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Free Beast

FREE BEAST

A NOVEL

BY SUZANNE MARINE

www.suzannemarine.com

 

 

 

 

FREE BEAST

BY SUZANNE MARINE

 

 

Published by Cloth LLC.

 

 

Copyright 2017, Suzanne Marine. All rights reserved.

 

No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For permissions contact: [email protected]

 

 

 

 

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www.SuzanneMarine.com

 

 

PROLOGUE

She pulls the mask over her nose and mouth. Adjusts the fit so air can’t seep in. Tight and snug. She yanks the drawstring quickly to close the hood around her egg-shaped head. Her monastic silhouette blocks a crimson light as she turns to push open a heavy, wooden door carved with byzantine, geometric shapes. The long trek home stretches into the darkening dusk, she can barely see past twenty feet before her.

Gray, smoggy dust lingers and floats, litters the air. She walks amongst the crowds, everyone a lone spook of themselves. She misses the feel of driving, how the rhythm and soft whirring conjured thoughts and ideas into existence as she watched out the window.

Wondrous, down-like wings meander and drift in beautiful patterns. Graceful dust tentacles caress her skin before releasing as she moves forward. The notion and longing are gone.

She wishes she could afford to buy the premium, all-cover mask. There is no burn or sting, but she knows her skin will corrode over time, wither dry. This is the badge of the poor – thin, peeling skin. Mottled like a shedding cocoon. She remembers her neighbor’s ultra-thin flesh, how she could see the veins traveling her bones, like blue snakes slithering beneath the pale white. A hair-line cut killed her.

She glances at the flashing ads plastered on buildings, gapes at how they push unreachable ideals. Rich skin that is smooth, glistening with cushiony youth and tone. A slight tan, as if the model had been on holiday to the pods that hover above. Above the pollution, above the riff-raff, closer to the life-giving sun, which has become an idol of worship. She thinks of the times she roasted under the sun, oily and golden on beaches, never knowing it would one day become a leap of faith.

She reaches into her pocket to feel the small plastic bottles snugly hidden away. She only had enough to purchase the small ones. They are a treasure of pleasure that can be barely afforded.

She climbs the rotted, wood stairs that could give way any day now and opens the door. Glances back towards the sky one last time, yearns to see any slender slice of light reflected on the metal that patches the building across the street. The sun has set by now. It is a habit of hope.

Her mother sits on a twin sized bed in the studio apartment, waiting for her as a loyal pet would. She knows her daughter needs time to decompress after a long day at work so she simply waits with noble patience. Her thin, white skin crinkles like onion paper as she attempts to smile. The pain cuts sharp. She knows she shouldn’t try, but she doesn’t want it to take away her humanity. Her love.

The daughter shakes her hair and small slivers of dust fly into the air. They always find a way into the hood. She takes a damp washcloth from the kitchen and swipes at the air to catch them so they won’t be breathed in. She uses the cloth to wipe her mask and jacket, her pants, the old, black combat boots. Her mother takes it to wipe down her backside. The daughter removes the jacket with deliberate care. She reaches in and removes the two bottles, the size of drink cans. She hands one to her mother, the label says Laguna Beach, California. Her own says Prairie Lawn. They’re ready to embark on their weekly ritual of escape.

She pops the top and quickly brings the opening towards her face, unfurling the rubber lip and gripping it around her nose. Her eyes close into delicate, feathered lines, her posture slumps in surrender, and she breathes in long, full, luxurious. No hesitation. She knows she should be measured to make it last longer, but she can’t help it. She never can.

The bottled air flourishes with the dominant top notes of newly mowed sweet grass, dandelions and wildflowers. Then there’s a hint of wet dirt after a rainfall; muddy and woodsy, humid with mist. She imagines proud black eyed Susan’s swaying freely in the breeze after a drizzle. She relishes the scent of lawn, remembers its plushness and give as she walked barefoot on it, the reedy clippings just cut and still damp with life as they weaved through her toes.

The ritual comforts them, helps them endure the dismal banality of life. Anxieties are released for a few seconds.

This is my drug of choice, she thinks. They’ve given up their stimulating coffee, the smooth sway of wine, dense chocolate bars, doughy sweets, and other crutches and treats for this. A breath of fresh air, the scent of the earth they grew up with. The time before.

I must savor it. Never forget this brightness through the nose.

 

 

PART 1

 

 

 

PUZZLES ALL DAY

The scent of death reeks of rotted meat and the sickly sweet, swells with the musk of old sweat. A powerful, pungent putridity. You never forget the first time it hit you, how the thick aroma of decomposing flesh invaded every pore, made you retch to stay sane. How the dead body laid there, completely abandoned and uninhabited.

 

It almost seems magical that one can be fresh, animated and strong one minute then this later. As if your force powered your body, then left its shell slack and forlorn. Unworn.

 

 

 

I push the red glowing button and the steel door slides up in a smooth, high-tech swoosh. I step forward into the white tiled room with hot, saucers of surgical lights that nothing can hide from. The white biohazard suit I wear traps my warmth and sweat. The goggles fog from time to time, as if my eyes whispered secrets into the air. I didn’t know the eyes could give off heat before I worked here. The doctor waits for me impatiently. He gives me a quick glance and begins work now that I’m here.

The body on the steel table lies naked, without any trace of emotion. A look of sleep on a face looks different from death. Sleep creates a nuance of play on the face, a residue of having said or thought something, a dashed scope to the next regard. Death shows no hint of life energy, the body is simply an empty, devoid shell frozen in its last thought. There is not even a look of peace. Yet the body leaves us clues as to how it was used, what kind of life was lived. And how it died or was killed. We are an amalgamation of our habits, in our minds and bodies, inside and out. What is that old saying? You deserve the face you have when you’re old. It means you can’t see a person’s character or life in their face when they’re young, but you can see allegories of it when they’re older. The habits of character become permanently etched and molded onto the face.

He performs his checklist, checking the skin for bruises, cuts and abrasions, then checking the eyes, mouth, ears, fingers and toes. I hand him the tools he needs. He doesn’t need to call out for them because I’m always ready to hand them over efficiently. We’ve worked together for six months now and I honestly don’t know how I got this job. I applied on a whim because I was desperate and knew I lost nothing if I didn’t get it.

We work for the government, gather clues and data. I learned in an oblique way that he chose me even though I have no real applicable experience. How did he get his way? And why? Why me? We aren’t allowed to speak beyond technical details, a steel camera behind him watches us. I caught him peering at me once, right before he pointed to a mistake I made. Subtly and cautiously.

On my first day, he introduced himself to me as Doctor M. Our white suits covered our heads, noses, cheeks, chins, bodies, hands and feet. We could only see each other’s eyes and his were dark, brooding, middle-aged. Deep. The kind you get lost in. The kind you read into, but then realize you don’t know what you’re reading. Ancient hieroglyphics and symbols. Or mirrors reflecting contorted, jaded images. You think something of significance is there, but you don’t know what it is. He said he didn’t know my name, only that I was called “Helper A” and that he would train me to be his assistant. He showed me how to take photos and notes correctly. Told me quietly and adamantly that my main goal was to see and record. He would be the one to deduce causes and effects, shape the stories of the body’s last moments. But along the way, I learned to do the same just by watching and recording. Of course, I’m not a professional as he is, and I don’t say anything. It’s not my place. It never is.

The bodies he takes apart are like the ones I see every day around me. Some have the white onion skin on the face, the u-shaped section around the nose and mouth that would have been covered by a basic mask. But then I see the innards, which are tainted with rot in varying degrees. Glossy, healthy and bulging, ready to pop, or hardened on the edges of the organ. One had died of too much exposure to the dust. Her insides were petrified, burnt steak-like, and beginning to corrode. Only the very core of her heart remained soft and ripe. The heart is always last to succumb. I imagined that small part of her beating rapid and nervous like the heart of a trapped songbird, the blood squirting against a black lava of crud instead of sliding slick down a vein. A heart drowning in its own regurgitated blood. Another had died of exhaustion. The real diagnosis had been pneumonia, but you could see the utter tiredness in his old face and in the thin stripe of muscles stretched tautly over bones, almost to the point of snapping off like tight guitar strings. There was no fat for tendons and muscles to luxuriously bathe in, no gelatinous pore to soak up the pleasures of life. I assumed he had worked in hard labor, maybe in the mines. A raw, pink mark of a tracking shackle remained around his ankle as if the shackle had grown into his skin and had to be carefully peeled off by someone with small, patient fingers.

Dr. M doesn’t just describe the things he studies and notices. The skin is wrinkled with water. A fingernail has split in two. Bruises are approximately two weeks old. The liver is inflamed with cirrhosis. He says what he thinks has caused the condition and what the condition might mean. How it might’ve contributed to the death, if at all. And that is how I learn. Secretly. By mentally cataloging this art and science, all the pathways to the end. And what I’ve learned is how the dust has a hand in every death. How pervasive it is to everyone’s tale of woe.

We never say goodbye as normal coworkers do. He simply sews up the body and gives me a nod and a stare before removing his gloves and pressing the red button to open his door. Then he’s gone, walking with a slight stoop into a white room I’ve never been in. I leave the dirty tools in the “used” bin, type my last notes into the notepad and lay the camera and notepad on the narrow, metal counter. I look up at the video camera on the wall with my legs spread shoulder-wide and hands up in surrender to show I have nothing on me, that I am empty. I slowly turn to show my back, remove my gloves, then press the red button for my door.

 

 

 

I’m not allowed to tell anyone what I’ve seen or done. That it’s gruesome and fascinating. A sophisticated, sanctioned type of horror story. Underground, tight-fisted knowledge. There are consequences.

I tell mother I work in a puzzle factory. That I put together puzzles all day. She believes me even if she doesn’t quite understand. It is innocent and doesn’t inspire questions. It’s also not too clever. Safe.

The punishment is death so I would never dare.

 

 

 

THE CRUDEST SENSE

The children born now don’t know a world without the gray. They have never seen the wide blue sky and dreamy, white puffs of clouds. Cumulus as symbols of omnipresent beauty and prodigious delight. On lazy days, we used to elicit stories from the clouds that passed above. This is a fat, happy Buddha sitting under a tree. That one is an elephant blowing you a kiss with his nose. And this, a popped balloon, shrinking, fading fast and flimsy. Into obscurity. Childhood now plays itself out in small, filtered rooms, and you always know where your mask is. You are nothing without it.

 

 

 

I’ve seen what the dusty air does over time. How it slowly leaches you of everything, making you bone weary, tired of living to fight the ailments. The psychological games it plays. The scientists fight to make it disappear, but it is forever futile. This incessant dust acts as a sort of evolutionary device. It shows who has fight in them, the guts and clever thinking to push on and maybe even thrive. It also shows who would prefer to lay down and wave the white flag, all drawn out and sucked of everything. Fossilized before death. The will to survive and adaptability have always been an evolutionary technique, one studied in times past, one that quietly faded into the background with the advent of medical and societal advances. It’s now revived in the crudest sense.

 

 

 

SOMETHING FIERCE

In the Temple of the One and Only Sun we channel our thirst for solar presence into a myriad of prayers, stories, spells and methods to summon its warmth. Codified behaviors to bring its essence closer. All of this created by a man at the top who, along with his disciplines, bears witness and preaches. It’s a power they greedily vacuumed up during a time of distress, soul searching, and ineffective, circular solutions. Confusion at not knowing what the next chapter held. Ultimately, the man cannot have power without it being given to him, and it has been given in spades by the masses who are frightened by the present and future. By the dust.

It boggles my brain how easily society reverts to these types of superstition in times of scarcity and fear. I’m frightened by the dust, but even more so by the masses incapable of deciphering fairy tale from reality. Regardless, mother and I go to the Sun Light Service every Sunday to discover neighborhood information, maintain a support system, feel a pulse on the times. It’s a tool in our tool kit for survival. I sometimes wonder if others are also secretly non-believers.

The man stands at the top of a non-working escalator, preaches down at us while reaching up towards the heavens every now and then. We, hundreds of us, sit at the foot of the escalator, pious and docile, cross-legged on our mats atop squares of cold, peach marble. Stale air is better than gray air. This was once an expensive, bustling shopping mall. Over time, the internet made them ubiquitous. And then the dust turned them into palaces of worship.

 

My Sun, we humble ourselves before you. We pray for your mercy and presence so that we may bask in your warmth and spread it amongst humankind.

 

Always, we pray for the dark skies to part and for your rays to shine down on our lowly lives. Our bodies and plants are forever in your debt.

 

You are a life-giver, all life comes back to you. We accept this without question.

 

Always pivot your mirrors and glass items towards the window and sky to show reverence. To show how much we yearn.

 

A circle signifies you believe. Round necklace pendants. An orange circle patch sewn onto your bag or backpack. A black circle tattoo on your forearm or earlobe.

 

Praise to the circle of life, our beloved sun.

 

Aborigines and ancients once more.

 

Tribal dances and drum beats for the sun.

 

He wears a golden crown stamped with the sun and its rays as he leads our prayers. The white pallor of his skin, powdered with orange bronzer, beams down towards us. His golden cloak hangs stiff and paper-like over his thin body, a costume that means to inspire honor, but instead solicits pity at its farce. At least from me.

 

To close, we shut our eyes in a moment of silence as the lights turn down. I see darkness and then a shaded bright through my eyelids. Simulated sunlight, as if I were laying on a beach, chin tilted towards the sun. The light moves on and I’m left in the cold black. I open my eyes to see the large spotlight panning over the crowd, slowly and surely, blessing everyone with its white ray. It is our communion.

With eyes eagerly shut I wait for the tunnel of light to touch me again, and when it does I imagine an intense warmth creeping into my bones, and a time that was carefree. When you could spread yourself out on a long, sticky lawn chair in the yard. Sprawled with cool drink in hand and eyes sealed lazy hazy. The calm, mechanical hush of sprinklers, and the neighbor’s children laughing as they play hide and seek in the distance. Bees flitting from stamen to stamen. Solar heat softly blowing on your skin, undoing anything knotted tight within you. And one by one, every bone within you slowly melting down into a languid resting pose. The sun loving you something fierce.

 

 

 

SMALL INTERNAL THINGS

Ghoulish, tacky things crowd my vision as I walk the overcast, busy streets. The dust adds a veil to the night, making it seem as if I’m walking through gauzy curtains in a mysterious house of ill repute. Or a haunted house, full of dread at the unknown. Blinking, neon signs and advertisements buzz and pop into my peripheral vision as I pass. Try to snag my attention through the shade. Sounds blast everywhere since visuals are now fogged and hidden.

A clown face lights up as I near it. Loud, fake laughter fills my ears, the kind you hear on sitcoms. “Undeniable fun! For all ages! 24 hours a day! Jokes and carnival games!” People have turned to religion or entertainment as a way to forget. There are many varieties of escapism.

A staff with a snake coiled around it indicates a medical clinic. The ad emits no sound, only shows the ailments they treat in bright, blinking neon words. Chronic cough! Cirrhosis! Obesity! Depression! Anxiety! Cutting! Fast pulse! Dust syndrome! Lung hardening! Agoraphobia!

There is the glowing, line-free skin of a beautiful actress known for acting in histrionic dramas. Her profile is so feminine with its sloping lines and small curves, cartoon-like. “I want you to know my secret,” she says breezy and seductive as her profile turns to face me. “For dewy, soft, undamaged skin, Enchant Elixir, made from the pure waters of Belgium. Saved and stored by Franciscan monks through the ages. It’s the only one.” Her forefinger moves to her lips to indicate a secret. “Shhh, it’s between us. Limited quantities available.” She doesn’t mention the air-tight, locked headgear she wears when she leaves her air-tight home. How not one single feather of dust has touched her life or corroded her face.

A colorful gas mask juts out. Covered with blue, yellow and orange symbols and geometric markings, it represents tribal civilizations. Soft drum beats echo around it. Something about the mask exudes refinement and elegance. The metal edges around the goggles, mouthpiece and neck lock are thinner, not so bulky and military. And the thick, air-proof cloth drapes liquid-like, isn’t a bulky hood. A large diamond sits centered on the forehead, like a beacon of light for the princess-wanna-be’s of our time. The logo of a luxury accessory brand flashes and then it all fades to black before starting again. Luxury brands have found a way to make the mask an alluring status symbol. And by doing so, have made it acceptable, nothing to rail against. Something we can oooh and aahhh over, something to lovingly save for and feel superior about since there are people who can’t afford such style and grace.

I see a crowd of men and women in their twenties through the large window of a bar. They chit chat and laugh at a joke of some kind while drinking beer and mixed drinks. The women wear fitted dresses. They would have worn leg warmers or tights to cover their skin as they walked to the bar and taken them off once they arrived. They would’ve also changed out of their boots and into the stiletto heels they now waver and balance on. The bare legs are strange to see in public. Aglow and smooth, the rounded, muscular calves are sex-like and bulging, ripe fruit-like. It is as if we were brought back to olden times when skin was not shown and a view of it could titillate a man. I can see their masks hanging on hooks near the bar with their roomy purses. They are a peacock-like mix of painted, beaded, bedazzled with crystals, shiny and smooth. The men’s masks, hanging off their chairs, relay an independent masculinity, leather-like with a distressed texture in neutral, manly tones of grey, beige and black. Ruggedly handsome, as if they had been on an adventurous journey that took them to the ends of the earth in a rite of passage, of manhood. They would have walked to the bar with their long sleeves buttoned around the wrist and rolled them up to their elbows once they were in the safe confines of the bar with ultra-filter windows and doors. Their toned forearms, slightly hairy and athletic with long muscles that flex and shift slightly when holding a glass, are again sex-organ-like, intimate. Something I want to stare at. All these shows of skin act as a sort of mating signal. I wish I laughed amongst them, was joined in and of means. Oblivious and happy. But I stand outside looking in with my mask as the toxic dust flitters around me.

A silhouette of a naked woman lights up and blinks next to the bar. The line drawing shows off her perky, full breasts and rounded bottom as she sits astride something or someone. Rays of sunlight radiate from her head like an everlasting sun goddess. A husky female voice evokes a come-hither tone. “Nude girls. All nude. All day and night. No tipping required. Our girls like everyone.” The emphasis on “everyone”.

Entertainment, escapism, and voodoo health cures have proliferated. Coping mechanisms have crept into everyday activities without struggle or question. Complete acceptance of our condition pervades our culture.

 

 

 

Am I the only one who mourns the time before, even after these few years. Am I the only one who hasn’t really adapted. I have been affected in a quieter way. Others seem to have adapted or reacted, coped in various outward ways that can be seen by the world. Most seem perfectly fine to go on with life by buying special skin cream for extra protection, losing oneself in decadence and pleasures, talking about the latest, fashionable masks that are new for the season and what can be worn with them. But I haven’t adapted as well. I observe mouse-like, watching and waiting with small, timid movements. I have my coping mechanisms. My bottles of scented air. My cynicism. I’ve lost my feminine side. My outlook on life is practical, harsh and calculated now. The dreamer in me has died. But these are small internal things that don’t ripple the water, that aren’t visible to the naked eye. They settle deep inside me as sediment, gritty, unseen and undisturbed as I drift, left behind in my own thoughts. The world has moved on and gone off-kilter, and I’ve remained just to the side of center. Clear-eyed and sober or lost in the vortex of the past, I don’t know.

 

 

 

RUMBLE OVER THE LAND

Today, at work, a woman joins us. She’s there with Dr. M when I slip past my steel door. We lock eyes one long time as I enter the room. And I’m sure to memorize everything I see in that instant because I won’t have the guts to look so directly again. Sitting at the end of the table in a white biohazard suit, she watches. And nothing else. No note-taking, no look of knowing or surprise, nothing uttered. Just an eagle eye watching every move, as if she were the eye behind the video camera that hangs overhead directly behind Dr. M. I feel the scrutiny like a hot breath on my neck, as if she were a ghost hovering over my shoulder invading my space. I catch peripheral glances, then I realize her judgments and unspoken comments hang concentrated between us. A new chapter has somehow sneakily begun, like soft padded footsteps coming closer to your door, yet I don’t know why or what comes next.

Dr. M doesn’t provide any hints. He seemingly works as usual. I sense a slight adjustment in his descriptions, but can’t quite decipher it. It’s there, but not there. Like a parent who changes behavior slightly without explanation. As a child, you don’t know what goes on in the grown-up world, you only see the subtle signals and signs in a sideways sort of way and sleuth if it means anything.

Her blue eyes, older and squinty, are those of a bureaucrat who stares at screens and technology all day. I’m sure she squints while assessing data and making decisions. The white crepey skin around her eyes is lined many times over, filled with symbols hiding in the cross hatches. Her back is ramrod straight and still as she sits on the backless stool, a sign of someone conscious of small details and an ability to control herself at all times. Perhaps she’s Dr. M’s boss. She’s definitely not an intern or new hire. Not a relative. I can sense the organization in her with its labyrinth of hierarchies, ladders and trap doors. A claustrophobic Escher drawing of rectangles and stairways stacking within her mind. Organizing resources and battalions for the future.

The body on the table is a young girl, seven years old. A malignant clump of cells lies in a crevice of her lungs. A cave of hard rock and blackened lava. It is the usual story of dust and woe. Only she is so young. At her age, she should be running and playing, unconscious of the workings of the world and even of herself. But this craggy, sharp, ugly monster in her chest made her conscious of life and death, of limited time. Somehow her body is genetically predisposed to not tolerate our new atmosphere at all. An evolution of sorts, the cold hard truth. Her parents will eventually question if they should try again for another. If the next one would make it or if they’re genetically cursed. Her body, so small and thin on the large, steel table, reeks of nightmares. Hers and her parents. I imagine their gut-wrenching agony at seeing her weakened and lifeless. Their thick, ropey hands squeezing her small, bird-bone fingers, engulfing them with hope and prayer. An intense rage grows within me, draws my breath in, singeing my edges. I’ve seen the damage so many times, but with the young, the anger reignites, eventually cooling into bitterness. The unfairness and cruelty of life. All the things we could’ve done to prevent the pollution. All the ways we were foolish and the weak suffered because of it. Sacrificial lambs, but for what. The dust will harden you one way or another. I hide these thoughts and feelings from my eyes, which I try to maintain as cold and clinical. All business with a job to do. Non-sentient, robotic glossiness.

The minder continues watching. Something hangs tense and unspoken between the three of us. I try to maintain my composure, keep it light and efficient, not shaken, and most importantly stupidly unaware. Perhaps I’m not doing a good job? Will I be put on a probation of sorts? I should prepare my resume when I get home tonight, just in case. Officially I’m not allowed to say what I do, I can only say that I helped create medical books. Editing and such. That’s all.

She minds me. Attempts to mine me for ardent clues of some kind. Dig past the exterior into the vulnerable softness inside me. Her eyes focus mostly on me, not Dr. M. I’m aware of that, I can feel that radioactive heat even with my back turned towards her. Have I left any potent tells or crumbs? She leaves with Dr. M when we’re finished for the day. I attempt to catch her eye to curry some kind of favor by nodding my head or something. But she refuses to look my way, as if I were a nobody or a thing. The fishbowl eye of her attention gone cold and void. I’m just a simple cog in her machine.

 

 

 

I walk home, breathing heavily, mind itchy with worry and wondering at my survival there. For once, the bright, glowing signs on the busy street don’t invade my mind. What will my mother and I do for food until I get a new job. There is the food bank at the Sun Temple. We don’t have any savings for rent. Every penny is spent on survival basics we can barely afford. We don’t even have enough to purchase goggles and masks that aren’t air-proof. What companies could I apply to? I grind my teeth with anxiety. Should I tell mother what happened? It’s probably better to not worry her unnecessarily. The stress directly affects her health. She’s aging on fast forward. I hate living on the edge like this, so close to sapping extinction.

A bum sits on the sidewalk against a crumbling brick wall. He slurps hungrily from a bottle, most likely alcohol of some sort. His bare hands have turned a corpse-like ashen white with the purple flesh showing through. His old face peels and flakes. A piece of thin, translucent skin hangs off his chin. He doesn’t wear a mask and his eyes puddle milky white from years of constant exposure, like the marbles from childhood. The gray particles rest on his weathered jacket and pants, like fallen snowflakes on a statue. His slurred mutterings don’t make any sense – Get off my porch you sicko. They can’t take your soul. Minions inside me. He diddled me with his finger. You and your metal chariots.

A guy with a strong, lean body and straight posture walks by nearly tripping over the bum. He yells through his heavy-duty designer mask as he walks away, “Get a fucking life you loser! Get a fucking mask!”

The bum utters a drunken laugh, deep, slow, rough. Like a growling cowboy with whiskey on his breath, a rumble over the land. His sagging eyelids close in slow motion with all the time in the world, and his mottled, peeling face tilts up towards the sky basking in the flakes. As if full of a rare, shining beauty in a numinous spell. “We will all end up here my friend,” he says.

It’s not the phrase he says that hooks my brain. But that word, the word “will”. The phrase isn’t “we all end up here my friend”. It is “we WILL all end up here my friend”. A tiny morsel of difference, but something about it puzzles me. Shows me, but I can’t see. There’s a finality that triggers an avalanche of despair within me.

I want to cry even though I don’t know why. The sadness and terror have awoken and twisted inside my core, wanting to erupt as tears and sobs. Maybe it is pent-up, subconscious fear. I hold it in, my stomach and fists clenched. The tears would attract flakes, make them stick to my skin. Mother would ask why my eyes are swollen and blotchy. Instead, I cough out loud several times as a release valve, so violently people turn to look at my convulsing, jerking form, venting emotions and tears I can’t face.

The thunderous coughs create a flat-line silence within me. I turn and look down a small side street with a dead end that’s been untouched by advertising. It would be a beautiful scene if you didn’t know… a melancholy painting of one day in a life. The small feathers swirling in a light breeze, the street lamps casting a romantic, orange glow, the refined, stone buildings with classical flourishes that were once so revered. Fading beauties that have lost their audience. And it sinks me with sadness. To the very bottom where everything is dark, without outlines. It’s all been lost. I’m in a long, plain nightmare where it snows all day and all night into stagnant perpetuity.

 

 

 

ARRIVE IN THE WORLD

Pin bursts. A tiny seed exploding puffs of pollen with gentle, whispered poofs. Poof. Poof. Little feathery fireworks. That was how it started.

They would appear randomly in small amounts. Quiet clusters of seeds appeared in the sky and poofed their gifts down upon us. Maybe only one or two a day for a few months. And then more every day. Sometimes crowds of people would stop in the streets to watch and the experience unified us because we all saw something beautiful at the same time. Spectators, alone but together in a type of religiosity. It was deeply touching and surreal.

Those ethereal showers of feathery dust mesmerized, lulled us into a trance. And it was beautiful because it hadn’t taken up the whole sky, yet. They floated juxtaposed against the magnificent blue sky and sparkling sun. They were a billowy, dream-like counterpoint to the sharp, bright solar rays. It set our imaginations on fire. Songs and poetry were written. It appeared as apparitions in our dreams. Numerous photos and videos were carefully taken and studied. People tasted them. Children captured them in small, glass jars only to find the jars empty within a month. Fortune tellers read them to predict futures. We called them glorious star dust. Marveled delirious. Mythologies sparked. This was before we learned.

 

 

 

Work has normalized. She never returned. What was it all for. Maybe nothing to do with me, maybe I am too sensitive. I don’t know how much longer I can do this work. It isn’t terribly physically taxing and I don’t work overtime, but psychologically it takes something from me every time. I don’t know if I’m becoming more or less human. Does becoming sober about human existence make you more empathetic and human? Or does it rust your heart cynical. And what is it to be human anyway? Is it goodness and treating others as you would want for yourself, or is it a self-preserving, methodical approach to survival of the fittest? Some combination of both I suppose.

I abstract these nests of innards, tangles of veins, and sawed ribs in my mind so I can immerse myself in the work and learn. This is merely a spleen. Not a person’s spleen, just a spleen that will be photographed, sliced and tested. A miniature object, squishy under my fingertip, weighing 6.2 ounces. I try to distance myself, unsuccessfully.

Sometimes bodies arrive without a kidney. A concave cavern robbed of an organ. This is when you know how desperate this person was for money. So desperate they sold part of their being and function. Part of me understands, but also doesn’t. I don’t know if I could do it, but you never know until you hang off the precipice. I imagine there’s a point in your life where you think of doing it for a long time, and the next point where you go for it quickly so you can’t stop yourself. And then I can see a final one where it’s all been lost, so who cares what you do next. Like the bum. Like steeped graduations down towards hell, decisions you can never go back on.

 

 

 

We learned the truth from the news. The clusters of fine dust were pollution. Something to be feared, not beloved. Scientists at first told us it was only slightly harmful. All would be fine if we just wore masks. They worked feverishly on an antidote. The reassurances and plans were a way of preventing mass hysteria. We would be fine if everyone just calmed down and took precautions.

The pollution came from the gas emitted from numerous smoke stacks along the river in the city, and something in that gas reacted with something in the atmosphere to create the dust spontaneously out of thin air. Like comet dust magic. Many hours and money went into finding a cure. But no one told the factories with the smoke stacks to shut down. They produced something too valuable to society – specialty medicine and cures for the sick that weren’t made anywhere else in the world. Debates on ethics and population numbers ensued. Calculations on the value of a sick person’s life were compared with the good for a population. Plans were devised to create other similar factories, but the funding never came through. We were told that we are humans and to be human is to care for the weakest link no matter what. We were told this was something our society could live with while they worked on a solution. We were known as courageous, honorable humans. Real, authentic citizens.

The population panicked. People stockpiled food and made home-made weapons. More and more peopled opted out of work. Conspiracy theories grew thick and deranged like overgrown weeds and vines. Trees were chopped down because scientists believed they emitted chemicals that helped the feathers grow. Citizens demanded welfare income for all, not just the poor. Cars were outlawed, save for the privileged few in the political class, because they might contribute to the pollution. Some walked out of our state, leaving their houses full of furniture and clothing and unfinished routines. Nervous breakdowns electrified the wired. And all the chaos hypnotized me.

Then slowly, it became accepted. Educational seminars were held to teach everyone how to wear a mask, what kind to buy, what to eat to help prevent dust oxidation. News pundits and experts spun a positive, practical take on the situation. No one is dying from it so we are fine as long as we take some precautions, they said and still say. Sure, long term exposure caused early death and other major problems, but so did unhealthy eating and smoking. If someone died from it or suffered greatly from it, perhaps they were the unlucky ones who were greatly exposed before we knew what it was, or perhaps they did something wrong, didn’t follow the rules. I know different but am not allowed to say.

And it became dustier and dustier. Father left mother in a rage against the world. We don’t know where he is or what happened to him. I moved back home, helped her sell the house for a mere pittance and moved to the city where work was in walking distance now that we couldn’t drive. Jobs didn’t really exist in the suburbs and country anymore because of driving restrictions, so everyone moved towards our state’s only big city and its gray sky. It seemed so ludicrous to move towards the dust, but people accepted it, blindly migrating like seasonal birds following innate instinct. There was no time to grieve or question, we focused on survival. She found work cleaning the exterior windows of businesses before we learned how bad a large amount of exposure was to the skin. The dust liked to stick to the glass, spongey and squid-like. She thought she was being cautious by wearing a mask that only covered her nose and mouth. She had no idea her skin would age so quickly. And now, she’s unable to work, prematurely aging with creaky, thinned bones and skin peeling off layer by layer. She keeps our studio apartment clean and ponders the next stage of life.

Friends dispersed, scattered like ants skittering in all directions away from the boot. A few ran out of state abandoning their families and parents. We talk from time to time, but have grown further and further apart that it no longer really matters. You can’t judge how people reacted. You never know what will make you snap and disappear. Like father.

Crowds of activists still protest the pollution and demand solutions that include the poor. But their numbers lessen more and more as time passes. Others have settled down and adapted, gone back to work and other activities from the time before. Dating, making money, buying trendy clothing, raising families, being oblivious to the outside world. Others have slid into decadence; drinking, pills, entertainment, sex and food to cope with fear. And others hold their anger in, seethe and obsess over alien conspiracy theories until they become lost in malicious fantasy worlds. All with a mask and some precautions.

And there are those like mother and me. Full of sorrow, walking zombie-like through life. Mourning the loss of life as we knew it, the loss of health and vitality in our loved ones. Sort of like mourning someone with a terminal illness before they pass on.

We aren’t allowed to leave the state. We are trapped with ourselves. Everywhere we go, there we are. Border controls were erected half a year after the chaos began. And this is because of the babies. Other states don’t want them in their midst. They worry about cross-contamination because the dust hasn’t reached their land. It remains mostly concentrated in our city, which lies far from our small state’s borders. The truth is… some of our babies are born deformed. Grotesquely hardened. Half sharp, black lava rock and half human in the strangest, morose patterns. Bits of skin corroded before getting their first drink of air. Tar babies, they are called. They tear their mother’s flesh jagged as they grow and turn, as they arrive in the world.

 

 

 

FERAL AND FREE

Like every mother of a twenty-four-year-old single daughter, my mother pushes me to meet someone. Get involved in the singles group from the Sun Temple. Meet a kind man, preferably with a profession, not just a job, but a profession. A goal-oriented, heat seeking missile of a man focused on a calling and providing security for the one he loves. This is her ideal for me, but at this point I think she’d be happy with anyone who doesn’t steal or lie. Being a conscientious daughter means that I take this into consideration because she has more life experience than me. And I’ll admit it… I want it too. It’s lonely in the forever shade, which seeps into your psyche, distorts and wrenches your view of everything, even myself. Maybe if I meet someone I’ll become one of those oblivious people, too busy with living life to care what the dust means, too busy to watch as we descend into our collective future.

 

 

Today I saw a private part of Dr. M. Not that private part. But something mysterious and slight. A sleight of hand I haven’t solved.

We were opening the chest of a male in his twenties who had brown, gravel-like crumbling on the brims of his organs, as if their sides had been burned vicious by licks of flame. He was hit by a car, a tragic accident. But he had all the signs of the poisonous hardening beginning to take hold. He might’ve felt tired and listless a lot of the time. He may have chalked that up to low energy, not exercising enough, not eating enough healthy food, or getting older. But the disease was beginning when he died. Families are not told this. They are only told the final cause of death, such as blunt force trauma, heart failure, myocardial infarction, kidney disease or metastatic cancer.

The government has forced all of the dead to be cremated out of an abundance of caution. The public believes the government is careful with our health. That tar babies are the result of careless mothers who didn’t wear masks often enough. That our masks can prevent the dust from entering our systems. That the poor who can’t afford full face masks to protect the skin deserve some financial assistance to purchase them, but no one wants to pay for it.

I believe the government doesn’t want people to know the extent of the damage because it would cause unrest and anarchy. I understand to a point, society works best if it runs placidly. People and property are damaged in anarchy’s chaotic violence. Stores are looted empty and left derelict, homes burned into wispy, black paper, women pawed and raped until bleeding. The hungry elderly are left behind to cower in the cracks, and the innocent are blamed and trampled by demagoguery and a thousand stomps. Everyone is boxed into a caricature of their stereotype by the other. No one wants this, but the truth is… we are not told everything in its entirety. Its enormity.

Dr. M peered down into the open chest cavity, bending forward to get a good look. Then he rose up and leaned back so I could lean in and take a photo. He pointed to a particular part of the heart he wanted to me to focus on. And I took the photo. I was about to pull away when I saw his hands folded flat on his stomach in a pious pose, like a patient nun. It was an odd pose I had never seen him hold. His hands pushed downwards against his body, dragging his biohazard suit down. This had the effect of pulling down the ruffled, elasticized edge that surrounded his eyes. It pulled down slightly and through his goggle glasses I saw a black, raised mole on the apple of his cheekbone. His sharp, dark eyes darted and locked onto mine. Stayed there, a meditation on me, inert as an inanimate object, without a flicker or breath. He wanted me to see it, to know it and memorize it. I stared, stunned frozen and blank. A deer in headlights. Was this some kind of test? The video camera behind him couldn’t see this simple act. I stood back and looked at the camera I held in my hands to check its settings, I needed to pull away. When I looked back, he was peering down into the chest again. The edge of his suit had sprung back because he had let go. The mole was covered again, and we went on as usual for the rest of the day.

Later in the day, the incident beckoned me in a strange slow motion shimmer. A hazed one second dream you recollect when you awake half drowned in sleep. Something that evaporates from your mind later in the day. Only this wasn’t a dream, so I remembered and held it sacred in my mind, contemplated this odd burlesque motion that symbolized something I didn’t understand.

 

Am I supposed to know something? I’m confused, cloudy. For a brief second I feel a shadow looming closer.

 

 

The bowling hall beams and blinks its rainbow-colored logo extravagantly through the veil of night. It signals fun and frivolity. Hilarity, socialization. Good times. The singles group meets here every two weeks. I’ve never attended, but I force myself to walk through the doors with a faint smile on my face. Ready to meet and greet my way to the chosen one!

Madlon stands by the bar, waiting for a drink. When she sees me she waves and points to the shoe rental desk. We are temple friends, meaning we only see each other at the Sun Temple. We aren’t close, but we talk and socialize briefly on Sundays during the social hour after the service. I’m so glad she’s here. I would feel lost and awkward without someone familiar. It dawns on me that it never occurred to me to ask her to come with me. In the old days, before, I would have asked and made a fun night of it. Now, I feel alone and have forgotten to rely on others. Forgotten to ask. Especially because I can’t tell anyone what I really do and can’t relate to how most people have moved on with life. I’m trying to rejoin now in some way, find a way to integrate what I know with a life looking up and forward instead of down and into.

I have a short drink with Madlon before we’re divided into teams. We both badly need the social lubricant. We clink our glasses for some cordial cheers, and she says with a relieved honest laugh, thank the Sun you’re here! I agree wholeheartedly and say we have to do it again some time. I like her. Her vibe is light yet real. Sensible yet fun. She’s someone who can take a joke and make a joke. She doesn’t seem to hide her intelligence, but she doesn’t shove it in your face either.

The organizer puts her on another team, which is fine with me. There are four of us on mine. A happy, bubbly girl, bordering on fake. Very syrupy. Almost as if she had read in an article that the way to a man’s heart is to be like pink, fluffy cotton candy. I’m getting a sugar crash, but I don’t blame her. She’s doing what she thinks is best, but you can’t tell who she really is because of the facade. There’s a low key, lanky guy, who walks with the bowling ball so very casually before he hurls it down the lane with a thrust of wrist. He smiles shy and lopsided, and his dark hair curls on his forehead. I can tell he’s someone who’s angry very rarely, you can see it in his soft puppy eyes. He’s the kind who could fall in love easily once you talked to him deeply one on one into the wee hours of the morning. The kind that would make you breakfast in bed. He’s someone I want to get to know, but he’s preoccupied with the cotton candy. And then there is the other guy, the sun god. That’s the phrase that comes to mind when I meet him. He could be a mascot for our temple, so shiny and harmonious. Easy. That bright, wavy, blonde hair is slightly mussed, and he smiles without a care in the world. His lean, toned body moves self-assured and his vibe draws you in, makes you want to be with him and help him. As if he’s never been marred by the world. A handsome golden child prince. He’s the kind that gets over heartbreak and disappointment quickly, he skims over it, barely feels the low and nocturnal. That’s just his nature, not something he tries to do. The cotton candy is drawn to him, or his alpha male status here. Or maybe she is just drawn to shiny things, like birds. But it’s like two positives or two negatives together, which doesn’t generate any power or electricity. He seems drawn to his polar opposite here. Me. Quiet, deep, inward looking, subtle, intuitive, surviving. A watcher. Not the watched, like him.

We cheer each other on. Him in his bright, positive way. And me in my light, supportive way. A thread grows between us, so thin and almost invisible, like a delicate, silken spider web that can only be seen at certain angles. Streams of rainbow colored lights shoot through the air every time someone throws a strike, and we take shy peeks at each other through the colored sheen. His smile glows brilliant under the orange-yellow prism of stripes crisscrossing his face. He nudges me when it’s my turn and I’m not paying attention. Watches diligently when I’m hurtling the ball straight down the line towards a good score. We high-five each other when there’s a victory. It feels nice to bask under his lustrous rays. Warm and happy.

The games end and we return our shoes. Madlon smiles knowingly, she’s caught on. Coincidentally, she’s connected with the sun god’s friend. I can tell by the way he turns his head towards her when she’s doing something as mundane as returning her shoes. He waits for her and the sun god at the end of the counter and I nod in his direction. The four of us walk out together, masks on. The sun god asks which direction I’m walking in and says that’s where he’s going too. I wave goodbye to Madlon, I’ll see her on Sunday.

We are quiet, walking slowly to drag the time out. Usually I would walk quickly to avoid the dust. And now it seems like a leisurely afternoon stroll.

I tell him I’ve never seen him at the Sunday service. He says he doesn’t go on Sundays, he goes on Tuesday nights.

I’m quiet again. I wait for him. I don’t want to be one of those women who feel pressure to fill in silence with nonsensical babble. Don’t want to be one of the many who are drawn to oblige him, because I know they exist. It must be an effortless life, one with an open palm that’s always filled. I don’t want to be easy. I peek at his noble profile, the brown, weathered mask covering his nose and mouth, the yellow hair curling over his hood. He’s one of those cherubic cupid statues all grown up. Surreal angel.

I think you’re really pretty, he says as he turns to meet my eyes. It’s my second direct stare of the day. His blue eyes pierce mine before I look away bashfully. I’m floored, my stomach leadens, drops, touched by the innocence of the statement. As if we were in grade school and not twenty-four. I want to see you again, he says.

Thanks, sure, that would be great. I don’t know what else to say. I’m thin and pale, my face is long without sharp angles, pretty in a freckled face kind of way even though I don’t have freckles. My features and beauty are reticent, something you might notice after knowing me some months and everything pulls together for you in a moment. Only to disappear in a flash. So I’m shocked that he sees me.

He says this is his corner, he has to turn here. I nervously enter my number into his phone. A feather lands on it, and he brushes it away cheerfully. I smile happy, and he smiles big and radiant. We can’t see each other’s lips, but we can see it in the eyes. And his light up and crinkle tight. We say our goodbyes and turn to go our way. I turn back briefly to watch him walk down the street. He’s walking fast and hunched to avoid the flakes, like everyone else. A fever of joy buzzes me, flash floods me quick. My bearings shift, become unmoored a tiny bit. I’m awash in something elated, I remember it from a long time ago.

It’s a small start that may or may not be anything. Most people might not be so affected, but I can’t help it, my heart splits open a sliver. Longs to be feral and free.

 

 

 

LIGHT TO MY NIGHT

I am now the mother, and she is now the child. Our roles have reversed prematurely and become warped in this never-ending saga of woe. I try to remain patient as I repeat something for the third time. She remembers the past, describes it exquisitely as if she were living there and not here. Her most favorite tourist destination is the sandy beige beaches and sage brush covered hills of southern California. She reminisces over the scent of my father’s cheeks, how they sometimes smelled of sweet milk. How she was beaten with a sharp, stiff belt by her father for receiving a failing grade on a mathematics test. His angry, red, acne-scarred face, he took his insecurities out on her. There is the fact that her life seems so short, if she only knew back then how it would be now. The things she would’ve said and done differently. She is a casualty in this environmental disaster, an early adopter of its effects. There was the time she stole a banana nut muffin from the store because she was hungry. She wolfed it down hungrily, greedily because her father didn’t let her eat dinner for a week. The store manager saw, but turned his head quickly. She fell madly in love with my father. Loved that he made her feel like a whirlwind. His charisma magnetized the small-town girl in her. He never beat her, though he hollered and wailed from time to time. She is his forever more.

Her love for him remains unsullied. It runs as clear and true as a sterling, effervescent river even though he’s left us behind. Even as her bones become charred by dust bit by bit and as every layer of her skin falls off revealing a thinner and thinner barrier between her insides and the atmosphere. I want to shore it up, keep her preserved, cover her with something thick, protective and moisturizing so she never has to suffer. But we can’t afford it. I’m not ready to let her go, become an orphan. Lose the one person in the world who has loved me the most. The one who knows me inside out, who can read the cryptic, braille of my thoughts from afar with just a glance. The one I love most in the world. The most, the most, the most.

Families now mostly live together under one roof, especially if one is single. This had been looked down on in times past, but now it’s necessary to survive because the jobs don’t pay enough, even for the educated. It brings with it a sense of closeness and claustrophobia. You are blended in with one another’s lives, and not by choice. Movies, book plots, news stories and our personal lives are dissected at the dinner table over meals of imported, steaming potatoes and cabbage. And depending on people’s personalities and psychoses, this can bring everyone closer or be an intense, needling torture as you are judged and subtly put down. Familial patterns of dysfunction are still ever present, just more emphasized. And love is more distilled, to pure clarity.

You grow to know someone well when you share a bedroom with them. You know the odious side and the enchanting side. The face slack and deep in ugly thought when they think no one is looking. The heavy-lidded disappointment in the eyes. It’s only a millimeter difference between the regular look of the eye and the heavy disappointed one, but you can detect it. The flames of hope going up in smoke behind the serene mask. The true, clear as diamond intentions behind a gesture of kindness.

All these tales… and all because of what we live with. It’s a frail, translucent mix of pain, despair and intimacy experienced by thousands behind the closed doors of our city.

 

 

The mound of peach-pink flesh before me is an infant, barely born. Maybe a few weeks old, or newborn. His skin is so new, soft, gelatin tender. Perfect. I want to lovingly caress the curve of fat on his arms near the wrist to soothe him. He is a beautiful baby boy, like the one who babbles rhythmically and charmingly in his own language. The one you hold and nuzzle and vow to protect from the world. The one who smiles at you wide-eyed and vulnerable as if he’s never been rejected and never had a malicious thought. I want to cry.

I see a miniscule magenta mark on his hip. More of a smudge, like a wax seal on an exclusive bottle of liquor. A small, rounded blemish with some random shadows within it. A strawberry birthmark of sorts. The kind he would’ve been glad to have hidden on his hip instead of on his face when he would’ve been a teenager.

I wait and expect to see black and brown crumbles when he’s opened up. Something rotting noxious and barbed inside him. But his body sparkles clean with health, except for the luminous, semi-opaque, sticky substance clogging his tiny, rooted lungs. He died of asphyxiation. I take a spoonful of it and put it in a plastic bag that’s marked “lungs”. Little, orange specs pepper the blob. I’ll never learn what it is. Dr. M gets the final chemistry reports and doesn’t share them with me.

Perhaps his mother concocted the substance to kill him with it. Or perhaps he somehow accidentally swallowed something he wasn’t meant to. Maybe household cleaner. His death is not attributable to anything environmental. A rarity in these times.

I watch Dr. M as he works on the baby. Look for some hint of the mole incident or a shade of sadness. Does he feel what I feel. Does he have the same awareness I do. And I think I see a mirage in his eyes, but not enough to well up and flow down his cheek.

More and more, I’m beginning to read him, see a hint of the currents that run underneath. As if we were family sharing a room.

 

 

His name is Jamie. His laugh draws me in, keeps me company. I don’t feel so alone. And I adore him. The way his Adam’s apple shimmies a little when he talks. The way he directs all his attention to me when we’re together – physical, emotional and mental. He sees me. I feel soaked through with warmth around him. He is my sun and I’m beginning to rotate around him. Slowly, as we spend time together, I go beyond polite, acceptable small talk and say what I really think about the world and various topics. I share my observations with him. And he ruminates over them in his mind thoughtfully. Whether or not he agrees with me, he accepts my voice and mind. Doesn’t try to smother it or outdo it with machismo or competitive feelings. This is something for any woman, especially a shy one.

His serene presence settles me. He’s so easy and bright, a breeze on a warm day, a happy, surfer cool. The way mother describes the surfers and hippies of the past. How did he come to be that way? Is it genetics or parenting? Is it from a lifetime of smooth, paved everything’s? I don’t fret over the world when we’re together, don’t sink as much into dark, coagulated, curdled thoughts. He is the light to my night. The one I want to serve and kiss softly.

 

 

 

MAKING IT SOLITARY

I hear dense plop plops through the window. I crane my head to hear the foreign sound better. The plush, lush sound doesn’t echo, it lands solid sloppy. It can’t be, disbelief overcomes me. I run to the window with my mother and we stare incredulous and speechless. It is raining hard. Torrential drops of clear water fall like mana from heaven.

The dust flakes thicken and muddy the streets before the torrent of rain sweeps them away down old street drains that sat powder dry from drought.

We watch and marinate the event in our minds and hearts, in silent reverie. Like the days when the pin bursts flowered in the air. I open the window wide, as far as it can go to capture the scent and humidity. That rain forest atmosphere where moisture swirls deliciously around you, swaddles and envelopes you with the perfume of earth and water. A calm balm.

Slowly, it fades. Our hopes subside, ebb away in a foamy tide that becomes thin and straight as it backs away from you. I say goodbye quietly, my hand on the window screen, longing to draw it back with a furling hand motion.

I can’t remember the last time. Maybe a few years or so. Definitely before.

The sky clears and reveals a vivid blue and a sparkling disc of yellow sun. It looks technicolor, hyper saturated, the stuff of dreams and films because we haven’t seen it in so long. It is our desirous hallucination projected onto a dome. People trickle out of their homes to absorb it. They pack the street, all their little heads tilting upwards in unison. Some stand unblinking and stoic, letting the sun’s rays fall on their starved skin. A few cry tears of joy and sadness. Our temple leader will have a field day with this at today’s sermon. He’ll take credit for it and espouse the power of our sun prayer. Power and megalomania will power through his veins and amp him up to higher heights so he can make bolder claims. So he can vaingloriously consolidate and grow his influence.

I run down the stairs and onto the streets without my mask. I start to jog and then run. No one seems to notice. I laugh out loud in surprise and delight, look at the sky as I run faster and faster through our neighborhood. I run directionless, my legs cycling quick and agile. My heart pumps and thumps in my chest, it has been so long. The sun warms me so I begin to sweat, it has been so long. A cool breeze flutters past my face and body as I slice through it. All the freedom sensations return home. The royal blue sky and shining sun hover afar in the distance like a lighthouse showing how far you have to go.

My lungs swallow and gulp the clean air, the running helps them soak up as much as possible. I am a sponge, hungrily absorbing the liberation, the air, the sky, and the sun before it goes away. Before we return to our famine full of gray, deadened senses. Someone behind me has begun to run too. They understand it’s a way to soak up as much of it as possible. I alternate between laughing and crying. It’s all so overwhelming, something in me crashes down, good or bad I don’t know. It’s a relief, the kind where you fall uncontrollably to your knees once you’ve been saved or given a reprieve. My heart bursts with happiness, it’s too large to wrap myself around. I don’t want to think about when the gray feathers will begin to fall again, any time soon I’m sure. I will tell Jamie I ran today and sopped up everything I could, all that explosive joy. He will understand.

 

 

 

Today, I saw another unicorn. Another body untainted by the environment. Usually bodies untainted by the environment are those of older, wealthy citizens. I assume wealthy because they would have been able to afford the expensive systems to make their whole life air-tight, untouchable.

He was in his twenties, overweight, actually fat. His whale of a pale body flopped open on the tundra of the table, glowed under the surgical saucers. The burgundy and purple bruises around his neck stood out against the porcelain white of his skin. He had been strangled. Murdered. Someone hated him so much, had such a rage for him that they strangled him, watched his light go out. Marks from the killer’s thumb remained on the neck.

What did he do to cause this? Or how did his life become entangled with someone so deranged and inconsolable? Was anyone waiting for him when this happened? Did anyone love him? What was the animus? I wish I could delve into these lives and witness them. Put the puzzle pieces together and hold a magnifying glass to human nature and all its variations. All its struggles to survive, all its turns and revolutions. The palatable and vinegary words. I know some things never change. I assume jealousy, hatred, competitiveness, anger, happiness and love have existed throughout time’s narrative. But when did those emotions actually come into being? When did cells feel that first sear of emotion. Emotions push us towards survival. Have they evolved or become stunted in present day? Or are they the same, but simply masked by the unique factors of our time? Hate is hate, now and back then. Love is love. Stars will always shine against the black. But only now, we can’t see them.

We saw no damage inside when he was opened. Like the baby boy. His lungs were unaffected by the toxic dust.

His face rested on a look that was neither peaceful nor fearful. He looked ill at ease, as if he were holding in a burp or fart. His large, beak of nose crested atop his face and gave it a strong, demonstrative profile. His full lips grimaced. His small, thin ears nestled against his bald head. A small, round, red tattoo of a symbol resembling a coin with a man’s profile and unreadable inscriptions rested on his inner thigh. His aura scattered finely around him, serious and sad. If he were thinner he would’ve had a brooding, cinematic look, someone not handsome, but of weighty mystery and consequence. The one you willingly follow into hell. But the fat made him look ordinary, that plain, generic slate most people reflect.

I spoke to Dr. M today. Addressed him directly. Asked him a question. I never do this. I asked what happened to the baby. What was the substance? I needed to know so I could have closure, lay it to rest in my heart and mind. He stopped in his tracks, continued to look down into the chest, but he froze. I don’t think he’s allowed to tell me much of anything. Or maybe he’s a haughty, elitist man who thinks I’m below him and doesn’t deserve to know. The fear raced through me, all the way to the back of my brain where it prickled because there was nowhere else for it to go. Are there repercussions for asking? I think so. I wanted to take back the words, rewind time.

He coughed an unintelligible word without looking up. It sounded like “not”. Then he paused for a second before going back to work on disconnecting the heart. Making it solitary.

 

 

 

HAIR-THIN SEAMS

He sleeps a lot. Into an unknowable valley out of this world. As if all his brightness sapped his battery, and he needed recharging in another dimension. When he takes a nap, like now, I watch shows, wander through his spacious apartment, look at all the books he has, or cook something. It seems odd that such a sunny character would be bookish and profound. Usually those types seem distant and mousy, unable to physically thrive much less shine. But that is a side of him you can only know by entering through a hidden door with imperceptible, hair-thin seams, the kind mentioned in mystery riddles. The kind found by fingertips slowly roaming across the wood grain.

Fiction and history books tower in his living room and bedroom in crooked stacks. He prefers the real form over the digital. The majority of people don’t read long form things like books. They read digital magazines and short form stories, and they view holograms. In school we were taught by lecture, videos and holograms. Book stores are rarities and information on the country internet is mostly in the form of concise articles, drawings, and short holograms and videos. It is the easy, effortless consumption of air. Unlike the tiny grit of old paper, the quiet rustle and flipping of the page, the ridged spine held in the cradle of your palm, the faint, buttery odor of rooms the book has traveled through. And the transmission of long form knowledge through symbols that mean nothing when alone, but everything when put together page after page.

 

 

 

I run my finger over a peach-beige shell that spans his long, outstretched hands and graceful fingers. Feel its uneven, chalky ridges and pointed spires, the glassy, smooth interior that curves in on itself. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the aqua marine ocean, smelled its salty, steamy dew. I hold it to my ear and hear an eternal echo, the ocean froth forever receding, pulled by the moon.

“That’s from my childhood. It’s the only thing I brought from my parent’s home,” he says.

“I miss it. I really do. Don’t you? I can’t even explain how much. I mourn it,” I say.

“Let me take you somewhere like it.”

“No, no, that’s ok.” It’s too much. No one has ever wanted to take me away. I could only wish, but now it’s too much. I need to look away. His head leans to one side as he studies my profile. He’s seeing a new expression on my face for the first time. I wish I could see myself through his eyes, but then I don’t because I’d be appalled.

He pulls me in, covers my neck with encouraging kisses. He knows what I’m thinking, and I know that he’ll plan it anyway. And to be honest, that’s what I love about him. He knows how to pave the way for me and lead me down the path, even if I don’t feel worthy.

 

 

 

He comes from money. The kind made from political connections. The kind passed from father to child and from friend to friend with a slick knowing and an unspoken understanding of how the system works. How to preserve the wealth so it perpetuates far into the future. His father, now retired, was a high-level member of the state’s cabinet. And his mother was the brains and strength behind him, the clever, unsung hero and strategist. They made a very lucrative living after he held office with speaking engagements, media deals, consulting projects, and exchanges with various think tanks. His influence towers over the conservative party even though he’s now retired. Jamie plays it off well without being dismissive of them. He clearly loves them and enjoys the perks of being their only child since that’s all he’s ever known. But now, he also enjoys this new style of life and has for the last few years. It’s the life of an airy bohemian and an intellectual who never has to worry about how to make the rent check. He is an artist of life as he slow paints his way through the experience of being unbound by anything. Part of me envies that, and part of me pities it. And yet another part of me is neutral and indifferent, prefers to look away.

He lives a life that is optimized in every sense of the word, yet without much effort on his part. He takes very expensive, pharmacy-grade vitamins every day that claim to counteract the dust. He lives in a large condominium in a city where space is a precious resource, and it is owned by his parents, bought and paid for free and clear. He can purchase any book or artwork he wishes to expand his mind. His designer food is delivered every week, his mother makes sure of it. And through all of this, he doesn’t act spoiled or pretentious, higher than me or anyone he knows. Why did he choose a life of free thinking and intellectualism over a life of being groomed and ushered into a power role? Is it a way of experiencing the “ghetto”? Just for kicks? Am I the ghetto woman he gets to experience and reminisce about later when he’s older and married to someone more appropriate? Have his parents told him it’s OK to slum around for a few years, but then it’s back to the business of building family wealth and connections? This is my big worry, that I’ll burn as I fall deeper and deeper into his sun.

 

 

 

We haven’t slept with each other. Yet. I spend some nights over, but not too many because I don’t want to leave mother alone. She doesn’t say it because she doesn’t want to bother me, but I can tell her health is failing. I don’t know what it is, but she’s frailer, whiter, thinner. And though she is frailer, she is happier too. All for me. She’s so exuberant and giddy about me finding someone as kind as him. I haven’t told her about his background, only that he’s a good person and that he complements me well. They talk about various light topics when he picks me up, and he always tells me after we’ve left my apartment how kind and gracious she is. Not a mean bone in her, he says. It’s a mutual admiration society between them.

 

 

 

The lump of coal before us crumbles gritty and dry. Desiccated by time, dust, the loss of hope. The inability to fight onward. I can almost see particles on the top surface dissolve into the air as it rests before us, like fairy dust. Most likely this man, cut open on the steel table, lived on the streets, or a place where he had constant exposure to the dust.

His thin, white skin peels and puckers. The hard, grey-pink flesh rests behind the transparent, chiffon of skin, which drapes like the thinnest wedding lace. The areas that were covered by clothing are a little better, thicker and soaked with humectant, more identifiably human.

Dr. M cut into him cautiously to avoid applying too much pressure. It’s obvious what the cause of death is here, but nevertheless we have to perform our methods of inquiry to follow the madness to the core.

The ribs cradle the insides, which are cratered, thorny, charcoaled. A hilly, barren landscape of sharp, blackest black coral. We try to find the area that succumbed to the dust first, but it’s difficult because all the organs are at the same stage. Beyond the point of no return.

Dr. M stops peering and looks at me directly. Straightens his back. I freeze, unaware of what I’ve done. Perhaps I’ve touched something I wasn’t supposed to. I wait. Stare back directly as I gather my courage and stand tall to show him that I am his equal. What do you want, I think. He looks down and uses an instrument to tap once on the rib closest to the neck. Then taps the third one down. Then the eighth one, as if playing a musical instrument. The camera behind him can’t see this. I cock my head to the side to show I don’t quite understand. First, third, and eighth rib. I don’t know what it means. I keep my face neutral in case it’s seen by the camera, to show we’re working as usual. He begins again, taps on the first rib. Pauses, then taps on the third one, which cracks open and exposes its airless, hollow cave. The insides have been devoured by our plague. The long line of black-grey bone could be elegant if it were from a prehistoric animal found in desert sediment. He’s forgotten how splintery this man is. That games must be played on solid ground for them to have a chance.

One. Three. Eight.

Does it stand for letters? A, C, H?

My mind spins round and round as he resumes his work. His movements jab quicker and more curt than usual, indicating his frustration at my stupidity or something else.

I rifle through all the possibilities. Is it related to the man on the table?

Is it a time? What is supposed to happen at 1:38?

Is it a code to a hidden door?

It ignites a trail of gun powder through my mind, this message, direct from the other. The one from the other side.

 

 

 

SNEAKY POOR PERSON

He lies in bed and reads a tattered book with large black, capital letters on the cover when I enter the bedroom. I’ve let myself in with a key he’s given me. I drop my things to the ground and crawl into bed with him, snuggle into the warmth under the curve of his shoulder.

“What’re you reading?”

“Mein Kampf. It means, my struggle.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s something a guy named Hitler wrote. Have you ever heard of him? Do you remember learning about him in school? I don’t really.”

“I don’t think we covered him. What did he do?”

“He had millions of people killed. Jewish people mostly. Anyone who wasn’t a certain ideal type. He convinced everyone to help him do this with propaganda and charisma.”

I’m incredulous. “How could he get away with that? I can’t imagine people allowing that to happen on such a large scale. Are you sure that’s true?”

“I found it in the fiction section, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. My grandfather mentioned him once, he said we weren’t being taught things anymore, things we should know.”

I wonder about this. What weren’t we taught? Growing up, our classes were rigorous and challenging. The majority of people in the country followed a mandated curriculum put together by the finest minds in education. Especially bright children entered a track geared towards advanced studies for predetermined jobs. Even though Dr. M is a bit older than me, I assume he was one of those bright children. I go through the subjects we learned, try to find something missing, but nothing seems amiss. Mathematics. Grammar. Music. Foreign Languages. Horticulture. Civics and Citizenry. Animals. Astronomy. Art. Fitness. World Religions. Geography and Geology. Evolution. Archaeology. Basic Computing. World Events and Wars. Biology. Literature. Vocabulary. I liked biology and art the most.

Each subject focused mostly on modern advances, up-to-date knowledge and current stories with the exception of biology, art and archaeology, which included evolution and prehistoric animal knowledge. I remember a boy in high school who once asked why we didn’t learn more things from the past. I remember because it was such an odd question, something I had never thought of before. Some students listened alertly for the answer, and others goofed off. The teacher calmly told us that learning about modern thinking helped us learn best how to thrive in the modern world, that the past was too different from the present to learn anything from it.

“There was a resistance movement called The White Rose Resistance. I read about it last year. They refused to go along with him, even when they were jailed and tortured.”

I nod my head for him to continue.

“They were young students who told people that Hitler was wrong. And some of them were eventually killed.”

What did it feel like to go against the pack. I shudder. It’s one thing to think thoughts others may not think or agree with, it’s quite another to show that through your actions. How would I withstand that kind of pressure? How would Jamie stand under any kind of pressure. How does someone deal with turmoil when they’ve never encountered it before? Would he crack? Or would he take it in stride, like he always does? Is his foundation fragile.

It’s hard to know what you’re made of if you’ve never been forced to search for a resolve within yourself, that hardened, arctic land that refuses to give way. The truth and beauty of a delicate, white rose.

“It’s all so sad…” My voice falters, leaving tenuous trails of unsaid observations hanging in the air. He looks off into the distance, lost in his own thoughts.

“Let’s go to bed…” I say as I close the book in his hands. It’s too somber for me to think of while in his warm, cozy arms. I only want to dream and float away into the nexus between us where it is safe and caring and soft. My haven from horrors. And I never want to let go.

 

 

 

“Why do you wear this mask?” I point to his mask, the old one that only covers his nose and mouth. Like mine.

“Why not?”

“You can afford a better one that covers your whole head.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Why not?”

“Well… why should I when the poor can’t afford one. That’s why I don’t upgrade.”

I feel slightly defensive and wounded. I am poor. My family is. It’s something I think lots about, but don’t discuss with anyone. I don’t like someone pointing out how the poor live.

And I’m shocked he would take his trip to the ghetto this far. Of course he doesn’t know just how bad the dust is, but most rich people are extra cautious and do everything they can to minimize their exposure. Maybe they even have an inkling of how dangerous it really is. The poor purchase masks at their low price point as they’re fed government lines about how the dust only affects the lungs of people who don’t use a mask, that the eyes are protected because of its natural tears and mucus. That skin corrodes over long periods of time but minimal exposure is OK. And perhaps the poor even believe those lines because they don’t have much control over their ability to purchase heavy-duty masks. Blind belief serves as a rationalization, a way to avoid fear. And to be honest, there’s also the fact that a small group of us are just not very bright, they are easily duped, like animals led to slaughter.

“I don’t know how to feel about that… I’m poor, my family is.”

He looks at me quizzically.

I continue, “I don’t know if I should be happy you’re trying to be one of us or mad that you’re not buying a mask most of us would kill for.” Somehow it feels a tad insulting. Perhaps I’m too defensive, but it feels like I am a “type” and someone is trying to mimic my type. I’m confused, trapped sticky in the honey of self-consciousness, insecurity and unease. A mounting uneasy fear.

“I would think people would like someone from higher up sympathizing…”

“It’s just that it feels like mimicking, no one likes to be mimicked. It doesn’t feel real or true,” I pause. “Or maybe I’m just feeling insecure about it…”

“I have good intentions. I’m not trying to make anyone feel less than. Being poor isn’t something to be ashamed about.”

“I’m not ashamed, it just feels odd… I don’t know whether to feel proud you’re with us or like you’re being too extreme to your own detriment.”

He doesn’t understand that it’s not shame per se. That it’s him looking down on us, changing himself to lower down to our level instead of being himself at our level. It’s a small distinction that upon closer inspection reveals a chasm between us he’ll never see or understand because he’s never been lower than anyone in a real sense. He doesn’t know what it feels like to carry heavy, make-or-break burdens, to never have that rarified gem within you see the light of day.

I’m a bit bothered, but I don’t hold it against him. He just doesn’t know, and maybe I’m a little too sensitive.

I lean in close and make him look at me to emphasize the importance of what I’m going to say. “Trust me on this, you need to get a good mask, one that is air-tight. Trust me on this. It’s really important.” It’s my way of telling him what I know without actually telling.

He’s surprised by how serious I am, can’t argue. “OK, I will.”

 

 

 

He has secrets. Behind all the light, there’s a side I don’t know. I know he cares for me so I assume it isn’t anything hurtful to me, but I just have no idea.

Sometimes when we’re together he receives a message or a call, and then he leaves soon after. I assume to meet or talk to whoever he spoke to. If we’re at his place, he’ll leave for an hour or so and I wait, occupy myself. And when he returns, we resume spending time together. He always says he had to do something for his family. He looks away, and it’s as if the sun sets over his face. A solar eclipse. This ends the questioning. I don’t push it because I want to give him space. I don’t want to be the woman who pushes and tries to snake herself into every corner of a man’s life. I want him to share his life with me because he wants to, not because I infested it with my presence. I also don’t want to rock the boat, doing so could spill things over. It may be sad to say, but I’ve become… attached to him in the way love means you can’t live without someone. I don’t care that it might seem pathetic or unintelligent. It just is. We’ve created our own solar system, and I revolve around him. I don’t know if he revolves around me too, we haven’t said those words yet.

Could he be a drug dealer? Involved in some sort of illicit black market trade? Or is it really an errand for his parents? Who or what is he so devoted to? Am I some sort of naïve hopeful trying to hide from a world of pain? The one who ignores the red flags.

And there’s the second bedroom. It’s always closed when I visit. When he gave me a tour of the place he ignored that room. He mumbled that it was a storage room for his grandparents. I knew that was a lie because of how he blushed and looked past me when he said it. I said nothing.

The other day, I was drawn to the second bedroom’s door when he was in the bathroom taking a shower. I admired the beauty of its markings, the white, elegant, triangular ridges repeating over and over its entire surface. The aged brass handle longer than my forearm signifying a certain level of grandeur. The elaborate, white moldings framing the door in a royal aesthetic. Of olden days when those things mattered, when passage through these doorways hallmarked a memorable entrance. I found myself a few inches from the door, examining the pyramids covering its moonscape, my fingers falling into each valley, feeling the bone-smooth, sanded surface. I tried to push the door open and found it locked. Pushed again when I heard him ask from behind, what are you doing?

I jumped back and my hand flew away as if it had touched a fiery branding iron. I didn’t mean to, I stuttered. I was admiring the door when curiosity got the best of me, I’m sorry… I know that’s private… You don’t want me in there.

He sized me up as he stood with a fluffy, luxurious towel wrapped around his waist. Tried to see through me, find me. He saw something or came to a realization before turning to walk into the bedroom, leaving wet, pearly footprints on the polished wood floor. I froze, didn’t know whether to follow him or stay where I was. I waited as I pondered, felt at a loss for words, wishing this were all a bad dream. Eventually, I entered the bedroom and told him I was sorry. He pulled on his shirt and said it was nothing. I said I had to go and take care of my mother so I would see him some other time. He understood, didn’t fight me on that as I searched his face for clues of love or a likeness of it. I only found a certain distance, a moat of emotional space widening. A wall going up and his eyes dimming. My signals were refused entry. I slipped away, guilty for not respecting his boundaries, scared of losing our seeds of trust. I loathed myself for seeming like the sneaky, poor person.

 

 

 

DYING FISH THAT THRASH

This body is a young male in his twenties, Caucasian with a shaved head, lean yet muscular with a large frame. Like a gladiator, an athlete or a laborer.

The burned area on the left side of his face is blackened tar, the flesh underneath oozes with pus and remains supple. His death is fresh.

At first glance, he looks to be in good or decent health other than the burn. There are no other wounds on the exterior, however there is a small tattoo on the right hip area, in the shallow sinking near the hip bone. The wine-colored, triangle tattoo houses an abstract, geometric design with the number 21 in the center. What do these tattoos mean? Tattoos represent meaning and decoration. They tell stories about yourself, what you aspire to. But these are unreadable, an emblem or logo only known by certain people. Is it a secret allegiance to a group? What kind of group? And how did his face get burned? There are no singe marks on his hands, which is odd. Wouldn’t you bring your hands to your face if your face were on fire? Unless his face was burned after his death, but why would that happen?

His hands and feet are baby skin soft so he must not have been a laborer. They are hands that have never known hard work, someone from a cushioned life, like Jamie.

When he’s opened up, we see healthy, primed organs, muscles and innards. Nothing has been affected by our atmosphere. How did he die if everything about him is a perfect specimen? A perfect man any woman would be happy to settle down with, at least physically. Dr. M says he died of heart failure, and he also points out that the lungs are quite small. When I look closer, I notice it. The lungs are seventy five percent of the size they should be and when sliced I can see that its branches are quite fine, more than usual. This man must’ve had to catch his breath often. I imagine him jogging on a treadmill then having to stop when he’s out of breath, hyperventilating to capture more air, like dying fish that thrash from side to side as they try to inhale water.

Dr. M has returned to his usual demeanor, distant and mysterious. Clinical. Should I reach out to him somehow without being seen by the video camera and whoever watches behind it? Perhaps I should find a way to say something. I could ask questions, the ones I ask myself as we dissect these bodies. Perhaps I could ask what 138 means. But I’m at a loss for what or how to say anything these days. To Dr. M and to Jamie. When mother asks how I am, I say I’m OK and I shut myself away while wishing I could spiral into a black hole. I’ve lost my voice… did I ever even have one? Dust has collected in my thoughts, overcome my clarity. Years ago, I used to know what to do all the time, the best way to handle and say things, but now everything floats homeless in my mind, a planet of the nebulous, shaded and polluted. My actions plod in slow-motion pantomimes.

Something catches my eye as I push the blue button for the body to be taken away. The man’s profile is prominent, distinctive. It’s like a million faces I’ve seen before, but then again not. He’s handsome in his own way. The high, chiseled cheekbones make him haughty and elitist. Someone you like to watch. Someone who has a secret about how the world works. That is all. I watch as the table is pulled away by an automated pulley, as he glides into the black, to the next dock.

 

 

 

PULSE

I reach for his face in the dim room, feel his soft stubble and rounded cheek in the curve of my palm. The light behind him crowns his head, making his shadowed face undefinable.

“I’m sorry,” I say, laying back on his couch.

He takes my hand and kisses the knuckles, then the inside of my thin wrist. It’s been a few weeks, but it feels like an eternity. I drink in the sensation through my skin, through my drought.

“I won’t do it again, I shouldn’t have…” It’s all I have to offer.

He draws me in, comes close to my face. “Listen,” he says quietly, “I understand. I’m not telling you everything and you want to know. I saw you standing there and I knew I had to tell you if I wanted to keep you. But it has to wait. There are reasons I don’t want to involve you. I have my reasons. I’m asking you to trust me.” He looks deeply into my eyes, unblinking, straight as an arrow into me.

I nod my head as I weigh what he’s said. In truth, I would wait forever.

I begin quietly, “I need to know something… Or I need to tell you something… I don’t want to be used. I don’t want to be the one you slum around with before you go back to your parent’s life. So, if you’re just having fun, I’d rather it not be with me,” I pause and rethink what I’ve said before continuing. “I don’t mean to say that this is forever or anything, just that I don’t want to be used because it’s fun to be with someone your family wouldn’t necessarily want for you.” That’s my stance. The red line I’ve drawn to denote the boundaries of my self-respect.

“It’s never been about that,” he says with a pained grimace. And I realize this fear of mine may have been projected onto him. That maybe I haven’t seen him with one hundred percent clarity as he has me. The filters of prestige and elitism mixed with my insecurities over my poor family were unfairly applied to him.

I search the landscape of his face and find that subterranean, settled knowing in the tunnel of his blue eyes. I feel that centered resolve I wondered about. And I know he’s all true.

A breath and another.

I breathe him in.

I look down and hold.

I hug him close and we kiss as the world spins round and round, as if we were the axis of a crazed world ready to topple over. That veritable core. He leads me by the hand to the bedroom and I follow, my heart pounding, nerves ready to fray in a split second. We search for each other in the black room, through touch, through the night and unspoken. The blind leading the blind through a wormhole. His body smells of salt and pepper, water and wind. His touch and kisses alternate, tentative and gentle then hungry. Tender and consuming. I want, want, want. Fall deeper and deeper into a fever dream swimming with everything and nothing, all thought obliterating, burning into a red-hot pulse.

 

 

 

LIKE AN ANIMAL

We board the sleek, reflective ship hand in hand. When I asked Dr. M for two days off, he hesitated, raised an eye and finally nodded his consent. I know he wondered what I would do.

I’ve never been to a pod, have only read about them, a dream floating high in the sky. Jamie vacations there once a year with his parents so he’s excited to show it to me. From what I’ve read, there isn’t much to do on the pods due to their small size. It’s just a relaxing place to vacation. The ship rises slowly, then hovers for a few seconds before zooming off into the heavens. Under dim lights, we lie on our backs on shallow, white beds, me on one level and him on the level below me. Soothing music with harps and calming synth melodies plays softly. We are to sleep or rest during the five-hour trip. Towards the end, the overhead lights dawn ever so slowly, and a soft voice overhead tells us we are approaching. It is all so effortless, so pleasant. It is the true meaning of luxury, no struggle whatsoever involved. I think there would be riots if the masses knew how lovely it was. We’ve been told that while the pods are bountiful with beautiful resorts, the trip there is bothersome and the flights are bumpy and fearsome. I don’t know anyone who’s been to the pod. No one in the lower and middle classes do. Even the upper middle classes and the rich. It’s astronomically expensive, reserved for the ultra-rich, and thus a mystique surrounds it. I believe the ultra-rich tell people how uncomfortable and dangerous the trip is to keep the peace. Everyone struggles so much to just survive.

We are driven to our hotel, which is a tropical bungalow with a thatched roof sitting next to the man-made sea. Emerald green palms surround the bungalow, swaying and rustling quietly in the breeze. I throw open the windows to view the wide expanse of blue water and endless sky, breathe in the salty air laced with hints of seaweed. My eyes tear as I think of my mother, how she would’ve loved to smell this. It is her favorite scent to buy. My heart sinks, fills with an awful sense of guilt at leaving her behind for the weekend. She shooed me away when I told her I wouldn’t go. She made me promise to go, packed a bag for me, told me to tell her stories when I returned. A sadness balloons in my gut. She may never see the sea again in her lifetime.

 

 

 

We unfold our beach blanket and lay it on the powdery, white sand. I remove my clothing down to my marine blue bathing suit. I’ve already covered myself with the supra Nano-sunscreen. Jamie says it isn’t enough if we lay on the beach all day. I lay on the blanket, and he pulls out a small triangular device, a miniature pyramid. Lays it by my side, near my stomach, and turns it on. It covers me and the area around me with a clear dome that will protect me from the sun. When his dome touches mine, they become one large dome. I’m amazed I’ve never heard of such a thing.

I see the sun’s orange circle through my closed eyes. Feel the heat prickle my skin, bake the marrow of my bones. Hear the ocean’s heartbeat. I try to read one of his books but slide into a calm, restful sleep, one I haven’t experienced in a long time. My body flowers open in the full sun. It is a paradise, a letting go of everything that has braced me closed, worried, sclerotic.

When we awake, we walk to the ocean and wade into the crystal-clear water slowly. The cool water warms to our bodies perfectly. I wrap my arms and legs around him as we float, our bodies slippery sliding against each other, the clear, blue-green waves lapping gently against our shoulders. I dip my head back into the water as he holds me, feel the ocean water enter my ears, bathe my scalp making my hair cool and slick. We are floating water babies, inflated with a carefree happiness. Buoyed by this gift of an experience. I soak up his smile, his crinkling blue eyes that mirror the sky, all the love between us filling the pod’s amphitheater, this timeless daydream. Nothing between us and the sun.

 

 

 

He traces my body with the full wing of his hands in the semi-shade of our bedroom. They glide over me softly, fill every shallow concave, encircle my bony, cup my softness. He learns and memorizes my body’s topography, and I lay there dreaming away with closed eyes, letting him, succumbing to his curiosity. How is it to be this languorous all your life, to only be filled with love and sensuality in your soul and thoughts. To have the layers of oil and water within you suspended into one, to only be this. The rich have the luxury of being only themselves no matter the circumstance, to never want to be anyone else. Never hide parts of yourself to garner acceptance. I know we accept each other as is. I am so rich in this.

 

 

 

He shows me the small town on the other side of the pod when I feel it before I hear it. The pressure blooms inside me, in the air hovering just above my skin. A ferocious force zooms invisibly and silently in the maze of streets. Pushes my insides into a cramped, pretzel pose against the walls of my flesh. Fast mechanical fun ride, exhilarating and terrifying. An ear-ringing, high pitch pierces for a second then an eerie deaf silence mushrooms, where you have a chance to fill with empty infinity – right before everything fragile breaks and bursts with crackling sound. Windows explode outwards, loose stones fly into the air, the ground jumps and shakes with thunder as if a giant fist pounded on it to make a point. Jagged glass pieces cut my face. I don’t feel pain, only warm, thick blood trickling, growing, sludging. And the smell of iron drifting up my nose. I grab his hand tightly, don’t want to be alone, want someone to be a witness to this shattering. It spreads the experience out, makes the load bearable and not too unbelievable.

People run down the street screaming, but I can’t hear anything. Either from hearing loss or shock. I only see open, maroon mouths and startled, googly eyes darting crazed this way and that. The thick whip of hair as they turn and run. The street empties as we stand in the epicenter, everyone has left for the resort side of the pod.

White hot, blank staring.

Empty street and mind.

Seeing, but not registering.

What was that… Peace and quiet settle around us like the sound of a heavy blanket falling on you in the dark.

He says he thinks it was terrorists from the hot land, a noiseless bomb. Trying to send a message of some kind.

At the office building across the street, an eagle statue stands wingless. Its wide, opened wings have crumbled into piles of craggy concrete bits as if anything that stood out was doomed for paring.

The red cross sign of the pharmacy has blown out, red and white glass puddle under its empty frame. Inside, the drugstore items are de-puzzled everywhere, pieces and parts of a whole flung out randomly. Let’s find some bandages for your face, he says. I look into a cracked mirror and stare at the long, diagonal slice on the lower half of my face as he rummages for alcohol and cloth. It’s deep and will definitely leave a scar. I’m not a vain person and now is not the time to examine my face, but a part of me stands still in meditation, in an out of body experience as I mourn the loss of my beauty and normalness. I will now be described as the one with the scar on her face, not with brown hair and eyes, not thin and pale, but cut and scarred. A deep, crimson line once crossed my face and divided it in half. I’m someone a bad thing happened to. Be courteous and don’t ask, don’t stare, don’t wonder if she’s over it now. If someone sees her as beautiful. In the eyes of the beholder.

We patch it up matter of fact, going past what it could mean for my face. The one facing the world and judged by society. This is not the time for such concerns.

We stand outside, blind under the striking sun, its heat slowly warming us. If you only looked at the expansive, bright blue sky you would think it was a hopeful day full of possibility. The kind where you wake from a dreamy sleep, look out the window while lying in bed and wonder what you’ll be when you grow up. Or the kind where you walk with energy and purpose, get things done as the brisk, fresh breeze sparkles across your cheek. But down here, devastation litters the land. Strange solitude lingers with the utter quiet of everything dead around you. There is not even the undercurrent buzz of air or burrowed insects.

I see some brooms flung onto the street. We pick them up and begin to sweep the glass and stones out of the street. It’s an automatic thing, a way to bring order out of disorder. To better your surroundings amongst the chaos.

A way to have dignity regardless of the situation.

An old bearded man with oily, unwashed hair saunters out of a building, bewildered and dazed, eyes adjusting to the light. How did he get to the pod? Was he a stow away? He notices our figures, my mummied face, and stares. Comprehends what we’re doing. He says, man, I’m not picking up a finger unless someone pays me, not doing a thing ‘till I got something in my hand. He turns and walks down the middle of the street whistling and lazy walking, not fazed by anything he sees. His heart and mind are focused inwards, blind to the destruction. Not a human. Like an animal.

I’m filled with fury, how do you find your way out of anything if you don’t do it for yourself, if you wait for an external force to reward you, nudge you forward. At least try. This is what I want to believe. That we find a way in life because we try. That good luck or bad luck have nothing to do with it. I don’t want to really know.

 

 

 

ETERNAL ZENITH

The first few days back I floated on flights of fancy, effervescent hopes, lovely memories. I flew myself higher and higher into dreamy orbit. Nothing could fail, nothing could fall.

But now, I’m sobered, saturated with an ambivalence towards the world we live in, slowly filling with resentment towards the oppressive dust and the physical and emotional fallout it has wreaked on us all. An emptiness has taken over me as the business of life occurs, slowly erasing bit by bit the lingering memories of sensuality and beauty and love. The humid air, the forever blue salted water, the giving cushion of sand, hot breath of sun on the skin. Strands of hair floating in the light breeze, body lolling wide and surrendered in an afternoon nap. His cool skin against mine. The humbleness of giving yourself to someone.

Anger flares within me from time to time. All of us down here, struggling, trudging along under showers of dust. Children who only know the world through gray lattice. Why can’t we all enjoy a bit of sun, a bit of holiday and solace in the ocean. Why is that only reserved for the ultra-rich. Why are we trapped in this god forsaken city. Why are we enclosed and ostracized like diseased animals. The anger grips me then slowly gives way to hopelessness and despair that pierces and twists because I’ve experienced the pod, which has reawakened a longing in me for a world without dust. A longing that was hidden away and forgotten while my relationship with Jamie sprouted and bloomed. Did I feel this intensely before Jamie or are my feelings more intensified because of my time at the pod?

I can’t tell Jamie any of this. It would only make him feel bad, as if his gift were a poison. It isn’t of course, it’s just a very bittersweet candy that’s smooth, succulent, then tart. Sandpaper acidic as you get to the roughened core.

 

 

 

I don’t know how much to tell Jamie. About the dust and its effects. About how no one really knows how bad it really is. How it slowly kills most of the poor and middle class, anyone who can’t afford a heavy-duty mask. I want to be eloquent, tell him in a controlled way that shows I know what I’m saying. But if I told him now, it would spill forward in a nonsensical jumble, full of emotion and sadness, making me seem crazy and uneducated. Perhaps it would be no big deal to anyone with money because they wear expensive, air-locked, nonporous masks that cover the whole head, because they may not care about the rest of us. Perhaps I’m making it an unbearable burden for nothing. I play mind games with myself over this, viewing it from different octagonal angles, the prisms relaying me in different directions, so much I no longer know where the uncolored center is.

If I told him to not tell anyone, his intention would be to not tell. But I know how humans are, we promise not to tell but it dribbles out by accident. Or the secret is so tantalizing that we tell someone then ask them to not tell anyone. There’s that nagging tickle to unburden ourselves. I worry about him accidentally telling his parents, who are intertwined with the government. What would happen to me then? This isn’t a small mistake we could recover from. It’s a life altering mistake. One that could kill me or if I get a lucky break send me to jail for life.

I’m caged in a trap I signed up for. I don’t know how to escape so I bury it within my gut. I hug my old, tattered bag on top of it to smother it, but it wants to live. The truth always fights to breathe.

 

 

 

Mother was in hysterics when she saw the bandages. I was honest. I calmly told her about the bomb, most likely planted by terrorists from the hot land. I was fine, I said, it’s no big deal. I didn’t want her to worry about my face because that would mean I would have to worry about it too. I would rather forget, move on in a hurry as if it never happened. Then I told her about the sleek ride to the top, the humid, salty, ocean air. How the marine blue, serene ocean swallowed us up. How we floated to our hearts content. How sparkly the white-hot sun was, almost like a god. I worry about her telling friends, neighbors or others at the temple. I’ve sworn her to secrecy. We are not to know how amazing it really is, how easily the ride spirits us to the top. Not our class.

I told her because I knew she’d enjoy my descriptions, she could live through me to relive her memories of the sea. Dissipate into her own version of the pod. A part of me has a finicky worry she’ll accidentally tell someone. Then the lie would have to expand and include others. I’d have to say the trip was OK, that mother’s mind and sense of reality are worsening, that it was a life or death trip. I had fun, but if I had another opportunity I wouldn’t go because the trip was so incredibly frightening. The lie would get larger than me, beyond anything I could control. Mother’s dementia, her fractured phrenology, worsens day by day, and maybe it wasn’t very smart to tell her. But I sacrifice my security so she can enjoy her memories, which are made more vivid by my experience and descriptions. Besides me, this is all she has left in the world. And it is sacred to her.

 

 

 

I want to tell.

I want to tell.

Tell. Everything.

Achingly so.

Unbraid everything I know and have seen, splay it out plainly, comb through the stories, set them straight. Let the darker inside strands see the light of day. Telling is a form of freedom from the edified scriptures that govern us, a quiet belligerence against the futures that have been set.

Boosted by the thought of letting it all out, I want to run through the streets in bravado, give it a go, push myself into the future we all want, but there are the dust and crowds, the cruel repercussions – all the hurdles that keep us in line like electric shocks in steely animal experiments.

Instead, I run free in my mind, speed through it all the way to the paradise and heaven that is sky. What I remember of it through hazy memories coiled in the brain. That vast blue dome witnessing our childhood promises and secrets and fascination. Eternal zenith.

 

 

 

THE NEXT JUMP

An arrow whizzes sharply past my hood, way too close for comfort. A group flashes past me, pushing me to the side roughly as they sprint and leap forward after their prey.

They are urbunters, short for urban hunters, and they hunt urban game for food. All the ownerless dogs, cats, pigeons, plump rats, and crows that wander our city streets so freely, as if they owned it. This includes any pet that has escaped. It’s a way to survive the streets and poverty during these times. Long haired animals are especially prized because it protects the animal’s skin from the dust better than short hair. I’ve read that damaged, peeling animal skin tastes extremely bitter.

They’ve trapped their prey in a dead-end alley; a tall, mangy, dirty-white, unshorn poodle dog. It barks ferociously at them as he’s cornered by a crowd of four hungry men wearing flimsy masks and old, droopy layers of stained clothing. The poodle stops barking, looks the men in the eye. The men return the direct stare. No sentimentality emerges, only pure survival instinct then an innate understanding of the death that will come soon. That smash of a head-on collision. One man raises his shoulder high as he pulls back the arrow in the bow. It hits the poodle’s side, and he staggers and falls zig zag in defeat. Dark, beady eyes glassy and frozen, open mouth snarling in its last breath. The stick of a tail limps bit by bit, vertebrate by vertebrate.

Another man carries the carcass over his shoulder as they march past me with the blood trickling down his back, the arrow jutting out awkwardly towards the sky as a punctuation, a salute. They’ll barbecue it outdoors or butcher it in someone’s bathroom and split the proceeds.

It’s absolutely disgusting to think of. Something like this would have never happened a few years ago. Guns are illegal, but people fashion arrows out of anything and everything. People will do anything to survive. Even the unthinkable. We are mad now, mad to survive at any price. It is evolution purling in motion, knitting something new and barbaric in our story as time moves to the next jump.

 

 

 

BLACK ROCK FALLING

A nine-year-old boy lays before us. Pale, bony, excruciatingly emaciated, with a freshly bruised eye and ribs. Murky, watercolor ponds of maroon, blue and black. Old yellow-olive bruises dot his legs and arms. Dried, blackened blood lays crusty and matted on his short, light downy hair. He bled out from a blow to the head. This was no school fight, but rather a story of abuse gone out of hand. A growing, molesting, immolating rage that had no place to go but towards him. Perhaps he stood for a quality the attacker hated within him or herself. Or perhaps the attacker ignorantly took his/her frustrations out on this little one. A rage of impotence. A fight to remove demons. Projection of the most violent kind.

He is crystal clear on the inside. Shiny and pink and youthful. No sign of environmental damage. I don’t understand how people are increasingly resistant to dust. Is it something that happens with time or is it something some people are born with. Is this evolution in motion. I’m beginning to suspect I’m one of those. I haven’t detected any minute signs of premature aging or skin thinness on my face, not after these past couple of years. No flaking or the minute beginnings of translucent ghostliness. If it’s true, I am truly gifted during these times. But there’s no way I’d know for sure unless I cut myself open and found glossy, plumped organs pumping along.

A ruby circle marks his left hip, raised and puffy, not flat like the tattoos I’ve seen before. Perhaps it is a burn mark, a scar from past abuse.

Dr. M prods at the liver. He straightens, peers at me slightly, then uses an instrument to tap lightly on the top rib, as if he’s testing it to hear how hollow it is. I look into his eyes and hold steady to confirm I understand. He looks down, taps the third rib down, then the eighth one. When he looks at me I hold his gaze. He points to a cord of artery leading to the heart and says, as if he’s teaching me, this artery leads to the heart, it is a type of heart road, you can see it’s healthy and isn’t hardened. When he says “heart road” he taps on the heart once. He points to another slack artery and says even softer, this particular artery is always 8 o’clock from the shoulder, this one is healthy although unusually wide. When he says “8 o’clock” he taps it once.

I understand now. It dawns on me in a shudder, in a tower of black rock falling on me.

Our eyes meet and lock in a vise-grip. But I need to look away as my heart pounds manic, as thudding footsteps patter in my ears.

138 Heart Road at 8 o’clock.

 

 

PART 2

 

 

 

QUIVERS AT ONCE

I tell mother before dinner that I have an urgent errand to run. She tries to stop me, tries to discover what it is. I say I have to get a new shirt for work and that it’s important I find it tonight. I grab a dinner roll and put it in my inner pocket. She watches as I lace my combat boots, shaky, crackling with hidden tremors and fault lines, knowing it’s a lie but also knowing I won’t tell her. She can only wish me well as I walk out the door, wrap her prayer wings protectively around me as I depart into the world beyond.

I vaguely know the address. It’s downtown where there is an assembly of restaurants and shops. I wonder what we’ll say, how we’ll break the ice. Why does he want to meet? I don’t know if I’m crossing a good luck or bad luck threshold of some kind. I feel the pivot point, but towards what?

I arrive at 138 Heart Road and look up. It’s a giant electronics store. I open the large, shiny glass door that lights up with various brand logos. The cavernous store is a warehouse divided into sections. I go through the maze of twinkling merchandise, cheerfully fake demonstrators and aggressive sales people. I look for a dark eyed man with a dark mole on the apple of his cheek. It dawns on me that he’s planned this for a while, all the way back when he flashed me. My excitement and the bright lights overhead dizzy me or maybe it’s my fast-walking through the aisles in a suppressed panic looking for a black dot in a sea of faces. I am a rat in a maze of some kind I never asked to be part of, one I was never bred for. Where is the cheese. Where are the traps and stings. The hive of busyness, the jostling crowd hungry for the latest and greatest, the tinny ding-dings from a multitude of devices, the rainbow colored, blinking graphics on glass screens, the dialogues echoing from actor to actor; it all swirls my head and distracts. Jars my thoughts. I intended to be calm and collected.

I see the mole from afar, a punctuation hovering in this painting. It’s on a dark haired, middle-aged man with slightly stooped posture. He’s viewing a life-sized hologram platform that projects an emotional soap opera scene pregnant with tears and rants and stubborn defiance. Arms crossed to protect. Eyes pleading for redemption. This new model shows off how realistic the technology has become, how real the actors seem, as if they were in your living room acting before you. I approach from behind and stand next to him. He doesn’t turn to look, just knows it’s me.

He points to the hologram. “It’s very deceptive. Seems real but it isn’t, don’t you think?”

We could be uncle and niece shopping together. Two bland faces in the crowd being viewed by the store’s security cameras overhead.

“What about the store’s cameras?” I ask under my breath, looking at my feet.

“I’ve learned they’re broken and will be fixed tomorrow.”

He continues with a ferrous strength in his tone, “I don’t like this model, too expensive.” He turns to me, and we look the other over. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other’s nude faces. His nose is knobby and fleshy, the dark, hooded eyes brood, and the wrinkles have settled in for the long haul. His body is medium weight, not too thin, not too heavy, mushy from years of mental focus at the expense of the physical. His olive-toned skin reflects a sallowness in the bright lights. Mine must look shocking porcelain white. His eyes heed the wormy scar on my face, studies it without pretense or guilt.

He motions to the towering shelving behind us. We walk to the row behind it so we can hide from plain view while we browse the racks of films and games for sale.

“Do you know how to use the dust?” He asks.

“What do you mean?” Is he talking about how to make money off the dust? Is he trying to sell me something? I feel dense, I should understand.

“Have you noticed anything about it?”

“Of course.” I have to speak in code with him out of caution. “We both know… what it does.”

“What do you think it does?”

“What do you think?” Why do I have to be the one who says it? Is this a test of some kind. I don’t know if I’m tripping into a trap, being set up. We both want to telegraph something, but not be the one to say it.

“Have you told anyone?”

I turn to him appalled and frightened. “No! I would never.” My wall goes up in an instant, I’m now fearful and don’t trust him at all, not one bit.

He walks a few steps away and points to an adventure film placed in the hot land amidst all its violence. “This one’s too ambitious…“

I follow him to consider it. The cover shows a pair of yellow jaguar eyes high in the night sky surveying dry, parched hills. A crawling hump in the shadows draws its attention.

Silence fills the space between us. I imagine it as a separate incorporeal being, combing through our intentions.

He waits until the mood settles, “You should find a way to tell people. What it really does. So the public knows.”

I’m incredulous. He is awarding me the job of doing a public good, of informing the masses. Importance and pride take ahold of my ego very briefly. But then I am angry. “Why don’t you tell? Why do I have to?”

His eyebrows raise as he turns to me. He’s surprised by the firmness of the question, the anger and rebellion behind it. His body leans back in surrender, his face turns away in shame. “I don’t have a good reason. Other than… I have a family and… a home… It’s too risky.”

“I have family too. And a life too.” I may not have his assets, but I have someone I value.

“But you’re young, not tied down. I know you only have a dying mother.”

I’m not surprised the government does background checks on its employees, but I’m surprised they shared this information with him. “So, your conscience wants to put me in danger. What if this is a test of my loyalty? How would I know?”

“It’s not a test. I can guarantee that. But I have no way of proving it.”

I think about how the poor and expendables end up doing the dirty work. Things in the shadows of those who are not so poor, of those facing the light of the public and fronting the secret deed. And we’re only protected as long as they stand there. Once they move away for greener pastures, we are exposed and vilified for being the baddest seed, a rancid soul. We are persecuted, the ones who absorb tsunamis of misguided fury. The black sheep of society.

“Why did you choose me?”

He hesitates, faces forward away from me, begins speaking in a quiet monotone, “Because you are unassuming, small. Nondescript. Not spectacularly beautiful or bright or talented. A nobody without any ties… just a grunt working in the background. Nobody would suspect you, a faceless face… one of many working to survive.” He pauses, “And one of the masses who can help the masses.”

A wall of hurt slams into me when I hear his honest, cutting words, stated ever so clinically. I want to say, you don’t know me, I am a human being, not a type. I am an individual. YOU DON’T KNOW ME. Tears begin to creep out of the corners. But I stop, compose myself. Become stony and haughty, with a sheen of salt water diluting my eyes. His profile turns towards me, his eyes watch my reaction with dispassion. I am an experiment to be studied and measured.

I turn to leave, the hurt and anger and shame bubbling, when I think of something. “Do you know who Hitler is?”

He pauses, surprised, and looks me in the eye, steady, full of intent, observing the salt water. “Do you know what a slave is?”

I know about slavery from fantasy movies that intimate and imply, but never announce. But now I know from his answer that it was real, like Hitler was.

My heart drops, disgusted with the world, with him, with life. With myself. I ache to leave it all behind, to unknow. I gird my stormy emotions in, make my face cool and robotic void as I turn and walk away. The blinkery noise of the store flies overhead, lifting higher and higher as my world expands and shrinks and quivers at once.

 

 

 

THREE. C. J. NINE

What did you expect, I chastise myself. I never expected to be insulted, told I was a nothing. I expected some sense of him reaching out to make a connection, build camaraderie. Kindness. A human touch. I should’ve never expected such a thing. Always expect nothing from others, I remind myself. People are never as good as you wish. They always let you down.

I rush down the street towards nowhere. I need to think, be alone to process my thoughts and feelings before going home. I stroll along the river, looking downwards, hunched over to avoid clouds of dust. The downtown lights twinkle otherworldly through the gray. The water’s scent of moss and dank where old and new ferment hovers around me. I see a tall, muscular, solid man a short distance ahead. He looks out towards what can be seen of the water’s dark line, that far-off horizon, wearing a gray jumpsuit and most surprisingly, no mask of any sort. I’m about to walk past him when he grabs my arm. I leap back panicked, and when I look up I see frightened, apprehensive eyes. Startling electric blue.

“Food?” He asks in earnest. “Food? Food?”

I point back to Heart Road, “Restaurants are over there.”

“Food?”

He doesn’t understand. I reach inside my pocket and offer him the roll, my dinner. He claws at it quickly, takes a bite. It’s tough in texture and substantive, full of oats and sinewy strands of fiber, the kind mother makes to replace an actual meal, so he chews and gnaws. I could walk off, but I stay and watch, fascinated. He looks down on me blankly as he chews, looking vaguely familiar, perhaps I’ve met him or a relative at the temple. The elongated nostrils and sloping jawline are so very redolent. That line of cheekbone migrating towards his bald head… I flip through my memory for a look. After he’s done, his demeanor switches quicksilver. He turns his head alertly to survey the downtown neighborhood beyond us as a dog does when he’s onto a new, provocative scent.

He grunts under his breath, “In line. In line,” transmuting before me from a placid, lost giant into a sturdy man with something rigid spiking within him, steely hands fisted at his side.

“Do you mean the inline skater twins?” I ask shakily. I fear the white fists, but I don’t want to insult him by running away. The twins host an extremely popular show. Everyone watches their intricate, awe-inspiring daredevil tricks on laser propelled skates. They are the talk of the year.

He remains stoic and stiff, at the ready, doesn’t know what I’m talking about, has no clue. An empty slate without carvings.

“Three. C. J. Nine.” He says repeatedly as if I knew what that meant. “Three. C. J. Nine.” The words bark out in clumps between pauses.

“Sorry, can’t help you. Don’t know what you mean,” I say as I back away. I don’t turn my back towards him, I worry about not seeing what he’ll do next. I back away, then turn and run. When I’m far enough away, I look back and see him watching the busy city, repeating those words in a demented machine fashion, a dumb mind cover.

I’ve seen him before… Rumor and shade eclipse my thoughts, a faint sylph surfaces, tumbling and quickening. At work. On the table with his chest sawed open.

First, he was fat, whale-like. Then he was fit and strong like today. Two of him. Now three.

 

 

 

LIGHT DEFYING GRAVITY

I’m not a country person, I didn’t grow up knowing the view of early morning fog on a country road. My only memory of it is from a school trip we took to a farm to learn where our food came from. It was a study in orderly abundance, of carefully groomed existences designed to unselfishly birth forward all their gifts. The manure scent possessed our thinking, but the farmers moved as if it didn’t exist.

The country of today is nothing like the past. Settlements and farms dot the landscape here and there, but the crops are scrambled, haphazard. Sickly small, wilted colors of brown yellow earth. If you viewed the land from above, you would see piles of razed earth and make-do settlements. Rotted and patched tents, listless, thin people lazing about, small curved tubes of squirted shit, scampy, bony animals sniffing about as if they owned the place, and babies in soiled, sagging diapers squatting and holler-crying their physical discomfort. They’re not used to the pain in life that we all endure, but they will eventually learn to accept it, become numb to it, like the rest of us. That’s what it means to grow up – every year we accept more discomfort and pain without crying.

This is what we’ve degraded to, evolution reversing on its tracks.

The people here refuse to move to the city. I understand the fight, the defiant rigor in setting your own path and agenda. But the price they pay is in the lack of money, jobs, adequate shelter and healthcare. The state government has placed healthcare facilities in the city, saying that is where its money is spent most efficiently. We are in a state of emergency, they say. If you choose to live in the country, that’s your choice, you’re out of luck. Country society is so disconnected from us, so much so that I find myself wondering if we even speak the same language even though I know logically we do. It’s just that with the smudged faces, the tattered clothing, the shitting in holes in the ground, the pungent, offensive aromas…. these are the walls between their nightmare and ours. They seem nude, raw compared to us, whether or not they’re actually clothed. Clothing and masks enshroud us as we move about outside our homes. They’re flesh is exposed to the breath of air, our voyeuristic peeks. Bright, blinking signs and shrill sounds bombard us at home, attempt to snag us through the dust. They are surrounded by low level hums of scraping, digging, trudging. A howl against the moon.

I admire their courage and grit because I don’t have it in me. I assume many of their young adults have escaped to the city because I only see the elderly, middle aged and some small children. Not many in their teens, twenties and thirties. We don’t have it much better in the city because of the pollution and tight living quarters, but it’s a step better than this. The young move to the city at the expense of their health, although they don’t know that. They willingly feed themselves to the city’s grinding machinery, its system of wages and debts and aspirations. The rat wheel we tire ourselves on. And of course, the dust that will eventually kill us all as the government stands by.

Mouths need to eat. Spirits need to find their way. Callings need to be uncovered. All the destinies we yearn for in our twenties. You do what you need to do.

Then there are the gated communities to keep the savages out. The clean country air is a tonic and the well-moneyed have the resources to feed themselves and have items delivered regularly. These deliveries are black market of course, not condoned by the government as it looks the other way. The wealthy can live as they’ve always lived, insulated and unmoved by external factors. I know this through Jamie and his insider knowledge of how the better half live. I don’t want to take anything away from them. I just observe, take the information in, wishing it for myself and mother so we can have some semblance of stability. That is all.

The country air whips into the car as we drive to his parents’ home. It quick floods my emotions as we glide on the mostly empty road. The political class are the only ones allowed to drive cars. And his beautifully sculpted car floats us closer and closer to his childhood home. I close my eyes and focus my senses on the feel of cool air moving over my skin. I notice how the smell of crisp, clean air has virtually no scent. It’s the smell of nothing, the perfect balance of light and dark, wet and dry, heavy and weightless. And the sun sparkling bright through clouds. It’s so unspeakably normal, a day I would have taken for granted in years past. I ask him to open the roof. I stand through it, climb my feet onto the shoulders of our seats so I can lie backwards on the roof as the car drives. I hear him laughing, telling me I’m crazy. The cool air ripples right above my body, my shirt flutters, my hair is pulled wild and taut in all directions. I hear the low croon of the robo-trucks that drive past in the other direction. I could lift up like a kite catching a breeze.

The freshness, the sun peeking through my thin, closed eyelids, through the crooked, old tree branches we drive under. It all tells me I’m free. Taking a ride. This is what I want. I am a girl. A normal young woman. Just getting older and older as the year’s pass.

And I suddenly wonder what it is to be a woman. Is it when I have children. Is it when I’m married. Is it when life becomes adult sober and heavy. When one doesn’t laugh easily any longer. Is it when puberty has finished its job. When life has engraved itself onto your face. Is it when I am strong enough to believe in myself. I am twenty-four years old, I am in love, have an OK job, a loving mother, my brain, my thoughts and feelings, my health. This is all I own. What I am.

When does real womanhood begin? I feel powerless a lot of the time, like a girl growing older in someone else’s world, bound by something not of my making. When do we mentally become a woman or man. Does being a woman mean accepting your circumstances.

What does it mean to be a real woman.

My mind’s eye pauses, tells me it means to have my own world, be a creator of my own destiny to the best of my abilities. Even though I start from nothing or a deficit depending on how I view my life. Making decisions that take you one step in the right direction.

And then…

A woman is someone of gravity who is still able see the light.

I search for this light defying gravity within myself and come up empty handed. I only find a gravity graffitied by sorrow, cynicism and wishful thinking, a gaping, insatiable black hole swallowing more and more and more. But I can feel dips of light and air spilling over me as the car zooms us forward. I try to know it, inside out.

 

 

 

His parents are kind, smiling and fattened by good living. Their spacious, white home stands regal and proud with tall, grand pillars. Everything about their home and lifestyle exudes a cool beauty. The kind felt when standing next to a tall, beautiful, angular model when you are a short, rounded dumpling. The kind felt when speaking to someone with impeccable vocabulary and presentation when your accent is clunky thick from the backwaters. Their home is the kind that doesn’t seem to smell even when cooking delicious, full-flavored food. Where specks of dust don’t seem to deposit anywhere.

They don’t mean to stare when Jamie introduces me, but they snatch small glances at the scar on my face. I understand, it’s a normal, human thing to do. And later when I’m alone with his mother in the kitchen waiting to bring food to the patio where we’re perusing Jamie’s childhood photos, she mentions in a kindly way that maybe aesthetic surgery might help reduce the scar, not that it bothers her and it shouldn’t bother me if it does. I say honestly and humbly that I don’t have the money for it right now. I intend to say it in an unemotional, matter of fact way, and I’m certain that my tone conveys that. But she reacts strangely and says, yes, it’s difficult, but people should save for things they want. She says it as if I had hinted that I wanted their financial assistance. I don’t want anything from them, yet shame drenches me to the core, shows on my flushed face and slumped posture. Maybe the wealthy always believe someone wants something from them. In a feeble response I say, I agree, people must work for what they want. And I go on with renewed vigor once I’ve gotten my footing, once I’ve remembered what Dr. M said to me – I say that I only rely on myself, no one else. I make sure to look her firmly in the eye when I say that. I don’t want her to have the upper hand on me, to make me feel I’ve done something wrong when I haven’t. I don’t know if her reaction was an accident or purposefully done to place me below her. Nevertheless, I want to show her I have a stony purpose within me. She cannot make me feel less than, like Dr. M did.

 

 

s

 

NAME OR FORM, A DREAM

A distant future unfurls before me. The shiny kind you imagine because you’ve seen films of it. Silver forms soaring into the sky, sleek and clean, without fingerprints. Sloped feminine-like devices, ultra-quick everything. As I stand there admiring the traffic and buildings, I think… I know… deep down… the future is empathic, cloaked in a gentle firmness. Strength through compassion and decency, honest communication soul to soul. We will be fair and kind with one another. And these qualities will be prized above all.

But hot steam rolls in, then a shattering and falling. Faceless male beings have entered, growing bigger as they breathe and hack away at it all. Jagged, razor-sharp mirrored bits, every ideal we’ve ever built on, scatter and radiate outwards into obscurity, past the point of retrieval. Of rebuilding from the broken. The society we built avalanches down within seconds. It’s always easier to destroy than to build. Remember that.

Right before my eyes, I know we’re reverting back to before, when physical strength was prized above emotional strength. When women were “little women” and men ruled the world. Just because they were bigger and stronger. Because they attained their initial positions, their head start in civilization, through force and intimidation.

My world closes dark, suffocates and seethes. I can’t see a way forward. I am not seen. Valued…

 

A glamorous woman under a spotlight in a silver dress, with short, platinum blonde hair delicately curled under and over. Pink lipstick, and long, slim, gleaming arms. A quintessential bombshell. Feminine in look, yet mask-like because of the adornments. And overtly masculine in her projection of it. Flagrantly in your face. She reaches slowly bit by bit into a thick, black swamp, moving her arms round and round in slow-motion, wide sweeps, searching for the thing she never had, but knows she should have. Doesn’t know its name or form. Only that it’s the missing piece that completes her.

 

 

 

BEAT HIM

In times past, when I’ve been afraid, I’ve mustered my strength and moved forward with a plan. But the fear of the past is different from the one I feel now. The fear of the past was based on survival, scraping by, trying to get a foothold on a ladder upwards and onwards. Not the kind that I feel now, which is fear for loved ones, for my life as I know it. Ours.

I don’t know how to approach this. I want to change myself, evolve. Change from observing and inwardly complaining to doing something. But I’m afraid. Should I involve Jamie somehow? At least tell him? What about my mother and his parents? What happens to them if I’m discovered to be the one who told. I hate that Dr. M is the one who planted these thoughts within me. No, he didn’t plant them, but gave it that first drink of water. That first knowledge that perhaps I could actually do something. Should.

Should I contact a journalist anonymously? There would be no guarantee they would report my story and what I know. I sense the media is controlled or at least heavily influenced by the government. The older I get the more I see how prominent media is in shaping us, our paths. The movies, video games, stories, news, signs, marketing and advertising. How most of it is a form of programming, pushing us in the direction the government and industry want us to go towards. Of course, we have free choice, free thinking. But really only if we know we are being programmed in the first place. Only if we care at all. Only then do we have a chance to consciously choose to believe or think differently. How do I get in touch with media that thinks differently? Everything seems censored, controlled. Stifled and stamped down. The truths are fires put out with a heavy blanket before they spread. Nothing can grow.

We say we are lucky, so very lucky. Lucky to have a government that cares. Lucky that even though we are censored and monitored, we are not led by people who are hot headed and focused on the short term, like the violent hot land where many families don’t have jobs and the majority live with technology from many decades ago. Women there cannot work. Hordes of males have nothing to do but focus their anger and hostilities on each other, not the rulers hiding away in air conditioned castles, bringing forward false symbols to absorb the blame. The shame of having nothing, not even respect, waits impatiently to be transferred to others through blind rage. We are told our land is on the cusp of showing the world our greatness, that everything the government does is for the best, our sake.

I want to fly forward in time and see the consequences of my decisions laid out before me. The wandering, winding patterns of blood bleeding from each action.

I watch Jamie as he fixes his morning coffee and ponder, ponder. Endlessly in a round and round purgatory carousel. He chats about our Sun Temple Priest and his new alliance with our city’s politicians. The priest’s quest for influence is unquenchable. Little does he know he can’t control all of us, like he wishes.

I approach from behind and hold Jamie still. His hands rest on the cup, waiting and watching. The overhead light blesses us with its radiance. My fingers reach over and pull his hands away as I pull him down onto the cool, stone kitchen floor that was mined from mountains thousands of years old. Fascination, questioning and awe fill his eyes as they watch me intently. He’s taken off guard by my animal extinct, he didn’t know. I want to forget my situation, force myself through my thoughts so I force myself onto him where I can reach in and change him instead of changing myself. I pin him down. The cold floor shocks and awakens our bodies, intensifies, making us savor the warmth between us as we wrangle out of our clothing. I’m on top, my hair falling around him in a confessional veil, and I devour his soft, pink mouth and smooth, slack neck. Then his hard chest and that thin trail of hair downwards. We are a sensual scene of flesh-toned limbs and curving bodies lit under the spotlight, the bright light illuminating every unspoken gesture, every sigh, every crescent moon shadow. I take total control when I mount him and pause, look him in the eye and see him wavering between surprise and ecstasy, delicate wings of lashes fluttering open and closed. He lets himself be taken and changed, that’s how he is. He enters and flows with the moment, wherever that may take him. I’m close to dissolving, following him down the stream to that place where everything amplifies then narrows to the singular, that silent sound wave between our bodies. I don’t really want to change. I say I do, but I’m blocked by fear, protective instinct. I want to remain unconscious, close my eyes to it all because I know if I open them I’ll be changed. Take me to the sun, burn me into him. Let me forget.

 

 

The boy-man on the table has darker, olive-toned skin with large, almond eyes. His face is soft and rounded even though he’s not overweight. His nose is flat and wide, and his lips are sensual, generous, fleshy. There’s a noble, old wisdom about him even though he’s only in his late teens. It emanates from him in invisible volutions, I don’t know how to describe it or why I know it. His face or whatever emanates from him tells a story of acceptance, a solid core in his soul no matter where he is. His eyes foretell a sober truth. They tell of having seen, having known, without the acid of bitterness. Life was taken from him too soon.

I’m shocked when I learn that he most likely overdosed on pain medication. How could wisdom allow himself to take his life prematurely and purposely.

The six toes on each foot and smaller lungs are his only physical defects. His insides are crystal clear, vibrant. No hardening. I remember the stocky man along the river, repeating his odd mantra. How I had seen him before on this metal table. And I wonder if there are copies of this wise man, boy really, wandering the city. I would ask him, why, why, why. What was so profoundly sad that wisdom couldn’t overcome it? There was no sentry in his life to stop him.

Dr. M taps on the man’s heart twice then pauses while giving me a private look. I know what that means. I turn away, preferring to continue the anonymity between us. I want to ignore him, hurt him the way he hurt me. But I know that’s immature. I know I’ll never be able to beat him.

 

 

 

OUR SOULS

He begins to walk down the block when he sees me approaching the electronics store, and I follow amidst the city crowds. There’s something humiliating about following at a distance though the logical side of me knows it’s not meant to shame, it’s just a way to be discreet. I watch his olive-green mask bobbing amongst the crowd, I follow his chess game.

He enters a building called “Cyclops”. I’m close behind and the ticket agent says he’s paid for me. I hear echoes of sinister laughing and cackling reverberating from the rest of the building. I’m about to enter a nightmare.

The first room is a fun room filled with mirrors, stretching my face vertically, making my forehead and chin long enough to touch the ceiling and floor. Old fashioned fun. I find his disfigured face facing mine in a mirror.

“We’ll never be taped here,” he says. “We should meet here next time.” I merely nod my giant, lanky, aww-shucks face with an empty, inchoate expression. I walk into the next room where our faces are wide and flabby with a third eye on our forehead. I want him to follow me for once.

“What do you know about clones?” I ask.

He considers the question, his eyes rolling back and forth as he concocts an answer. Everything is exaggerated under the glare of these distorted mirrors.

I continue as I watch him carefully, “I saw one the other night. It was one of the men we’ve worked on, one of the clean ones, without dust atrophy.”

His eyebrows raise in surprise a tad then he remembers himself so they lower to their controlled pose. It’s microscopic, but I catch it.

“That must be a coincidence, he must’ve had a twin or brother,” he pauses. “I don’t know anything about clones, just the dust… what it does.” He looks straight in the mirror of my third eye. “I don’t think the technology exists for it.”

I turn and enter the next room where transparent images of old witches float around us, spraying a mist that smells of old cobwebs and simulated death, sulfur and rotten eggs. If the scent was of real death people would run from this room instead of being entertained by it.

We stand facing each other under a canopy of flying, swirling witches cackling down on us like omniscient gods.

“Have you thought about telling?” He asks.

“No, I haven’t.”

“What about society?”

“No, I don’t care.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“You don’t know me. Why would you find that hard to believe?”

“I just thought… you people… stick together.”

“I’m not a stereotype. The poor are people too. Just like you.”

“I didn’t mean that… just thought you’d care.” He looks down, looking even more middle-aged in his guilty posture. He’s used to talking about us, the other, in a certain way that’s acceptable in his strata. He hasn’t thought about changing his language for me.

“Where do you live?”

He’s uncomfortable. Doesn’t want to answer or doesn’t know if he should splinter the truth. “In the country, but close to the city.”

“Where there’s clean air. How many children do you have?”

He considers his answer. “Two.”

“What’s your name?” I want him to feel naked and exposed.

He says nothing for a while. “Larren. Mavy.”

“Do you think you’re doing good by pushing me to tell? Is that your good deed for the year?”

He’s silent.

“Your kind… you may have good intentions, but it’s at my risk. Your kind doesn’t own the rest of us.”

“Eloisa,” he interrupts. He knows my name. I thought he didn’t, but of course he does. I’m caught off guard and vulnerable. “How do you think the slaves were freed?”

I’m dumbstruck.

“Some in the power class helped them. That’s how it accelerated. Whether or not you like it.”

I begin to say something indignant but he interrupts me, holds his hand up, “I’m not saying you’re a slave. I’m telling you how the system is… It’s a slow walk to freedom if no one in the power class helps.”

I’m digesting, desperately wringing meaning from his words.

“Did you know that’s how it is?”

I did. But didn’t. I’m confused by how things are and how I wish things would be. Can’t tell the real image from the fun house image.

“If you want to help your kind…”

“Stop. Don’t tell me what to do. And don’t say ‘your kind’. I’ll make my own decision. You don’t have a say. You never do.”

I turn and run out of the room, the witch swooping after me, shrieking. I run through the rest of the rooms full of decrepit skulls, half decomposed corpses, hulking monsters and cyclops’, hundreds of twitchy eyeballs watching bright eyed, the ethereal spirits. I slice through this rash of horrors, their presence lingering on me and in me as I exit into the street bustling with people on their way home. Those with a regular life. There’s a disconnect between me and them. What I’ve seen with my eyes is something they’ve never seen nor will. As if I live in another dimension. How little people really know. But I don’t know it all either. We live at different levels of knowing and ignorance for all sorts of things. The key is to know this about ourselves.

If Larren is higher than me, who is higher than him?

 

 

 

Dust is partly composed of skin cells. The dust in our homes, I mean. And I wonder if a clone can be made from dust. If it’s enough material to spark the fire of existence. I eye a dust tumbleweed in the corner of his room. The maid hasn’t come by for a while now. For some reason, he’s cancelled her services. The clump stands there pale, grayish white, fluffy, waiting – innocent in its knowledge of what it stands for.

He’s in the other room rummaging in the kitchen, so I pick it up and put it in my pocket, deflating its air and lofty presence into something matted and flat. I know it’s odd and I’ll never be able to explain the impulse. I want to save a part of him for myself. And I’ll do the same for mother, I’ll look for a tumbleweed under her bed to be sure it’s primarily her and not me. I’ll put the flattened lint in individual, sealable bags and tuck them away in a drawer or under my mattress. It’s the strangest thing, I know, but it’s a way to preserve, to think of the unbelievable. A phantasm of the flesh, fantasies of infinity.

 

 

 

We hold hands as we leave my apartment at dusk and walk down the street, forming a gloppy mass of hands with our gloves. We both wear heavy-duty masks that Jamie has bought for us and my mother. It’s a world of difference and perhaps it’s mostly psychological, but the air smells fresher. The smell of mother’s baking bread clouds around us and on our jackets before being swept away by the light breeze. We head towards a bar where we’ll meet his best friend and Madlon, who are a couple now. He swings my hand happily, like a carefree child. I’m the steady, stoic one. The hundred-year-old tree standing solid, whose trailing, corded roots dig deep into damp earth, underneath to the core.

He stops abruptly and takes off his mask. I ask, “What are you doing? You should leave it on, it’s dangerous.” He shrugs and continues walking, this time arm in arm with me. I’m tense about the mask. He doesn’t know how bad exposure really is, sometimes he doesn’t take what I say seriously, thinks I’m too cautious.

He whispers into the ear piece of my mask, which is a thin, steel filter with small perforations. “I want to tell you something,” he says in a lowered voice.

I nod.

“I think the government isn’t what it seems.”

I turn to look at him. If he could see the expression on my face. But he can only see the mask, it’s circular, metal, shaded goggles and straight line of a mouth piece, a cyborg face. He gently turns my head back so he can speak into my ear piece again.

“I think they listen in on conversations on the street, everywhere.”

I turn my head again then turn my head forward to hear more.

“That’s why I have to whisper. I think they use propaganda and media to manipulate us. They have a plan for all of us, to keep us down, uninformed.”

“How do you know? Is that why you leave sometimes?” I ask loudly so he can hear me through the mask.

“I’ve just heard things, read things.” He’s not ready to tell me everything yet.

I nod my head and turn to him. My heart breaks bit by bit, cracks slowly forming on a mirror I’m looking into. I don’t know what to say. Is this the time to tell him? I’m on a crumbling crest about to fall into an abyss. But I hold myself back out of fear, relieved the mask covers my face. “I can see that, I know what you mean.” It’s all I can say to show support without disclosing anything.

He turns to my ear piece. “Shhh, don’t say anymore.”

We continue walking. Him perhaps thinking of what else to say, how to close that up, especially as we approach the bar. Me deciphering what he knows and doesn’t know, what is real and what is paranoia. Searching for what he’s learned and how, untying knot after knot to straighten the string of truth. If he’s right, we can’t talk about it in any external place. Where is it safe? Cyclops? The bar is getting closer. How do we switch this off and become social and light with our friends when this hangs over us?

He leans into my ear piece again. Pauses. I wait to hear the next unpredictable secret, when he says it. “I love you Eloisa. You’re the one.”

His outbursts always surprise me. They arrive without foreshadowing, stunning and teetering me off balance. That’s his charm, all lightness with lightning bursts of insights striking out of nowhere. A part of me melts, then a wave of fear undulates through me. This means it’s all real. Everything I’ve felt inside is now on the outside, verbalized and crystallized beautifully on this day. No one outside of my mother has ever said that to me. I’m filled with awe.

I stop, the bar is only a few steps away. Take my mask off to look at that angelic face of his. To cherish it, sear this memory into my brain forever. I kiss him unspeakably hard, mash my lips onto his, feel the current of energy run through me and into him. Love. And he smiles as the dust falls all around us.

“I love you too,” I whisper tremulous as our foreheads touch.

“What? I can’t hear you.” He laughs out loud, joking, drawing me out to say it so others can hear. He knows I am closed and he is open.

I hug him close and whisper in his ear, “I love you, always will, you don’t know…” I can’t convey in words how much and how far. How he’ll always be a part of me.

He hugs me tighter and tighter, so hard I can barely breathe, as if he’s trying to press me into him to become one. To remove the barriers, the space, the clothing, the bodies holding our souls.

 

 

 

MUFFLED BY THE DENSITY

The young couple in the corner kisses passionately, unaware or uncaring of the fact they’re in public. They grasp at each other desperately as if they haven’t seen each other in ages, pulling and tugging and grabbing. Dying to consume and be consumed.

The room is called “100 beings”. The eyes protruding from the walls and ceiling are of all sorts, Asiatic eyes, blue Caucasoid eyes. Eyes from those with brown and white skin. Those with yellow skin and black skin. But all are bright eyed and pointed in their gaze, following you wherever you move in the room. The ones closer to the couple watch them. The ones closer to me watch me. When Dr. M walks in, a few by the door twirl towards him, long eyelashes fluttering and fanning over intense pupils. They watch as we walk towards each other in the darkened room filled with pulsing blue strobe lights.

We nod, wait for the other to speak.

“What’re the names of your children?” I want to probe further.

He deliberates. “Christiana and Duke.”

Waits two breaths.

“Their middle names are Venus and Zeus. From old Greek mythology.”

It goes over my head, I don’t know the reference. “How old are they?”

“In their early teens.”

I watch his face as he speaks of his children. How his eyes get a faraway look as if remembering them walking, inquiring about the world, crying, seeking solace within his arms. Holding his breath as he watches them totter into the world, stumble, pick themselves up.

Clay taking form through time under your hands.

“I tell you their names because it’s a matter of trust. You should trust me in return.”

I bristle at the last part of his comment, how condescending it sounds, then dismiss it. I just can’t be angry anymore. “I’m not saying I’m going to do anything, but if I do, do I have your word. Will you protect me, never give me up.”

He nods, but it’s not good enough for me. Perhaps nothing can ever be good enough because of who he is, what he represents. He studies my face carefully with a piqued curiosity as the eyes look on, laser focused on us now that the couple has left the room arm in arm as Jamie and I were the other day. I leave my face for him to study, don’t turn away. I want to show I don’t care what he thinks, but I wonder what he sees. Is it beauty, a personality trait. Is it fortitude or fear, is it disgust. Why do I crave his acceptance and respect.

“I believe you’re one of the clean ones.” His comment is all science and fact, disembodied from our current situation.

I know instantly what he means. My skin doesn’t degrade slowly like it should. Like it does for others.

“You should hide this. Don’t tell anyone.” He warns cautiously as he continues studying the hills and mounds of my face, the peach skin draped over them.

“Why?”

“It’s never good to call attention to yourself. People might become resentful. Take things out on you.”

I watch him watching me. It’s something erotic and strange to be still and studied by a man, even one you’re not attracted to.

“You’ll know if I do something and you’ll know if I don’t,” I say softly as he watches my lips move as if in slow motion, words warbled by the underwater density of mystery.

A blue spotlight shines on my face, then plunges us into darkness. On, then off. I see his penetrating eyes, then sparkling black firecrackers as my eyes struggle to adjust.

On and off.

On and off.

A deep, male voice in the next room yells for help, gasps, says he’s having a heart attack. His voice falters more and more as he fades. Someone please help, I am too young. I am too young. And a door opens.

 

 

 

I’m in a world of yellow rose petals, swirling, floating, falling all around me.

A whimsical, never-ending shower.

Saturated with humidity, the soft petals caress my skin fulfilling a craving I never knew existed. A crave for the delicate and beautiful.

A mild, sweet, elliptical scent perfumes the air.

A smooth, alabaster arm reaches through the thick flurry, holds my hand steady and leads me forward. I walk for an eternity, the arm stretching on and on through a millennia of petals.

When we stop, I finally see who’s at the other end, my mother. A young version in her twenties. The woman I’ve seen in photos of a life I never knew, the chapters before mine.

We stand face to face, hands locked together, petals blessing our union.

Her wavy brown hair tumbles to the ground, a crown of pink and white flowers hover an inch above her head, her brown eyes sparkle with life and wit. Her body and skin are dense and full, not brittle gossamer like the present.

She hugs me and says very slowly, yellow is safe, remember that, yellow is safe.

She walks backwards as she releases me, smiling then solemn, becoming slow-motion engulfed in a sea of roses, lost to a place I dare not follow.

Through my tear-filled eyes, I see yellow smudges falling and slow curving. Smoke signals of sadness and confusion arise, drifting past comprehension.

I pluck a petal from before me, rub the smooth, silky ridges of its flesh between my fingers, its life still voluptuous and coursing through its veins.

I tear it in half to see how it feels to destroy. It’s a feeling of ugly, of a body being devoured by flames.

I awake with a stun. It’s a still night. Sometimes my dreams are so vivid, as if they happened in real life. I look towards mother and see her fragile form under the covers. Her shallow breathing, the gray, thinned hair splashed across the pillow. Her bony hands peeking out from the blanket, uncurling from a fist to a flat palm.

 

 

 

SLITHER INTO CONSCIOUSNESS

The wise man/boy with the olive-toned skin from a few weeks ago is back. The face is exactly the same, a carbon copy, yet the aura of wisdom is missing from this one. His eyes are blank, a tableau wiped clean of its scriptures, no inherent knowledge passed forward at inception.

If he had lived, perhaps he wouldn’t have any inclination to dig within himself. No excavation for unearthed self-knowledge, no chance for ancient bones of the past to arise coarse and unyielding into the future. Rims, ridges, sharp-toothed edges minus any force.

He has five toes on each foot, not six. And his lungs are mature-sized. Everything else is proper but for his liver, which is damaged from something I don’t know. Dr. M says nothing as he works. It’s as if he didn’t know.

How can one copy have that aura of wisdom, and yet another copy does not? The soul must be a unique imprint within each of us. I imagine it blushing and morphing into a mélange of soft colors and light and shadow, a special pattern of colored fingerprint whorls for each soul.

When photographing the boy, I try to catch Dr. M’s eye. And when I finally do, I look at the body, then at Dr. M and widen my eyes. I try to signal that this must be a clone because we’ve seen him before. But he looks at me blandly, blankly and resumes working. He either refuses to acknowledge what I’m pointing out or he doesn’t remember. Memory can be a selective trickster. In my frustration, I drop some surgical tools on the floor on purpose, making it seem like an accident. They land with a loud, tinny clanging that reverberates throughout the tiled room and into the pipe of our ears. But he ignores it, continues on.

He’s cold as ice in this room and always will be. Would he sell me out if I told? Let me down, into a crevice in a no-man’s land without a future. Be calculating and sociopathic about it or pretend he forgot somehow. The mind has a way of playing, hiding and bobbing, allowing you to rationalize and forget in a self-made concussive state.

The ones who want to forget walk towards a pink, hazy sunset and settle and sink into a plush night of endless velvet. They never come up for air.

 

 

 

Fingers trace my exposed hip. I feel it as an out of body experience as I emerge slowly, flooded with sleep, slowly coming up to reality. His palm cups the side of my face. He whispers, baby, baby. Gently coaxes me awake, covering my face and lips with tiny nips and kisses. As if we were animals sleeping in a hammock, wound up and cushioned by the warmth of our bodies. I suspend my sleep drowsily. He smells of warmth, familiar skin. My home.

I want to show you something baby, he whispers.

My eyelids slowly open from crescents to stars.

He leads me out of bed. We walk silently through the darkness, the cold of the wood floors scorching the pads of my feet. We arrive at the door of the second bedroom, it’s decorative ridges standing in shadow, regal and elegant. He opens the door, pushes it lightly, as if to say, here, take anything you want. He motions for me to walk through. Into the dark unknown.

I walk five steps forward, carefully sensing the space ahead of me in my blindness. I want to be in the center of this world, the silk of my sleep slips off me.

It smells of the old, cobwebs and stale trinkets. Then a hint of something indescribable… a poison, but very faint. Inedible. I reach to the side and feel a metal pole and tiny rudimentary squares with ridges. The room rests silent, pregnant with secrets. I think I smell creation, that dry, chalky smell of airy art studios.

My senses murmur and thrum through my body and in my depths, nudge me with hints and presence, that sense of “almost”. Like when you walk alone on a sidewalk and suddenly feel a presence behind you, but no one is there.

When he turns the lights on, everything strikes my eyes until they adjust. Stacks of papers. Bottles of dark purple liquid. A metal table with an arm. Small blocks with letters on them.

It’s an old printing press, he says. That’s my secret. It’s manual.

I turn, speechless. The white light suddenly becoming whiter, thinner into an upper atmosphere.

He walks to a stack and pulls a pamphlet off. Hands it to me. The most recent one, he says.

The white cover is stark, almost empty, with a hand drawn purple lotus in the center and a title: Best Practices for Growing Lotus. Volume 8. It’s in an old-fashioned font, nothing modern about it, simply an agricultural, earthy look.

I’m confused, I had no idea he was a horticulturist.

It’s not about gardening, he says. It’s a… secret… anonymous paper. No one knows we’re the printers.

We?

He tells me it’s he and his best friend, the one from Temple. It’s given away at certain drugstores by code. People must request it at the counter by saying they’d like to learn how to grow lotus.

I wonder why I’ve never heard of it. I filter through my history and realize with shame it’s because I had no real friends anymore, no real network. Everyone had fallen away during the turmoil. My life was cloistered in work, home and mother. Isolated and sad, spinning round and round in a wheel with no way off. Until I met Jamie. Until he loved me and I released some of my worries and depression.

He says they must use a manual press because the government tracks the number of printers and ink cartridges sold to people and government-sanctioned press. The ink he uses is a sort of organic, vegetable dye made by someone in the country side.

My thin, milky fingers slowly turn the pages. It seems like a cartoon book with drawings filling the page and short sentences and paragraphs at the bottom. The first page depicts a drawing of a seed and a metal file with directions at the bottom. It says, scar the seeds by filing it down until you see the white meat on the inside. Do not file this white part. Scarring it helps it sprout and grow. The second page shows the seeds in a bowl of water, laying at the bottom. It says, soak in water and change the water daily. When it’s six inches, it’s ready to transfer. The third page shows the seeds in a pot with soil. Plant seedling in soil, cover soil with gravel, making sure the seedling peeks through. Fill pot with water and set in an area with strong sunlight.

If you looked casually, it would seem rudimentary, childish. Something to not be taken seriously. But I look closer at the next page and see something horrifying and strange.

The page shows a drawing of a man on a table, lying on his stomach, eyes round as saucers, mouth in a large o-shape and his tongue ramrod straight, sticking out. There are cell bars in the background and a gaping bloody hole in his back. A masked figure holds a fleshy bean in tongs. Blood drips off the tongs and down the masked man’s arm. At the bottom it says, the government harvests body parts from living prisoners.

The next page shows a drawing of a city, a downtown neighborhood with towering buildings. People stand on the streets overpowered by the buildings, a large ear floats in the sky. Everyone’s words bubble towards the ear. At the bottom it says, the government listens to all conversations on the streets.

The next page shows a drawing of a prisoner shackled to a wall and surgical tools laid on the floor. It says, the government tortures dissidents and investigative journalists.

The last inside page simply shows a phone number.

He tells me that he meets informants if he thinks they’re genuine and if they mention the name of someone who previously informed. He believes most of them tell the truth. He tries to weed out the deluded ones. It’s based on a gut feeling. His manner is light, cheerful, capricious. It doesn’t match the seriousness of the subject matter in the pamphlet, which I find odd.

I grow alarmed. What about your safety? Won’t they trace the number to you?

He says he buys a new temporary phone every month and pays with cash. It’s untraceable. He thinks he’s OK. This information needs to be told, he says. But again, his tone is not serious or full of righteousness. It’s semi-humorous and tinged with a sense of adventure.

I wish that his secret was something else. That indeed it was a storage room for his family’s things.

Fear is a coiled eel, rising and slithering into consciousness.

 

 

 

INTO MY LIFE

I see the boy from afar as I walk home from work. He’s quite young, maybe four or five. He stands with his back against the wall, without a mask. His purple jacket is on the verge of becoming ragged, the cloth still has some structure but it’ll slump any day now. His longish, brown hair flutters in the cool breeze that enters our city every year.

In the distance, I see a protest crowd walking away, dispersing. Their colorful, glowing signs sashay left to right disturbing the dust, their loud horns and chants fade as they walk farther and farther away. The light orange strobes they carry shine through the dust in loud visual bursts. Anything to stand out from the dust and peripheral advertising. Justice for the poor! Justice for the working class! I assume the boy’s mother or father participated. But he was left behind somehow, and now just waits there. No one runs back to find him, scared and surprised that they lost him. A horror grows within my gut, begins to blister open. I stop and watch for a bit, wait for someone to return for him. But the protesters are past the end of the block, past visibility. And no one comes back to check on him. He stands alert, looking for someone, waiting as people walk past briskly without noticing him. He doesn’t move an inch, perhaps he’s petrified by fear.

I approach before someone else does, ask him if he’s OK. He’s quiet with big eyes full of fear and uncertainty. I remove my mask and crouch down to meet him at his level. I say, I’ll wait with you until someone comes back for you, OK? He understands and nods his head ever so slightly. I sit beside him on the sidewalk, mask off and wait. I want him to be able to see my face if he wants to talk. I also want to show him in some small way he’s not alone. He never sits down, he remains standing, hoping, looking out as far as he can into the dust. My mission is to protect him from scavengers and predators, those who want to harm the smallest ones. I know mother waits for me, but I can’t leave him alone. And I accidentally left my phone at home this morning.

Hours pass. He turns his head when he hears others approaching. Scans their faces to see if it’s anyone he recognizes. I believe it’s almost eleven at night. I’m nervous, but I don’t show it. I say to him, I think you should come home and stay with me and my mother. It’s getting late. You’ll be safe and warm. And we can come back tomorrow to look for your family, OK? Is that OK with you?

He looks into the distance beyond me with his brown eyes and impossibly long lashes, his gaze slowly moving towards my face as he calculates in his new, naive mind something no child should ever have to. I take his hand and we begin to walk home.

I will let him choose what bed to sleep on, mine or mother’s, so he feels some modicum of control. I know people feel more secure when they have some control over their situation. Mother will sleep on the other one, I will take to the floor. The scent of fried root vegetables with onion will linger in the air, invisibly snowing on all our belongings. Sounds of our apartment settling and groaning into sleep will trickle down our building. Footsteps will lighten into silence. And he will lie awake, stare into the dark, feeling out of time and out of space, longing to see familiar ground. Dreams of his mother’s voice will become a nightmare when he opens his eyes in the morning.

And this is how a child walks into my life.

 

 

 

His name is Danita. We’ve gone back to the street three days in a row to see if anyone would rush towards us in relief. Waited for hours, but nothing. I must go back to work tomorrow, can’t take any more days off, so he will stay with mother during the day. I called the police, but only to ask if anyone had reported a missing child. No one had. He is a stray animal left behind to fend for himself. I hesitate to hand him over to the city’s child protective services. I worry about leaving him in the hands of uncaring strangers that consider him to only be a case or a number. He is so young and helpless and new. It breaks my heart to imagine him navigating the world without a genuine advocate. So, for now, I will take him wherever I go, including Jamie’s.

I’ve told him that his parents can’t be found, they are lost. I asked if he knows where they live and he shrugged his shoulders. I asked for a last name and he didn’t know it. He seems to have been neglected, educationally at least. He doesn’t have a normal-sized speaking vocabulary for a child his age. How can he not know his own last name? It bewilders and saddens me. Yet somehow, I’m strangely relieved he found me. With mother and I, he has a chance to learn, grow, be safe. I asked him if he would like to stay with us since his parents are lost. He was silent for a moment, then nodded his head with a shy smile and said, wait mama.

It has been so long since I knew a young child. His small bones are delicate and fragile, easy to snap in half. Not yet solidified. His young mind is trusting and open. Not yet trained to judge friend from foe, navigate from bad to good. His voice, though shy, is a small, cheerful chirp that hangs in the air long after he’s spoken. His soul is clear under a layer of ego, tainted with fear by this experience though not yet really tested by life’s enormous struggles. His smell is sweet and clean. Not yet muddied and made murky by hormones. He looks out the window before falling asleep, perhaps wondering where his mother is, she’s out there somewhere. All of this makes me fearful for him, protective and stubborn.

He has a good appetite and loves listening to mother’s stories. Over and over, at his request. He memorizes the minute nuance of every dip and high, all the hushed, still moments in the story. I can see it in his deep eyes, his knowledge of the world expanding with every word, rippling through what little presumptions he used to have. And now, he sometimes delightfully finishes her sentences for her with his broken language skills. It shows he’s growing more comfortable with us, means he’s acquiring more language. With Jamie, he is subdued and cautious making me wonder if a male has scared him in the past.

I don’t know how long we can do this. At Temple, we tell people he’s the son of relatives who are traveling. I want to hang onto him forever, to see him through safely to adulthood. Not because I’ve ever wanted to be a mother, I’ve always been ambivalent, but because I don’t trust the world, don’t trust people to be unselfish, gentle and kind. His presence in my life has revealed and actualized a part of my subconscious I never really knew existed, the part of me that believes people, in general, are selfish or cruel. And some are absolutely predatory. I want to shield him from all of it. He’s somehow landed in my life, I can’t turn my back on him even if it would be easier, even if it’s naïve to think I could do this. I couldn’t live with myself for not trying.

Our lives are now linked, the black and white static of my life stitching into colors and shapes I’ve seen before but have never really noticed until I viewed life through a child’s eyes. All the old things seen as new, all the ways you can be damaged by life.

 

 

 

ZERO

The man-clone from the river is back. On our table. He is not the fat kind, he’s the fit, stocky kind. Is this the exact one from the river? The lungs are normal-sized, he is a perfect specimen of strong mankind without the brains. A single gunshot wound rests on his forehead, execution style.

I’ve given up trying to point Dr. M’s attention to these copies. He refuses to understand, identify. Everything is on his terms, never on mine. I’m never allowed to contribute to our conversation other than what he wants or has deemed allowable. He’s not a collaborator, but a rogue offshoot of the system wanting to control me.

The only decision I have is whether or not I want to do what he wants. If I don’t tell the world, will he dispose of me somehow. Or will he go on with life as usual, as if he never asked me to tell. Leave that loose thread hanging. Will he grace me with compassion and let me live. I know there’s a human side to him, I know it. With feelings, hopes and dreams. I hope for his idealism to favor me. A hidden part of me knows the answer. But the part of me that interacts with the world and with him refuses to acknowledge how much of a quandary this really is. It’d be too frightening. I suppose I’m not as brave as I thought I would be.

Perhaps we don’t have one hundred percent free will in life. Life sometimes corrals you into a part of its thorny maze where only two decisions can be made, where Venn diagrams and strategies and slipping out are impossible. Where pressure and time and life mineralize. Perhaps it’s a test of some kind set by your god or the universe, perhaps it’s simply bad luck and timing, perhaps it’s to transform you into something brighter. A glittering, unadulterated version of yourself. A diamond.

 

 

 

I toss and turn, tell myself to go back to sleep. Try counting forwards and backwards. Try dreaming of shadows and emptiness. Of pulled cotton clouds, airless translucent atmosphere. Of over there, that space just above the tree tops where I fly and flitter.

I turn and face Danita. His sweaty face turns to the side in deep sleep. I sweep his hair from his forehead as if to wipe his troubles away. We’ve put the beds together and now sleep on them horizontally.

I turn to the other side and see mother’s profile, bony precise against the night. A street lamp shines into the room, dusts our crowns.

A tear falls out of her eye. She must be dreaming of her past, my father. She raises her hand up and I check to see if she’s awake, but she’s in another diorama. Sleep moving, abundant with the highs and lows of sleep lullabies.

I grasp her hand, hold it in mid-air for some uncountable time, bring it down gently to the bed where we’ll be more comfortable. A soft landing. I finally fall asleep with her fingers interlaced with mine in a tenuous, vulnerable grasp. Never let me go as I deep glide, deep swim into slumber.

 

 

 

In the morning, a few hours later, I find she’s gone cold. And I realize that her tear was because she was leaving me behind, beyond her control.

I am alone.

I hear the family next door running unconsciously through their morning rituals. The cheap, light cabinets banging, the harried calls to do an errand after work. A frustrated curse and a slam when the stove doesn’t light. Danita sleeps, hugging his pillow.

I’ll do this one last time. I lay next to mother, tenderly, reverently. Lay my head on her sharp shoulder. Close my eyes to captivate the moment through my senses. Hug her from the side. Kiss her cheek. The very last time.

Alone. A lone.

My heart weakens, caves in.

I’m where nothing echoes or throbs.

I want to combust into nothing here, nothing ever more. Zero.

 

 

 

WIGGLED AND PULLED

I don’t know what grief is. I only know about numbness, walking through life as if I were in a film about myself. Not me actually living, feeling and animating my life. Just a role. My perceptions lay inert. I’m blurred and I wonder if the shock of seeing mother’s body at work, on my table, would even wake me.

 

I overheard a conversation today as I walked to Jamie’s.

A man said, I like to manipulate people. It’s a game of strategy to me.

A woman replied, well, I guess if that’s how you are…

Of course, it’s all for work.

Yeah, but it’s also how you are if you do that.

It’s just so no one can fuck with me.

Where did you learn that? Did your parents teach you to do that?

Their masks hid their faces, their words and voices leapt out at me.

 

Yesterday, I overheard this one on the way to work.

A woman said, I think the dead fly out of their bodies, live in this world as ghosts.

Another woman said, I think it’s just game over.

Game over? Nothing else?

Nope. You’re just in the ground with your body. Lights out.

I just can’t accept that.

That’s because you’re incapable of accepting the truth.

Silence, then… maybe the truth isn’t only in what you can see and touch.

 

And last week.

A woman said, my life’s supposed to be completely different next year.

Another woman asked, what else did he say?

Basically, that all my dreams would come true. He knew things…

I wonder if the things that happen in our future are things we already know subconsciously.

Then is it my dreams forming the future or is it predestined ahead of time?

 

I’m unporous, unfeeling. A nothing who observes dispassionately, without intuition or ponderance. The extra senses have left. Is this how the dead exist in the afterlife? I wish I could be haunted. That would prove I’m alive, inhabit my pulse.

 

 

 

It’s time. I might break. The grief begins, overtakes, twisting and turning. I shake, unsafe, a slit ready to spill. Jamie doesn’t know what to do. His voice cracks. An aching, longing tunnels through me to the outside. All the mining gone, void of hidden stars, only an unquenchable dark snaking, bending me to its will, its spiraled snail of memory.

All the tears that can’t enunciate, all the howling deaf tones of sorrow storming through me.

 

 

 

Her drawers are sparse, full of thread-bare clothing and mementos from the life before. A small, cotton satchel filled with cheap, greened rings and pendants. The indentations embedded with crud. Her old, yellowed photo logger with all our family photos. I flip through them and show Danita and Jamie as the pixels flash memories on the screen.

The one of me when I was four with my head cocked to the side in charming fashion, my straight hair matted to my sweaty head, my belly full of summer food. The sky saturated blue behind me.

Another of a young mother and father in front of our home, wearing shiny party garb for a costume party, with big, clean smiles, beautiful, thick hair and lower hairlines that haven’t begun to recede.

Me on my first day of school, anxious and worried, eyes squinting into the camera. Puddles of iridescent rain around me like dark jewels.

Father in his smart business clothing, holding a shining award in our living room. Proud and puffed like a sanguine penguin.

Mother smiling into the camera when she was young and beautiful, without a care in the world. Sparkling and warm, without hurt or a self-protective shield. We were all like that at one time or another, even if only as a child.

It’s a strange sensation to know she’s no longer here. That she was here recently, and now no longer, just like that. She will never regale us with stories and musings and laughter. She was the one who grew me, tended to me. Filled me with love. The one who shepherded me into life, through a dark canal and towards the light. I have no such history with any other. I’m fine some moments, I go through my day as usual. Then out of the blue a deep sorrow will wave through me, and tears will swim into. A salted, watercolor hallucination of the past will flash before my eyes and linger, slothful and slow to leave. I’m helpless and hostage. We remember so many things.

I find it laying at the very bottom, flimsy, old and yellowed. Obviously thumbed through many times. The notebook says “Geneva” on the inside cover, my grandmother. It’s some sort of ancient canon sussed with the universe’s murmurs. A book of wisdom written in my grandmother’s hand; square-ish with rounded corners, inelegant, rough, like toy building blocks… like children’s teeth, wiggled and pulled, laid carefully on the page in rows.

 

 

 

LESSON NO. 1

I stand behind a security or police officer of some kind, he’s dressed in black military gear. The line moves slowly. His gun hangs off his thickened waist. He’s all bulk, some of it muscle and fat, the rest protective gear under his sweater. He has chubby, ruddy cheeks, which seem either charming or brutish. When it’s his turn, the cashier moves and scans his large order slower than usual. The plaits of her golden-brown braided hair fall past the hips and her old, green flower-patterned dress hangs long and loose over her pants giving the impression of a tall, thin wildflower. Worn and sad at having been picked.

 

“Better watch out for that fish, parasites are really dangerous. I hate them,” She says as she scans his seafood.

He just stares.

“They embed in the host and try to take over. It’s evil. Do you know anything about them? Or any operations to uncover them?” Her words are direct, but her demeanor and eye contact are passive as she sets the tripwire.

He’s silent, measuring her up and says, “I know a little bit.”

She’s piqued, looks him in the eye, then down at her slow-moving hands. “Oh? Is that something you’d be interested in sharing? I’m trying to gather info on it.” Her diction gentle and quiet.

He watches her move his food across the landing strip. He finally says, “I’m not sure you should be interested. They’re dangerous.” Stoic and calm.

“Oh well… I just want to know. Be educated. There’s nothing I can do about them, I just want to know which I can avoid. I don’t want to be hurt… or caught… by parasites.”

He looks her over, sees her fading beauty, let’s it in. All her tired grace. Her naturalness, her willowy quality, how it stands out strange against the backdrop of the store’s commercialism. His body language changes from impenetrable militia to relaxed, as if he got home and took off his gear, stepped out of his role and became himself. He says quietly with a sympathetic look, “You don’t want to know. Believe me. I wouldn’t do that to you. Just avoid them altogether.”

She is stunned speechless. Touched somehow because he was seen as “the other” and “the other” showed he had a heart.

The conversation ends and all is quiet as she bags the groceries and closes the transaction. He reaches for his last bag and they exchange one final, brief look that speaks volumes about humility and fear, the humanity in most of us.

 

I pretend to be lost in my phone and thoughts during the exchange. The distractions in the store, the crowds, noise, music, bustle, and colorful, plastic displays provide a buffer. They can’t sense my interest, it bounces off every artifice around us. I realize they’re talking oblique about Operation Parasite. A rumor Jamie told me about, something he learned from a friend of a friend. That the government has infiltrated various fringe social justice groups and incited violence and mayhem against the government so the police can arrest and imprison them. Stamp out alternative thought and advocacy. Lock them away for life or until their initiative and passion have been sapped.

There are eyes everywhere. Civilians study each other. They also observe the government and the government watches back. Someone tries to crossover, but they are pushed back for their own safety before anyone can notice.

 

 

 

Lessons for life. Under grandmother’s name.

I read to Danita every night from the notebook. He absorbs it readily, the vapor of the words filling him and billowing in his childish thoughts the way smoke fills a closed glass chamber, drifting circular, always ribboning upwards. He wants to hear the lessons over and over. This is his book of fairy tales, and like all fairy tales they inform the subconscious about life, make imprints on your sandy neurology about graveled pitfalls and golden rewards. The footsteps to follow or not follow.

 

Lesson #1:

Be yourself. Accept yourself.

Don’t reach beyond yourself, just be yourself.

 

Don’t be your ego or an image concocted by something outside of yourself. Don’t fight who you are or hide from yourself. In a world full of media messaging and images, separate what is actually you and an influence from outside of yourself. Separate who you were born as from the cravings of the ego. Ego wants recognition and to be above others. Your true self is just happy being yourself without recognition, attention and status.

 

Be honest with yourself about who you are. Search within and accept yourself.

 

Being yourself allows you to develop relationships based on truth, on who you really are. Relationships based on who you are not will either be short-lived or unsupportive during times of crisis. Things will be fine when things are going well, but when a crisis hits and you need real support, you won’t find it.

 

Being yourself with others doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be mean or negative. It means accepting who you are while not harming others. It means showing who you are without shame and without harm to yourself and others.

 

There’s a fine line between teaching your child the best way to live and trying to make them be like you. Your child is a unique individual, let them be who they are, even if it’s different from you or your family. Teach and guide them about the world, ethics, how to handle finances and education, how to build confidence and self-worth, how to find the right partner, how to have a good work ethic. But do not try to change who they are at their core. Find a way to accept and build on your child’s personality and strengths. Let your child blossom into the person they were meant to be while teaching them how to live successfully in the world.

 

Live within your means.

 

Being true to yourself means you make decisions you can live with. Decisions you won’t regret in the future or wish to change.

 

My voice resonates in the room, bounces off bare, white walls, ponging back towards us in the dimly lit room. The lamps breathe illuminated apparitions on the walls. We are two, our heads bent over fragile pages with missing corners and frayed, stepped edges. Grandmother’s voice is the third, the wisdom that joins us. Then we sleep as two, back in the physical world with a click of a switch and light muffle of bedding. A turn to the side to slip away, slow the heart to the bare minimum.

The lessons are matter of fact. Even-handed, dispassionate, unemotional. Like the truth once it’s been stripped naked of intent, propaganda, what you think it means to you. And this is ironic because knowing the truth of yourself feels. It actually feels. Deep and unwavering. A tiny black pinpoint that can bear any strength put on it or against it.

 

 

 

He takes me on a journey. Past Cyclops, past the stores and restaurants, into ever rusting shades of ruin. The buildings transform from commercial to homes, then rundown ones, then abandoned ones with broken windows boarded up with steel panels. Is this where he does away with me. My final reckoning with the goblin within him. I am tangled, lurching on the inside, anticipating heartache of some kind.

He walks into a half-charred home that could fall apart with a push and a blow. And I follow, magnetized to his wavelength, unable to pull away towards my independence. How does this end. Or begin.

Floorboards creak, ready to give way. I leave the door open to witnesses, but he shuts it.

I try to break through the tension. “How many teams are there like us?”

“Five or so.” He answers quickly as if he knew I would ask.

I have to trust what he says.

“When will you tell?” He asks looking around the old room with everything in some state of crumbling disrepair. A black stained mattress, a round, decaying table with plates of moldy crumbs.

“I haven’t made a decision.”

He barely nods, I expected him to be upset, wanted to hold that above him. I can’t read him, his mind rummages somewhere else.

He leans in close, I smell the tobacco on his breath. The dried death of the musty, rotting leaves. Sodden with smoky fall burns.

He kisses my lips before I see it coming. Before I can react and move my face. I’m backed to the wall, and his arms are a wired corset cage around me.

“No, no,” I say looking away, past him, at the wall stained with high arching spurts of piss.

He tries again and I move my head to the side. He gets the tender spot right next to my ear. The spot I kiss forever on Jamie because it’s virgin, unmarked by hair or texture. Just soft and vulnerable as the day we were born.

“These times… perhaps we could… begin an arrangement,” he whispers in my ear, cups the curve of my small shoulder in his palm and against the surprisingly sturdy wall.

“Or else…” I shake, but want to know the deal up front.

“Just us. No or else.”

I step out under his arms quick, on the verge of tears. “No, how could you… I thought… Never mind.” I’m feverish with upset, virulent with disgust as I race out of the home and onto the streets.

I run and run until I get back to the commercial district where I walk to fit in with the crowds. I thought he could be a mentor of some kind. The kind found in films, the one with your best interest at heart. The one who doesn’t want anything from you. It’s never as it’s presented. I always hope for the best, for the ideal. And perhaps that’s my downfall. I don’t see the bad when I’m involved. How the wrecked and heartless make others the same way.

 

 

 

DAWN FLOODING

Lesson #2:

Be self-aware, be aware of intentions.

 

Study yourself and others. Be aware of your intentions and the intentions of others. Don’t judge harshly or hold grudges against yourself or others, but take note on what could’ve been done better and learn from it for the future.

 

Watch your reactions – how are you reacting and is it appropriate? If you’re not reacting appropriately, what’s driving you to react a certain way? Be honest with yourself. Are you acting out of jealousy, insecurity or competitiveness? If so, what is the cause of that jealousy, insecurity or competitiveness? How can you use it to better yourself instead of casting negative vibes or actions towards others?

 

You don’t need to spend lots of time studying yourself and others. Just watch yourself when you feel a strong, negative reaction arise within you towards someone or something that has never done you harm. That’s a sign there may be some sort of discontent within yourself – study the negative feelings and why they arose, learn from it and try to do better next time.

 

Also watch yourself when you feel a strong impulse within you. What’s driving that impulse? Is it something positive or negative? How can you deal with that impulse instead of following it blindly?

 

Being aware of your intentions will help you go to the true source of potential problems. It will help you find honest ways to deal with them.

 

How could I see Dr. M’s intentions? What were the clues and crumbs. I see those around me through a rose-colored filter. When I look at myself in the white light of day, I see that I hope for the people around me to fill voids. Dr. M to fill the emptiness of a missing father. Jamie to fill my despondency and depression over the dust and my life overall. Danita… I don’t ask him to fill a void, I only ask him to be himself.

But isn’t this normal for everyone? Does that make it OK?

Danita asks, how do you watch yourself? It is an innocent question coming from a child who lives without much intention other than the moment. I tell him it’s hard to do, but easier as you get older. That the key is to feel. If you don’t feel at peace, something is wrong and you need to find out why. Is it yourself? Or is it someone or something else? You can try to fix it if you know why.

He asks, what is peace? I say, peace is a feeling that everything will be OK, that you are OK as you are. He looks lovely as he asks me to read it again, his brown eyes widening and aspiring, his curved eyelashes framing and feathering. And I wonder what kind of man he will become. A tender, noble one. I imagine a lone figure against a genesis of light. Quiet warrior with an outreached hand. The very beginning of a smile.

 

 

 

Lesson #3:

Treat others and yourself ethically and fairly.

 

Be fair to others while also making sure to be fair to yourself. Being fair to yourself means you are kind, but not a pushover. Being fair means everyone in the situation felt like they received some benefit. No one took advantage of anyone else.

 

Treating yourself fairly means you understand who you are (both good and bad) and you try your best to treat others fairly and ethically. If you falter in this, you try to make amends, you learn from it and you don’t beat yourself up over it too much.

 

Avoid people who don’t approach situations and people with good intentions. These are people who at the very least only think of themselves and at the very worst actively try to take advantage of others.

 

Being ethical means making decisions and treating others with good intentions. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes there are lots of gray areas in life that don’t offer clear cut options, and in these cases, it’s best to always approach them with the best of intentions. That’s all you can do.

 

Most importantly, go by actions. Show that you value others through your actions, not only words. And be sure to watch other’s actions, for actions show someone’s true intentions. Don’t go by what people say, always go by their actions.

 

I want to know why mother never shared this with me. Why she hoarded it for herself, never gave me the chance to harvest it. She was never very direct in her advice, but this… she could have easily shared. It’s a question I’ll never know the answer to. Did it never occur to her to share this knowledge as I’m sharing with Danita? I’m at a loss for words. Would my life have ended up differently if I had known? The knowledge isn’t earth shattering news, but it’s a clear, focused way of looking at life and the world. A survivor’s manual for life’s complications. Railways and training wheels. I’m bittersweet, filled with thoughtful inspiration one moment and resentment another. I know she tried her best, she wasn’t a malicious person. But I’m disappointed and perhaps it is a very human thing to realize your parents are stunted in some way.

Jamie, Danita and I read from the book because Danita asks for it every night before bedtime. I ask him to draw pictures of what he’s learned. I don’t know what to expect when I see the drawings because the lessons are not concrete stories with characters and plot lines. But I see them personified in his own visual language.

The drawing for accepting yourself shows a boy and a woman, I assume a mother figure, with clouds of rainbow colors all around them. As if the clouds were trying to attack, but the boy and woman are surrounded by a white protective glow. The one for being self-aware shows a boy all alone under a large, blossoming, marigold sun that fills seventy five percent of the page. The one for the ethical treatment of others shows a heart half hidden by abstract squiggles that cover the entire page. The squiggles blurt in spasms of purple and red and black with yellow bolts striking out of nowhere. There’s a patch of darkness far in the background, around the corner. I believe this is his way of knowing his parents have left him.

The drawings are a type of children’s taxonomy and lexicon. The one we forego as we get older for more exacting calculations and pronouncements. For pre-ordained and pre-categorized ideas gathered by education and society. But I never want him to forget the rich or faded colors of his thoughts, the defined or amorphous shapes of his intuition. That first sequence of his impressions, and the natural, organic calibrations that occur after. The art of being himself, growing himself without undue interference from the outside.

 

 

 

TELL ME

I’m ready.

My love, I have a secret to tell you. I’ve been afraid for myself, for loved ones. But now, I feel strong. Enough. I need to tell. I want to. And you are the first.

 

I speak of what I know and what I do. It sings out of me gracefully, clearly. I’m swollen with the soft power of water, my words swimming fluid, unperturbed over and around granite boulders. I have a gravity with that black pinpoint. A light rises on my mind’s horizon.

 

My love, this is my voice. Look me in the eye and tell me.

 

 

 

SAVAGE LAND

This time I tap the fleshy heart. It’s out of the norm, but I doubt it’ll raise a flag with the person behind the camera. It seems like an accident, as if I want to point out something I want to photograph. He cocks his head, lifts his eye in question then rests it. I don’t acknowledge his look, just continue taking photographs of the engorged heart before us.

We meet in the belly of the dragon. The room’s walls pulsate and glow with red and black lights. Scales climb the walls; the smell of fish permeates the room. Once in a while, acid pours down the walls, disintegrating everything in sight. The room shakes as the dragon swallows and squirms. Fog fills the room when it grizzles, greedy and hungry.

“This is the last time,“ I say. Red lights flash on and off.

He understands what I mean. The room shifts down diagonal for a pulse. We lose our footing, off-kilter with nothing to hold onto.

I don’t know if I should tell him, but I can’t help it. It’s compulsive, my need for his approval and acceptance. I know I should give it up, but can’t. My rational side knows it’s dangerous, that I’ll never receive it. My emotional side doesn’t care, it wants and wants. Yearns and hungers. I’m bridled to my compulsions and emotions.

“I’m going to tell,” I say.

“Good, you’ve grown since the beginning… when I told you that you were a nothing.” He is clinical, pleased with himself. A slight smile for the first time.

Did he tell me I was a nothing to manipulate me into telling? Was that his plan all along. Did he know all my pain before I did.

Maybe I shouldn’t have told him. This is all a game to him. I’m a nobody, just a chess piece in his game, a worthless pawn. He turns to leave. I want to stop him, say one last sentimental thing, be the bigger person. Show that I’m past what happened and that I forgive in some strange, contorted way. But I don’t know what to say exactly and I don’t think he would care so I stop myself. Hold back the utterance of the sounds.

He never looks back as he throws his ticket onto the ground, as if I were a throwaway project. The room turns to the next scene. Only darkness and a fading groan.

 

 

 

Lesson #4:

Be able to leave, be able to say no.

 

This includes people if they don’t treat you fairly. Be able to leave situations that are unfair to yourself and others. Voice your opinion constructively, act on a solution with others and if the situation isn’t fixed over time, leave. If you can’t leave right away, create an exit plan and follow it slowly and methodically to leave when the time is right.

 

You should not withstand a situation that isn’t fair to yourself or others. You must find a way to remedy the situation or leave.

 

You show people how to treat you. If you stay and allow yourself to be treated unfairly, you will always be treated that way. Nothing will change and you will never have a chance at living to your full potential.

 

Be able to say “no” to what isn’t honorable or fair. Have enough financial savings to say “no” at work when you need to in a constructive way. If you are let go, you can rely on your savings while you look for another job.

 

Being able to leave or say no means having dignity and a belief in yourself.

 

I tell Danita that this one mostly applies to adults. Children can’t leave their homes and schools. They have no choice of family, money and status. They have to withstand whatever they’re given, grit and bear it. Try to see a world past their immediate circumstances, a future if they are so gifted. However, children can leave friendships that are no longer kind.

I know I should’ve left Dr. M a while ago, maybe from the very beginning. But then how could I live with myself. Be that selfish. Or be that foolish, I don’t know. Maybe I would’ve told without any prodding from him. The compulsions and coincidences that pull us forward… show us a way out or in.

Outside, the atmosphere engorges with moisture. It’s the second time it’s rained since… this one is a mist, not large plops like the last one. A whisper of a drizzle spray painting our skin finely, the universe breathing cool humidity on our faces.

 

 

Jamie shows me Volume 9, turns to the fourth page. And there they are. No drawings, only the specter of my words.

I wrote that I work for the government, the part that handles citizen bodies. That I'm one of many who work in this secret labyrinth of a system, from administrative personnel to physicians to body handlers to scientists to office clerks to crematory workers. That the bodies I see are young, middle-aged and old, all from our city. And that 99% of them have damage from the dust. That it turns the insides hard and black over time. That the dust is much more harmful to humans than the government lets on. Yes, it deteriorates the skin over time, especially if you don't wear a mask. We all know that. But it also deteriorates the insides over time, even if you wear a top grade ultra-clearify mask. That citizen deaths are officially attributed to things like heart attacks and cancer even though the dust contributed to the deaths and even accelerated them. That low energy and lethargy are just the beginning. That I've seen the damage in almost every body that passes through our system. The lucky ones are those who somehow naturally resist the dust's corrosive effects. All bodies are cremated to hide evidence.

I called for the government to create a plan to move people out of the city to other cities that don’t have the pollution. The government may have believed the dust would abate, but it’s obvious that it hasn’t these past few years. I stated that it’s in our best interest for the government to move resources out of our large city to other cities, no matter the cost. Our city is the largest in our state, thus the most expensive to move, yet putting citizen health at risk is dangerous and extremely unethical. Our country is currently overpopulated, but that is no reason to devalue human life to this degree.

I stated that the overwhelming majority of government officials and the rich live outside the city in areas with clean air. The middle class and poor are being left to rot and die, we are not being told the truth or given assistance so we can decide for ourselves and our children.

There are no cures, no fixes, only to live and work in areas without dust.

It is my duty to inform the public since the government has not done anything to address this, to protect us.

We choose a nation that is for us. We demand it.

 

And there it is. My words released into the wilderness.

I have told.

I have told.

It emancipates something within me.

There’s no going back. It all changes now, anyhow, somehow. I feel it arising, a tremor in a savage, far-off land I’ve never been to.

 

 

PART 3

 

 

 

THE WAY PEARLS

A zephyr has breezed through our lives, though barely perceptible, its direction shifting, becoming liced with the singed scent of fear. I feel it, but I don’t know if it originates from me or them.

 

The man following me could pass for any ordinary bum, except that he has a top-grade mask. At least the government takes care of its surveillance team. It started a week after distribution of the last volume. I may be imagining and paranoid. How do they know it’s me? Is it really them? Am I the one turning myself in circles, chasing after my own tail.

I turn into Jamie’s building with Danita’s hand in mine. We ride the elevator to the penthouse, feeling the pressure burrow in our ears then finally bursting like a puff of soufflé. The skylight spotlights us as we speed upwards, in the mirror I see the shadows of fake tree leaves leaving a fine ornamental imprint on our faces as we stare into space, lost in our own thoughts.

I hear talking and laughing as I enter the apartment. It’s Jamie, his friend and Madlon. They’re working on the next issue in the office. It won’t release for another month. I have nothing to do with it and don’t want to. Madlon loves the idea of being a journalist so she will help Jamie interview potential whistle blowers and capture their stories. And his friend will handle most of the printing as usual.

They don’t know that I was the informant. I’ve told them that I have no interest in that type of business, that I’m not very intellectual or political. That I’m just interested in hanging out, watching Danita and being Jamie’s girlfriend. That’s my cover. It’s true, but it’s only a smidgen of me, the only part I want to share with others I don’t know very well. This is how I protect myself from the prying eyes of the world.

I assume I’ve put everyone in danger by telling, and it rakes me. My story, my news has been the one that has increased distribution and interest in the paper. I believe it’s because the dust effects everyone’s life and health, not just those of groups we don’t feel much empathy for, like jailed prisoners. It’s also something so shocking and unexpected, unlike the government surveillance we all assume happens with or without our consent. The paper’s ecology and footprint grows, as does my fear and paranoia.

We set our bags down in the living room and join the gang in the office. Madlon squeals with delight when she sees Danita and tells him she has a treat for him. He accepts it shyly, peeking short glances at her as he chews the candy. I believe he has a small crush on her. My connection with him is quiet telekinesis, heart to heart osmosis. But her liveliness and humor engage him, tickle his imagination while slitting the tight drum around him.

 

 

Lesson #5:

Look for a mate who is a friend. Avoid impulsivity in yourself and others.

 

Be with someone you can be yourself around. Someone who accepts you for who you are, good and bad. Choose someone who is your best friend and who knows how to be a close friend to you and others.

 

Avoid people who aren’t fair minded and who can’t apologize. They will think they are always right, which is a selfish, domineering way to approach relationships.

 

Avoid people who don’t have general impulse control. They will make impulsive decisions throughout their life that could potentially harm you physically, emotionally and/or financially. They are a broken record, dealing with the same problems over and over because of a general lack of impulse control.

 

Avoid people who don’t have any close friends. They don’t have to have a million friends, just a few close friends. Someone who doesn’t have any close friends doesn’t know how to be a partner to you.

 

Stay away from someone who loves to charm people. Stay away from someone who puts you down, even if it’s subtle. Stay away from someone who abuses you physically, emotionally or mentally. Stay away from someone who acts in a dramatic fashion, it’ll be fun and passionate at the beginning, then draining and tedious towards the end. You may be drawn to these types because of something in your childhood or past, but force yourself to just say no and turn away. It’s for the best. Force yourself to look for someone who knows how to be a good friend and grow a friendship with them.

 

Who would’ve known Jamie and I would fall in love. No one on the outside would’ve guessed. I wouldn’t have, I was too wrapped up in my world of despair and longing, looking from the outside in. Now, I have one foot on the inside, though I know I’ll always feel like an outsider of sorts. It’s simply my nature.

I remember the time we sat next to each other on a bench in a museum. We quietly watched people pass by, smelled the gallery air, its new paper scent. And I realized we let each other be, even in silence. It was the first time I felt completely comfortable with a guy, as if I were by myself, but I was with him. He turned and smiled after a while, enjoying and understanding. Saturated in us.

I remember telling him how I thought the dust ruined so many lives. And not only physically, but emotionally. It ripped us apart from our dear friends and family, from aspirations and hopes and magic. From what made us human. That it made us hunched over droids in a world we have less and less control over. I saw it alight in his eyes. He told me I was an old soul. Someone who already knows.

I remember wondering how we fell in love. It seemed to happen overnight yet still over time. As if years had passed between us, but in a combustible second. What was the calculus of the experiences that added up to love. If one of us had said something else or done something different… would that have changed the equation. Would we have fallen in love if I had worn something different that time? If I hadn’t gone bowling? If the other guy on our bowling team had liked me too? If I had played games instead of being myself. It bewilders me.

How did his geography fit mine so perfectly, our continental drifts sailing together.

How did we find each other and slide into a bathwater embrace so warm and loving.

How did we know we would heal each other’s privations.

I imagine us as strangers, meeting for the first time in another setting, perhaps at a dull, sterile office job where everyone dresses in stiff, generic corporate clothing to disguise personality and individuality. Perhaps as complete strangers at a local bar, waiting in line for the robo-kiosk to take our drink order, the music beats pulsating in our ears so we can barely talk, the alcohol fueling our flights of fancy. Would the formula still apply and generate the same result? I search for a secret, aged alchemy that can never be fully uncovered. We melted lead into gold and it happened in the dark, in secret, the way pearls become.

 

 

 

I stand next to a man in an impeccable, tailored suit. Navy and lean with the sheen of sophistication. The lapel hewn just so, not too sharp, just a subtle comma. On a long, wood table, an architectural sculpture of a city sits before him. Shaped like a mound.

The floor of the sculpture is covered in grass and small, spindly, mini-trees. Gold skyscrapers stand a foot high. Hills roll through the park. Dark, smooth streets wind around. An idyllic cityscape on a high hill. He takes the corners of the sculpture, pinches the turf of hard and wiry grass, waits a moment. It’s the downbeat before a magician performs the trick, filled with the shivers of waiting, your bated breath.

He lifts the turf up quickly, as if it were a handkerchief, flings it in the air outwards and forward. The sculpture crashes to the table, jangled metal shaking the wood, the buildings still glued to the grass and swaying lopsided and sideways. Trees lay on the table, still rooted to the crumpled turf. His slim, smooth hands hang in the air, frozen in time, as if composing invisible symphonies. The violin wand waits to strike.

And what is exposed is the thing under the city, a black, steel object made of whirring gears and levers. The thing that makes the city churn. An oily, greasy, dirty motor that would slice your fingers off if you dared to reach in.

A metallic taste seeps in, wets my dry sponge of a mouth.

I stare and step carefully behind the man so he doesn’t see me. He thinks he’s alone. I walk backwards to the door to slip out quiet and invisible. I want no part of this, even in a dream. My indented footsteps in the plush carpet track behind me, creating low textured, sleepy murmurs.

 

 

 

SHEARING ATOMS

It wasn’t the last time like I thought.

 

The men follow and bound around in circles. I know it.

 

It’s a yes, I know it. We’ll be done.

 

I don’t know what to do. Game theory moves and the cunning.

 

My insides pound my outsides, wanting to scream, confront, run and run and run.

 

Zig zag. Crossing over me.

 

Swarms swallow me so I’m lost. The slippery gloved hand missing me.

 

 

 

“Are there men following me?” I ask frenetic.

“I don’t know.” Dr. M looks away.

“You know something? You have to tell me. I can feel it, it’s close. And I don’t know what to do.”

He turns. “I don’t know anything. We can’t meet anymore. I can’t help you. I’m done.”

I’m astonished. How could he drop me after goading me into telling. What is the game. My heart pounds, my mind is shocked quiet. I should’ve expected this.

“There’s a machine at work that’s hungry and greedy. It will do anything to win. You need to know.”

I take it in, try to know what it means. My soul understands, but I can’t quite actualize what it means in the real world. His face is full of despair, he regrets helping and encouraging. I stare speechless. It’s all rushing towards me, landing punches on my face.

“I want out, but there’s nowhere to go. Once you start, you can’t stop.” He’s a cornered charlatan, not seeing a way out.

“This is the last time,” he says with a look that could burn through me, his pointed finger a fierce sword at me. His eyes glassy, on the edge of his world.

I take a step back to absorb the waves of blunt trauma. Then I slowly step forward again to face him. To show him there’s no going back now. We may never talk like this again, but he needs to learn.

I am quicksand, knowing the inevitable in my heart but not my brain, sick to my stomach. Nauseous, sick, sick, quaver darkening sick.

 

 

 

Danita plays with spaceships on the living room floor. Human-motor sounds spit out from the side of his mouth, flush with verve and vibration. I try to follow the play action to sooth myself, find a way out of the circle of fear, spiral into hell.

Madlon plays an imaginary character to his, play acting aloft the heights of the other world. And I wonder if our lives are play acting something someone else has thought up for us. Before we were born. I’m engulfed in my thoughts and revelations when Madlon says she’s tired and sits next to me on the couch, reaching for her drink. Danita continues vrooming and skittering across the soft, dense landscape of rug.

“So, how’s everything with Jamie going?” She asks, taking a sip of steaming tea.

I’m jolted to the present. “Sorry, what?”

“Oh, I was just asking how things were going with Jamie. Do you think maybe marriage?” Giggly and girl-like.

“I haven’t really thought of it. I guess I’m just taking it a day at a time…. But I’m crazy about him.” I smile large and genuine.

“He’s a great guy. Easy to talk to.”

“Yeah, the best.”

“Does he ever talk about the informants?”

“Not really. We don’t discuss the paper much. He’ll just warn me about something he’s heard of if he thinks it’s dangerous or something.”

“What about the last one? He said the guy had a shady vibe even though he seemed honest. Do you think Jamie’s safe?”

I’m dumbfounded, my mind and face are a moonscape, blank and unyielding of its mysteries. “He hadn’t mentioned that. Jamie seems to take precautions so I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“I’m worried though… did he say anything about who the guy was? How he found him? Maybe we could find him and see if he’s… dangerous.”

“Well, if Jamie says it’s fine, then I’m sure it’s OK… We don’t need to worry…” My voice trails as my face forms a placid smile and my fluttering hand gestures indicate I don’t want to get involved. I’m a ditzy female and I’m blowing it off. “Anyway, how’s everything going with you guys? Are you living together yet?” I ask excited and girlish and knowing in my pivot. I’m hoping the conversation segues into giddy excitement, hopes and dreams of a happy future. I’m truly excited for her, for us. That we found men who fit us in the best way possible. That amidst all this dust and change, we are loved and cherished by men we love. But I don’t want to talk about the paper.

 

 

The media has grasped the story. It has gotten too big to ignore amongst the public in our city. Their angle is that this is an outright lie. Sure, the government could make top-grade masks more available for the poor, but overall, they protect us and keep us informed. Their intentions are wholesome. The salacious rumors spread by the upstart paper are underhanded and anti-patriotic. The writers and founders of the paper are not good citizens, they can’t even show their faces and stand by their words in front of the world. It’s all over the newscasts and online. The media’s blustery, stormy approach is a tornado of accusations and the velocity of new smears take me off guard. It’s surprising how efficiently the machine cycles.

We are called a “conspiracy paper”. The kind that lobbies with lies and anger to destabilize all the work the government has done for us. Emphasis on “for us”. The kind that likes to watch cities and civilization burn without a plan to rebuild, just because we like to watch fire. We like the sound of the match catching into flame. The rebel alternative that is borne of ignorance, hate, poverty. The poor are once again vilified.

We are called “beasts” over and over. Unstable beasts, immoral beasts, raging beasts, beasts with no heart and empathy for our society. Cowardly beasts.

It invigorates the team to fight on and expose more untruths. I stay out of it, pretend to be incognizant and only focused on the jigsaw puzzle of myself. A dumb girl. A selfish girl. Sheltered one. The one humming and quietly decorating the room or reading a book while the ship sinks. I can’t help it, I don’t want to be involved, I want to separate and wall off my fear as much as I can. Sift a fine, sparkling sugar on everything to bury the burnt, crisp frontier. Otherwise, it’d be too much for me to bear. I could seize and grind to a halt.

 

 

We eat and talk, the team has left for the night. Danita and I will leave early tomorrow morning so Jamie can meet his parents for breakfast. They don’t know about Danita, how we play house with him and us. We are our own family unit, creating rhythms, tones, mythologies and ceremonies as time endures. When Danita and I eventually move in, we’ll muddle and sire our own family pheromone. The scent unique to each family, the one you immediately sense lurking under the room deodorant when you enter a home.

I talk about something Danita said earlier and he leans in, wiping his finger on my cheekbone with padded intent. It’s an eyelash, on his fingertip, thick and dewy curled. He blows it away, past my face, into the air. His sweet, warm breath brushing past the fine hairs on my skin. I want to remember. This time, this current shearing atoms off me.

 

 

 

TO THE STUNNING

I haven’t heard. For a day. Panic shudders through me as we climb the front steps of his building. He would’ve called last night after his parents left. Tonight, the cold air hangs still, shouts loud in its silence. I grip Danita’s hand tightly, never daring to let go, impatient with the elevator as it glides north. Faster, hurry. I want to land in his arms, be assured it’s all OK.

The doors open with a tiny bing and I see it. An ant hill of people entering and leaving. Official looking ones, I don’t know. I walk slowly towards the hive of commotion in a dream, not hearing sound, fear drowning me, closing my neck tight. My spine braces for the brunt of bad and ugly. The small, fragile bird in me hopes and prays, makes deals and pleads. Flails its wings to rustle strength and lift from this nightmare. No, no. Let him be safe, healthy, happy. Let me fall into the arms I know so well.

I stand in the doorway as I scan for him. The ants turn to look, then swivel back. They go through his things, paw at them, making them theirs.

“Jamie! Jamie!” I call out.

And Madlon seems to step into view out of nowhere, my eyes myopic and confused in my panic.

“You!” I say exasperated, on the edge of angry. “Where’s Jamie? Who are these people?”

Her demeanor is cold and professional, and she ignores Danita. Her laser eyes penetrate, her smile wrinkles lay flat, the corner of her mouth pulls tight and unforgiving. She’s seemingly inhabited by a stranger. “He’s gone. We arrested them both last night.”

“For what?! Why?” I scream and shake, my stomach falling. I’ve let go of Danita to rattle the truth out of her.

“For treason.” Her voice bumps and bounces as I shake her.

“How could you?? After everything? How could you?!” I go after her, shove her down, my fingers catching her long, stringy hair. Pulling and grabbing to inflict pain. “We trusted you! Liar!” I slap and pound on her as the rage and desperation gush from me.

Large, metallic seeming hands pull me off and hold me in a vise until I throw him off.

She composes herself. “You’re lucky I didn’t go after you. I could’ve.” Her voice flows fluid like oil.

“You have nothing on me, you bitch. I didn’t do anything and you know it.” I hiss.

A titanic wedge of despair and fear splits me in two. I look around, Danita has gone missing. I see the last edge of his coat blowing past the front door like a ghost’s trailing sheet. He runs down the hall to the elevator, repelled by the drama. I call after him in the chaos, hold in the crying that wants to hyperventilate and screech out of me. A pyre of anger begins to burn me up. I’m so angry… I’m crying. Danita, Danita, I whisper when I reach him and smooth his hair from his face. We enter the elevator and I crouch in the corner devastated, clinging to Danita under the glaring spotlight, which exposes all the harsh, sharp edges. There are no shadows to hide in.

 

At home, after Danita has finally fallen asleep, I’m crestfallen, flattened and void. I think of the sorcery she tricked us with. The patina of concern and delight and friendship. All fake. How friendships were synthesized and used to find the buried string to the source. I am mystified, how could someone do this, what drives someone to betray the people they’ve formed relationships with. The equinox of my poles has shifted, upside down with no east-west bearings to detect.

Where is Jamie. Where is Jamie. I imagine a decrepit, frigid cell, a shaky call to his parents. I’m sure they’ll bail him out, use their connections to help him find his way. I hope. I hope. I hold my breath, close my eyes, feel the pressure. Hear pattering footsteps rush, and hollow buzzing bore into my thoughts. It’s so loud in me, to the bone, to the earth shattering. And it is so chilling quiet outside, reactionless and neutral. Nature and the world are indifferent to pain, to the stunning and the fear.

 

 

 

SHATTER INTO

Lesson #6:

During tough times, heal yourself and let the past go.

After the tears have dried, rebuild yourself.

 

Find what is missing and fill the void as best as you can, then move on with life. For example, if it’s a missing mom or dad, mother yourself or father yourself. You know deep down what a mom or dad would say for certain situations – nurture yourself with that knowledge. If you don’t know, find alternate sources like books, role models, or the parents of your friends, and think deeply about the kind of sane, common sense advice they would give. Good parents always give sane, common sense advice that is best for you. These things will never completely substitute what is missing, but they will help you rebuild yourself and help straighten what could’ve been a winding path to nowhere in life.

 

Find what has been damaged and heal yourself, then move on with life. If it’s low self-esteem, work on setting small goals and attaining them. The more you keep trying and meeting those goals, the more self-esteem you’ll build. Long lasting self-esteem is not built on being the prettiest, the most competitive with others or having power over others. True, long lasting self-esteem is built on knowing you can set goals for yourself and meet most of them. It’s based on a belief in your abilities and persistence regardless of what others do or don’t do. If you’ve been abused, work on accepting yourself as you are. You are a beautiful human being with good and bad in you, just like everyone else. Treat yourself kindly and fairly. Rebuild your self-esteem. Never accept bad treatment from others on an ongoing basis – force yourself to do this even if it feels odd or scary.

 

When life gets tough, always remember you can redraw yourself. You do the best you can to work with the tough situation and find a way to get out of it, then you move forward. That’s when you can redraw and heal yourself.

 

Moving on with life means living and learning as you go. Live your life as you work on accepting yourself and attaining those small goals. You'll make mistakes. Pick yourself up and keep going forward. Keep making the “right” decisions as much as possible, even if you're not used to doing that. It's about discipline and forcing yourself. For 99% of life's situations, we all know what the “right” decision is deep down in our hearts.

 

Moving on with life means leaving the past behind. Whatever happened, it happened then and now you can move on. It doesn’t mean denying it happened or forgetting it. It just means acknowledging that it happened to you and that it wasn’t fair. You’re not being punished for something. Life isn’t always fair, that’s just how it is. Now, look at your life going forward.

 

Moving on with life means accepting that the past has damaged you in some way, but you now accept responsibility for making yourself better as best as you can. You can no longer blame your troubles and behavior on the past by saying something like “I was damaged so that’s why I’m like this. I can’t help it.” You no longer use the past as an excuse in your thirties and beyond. You actively work on bettering yourself and being aware of how the past makes you act and think in certain ways and how you can rebuild yourself.

 

Rebuilding yourself means you reduce the harm you do to yourself and others in this life.

 

 

 

I don’t know how to tell him. That he will redraw himself without me. That this is the best decision for all involved. It is the “common sense” decision mother would give me if she couldn’t be here to help me. It’s hard to believe… that this is for the best. My heart is broken, cut up by glass corners. My head says it was a good run while it lasted. An odyssey of proportions and aspirations. That now has to end. Words escape me, I’m mute, just filled with a strained devastation that can’t find shape within the shallow confines of words. How do you describe a last breath after you’ve exhaled it.

 

On the way, I tell him he’s going to a home for boys. That I love him but can no longer take care of him because there’s no one to watch over him while I’m at work. He is stupefied silent, withdraws into his own world. His hand gone limp in mine as if he had died. I say that teachers will be there to take care of them until they find a good home for him. That he will have so much fun meeting other boys just like him.

We arrive at the institution and walk into the old, drooping building. I’ve crossed many new thresholds this year, but this is the most frightening. My heart thrums hard, my fight or flight response hyper alerts. We hear the shouts and hoopla of boys and young men echoing through the feeble, crumbling hallways. A dark haired, portly woman, the social worker I spoke with earlier, meets us at a desk. Her voice is cream and vanilla, her black eyes steady and observant, cold and aloof. She’s a study in distant professionalism in her fitted, maroon dress and heeled pumps. An emptiness resides in her eyes and persona, no gravity or basic carbon to generate life. When did she lose it? Her germ of carbon, her truth and humanity. How did it dissipate. She is all shell, only a shell. Her black hair and toffee-brown skin glisten as she tells me this is the last time, I can’t visit. A beige, u-shaped water stain looms heavy on the white wall behind her, a giant tear drop waiting to roll.

I want to cradle him like a baby. I hug him tightly, his arms clasp around me, never wanting to undo. Tears stream out of me, our foreheads touch. His skin is cold and clammy. I tell him that I love him and always will. That I will never forget him. That I packed his things in a backpack, especially the book of wisdom that is his forever. That one day he will read it and hopefully forgive me. That I’m doing this because I love him and want the best for him. I don’t know if he understands fully. He knows he is sad and I am sad. That we are parting. That he will be with other boys. The woman takes his hand and leads him into the large, cinder block gymnasium filled with bunk beds, hard cement floors, boys and almost-men. I peek inside and see the lean, taut bodies of young men, geared up, tensed and ready to defend themselves. The young, small-boned boys, timid and waiting and watching. The musky scent of changing, maturing bodies permeating the old, threadbare bedding and stagnant, heavy air. I sense the onslaught of cutting remarks, turf wars fueled by hormones, alpha games of power, jokes gone awry. I worry about abuse – sexual, physical, emotional. All the nasty things humans do to each other when they don’t feel safe and secure. The ugly, sulfurous turmoil within all of us.

I see his small figure following her through the maze of beds, he looks back briefly then doesn’t do it again. It’s a zoo, full of barbarians and animalistic urges. He’s going farther, closer to the point of no return. I feel the helplessness of an ether nothingness in my hands, which want to hold something, grab him back. An attendant closes the door as he walks deeper into the belly, jaws closing and slamming shut. I want to barge in, take him, run away, go into hiding. But it’s impossible, my options are tied, locked into this…. brokenness, this abandonment. I don’t know what… I walk away, my heart shattering into a million pieces every step I take.

 

 

I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve found a way to make it work, some way, somehow. What is he doing now. Is he safe. Is he crying. Is his heart broken. Can he ever trust anyone again. Has he met a loyal friend. Or is he being run through the wringer. This will be one of the biggest regrets in my life. The guilt haunts me, devours, stuns me still in my gut and never lets go. I look in the mirror, see a serrated scar, the journey I’ve relinquished. Shame. Shame. Shame.

 

 

 

MY LOVE

I wrote him a letter on the front, inside pages.

 

Danita,

 

I am so sorry I had to give you to the orphanage. I am so very sorry. With all my heart.

 

I found you on a street when you were about 4 years old. A protest group was walking away and your parents left you there. You were scared and sad and you didn’t know your last name, but it was one of the best days of my life because it brought us together. I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t trust the system. I worried you would be lost in it. I wanted to raise you with my mother and Jamie but they are gone now. Mother has passed away and Jamie (my lover and best friend) was taken away by the government. And now I have no one to watch over you when I’m at work. And I don’t earn enough to hire someone. Those are the cruel, hard facts I find myself in.

 

I want you to know that you are loved. Truly, truly, truly loved. By me, my mother’s spirit and Jamie. I think about you every day and hope, pray that you are safe, happy and growing as a person. I’m hoping and rooting for you. You are such a special person with so much to offer the world and others. Please never forget that. I know you will grow into a kind, quietly strong, noble man.

 

This notebook was my grandmother’s. I hope its wisdom helps you as you get older. As a child, you were quiet and observant. You loved hearing mother’s stories and especially the stories of wisdom in this notebook.

 

I don’t know where you and I will end up or what life has in plan for us. If I’m able to get my life together and earn more soon, I will come back for you, I promise. But if we don’t end up together for some reason, I hope we will find each other when you are an adult. You will find a friend for life, a home if you want one, someone who only wants the best for you.

 

Never forget you are loved.

 

Love,

Eloisa Wing

 

 

 

Lesson #7:

Love.

All of these are based on love.

 

Love for ethics and the golden rule.

 

Love for doing the right thing for yourself and others.

 

Love for healing and rebuilding yourself as needed.

 

Love for knowing and accepting yourself.

 

Love for yourself and others.

 

 

I want my love to stay with Danita, mother and Jamie. My love. A stubborn, unremovable residue. Memory that persists, stands the test of time. Grows rugged and durable as it’s replayed and remembered. My love. An alloy of resilience and strength. I’ll find you there, I’ll meet you there. My love. In the sun, moon, in everything you wish for. In between life’s episodes, when beliefs have left you, as you fill with hope or find it spilt and gone.

 

In the air behind you as you find your way.

 

Always.

 

Ever.

 

Always.

 

 

 

DIP BETWEEN ETERNAL

The line is dead, goes nowhere. A dead-end buzz, faltering and ringing. You know what that means as you drop it.

 

 

I remember the shower. I remember crying, it was the only place I could do so in private without worrying Danita or Jamie. I stood there, hot water gliding over my head and curving around my shoulders, my body becoming flowstone. The salty mineral tears commingling, the pain of mourning made sharper by crying, loss evaporating into steam. My gut convulsing in grief, attempting to retch it out of me.

He entered the room and I turned away so he couldn’t see. I cowered into the stream to cover myself. He turned me around, saw my warm, flushed face contorted and swollen red with sorrow. All the heartache I couldn’t share.

We embraced under the fall, skin to skin. My head curled in his chest, my breasts nestled on his ribs. Our stomachs flaccid and squashed. Arms in circles with water flowing over us as we melted into one. My grief assimilated by him, the burden and pain accepted. We can take it all, the nevermore and forevermore.

I remember thinking this was the first time our bodies weren’t tree bark, in the way. The first time our bodies allowed our souls to feel each other in the physical world.

 

I hear my name called. I wonder how I can console him, the way he did for me. I approach the uniformed man, who waits with a badge and gun under a jade green shade, the electrical sensors flickering and hilting as I walk through.

 

I blink once. See Jamie laugh. Golden, cherubic, suffused with light and levity.

Blink again. He shows me a beige birth mark in the valley of his elbow. On a cool, marble table.

Blink again. His smiling face in the middle of the night, the soft pillow enveloping his head. Goodness emanating through the dark.

Blink. My palm on his heart. Over his blue shirt, in the shallow dip between. Eternal.

 

 

 

TO THE FINITE

What went wrong. How did this traverse.

 

He looks down at the table, spirit beaten. And I want to rush him, hold him, transfer strength. Rub the back of his neck, kiss him, hold him close. But we’re told we can’t touch each other. He looks up as I walk in and I see it all, the scabbed, bloodied scuff mark on his cheekbone, the turmoil and hope barely congealed into his nervous, tight smile. The crumbs of sleep in his eye.

“Hi…” I say. I risk it and reach over to lovingly remove the sleep from his left eye. I want to take care of him. Be the one to sacrifice and take it for him.

The officer starts, then steps back. The camera overhead and black mirror watch on with anticipation.

“I don’t know how it got to this.” His voice is wracked with despair, his sunshine sinks at the horizon’s bladed edge. “It was just a fun thing…” He never imagined it would come to this, from a comic book to treason. “I thought… it would help…never imagined.” His voice shakes. It is the despair and paralysis that arrives before fear. I don’t know how to console him. I must be steady, don’t cry. “Who was it? Madlon or Jimmie.”

“Madlon.”

“Fuck.” He says softly, pausing, letting her sneaky game plan expose itself.

Two breaths.

Two heartbeats.

“I love you Jamie. I always will.” My eyes tear, I want to touch his soft, folded hands. I told myself I wouldn’t be emotional.

He nods as he absorbs my words, heart squeezing and gripping.

“Have you talked to my parents?”

I slowly shake my head no. I want to tell the truth, but don’t want to frighten him.

“They must be talking to the lawyers. They must be. They’ll come any day now. I know they will.”

I don’t know how to tell him. His parent’s line is down and I assume this means they’ve been taken too. “Jamie… I tried calling but their phone is down.” I say it gently, quietly, under my breath.

He takes it in, lets it sink in deeper and deeper as he uncovers the curled, burning edges of his future.

“How is Danita?”

“I took him to the orphanage because I didn’t have anyone to watch him. I thought it would be best… but now… I’m a horrible person Jamie…” I look away, don’t want to show my guilty face, my lack of strength and humanity. I’m gutless.

“No, no… you aren’t… I understand, I understand.” He consoles me, but I see the gloom begin to cloud his crystal blue eyes. The shame and sadness. The seed of fear opening, budding in the dark, in the back.

We sit there. Me, trying to contain myself, be strong for him. Him, sitting slack, the storm clouds of reality gathering within him. The fear surfaces slowly, from the deep, murky nothing to the standing hair. Realized inch by inch. And I want to hug him, smell him, comfort him, love him. Wrap myself over him, be his warmth.

He is engulfed now, electrified with emotion. On edge and charged with fear. I see it in the widened eye, prickled stiff back. The mute stillness inside that only you know. A man about to go into battle. A non-battling man. Only a civilian, a feather of a boy.

His hand lays on the table, moves closer to mine, shaking, wanting to touch, but not able to.

He takes a breath, holds it in to calcify himself with courage. His look bores into me, intense and righteous. “I want you to know this. I will always hold a white rose for you in my heart.”

What does this strange phrase mean. I search our fable, our moments dovetailing into now. Look for the amazing grace of soft, gorgeous petals when it hits me. The white rose resistance group against Hitler. He’s telling me in code that he will never give me up. It dawns on me how beautiful and sad this is. How tainted, twisted and timeless.

I have an inkling about his future. The torture and hopelessness, the raping of spirit. And perhaps death. Lost in the byzantine prison system deep in the earth’s lava. Spit out on the other side a changed person, an animal-thing.

An angel.

His voice cracks, “I love you Eloisa. I love you.” It is humble and serious, full of the meaningful silence of an empty street after something devastating has touched you. I want to tell him you can take my love with you wherever you go.

He pauses, shifts. “Don’t worry, I’ll be out soon. I’m sure of it, my family will take care of it. I’ll call a lawyer.” He turns away towards the wall, refuses to look at me. It is a goodbye, his way of steeling himself for the evil that will come. Of turning out the soft in him and making it end to the finite.

I go to him, hold him tight, whisper in his ear that I will always love him, he should remember that. I will never forget him. My tears wet his neck, slide down the ridged sinew towards his heart.

The guard pulls me away and out the door.

He turns towards me one last time, eyes brimming with wet, fear overcasting his face, his palm open on the steel table, facing up like a martyr. It’s a naked face, no mask, ashen and drained.

The door slams shut.

 

 

 

GANGLIA THE GORE

I know the essence of the hunted and trapped. It stains me, clouds every thought through a glaucomic prism. Milky and mired, marbled with dead-blue ink.

 

 

I hurry to devise a plan after I went back the next day and learned Jamie was moved to the unknown. They wouldn’t say or didn’t know. But I have no plan really. Just to take what I have and walk towards the countryside. Find a way to fall off the face of the earth, away from government, from people, the flinty confines of society. A sort of dare with a death wish. A sort of metamorphosis from human into creature. This is my way of transcending the tired and treacherous. Into a songbird.

 

 

A man in his early thirties with blonde, straight hair and intelligent, probing eyes wades into a pristine, blue pool. He swims gracefully to the deep end, gliding just under the surface silently, his white skin luminescent with a hint of pale blue. There is only the sound of water undulating past him. His sight is fixated on the edge, to the side. He looks there and smiles warmly. I feel the immense love radiate off him. It swells with kindness, openness. A vulnerability and a fulsomeness, as if whoever he smiles at completes him forever and ever. As if he could give all his love to this person for the rest of time. I think he must be smiling at his daughter, that only a daughter could unlock such sensitivity and beloved devotion, but when I look, it is his son. A curly haired boy, chubby, around three years old who smiles and points to the sparkling water, oblivious to the everything his father gives. I’m half asleep and groggy, waking slowly, when I hear the child’s laugh fading into evanescence and then… My boy, my son. My boy. His voice strangled and anguished, overflowing with a love that can no longer be passed on.

 

 

My wet hair steams, my core is still hot from the shower as I step into the darkened room, my sightline blurry from crying. It is a lonesome night. And I know instantly something is amiss. The room’s air has transposed, as if molecules have rearranged to accommodate a presence, a spoken word whispered right before I entered. The aura hits me odd off-kilter, skims and brushes past my psyche. For a few seconds, I question if I’m paranoid or real.

And finally, one slinks out of the shadows, a second one too, both hulking and large, dressed in black military garb. A man’s firm, mechanical hand takes me by the arm, maneuvers me forward like a rag doll.

“Come with us. You’re under arrest for treason.”

“Wait, I need to get my things.”

“No, as you are.”

As I am. Barefoot, braless, in my pajama pants and thin t-shirt. In this picture, as a criminal. In this life, a prisoner of circumstance.

They put a thick, black hood over me so I can’t see. The cold, pricks of jagged rocks dig into my feet as we walk the asphalt street. The ice-cold ground is absent any softness or give. I’m thrown into a hard, steel, cavernous van, my ankles chained to the bottom, my thuds echoing as bruises develop. My voice goes no farther than this, it only reverberates here, vacuum sealed into nowhere so no one can know my story. I imagine Jamie going through this same process and feel an odd sort of comfort with my fear knowing that I walk in his steps. It brings me closer to him, our communion. The cold in the steel permeates my back, freezes me bit by bit, soaking the skin, spine, ribs, freezing and oozing towards the heart. I close my eyes, I will myself to float above and away into mystery…

And I see him. He turns to me in a wooden tunnel, face hidden in shadow, a torch in the far back with looming figures that watch his every move. I see a damaged, crooked smile, something I’ve never seen on him before. A hand up to stop, go no further.

I tell him through thoughts, I miss you. I will follow you. Into the guts and ganglia, the gore. My love is a witness.

 

 

The ride glides smooth. No words are spoken. I don’t question. I don’t know how to fight, how to stand or fall. I just know how to be within myself so I train my thoughts on the old, majestic trees of my childhood. The tall ones that are hundreds of years old with arms spanning in all directions, the ones that have seen and heard every story known to human-kind under its canopy of secrets. I levitate from the ground, the muddy scent of wet, spongey, green moss soaking every dry crevice within me. I am restored. I rise slowly, deliberately. This is what I can control. Through the humid air, its vulnerary embrace all around me. To the first world of webbed bark, those forks in the roads of branches, all the choices we are forced to make. A sweet fragrance of humectant dances on me as I reach the second range where the small hands of leaves brush my skin and filter the spots of sunlight that reach me. I see the immortal sky in peeks, that portal, the way out. And I think of the many others who have suffered through the ages and looked up towards the blue seeking the same deliverance. Perhaps the slaves Dr. M spoke of. Perhaps the white rose resistance group. Anyone asking god and universe for liberation, for why, why, why. For peace with what is. Rock hard support through the wooden tunnel. I’m just at the tree’s edge now, the leaves fall behind, trail their tips against me one last time and the sweet aroma of tree is lost into the diffuse breeze of clarity. Up here. The clear, bluebird sky opens wide ahead as I ascend even higher. I look below and see the world’s divides, its lines of demarcation and ownership for this lifetime. A landscape cut and scarred. And out there, the wild and virgin, rough and tumble, not yet desecrated.

I want to tell you…

My beloved. Love frees you.

I will see how strong I really am. They can control me, my body, but they can never have my soul. That is all mine. And it will endure into time, beyond the reach of anything human-made.

I must.

 

 

Steel doors slam and open. I hear the echoes of other steel doors in this building. How many others like me are here? Or am I one of a few. I imagine it to be an Escher drawing of mazes and trap doors, just like that bureaucrat’s mind. Each prisoner and keeper trapped in their own world, not able to see that the whole complex imprisons them all. Keepers think they are free, they don’t see the shackles that bind them. The lack of free speech, free choice. The dearth of truth. And political prisoners are mentally free, but not physically. The butterflies in their heart and mouth cannot be loosed.

We walk past a shaft or hallway of some sort; a breeze flutters my pants as we pass. And I hear a shout and whimper from a grown man. He’s muffled, as if from a cell in the next room, through cotton padded walls and dead packed ears and my dense hood.

We enter a room with stale air. I’m sure I’m the first person to breath it in for some time. I’m pushed into a cold, steel chair. My hands are still tied behind me and my feet are stiff arthritic from the freezing cement or stone floor.

I hear the steel door creak open. This person’s steps sound clipped, narrower than a man’s. They move a chair. They lean on the table because it pushes towards me a bit.

“I never thought it would be you.” Madlon.

Of course. I am frightened, but also oddly glad to hear her. She’s someone familiar. A link to the past, and a dotted line to a future that unfolds now.

“How did you know?”

“We ran your name through a database of government employees.” Yes, I know now. They found my full name when I signed in to see Jamie, when I showed them my ID. She only knew my first name before that, a common name in our country. It was my own undoing. I didn’t think of it. How naïve I was. They must’ve kept him at the jail as bait to see who would visit.

“Where are Jamie and Jimmie.”

No answer.

“How could you do that? Do you have a heart?” My voice small, earnest and searching.

No answer.

“The truth is the truth. Does that matter to you?”

No answer.

“You betray the trust we all had.” I’m trying to crack her heart, if she has one. I can’t get a read on her, how she feels, how I can try to turn her and create a caveat in her conscience. There’s no vulnerability there, only an autistic, enclosed, efficient emotionality. Like a box that folds in on itself.

“I want to be assigned a lawyer. That’s my right.”

“It doesn’t work like that here.” Cold.

Silence.

“You’re in neverland. Limbo land. You’ll never talk to anyone from out there.” Calm, stern and official. No hint of anger or kindness, no fire or still water.

It hits me hard. Into silence. Am I to spend the rest of my life here? How wretched will it be? Would they torture a female? Will I be put into forced, hard labor? Will I die? Would old friends mourn me? How would anyone know. I’m relieved she can’t see my face.

The chair scrapes the floor, the door opens and she walks out. Her footsteps clicking and drumming into a hole of endless dimensions.

I’m left alone with my fear and imagination. I think of other political prisoners, what happened to them. We never hear from them after they’re taken. It’s hard to believe this is now my reality. The first stage of mourning is disbelief. Then anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

It dawns on me that I’m on the other side, the underside of the world. Maybe the depths of hell, definitely the shadow side of us. Above we are busy with life, full of patriotism and pride. Above we are the good face shown to the world. And here, below, we are the turmoil on the inside, behind the mask. The violence we use to keep the engine going, the suppressed voice within each of us. We are the ego keeping the soul in check so it can expand only so much, purity blanketed with depths of soot.

I am strangely nervous yet strong. If someone had told me this would happen, I think I would be anxious and frightened beyond adrenaline. That I would leap out of myself and go mad. I don’t mean strong in the sense of the bold and unbendable, strenuous strategy and fearsome language. Anger that initially fuels strength, but eventually burns you out. But strong in the sense of acceptance and transcendence. Strong in who I am, what I believe. The knowing that I am anguished here, but not there…

The door opens. Someone pulls me up and we walk for what seems like miles. Everything echoes in this building, making it seem like a cathedral, inhabited by mysticism and unseen forces. Steel doors open and close, locks turn and click. Men speak in short, incoherent spurts, their voices overwhelmed by their own echoes, as if in a choral group with varied start times for singing verses. Someone drills something, the growling motor insistent and persistent. Wheels turn and creak, they haven’t been oiled in some time. And when they pass over a hump of some kind, steel sheets bounce up then slam down. My feet press on cool, metal grates as we walk through the complex, turning here and there. I don’t hear prisoners, which is horrifying.

The floor changes to cold dirt and earth. The echoes are replaced with the closeness of our steps, as if we were walking through an enclosure. Insulated quiet. I reach out to touch the sides to see what they’re made of and my arms are shoved back harshly, the pain reverberating long after. I believe it’s wood, unfinished. A rudimentary basement tunnel of sorts.

We eventually enter what seems to be a different wing. The air is warmer, the floor is a sort of vinyl or plastic that has absorbed some warmth from people and activity. The ceiling may be lower and insulated because sounds don’t ping and echo here. The conversations here are amongst males and females, more sculpted and recognizable. They speak of numbers and acronyms I don’t understand. I hear silence now and then, no carts or machinery, just padded footsteps.

We stop and someone whispers something indiscernible to my keeper. I imagine them leaning in. I can’t tell the tone, is it tense or calm. We walk some more and my hood is pulled off. My eyes are dizzy and starry as I adjust to the bright, burning lights. We look to be in a high security hospital of sorts. I see male and female nurses, guards with guns, windowed desks, retina scanners, steel doors with massive turnstile locks. One sedated patient strapped to a bed, being transported. In the blur of movement, as we walk forward, I see Dr. M coming out of a room far ahead. I know we see each other but we pretend to not know the other. It is all peripheral in a split-second decision. I don’t dare. He passes by. I keep my face blank and unknowing. Stupid. My eyes are flat and small and easily distracted by other sights. He does the same, looking down at his papers as if studying something important. As if I were any other patient being escorted to their room. But the sighting is acute and bewildering, a knife through my facade.

 

 

 

ALIEN EVER

A scurry across the floor. A tiny mouse scavenging in the corner. A pitter patter.

 

He starts gentle. Timid, almost tender. The glass looms behind him. The camera records our profiles.

I don’t seem to understand what he utters, it is all sound, elongated and sloping, going diagonal on me, swerving off into the unknown. I should be sharper, keen to understand. But it’s as if my subconscious fear is awakening, becoming realized, and it is a fuming elixir that distorts my senses. A veil of memory and time, of the past and future melded into one. A smeared collage of everything that has ever passed.

“Do”

“You”

“Understand…”

I stare. I realize it might be taken to be resistant, uncooperative. But I can’t help it. My mask, my face, it betrays me, showing me numbed into disbelief.

His dark eyes. I remember thinking they were archeology, remnants of clues, knowledge I could never know. And now I know a small thing. Yes, of course, I never knew and I still don’t know the enormity, the all-encompassing.

The dark mole that lured me to a store. Sitting high on his cheekbone. A beacon of my demise in this glaring, surgically bright room. Square tiled and efficient with a drain in the floor just beneath me.

I begin to sweat, it’s very hot here. The heat loosens me, makes me want to slop to the side, spill everything. I suppose a cold room would make one want to tighten up, suck it into your core. But the heat, it makes you sleepy wobbly. Sensual and careless. Care less.

His words are a rivulet, streaming into drops I hear as staccato. One tap, a second tap. Unconnected. Pinging me.

“Another”

“Group”

“Do”

“You”

“Know”

“You”

“Can”

“Help”

“Yourself”

“By”

“Telling”

His face sweats. A look ripples every so subtly, like waves of water that fan and curve after a tiny stone has dropped. I think I can read its Morse code through my haze. He is afraid he’ll be found out. That I will betray him. He’s being tested somehow. There’s something else… a defiance hidden so well. It is the steely conviction behind the fear, which is behind the intellectual reserve of physician and scientist. And that is behind the mask of arrogance borne of his class and upbringing, which is behind the facade of patriotic duty. We are layers and layers of masks and I wonder if he’s ever been to his core. If he even knows of its existence. He leans into his ear. A small snail of a piece rests in the cochlear, dispatching orders to him.

Our jigsaw, with missing pieces.

He says what the instrument tells him to say.

“Do”

“You”

“Know”

“Who”

“I”

“Am”

So, his final mask is that of puppet, mouthpiece. I feel a sadness for him and I. That we are trapped in this claustrophobic, mad dungeon game. Our true selves suffocated and confiscated. I close my eyes. “No.”

Another tinge of ripple. Of relief.

“Where”

“Is”

“The”

“Other”

“Group”

Silence. I’m frightened. What is the long range. Is there one. Why do they think I know any of this.

He reaches out and touches my hand. Covers it, pats it in a fatherly way.

“What”

“Do”

“You”

“Know”

“Of Zeus and Venus”

This wakes me. Shunts me forward into awareness. Where have I heard that… it is somewhere in the black and unforgiven.

Zeus and Venus. A guide wire to the past. Yes, his children’s names. I remember. His eyes of nostalgia. A sign of trust.

“Nothing.” I murmur.

“I know... believe me -” Abrupt and shortened, mid-thought and interrupted.

“Do you know of The Lion’s Den?” Believe him. After all that’s happened. I’m confused. The words are full of holes, a faint apparition. Here and gone. I’m not sure…

“No.” I whisper.

“Do you know of The Honor Group?”

I shake my head no. He’s hiding in the names, the toss-up of words and a past that’s centuries gone.

“Believe me. I know you know.” He’s playing with the words, the lingo and tone to plod together a mask of deception. Emphasis on ‘believe me’.

“We know,” he says.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.” We are in a tug of war. A round-about cul-de-sac.

Perhaps he sees no way off.

He knocks on the table. A moment later the door opens. An underling enters with a silver tray holding a bottle of clear liquid and a needle. She leaves it before me and leaves.

He takes the needle, withdraws liquid into it.

Comes behind me. No, no. What is… No. I am beyond. Gritting. Bearing myself. I will my veins to harden into concrete, to never allow the intrusion, the break in. But I’m not supernatural, just a human, a female. One with thin bones, without wings or wisdom or experience.

The needle is so long. We look into the glass mirror. Him and I. I and him. The master watches. He bends my head to the side to expose my neck, which is so white and unreal under the hot lights. Like lab-grown albino flesh. I fight, my neck tensed, hardened with hate. He slides it into my throat slowly, deliberately, as if he wanted me to see. To know it.

He watches with careful, scientist eyes, deciphering cause and effect, how it matches the hypothesis.

And I plunge deeper and deeper into an abyss. A navy-blue sinkhole of water, darkened with slimy shadows and misshaped, slinking, night creatures. I look up and see the light on the surface, how beautiful it is. How the edge glows with silver rings, as if god’s iris were watching me. I’m drowning into the alien ever, into the sound of something brushing by my ear, aloft and slight, low-flying shudder. A soft silken sound of growing by the millimeter. And the brim of fading light.

Mother, mother. What yellow.

 

 

“Do you love Jamie?” He asks.

I am woozy, floating in gel. Cushioned and insulated, as if a specimen, a growing organism. A fetus. The ends of sounds reach me, not the sharp syllables of starts.

“Yes.” The word comes out quivery, disassociated. I meet myself. I hear myself. But I am not me. I am an elicited version of me. My brain is pulled, something has entered and tugs at it. Implores.

“What do you do for a living?”

“Insides… humans.” Slow, slurping. Drool gathers at the corner. Slides down my chin. Lands on the edge of my nipple, which pokes out from my shirt.

“What is your mother’s name?”

“L… a…n…a” He’s asking easy ones. Ones he knows answers to.

“Who am I?”

“Doctor…” The words are coming at me quicker. I have impressions of words now, but meandering. As if leisurely collecting small nuggets of seashells. One by one. My ear drums pop.

“How do you feel about me?”

“I thought…” I try my best to stop, resist the tow of truth. I will be loyal.

“How do you know me.”

“No.” I’m coming up to a high. I am still a fetus, but becoming aware. I am forming millimeter by millimeter. Consciousness of my boundaries appears. I hear mother’s voice, a hum vibrating within me. What was her word… Inmate. In. Mate. Submarine. Sub. Marine. This is me. Me is this. Me.

“What are Zeus and The Lion’s Den?”

“Your… nothing…” Her words. Ruinous. Ruin. Us.

“What are The Honor Group and Venus?” He’s twisting the words. Throwing them in the air, hoping they land in a mess I can’t decipher.

“Fucking… your…” I try my best to fight against the tug. I must be loyal. They’re extracting my brains, tapping my ears. Making them itch inside. I try not to show it. That would be a tell.

“No… fuck… fuck… you…” More drool streams gooey to the table.

“What did you think earlier.” He asks nonsensically.

“Your… mole…” Somehow it is all suddenly so funny. His mole, that black dot. How I followed it. How it landed me here. That small, raised, furry, little dot. Like a crumb you brush off the table. Like that insect you find on the street, the one you step on or step aside from, depending on how much hate you have. And I can’t stop laughing madly. It helps relieve my itchy ears.

“My mole?”

I stare at it and burst out again. It is so cute and ugly. So innocent and guilty. I want to smash and pop it. Tears stream down. “I foraged it.” Forage. For. Age.

He is quizzical. At a loss for words.

“Scarlet.” Scar. Let.

A pause.

A breath.

“Let. Scar.” Another stream of drool drops onto my shirt. Mother laughs softly. I feel the rebound billowing through the gel and my new limbs. To my tiny bean of a heart.

“What you think?” I ask, wounded animal-like, glassy eyed, head hung with hunched shoulders, a long line of drool from me to my lap. My leaden tongue suspended as a pendulum.

He pauses. Gives me a strange, naked look. I see more emotion in it than all the time I’ve spent with him. It’s saddled with surprise and fate and future. I know the camera watches his profile. Can they see it? That graphite smudge of ink in his eyes. The master behind the glass watches me, I feel the tunneled gaze. We’re all on edge. What will he say. Will he be kind or cruel.

My eyes begin to roll back into that supreme white.

“The world is mad. And you are joining it.”

 

 

 

A pink haze. Gauzy, ephemeral. A diluted, diaphanous dawn you reach out to touch, but can never feel. Can never own it.

The upper reaches of sky congeal at the edges, into milky, opaque white.

Hints and tinges. The insinuation of pink bleeding into milk.

I could say…

 

I’m falling. Sliding deeper into whirlpools, into ashes and shrouds.

 

My nude flesh, warm and clammy, on a stone ground. I’m turned over by reptilian claws… the long pointed, yellowed nails. Thickened. A saber is used to carve a shallow crescent on my stomach as I watch in growing horror. Pain sears through me, sharp and mind-numbing. They pull the skin until it splits at the crescent’s seams. My insides spill, shiny and plumped, still pumping. I see it, but there is nothing I can do as I cry out. They begin to pull and tug.

This is what they do. Take your gut. The very thing that warns you, guides you. About this. About them.

 

I walk through a dark forest at the edge of the world. Swimming with fog, it is a nightmare night showing a faint sliver of white, mysterious moon. Up above, black birds circle and dive and swoop. Carry bits back to the air. And I see it. Them. All the decapitated bodies. Some without heads. Others without legs. A head and torso, but cut off at the knees. Hung high in the trees. Dripping blood and being chipped away by the bird’s. Peasant clothing soaked blood red. Facial expressions frozen in horror, one in laughter. Eyes wide open and others sealed shut into thin, fragile curves. Blood drips on me when I stand directly under a tree, still warm in this cold night. My ultra-sonic ears hear every aural molecule amplified. And the tiny, faint noises are beautifully terrifying. The brush of feathers, the tap-tap of beak hitting bone, squish of beak poking and pulling fresh flesh. The air stream flowing under wings, the ground engorging, softening drop by drop. Shallow breaths of hibernating animals. The trees ever so still, always witness to everything we do.

 

An empty, dank room. A basement without windows. My hands tied to the chair I sit in. Something slimy touches me from behind. Cold, wet and squishy. It climbs onto my shoulders, wraps its tentacles around my neck. This could be a kill move or a loving gesture if it were a human. Brown and white tentacles gleam, covered with salt water film and slime. It climbs to the top of my head. Opens its giant mouth on my crown and begins to suck and bite and consume. The rows of teeth puncture my skull, relieving the gassy pressure. It slowly lowers itself the more it eats. I only feel pulling, my brains being sucked into a vacuum silence. My mind going from aware, analytical and sensory to cottony, torpid, vague. Shredded and thinned, into its veins.

My spirit sees myself from afar and the giant octopus is now devouring my face, binging on the chewy bits of cartilage. I can no longer see and speak and think. Just a vessel now, food for it.

 

A blue sky spilling hanks of rope, hanging and dangling, as if our lives were theater and the behind-the-scenes apparatus fell free. People jump to catch them. They imagine the creator. Full, starry eyes searching for truth. We worship the ropes, just like we did when the pin bursts happened. They hang at different lengths, some short and unreachable and some long, almost touching the ground. Children grab them and tug to see how far they can be pulled. They cannot be stretched. I look for a chair. Pull one up to a rope in a park full of children yelling, playing, singing. I stand on the chair and look up. The rope goes on forever into heaven, an unknown universe and interstellar space. Who originated this? Who or what has the power to thrust such realities and illusions onto us. I can’t see the root, the conditions that grew it. And I know we cannot know the origin of much in our life. Why it is the way it is. Why such ropes come suddenly into our lives. I grab the rope and think, I am. I am. Slow-motion, haunting organ chords occupy my mind, louder and louder. Grinding high and low, then a one note nightmare that never ends.

I tie it around my neck, tight and strong. Yank to test it, then step off the chair.

I am.

And now I am not.

It is that simple.

There is a struggle, the body automatically wants to stay alive regardless of what the mind and heart want. I become still shortly after. Parents cannot hide me and the children gawk because they don’t know what it means. They will have to be told. They will remember a person who did such a thing. And when they are an adult one day they will understand why even if they do not choose the same fate.

 

A room of science. A long, metal table covered with round, glass cups. Each cup filled with water, each cup holding a creature of the sea. They are specimens, naked and easily manipulated. No room to move, no freedom, just enough water to live a borderline life. Just enough to satisfy the master and its insatiable curiosities. A master who believes they have dominion over anything that can be captured against their will. A master who believes that anything that can be overpowered is weak and below them in the hierarchy. Not deserving of dignity and respect.

I see a medium sized fish squished into one of the cups. It lives but the cup is too small. Its body is folded in a curve to fit into the glass. It moves up and down, trying to keep its head under water. As if it’s uncomfortable and trying to find the best position, as if it were attempting to stretch out. I’m sad. I can’t stop the master. But I know I what I can do to help. I will take a knife and stab it. Put it out of its misery. This is no life. And I must hurry before the master comes back.

 

 

A diagonal light in a dark room, buzzing as it struggles to stay on. It flicks off and the room is afloat in quiet for a moment. I am calmed, sweaty with a fever that fades. Padded footsteps scurry outside the closed door. A man’s deep, baritone laugh. My arms and legs can’t move, they’re strapped down. What time is it. I hear the man say, you know what they deserve, and a chill goes down my spine.

A second.

Another second.

A deep breath.

A wish.

A slight line of light appears, expanding as the door opens. I can’t see him, only the dark shadow of him, his hulking, chubby outline.

He closes the door and turns the faint light on. It buzzes like trapped bees.

He stands at my feet, stares at me. I don’t know if I should try to be alert or if I should feign sleep. I am in between worlds. There and here. But arising to now as the serum wears off. This time.

He comes closer. And closer. To my face. I smell his sour, putrid breath, the food decomposing in between his teeth.

We look eye to eye. I see a cold, impenetrable green that is beyond reason or empathy. He looks at the end of the bed where my feet are.

He slings his thumbs into my pants. And I whimper inside. I don’t want to know what will happen, what this means. He slowly pulls them down. He slowly pulls them down. He slowly pulls them down. What is he doing. What does this mean. My mind can’t comprehend.

To my knees.

He looks me down. My underwear. I keep my eyes trained on his face. I don’t want to follow him, his sight, his rapacity. I want to appeal to his humanity, have him see my face. But he avoids it, keeps looking down there.

He trails his fingers over my underwear. Massages me as if I were to receive some pleasure from it. Is this happening. What is happening. Is this…

He puts his other hand over my mouth. As if I would scream. I want to, but I know I’m bound in a place where I don’t exist. A prisoner in another dimension.

I try to go into the above, the mystify and secret. But my body knows.

He puts his fingers into me. As if searching. Then in and out, in and out. Methodical.

I close my eyes. The tears begin.

Then rough. Angry as if I needed to be taught a lesson. Tearing into me. Me into. In two.

My eyes close tighter, my face gnarling thick with horror. I tell myself to endure, forget the violence, evaporate into soul. That ultraviolet.

But I struggle between there and here as the inside is turned out.

 

 

There are rumors. Yes, he’s right. But I don’t have specifics. I tell him this once and twice. He doesn’t believe me. Or they don’t believe me.

I want him to give me a reprieve. He told me to believe. He knows me, must have some compassion for me. But we are in theatrics, a play being acted out before the masters to make them believe in our innocence. Him on his side, and me on my side. Do they believe anyone can be innocent? No one is in their world so they must not believe it exists.

“I want to know who they are. Where they are.”

“I don’t know. I told you.”

“Tell me if you want to live.”

“I don’t know anything.”

He stares, says nothing. Thinks this will compel me to speak, to populate the silence out of nervousness. But I have nothing. I don’t want to play games, buckle under pressure to make something up. Even if I made something up, it’d come back to me. They will kill me anyway. I don’t know what else to do. I am innocent.

He leaves.

 

 

What seems like hours later, he comes back with a silver tray of long needles and other surgical tools. I’ve seen them before at work. This is it. The beginning of torture.

I am scared. I’ve never been very good with pain. I could never hold it separate from me. It always singes, then incinerates.

I am scared, scared, scared. My heart thunders.

“I’ll ask you again. Where are the other printers.” Not a question. A demand. He taps the table continuously, putting a burden on me.

I look at the tray. It gleams, promises all sorts of drawn out endings. I think of what he told me once. How we, the underclass, can find a way out with the help of some in the power class. That’s how it accelerates. Otherwise, it is a slow, arching motion towards the light.

“I don’t know…. I’ve heard they exist, but I don’t know who they are. Where they are.”

Someone knocks on the glass from the other side. He hears it, cocks his head, but continues to watch me. His eyes are darker than usual. They say something I can’t hear or bear. They are black and glassy, considerable and determined, from deep within. Volcanic stones formed in immense heat.

He picks up a needle and pokes my finger. Playing, intimating. My fingers are locked onto the table, unmovable. He holds my finger, penetrates the needle under the nail. Slowly. The pain shoots through me, to the tips of my toes. It takes my breath away. Makes me utter a whimper and shed a tear automatically. He pushes it deeper as he watches my reaction.

Yes, he tried to help in his own way. I tried to further that road, but ended up in the desolate. This dead end. One of perhaps many tries that failed to matriculate. The ones never spoken of, never celebrated. Maybe there will be another attempt by others… but not him, not me.

And another needle for another nail. It splits me, sears. He bends the nails up with the pins, the pins digging into my fleshy nail beds. He grabs the pliers and pulls out the nails slowly, millimeter by millimeter with a surgeon’s precision. The pain… it’s nothing I’ve felt before… an electric surge of sharpness washing over me, my fear. Acute lightning bolts of current ravishing me. Singular smolder at the source.

I’m bleeding a lot now. The smell of iron intoxicates us.

“Tell us the names,” he says.

Nails clack from the other side of the mirror, as if someone were impatient.

I don’t yell. I hang my forehead, bang it on the table over and over, harder and harder, hoping it distracts me from the sizzling pain. That daggered trace over my nerves.

A moment.

A breath, a release.

I feel a white foam arise, the froth straining its fingers towards my consciousness. Tickling and caressing back and forth until it slowly inhales me whole, the outgoing tide washing me away into amnesia, the white froth sudsing my thoughts. A tremble into exorcism… then oblivion.

 

 

I awake at the table. He’s gone, the instruments too.

My fingers throb, hot and swollen. I sit up and look at them, sobered and lowly. They are red, inflamed, caked with dried blood. The table has rivers and shallow lakes of dried, black blood, as if topography of a forsaken land.

He’s pulled out four nails, two on each hand.

It breaks me to see it. How I am damaged. By someone I trusted. How it will get worse from here, yet it is unimaginable.

I whimper and cry softly.

You broke me. Can I ever become whole. I am broken. You did it. I am a nobody and you showed me.

You have dominion over me.

I stare at them. Move them gingerly. I want to curl up, cry myself to sleep. My resolve is a faraway memory.

A pain aches in the bowl of my pelvis. My period starts, convulsing and shedding, as if mourning and heaving with despair. The lobs of blood and lining begin to seep out of me, soaking through my pants, creeping out into the world.

I sit in my blood and gore. I cannot grasp…

Flattened puddle of emotions.

Vanquished and tamed.

A male attendant comes in, unlocks the table shackles. Grabs me by the arm to stand me up, but I wobble like a bending reed. He sees the wet, soaked-through period stain and says, shit, you’re a piece of work. I’m ashamed, embarrassed he’s seen this and look down at my dirty feet. He drags me down the hall to my room, my feet flopping like a fish out of water. I hope he takes me to the bathroom, someone has taken me before, but he throws me like a rag doll onto the bed and straps me down. Bleed in there, he says.

Lights out.

 

 

A weighty darkness boxes me in. If I crane my head, I can see a thread-like seam of light at the bottom of the door. But it’s tamped down quickly, as if darkness were a mass heavier than light. A five-ton suffocation blanket.

I need water. Hunger curls my stomach, pirouettes and cramps. I scream for help over and over, my voice growing hoarse.

Please. Please. I need water. Help. Help. Please help me.

I’m losing my grip. Is this how death begins. Where you know what you need, but it doesn’t arrive, and you fight or let go. I spin round and round with my needs, my greed to live, and the nonchalance of the staff beyond the door. I fight to hold on, but I’m fighting an enigma, something intangible that can’t be held to its sins. Something you can’t hold a mirror to. There would be nothing to see, only a lambent coal on its way down.

I see the skeleton of my life, the bones behind it. Yes, this is where you broke your ankle falling from that tree. Your dress parachuting up, the gust of air rustling the fabric against your ear. This is the part of the pelvis that juts out when you’ve lost a bit of weight. It’s the tip Jamie likes to kiss. These are the prominent clavicles you inherited from your mother, they protrude no matter how much weight you have on.

And this is the nexus where you decided to meet with Dr. M again. The first time didn’t matter because it was curiosity. The second time mattered because it meant you were drawn closer, covertly shaping your destiny. And this intersection is where you didn’t call the police right away after taking Danita home. Meeting Danita wasn’t the point, it was that you didn’t call the police immediately.

I see the origin and the steps streaming after, down stone ledges and finally into a waterfall free fall you can’t go back on.

A blink.

A breath.

A hum.

All of these are based on love. I see it, but it’s so hard to fathom it. Personify it in life.

During times of trouble, redraw yourself. How can I redraw myself in here. It’s about making do, taking the best out of the situation. With this. This.

I need something to believe in. Focus on. Without that…

The static takes over, the crude transmission of self-propaganda. The lies we tell ourselves. The memories we thought we had. The way we hold ourselves in high esteem over others.

Perhaps that is the purpose spirituality serves. To give ourselves something to focus on during times of need. Otherwise, the mind wanders into deserted lands filled with relics of past transgressions and hungers of the ego. All the wounds we endured.

All memories are distorted. True, but not true.

How will Danita ever find me when he’s older.

Is Jamie dead or alive. I’m drawing a blank, the connection to his hope forlorn and dissipated.

The darkness is so oppressive. Can I manufacture light in my mind? Imagine it like I did at the Sun Temple? Is that enough to sustain me.

Please. Please. Help me. I scream and thrash. Desperation makes me alternate between the philosophical and rage.

I miss Danita and Jamie like no other. The brilliance and joy and sense of home. The smell of old books and warm, buttered noodles. The scent of wind and dust vaporized onto the fine hairs on Danita’s head.

I will focus on memory. My loves. Yes, focus, focus. Craft them from scratch. The glimmers and peeks into me.

The time I pushed Donny against the wall in college.

The time I told a young girl I couldn’t play with her because her family smelled.

I am lonely in most of the dreams I have.

Try to craft the good ones. Not bad ones…

The time the man helped our family anonymously. I knew it was him. I prayed for him every now and then for many years. It was my way of saying thank you.

Wildflowers swaying in a field with the wind. The colors colliding yet in unison, in raucous praise of some universal code of beauty. That can never be parsed or analyzed.

What haven’t you learned yet?

So much.

What is the purpose of life?

What are we judged on? Are we judged?

I see an arrangement of all my decisions forming the story of me.

Some good, some bad.

I think I know…

A silence.

It’s how we treat those beneath us. The ones without a voice, the strangers we aren’t comfortable with.

An opening.

I would like to be an angel of sorts.

But I don’t know if I’m capable. I would need to be unconditional, to not judge whether one deserves help or doesn’t.

To have a certain levity, tireless hope and faith.

I will gather my strength.

Gather my infinite love.

A closing. Try to stay. Try…

Help me. Please. Please.

A skeleton. A female hand sensually touching each vertebrate, discovering all the small curves and caves. When it reaches the tail bone it yanks the spine down, separating it roughly from the body making all the bones fall to the floor in a rattling heap.

And they sound so light. I expected to hear important density.

God in darkness, craving and needing light, thinking of a way to divine it.

A blade cutting open my swollen fingers, deflating them, the pus and pain sizzling out.

Mother standing in a sea of sand. Staring forward, but not knowing I’m there right before her. Father takes her hand, brings her towards him. He leads her away as she scrutinizes and contemplates the atmosphere and landscape, looking and searching. Eventually she turns to him as they walk towards their destiny. Away.

The lightning stabs of pain devouring my body in branches and splinters and wandering spikes. How pain is electrical. Energy.

Mother, father. I am your daughter. Can you see me.

Please.

I am alone.

My last stand against the quixotic and strange. I attempt to find my bedrock through swirls of delirium, but it slips further and further away. Beyond.

A ghoulish, skinny, old man with no eyes in his sockets, bags under each eyelid. He leans in and says, you think you can see because you have eyes. Look again, my friend.

A dark secret being held from the world. Only they know.

I am dismembered, bit by bit. Remembering everything.

There is an agenda, a plan.

All the thoughts light up like fireflies, flying higher and higher, then dropping dead.

Finally.

Finally.

I lay as an inanimate. Removed and glacial and soundless. The belly of my mind smelting more and more into a blinding, white spell. I understand how they become catatonic, unable to cope, simply unwilling.

I’m deboned, an empty hollow within a shell.

 

 

A slam wakes me from my deep ravine of sleep. Someone walks in, someone compact and lithe. I hear padded footsteps shuffling in the silence, in the dark. The light is turned on, it buzzes madly. I see this person’s silhouette against a backdrop of light that barely fills the far corner. It is a woman, slim, short hair. She comes closer and closer. Her skin is dark like night so I can’t decipher her features until she’s a few inches before my eyes. She is a raven, dark hair and skin, penetrating ebony eyes, pointy nose, thin beak of mouth. No smile, only a nasty, thick, raised scar down the side of her face. We look into each other’s eyes for what seems an eternity. I see worlds behind worlds. Onyx eggs with a small burning ember in the center.

“Now, don’t you say a word.” Her tone loud, intense and angry. Pointed. At me.

She pulls down my pants and underwear slowly. They are sticky and soaked. Coated with menstruation.

I am wondering. Hoping. No. God. No. I look towards the ceiling, watch the lines of tile intersecting in geometric order. All the ninety-degree angles continuing on and on into perpetuity. The terror builds. No. No…

She takes something out of her pocket, pushes my legs apart. Her gloved hands run against my wet inner thigh, grab the viscous underwear. She squishes the thing right between my legs. Snaps my legs together again, pulls the underwear and pants up again.

It’s a pad. A pad. My eyes are bright with surprise.

She turns to me, mouth agape. A quiet whisper. “I’m the ugly so they never guess.”

And I know instantly what she means. She is ugly, inconsequential and scarred so everyone assumes she’s a nobody. No one capable of great feats or initiative. No one who would think of going against a system. A good, dumb, meek one. Defeated without knowing it.

Simple and menial.

She takes her bloody gloves off and routs around in her pocket. She finds it.

“Open your mouth.”

I don’t know if I should trust or not. She helped me, but she’s still one of them. I have no choice. This is my present fate. I open it shallow, half-heartedly.

She pulls my jaws wide in a rough, impatient manner and I willingly go along. Mesmerized by her, this raven-human, raven-intruder.

She nestles something in the very back, on my last molar. And gently closes my mouth.

“Don’t crush it yet. Do it when the light turns off.”

My eyes ask.

“They gonna kill you tomorrow. But you’ll be dead by then. Fake.” The last word trails off as if she weren’t so sure, didn’t want to promise.

We stare, riveted by the other. Study each other’s contours, trying to read the future and past in them. An accumulation of the paths we took to meet like this ever so briefly. My mouth holds it in place securely. Waiting, waiting.

She slowly puts both hands together a few inches from my eyes. And I see it on the backs of her hands. It’s been reverse tattooed, bleached into her skin. A white drawing that one can only make sense of when the hands are put together. A lotus.

I understand completely.

I nod my head.

My dead-end friend.

She abruptly turns and walks out the room stridently while snapping her gloves back on. I hear her laughing in the hallway beyond the closed door, yeah, I got her good. And then a man’s gravelly voice, insistent and hungry, tell me what you did, did you do it. And her laughing again, acting high on adrenaline, I pumped her real good, that’s right. Muffled words, then the two of them laughing loud and jeering. Her playacting the role she chose for herself. High on having power over a weakling because they have no other power in their lives.

I stare at the diagonal light. Its flickering transfixes me, its buzzing pulls my thoughts from my center.

I realize that I am a nobody. A ring of echo. Ordinary. And I thought I was an original. Don’t we all.

I am a derivative of a derivative. Nothing special.

It stays with me. Sinks in. Empties my thoughts and emotions into a null realm.

I don’t know what the pill will do. Take me into an eclipse, birth me into another world.

If I were to die…

A pause on my breath.

Would that be so bad.

The light switches off suddenly. The dead air deafens.

I close my eyes. Chase a fleeting memory of light. Feel wet stickiness between my legs. Heart pushing down into me. Mind veering skewed and sideways into a crash.

You don’t care a bit.

And I crush it. Hard.

 

 

PART 4

 

 

 

OUT INTO

Hide and seek.

 

Kaleidoscope of confused sound and noise.

 

Body hung and frozen. Without nerve and the feeling.

 

Blind soul hovering.

 

A deep humming, raven’s voice singing low and monotonous, a chant yet nonchalant. Don’t you worry baby bird. Baby bird. Hide and seek. Baby bird.

 

The drum of machine, strumming infinite. Rattle of heavy trundles. Bulky commerce.

 

Two men laughing and grousing. Their voices rich with gravy and gravel. The tweet of birds crooning and singing, sweetly untamed, high above.

 

A metronomed pace. Beat by beat. Scraping. Dampened footsteps, smudging and pushing in dirt.

 

Swooshed out in a jet stream.

 

A dazzle of light through my closed eyes. A cracked fissure.

 

 

I try and try and try with all my strength to force my eyes open. They feel glued and heavy, almost dead.

I see a man in his forties with a mean, bitter expression. Unsmiling and hardened. Beard and crewcut hair. His fingers pry my mouth open. He’s surprised my eyes have opened and seen him, as if caught in action doing something wrong. His hands fall from my face, which I can’t feel.

He finally smiles briefly and I see the mean melt away for a second. It reminds me that everyone on this journey deceives. We all look like something else, something we are not. Perhaps this is the way. The truth. Knowing that we can’t assume.

He looks me over, down my body. What a mess I am. The blood, braless nipples, the swollen fingers. The vulnerability of thin clothing, being exposed. I can see the aversion in his eyes, the repulsion and discomfort. I assume he’s seen it all so I’m ashamed that I may be the worst, even if it’s not my fault or his. For a second, I hate myself deeply.

He lifts up his thick, muscled finger and on it is a see-through, small square of black. It looks gelatinous, translucent and soft. But it’s hard. He squeezes it between his fingers to show me. He coaxes my mouth open and I have no choice but to go along. My body is not mine. He puts it in my mouth, says under his breath, it’s on your molar.

I wonder what I’m supposed to do with it. What is it.

He understands that I’m questioning, that I’m in the amorphous. He says, “You’ll know what to do… if you hear CLEANING SLIPPERY.”

Without waiting a beat and without looking at me for confirmation he slides the wood cover back on and I’m doused in night again.

How…

A small poke of light filters through a hole on the side. This is the one and only thing, my lifeline.

I close my eyes. Pretend I never opened them.

I’m no longer in control of my life. The circuitry of circumstances, all of it, are not of my construction. They never were, it’s simply more obvious now.

 

 

 

REFLECTION OF

She takes my hand, leads me toward the door. Full of gentleness and a downy touch. I look back at the clumps of lettuce leaves and hills of rugs and wooden boxes I was resurrected from. The clear, night sky is devoid of twinkles. My limbs shudder uncontrollably as if I were cold, though I’m not. As if I were scared witless. I’m shedding the drug, shaking it out.

In the bathroom she checks my face, my eyes and ears, my nose. Peeks into it, opens my mouth. She tells me a cavity is starting in the back. It’s a security check to ensure no tracking or recording devices have entered the safe house. She has me kneel over the bathtub to check my private parts briefly with her gloved finger, saying softly, sorry honey.

She runs a bath, sets a pile of fresh clothing with a box of pads on the counter. Watches me as I study the horizontal, oblong bruise on my forehead. Leaves me be to absorb, calm myself. Gather and recompose all the annihilated parts, put them together again.

 

 

The next morning, I lay still as sun beams stream in. The room is a small rectangle, with a twin bed and desk. Three sets of simple clothing hang in the closet. It’s as if I were a student again. Back to basics.

Everything looks so crystal clear and bright. I can’t comprehend, as if I’ve been starved of light my whole life. It fills a hole so enduring and cavernous, leaving me breathless and mindless. I stare at small particles suspended in the air. The way the light glints off the old, wooden desk. The way it’s sopped up gently by the bed cloth. How it fills the room effortlessly, like a glowing, borderless cloud expanding forever. It blooms and buoys you.

I lay there staring for some time. Assimilating and floating, laying in amazement. Getting my fill and hoarding, as if it could be vacuumed up and taken away.

 

 

I put my clothes on and go downstairs. safe house mother cooks breakfast. Her face is kind, crinkled. A smiling face even when not. Her long white hair sits atop her head in a loose bun. The sizzling sounds of cooking and the warmth emanating from the stove remind me of life in the past: home, loved ones, comfort, a safe space, daily routines with places to go to. All a mirage when I look back. A twang of the missing strikes a distant chord within me. I sit at the table with the others, voiceless and uninterested. I realize in slow-motion that I’m in shock. That I want to be a mute, to shun myself from the others. To be within myself and only within myself. I need time to fill up again, release the other side and recolonize myself.

She serves me while asking for my name, she forgot to ask last night. I mumble, “Sondie Cartem”. I don’t trust anyone, even a kindly grandmother type. I eat with the others, silent and focused on the plate. The buttered food piques my palate sharply, waters my mouth as if I’d been starved for ages. I swallow quickly because it could be taken away any minute now. Someone beside me turns their head as they eat, she stares at my scabbed, swollen fingers. I put them quickly into my lap after using the fork. I don’t want to explain, just want to disappear into the atmosphere of ghosts.

After breakfast, safe house mother takes me around the home, shows me the garden in the yard where we each have a small two foot by two-foot plot. We can grow whatever we like. She tells me there are group counseling sessions twice a week to discuss our past and how to rebuild. Everyone here has been a whistleblower and has told on the state government in some capacity. Our goal is to recreate new lives and apply for jobs in our new state, which neighbors the one I came from.

The wide expanse of yard, the thriving, dewy greenery, white sunlight, fluffing breeze on my face. Fluttering dragonflies, seedlings of pollen floating and soft landing wherever they please. It overwhelms my senses, astonishing me in place and time. I stop and hold still. Peek at everything from a somber place within, marvel at the fairy tale other worldliness, at how afraid it makes me. It’s so lucid and natural, yet how I came here is not. I want to cry, but can’t find the tears and emotional energy to cramp my face and gush them out.

As we enter the home, she asks in a kind, but prying manner if there’s anyone I would like to call, anyone at all. I say, no, without a beat and continue on to my room. I don’t want to tell her anything. It’s none of her business.

 

 

Be yourself.

Be self-aware and aware of other’s intentions.

I search for myself and find nothing on the shallow. I feel the seeds planted deeply within, but they haven’t been watered in some time. Who am I, what do the seeds represent? And I find myself reacting to others to find a reflection of who I am, my value. Am I just a generic version of human without this reflection? Someone smiles at me in the hallway and I smile back. I was worthy of being smiled at. Someone turns away from me as I enter the family room and I hold myself still and shy away. I was not worthy of having attention and I am timid. It’s a dangerous practice to cultivate your self-esteem from other’s reactions to you. And that is not what grandma’s notes recommend. But it’s the easiest, laziest way. I don’t know how else to start. Grandma says to set little goals for yourself. I just don’t see any. Can waking up be a goal. Can eating breakfast be one, even if I’m not hungry. Breathing.

I’m a nobody and aren’t we all. What makes each of us so special. I’m confronted with this mid-life crisis of sorts, although mine is borne of sadness and humiliation.

I am still young.

I have to be OK with being a nobody, a vacant, undistinguishable light foot in this life.

Is it special to just be yourself? Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t it be? Logically, yes.

But then I’m back to where I started… who am I. My sense of self has been denuded, stripped of specific highs and lows so it can’t fit into the right screw hole, any screw hole.

A finger without the raised identity.

A tide of gray, flat emotions wash over my thoughts, a white noise terrorizes subliminally, deep, deep within. And any infinitesimal trace of energy and will vanishes like a desecrated, sunken spider web that can never be resurrected.

I see a tiny hummingbird through the dirty window, it flashes ever so briefly as a sublime, new thought, and I just don’t care to follow it with my eye.

 

 

“You fucking bitch! You think you’re gonna find a way, don’t ya.”

“No, no, honey… I didn’t mean…” A staggering slam and a small cry. “Please… don’t…”

“You’re gonna beg bitch. You don’t know.”

Sobbing, the kind that is thoroughly hopeless, bottomless.

The emptiness bottoming out into a wasteland.

We all hear their shouts in the wee hours every few nights. We pretend as if nothing’s wrong at the breakfast table. They’re the young couple at the end of the hall, in their twenties, and I suppose they stay together because they have no one else. Sometimes she cowers as prey, tip toes around him as they relax in the family room. Afraid of awaking the lion’s hunger.

It’s always the same kind of argument. He wants to keep her underwater because she dared to shine or move in her own inimitable way. He punches to keep her ugly. But the blue-maroon bruises on her eyes and hands, the blue-grey mottling on her arms, the yellow-green puddle on her cheek accentuate her beauty, make it stand forward like a reverse Rorschach print. The watercolor splashes turn her into a beautiful alien, the kind that slowly morphs color and blends into fantasy worlds.

We are in a house of healing yet no one says anything to either of them. Not the other women, not the older man who is already half a corpse, not safe house mother. They arrived a day before me so perhaps no one feels familiar enough just yet. Not me.

She was the one who stared at my fingers that first morning. As if identifying another victim and I wonder what kind of person she is. The kind who feels solidarity with a fellow victim or the kind who thinks to herself, at least I haven’t got it as bad as her. One is aware and open hearted, she can see the broader context in life without the corrosive ego. The other is in delusion but doesn’t know it… spinning round and round, faster and faster on the rat wheel of life. She believes she will get somewhere higher.

 

 

There’s a silence for what seems many minutes. The coast is clear to go to the bathroom. The house has settled for sleep, but their shouting woke it. The bathroom is shared by all the women and only a few doors down. I should feel comfortable going at any time, but the shouting and anger loom as an undefined monster in the hallway, trapping me in my room. I dare not go out there when I know his fist is pounding… But now there’s a fine quiet, like my memory of watching snowflakes waft slowly to the ground.

I open my door and see the hallway light above cast it’s phantom, long and stretched on the wooden floor, and begin tip toeing. It’s closer to their door, and there’s no light on their end, but my eyes sharpen to the darkness. My fingers trace the old, grainy, warped walls… one door… door two… door three… the next one.

And I see her right before me in the dark, almost bumping into her. The weak light from my end of the hall stretches here faintly, illuminating her sharp features. The point of nose, the canyon angle of cheekbone, the V of chin, damp corners of eyes.

Her mouth is an O, an empty train tunnel to nowhere.

Sorry, I say, I didn’t see you.

Her eyes water and she looks away ashamed, the puff of black-maroon around her eye blending into the dark as if she were missing half her face. I smell it and look down. See the points of her fingers, the whitest tips, bent knuckle of her thumb. They cradle something curved yet smushed and dark, unable to catch any particles of light. The scent is of the sewer. Shit. I’m startled and stand straight. She must’ve shit during the beating, perhaps while naked, or perhaps he… I can’t make any sense of it, my thoughts fly as a dizzy crown, round and round.

I stand away from the door and motion for her to go ahead of me. She enters, I turn the light on and close the door behind her quietly. I stay there for a moment, eyes closed, listening, feeling, acknowledging. My aching heels bearing down on the floor. My hand on my heart, which is dropping and breaking.

The toilet flushes soon after and I walk back to my room. I don’t want her to have to face me when she leaves.

 

 

The next day, I look her way briefly at breakfast, try to catch her eye. I don’t know how to help other than to be a listener, some type of friend. It’s my subtle way of seeing if she needs anything. I suppose if she does she would meet my eyes and smile grimly or nod her head ever so slightly. But she sees my glance, looks at her boyfriend who’s busy cutting his food, meets my eyes again and tilts her head up while looking far off into the room behind us, chin jutting out. Haughty, cold, defiant. Towards me. As if I didn’t exist.

I turn towards my food, feeling a whisper of rejection infuse me. I guess it’s her way of not wanting to be reminded of her suffering, that pain of being treated like an animal.

It would remind her of the outside. That she can leave if she really wanted to. But she wants to remain a prisoner. Perhaps it is familiar and anything familiar is better than the unknown.

The odd thing is… the emotions I felt last night and now crack the plaster, make me less of a prisoner of my numbness. Just a little bit.

 

 

 

POETRY

Darkness surrounds them. The man smiles, brimming with clever knowledge and mischievous thoughts. There is a lightness about his presence with a slant to the distant and remote.

He lights a match between he and Danita. The light projects a warm glow on his white, curled mustache, his crinkled, brown eyes. The years in his skin sagging plump. And Danita… his large, brown eyes mesmerized by the flame. It burns down to the man’s fingers, which snuff it out.

The velveteen darkness obscures them for a few moments and the man lights another one. Again, they watch the flame, thinking their separate thoughts. The man feeling the lean to the unknown, where the pea of brain begins, those rough-torn, half-born thoughts. Danita feeling that the only warmth in his life comes from this lithe, shimmering flame.

This happens three more times. The man tries to teach Danita something unspoken through this poetry of light and dark. Spark of light and black. Glow and void. Eruption and ebony. Danita only understands the sound of match catching into flare, that rich brushing friction combusting into a burst.

The man lights a bonfire. Danita sits nearby to keep warm through the stark, desert night, the sand in his shoes no longer bothers him. The man stands and begins to mince his steps in place. He closes his eyes, turns his head to the heavens as if to receive word. He begins to spin slowly with arms spread, his ragged, full sleeves sailing in the circular current, creating a wind tunnel to the cosmos. His longish, white hair flies up as he spins faster and faster in his dervish fever, searching for a release of his bad, for a touch of infinite. An aurora of the soul. He laughs and howls oval sounds long into the air, his voice bellowing and beckoning to the wisdom. What to do with this boy. Hand me a sign. What to do with my humanness. A knowing that the universe will shape them. You must believe so the door can open. The boy is a glimpse of twilight.

And Danita… he turns to the inky, midnight blue sky. The stars are so bright and sharpened. Tiny, exotic animals bobbing high above. He has never seen them before. He thinks, I can touch them. He hesitantly raises his hand higher and higher to try. And I see his palm opening and stretching savannah-wide as I awake soporific and fleeting. Where are you Danita. Where has he taken you.

 

 

A knock on the door. I open it and she stands there with a mini-book. One she recommended to me when we spoke in the hallway the other day. She loves romance novels, the novelty of dreaming and fantasizing about perfect loves and lusts that endure mountains of pain. I receive it graciously though romance is not my particular kind of book. It is old and worn, from decades’ past of being hidden in corners, under beds and in underwear drawers. Not illegal, but books are not normal in our society, only spoken of in certain quarters and company, especially romance ones. The cover shows a hulky, hard-chested male, his skin glistening with sweat and a young damsel in distress sheltered in his arms. She seeks solace in the crook of his trunk-like neck and shoulder, her bosom exposed and hands limp. I feel a pang of sadness. I thank her appreciatively. I don’t have a gift in return other than to recommend a short story Jamie bought for me called, The Story of Your Life. I tell her she might find it at her bookseller, that it’s about the past, present and future. Not a romance novel, but about how we don’t know what we don’t know.

Somehow she has money to buy these luxuries that help her float away from her current existence. I ask her how her job search is going, that I must start mine soon now that I’ve adjusted to life in the home. She says she isn’t searching really, her eyes looking astral and spacey. I wonder how she can ever take care of herself if she doesn’t find a job. We can’t stay here forever. Will someone somehow take over the slack? Who? She says she just doesn’t have the energy and smiles a charming, breezy smile. She shows me her room, which is across the hallway, and it’s filled with stacks of old romance novels, half eaten cookies on small, chipped plates, and I see a cup of water holding fresh flowers from the yard. I could learn a thing or two from her about enjoying life, setting yourself free to roam your fantasy. But I’m a tightly wound coil, anxiously wondering about my future. And she luxuriates, her curly hair springing up and away from her head, reaching into the provinces of lace, satin, and cream.

 

 

One goal… find a job in town. Start anew.

Second goal… start a flower garden. It will stand for beauty. It need not stand for anything practical. Only a jewel. A pretty face in life.

 

 

Some of our sessions are emotional and others are dead, just words drifting invisible in the current of air. The emotional ones come about because someone exposes a hurt and has a realization about their past. And the dead ones, the majority of our sessions, are due to boredom. Most of us have already had our say, at least what we want shared with this public. I suppose the dead ones are a good thing for they are a sign that most of the big issues have been handled.

I never say much, only that I’m trying to figure out my next chapter. I never say what state I’m from. My next step is to let fate and life have a say. I can think of jobs I could have or want, but I won’t know what I will actually do until a job accepts me. Life is give and take. We’re told to provide safe house mother’s phone number as a reference for our past job instead of the government’s phone number. That way we will never have a bad reference on our record when the new employer checks them. I’ve wondered who pays for this safe house, how it’s funded. What is the system that makes it possible. But I just don’t have the mental energy to pursue those lines of thought. It is what it is. I am here and I am a beneficiary. Someday perhaps I can pay it back, find the puppet strings to the plan.

Today, the half-corpse man leans in towards the young man while safe house mother talks about meal plans and grocery lists. I ask her if she can get me some flower seeds, any flower will do, but I prefer purple or white ones. The way he leans in is like a lover and I’m surprised, though I don’t show it. I always assumed they were father and son. But the father leans in closely, whispers something in the young man’s ear, and brushes his sparse, dry line of lips ever so briefly against his ear lobe. I look away as I wonder if they came together or if they hooked up here. I hear someone mention we only have a few months here and ask what they do when they’re time is up. safe house mother says that decisions are made on a case by case basis.

I look up and find the half-corpse man studying me, isolating me in his gaze. He looks away when I notice but I can’t help but feel small jags of chill as if a sharp-clawed lizard had crawled up my spine. Either fear or disgust. His thin, wiry body, his strained, ready-to-leap at you vibe… it’s all a vessel for something that eats people up.

 

 

 

WORDS NOW

The man who lives down the hall, next to the couple, is a quiet idealist or escapist depending on your proclivities. He barely speaks in our sessions and when he does he utters phrases like “life is beautiful” and “we only need a simple life”. His back curves in on itself slightly as if he were going to crumple inwards. As if he couldn’t stand tall for anything. His voice is a calm, sonorous baritone yet he usually speaks low and hushed and solemn. He’s a thin, whisper of a man, half spirit, half flesh.

Today he said “I submit to life and anything it offers me” as the sun lit up his profile, his black skin glittering like oil and gold, his night eyes surveying the group then downward, fingers resting on his knees. I noticed his pants fraying at the bottom. The young couple held hands, nodded, looked at him with awe as if seeing him as a sort of spiritual monk. The kind they want to learn from briefly and then go on their merry way. The half-corpse man snickered silently, as if this type of human had no worth in this world. safe house mother responded quickly and nervously, saying “yes, yes of course, whatever you feel is best, however we are not to continue with our spying activities, like in the past. This new life must be clean and sincere and free of duplicity.” He nodded in agreement while looking at his fingers, at his old weathered shoes with the soles pulling away from the body. I decided to call him “nothing man” in my mind. He wants to have nothing, to be nothing, just air and soul. And maybe not even a soul.

 

 

The dreamy woman from across the hall tells me about music, how she believes it transcends words and images. She says that in her past life, before here, she made music compilations. They saved lives. People told her the music reminded them of how life was worth living, even through the pain, hardship and sadness. Someone was about to kill themselves, but the music stopped them in their tracks, made them rethink. She says that it’s wonderful to know her work saved that person. And I thought… so what, why is death thought of as a bad thing. What if that person would’ve been released by death, out of pain and despair. Why is life celebrated and death demonized.

I say to her blandly, that’s good to know you helped.

I’m growing more and more cynical by the day. I think of how death shouldn’t necessarily be celebrated, but that it can be a helpful tool for some people. A tool to set you free. A tool that shouldn’t be judged so harshly. She says she wants to do something just as important, just as creative and helpful. She doesn’t want to do work just to survive. I realize then that she has never been tortured, not by the government, not by life. She is so innocent. I nod my head and wonder who will give that opportunity to her as I place the miniature seeds into the damp ground then cover them with thuds of felted darkness. They will have to prowl and creep their way to the top into the light, into a world where a brawny wind or nibbling animals can take your life away.

 

 

I hear a soft, grainy chuckle, like sand and rocks. I turn my head towards the source and see half-corpse man in his room, kneeling next to his bed. The door is ajar, as if a breeze blew it open ever so silently. I peek in from where I stand a few feet away, I can’t help it, and I see him cutting into the young man’s rib with a razor. The young man sits still on the edge of the bed, eyes closed, as his partner cuts a geometric design into his flesh. The blood trickles down and the old man licks it before it reaches the pants.

I can hear dreamy woman in her room, humming and singing old love ballads to herself. Her melodious voice plays high and low about long lost loves and chance encounters.

I step back in horror and the wood floor creaks. I didn’t mean to pry, I was only going to my room when I heard the laugh. The young man’s eyes blurt open and find me startled and frozen. The old man feels his partner’s body stiffen under the blade, and he turns to see me scurry away into my room.

 

 

I think of their schedule and how to avoid them. I want no part of them, specifically half-corpse man. When do they go to the family room? Is it an hour after dinner? When is that exactly.

“Dear…” safe house mother says kindly.

“Sorry, I didn’t hear you. What were you saying?”

“Is there anyone you want to contact at all?”

I shrug no.

“Surely there’s someone you want to talk to? Let them know you’re safe?”

“No.”

“I want you to know you’re safe here and welcome to use the phone any time.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that.”

She is so insistent. I have to wonder if the phones are tapped or traced. Why she wants me to reach out to the world so badly. Or perhaps she is just very kind and I am very untrusting. I can’t tell what is the truth and what is not, like I used to… somewhat… What is up and what is down. Everything twists topsy turvy.

 

 

I’m slowly attempting to redraw myself, find my core, the very center of me. Once I find that I’ll know what is up and what is down, it’ll serve as a reference point in a spinning, slipshod world. I find myself plotting and planning. I will find a job in town, a small place of my own or roommates. Maybe I can even meet friends. But before that I’ll have to think of everything I’ve experienced: Jamie, Danita, Dr. M, the torture. I’ll have to make peace with it, learn what I can, but force myself to move on. It’s all easier said than done, I know. I try. Force. Push my zombie self forward when I want to lay still and be swamped forever in the past, the injustices of life, how I would do things differently, that stasis of memory and feeling and wishing.

The pain I know is the only thing I know. You don’t know what you don’t know – what life is like without pain and yearning. I read that somewhere and it applies to me right now a hundred times over. Perhaps dreamy woman across the hall is in her own stasis as well, of memory, feelings and wishes. Perhaps most of us are to some degree. It’s a fine, intricate balance. Life is.

 

 

Mother and father tumble roughly down a grassy hill under skies that haven’t woken up yet, still a groggy, heavy mess of spilt paint water. They suffer bumpy somersaults, rolls, angled flips, contorted necks and arms. Limbs flailing, unable to stop. Forever and ever, like thrown grenades rolling and rolling.

We watch with wide, unblinking eyes and wait for the blinding flash.

I awake with a start, sitting straight up. I’m losing them, what they looked like, how they spoke. My memories of conversations are just words now, barely any yawning sound, just text, meaning and conjecture. And then I’ll remember something random… father’s lowered, naked tone bulging with regret. Off key and loosed without proper form. Ragged with apology. That’s the last one… and it will recede too.

 

 

 

A ROOTING

He’s sort of trapped me against the computer in the family room. I’ve just finished searching the sites for jobs and switched it off. I turned and there he is. Rotten tobacco scent wafts up from his dry, brown-stained fingers. His middle-aged lines sink into his ashen face. It’s as if blood flow hasn’t reached it in many years. He’s the one who lives next to safe house mother downstairs. Been here for ages.

“Do you know where?” He asks.

“What did you need?”

“Do you know where to get more rolling papers?”

“No, I don’t smoke.” I start to get up, but he maintains his hovering position over me. I sit back down and wait passively, hearing the young couple fight upstairs. He only hits at night, but they sometimes shout during the day. The young man yells something fierce and cruel, and I flinch uncontrollably. The middle-aged man doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

“I used to get it from… the three old wise men.” He emphasizes the last part, lording over me.

I sit there silently, unemotional and self-involved. I don’t want to give anything, not attention, not even words. I don’t have the energy to fight or untangle miscommunications.

“Do you know the three old wise men?” He studies my face carefully as he asks. He tries to detect an underwater fracture, a small leap of flame. Something I’m don’t know.

“No.”

“I think the three old wise men might know you. You are a smoker.”

“No. Now, if you don’t mind, I want to go. I don’t know who they are.”

He steps aside so I can leave and as I climb the stairs to my room I realize the phrase was a code he used to use. He wants to know who else knows it. Perhaps he wants to go back to his previous life. Perhaps he’s a spy for the government. Or perhaps he was told to search that out when he got to the home. Like me with the black tooth.

And for some reason I realize that maybe Jamie was here before me. It stings me something sharp. I have to sit on the top stair to steady myself, itch the curiosity. Was he here? Could he be alive? It was about two weeks between when he was arrested and I was. Could he have found a job that soon and moved out? It’s not likely, but I desperately want this illusive hope.

Safe house mother would know, but I don’t know how to ask without giving my identity away. Would someone else know? Dreamy woman? Would she let others know that I asked? I have to find a way. I must.

 

 

Come on Jamie. Come back to me. Come back to me. My eyes close tightly, my breath rises and falls serenely in sloping waves. The foliage outside flaps against the window.

Jamie.

Calm, serious, a rooting into the deep other side. But it’s a flat line. Nothing but a singular bird whistling high above. Then guttural babbling from a free, undisciplined throat and tongue, a young one fiddling its wet voice.

I see a flash of the back of his head. The dot of skin where the beautiful, delicate whorl of hair begins to grow and fasten around the skull. A mass of springy, blonde curls, then the gradual fade of hair to neck, how soft and fine. How I loved to caress that curve of head then slide down towards his neck. How my fingers cradled that globe.

I worry I may forget him. Not what we did, but the sensual things. His smell of salt, pepper and wood. How it surprised me because he looked so ethereal. I expected airy sweetness. The smoothness of his skin. Feel of his round, puffy pillow of cheek against mine. His warm embrace, how secure it made me feel.

It’s all burning away with time.

 

 

Safe house mother leaves for the day, and I volunteer to cook dinner. Nothing man offers to help. We stand in the kitchen looking through the fridge, brainstorming meal ideas. I think jokingly that he must want to eat air. Or just vegetables. We both agree on a meat and vegetable dish and I begin chopping the root vegetables into bite-sized pieces. He starts up the water to boil and the frying pan for searing the meat. I’m still chopping when he sidles to my side, his eyes surveying the area discretely. No one is nearby, no one in the family room next door. He leans in close for a second, I stop chopping, worry about this surprising advance, this surprising touch of carnality. A small fright crawls in, I don’t know what to expect. The meat sizzles loudly, and he whispers in my ear, cleaning slippery. It’s powdery, as if I had imagined it. As if clouds of flour had escaped his lips. And he steps back and motions to the meat, as if pretending he mentioned something about the cooking time.

I look down at my fingers, not knowing how to respond. My fingernails haven’t started to grow back. They’re just stumps. I remember to go along with the make-believe and look back at the frying pan and nod. Is this a trick of some sort. Is this up or down. My subconscious begins to careen. I step towards the frying pan, stand next to it, watch the translucent flesh beginning to come-to into something definitive. A leap of oil lands on his shirt, the fleck grows into a wet misshaped birthmark on the beige.

He says quietly, pointing at the meat, Titan’s Cross in Gahn, Tuesday, 2pm. I have to lean in to hear. He’s worried about being videotaped or recorded. But the meat sizzles loudly and the boiling water bubbles over, crashing into the flame with bluster. It all covers him.

And I go back to chopping, making it sound loud, imposing and defiant like marching orders.

Tuesday. Two days away.

 

 

 

BORN AMIDST

I’ve told safe house mother to relax in the yard, that I’d love to cook another meal. The mechanics, the chopping and stirring, it calms me. Puts my mind in the moment, a purring groove. I’ve become accustomed to our routines here, as if we were some sort of family. The young, abused woman is on the computer in the family room looking for jobs. Dreamy woman is up in her room reading, waiting to be called to dinner as a young child would. Corpse-like man is the odd grandparent who doesn’t say much. The scary one with stories no one ever asks about. Through the kitchen window, I watch the cars glide by, note how the tree in front sways languid. It’s all a translucent front for family life.

I remember that I have a cup and dish in my bedroom that need to be washed. I’m in a rush to get them from my desk when I catch a glimpse out my window, which overlooks the garden in back. And I see safe house mother in my garden plot. She stands there with hands on hip, looking around. The breeze blows her hair lopsided. She kneels on her hands and knees and begins to gingerly dig under the tiny buds that have sprouted. She becomes fervent and desperate, as if searching for something worthwhile in the damp. Something worn close to the heart.

My gut sets. I knew it. She’s one of them. The fear buzzes me sick. I’m slow and thick, as if life had been zapped out of me.

Everything is not what it seems. It never was.

It’s back to the underside.

Later, she returns to set the table and mentions how beautiful the sunlight looks at this time of day.

 

 

“I realized something yesterday. I always knew, but not really…“

We watch nothing man with blank faces and hearts. The room settles as the sun streams in, landing on the floor in long, rectangular patterns.

“I’ll never see my family again.” My eyes follow the length of sun on the carpeting, to the edge of sofa, up his gangly, resting legs and to him. His face morphs from ether to reality, a presence in the here and now. Raw with reckoning.

“And it… ruins me.” He begins to weep quietly, looking at his feet, the sadness quaking through him in small tremors. It’s silent but for the sound of his sniffles and mumbling, those quiet signals of pain.

“I’ll never… see them again.”

I can feel his presence inside me, my empathy reaching and embracing. The bits of himself scattering, a loneliness. Without shelter. The longing to belong, to drop and moor. Cling onto mother as a toddler instinctively does. And I wish I could be an angel to him.

 

 

It’s about four miles away, an hour walk. Not the first town nearby, but the second. How did he know I had the black tooth. Did it track me here. Is that how he knew? What is this safe house really for. I search for the esoteric constellation for how he and I came to be here. And I find bits and pieces of a maze but not the ultima. What will he tell me. Will he tell me about Jamie? About a new life? Or will he kill me. I turn back to see if anyone follows.

It’s all clear… the bright, silver day, the green, wild hedges with needle-tipped thorns. Mist instantly evaporating into light. A secret sublimating. Born amidst all this.

 

 

 

CONDUIT

The town stretches wider than the one closest to us. I walk systematically through each row of road, back and forth. My eyes search the charming buildings and signs while being led astray by the fine imprint thrown by the tree’s leaves. The black, intricate patterns flower rapturous, wild and beautiful all around me. They’re a reverie of dream under lyrical canopy. I’m reminded of the time I searched for the black dot. How that started it all. This is another chapter, but I don’t know where it leads. Whether to a staleness or heroics or death. My logical side hopes for Jamie, which isn’t very logical, I know.

I see it hidden in a corner. A pine green and black wooden building. An old and faded hotel, grand with history. Gray, veiny marble and brass filigree decorating the steps and wide door. Titan’s Cross.

I walk in and an expansive lobby unfolds before me. Glossy wood paneling, workers preening in stiff wool, navy suiting. Expensive, beige stone floors so clean you can eat off of. Exotic palms planted in pots the size of a round dining table. I expected grunge and strange, critters that never see the light of day. I snuggle deeper into my hood to obscure my identity from the overhead cameras. There’s a group in their young-twenties laughing and prankstering. Their body language carries itself carefree without pretense, urgency or coyness. The hormones create excitement in the air as they joke and guffaw. And their faces are kind and open, unmolested by anything rotten. No angst. They create a commotion and movement I can hide behind.

I don’t want to seem odd by walking around so I stand and survey the area while looking at a directory, peeking at every nook and cranny, every doorway, archway, and pathway to find something that leaps out. I don’t see anything. I don’t see nothing man. One or two workers eye me briefly knowing I don’t belong.

The hall to the restroom is the only one I haven’t explored from my vantage point. I walk towards the sign and enter. There’s one entrance for the men’s and women’s room. And I can see it splits into two separate rooms further in beyond the cameras. And right before the entry way, I see a sign. CLOSED FOR CLEANINGSLIPPERY WHEN WET. I laugh softly, inwardly.

I walk into the women’s side, search each beautifully crafted beige marble stall. It’s all gleam and mirrors and polished minerals. A cold subterrane to do private things in, to whisper sweet-nothings in. I find nothing, just light pinging off icy surfaces, piercing my eyes.

I walk into the men’s side and do the same. A janitor’s cart hides in the corner. When I come to the largest stall at the end I see the familiar, run-down shoes peeking, winking. I knock.

 

He lets me into the stall where he stands tall, not stooped like he is in the home. And he shows me a broad smile, it’s a gift. He is real and present. Not airy, not a saint. But a live, brick of human. He ushers me in, locks the door behind me, his janitor’s uniform draping loosely around his slim frame like a sagging flag. He removes his gloves with care and tidiness.

“If someone enters, we’re lovers.” He waits until I nod my understanding. “The black box. May I?”

I lean back against the stall, my head tilting up. He puts his hand on my shoulder to steady me. I open my mouth, feel the sticky pull and tug.

And he shows it to me. It’s still shiny and gelatin-like. He wipes it on his pant leg and bends down to pick up a black bag from the ground.

“Wait,” I say. I need to know some things first. I squeeze his arm so he knows I’m serious.

He stops, realizing that I’m there. That he needs to deal with me first before dealing with his agenda. His back straightens, his hand drops the bag. And he faces me, straight and righteous. Palms open.

“Ask me.”

“How long have you been at the home?”

“A month or so.”

“Was there a guy there? Before me? With blonde hair, blue eyes, lean body.” I’m urgent.

“No,” he shakes his head. Sees the sadness in my eyes and knows that I’m asking about a loved one. “Sorry, no.”

I feel a death slam inside. It’s an unbroken answer. I need a moment to grieve. No, after this… I need to hold it together here. Here.

“What is this about?” I ask. I’m confused about the black box, what it is, what it symbolizes, what he’s trying to do with it. I’m a conduit for something and I don’t know what.

“This…I believe it’s proof of something… we could never imagine.”

“Proof of what?”

“Something we’re not to know about.”

“Nothing is as it seems.”

We nod in unison.

He pauses. “There are rumors. About the unethical.”

“How did you get involved. Did a group reach out to you. I want to know what group is involved.”

“No group. Someone just asked me to help.”

“Who do you know? Who asked you?” I want to ask if he knows Dr. M but don’t want to give myself or him away.

“A friend. A good one.” His eyes flash with a sad hint of memory. An overcast back story with body language hidden in shadow.

He pulls a tablet and extension out of the black bag. Inserts the black box into the extension, which he inserts into the tablet. His movements act angular and precise here, not like the stardust at home.

How long does he have? He enters a multitude of codes in crisscross entry points and we’re in.

 

 

 

CURL INTO

A jet-black screen. No movement, no silhouette.

A smattering of agile footsteps rattling like rain on a roof.

 

Robo voices recite nonsensical codes. Young children repeat them and learn.

46-N-Y-1

33-L-Q-34

3-S-K-55

 

Then the elucidations.

Stab. Stab. Stab.

Strangle. Strangle. Strangle.

Shoot to kill.

 

The children repeat and incorporate them into memory. Their high, wee voices not lifting or lowering. Flattened to follow. Eerie one-tone chirping.

 

Then silence. I imagine them viewing silent movies that show the actions.

Strangling. Aiming for the heart. Knifing. Twisting the spinal cord at the neck.

 

All the infinite ways to seize the light.

To teach action without consequence.

To not value life.

 

 

 

It’s dark when I’m back. Quiet, and all the bedroom doors are closed. The aroma of dinner still falters in the air. This is my favorite time, when the action has settled and innuendos of it still hang in the rooms, like calico patterns of intentions and conversations flowering in my mind. Nothing man sleeps away some nights and now I know why. His job gives him accommodations after a long shift. He’ll have to be extra careful to hide everything.

What I’ve seen… It reels my mind. Translates into a weft and warp that I try to weave into a coherent story. A tale of greed crisscrossing with the unimaginable. Of going past a point of no return. Everything past this will have us desensitized, willing.

I walk up the stairs, lost in this new recognition. New memory. safe house mother hasn’t replaced the hall bulbs yet. I turn to my door when I’m yanked and pushed against the wall. A dry sandpaper hand suffocates my mouth. He hisses, “Don’t you dare honey.”

It’s old corpse-like man, surprisingly strong and forceful.

There’s an airless moment.

“You delicate, exquisite thing. Simply exquisite.” His tone enunciating every syllable, every “s” sound.

I stare wide-eyed. Blinking fast and quick, my only form of defense.

I feel a tip of knife at my throat, the blood coursing right under the barrier of skin.

“I like young precious things.” He removes his hand from my mouth, trails a finger down the center of my neck, down my shirt, to my sternum. Waits, like a punctuation.

“To add to my collection.” His finger traces from my sternum to my stomach. And on.

No, no.

“So young, so small and thin.” It grazes me down there, tracing the vulva’s line from the top to the bottom over my pants, that spot of penetration.

I freeze. I don’t know if I should transport into the land far away or somehow fight. His grip and push overpowers, walls me in. I can’t see anything, there’s nothing to distract my eye with. Just his face like char, his reptilian eyes. The snarl through the words. I could yell, but he’d slit my throat so cleanly. I know he can cross that line easily without hesitation.

His finger reaches under and rests on the second hole. Pushes in through the fabric. He has a pulse of my anus. I’m weeping silently.

“I’d like to bleed you too. Taste it. Know what you’re made of.”

I’m falling, turning. Going into an inky gloom.

“Like the Zeus and Venus.” He watches my eyes. Feels me down there. For reaction. For a cue. The beginning and end.

My face remains blank. I roll to a gummy form of surrender, neither here or there. Stuck to now.

“Are you the one.” He stares, but doesn’t find any trifle or iota. Pauses. Quickly pierces the skin on my neck with a flick of his wrist. A sickle on my neck. And throws me on the floor before going into his room.

 

He is a dupe. The nark in this house, waiting to search me out. The one. If he finds me, he finds the last trace of this journey, this yearning. And they’re so rapacious, so carnivorous to find it. To kill it so nothing can be fertilized.

He doesn’t know who she is. It could be me or the young abused woman. We both arrived in the same time frame.

And suddenly I know Dr. M is dead.

I hear a stir in a room down the hall. Crawl into my room and lay on the floor, curl into a circle within myself, my blood crusting.

 

 

 

BLUSHING QUIETLY

A tall, dark, round pillar of steel with a blue seam of light sliding left to right. And a vertical rectangle of red light, roaming from top to bottom.

A line of boys with shaved heads, of different heights and ages standing naked in line. Not skinny, not fat. They range from three years old to about fourteen and the red, puffy birth marks on their hips or thighs are scanned by the red light. There is no fidgeting, no words. All the glib impulse of childhood gone, no flora of thought.

 

Long tables of young boys eating. My eyes are drawn to a painfully thin, Caucasian child sitting towards the end. He’s about eight or nine years old with wispy blonde hair beginning to grow in. What draws me is the old, yellow-green bruise on his eye, his sunken-in posture compared to the strong, athletic backs of everyone else. A curved anomaly in a sea of straight.

A neighbor reaches out and slides his tray of food away, so quick and sly without even a glance. The young boy slides it back, and he’s pushed to the ground by another. A gang of four rises, begins to punch and kick. He holds his arms up in a cross to defend, they crumple and break. He curls into a fetal position as the kicks and aggression build to crescendo. He’s pulverized before our eyes. Someone takes a steel cup and pounds it into his head over and over. His eyes seal tight, willing it all to stop.

I remember thinking who could take this boy’s light away. Why.

Where did the anger originate.

I remember him on my table. How brittle and thin and starved he was.

The blood blushing quietly on white cotton.

 

 

“I heard it’s contaminated. The house works for most people, but it’s been infiltrated.”

I want to hear more. I nod.

“To keep tabs, to find out who helped who.”

“How did you find it?”

“The word’s out. Not with the public, just with those who are… so inclined. I walked to it. Said I needed help. That I informed on some bribery scam, something low level. And she took me in.”

“I had a driver.”

“Yeah, he was supposed to deliver it to me, but he wanted out. That’s why I had to go to the home.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Must’ve felt the heat. He said the next body would be the last. So Dove panicked and sent it with you.”

I’m seeing a fragment of the trace now. “Who’s Dove?” I want to know if he’s Dr. M.

“That’s… private. Not now.” He looks down, begins swelling with regret and sorrow. His fingers rest folded on his lap, trembling ever so, as if crying through his hands.

Then there’s the sound of chambered footsteps entering, pausing to decide which stall.

 

 

 

THE WEAK

I realize this is the second point. The time when I decide. The first point was out of curiosity and duty. The second meeting is deliberate, where I make a decision. This is where your life curves, sometimes sharply towards a foreign arena. Or sometimes ever so slightly in a slanted direction off the original.

I start this new branch by agreeing to write about what I’ve seen on the black box. To inform and tell again. It’ll be sent back and printed at home.

 

 

“I need to know something.”

His eyes are piqued.

“Is Dove a doctor? Doctor Larren Mavy?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t think so… Dove was my boyfriend. A long time ago… Who’s Doctor Mavy?”

“I worked with him…” I’m awash in memories of him. Not really memories, but a whirlpool of feelings I had. The hot anger, confusion and fear. Being powerless and tight-lipped. An ounce of compassion.

He’s lost in his own memories. “Dove was a technician. No… is. He IS a technician. Who worked at the facility. The machines would break pretty often so he would have to wear a bio-suit and fix them when they were out. He installed the camera behind the visor.”

“Where is he now.” I already know.

“Gone, somewhere. He doesn’t answer or return calls…” His voice falters, he knows too. “I’m doing this for him. He was… so… virtuous. Never met anyone like him. He KNEW…” His eyes shine opalescent.

“I’m sorry…” We both know he’s dead or close to it.

“I hadn’t heard from him in a year, then out of the blue. He told me I had to show the world. That I knew how. He couldn’t. He told me I couldn’t turn away.” He’s in another world.

A heartbeat.

A breath.

“He was always right. I should’ve stayed, then maybe he wouldn’t have gotten into this. But then how can you forget and live with yourself.”

I continue listening. He needs to talk this out.

“He couldn’t. That wasn’t him… He called them robo-matrons… He said they were steel mothers who would fuck you over a good one. Torch your soul.”

A remember.

“He said he meant everything. Wouldn’t do it different no matter what.”

I imagine a man, zipping up a white bio-suit so they can’t grow attachments to non-clones. He enters the vast, empty room. He can hear the clatter of cutlery against steel bowls next door. The gallop of swallows and gulps. He opens the robo-matron, sees its circuit boards and wiring. He fixes what he needs to, peeks around to ensure the other robo-matron is in the next room with the children. His fingers clench the bug, he’s ready to slide it behind the glass with a slip of finger. And this is when his life changes.

 

 

Robo-matron announces a code in a harmonized, low, monotone hum. Synthetic vibratory chords in robo-tone. They sit upright on their beds, wearing white t-shirts and shorts. Good, little, human dolls. A male in a bio-suit goes from bed to bed with a tray and needles. Injects serum into their arms quickly, as if he didn’t want to be there, as if the whole thing were a grotesque affair. His lumbering figure represents the only human presence in the room. Not rigid, not straight as a rod, but one with points of potential weakness that can be detected by eye. A hint of possible casualness in another situation. A vulnerability in the flick of hand. I wonder if it’s Dr. M, but it’s not. There’s no stoop to the posture.

Most of the children don’t bother to watch him, they stare ahead, wait for the flinch then the next code. But I see one with olive skin turn slightly to sneak a look, make eye contact. What did he feel, a chill or warmth. Cold, hard concrete or an opening in the coral. What was he searching for.

He’s somehow stunned, experiences a sudden seizure, shaking in place, eyes twirling back. Every bit of curiosity electrified and evaporating. He awakes a moment later with a stone-cold face, shriveling within himself.

Nothing man says the implants hidden behind the red birthmarks zap them when they misbehave or act in such a way that implicates introspection. Aggression is allowed, independent thought and observation are not. Courtesy of the ever-watching robo-matron.

 

 

Night. A blue light glowing in the corner. Their bodies writhe during sleep. They moan in pain unconsciously through their dreams, scratch their arms and legs. Clutch their elbows and knees tight against their bodies, like insects attempting to cocoon, wishing they could spout soft thread to cushion their life. Their hollow cries echo in the warehouse of a room while the machine listens diligently.

I believe they’re experiencing growing pains instigated from the serums. Nothingman tells me they can grow one from birth to eighteen in a matter of about nine months. I marvel at the idea of flesh stretching, bone calcifying at such a rapid rate. The scaffolding interlocking, nerves wrapping around as if in love. What it could mean for medicine and the injured. For a second I’ve forgotten about them and what they stand for. What’s been done.

 

 

It’s transporting slowly down an aisle in a dark room. I didn’t know they could move. A faint red light in the corner oscillates on and off. The darkness engulfs everything, but you can still see where you are. Metallic cubes line the row on one side and when it glides past a cube, an overhead light activates, shines down into the cube. And I can see inside, past the glass lid.

There’s a gelatinous compound, cushiony and immersed in liquid. Holding still with orange flecks suspended in the serene. And at the very center, a flesh-colored seahorse or shrimp-like thing or being, lying on its side, submerged. Crimped and spiraled, snuggled in the gel, the machine sloshing every few minutes or so. Then darkness as it moves onto the next one.

I remember the baby with orange bits stuck in his lungs. This is his story, the beginning of him. He was a throwaway project that didn’t meet the quality control. All the ones I saw on my table were the weak. Or still had a spark.

 

 

 

A VOID

She demands angrily, wants to know who put the sponge in her jar. No one bats an eyelash. Dreamy woman was in the middle of pickling vegetables when she decided to take a long break. When she came back she found a sponge in one of the jars.

I don’t have the heart to tell her it was me. Her jars, open without lids, were placed haphazardly throughout the kitchen, on the countertop and table, the stove, even in the sink where I was washing dishes. Her approach seemed unsanitary. I wanted to finish washing and didn’t have the patience to move it to the floor, the only spot in the kitchen not piled high with dirty dishes or pickling jars.

It fell in there when I reached over to get soap for the small square of sponge I was using. Our supplies are limited so we cut the sponges into quarters and use them one by one. I remember seeing the blood red sponge settle slowly among the bog of cucumbers and herbs in liquid. Trying to squeeze my hand past the opening to fish it out, but not being able to. Deciding to stop right then and walk away from this morass. From her impossible and messy schemes.

 

 

A line of dirty, unkempt male prisoners, handcuffed to the wall behind them. Gruff beards, some muscular, others with bellies. Young and old.

A crowd of older male clones, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old, hard and buff. There are two versions, stocky Caucasian, the one I saw at the river and on my table. And the olive-toned wise one and his twin without the wisdom. Their shaved heads glisten under the bright pans of lights, and they wear the uniform of white shirts and shorts.

The prisoners’ faces expose a carousel of human emotions. A grimace, fear, anger, amused boredom. The clones espouse nothing through their impassive expressions as they mill around in a mass on the other side, waiting for it. Waiting for it.

The code is announced. A clone in the crowd knows it’s for him, and he moves through the cluster towards the center of the empty space. The first prisoner is unlocked and shoved forward by a man in bio-suit. He doesn’t know what to expect, what this is for. Is this a class of some sort filled with twins? He doesn’t know he’s prey. They go around in anticipation, sizing the other up, the prisoner realizing with each passing second that he needs to fight to survive. He builds himself strong and tall for the inevitable approach. They grapple, wrestle for a few seconds on the white tiled floor when the prisoner’s neck is handily snapped to the side. The sweat smears as the clone drags the body to the corner.

The prisoners’ faces wave to fear and reticence. The steely clones are no match and they know it. A second code is announced and the next match begins. The two are a muscular ring, hands on shoulders, moving round and round, grunting, pushing, shoving, waiting for the final tumult. This one is stronger, wants to live. Perhaps he thinks he’ll be freed if he wins. But there’s a commotion in the corner amongst the crowd of clones. Another code is announced and the fight drops. The prisoner stands bewildered and out of his element, feeling bizarre, not knowing what role he’s to play. His arms open as if to say, now what.

They form a line to expose the mystery – an overweight, Caucasian clone in the back, sitting on the blinding white floor, choking himself to death. His thick hands a metal cuff on his neck, closing in. A snaky vein pulses on his forehead, ready to explode.

There’s a ripple through their body language once they all become aware, as if an awakening saw the light of day. As if something became unstitched within.

He’s zapped and goes through the seizure, but it makes his meaty hands grip harder, his breath gasping and gagging, face flushing into a shocking crimson, his body finally going flat as lumber, like a felled tree. Choked to death. They murmur, low and strange and foreign to themselves.

The humans freeze, they can feel a seismic event approaching.

The clones turn towards the each other and begin fighting savagely; biting, clawing, gauging eyes and testicles. Not the clean, efficient kill motions they’ve been taught. I can’t tell which one started it or how it began. It is a clap of switch. The spell has broken, forced them to see, letting loose the confusion and hate and ugly they don’t know what to do with.

Robo-matron dictates a code to introduce order, but no one listens. The code is repeated without effect.

They’re all zapped at once, sailing to the ground like loose shirts uninhabited by bodies, seizing and sinking into coma.

There’s a gravid stillness, the sound and feel of a nightmare ending. Only humans and machines left, everyone observing the carnage before them. The bright red blood spilt on white tile, slipping into canals of grout. The bodies going through the final shakes and descending into a blizzard of sleep. The sonorous, rhythmic breathing of those still alive, their heaving mountains of chests. And that’s when I notice the low dents in the second robo-matron far away by the door.

 

 

He leans closely, ear placed gently on the couple’s door to hear the syllables of their muffled speech. He’s under the spotlight that safe house mom has replaced. I see him on the way to the bathroom and stop mid-step then turn to return to my room, my heart pounding out of me. He puts his crooked, blue finger to his flaky, parched lips when he sees me, as if to say shhh. It’s our secret.

He wants to learn if she’s the one that worked with Dr. M. If she is, he’ll track her every move to learn if the line extends further, if there are others who are helping. His mission is to learn what else they will do, to kill all the points along the way to the very end.

I want to warn her to watch out for him, but then I don’t. She wouldn’t appreciate it, and she doesn’t want to have contact with me. I’m no glutton for punishment. I don’t think he’d hurt her if it turned out she wasn’t the one. But I worry about misunderstandings that lead him to believe. I worry for her safety and anyone she interacts with. The innocent and the accidents. But it’s too much for me to explain, I don’t want to get into it, don’t want to help someone who chose to ignore me.

 

 

“I haven’t heard.”

The news undercuts me.

An idea.

“Do you want to…”

“I’m not sure…” I can hear my voice trail off non-committal and out of body. I had planned to move ahead. Not go backwards.

“It’s up to you. No shame in…”

“How would I?”

“There’s a tunnel. Only five miles or so.”

“I don’t know…” My voice anguished and quiet, as if my heart was torqueing. As if I’m about to say no, enough.

“Think about it. Let me know soon.” He is patient and kind. No judgment even though he risks everything.

I look away, I’m not able to meet his eyes, which are dark and ageless and watchful. An unfettered portal.

 

 

I want to make the right decision. The responsible decision. One that’s a win-win for me and others. Who am I. Who do I want to be.

I don’t want the bittersweet answer.

Or the one that’s a one-way looking glass.

I yearn to forge a new life, find a job, make friends. Have a safe lagoon to rest in, a cozy corner of the world where I belong. Where I’m loved and accepted.

I’m tired. Of it all.

It’s just me.

I could become a void. Avoid.

Who or what do I answer to.

 

 

 

FRIEND

The first thing I notice are his bare feet. The six long, beige toes fidget, tap to and fro in small movements, like the hair-thin arm on a timer. It’s a slight oddity or shift in a room of stealthy silence, as if the room were not inhabited by living beings. He looks ahead with the others, the tips ticking just a bit.

He grips something tight in his fist, something mostly hidden. The olive-toned man-boy of about nineteen years old stands at the back of the line, the last one in a moving train towards the door. He turns and gobs his fist to his mouth. Downs its contents, swallows hard, forcing it, stuffing it so…

He waits… to be brought down. Searches the ceiling like I did at the hospital, when I wanted to leave the here and now. And he staggers in fluid fashion to it, the cold and ruthless. The zap is too late, it didn’t heed the warning. And somewhere I think I see the beginning, a small uptick of lip. Not a smile. A gasp, miniature schism, past the machine into the between.

I wanted to ask him why. And now I know.

Now I know.

He was the one without a sentry.

I wished I could be one to him. Some kind of solace.

 

 

This is a story of them. Birthed by us, the worst part of ourselves. The part that hungers for power and dominion. As if that’s what makes us everlasting.

The part that believes the ends justify the means. And the ends are never in sight because it’s never enough. No matter what they say.

 

 

There’s a peek. And I cry out loud when I see it, my hand going to mouth. A naked baby, barely one years old or so, lying in a metal box on a mattress. In a dark cave, under artificial lights. The chubbiest legs and feet, kicking and climbing air. Smallest fingers reaching out, wanting to be picked up and held. A gurgle and call for attention. And then a zap to destroy the craving for touch and comfort.

A combusted child, descending into the neverland to forget the human side. To awake, to feel, to want, to be zapped. Over and over. And I see it. In the crook of elbow, a birthmark, the one with a wagging tail pointing towards the wrist. The same one.

He’s here. I’ve found him after all the longing, hoping, searching.

And I see it. A row of five of them.

Jamie. Jamie. Jamie. Jamie. Jamie.

 

 

 

Morning air tastes different from afternoon or night air. It mists damp and clean, tastes of the cool and neutral. Dew tainted with the transition from winter to spring, with palate cleansing calm. Like iced cucumbers. I inhale and savor.

Far ahead, a peach dawn washes into view, staining the sky with undertones of light, showing its ultimate secret. The passage of time.

Everyone needs to see this. At least once, to understand.

I meet him at the hem of forest, past a rolling field of wheat that’s miles from the safe house, the shadow of forest a colossus over us. I feel strange and awkward and tender and frightened. Uncontained.

“So… this is the last time.” He hands me a flashlight. I’ve heard this phrase many times in my young life.

I nod, look down, not knowing how to handle the opposites of my emotions. The rubber band stretch between them. I want to stay.

He points into the forest, which is reminiscent of the one I envisioned in the hospital. “Straight for a mile then you’ll see a flower. That’s the spot.” His smile runs the gamut from regret to sympathy to strength. The naked on display.

“How will I know?” I imagine flowering trees galore, confusion. Hunting and sniffing for the one.

“You’ll know.”

I accept.

There’s a moment of the unsaid. The warnings, the reminders, the fate we find ourselves in.

He reaches out, squeezes my arm with firm clarity, dark eyes direct. “Friend.”

I’m touched by the simplicity of the word. How it conveys everything we could ever wish for the other. “Yes, friend.”

 

 

 

IMPENETRABLE

Acorns, seeds and branches crunch under my steps. I search amidst the wide girthed trunks and impenetrable bushes, but I also remember. I can’t help it, I should be alert and present, but my mind takes me back to the last time. I’m still absorbing.

 

 

“I don’t really understand why…” Part of me knew, but couldn’t accept. I needed to hear it spelled out. I hide things from myself when I can’t…

“Really?” He was incredulous, a bit flabbergasted.

Embarrassed, I mumbled. “I need to know what you think…”

“Put the pieces together.”

I stared, I wanted to know.

“A war is being planned. And wars are always about resources and power. Always.”

And suddenly I understood why I couldn’t accept. It would be too humiliating. I would be too angry. I was trying to protect my innocence.

“Chemical warfare,” I said.

He nodded, waited for my awareness to rove and finally bind me tight. Rope me in and never let go.

We are lab rats in their experiment. The dust is a filter. To find the exceptional ones.

 

 

It made me want to sleep. Forever turn my back. Because facing the truth… it means all the bad things in life. Distrust, cynicism, lack of clarity, the grand betrayal, the kind of anger and bitterness that destroys from the inside. All the damage we do to ourselves and others in a rage, then how it sets you apart from others into a stifling loneliness.

It means I have to purposely push the bad away, even while I want to wallow in it and use it as a badge of some kind of damning knowing. It takes energy I don’t think I have. It sucks all the will up. I’m too young to know how to revive, how to fall and stand up again. How to purposely choose to focus on the good in life and people, even when the noxious bad seeps in. Maybe even the old don’t know how. It takes such discipline. We can be so weak yet so strong. Perhaps that’s OK, but I’m not sure. My thoughts spin this way and that into spills that spread here and there when blown on. I put one foot in front of the other, hoping it’s in the best direction. The direction I belong to.

And I remember Jamie sleeping. His eyes shifting under soft, closed eyelids. I wondered what dreams he was diving into. What vistas, symbols and figureheads he encountered. I leaned down and kissed his forehead, silently praying he would be loved his whole life and never know loneliness and heartache. To the higher power, the universe.

And now… I wish someone would do that for me.

 

 

I laugh in surprise when I see it. A thin hole’s been bored into a grandfather of a tree and a plastic tulip pops its bulbous head out of it. I run my thumb over the dense, white petals dusted with light pink. Cold water droplets condense on the tips and fall to the ground. It’s glued so it can’t be plucked.

I stamp around, search for the hole in the ground. And I find it covered with moss, sticks and other woodsy debris a few feet away.

I lift the wooden, trap door. There’s a dense darkness there. The kind I’ve felt before, but have never physically seen.

I’m going in before I can think and stop myself, slipping into the undercurrent that will take me back. To the scene of the crime. I turn the flashlight on and its stream of light is swallowed whole into a river of deep and empty. My hand wades in, moving in circles to feel my way. And I notice how thin and frail it looks, almost translucent against the swamp of black. How can I.

 

 

 

TRAIL TO THE

Moss carpets the walls in amoeba shapes, as if continents on a map. A dank odor permeates and rests. My fingers run over the brick and moss, memorizing this spongey, rocky feel of the beginning. I want this scent of damp earth to ground me when I need it. It’s a moment I should be proud of, one I can’t go back on.

I take a gulp, adjust my backpack and begin. Point the flashlight straight ahead to detect inhabitants, animal or human. After a few steps my fear and sadness crest. I have to stop, lean on the wall and reorient myself. I snap the light off and crouch down, feeling the night hide me. I breathe to hold it in. But I have to let it out, the tears and mourning. I’m grieving the start to a new life I didn’t get a chance to grow. The one I leave behind. How will it turn out? How can I survive? I’m running to the very place I want to run from. It’s happening too fast.

But I know who or what I answer to. I asked myself and now I know.

I need to turn the light on. Take the steps and try. For five miles. For the best.

 

My mind flits from the meaningful to the meaningless. Sightings of things I never cherished the first time around. My friend the nothing man and his raised eyebrow. Mother and father making breakfast silently while listening to their favorite music. Danita studying Jamie as he climbed a ladder. Dr. M… the desperation on his face, then the panic at the thought of death. They play before me, as if the tunnel were a private theater projecting my holograms. Tunnel vision.

 

The tumbleweeds of dust I collected are long gone. I saw a baby Jamie and wished I could raise him. Wondered if his bright spirit could be extinguished into oblivion. I don’t want to know. How did it come to this.

 

This is what I think happened – the faint, mysterious blueprint for what we built, no choreography, just inspired footsteps and intersections of destiny.

Dr. M wanted to tell, something came forward within him. But he couldn’t do it. That part of him was selfish and cowardly. He may or may not have known about the clones. But he knew about the dust and he put that on me. Laid it on the doorstep of my conscience. Manipulated me into obeying the short path he set. He coldly analyzed my situation, thought I had nothing to lose because I had nobody. He didn’t know if I would be caught or not, but I ended up there, right before him.

And I was used as a tool to subvert and investigate him. They somehow sensed he may have had a hand in it.

He knew raven and how she felt long before I got there. One can decipher these things after working side by side for years. All it takes is one look, one word and there’s a click of ideology. A claim to an understanding. And he sent her to me as his last deed, as the last of what he felt he owed me. The pill and safe house. Even though he could’ve let me die to bury the secret. It was the second time something came forward within him.

She knew a driver from eating in the cafeteria or from smoking together behind the building. Or some other product of habit at work. They sized each other up, saw someone who’s often overlooked by society. Just as they were. Maybe it took a small derisive comment about what they both knew and didn’t know. How something didn’t smell right. If only she could talk about the things she’d seen. How fucked up it was. And this familiarity solidified over time. And one day, she asked, could he do a favor for her. It would be one way to fuck the system. She received a “hell yeah”. And the yes was passed to Dr. M and perhaps another physician. One part of the path was set. Did the driver know anyone in the next state?

Yes, somehow he knew someone. A cousin or other good friend from years past. I imagine their tribe full of rabble rousers, the careless, the risk-takers. Born wild and untangled. Both were drivers. One delivered dead bodies from the hospital to the crematory. Deliveries with bodily fluids require a chaperone, a human driver. The other delivered desperately needed, sanctioned produce to the edges of our state. He worked for a small delivery company that hadn’t yet upgraded to robo-vans. But that could be any time now, everything is rapidly transferring to those. They met periodically on their routes to have lunch and shoot the breeze in the woods. Loosen the invisible leashes. It was a coincidence, a loophole of miracle.

An address was passed in code. And that’s when the fake-dead bodies were delivered, like me. It didn’t happen often at first.

Dove happened to live in the apartment next to the dead body driver. Or there was some other social link. They may have gotten together with the other people in their social milieu and complained over drinks about the news they weren’t allowed to access. But not too much, just in jest. You don’t know who will squeak on you. And one day, one of them sensed a vestige of shadow, saw a brief look of disgust flicker in the eyes. And they spoke privately, venting and expounding. They held the secrets of the other. One day, Dove told him he needed to pass some damning information to his ex-lover. Did he know how. He couldn’t send it digitally, it would be too risky.

The produce driver wanted out by now. It was too much. He felt it looming and steamrolling towards him. The eye, the arrest. And he was correct. Safe house mother knew him and his company. She could rat on him whenever she wanted. For the time being she didn’t because she wanted to keep the informants coming. To find the link back to others who helped. To help the government uncover the faint capillaries of networks that could become veins then arteries. The drivers argued over doing the right thing, helping those who fought oppression, those at the beginning of those thin capillaries. But his mind wasn’t changed. He said, one more body then I’m done. And so, Dove’s information traveled with me to the safe house, which Dr. M thought would be my way out. The home began as a true safe house, but somehow the government snaked its way in via safe house mother.

Dove asked nothing man to go to the home. Get the information on my tooth. He insisted on it. Demanded it. Felt a surge of righteousness, that he was on the edge of getting this right. Of exposing it to the world. He needed nothing man to gush the veins open. He didn’t have the knowledge or internet access to do it himself in our country. They had brief conversations via throw away phones and perhaps even felt that old longing for the other. But there was no time for sentimental wishes as Dove pushed and pushed single-mindedly.

Nothing man called him and the produce driver and never heard back. He knew the produce driver had moved on, was scared and didn’t want to be a partner in crime any longer. And he knew that Dove had been found out, disappeared into the depths. But he, himself, was not found out for he still lived and his tourist visa to another country was approved. A country that allows its citizens more liberties than ours.

He will leave soon too. And he’ll create a non-traceable website to show the videos, to show the world what our country has done. Within one week. And then he’ll disappear into the crowds of this new country and start a new life. Never see his family again. Never leave a trace to stop the dogs cold.

And I am going back to our city to find a printer. To tell my fellow citizens. Dove was to do it. It’s a calculated risk. I don’t know if I can find a willing printer who can keep a secret. I pray I can just return to my new state and find a job afterwards.

It’s the right thing to do, but I’m scared. If I don’t try, I know I’ll regret it. I’ll wonder if anyone in our city could’ve known. If only I had told.

We were all dominos, falling on one another in happenstance ways. No coordinated group, no real mastermind. No devised pattern. Just free will. One conscience after another awakening, agreeing to do one thing that leads to another, that leads to someone else. A moral imperative and small fuck you’s. Even if only once or twice. That was enough to create this trail to the truth.

 

 

 

DISAPPEARED

He will leave soon after me. He’ll say he plans to move in with relatives in another state. We don’t want to seem linked, but have no choice but to leave so soon after the other. Our timing must be impeccable.

And I said goodbye with warmth and sentimentality when it was my time. I told everyone I found a job a few cities away. Nobody asked where, they respected my privacy, the boundary I set from the very beginning. She asked what my forwarding address would be in case I accidentally left something. I told her I would be in touch if I needed anything, that was all.

I hugged the line of women goodbye and when I got to the abused woman I told her softly to watch out for old corpse-man. There was no time for her to ask, she could only digest the information. I reached out to safe house mother, took her hands in mine and told her how grateful I was for the home and her presence. How it meant the world to me and how it changed my life. I wanted to see through her, look into those dead eyes surrounded by happy crinkles and see if I detected a molecule of remorse. If she was on the edge, I wanted to push her over to the good side. I saw a granule of cognizance, as if she blinked and saw herself from the outside, high above. And then it disintegrated into vapor.

 

 

There’s a small ladder. I push up and out, squint to acquaint myself with the overcast light. I’m on the edge of another forest, this one drier and beiger. Less lush than the one I came from. As if I entered a poisoned land. Perhaps the dust from our city has its effects here too. Past the forest is an expansive, flat land waving with tall grass about chest-high. And further off in the distance I can see that the edge near the highway is shorn short. I shut the door behind me and do my best to camouflage its cover. I turn left as I was told to do. I believe my city is almost fifty miles away.

I walk in the fields, not near the highway. I want to be hidden and forgotten while I settle myself, get ready for what I need to do when I arrive. The tall grass undulates around me in the breeze, creating a glittering sound of rustle and high chatter. As if the universe were chanting some incomprehensible wisdom. Something I could understand if I could hear at that transcendental wavelength.

I conserve water by drinking small dribs from my bottle. I stop and eat crumbs of snacks. I sit surrounded by straight, thin reeds dancing softly. I study the sky’s graying nature, the stormy clouds that refuse to release rain. It’s drier here than the state next door. Arid and cooler. I think of how our science has zoomed ahead of us, but we don’t know that. How a country’s power grabs don’t just affect our politics and defense budgets, but how we live, feel and suffer, how we turn the other eye. How we value the of lives of others.

The sun sets behind the screen of clouds and the temperature drops, but not too much. I make a bed out of bent reeds and settle down for sleep surrounded by the soft surf of grass. I feel safe and comforted for the first time in a long time. Surrounded and protected. Enough to dream and search and comprehend. It’s enough.

 

Today I must find a ride to take me the rest of the way. I don’t have much time. Friend will have the site up soon. I imagine him readying a new expression for his face. A relaxed, cool one, as if he were traveling for fun. He embodies the feel, shapes the mud of his smile. I imagine him wearing plain, unsophisticated clothing. Nothing too poor looking or ragged. Nothing that suggests refugee or squatter. And nothing hip or up to date. Just a know-nothing, middle-class bumpkin going overseas for the first time. He’ll go through security with a loose body posture to deflect scrutiny, but keep his mouth closed with a wad of steel wool in it to obscure any potential signals that could pick up the black tooth. He’ll traverse the port’s many hallways, feeling set apart from the crowds. Somehow like an angel with the golden word. He’ll find his seat and wait and wait. Then finally lift off into the blue skyway, feeling that immense god force upwards. And once the plane has left our country’s air space, once he sees he’s in the middle of an ocean, he’ll lean back with eyes closed, breathing for what seems to be the first time in years while shedding a tear. He’ll think that maybe in five years or so he can reach out to his family to say hello, to let them know he’s safe, he’s come through the demons of the past. Maybe the dogs will have moved onto someone else by then. Maybe their memory is not so long.

 

I walk next to the highway on the shaved land. Every now and then I turn around to see if a car approaches. Numerous trucks pass by, most of them of the robo kind in a long train manned by one human at the front. I wave my hand at the individual robo-cars to see if one will stop and none have so far. The humans in them read or laugh or eat while flying past. In one slow moving car, a child watches me curiously while eating a lollipop. But there just aren’t many of them, not like in the past.

I wave my hand out urgently and a sleek, black car stops some feet ahead. The back door slides open. I lean in to find two young women in their twenties, hair coiffed and pampered, wearing refined yet casual clothing, sparkling a jewel or two. The one with short hair in a pixie cut says, hey, where do you need to go? I say my city’s name. She tells me they can drop me off at the city square, that’s where they’re going. I say that’s good and hop in. The other woman with long, blonde hair curled in the perfect, fashionable way sits back and watches, barely hiding her concern and disgust. It’s a concern for them, not me. I settle in back without taking off my backpack. I want to get there quick, not interact too much. A scathing unease waits to bubble up here.

Pixie tries to make conversation and asks where I’m coming from. I say I got lost, that’s all. Blondie smirks and says under her breath, god, from under what rock. Pixie gives her a dirty look and turns to smile at me. She says, that’s cool, we’ll be there soon, do you want a snack? She’s trying to be kind, offering it to me because she thinks I’m homeless. And I realize that I actually am. I want to be proud and say no, but I have to be realistic about my situation so I say sure. She hands me the basket holding the snack bags. I hesitate, my mind whirring and calculating, and finally take all five of the bags quickly before she can see that some of my fingers don’t have nails. I shove them into the pockets of my old jacket while looking out the window. She takes the basket back without a word. I can’t see blondie, but I can feel the derision and judgement. I am a vulgar one.

I’m tightly wound with worry and focused on the need to survive and they are loose, blasé, narcotic and calm. Just having fun, just having a ride to downtown. Jamie was the same. I can’t help but notice the difference between our mindsets. I don’t begrudge them for it, but I do begrudge blondie for the lack of simple acknowledgement that everyone deserves dignity. That’s all I ask for from these pretty, washed, fashioned women with their casual airs and moneyed lives. They continue conversing amongst themselves about how so-and-so did this and that. About the next home and party. And I wish I could feel invisible. But instead, I feel very present and hunkered, very ugly and dirty with unwashed teeth, old, baggy underwear with an old period stain and a scuzzy film of oil on my skin. A vagabond rodent in their company.

We float towards the city for some time, almost twenty minutes or so when I see the clouds of dust from afar. The heavy cover over the skyscrapers, as if it were a city of surreal doom. I hold my breath, I’m going underwater.

We park in the city square that bustles with busy people on their way to somewhere. They pull their jackets, gloves and ultra-clearify masks on while I wait in the back for the door to open. Pixie turns to me with mask on, notices I don’t have one. She’s about to ask something, maybe if I’m alright, but she stops herself. Looks down for a moment and pushes the button to slide open the doors. We climb out and I can feel her turn for a second as if to say goodbye, but I’m long gone. Disappeared.

 

 

 

THE SIGN

I remember the sign. I remember the neighborhood, it’s old coffee cafes and sordid pawn shops. The crowds of unkempt intermixed with a few grungy musician types. Corroded street signs that light up the streets jagged and irregular. I just need to get my whereabouts and find a way there. I should turn right here and go straight until I see the familiar. I’ve re-entered their maze. Of my own will. And I’m ready.

I hunch over to avoid the swirling dust, hide behind the frayed collar while peeking out to see where I’m going. People are a blur, mounds of objects I need to maneuver around to fulfill my mission.

After many blocks, something familiar catches my eye. But it’s not the sign I’m looking for. It’s something else. In a window high above on the third floor, a purple, electronic lotus pulses, its tubes of lavender blinking on and off. It’s a curious sight and incredibly clear, a lighthouse on a foggy, deserted night.

I continue on and after a block or so I see something else. Someone has printed large stickers of a purple lotus. Its glittery paint shimmers through the clouds of dust, like a magic spell or an iridescent jewel. Not tacky, nor a loud shout, but dignified posture. Radiant peace. They’re posted on light poles here and there. I’m wondrous, something rises within me. I can’t identify it because I’ve never felt it before. Could it be solidarity. A bit of my loneliness ebbing away.

I walk further, another half mile or so. And I see a worker beginning to paint a sagging billboard that’s perched atop a building like an old king, the spotlights illuminating the crippled visage. Its broken royalty. He stands at the corner with his black paint and begins painting over the bold splashes of purple, glow-in-the-dark graffiti, which says…

 

 

I AM A FREE BEAST

h3={color:#000;}.

FREE BEAST FOREVER

 

 

I stop and stare. I can’t move, but my mind spins with mental vertigo. I want to laugh and cry. Jamie, do you see this. The worker stops after painting over the “E” and “R” as if questioning whether it’s the right thing to do it. He reads the message over and over, weighs the consequences, waits. Then continues on, slow and deliberate. He’s only one person, an identifiable one who could be punished.

 

 

 

DOE-RAY-ME

There it is. The bright, orange sign to “Franken’s Drugs” lights up the veiled sky. Jamie had pointed it out to me as we passed one day. He said it all began there. The man gave him a chance and it germinated from there. I pace across the street while I gather my nerves and tactics. What do I say and who do I say it to. I cross the street.

Bells tinkle when I enter and I look for the sales counters. There’s only one and a middle-aged man works it, checking out customers who pay with their phones, watches or the chips in their forearms. He’s not friendly, no small talk, no bit of smile. But not hostile either, just business-like as he collects the funds. His short salt and pepper hair is traditional and his clothing is plain. His Asiatic eyes efficiently sort his duties and tasks. Next to the register, a book splays open. When it’s my turn I can see that it’s religious text. Not from the Sun Temple, but from times past. An older religion.

He stares when I get to the counter. I’m suddenly sweating and I turn my head slightly to see if anyone stands behind me. No one. The store is empty.

“Hi… do you have any tips for growing lotus?” I make direct eye contact and speak low and clear. I don’t want anything to suggest shiftiness.

“No,” he says as he looks away and towards the back of the store. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I can’t exactly detect if he’s telling the truth or if he knows but is scared.

“Do you know Jamie? He had blonde, curly hair.” I’m earnest, silently pleading.

“No.”

“He said you gave him a chance.”

Silence.

“He’s gone now… And I have the next story. The most important one.”

Just a stare.

And suddenly… “I remember he said you called him a devious bastard.” He had said it with kindness, in awe of Jamie’s idea.

A subterranean recognition passes under the shield of his face. He visually checks the front door, searches the back of the store and glances out a small peek of window to his right as he says airily, “Tomorrow afternoon.”

 

I walk out into a gust of cool air. It’s late afternoon. Where do I sleep for the night. I don’t want to go too far from the store, I need to keep it in my sights at all times. I know it’s irrational, but I fear it’ll disappear into thin air.

I should sleep somewhere in the open, not near an alleyway or near a crevice that I can be stuffed into. And I should avoid the homeless shelters because of the fingerprint, retinal and voice scans they take which are matched to the ones you took when you became an adult. The government would know that I’m free and alive. I remember taking the mandated scans at twenty-one years old. The pad warming my fingertips. The red laser gliding over my eyes, vibrating its way into every dark and light dip of my iris. My voice singing doe-ray-me-fah-so-la-tee-doh twice so my voice chords could be recorded. The way it felt as if my sight and voice were being stolen from me and I could do nothing about it. As if I weren’t allowed to have my own independent, private sight and voice. The way it didn’t seem to bother anyone, only me.

I eat sparingly. I use the bathroom in a run-down cafe. The grandmother behind the counter graciously fills my water bottle. I pass the time by wandering the neighborhood, but never straying too far from the drugstore. And when the dismal sun sets, I squat down for the night, crouching on the street right across from the drugstore in plain sight, not in a doorstep and not on a bench. I curl myself into a small pod on the ground, rounded and closed like a cannonball, my limbs turned in towards myself so no one can grab them and pull me into a sadistic nightmare. They would have to lift me instead, a heavy spore of human. And the crowds of people ignore me, they’re used to seeing the homeless in this neighborhood. And the silence in the dead of night is beautiful and frightening. As if anything good or violent could happen to me and no one would know.

 

The man sees me in the morning as he opens the store. He turns his head away as I look up, my eyes crusty and breath sour.

 

 

 

FERMENTED CABBAGE

I walk into the drugstore and the man nods. Looks to the back where the storage room is as he helps customers. I walk through the aisles of healthcare items, the creams for counteracting the dust. The gloves made of a new high-tech material that makes your hands younger. The cosmetics that promise to camouflage crepey, onion skin, like mother’s. And I open the door.

There are two men. One looks similar to the produce delivery driver with his long scraggly beard, cold eyes and rough clothing. All the outward signs of a rebel. The other looks like a buttoned-up accountant. A corporate bean counter with newly pressed slacks and shirt. The one who follows all the rules, even the sub-categories of rules. I don’t know what to make of the pair, but I remind myself that this journey has shown me that no one is as they seem. That there are vast dimensions past the external shell and disguise.

I say hello and tell them that Jamie is gone. And that I have the next and final story. I plunge in and don’t hold much back even though I fear I may be telling the wrong people. I have to trust so I pour all of it out. The torture, the safe house, the videos. I don’t tell them about the website, I want to hold that back for now to protect Friend… just in case… And I tell them about Jamie, my link to him, how he’s gone now and presumably dead. I end with one question… “Do you have ink?” I know that’s a put-upon, that I’m presuming and moving ahead too quickly for them. But I need to push, there isn’t much time. The ink is a potential roadblock since it’s tracked carefully. Jamie used a vegetable dye made in the country and sold on the black market.

They ponder quietly, weighing the pros and cons. How authentic is this? Are we willing to go ahead? All the things that have happened in the past couple of weeks. The pop-ups of lotus here and there and the government’s arrest spree of dissidents. It’s in the headlines and part of the nervous, stuttered chatter I hear as I sit in the old cafes. What are the stakes. Who is this young woman standing before them, reeking of body odor, telling them fantastic tales of revulsion. It moves too fast for them.

They ask if I have the text for the story. I say no, but I’ll write it now if you give me paper and pen. They turn to each other and read the sign language of the other’s thoughts. OK, they say. Give it to Franken. One of them leaves and returns with a pen, paper and envelope. I’m to write the total number of flyers I want printed, the maximum being fifteen hundred. I’m to deliver it by the end of the day and the flyers will be ready for pickup in two days, the afternoon.

The scraggly guy looks back as they leave and says, “We won’t help you give them away. That’s on you.”

 

The next two days are a zombie nightmare of walking, resting, eating, keeping on the move. Sleeping here and there during the day out in public and staying alert and awake at night for safety. I go into bathrooms and try to scrub my mouth with water and soap to keep my mouth clean. Wash my face, neck, armpits and feet. And I keep moving while drinking mostly and eating a bit. I worry if I stay in one place too long an officer will stop me and drag me into a homeless shelter. I try to walk at a slow pace to conserve energy. It’s a good thing I gained some weight at the safe house. It serves me well now.

 

I straggle in on the day. I’m a little crazy, but trying to keep myself grounded. The lack of sleep bounces my mind from here to there, as if I’m shaking a leg to keep awake. I’m coherent but then I’m not, in a daze, walking half asleep and half awake. Garbled and frantic. Franken puts out the “closed” sign, takes me to the back and shows me the large garbage bag full of flyers. Fifteen hundred. I open the bag, take one out and check the ending. Yes, they printed it, the web address. Just like I wrote. The ones who’ve created hidden access points to the unapproved parts of the internet can view it.

“Is it all true?” He asks as I run my finger over the purple lotus at the top. It’s volume 10.

“Look at my fingers.” He studies the stubs without nails, the alien, fetal look of them.

He’s solemn, not a man of many words. His pale lips are so motionless and yet I feel they want to shake loose and sputter something.

“How many do you want?”

“Twenty five.”

I count them off and hand them over, wishing he had said one hundred. Am I crazy for doing this. I’m in over my head. “Do you know who else I can give these to?”

“You don’t know?” He’s surprised.

“No… I never asked Jamie much about it…”

“Any store with a certain sticker in the window.” He walks out of the storage room and to the front where he points to fifteen square stickers in the window. Some are new and others peel at the corners. They’re cluttered and jostle amongst other signs for liquor and cigarettes. They’re small badges to promote lotteries, different packaged foods, and an assortment of cosmetics. He points to one with a green cookie and head of cabbage. It’s called “Fermento” and the tagline says, the best fermented cabbage cookie. He laughs at my grossed-out expression, “We had to make it sound bad so no one would ever ask for it.” All these symbols for other symbols. Double meanings and stand-ins for a voice.

 

I leave the store with the giant garbage bag in my arms, like the heaviest baby in the world. I plan to walk through this neighborhood and the two or three next door. Look for the fermented cabbage cookie. The site will be up soon.

 

 

 

ANCIENT WELL

I enter the first shop and take a deep breath. It’s an old-fashioned bakery without the charm, crumbling with ungraceful, unfinished, old wood. I ask to speak with the owner and take her aside. Her face and arms are a mixture of plump and strong. Freckles and powdered sugar hover on her alabaster skin making her seemingly capable of fairy magic, and thin, red veins crawl up her forearm in complicated webs. I note the array of her work behind her. The glossy red cherries plopped into cookies, the sparkling diamond dust of rock sugar. How they must provide a momentary peak of happiness in all this gray. I tell her I have the final installment of the flyer. She stares. I say quietly, how to grow lotus. Without a word, she turns and walks to the back. I pick up my garbage bag and follow to the privacy of the dark room where the bags of flour and sugar curve deflated and low. An emaciated mouse scatters as we approach. Can she distribute the flyer to those who ask for them? She nods and takes the twenty five I hand over. Give me more, she says and I want to hug her. Thank you, I say and slip out the front as the workers watch me bumble along with the giant bag.

And so it goes with the other vendors. A few ask about the blonde boy with curly hair. I tell them he’s gone, taken away, and a far-off look invades their eyes. As if knowing this could happen to them too.

I take small naps in the park, my head and shoulders a deadweight on the bag of flyers to keep them from blowing away, to safeguard them. It’s not really sleep, but a deadening of senses for twenty minutes or so as the flakes blanket me. It’s not the deep sleep you can bask in.

I’ve gotten it down by now. I go in and ask for the owner, take them aside to a corner or a back hallway, always out of the sight of others. I ask them if they sell lotuses. And they invariably stop the myriad of thoughts and priorities running through their mind as a distraction from what really matters. They notice my finer details, my tangled hair that’s turning into a matted textile or rug, my ragged clothing stained with dirt in skidded patterns, the fact that I don’t have a mask. Perhaps they even notice my musky scent of layered oily skin, my fermented breath, which I try to keep at bay. They question how far the government would go to trap someone like them. Would they send such a young woman, such a girl. Then I say I have the final installment, would they spread the word that it’s out. That’s all I ask. Please, I say. Please. This is the last one, the most important one. And they nod ever so slightly as a way to say they didn’t agree to anything if they were ever videotaped doing such a thing. And I hand the flyers over, stuff them in their hands. They take them and hold them out, not really accepting them. And I say once more, please, this is the most important. They nod again, a mere millimeter of movement but enough that I can see its accord and promise. Then I rush out before they can return them. In the back of my mind I know they could throw them out or even call the government. But I block that out as much as possible. I have to finish.

 

 

I’m delirious as I fall asleep. Is this my calling, what I was born to do? Not a career, not marriage, not a child. But this.

Everyone wants to do something special with their life. Some do it through climbing corporate or governmental ladders and others create businesses or focus on a craft. But those are only the few. Perhaps most turn to having children to build something monumental, push forward a lineage, a form of self that can live into the far future. But this is for me. This… This… as I drift…

I awake to find a medium-sized, cardboard box next to the garbage bag. Its warmth saturates my fingertips. I open it and find a glass bowl of rice and vegetables and meat seasoned with herbs and spice. They even left a spoon.

 

 

After a long day, I suddenly realize I’m in a deserted parking lot. The darkness has descended far faster than I kept track of. By now I would be on a street with more people. Crowds mean a better chance of safety. But I’ve lost track of time and find myself standing awkwardly in the dusk with my unwieldy bag and backpack. I see a pack of young men approaching me from the near right, as if a pack of animals roaming together yet aimlessly. They laugh and yell and joke, gesticulate wild and feral as young men can, the sound waves of their voices poking and jutting this way and that. I turn to walk away when a breeze blows with such a force, almost toppling me over. The lights turn off in an instant, the buildings and street lights snap to black descending us into nothing until our eyes adjust.

After I get up, the boys surround me without meaning to, as if they were a swarm of insects. They mutter and joust verbally with each other as I begin to see their silhouettes. I’m caught in the crowd of shadows and figments that bustle and tower over me. I’m frightened by the excess movement and noise of the male-centric mass. The powerful gust has windswept the parking lot of debris and dust. A sliver of river glistens a muted metallic color in the far off. I try to spy a way to slip out of this animated ring that’s somehow swallowed me up when a tall, hazy shadow approaches from the corner, begins to reach out in the commotion. I yelp like a small animal as his hand reaches over because I know he wants to grab my arm and a friendly guy with shaggy hair steps in front of me to block the intruder. He does this without looking my way as he continues to joke with a friend to his side. It’s a casual chess move, as if he didn’t see me when he shifted position a bit. He smoothly ignored me as he saved me to prevent drama and potential violence within the group. And the lights switch on. The street bulbs shine so bright without the curtain of dust, like a spotlight on the circle of us in the lower corner of the parking lot. I take advantage of the reprieve and rip through the crowd to run as fast as I can, turning onto the next street so the bad one can’t see where I’ve gone.

My heart thuds and thuds. I can’t slow my breath down as I merge into a river of people traveling the busy street to everywhere I can’t go.

 

 

I must never stop. I must continue to move along, trudge along. If I stop, I might be attacked or taken in. I must move. Move it. Push on. My eyelids droop heavy, as if they were weighted down by leaden eyelashes. But I refuse to stop during the night. I should meander in circles; no, circles might make me sleepy. Straight lines and angular turns keep you sharp. I’m desperate to keep ticking.

I’m marching in place and then in a straight line from here to there when I notice him. When did he get here? Was it when I turned and walked to the building with broken windows? I’m confused but the dust has a way of obscuring the facts. Isn’t that true? He’s an older man with the weathered, wrinkled face of an old folk singer or an old jazz whistler. His braids flow from his head to the tops of his shoulders and he doesn’t wear a mask. A fellow homeless. He smiles from afar. It’s a clear, pure one, no sly subtext about it. I sludge towards him as I fight the hooding of sleep and the showers of new dust. I don’t know why I’m magnetized to him. When I get to his crouched figure on the sidewalk, he says, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I nod my head in slothy stupor. He pats the spot next to him saying, it’s OK, I’ll watch over you. I want to stop for a second and think about it, but the subconscious globalizes my brain, and the conscious desperately wants to fall back and give up. I put the backpack and half-filled garbage bag in between us as I plop down and slouch over the bags. Then I see his immaculate, egg-yolk shoes in between the flakes that shade my eyes. I’m falling and delving, liquidizing into the blubber. The wobbly, viscous land of dreams and secrets. I remember what mother said. Yellow is safe, I mumble, eyes closing. Yes, it is, he says, now go to sleep.

 

I stir and turn my head. I’ve slept well, deep and restful for what feels like forever. I hear him pushing himself up, teetering to a balance with the wall as support. My hands slowly brush the blanket of dust off my face as I come to, my eyes still closed, still craving the ancient well of sleep. His shoes take a clumsy step and I feel a cold hand on my head, the whole palm covering it and waiting, as if a saint were blessing or praying for me.

 

 

 

BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, A DREAM

Let me tell you about it. The one where I become a fusion of this world and there. I stare at myself from across a breezy prairie field. The kind I smelled when I needed solace. That smell of sweet, sweet earth, the one that brings tears to my eyes, always. I can feel myself here and over there where she is, where she is me. A sort of optical illusion, a mirror displaying twins.

The wind gusts, flapping my white gown around me with a flick of sound. I feel a lightness, look down and see my body becoming covered with minute pinholes. An ultra-fine perforation.

And I can see it from afar. Tiny dots begin to cover her. Slowly I can see small, round views of the land and sky behind her, like seeing through a screen.

And they spread, but I don’t feel any pain. Just an incredible lightness each and every time the pins multiply and converge.

They merge into circular patterns of the first stem cells, multiplying and dividing. Beautiful mystery.

I’m disintegrating, becoming air molecules, floating into the heavens where the birds soar. Where the pollen floats. Where dreams yearn to be heard.

The last parts are the head and then the eyes. A pair of them float into the sun where things can be observed clearly.

I can see it all and then I can’t. All the sights and sounds disappear. I can feel them instead, as a magnetic sonar coursing through my body. And I want to cry because I can feel it all, the good and evil. The hope and despair. Our scars and laughter.

I see a flurry of everything settled on the ground thrown into the air, defying gravity. Even I am lifted up and can feel for a moment what she must feel.

It’s all here. I don’t regret the past and never will. I know where to start again, somewhere where things don’t fall apart, where things are bound by all this… yet not. Let me tell you about it.

 

 

 

THANK YOU

It signals to me, invites me from an out of the way corner. A hidden spot that draws me from my sight’s periphery, that spirit that lingers by your side until you turn to face it. I walk through the old door and smell that familiar scent of warmth, of cozy rooms, of cooked food from the room next door. Old books. Bound cloth and paper.

I run my fingers over the bumpy spines, the stretched leather, faded tweed and serrated paper. I don’t know what I’m looking for exactly. Jamie was the expert at that. I stuck my nose in things here and there until something caught my attention, some turn of phrase turned something in me. I’m too wound up to really explore, still mindful of the garbage bag and my backpack. And my own gritty appearance and feel. But I’m happy to be here, the safety and comfort thaws the nervous iceberg within. The man behind the counter with the shiny, caramel skin and gold tooth smiles warmly and lets me wander. He doesn’t follow me in person or with his sight as if I might steal something. He knows what happiness this is and wants to share it.

I remember grandma’s notebook and wish I had made a copy of it. And knowing how things turned out, I’m now happy I brought Danita to the orphanage when I did. I got a chance to say goodbye. I got a chance to explain and tell him I loved him. If I hadn’t done that, he would’ve been removed from my custody when I was jailed and it would’ve been chaotic and wild. A frenzy filled with the movement of everything and nothing worthy. All the words of love and wisdom lost to cries and shouts. There would’ve been no chance to tell him what he needed to know. I see how it worked out for the best, and I’m grateful.

I’m on my way out when it catches my eye. I smile at the man and turn to it, pulling carefully so as to not tear it. It’s a hoary book of names. Shaggy and disintegrating. I search the pages to see what it holds, a coincidence, the unexpected or a lie. Some kind of entertainment or mythology.

Jamie (Hebrew origin): The supplanter.

Danita (Hebrew origin): God is judge.

Eloisa (Germanic origin): Famous warrior.

 

 

I can barely sleep anymore. The adrenaline winds me up then crashes me under for blind moments. And then it begins again. I have this last batch, but I feel I’ve been everywhere in these neighborhoods. I could go beyond, but I’m physically weak. I try to muster strength, but I’m empty as I zombie walk, my body sludging forward, my mind scouring its corners for pleasure and happiness. Yes, I’m slowly going crazy from lack of sleep. I’m seeing things from the belly of the underside, becoming slow-motion, hardened magma as people shapeshift into bits of memory and spooks.

I miss Jamie. I imagine his wide smile meeting the outer edges of his face. How it swaddled me up. How it conveyed an unspoken vulnerability, as if he were a newborn child searching my face for the new world.

I remember Danita’s eyes examining the crowds for his mother and father. His posture of loyal waiting. How he wouldn’t have been angry if they eventually came back. I want him to embody the best of the world. And I can see that atom and telltale within him, the music rising to meet its destined meaning.

And Dr. M. I want to tell you… thank you. Thank you for everything, even the things you didn’t intend. I hope we meet again one day. I would tell you about the journey I’ve been on. I would tell you everything is done, that we are friends of some kind. The kind that twists and turns, but eventually finds the peace.

 

The masks droop and pour into the streets like molten glass and the streets become nets bouncing people up and down and their glistening hair slithers in to strangle me. I need to find a safe spot. The spiky demons are coming, they have my scent trail. Maybe if I… there… the familiar, orange lights. It’s a spell, the wizard’s zone. A hidden ghoul in the concrete says, the animal spirits are coming, hide soon. And I squirrel myself into a ball under the orange cast, hear groans marathoning high and low, louder and louder, as the blackest insects climb over me until they form a hard shell of armor, their little stick legs scurrying over my skin, kicking and getting settled in for the long haul. Kneeling in for insect prayers. Yes, it is, he says, go to sleep now… now…

 

 

Hey, are you OK, he asks as he shakes me awake. My dry eyes peer open and I see Franken in a smudge of gray feathers. The words won’t form. I can’t spit them out as I’m coming to. I nod. Do you want the… I ask slow and roundabout, still attempting to wake up fully.

He shakes his head no, no. I’ve been looking for you, he says.

I pick myself up and hand him the last of the flyers in the garbage bag, which is now ragged and torn.

He takes me into the store, leads me to the back storage room and another room within it. It’s for you, he says.

There’s a single bed and small table with a lamp. I’m in a bit of shock, the alphabet and consonant sounds don’t arrive.

It’s yours. I should’ve offered it before… but I didn’t know… His hands tap on the door before turning to leave me in privacy.

And when I hear him at the front of the store getting ready to open, when I know he’s far off, I fall to my knees and lean my head on the bed, my breath exhaling in one swoop, the tension and fear cascading by the wayside.

 

 

 

TEETH CLATTERING

This storm is one for the centuries. The wind blasts and pushes everything sideways, and everyone stays indoors on emergency orders, waiting for its tortured howling to pass. Rain pours incessantly, the sharp drip-drops spatter the streets, buildings and anyone who dares to venture outside with such a force, as if to pin the world down as it should’ve been. It’s been a few days now and we wonder how much longer until it’s all been spray-washed clean.

Franken and I play card games and help the occasional customer who braves their way in. The site has been up for a few days and today is the first I’ve heard of it in our state. Our media and political establishment can no longer ignore it as its brushfire spreads outside our state’s borders and within the heart of our city. Video is incontrovertible. The truth. I picture Friend in his new country smiling at this result as he thinks of Dove, his heart filling with satisfaction. We did it, he tells Dove. We did it. I see him planning for a future that has nothing to do with this, a fantastic secret he can tell his children one day.

The federal government will take over tomorrow. They say they knew nothing about it. They reassure the global community this is a rogue situation and that our state government will be punished. And the storm keeps citizens from protesting as it cleanses our atmosphere and streets of the dirty deed.

 

We awake early because of the lack of sound. Its absolute absence. No rain, no yowling, just an eerie stillness beckoning us to come out. The hunch and inkling before the white unveiling. And we do, hundreds of us. Into the streets to see the bright light against the blue forever, to feel the alluring rays. All the heads tip up. All the brains hungrily devour the new cosmos. All the corners of eyes crack open wide with awe. And our lungs balloon with crisp air. With life. And the anger is put away for now.

I can’t help but look down as everyone looks up. I see a hodge-podge of debris and garbage clotting the storm drains and laying limp on the streets in clumps. And I half expect to find strands of hair tangled in the tumbleweeds and plant-life blown in from the countryside, fingernails caught in ripped textiles and yarn as if clawing a way out, burnt bones masquerading as torn tree branches. Teeth clattering against steel as the last of the water trickles down the drains. All the remnants of sacrificial lambs that can never be put together again.

 

 

 

FLINCH

Franken leaves the heat on for me when he leaves for the night. That’s what I’ll remember most about him. It’s a small thing he doesn’t have to do that shows a specific thoughtfulness. He treats me like a human being, with dignity. He and his wife have done so much for me, but this is the essence of his character that I’ll cherish the most. I work at the store every day for a wage and I plan to save enough to leave and start a new life in another state.

 

 

Yesterday a warehouse on the edge of our city exploded. It would’ve been any typical news story in a metropolitan city, except it was where the clones were housed. And they escaped. I don’t know if it was caused by a clone or if it was a failed attempt by the government to burn them up. The clones wandered the city streets or stood awaiting their orders as if they were humans with half a brain. Unconnected robots without the download. The public gawked while gathering closer and closer to get a real look and take photos of the robots encased in human flesh. Their eyes searched for a touch of humanity, a tell of it on the exterior. They would have seen omens of it translated through a brief look of fear or questioning, a shaking hand or impatience twitching through the eyes. But only on those that still had that small, arching spark, like all the ones who ended up on my table. And before someone could think of getting close enough to rile one up, the codes were announced on loud megaphones throughout the city whereupon they marched to an unspecified location, past a checkpoint stacked thick and angry with officers and military, their robo-matrons waiting in the privacy of closed rooms.

Our public officials point fingers at the defense group and they point fingers at the science division and they point fingers at the governor. The matrix and mastermind are never revealed. We can only see the divisions and chaos. Fog and fun-house mirrors.

And the public, for the most part, doesn’t point fingers anymore. They’re too eager to soak up the baby blue sky, the immaculate sun, a normal existence. They have a new grasp on life now that this chapter has ended and they plan new futures. A few push for reform and indictments, but those are drab concepts drowned out by the thirst and hunger for normality. How easily we are led astray when we only focus on ourselves and the short term. We must find a way to remember, now and in the future, to hold us accountable.

 

 

Today all the shows were cancelled so the state could broadcast a special event. I turned the TV on to view the hologram and I saw clones standing in many lines. A code was shouted overhead by the military, loud and stern to brace them all in place. Robo-matrons stood in the corners as back up. A masked official stood at the head of each line with a gun and they went down the lines shooting each clone in the temple. Slowly and surely. It was the government’s way of showing, of proving that they were being disposed of. But somehow even that seemed to be for show. Somehow.

And I saw a line of Jamie’s. Three or four years old, waiting quietly without fussing. How I wanted to squeeze those chubby cheeks and look into those blue eyes one last time. I would like to know if they were like my Jamie’s. If they had the same oceanic depth.

The official had to bend down. I saw the gun slip in his or her hands the first time. And Jamie waited, held so still, didn’t know what to expect. As if he didn’t know that violence inhabited the gun. And it went off with a startling pop. The little ones didn’t even flinch.

 

 

 

AMARINTHINE

I’ve begun to run again. Force immense gales of wind through my lungs as I rediscover the naked city and its old buildings, their profiles standing dignified, aged and harrowed. It’s as if a cover has been removed and we rediscover the archaeological ruins of our own city. I’m glad everything is now in the open, the sun disinfects, cooks the truth for well-done presentation.

No one knows it was us. Books or lessons will never be written about this group. Jamie and Jimmie, the ink makers, Dr. M, raven, dead body driver, produce driver, Dove, Friend, Franken, the printers, the store owners, the man with yellow shoes. There will be no glory, pomp or press. How many others were like us throughout the past? We’ll be forgotten as time moves forward, yet hopefully we will have seeded in those around us with a memory of the truth. Of discovery and conscience. And perhaps one day, in the future, it will sprout into one action taken at the right time. One time for each of us. Many times for all of us.

Yesterday as I ran, I thought of Jamie and his lightness. The light load he carried through life, barely anything. He only carried himself, no baggage or pretense, no arrogance or angst, and I thought I should be more like that. That I would like this. That I could be like that now if I worked on it. Now is an opportune time.

And today as I run I think of the future. What do I want to do? What can I do to build on my talents in a constructive way? What kind of life do I want and what can I offer? How can I get there? Every step and decision mean something, even the small ones. Always. It’s been a while since I’ve allowed myself to even consider these things. I embrace this new energy and never want to let go. My heart explodes open, the one closed tight in a fist for so long. The breezy, clean wind, iridescent sun, the hint of water in the air. It all flutters around me as I run. I am a colorful, waving flag – standing tall, quietly proud and free. A free beast.

I run past a corner when someone grabs me from behind. I turn and see a man, a ninja dressed in black. I can only see his startlingly cold, blue-grey eyes and white skin that has never seen the sun. I squirm violently to get away, but my mouth is covered and he’s two times my size. He corals me into a dark alley, takes out his gun and aims it at my temple.

He hisses with acid, you little shit. We should’ve shot you right away.

In my shock, I think of how foolish I was to think it was all behind me. That we only won a battle, not the war. That I naively never knew this.

I push myself down in strange, wiggly contortions to slip out of his grip and begin to run towards the sidewalk when I feel a searing point in my back begin to radiate. I fall to the cold, rough asphalt. My bones ache, rattle. A coldness begins to creep from the edges. I crawl towards the sidewalk warmed by sunlight. Almost there when another hot spike hits me. My last drag, my last pull in this world gets me into the sunlight where the heat bleeds into me as my blood pools beneath me. Where the clarity and light bless me into smithereens.

 

I open my hands.

I give you everything.

I know what I answer to. Courage.

 

I float towards the white, amarinthine corona. The flickering flames of everyone and every moment I’ve ever loved. In this short life. And it is indescribable. The turning into light. I am speechless and thoughtless, full of space. In awe of its utter beauty, its utterly everything.

 

 

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE & SELF REFLECTION / BOOKCLUB QUESTIONS ARE AVAILABLE ON THE NEXT FEW PAGES.

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Spoiler alert! The message below discusses broad themes that allude to prominent events in the novel.

 

Thanks so much for reading my book!

 

I sincerely hope you enjoyed experiencing Eloisa’s journey, one which I felt a yearning to create. It all began with a thought about a sensitive, young woman who wanted to find her voice, and it grew into a story about creating a life out of what’s been given to you, no matter how good or bad.

 

I wanted to explore the themes of how the poor and wealthy have different perspectives, what it means to become a woman, trauma and how to move beyond it, and feeling left behind when everyone’s moved on. I also wanted to explore the role of pollution in the future – not just its physical effects, but also its corrosive emotional wounds.

 

If you have time, could you please write a review of this book on Amazon? Reviews help independent writers a great deal by improving visibility and providing testimonials so others can decide if the book is worth their time.

 

Thank you!

 

-Suzanne

 

 

 

 

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SELF REFLECTION / BOOKCLUB QUESTIONS

Spoiler alert! The questions below allude to prominent events in the novel.

 

 

In FREE BEAST, the government manipulates media and journalism. Do you think our government influences or manipulates media and journalism?

 

Jamie comes from a wealthy, prominent family and Eloisa’s family is of poor means. What are some things he will never understand about those in Eloisa’s place in society? And what are some things she will never understand about those with Jamie’s background?

 

Eloisa is in her mid-twenties and wonders when she’ll feel like a woman instead of a girl. She wonders what actually makes a woman. Is it a purely physical thing after one has passed puberty? Or is it a mental or spiritual thing? Or is it a matter of having the trappings that society deems “grown up”? In your words, what does it mean to be a woman?

 

The mysterious Dr. M’s intentions are unreadable, even for someone as intuitive as Eloisa. How do you think he sees Eloisa?

 

Sometimes life throws you into situations not of your asking. If you were to uncover illegal, horrifying wrongdoings, how much would you risk to expose it? There are no right or wrong answers, just something to think about.

 

Eloisa regrets that her mother never shared the wisdom in the notebook with her. She wonders why and sees her mother as a person with strengths and flaws, not just a mother. Have you experienced this with your parents? What did you learn about them?

 

Out of all the lessons in the notebook, which do you agree with and which do you disagree with? Which ones are easiest for you? And which ones are most difficult?

 

Eloisa realizes that she relies on those in her life to fill voids. She looks to Dr. M as a sort of father figure, and she looks to Jamie to help relieve her melancholy. Have you ever done this or do you currently look to others to fill voids? And how appropriate or inappropriate is it to do this?

 

What is the role of torture in this story? Have you ever felt trapped, dominated and hopeless in your life? If yes, what was the situation and how did you get out of it?

 

In the safe house, Eloisa attempts to heal after undergoing a traumatic time. How does she do this? What have you personally done to heal after trauma?

 

Eloisa uses her innate intuition to help her cope and get a sense of others. How strong is your intuition? How can you make it stronger?

 

Would you have gone back to the city to print and circulate the flyers? Or would you have tried to build a new life in the new state? There are no right or wrong answers, just something to think about.

 

Thinking about your life and your choices, what or who do you answer to?

 

What did you like about this novel? What did you not like?

 

 

 


Free Beast

An atmospheric, dystopian novel that will move you. Years from now… A government that controls its citizens with an invisible hand. Pollution that suffocates an old, grand city. A population mired in escapism as they struggle to survive. Smoke screens of propaganda to shield its politicians. All the devastating secrets that yearn to see the light of day. And a young, intuitive woman who knows what the government wants to hide. Would you risk it all to do the right thing or turn the other way when confronted with an ugly truth? What does it mean to construct a meaningful life with what you've been given? A mesmerizing, ethereal tale of betrayal, love, and self-determination, FREE BEAST explores one woman’s search for voice, destiny and the truth in a forsaken world. A profound book for those who are intuitive and love a touch of the poetic. Genre: speculative / dystopian / literary / mystery

  • ISBN: 9781370657162
  • Author: Suzanne Marine
  • Published: 2017-08-23 06:32:34
  • Words: 75769
Free Beast Free Beast