dish was inches from her along with an empty saucer that had contained warm milk, an intoxicating creamy elixir that had made her feel warm inside, warm and safe and loved.
When she had first gotten home, she investigated all her favorite places to make sure things were still the way she had left them: the plastic milk rings and bread wrappers she had pawed under the refrigerator, just within her reach.
She had not seen any string since she got home, sparkling or otherwise, though she had searched for it. She remembered so well the joys of gamboling and frolicking and chasing, and the feeling that all that mattered in the whole world was catching the glittering string and showing it who was boss.
She wondered if returning to her old self was the salvation the woman had talked about. It had seemed so dramatic at the time, so profound, with all the tingling and the sparkling air, yet the only result was that she was back to her old life. If returning to cat-hood was salvation, what had been the point of any of it?
Maybe it was to make her aware that having to clean toes every day was nothing compared to the difficulty of being human, which had appeared to be awfully complicated and confusing, with all the sinning, saving, and trying to live forever.
She wondered if what the lady said was true, that lives were not eternal without divine help, and if someday Muffins was going to die. She could not believe it, not now, because the moment she was in felt eternal to her, with the warmth from the fireplace, the sound of embers popping, the crackle, and the belly full of milk.
Muffins looked around and wondered, “What if this is all there is, the milk and the warmth, and the soft carpet, and the cool wind coming in from the crack in the windowsill, letting me know that outside it is dark but inside there is light and life?”
She tensed at that thought, all there is. But then she remembered the sparkling twine in all its beauty. She stretched her forepaws, let herself go deliciously limp, and thought, “Then I will take it.”
With a languorous yawn, Muffins closed her eyes.
The Aliens Do Laundry [
**](A parable about first contact with a coy alien species)
The day humanity discovered that it was not alone in the universe, the world rejoiced. At least most of it did.
There were orations and celebrations and irate pulpit sermons, and military mobilization, and fear. The news had lifted everyone from personal concerns, dull jobs, and tepid sit-coms as they contemplated all the beauty and terror of the discovery: We are not alone.
What did it mean for the earth? What was to be done?
The U.S. Defense Department knew, or thought it did. When it came to aliens, one could not be too careful. It manufactured new weapons and recruited new soldiers. To assume that an unfamiliar race of intelligent beings was friendly would be folly. Most likely the aliens would want to colonize earth in order to exploit its valuable resources.
Though cautious, the White House chose to publicly view the event in a positive light. In a speech the president reached unprecedented levels of grandiloquence in which he took all the credit for the discovery. “I am deeply humbled to report that this momentous event has occurred under my watch. You see? I promised change and here it is.”
The speeches were overflowing with wonderful sound bites that people would repeat for many days to come. “A new chapter of our history is being written,” he said, “and every day is going to be a new page.”
During these speeches protesters gathered on the White House Lawn holding illegible signs. What they were protesting and chanting unclear. Each person seemed to have their own idea of what needed protesting.
A few were conspiracy theorists who doubted the aliens existed and thought the government had invented the story to protect itself, as a diversion from sex scandals that had swept the White House in recent months.
On the opposite end, cults sprung up that worshiped the aliens as gods. Naturally, a few of the cults drank poison and died. One cult believed that Planet Zod was their ancestral home, which they equated with Eden in the book of Genesis. They believed that their spirits would be received by the Zodonians.
Despite those tragedies, the discovery of extraterrestrial life was the most magnificent and beautiful and horrible thing to ever happen to humankind. In every culture, new art flourished. New literary forms were created. And there was a pervasive feeling that all humanity was witnessing a spectacular revolution.
Everyone seemed to exist in a constant state of amazement. Everyone was desperate to see what the aliens would say next. What did they look like? What were their bodies made of? What were their customs?
But gradually humankind began to notice something unsettling. Despite copious radio messages being fired through space, the aliens were not “answering the phone” anymore. Where were they? Why were they so silent? Weeks passed, then months. Finally, a year passed.
In response to hundreds of desperate inquiries about themselves, the Zodonions at last replied. Decoded, the message said: “You wanted to know if you were alone in the universe. We have generously answered your question. But frankly we have no interest in your planet. If you continue to clutter our air space with unwelcome inquiries, we will be forced to issue an Arg Arg. Please do not contact us again.” No one knew exactly what an Arg Arg was, but many suspected it was a kind of cosmic restraining order.
If the aliens had announced that they were going to invade and colonize earth, humanity could not have been more devastated. Humans had always assumed that if they did make contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial life, the aliens – bad or good – would be just as thrilled to discover humans as the humans were to discover them.
Despite the discouragement, astronomers continued to blast off more inquiring messages, to which they received no response. It was unbearable: the expectation, the curiosity, all the preparation; and then, silence.
The collective sanity of earth-beings buckled. New scandals erupted. An official at the U.S. Defense Department colluded with an astronomer in sending a message of his own: “Our planet is full of delightful resources such as water, air, salt, and precious minerals ripe for exploitation. Surely there must be something here that you would like to mine or harvest. I am sending you some helpful coordinates. Please invade our world at once and promise to take me to your planet with you. Other than our highly colonizable resources, my planet sucks.”
The world held its collective breath in preparation for the coming cataclysm. The Defense Department pointed nuclear weapons toward the skies. Doomsday enthusiasts prowled the streets with signs and looked creepy on purpose. Americans set flags in their windows and candle flames flickered in every church.
After many weeks of praying and preparation, the worst thing of all happened and also the least expected: nothing. The streets remained silent. No doomsday interstellar messages interrupted regularly scheduled television programming. No high tech bombs rained in the streets.
The newscasters feigned enthusiasm, but anyone could see the dullness in their eyes. Viewers recognized the look because it was what they felt. The lack of an invasion was not just anticlimactic, it was insulting. The aliens did not want our natural resources, even after they had been explicitly offered. What was wrong with our resources, and why were they not good enough for the snobby Zodonians? A saying cropped up, which reflected the collective despair and confusion.
It was a quote from a six year old girl named Tina who, in an interview, was asked why she thought the aliens did not respond.
She scrunched her forehead and appeared to think deeply. “The aliens,” she said, “must be doing their laundry.” No one knew why she said it. No one asked. But her answer embedded itself deeply into the human psyche. It perfectly encapsulated the absurdity of discovering intelligent extraterrestrials that were too busy, too coy, or too uppity to communicate
The saying went viral. A line of commercial products including coffee mugs and lunch boxes appeared on shelves, portraying grey aliens with big glassy eyes and antennae who were hanging shirts, towels, and underwear on clothes lines.
The White House, having been overjoyed to claim credit for contact, appointed a committee to discuss possible reasons that the aliens refused to pursue a relationship. The committee did not have to convene for long before concluding the obvious: Earth had a brutal history; humans were a wicked species; the aliens were afraid of us.
The White House publicly congratulated the committee on their savvy conclusion in a speech in which the president resolved, on the behalf of all humans to be a better planet, less violent, more compassionate, and wiser. “We now have the ultimate incentive to do what our greatest thinkers have wanted us to do all along: end war and irrational violence and replace them with love, pity, and overall niceness.”
The “evil earth” explanation was wildly popular, because it made everyone feel dangerous and important. A line of best-selling t-shirts featured sayings such as, “The aliens just can’t handle us. We’re too damn scary.”
Meanwhile, the committee, deciding to “come clean” made a list of the cruelest people who ever lived, trotting out Hitler as the crowning achievement. In addition were a list of historically evil deeds: slaughters and repressions and imperial invasions. The committee sent videos to the extraterrestrials with a repentant statement which included a sorrowful resolution to be a nicer species.
The earth basked in self-importance, prepared, in case the aliens did not reply, to bear the cross of its tragic and intimidating moral turpitude.
The strategy seemed to work, because this time the aliens did reply. “Our apologies. You certainly are an evil species. We will do further research. Perhaps your history will add valuable insights to the cosmic annals of violence.” The world was ecstatic to bear the tragic distinction of unfathomable depravity.
The world held its breath in happy anticipation. This was really happening. Earth was going to impress the aliens after all. It did not have to wait long. Weeks later the verdict returned.
“Though your bloody history indicates that you are capable of carrying out mass destruction on a cosmic scale, you lack the technology to demonstrate it. It is therefore impossible for your villains to compete with iniquitous luminaries such as Zarg 5 of the planet Apop, who decimated a densely populated galaxy by inducing a double supernova. On an evil scale of 1 to 10, according to our computer estimations, you have scored about a 3.”
The earth released a collective groan. It had endured many strikes against its self-esteem in the last few hundred years, such as the knowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe, as it had once thought; and that the sun itself was only a medium size star, one of countless billions.
But if there was anything the earth had been sure of, it was its incontestable superiority in the realm of evil. To be outdone in moral turpitude, not by one planet, but by many, was unbearable. The meager score of 3 was the coup de gras against terrestrial self-importance.
Psychiatric visits quadrupled in the months that followed, but the psychiatrists were not there because they, too, were depressed.
Meanwhile, the conspiracy theorists theorized. Protesters protested. Ministers shook their fists from the pulpit saying that Satan had been the source of all the madness, because he wanted to make it seem like God was “seeing another planetary species on the side.”
Despite the widespread rebellion and insanity, life on earth somehow went on. The sun continued to blithely trace its daily arc across the sky, which was as annoyingly blue as it had ever been.
But beneath the appearance of sameness raged all the chaos of a child throwing a temper tantrum because a sibling had been born.
However a small and pensive part of the world looked inward. Writers wrote about what the discovery of extra-terrestrial life had really meant for Earth. They argued that the discovery was a challenge for earth-people to become more rational and compassionate toward fellow earthlings.
One writer speculated that the world had been lonely because it saw itself as alone and apart from the rest of the universe, dwarfed by its unfathomable size. But perhaps the universe was all one thing, and separateness an illusion. Instead of being alone and apart, humans were part of all the vastness. Therefore, getting a low score on evil was not nearly as shameful as it had appeared.
Meanwhile, creativity flourished. Songs were written. Art was made. They were like cave paintings rendered on a cosmic wall that would serve as messages to those who would not remember the momentous day of first contact and the return to loneliness after being snubbed.
Years passed. And with each new day, the memory of the aliens was a little less intense than the day before.
Recovery was painfully slow the way it sometimes is for someone getting over a crush, and the loved object gets a little less lovable over time, and the memory, almost imperceptibly, fades, until one day the world settles, food becomes enjoyable again, and life does not seem so bad.
There was certainly no going back. The short-lived encounter with alien life had forever altered how the earth saw itself in relationship to the universe.
But for a while, those who had lifted their eyes to the skies lowered them to look, really look, at their surroundings. They were more likely to notice the way the sunlight struck a pond, or the way the silken fur of a cat felt beneath their palms. They noticed each other, and they observed themselves.
They even began to wonder again, the way humans have done from the beginning. Why were they here? What all was out there in the unexplored reaches of space? Only one question had been answered: Is there intelligent life on other planets?
But there were many other mysteries worth pondering. The riddle of life had not been solved. And if one intelligent species existed, maybe there were others out there, nicer ones who did not have so much laundry to do.
Babies were born, and they grew up without any memories of the excitement and disappointment the aliens had caused. But earth was never quite the same again.
The universe seemed like a great and unexplored ocean with countless islands of which the earth was only one.
And inside the vast reaches of the unknown were questions without end. Amid all its uncertainty and confusion, humanity lifted its head and poised itself on the brink of the future, waiting, wondering, and exploring, as it always has.
Earth, it turned out, had its own laundry to do, problems and interests that had nothing to do with making extraterrestrials like them. And Earth decided that, after it had folded most of its towels and hung up its shirts, it could once again cast its gaze upon the stars and find itself, a small but beautiful expression of the cosmic mystery, a single note in the music of existence that, though tiny, deserved to be heard and, perhaps, even loved.
Walls evaporate sometimes, the note said. Soon yours will be gone for good. Leave.
She held the note against her chest. The problem was that she had no other place to go. But she knew the warning — whoever had sent it — was true.
It was happening all around her, to people everywhere. It started slowly, with walls that cracked from pressure or buckled from rain. The floors thinned, too, and sagged. In the final stages, the walls became papery and useless.
Then, incredibly, magically, it all went away; the house, what was left of it, just blinked out of sight – vanished.
It was happening to her, too. All the signs were there: the cracks, the easily bruised walls, the straining moan of buckling floors afflicted by heavy furniture, keeping her awake at night. She knew if she stayed, the floor would collapse with her on it, or the ceiling would crash on her head.
There was no place in her area where the House Blight was not happening. Even many of the shelters had succumbed. Some flocked to unsanitary tent encampments. To get away from it, she was told, she would have to move far away.
There were rumors of a distant place where the House Blight could not live. The climate, they said, was too hot for it. They said it was a place of lush beauty near the sea with dense forests and oak trees that drooped with strange playful tufts.
Because the House Blight hated the sun and its heat, she did as she had been advised; she packed up her things, everything she could take, and prepared to move.
It was not easy. She felt too much while she packed. She had grown attached to the house over the decade she had lived there, and now it was going away.
She also fretted over what to take or leave. She thought maybe she should box up her mind with everything else, and take it out again only after she had moved.
She packed everything she could not live without. And her cat. She had to take her cat. A cat was what made a place a home.
She left everything else in her house to her neighbor, whom the House Blight had not touched. “Take it all. Just pay whatever you can.” she said. Seeing her desperation, he wrinkled his forehead and shook his head, as if making a huge sacrifice, and gave her three dollars for most of her belongings, while secretly rejoicing about the profit he would make at his upcoming garage sale.
She spent all the savings she had to buy a used car in good enough condition to make the trip and still had to borrow for other expenses. By moving day her walls were so thin, she could almost see through them.
Unable to afford a moving truck, she spent the morning packing all she could into her new car until at last she got inside and drove away. It was night when she and her cat arrived at her new town.
She found an affordable place to stay in the upper floor of an old inn. The first thing she noticed was how solid everything was. Even before the Blight, her walls had been thin. When the wind blew, the floor rattled and the house shook.
Here, it was different. Only the strongest materials had been used. The floor was solid granite. The walls and doors were heavy and massive. A wind would be no threat to them. Even the Blight would take a while to burrow through the solid material.
She also noticed how quiet it was: no more crumbling, groaning, creaking things in the night. In the backyard was a pretty lake, with an inviting bench in front.
A neighbor, an elderly woman, was sitting there the first day, and asked her why she had come from so far away. The girl said, “Walls evaporate sometimes. You know how it is.” This was such a common saying in her home town that she was surprised when the neighbor looked at her strangely. “Come again?”
“They evaporate. The walls. They go away. At least where I come from, they do.” The lady shook her head, pursed her lips, pulled her purse into her lap and rose. As the lady shambled away, the girl tried again: “Not all at once.” But the lady did not turn, only hurried her steps. “The Blight eats them slowly,” she whispered, the words trailing away.
Unheard, she went to her new home.
Her new home had a fireplace and big closets and a high window so that she could sit in her living room and watch the clouds, just as if she were outside.
Despite these luxuries, she had no bed at first, so she slept on the hard floor for the first few weeks until she could afford one.
Money was tight. To make matters worse, a nasty note appeared in her mailbox from the person who had sold her old house to her, demanding that she continue the high monthly payment. She called and told him she could not afford to pay for an evaporating house plus rent. He said, “Well you should have bought the House Evaporation Insurance.”
He had a point; she had to grant him that.
She unpacked her things. The cat began to sniff everything and decreed the new place worthy by rubbing against the door posts and scraping its claws against the carpet.
After finding a new job, a temporary one, she bought some bargain furniture and had it all moved inside.
She felt a click of satisfaction as they days went by. There was nothing she could have done at her old place she could not do here. Caught up in her routine, she barely saw her surroundings anymore, the lake or the fireplace or the clouds.
She wondered if anything had really changed, except the walls.
One day while reading, she shut her book, put it down, and left the inn. She wanted to see more of her new town. She had heard there was a beach nearby. She bought a map and set off in search of the ocean, which would show her once and for all that she really was in a new place.
As she neared the beach, she began to see more palm trees. The wind rushed against them, and they leaned away from it. The buildings were scattered far apart, allowing her the first glimpse of the sea.
Far away, it was quiet, but on the beach, she neared the ocean and its sounds opened up. The waves roared and splashed and pulled away. The wind grabbed her long hair and pulled and whipped it against her face.
She thought about the home she had left, but could only summon vague images.
The House Blight was a thing of the past, a distant memory, and all that mattered now was this, the cresting, splashing, and pulling back, the wind in her face, the sand on her feet.
The place she had called home was far away, and she wondered if she would ever feel home here. But maybe all she needed was a place to sleep, and walls.
Which walls surrounded her was unimportant, as long as they stood. Outside, inside; what did the words really mean?
At night she took comfort in the thickness of the walls, the heaviness of the bricks. Until she began to hear the rumors.
Sometimes, in this town, people said, the ground collapses without warning. It is the heavy solid things that are most in danger, the things that press and weigh that most easily fall.
Giant signs, plastered everywhere, proclaimed the new horror, a word she dared not speak. Sinkhole? See the Sinkhole Guy!
She could not believe her bad fortune. A new House Blight was upon her! Even when neighbors told her that sinkholes only affected a few, she would not calm down.
She considered moving again. She even packed a few boxes. She remembered her fear of the ceiling collapsing, knew too well the treachery of shelters meant to protect.
Where could she go where she could rely on surfaces to bear her weight or walls to hold the ceiling?
She thought about her sturdy new walls that blocked the rain and wind, appearing so stable.
And she remembered the ocean, too, so near, with all of its wild beauty, unpredictable, unsafe, but still comforting in the rhythms it did have.
She sighed in resignation. Walls evaporate sometimes, she thought, and the ground — it turns out — sometimes disappears.
But for the time they were there you had to trust them, the ground that might give way or a ceiling that might fall. The timeless strength of walls and surfaces was an illusion. But it was one you had to have.
She began to unpack the boxes she had filled in her haste to escape the Sinkhole Blight. As she did, she thought of the ocean, alive and constantly moving.
Meanwhile, her walls and floors stood still, and she congratulated them for that.
“Catch the ball you idiots! See? Very simple.” The boy tossed the ball into the air. “What goes up –see? – goes down. When it goes down you hold out your arms and you catch it. Like this.” He spat. “What were you two talking about anyway?” He stared at blond headed Roxanne. “And keep your hands free. What are you holding, a dandelion?” He grabbed the flower from Roxanne and snapped its stem in two.
The girls, Roxanne and Mila, both eleven, looked at each other. Roxanne laughed behind her hand. Mila stared at him in mild amusement. Matt glowered at Mila. “So? What are you talking about? Tell me.”
“We are discussing the origins of the cosmos and the meaning of life,” Mila said. “And why people like you have no hope of ever finding it, or even coming close.”
Matt gaped at Mila. “Just catch the kickball when it comes your way!” Matt stomped off.
Laughing, Roxanne gave Mila a hug. “Good going, Miles. That will teach him to interrupt. Now, back to what really matters: Jeff or Shane? As I was saying, I like them. They both like me. Which one?”
Mila shrugged. “Maybe try eenie-meanie-minie-mo?”
Roxanne sighed, bent over, and plucked another dandelion. “Life is hard,” she said. “So very hard. Good thing I have you. I wish I could be more like you, Miles. Smarter.” Roxanne sighed again. “You are so lucky to not have any boys like you.”
This time Mila sighed. “Never thought of it like that.”
The red ball was hurtling overhead, toward them, tracing a perfect arc against a stretch of blue sky. They both looked up and watched as it passed them. Mila watched it fall and bounce a few times. Matt was back and glaring at them with disgust as he grabbed the ball.
Mila looked amused as she watched Matt stomp away, his head turned and staring at her. “True, life is hard, but sometimes the problem is with people, not life. Take him. He thinks that what happens in this game actually matters. But look over there, at him. He knows better.”
Mila pointed to a boy at the second place position. He was balancing the wooden rectangle of a base on his head. A girl was shouting at him from across the field. “Put the base down, you dummy.” The boy grinned and flicked his middle finger.
“See?” Mila said. “He plays the game, but he doesn’t care about it. He just wants to make everyone mad. No loyalty. A mercenary type, for sure. Trust me. I can spot them.”
“I never liked him,” Roxanne said.
“No one likes him. But I like him better than Matt, who is a prisoner of his desires. Matt bases his happiness on something beyond his control. He can catch the ball and tag, but he is part of a team, so he can never control every player. Like us, for example.” Mila shook her head. “All he can do is yell at us and act like a tyrant.”
“Yeah,” Roxanne said. “He is such a jerk. It would be so easy not to choose him, if he liked me. He really needs to lighten up. Someone needs to tell him what a stupid game this is, so he can stop hating life.”
Mila nodded. “What difference does it make who wins? After the game is all over, we go back to class, listen to more lectures, then we go home. No matter what, life goes on the same. The game only matters if you tell yourself it does.”
“You are so wise, Mila.” Roxanne shook her head and sighed. “But you get too deep for me sometimes. I only want to know what boy to like. Shane has these dreamy eyes. But he is always calling me a dumb blond. Jeff only ever says nice things. But he has big ears, and I think his mom picks out his clothes for him.”
“Roxanne, always choose nice. Believe me. Besides, be happy you even have a choice. Not everyone does. In fact, some people say no one does. I read somewhere that freedom is a paradox.”
Roxanne blinked. “A para-huh?”
“A paradox. Something true that seems to contradict itself. Every time you use your freedom, you become less free. Every time you make a choice, other choices go away. If you choose Shane, then you lose Jeff. Every time you make a decision, you close other doors.”
“Really?” Roxanne crinkled her forehead. “What kinds of doors?”
“Not real doors, Roxy. But take this game. Everyone calls this play. You would think play would be something you did because you wanted to do it. But here we are, forced to stand here in this dumb field. There are even rules for how we should feel. We are supposed to pretend we care who wins. And all the time, the teacher is right there, overseeing everything. Do you see any freedom here, any at all?”
Roxanne scanned the field, then turned to Mila. “I think that fly on your nose might be free.”
Mila opened her eyes wide and slapped at her nose. “What fly?”
“Psyche,” Roxanne laughed.
“Well,” Mila blinked at Roxanne a couple of times, “believe me, if that fly was real, it would be so much freer than we are.” She glared at Matt. “Our only shred of freedom, our one human dignity, is to ignore the ball when it flies past us, and even that is under siege.”
Roxanne chewed the end of a dandelion stem. “Sometimes I wish I was less free. No more worries. Someone could tell me, pick Jeff or pick Shane. And I would, no regrets.”
“So true,” Mila said. “Freedom is costly. When you get older, it only gets worse. You have more power, so if you make bad decisions, they can ruin your whole life. You have to choose who to marry and where to live and what job to take. Every time you make a choice, all your other choices go away.”
“Sounds awful,” Roxanne said. “Why would anyone want freedom? Hey, I know. From now on, maybe you can make all my decisions for me. I trust you, Miles. You have a good brain. Just tell me which boy to pick and I will.”
“Infield!” Matthew screamed and gestured to the kids crossing from one end of the field to the other. He stood in front of them. “Are you bimbos going to move, or are you joining the other team? If you are, do it now.”
Mila sighed. “I guess we have to continue this talk over there. The teacher is glaring at us. I wonder if life ever gets any better, or if there will always be someone to boss us around and tell us where to go.”
Roxanne and Mila strolled to the opposite end of the field and leaned against the inner curve of a metal fence.
“So tell me,” Roxanne said. “Which one? Pretend-like. You are my all-knowing master and I am your humble slave. Who do you pick for me, my master? Shane or Jeff?”
“Alphabetical order!” The teacher said. “Everyone line up.” The teacher paced up and down the line. “If your name starts with “A,” go to the front of the line. Roxanne, move it! Mila, to the back.”
Roxanne frowned at Mila. “I hate my last name being Atkins. I would much rather be a Zimmerman. Or at least a Wells like you.”
“I have to say, I like being a Wells. I almost never have to kick the ball.”
“Oh, Mila, I have to go, but I want to talk some more. I hate separation. Almost as much as choosing boys. Things like this are what make life so very hard.”
“There is a way,” Mila said, “to get back.” She gave Roxanne a meaningful look.
Roxanne gave Mila a look of confusion before she moved to the fourth place in line.
Meanwhile, Mila approached the boy Mark, who had used second base for a hat. He was standing at the third place in line. Mila whispered something in his ear. A shrewd expression appeared on his face. Then he burst out laughing. “Ha,” he said. “What is in it for me?” He gave her a challenging expression.
“Mila, move it!” the teacher said. “Go to the back of the line now. Do you want detention?”
Ignoring her, Mila replied to the boy. “My undying gratitude?”
He opened his palm. Mila sighed, drew something shiny, a coin from her pocket, and put it on his palm. He looked down at it with contempt. Mila drew out a couple of dollar bills. “I only have 3 dollars, lunch money. Two up front, the rest later.”
The teacher grabbed Mila by the upper arm and drew her roughly away to the back of the line. Mila frowned and watched the first kid approach home base.
The first play was a home run. But the next player in line was Margo. Margo was overweight and not a good runner, and got tagged quickly.
Mark stepped up to the base. He loosened his shoulders and stretched his legs like a track runner. Finally he stood absolutely still, as if meditating. But when the ball came rolling toward him, he barely nudged the ball, and the toe of his tennis shoe sent the ball veering to the right.
Mark stared at the ball for a long moment, then took mincing, almost prim, steps toward first. He was tagged halfway to the base amid a volley of boos. Returning, he grinned proudly, bowed, and wave. A chorus of boos and taunts followed.
Roxanne looked at Mila and Mila met her eyes. Roxanne lowered her head and stepped up to kick, and when the server rolled the ball to her, she pulled her leg back far, swung it forward, and then seemed inexplicably to lose her balance. “Whoops,” she said. She gave the ball a half-hearted tap with the toe of her sandal. She half walked, half ran toward first base. “What are you doing?” Matthew screamed. “Run, you idiot! Run!”
Roxanne was tagged midway to first base. The kids on her team booed, but laughter rang out from the other team. As Roxanne returned, she buried her face in her hands.
“She did it on purpose,” Matt screamed at the teacher. “She just did it so she could go back out there and talk to Mila and pick dandelions. Do something!”
The teacher looked at Matt, then at Roxanne. “Be a good sport, Matt,” the teacher said, and blew a whistle. “Everyone change places.”
Back in the outfield, Mila looked at Roxanne with new respect. “Well played, Roxy, my friend. I know how hard that must have been. You could be good at this game if you wanted to be. Sorry if put you in a bad position. You could have said no.”
“Never,” Roxanne wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. “I like talking to you. Besides, I want your answer. I need your answer. My entire future happiness depends on it.”
“No, forget about boys, just for one second. Do you know what we just did? Do you see the beauty?” Mila shook her head. “I gave up my lunch money, and you made the entire classroom hate you just to come back here. This is a moral victory, Roxy. We have no choice but to stand here and pretend to play ball, but we decided how we were going to do it, here, right here, in the dandelion patch, where we belong.” Mila looked around. “And such a beautiful day for it too.” Mila gazed upward. Roxanne did too.
“Sometimes,” Mila said, “when I was little and used to get lonely, I would go outside and lie down on the grass and stare at the sky. I would imagine I could fall into it, past all the blue and on into space, on and on. And maybe I would fall on a planet where everyone thinks like I do, and where everyone would understand me. Do you ever do that, Roxy? Ever get the feeling you could just fall into all that blue and find nice aliens who like you?”
“Aliens scare me. I try not to think about them. But it is so very nice out here.” Roxanne inhaled. “I love spring.”
“Look,” Mila pointed at the sky. “The sun has just enough cloud over it so you can stare at it and not hurt your eyes.” The ball bounced over to Mila. She bent down and picked it up. “The things I love most in the whole universe are spheres, I think, the sun, the moon. Donut holes.” Mila examined the ball. “Wish I could feel the same way about kickballs.”
Matt ran up to Mila, his face red, and snatched the ball from her. “Are you an idiot? We could have had an out! When I told you to get the ball, I meant for you to use it, throw it to someone. Tag someone.”
“Funny,” Mila said to Roxanne. “I can see his mouth moving, but I can barely hear him. Can you?”
“Not at all,” Roxanne said.
Matt scowled at Mila, shook his head vigorously, and then shuffled off.
“Okay, Mila, enough is enough. Tell me. Tell me who to choose, and tell me now. I need to know, or I will die here, and this dandelion patch will be my grave.”
“I already told you. Choose personality over appearance. From what you have told me, that means Jeff.”
Roxanne was silent for a long moment. “I get it,” she said softly. “Thanks.” Her face brightened. “Oh Mila, thank you so much. You are the best friend ever.” She gave Mila a hug and planted a kiss on her cheek. “You helped me. I love you. You helped me decide. I love you, I love you, I love you!”
Drawing back in surprise, Mila smiled. “May you and Jeff be very happy together. Am I invited to the wedding?”
“Oh no.” Roxanne pulled away in surprise. “No, no, no. Not Jeff.” She smiled dreamily. “Shane.”
“It was amazing. As soon as you said ‘Jeff,’ I had this flash, and I knew I was meant to be with Shane.”
“Roxy, are you insane? Why even ask me for advice if you are just going to do the opposite?”
Roxanne shrugged happily. “Like you said, Mila, freedom is a parachute.”
“Paradox, Roxy. The word is paradox.”
“Whatever.” Roxanne shrugged. “I feel so much better now. So light. I bet if a big wind came right now I could just…float away.” She shielded her eyes with her hand and stared across the field. “You know, I kind of envy them, the other team, right now.”
“Mila, if I tell you something, will you promise? Promise, promise, promise not to be mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“Because of what I am about to say.”
“Roxy, how can I know, unless you say it?”
“Okay. Here goes. Mila, I like playing kickball. Sometimes.”
Mila was silent.
“Maybe the game is stupid,” Roxanne went on, “and maybe Matt is too. And maybe we have to be here. But part of me wants to catch the ball and have everyone love me for it. And now that I made the most important decision of my entire life, I want to celebrate. I want to go kick the ball. For real this time. As hard and as far as I can.”
At first Mila looked as stunned as someone who had just been struck. Finally she sighed. “I knew.” Mila pressed her fingers against one of her temples. “Oh God, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.” She shrugged. “Of course you want to kick the ball.” She looked at Roxy. “You never even spoke to me until a week ago when your life got hard. What are you doing out here anyway, with me and all these dandelions? Anyone can see. You are the sort of person meant to kick the ball, not just think about it. I was being selfish. I am a bad friend.”
Roxanne said, “All I am saying is, maybe there is more to life than being an outfielder. Could you ever learn? To like the game? The wind in your face when you run? Everyone loving you because you made a home run? The cheers? I bet you could be good. And I know everyone would love you if you smiled more. And stopped using big words.”
“Roxy, if you want to start catching the ball, you can. But I like myself the way I am. I tried it, what you said, I used to try. I tried so hard to be good at the game. I always ran past the bases, I did it every time. If there was even a flower in the way, I would trip over it. I could kick the ball halfway across the world and still get tagged. I am telling you: I am bad at this game, Roxy. But what I am good at is thinking about it. I look in from the outside. I see things others miss.”
Roxanne studied Mila. “Well maybe people on the inside see things you miss.”
“Wow, Roxy,” Mila looked at Roxanne in pleased surprise. “Am I rubbing off on you? You said something insightful. I have to say, there is hope for you.” She turned her head away. “Even though what you said has nothing to do with me at all.”
Roxanne was quiet, and so was Mila. “I like being alone, you know,” Mila said. “I was alone before, and I can be alone again. My choice. If you want to catch the ball, you can. Or kick a home run even. You are who you are. And I am who I am.”
Roxanne looked seriously at Mila. “Who are you?”
Mila was silent for a long moment. “An outfielder, Roxy. Always an outfielder. I was born an outfielder, and when I die, someone will have to bury me in the outfield, and if I go to heaven, I will live in the outfield there too. I will be an outfielder until the end of time.”
Roxanne was silent for a long time. “Then I will be too,” she said. “For now. You said I had an insight. I caught a lot of balls in my life, but no one has ever told me I had an insight before. I like this, standing here, in the dandelion patch, talking to you and watching the ball go by. This feeling, right here, I like it.” Roxy stared at the sky. “It is all so very nice.”
“Roxy, never change who you are, not for me, not for anyone.”
“Nothing to change. Maybe I will start back catching the ball. Someday. But not now. These talks, they make my life less hard than it used to be. Hey, look, our team lost. The teacher is waving at us. Come on.” Roxanne grabbed Mila by the hand. “I bet Shane is changing classes.”
“Maybe,” Mila sighed. “But I still think you should go with Jeff. Or no one. Have you ever thought of no one?”
“Mila, you are so funny.” Roxanne let go of Mila, took a deep breath and stretched. “I feel so amazing. I just made the hardest decision of my life, thanks to you. Nothing I ever have to deal with my whole life will be any harder.”
“Glad I could, um, help.”
“Here, Mila, take this.” Roxanne presented an object to Mila, who looked down in confusion. “Please. Seriously. I want you to have it.”
“A dandelion with a chewed off-stem? Oh Roxy, you are such an angel, but I just couldn’t.”
“No, really, take it. My thank-you for making my life less hard.” Roxanne took a deep breath and stretched her arms toward the sky. “Ah, feels great to be alive. What a wonderful, beautiful day.”
Actually, I was wondering.” Mila took the dandelion. “Do you have a few dollars I can borrow? I gave all my lunch money to Mark.”
“No money,” Roxanne said. “But I brought my lunch. You can have one of my pickles.”
Mila frowned. “Just one?”
Roxanne smiled proudly. “Any one you want.”
“Never mind.” Mila sighed. “I guess being hungry is worth our moral victory. I am going to be stoic about it. Today, it was all worth it. Productive, too. The reason so few problems get solved is that everyone is too busy doing things. Imagine what we could accomplish in a world where more people refused to catch balls and spent all that time thinking. I bet we could solve world hunger. Or colonize deep space. Hey Roxy, by not catching balls, we could start a revolution.”
“Really?” Roxy broke into a grin of delight. “And be in history books?”
“I bet we could. Hey, I know. The Dandelion Revolution. What do you think?”
“The Dandelion Revolution. I think I like it! Will kids have to memorize my name? I hate memorizing, but I think I would like being memorized.”
“I tell you, Roxy, we are going to be famous one day as the first ones to say no to catching the ball. We should write a manifesto.”
“A manifesto? Great idea! You can do the writing and I can draw the pictures!”
“I know how to draw a dog and a flower. Oh Mila, I am so, so excited. I am going to have so many insights! I bet I can impress Shane and he will stop saying I have putty for brains.” Crossing the field with Mila, Roxanne sighed dramatically. “You know, today was the funnest time I ever had playing kickball.”
“More fun ahead, Roxy. From now on we are going to change how kickball is played. We are going to make our own rules and play by them. We are going to avoid the ball and say deep things about it, and we are going to win.”
“Oh perfect,” Roxanne said. “There is nothing I like better than winning.” Roxanne shook her head admiringly. “You are so wise, Mila. So very wise.”
Mila stuck the dandelion into her front jeans pocket. “I try,” she said. And smiled.
It begins in early childhood. A hesitation, an impulse to hide from strangers. Ducking behind furniture when company comes. Perhaps it is genetic, a survival trait, that long ago may have protected the young from wild, hungry predators.
As the toddler grows, she learns a new word: “shy.”
There is something in how the word is uttered, an anxious or even scornful tone, that makes the child flinch from it and want to deny it.
Teachers talk about “bringing her out of her shell.” At first, she is happily surprised to hear this, since she had not known she had a shell, and likes the idea. She loves turtles, especially baby ones, and thinks it would be fun to carry a house on her back.
But the mood does not last; parents and other children urge, “You need to talk more.” The confused child does what she is told; she forces herself fill the air with empty words. The discomfort she feels with this, she is taught, is something she must “overcome.”
She does not like to hear this. But that word, “shy” – it fills her with shame and makes her feel apologetic. Her thought is, “something is wrong with me, so I need to hide, so no one will see it and make fun of me.”
She is told not only that she is shy; she is told [_why _]she is shy: they say it is because she does not like herself very much.
The words ring true; but she is very young, and she does not stop to consider that she had liked herself fine before people started telling her that she was shy, and that that was a bad way to be.
Her quietness was at first nothing more than that; a trait that was a little different. But now she is told that the shame she feels was there all along and is the reason for her problem.
She believes them, and she now feels apologetic not only for being shy, but for having something called a “low self-esteem.”
The kids everyone likes do not have that. They talk a lot and everything they are feeling shows on their face. The bad part is she likes them too.
She tries to change, she tries to change, she tries to change.
In her desperation to be liked, she ends up alienating those whose approval she seeks. She does not know who she is, and always feels as if she is reaching for something not there.
With every effort to be normal, more confusion follows. Others confuse her too; like the teacher who ridicules her in front of classmates, and when she asks why, the teacher says it is only to “bring her out.”
When she reaches junior high school, she notices others, boys and girls. They sit in their desks, heads lowered, keeping their arms tightly to their sides. She thinks she knows how they feel, and makes a point to talk to them.
They are afraid to talk back, and she understands this well; but they are also afraid to be quiet. They stutter. They apologize. Then they apologize for apologizing.
The absurdity strikes her. Why should you ever apologize for not talking, if there is nothing that you want to say?
She thinks of all the big talkers she has known. Many had nothing to say, and were grating. And there were the bullies, who used their many words to hurt and humiliate; and the liars. Was lying better than being quiet? Why should you have to say aloud everything you were thinking?
In her epiphany, she rebels. She embraces the word others have said with scorn and rejects the idea that she should “overcome” anything. She now envisions her shyness in a different way: as a shivering, misunderstood puppy seeking shelter from the icy rain; from now on, she is determined to defend it. She gives it a new name: Fido.
“C’mere, snuggy wuggy,” she thinks. “I’ll protect you from the big, bad extroverts.”
The name Fido seems better, because it is unclear what the word “shy” really means. Is it being quiet? Is it thinking about what you say before you say it? Does it mean, as many believe, hating yourself?
She decides that she will remain “shy;” To reject the term would mean conceding that it is something bad. But she will never hate herself. She will be shy, but she will not be apologetically shy. She will invent a new kind.
The season of militant shyness begins.
I haven’t seen you in a while. Have you overcome your shyness yet?
Not yet. Have you overcome your shortness?
She does not say this thought aloud, and she must admit, this is a drawback to being shy. Fido is high maintenance sometimes.
She quickly discovers that there are limits to how militant shyness can be. The strongest expression of in-your-face shyness goes something like this: “I am shy and damn it, if anyone tries to tell me not to be, or says anything about it at all, I am going to tell them…nothing, _]and how will they like [_that? _]And if anyone tries to change me, I swear, I will reach into my bedside table drawer and pull out my [_crossword puzzle book and silently gnaw on my pencil until the eraser is just a tattered, rubbery blob of debris. Then they’ll be sorry! Ya-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
Well, she had never said there wouldn’t be paradoxes.
The changes occur within. She no longer accepts what she has been told – about anything. She begins to think and trust her own observations. The world becomes a more interesting place. She studies hard. She discovers writing as a way to explore the hidden depths beneath spoken words.
She focuses on what she loves: words with their cadences and rhythms, the books that pull her into another place and time. Academic subjects she had always thought were boring become fascinating, once she gives them a chance.
It happens gradually, and she almost does not notice it at first.
Until one autumn day when she is taking a walk. A solitary leaf catches the wind and drifts down, slowly rocking back and forth. As she watches she has a startling thought:
I am happy.
All of the struggle. But all it takes for a moment of happiness is a leaf.
Not every day is perfect, and Fido is inconvenient sometimes. But everything has changed. If she had only known that she did not have to change who she was, she could have focused on what she loved; she would have been happier.
Sometimes, she hears parents talking about their children in worried tones: they are too quiet, they think too much before they act; something, they are sure, is wrong with them; it must change.
Make them stop, she thinks. Tell them that badgering their kids and forcing them to be “normal” is hurting them and making everything worse.
Tell them, Fido.
She imagines Fido stirring and stretching. He is a quiet dog. Maybe someday, he seems to say. A high wind whistles outside, but inside it is warm and still. In her imagination, Fido closes his eyes.
A collection of short stories by L.E. Henderson ranging from personal prose to fantasy and science fiction. Fictionally addresses questions such as: What if you could write your way into a new life? What if the only way to cure mental illness was math? How would a cat who had just become human react when she runs into a Christian determined to save her soul? How would the human race react if they made first contact with extraterrestrials only to find that the aliens have no interest in humans at all? What would an immortal race of human descendants think about being human if some parents mysteriously gave birth to a mortal human baby – an atavist? Transcending time, space, and death, "Becoming the Story" explores how life produces “real world” stories that can disappoint and define us until we begin to answer them with our own – and how the power of imagination brings the impossible down to earth.