What caused me to speak to the man, I cannot rightly say, for I do not make it my business to chat with homeless people. They are ten a penny in the city in which I live and work and if I regularly engaged with them, I would never make an appointment on time. But there was something about this man with the sun-faded, barely legible cardboard sign, something in the deep well of his eyes that beckoned me to him.
His name was Horace, or so he claimed, and I patted my pockets to add validation to my claim that I had no money to drop into his dingy paper coffee cup, a statement I made before he even asked. In truth, he never asked. I simply went into automatic defensive mode, not wanting to seem heartless, but not offering any charity, either.
“We all drop breadcrumbs in life,” Horace said.
“Do we?” I asked, struggling to mark his intention.
Horace nodded. “Even the most carefree among us, and we do this because normalcy comes well-equipped with comfort zones. You may take exception to the word normalcy but it has nothing to do with the definition society places on the word normal. Here it applies to the recurrent patterns in your life, the things you’ve grown accustomed to.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“The breadcrumbs are used to lead us back to the path of familiarity, when the detours we take spiral beyond our ability to control and/or accept. I stray from the path constantly chiefly because my path is an uneventful one, which many people would kill for, but I find boring. I ought to be a baker with the amount of breadcrumbs I’ve dropped over the years.”
“Um, I’d love to chat, but I really must be on my way.”
“Since I’ve always been able to find my way home I never had a problem tearing my life apart,” Horace continued, as if he hadn’t heard me. “Going on concrete jungle pilgrimages, and returning to my path at some later date to rebuild things from scratch. But this time is different. This time the demolition wasn’t of my choosing and there’s something about the way events have been playing out over the past six months that have clued me in on the fact I am near the end of the race.”
“Homeless yet again, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I have this sinking feeling deep in my marrow that this will be the final time. There’s no way out and no way back. All the breadcrumbs I dropped to lead me back to the main road of rebuilding my life are gone. Most likely eaten by the crows of a fate long overdue. I guess you can only hit the reset button so many times in life.
“And I can’t honestly say I didn’t see it coming. Life stopped making sense about three years ago, though not all at once. Little by little, all the rules I had ever learned, all the tricks I added to my arsenal, no longer applied. Now, life, the daily routine that the majority of the population manages to perform without a second thought or breaking a sweat, is a game I no longer know how to play. Existence no longer makes sense to me.
“Needless to say, it doesn’t help matters that I have always possessed a nihilistic bug in the back of my brain that constantly questions the logic of struggling to achieve anything when all roads lead to death.
“As you can probably work out, I do not believe in the afterlife. So that we’re clear, this is not an invitation for proselytizers to dust off their soapboxes. I am an aspiritual entity and I’ve made my peace with the fact that I shall not receive salvation. If religion works for you, good on you, I wish you nothing but the best.”
I stood there in silence, wanting to walk away, but also wanting to make sense of this interaction. As if reading my mind, Horace said,
“The purpose of my stopping you from your workaday events, and rambling on about things which bear no significance to you, is to pass on as many of my thoughts and impressions before I lose my sanity to the streets and become one of the wandering bagmen screaming at invisible antagonists.”
And it finally dawned on me. “You want to be remembered,” I said.
“Who among us doesn’t want to be remembered?”
“You wouldn’t happen to be hungry, would you?” I asked.
“It was not my intention to solicit charity from you, sir, at least not of the monetary kind.”
“I didn’t say anything about giving you money. I need to put something in my stomach before I go on the search.”
“What are you searching for?”
“Breadcrumbs,” I answered. “You said you’ve been dropping them all your life. I’m sure there are enough lingering around somewhere to get you safely back on your path.”
The Centria planted its feet atop the announcing mound and parted its lips slightly, a hairline fracture in a granite face that could not easily have been identified as either female or male, yet the sound it released rang out, dominating the mesonoxian air. The melodious octave, a tone lower than any being of flesh could detect unless at the precise moment of their birth or death, spread across the fields drowning out all other sounds. It was not merely a song though, it was an experience of music, one that incited a childlike fascination and curiosity within the listener but unlike a siren song that was an alluring appeal, The Centria’s aria was a command to be in attendance.
However, one tiny essentia who had named herself Umoja, declined to go to the ceremony. On outward appearances she was simply sitting in a field, plucking recall-me-not flowers and braiding them into a wreath. Internally, it took every iota of will to resist The Centria’s call. She strained her newly acquired imagination into picturing a giant hand of stone reaching from the ground and holding her as tight as it could, anchoring her to her favorite spot beside the ruminating pond. She did not appreciate being made to do things, especially things that brought her no pleasure. Truth be known, she did not much care for the gathering as she was not competitive like the others and with such a large crowd she was certain she would hardly be missed. So engrossed in her thoughts of rebellion, she hadn’t noticed the arrival of Custodian.
“Did you not hear The Centria calling for you, Umoja?” Custodian’s face, androgynous like The Centria, was pleasant and its tone gentle as always. No one had ever seen it be otherwise.
“I-I-I,” Umoja endeavored to hold onto her rebelliousness, but it evaporated in the presence of Custodian’s warmth. “I am not needed there.”
“Not needed? Why would you think that?”
“I am never chosen.”
“You are in pending status.”
“It is another way of saying not yet. Never is an infinite word and is inaccurate in this case. You should have said I have not yet been chosen.”
“And I never will be.”
“That word again,” Custodian chuckled softly.
“I am not good enough or strong enough or loved enough.”
“Do you actually believe that?” Custodian took a knee, wrapped arms around Umoja and pulled her close. “Everyone here is equally good and equally loved. And as for being strong, you resisted The Centria’s call. I cannot remember anyone else in history ever doing that and my memory is long and infallible.”
Custodian nodded. “You should try being less hard on yourself. You are still forming and are not nearly what you will one day become.”
“And you know what that is?”
“How could I not? Your destiny is written all over your beautiful face.”
Umoja sprang to her feet, ran to the pond and studied her reflection. “I do not see anything.”
“Because you have not developed that sense yet and despite what you currently believe, I doubt you will remain here long enough to see what I see.”
The essentia spun back to Custodian, wide-eyed, “What does it say?”
“What does what say, dear?”
“My face! What is written on it? Please tell me! Please?”
“You have positioned me between the things I must say to you and the things I want to say. Sadly, I will not reveal your writings for one should never know their fate.”
“But what if I do not like my fate? How can I change it if I do not know what it is?”
“It would be foolish to attempt to outwit the plan you were destined for.”
“If we are to continue this conversation,” Custodian interrupted. “It will have to be at a later time because I do not know about you, but I would rather not have The Centria vexed with me, so I am heading to the Choosing Field. Will you join me? I would appreciate the company.”
Umoja still did not want to go but Custodian had been so nice it would have been rude to refuse, so she nodded and placed the recall-me-not wreath on her head. Custodian scooped Umoja up and folded itself around her. They flew over the sea of emotions, past the knowledge trees and through the imagination mountains. She held on as tight as she could manage, occasionally nuzzling Custodian’s essence. She had never been this close to anyone before, felt this safe. She would not have traded this moment and wanted it to last forever, but the problem in a place where time has no meaning, where eternity is equal to an instant, is that treasured moments disappear within the blink of an eye. No sooner had Custodian lifted Umoja, they arrived at the Choosing Field.
Self-doubt played across Umoja’s face as she looked up at Custodian who was now surrounded by a light so bright one had to squint for risk of being blinded by its radiance. But within that light, there existed a warmth and comfort that Umoja wished she could take with her. Custodian leaned down to adjust Umoja’s recall-me-not headdress and smooth her rough patches. Her essence no longer fit her properly, it felt loose and saggy in places as if she had shrunken too small to fill it all the way. Every rejection seemed to take a bit from her and if things continued this way soon she would be little more than a husk.
The land was packed with preborns, essentias like herself yet uniquely different, as far as the eye could see in any direction. With a gentle nudge from Custodian, Umoja made her way down the aisle and squeezed in between a row of preborns, settling for a spot in the center of the crowd instead of taking a place in front which was her right. This gathering was her twenty thousand four hundred thirty-ninth which made her the oldest preborn in attendance, something that many of the essentias never failed to bring up. They questioned why Umoja had been overlooked so many times for so long. The inquiries weren’t born of malice, the new arrivals were merely curious but being the focus of unwanted scrutiny and speculation was never easy for her. Sometimes it was downright painful. But she bore it with all the grace she could muster, offering shrugs and smiles as answers.
The Centria’s song continued at a lower pitch, fading into the background when Custodian moved to a position before the crowd and began her speech.
“We are here to acknowledge and celebrate you magnificent preborns and the journey some, perhaps most, hopefully all of you are about to take. For the chosen, you are about to enter a new world filled with things beyond your imaginings. Some wondrous, others less so. Know that you come from a place of love, a place of hope and your arrival will be the cause of much joy. It is important that you keep within you, tucked away deep, the knowledge that you are not nor ever will be truly alone. You will not understand the importance of this yet, but I ask you to have faith especially when faced with adversities you cannot even begin to fathom as of yet.”
The preborns nearest her watched in amazement as Umoja silently mouthed the words as Custodian spoke them. “You are life. You are the keepers of the secret knowledge of the universe. As such, it is expected that you will not speak of this place or this process. For most this will not be an issue since you will be unable to properly communicate upon arrival at your new homes. You must learn how to operate your new body which has an extensive learning curve as well as learn the language which is different from our form of communication. By the time you have fully acclimated, the knowledge of this place will reside in a place not reachable by your conscious mind. Since there are exceptions to this rule, we ask that should you remember, please respect our rules and keep the secret from those who might sabotage our way of life.”
Speech done, Custodian asked the first row of preborns to line up in front of The Centria, who began singing a different tune, more complex, covering a vast span of notes in rapid succession. That was Umoja’s problem, the reason she had been held back. She studied the notes and practiced them repeatedly whenever her schedule was not occupied with other important matters, but she found it impossible to change notes swiftly and seamlessly, unlike the first row of preborns who had not struggled even slightly as they sang along with The Centria matching notes until they were in perfect harmony. One by one they faded from this place, transported to their new homes. Row by row the preborns took their places before The Centria and blended their voice perfectly with the melody and departed.
Finally, it was her turn. Her place in line put her directly in front of The Centria which only made her already anxious heart beat faster. Just behind the vessel of the sacred song, Umoja saw Custodian, in violation of the rules during the ceremony, offer her a secret smile. Her anxiousness began shifting to excited hopefulness. She could do it. Custodian had faith in her and perhaps that would be the little push that helped her go all the way this time. The Centria began the song and Umoja’s first note was so off key it drew stares from the preborns in line with her. If she returned their stares, she would have been done. This would have been her latest, her greatest disappointment and perhaps her final opportunity. How many more chances would they have allowed her before giving up completely?
Instead, she closed her eyes and thought of her deepest desires. The desire to have a home. The desire to belong to a family. The desire to be loved. The desire to build a life that demonstrated just how thankful she was to have been selected and given a chance to make a difference in the world beyond this world. Umoja opened her mouth and instead of forcing herself to hit the notes in unison with The Centria, she sang her own song which tasted sweet on her tongue yet made tears fall from her eyes. Suddenly it no longer mattered whether she could mimic the birthing song, all she wanted to do was sing her song forever, feel the happiness that was born of a sorrow that was now understandably necessary. She had finally accepted herself and her place in the workings of all things.
She opened her eyes and was prepared to stand off to the side to make way for the next row of preborns when she made eye contact with Custodian who also had tears rolling down its cheeks. Custodian mouthed the words, “Outwit your fate” as it beamed the brightest smile Umoja had ever seen and gave two thumbs up. Umoja was confused by this but returned the thumbs up only to notice her hands were turning translucent then transparent.
She had done it! Somehow she managed to sing the birthing song correctly. She wanted to run up to Custodian to give it a big hug and thank it and tell it that she loved it but it was too late. She was completely vanished.
The transition was a bizarre one. She could feel numerous types of sensation entering her presence. She was about to be born. She closed her eyes and prayed to be placed in the body of a girl. There had been stories of preborns that were birthed into bodies of genders in which they did not identify and the difficulties that resulted from this. Umoja had always identified as a girl and she wanted ever so badly to be placed within a girl’s body, so she made the biggest wish she ever made and closed it with the chant, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.” But soon into the process, she realized this was not the case. There was an oddness to her new body that she could not identify outright but she somehow knew that she had been placed into the body of a boy. And for a moment there was a twinge of disappointment but it was short lived. She was successful in her endeavor to be born and she felt healthy and she would make the best of the situation with nary a complaint and live the best life possible for all involved.
But in the back of Umoja’s mind, a tiny voice chanted, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.”
About The Choosing Field: This story was a quickie one off warm up writing exercize that was inspired by something I heard in Vanessa Roth’s Netflix docu-series Daughters of Destiny, about the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a pioneering school for the children of Dalits, members of the lowest group in the oppressive caste system that still shapes Indian society. In the first episode, they introduce the belief that our destinies are written on our foreheads at birth and the school gives the lowest caste children the opportunity to outwit their destiny. It stuck with me so I jotted down this story. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday to finish it or maybe I’ll incorporate it into another project. The important thing is I committed the idea to paper so it won’t be lost to me forever.
Oh, and if you get the chance, check out Daughters of Destiny. It runs four episodes and is absolutely worth your time.
There was no denying it all went wrong the day she met The Antisocial. Her marriage, her life, her reality. He stepped into the confidence of her world and slowly altered her polarity, molecule by molecule, turning her into the world’s biggest human misery magnet. How could she have been so blind? He was a super-charged lightning rod of suffering and unrest and she jumped in feet first and grabbed the rod with both hands.
How? The Burning Bush chiseled this question into the stone tablets of her grey matter. How and why? How had it happened with such severity? And, why The Antisocial? He was nothing she had ever been attracted to in her life. He was slight and pale and short. Three things she couldn’t stand in her men. And when they met, she was married. Very married. Endlessly she would extol the virtues of her Husband of the Round Table who sat in the Siege Perilous.
She and The Antisocial even began on the wrong chord. Their first conversation was over the phone. An argument. A full-fledged war of words and attitudes, waged on the fiberoptic battlefield, with no quarter asked and none given. Hatred festered between them, growing like mold on stale bread, infecting whole city blocks at a time.
Then came the inevitable: the first meeting.
She was geared for the worst, armed with a wit-sharpened tongue and poison-dipped fingernails. The Antisocial tricked her. His subterfuge included tactics of kindness and depth. She wasn’t stupid, she kept her guard, but The Antisocial had existed for centuries and knew how to ply his trade well. Exorbitantly, he picked the locks of her defenses and let himself into her heart. She was still Very Married.
The Antisocial never used ordinary tactics. He would insult her, then apologize with poetry. Something her husband had never done. He would put the boots to her during weak moments, and when she retaliated, he simply walked away. She threw herself at him, and he stepped aside. She showed him the knife he drove into her heart, and he twisted it. She threatened to walk out on him, and he opened the door. Crafty, crafty, was The Antisocial. Unprepared, unprepared, was she.
When she first started dating The Antisocial—convinced that she was still Very Married—she was a strong and proud princess of unshakable faith and optimism. The world catered to her whims. Whatever words she spoke became law, and she enforced those laws on everyone around her. Everyone obeyed the princess — except The Antisocial. That was the beginning of her ruin. He had planted the seeds of self-doubt. He confused her with contradictions, battered her with male logic and left her alone to wallow in the mire.
What confused her most were the contradictions. He claimed to love her strength, then proved that strength to be a lie, just to teach her how to be strong. Where was the sense?
The Antisocial also worked on her morality, dragging her down the path of decadence. Once she had assimilated, and even grown to like it, he turned cold and led her back up the path to friendship. What good would simple friendship do her now? She had already begun peeling away the facade of her Very Married home life, hacking rifts into the armor of Husband of the Round Table, besmirching his character so that the Siege Perilous was no longer a safe seat. What good was going back to the old fractured lie that was her fabled life? What good were rose-colored glasses in the pitch dark?
The Antisocial laughed. He knew these truths to be self-evident.
Her life with The Antisocial became a long list of Could-Nots:
She could not talk to him unless conversation was pleasant.
She could not be in his company unless she was happy.
She could not ask him questions that angered him.
She could not ask him why he was angry.
She could not see him while he was angry.
She could not try to take the anger away.
She could not expect anything from him.
She could not make demands on his time.
She could not interrupt his solitude.
She could not experience his personal side.
She could not include herself in his plans.
She could not discuss their future.
She could not coax him to make love to her.
She could not display intense emotions around him.
She could not ignore the things that made him happy.
She could not share the things that made her happy.
She could not talk to him about anything relevant.
She could not love him anytime he did not love her.
She could not take it any longer.
The Antisocial could not have cared less.
She would have left, but it was too late. He had destroyed her, tainted her to the point where no one else wanted her. He had taken her like a lump of mud and molded her into his ideal mate. There was no more of the original her left. She ate the loneliness he fed her and wore the sorrow overcoat he bought her. After a while, answering to the name Mrs. Antisocial had no effect.
They say there was someone out there for everybody, whether that’s true or not, she found her niche… loving The Antisocial.
About Loving The Antisocial: I write copiously daily. I’ve learned that if I don’t write regularly with some sort of goal, my writing becomes stale and disinteresting in the process. My current writing regimen, at minimum, is five thousand words every day.
I’ll start a story off with great ideas, excitement, and plans for some sort of magnum opus. The ideas and prose flow along at a satisfying pace until it doesn’t. Then I’m often visited by the bane of my existence, my old pal, writer’s block.
To beat my nemesis into a bloody pulp, I write. Doesn’t matter what, as long as I keep my fingers peck-peck-pecking on the keyboard and them cute little letters keep dancing across the computer screen.
I write silly nonsense and observations, science fiction dogma, horror rhetoric, humorless jokes, movie and television rants or whatever else comes to mind. Just as long as I keep things moving forward. It’s my writing calisthenics. This story was the result of a question:
What does a person do when their significant other begins doing things that are completely out of character?
Kadari hunkered down in the space between the commode and the wall, knees hugged to his chest. He rocked slightly and muttered a prayer under his breath as the sound of heavy feet dragged their way closer to the bathroom. He knew this day wouldn’t end well.
The youngest of triplets, he was the clear runt of the litter and no one ever allowed him to forget it. His brother, Nodj—the creative one—had inherited their mother’s height, while Unane—the prodigal son—was gifted with their father’s strength. If fear and puniness were distinguishing characteristics, then they were Kadari’s stock in trade.
In addition to his innate artistic ability, Nodj also acquired their mother’s affliction. Kadari first recalled being aware of it one summer’s midday when the twin suns spiked through the jostling leaves of a bunak tree. As a hearty gust of wind bent the bunaks back, displaying their bright red bellies, Kadari watched his brother’s sanity peel away like so much dead skin.
Kadari lost something, too, that day. The sun, the bunak trees, even the summer never looked the same, nor held any peace or calm for him.
He felt somehow responsible, Kadari did, so he visited Nodj every day as he convalesced. He brought Nodj’s favorite foods and sat bedside and spoke only happy remembrances and tamped down memories of how his brother had been viciously cruel to him on occasion. He wasn’t certain whether it was his condition that made him tyrannical or just one of the character traits that went part and parcel with being an older sibling. Perhaps a bit of both.
Nodj no longer lived in the house but visited as regularly as his mood cycles and medication allowed. His presence always altered the mood of the regularly somber house. Their parents avoided each other normally. “A kept distance was a kept peace,” his father would whisper when his mother was otherwise occupied. But Nodj required their attention and when they were forced to occupy the same space for great periods of time, the battles began. All the resentment, all the things left unsaid, aired themselves as they traced the roots of insanity down both sides of the family tree in order to assign blame.
Kadari fortified himself against the hatred in the bathroom, holding his head under the running shower nozzle. The high-pitched whistle of the hot water offered him a personal refuge against his parents’ screams. Neither seemed to notice or care that he constantly went missing for most of Nodj’s home visits.
On occasion, they needed a break from one another—his parents—and left Nodj in his and Unane’s care with a list of special instructions if an incident occurred. And as soon as they left the house, so would Unane, who left his runt brother to look after his mad brother with nary a thought to possible consequences.
This wouldn’t have been an issue under normal circumstances, but their parents’ constant bickering stirred an agitation in Nodj that unnerved Kadari, so he retreated to the bathroom and prayed for the best, which in this case was that Nodj’s medication would allow his brother to sleep until someone, anyone came home.
The insistent pounding sounded like someone was throwing slabs of meat at the door and the message was all too clear, Nodj wanted in. He shouted that he needed to use the bathroom, then he pleaded, then he whimpered. A debate waged in Kadari’s mind, caution versus guilt. His brother’s ability to manipulate situations as well as to do mischief to himself and others was legendary but even still, he was no animal and had not deserved being treated as such. In the end, guilt won out and Kadari opened the door.
The realization of what a fool Kadari had been hit him when his brother pounced on him like a starving beast. The runt was once again the mad one’s prisoner.
The sun beat down much in the same way it had all those many summers ago. Nodj marched Kadari out of their home by the nape of his neck. Parked in front of the house—or better yet, abandoned—was an old skip vehicle, a line of sight teleportation car that hadn’t run in years. Kadari avoided it like the plague because of the memories associated with it. Memories of Nodj locking him in the trunk and cranking the engine, threatening to skip the car off a cliff or worse yet, set it to materialize inside a solid object like a tree or boulder. His struggling increased, though it chafed his neck and resulted in meaty slaps to the back of his head, the closer he got to the trunk.
Nodj stopped and made Kadari study the car as the mad one detailed the specifications of the engine which transformed into a rant about technology and how it was slowly murdering the deities. Manufacturers were the assassins of religion and the deities needed proof that their race was still worth saving so a sacrifice had to be made. Fear whispered in Kadari’s ear that he was destined to die today and that no one would ever find his body.
Nodj dragged Kadari to the skip vehicle’s trunk—then past it—marching him over to the park instead. The runt stared at the tager trees and the omye trees that lined the park’s walkway. The tager tree produced the most succulent fruit and its jellied pit was considered a delicacy. The omye tree grew tart figs that were best when dried and ground into spice, though the juice could be used in combination with herbs to create ailment remedies. Not many used it for medicinal purposes since a large amount of figs were required to yield the smallest amount of juice. It simply wasn’t worth the effort.
At the bend in the park path, there was a brackish pond in which nothing lived and from which no creature drank. Nodj flung the runt into the shallow waters and jumped in after him. There were no thoughts only instinct as Kadari’s vision went from trees and sky to briny water. The taste of salt ran through his mouth and nostrils as his head was forced beneath the surface by the powerful thrusting of his mad brother’s arms. Once, twice, thrice. The runt breathed in hard through his nose and then was marched further underwater, deeper into the pond. There was a thrashing of the water and it turned from white to grey before going dark. Kadari felt death. He swallowed it in huge gulps instead of air. Tarter than the omye, saltier than the pond water. He didn’t like it and thrashed harder.
The pressure on the back of his head, where Nodj’s hand had been, suddenly disappeared. Kadari broke the pond surface, coughing up water. When his eyes could focus, he saw the sky and the trees and Nodj holding his bloody lip, curled in a smile.
In his wild thrashing, he must have hit his brother and broke the hold. Nodj laughed and couldn’t stop. Not as Kadari lunged for him. Not as Kadari swung for his face and chest. Not as Kadari pushed him back onto the walkway, forced him down to the ground, straddled him and pounded on his flesh.
Kadari hit Nodj for all the times he had taken abuse, for all the times he was made to feel powerless and afraid, for all the guilt that he carried for a person who cared nothing for him.
“That is enough, Kadari.” A hand grabbed Kadari’s wrist. Unane’s hand. He was also smiling as he pulled the runt off Nodj. “I think Nodj has had enough.”
Kadari’s coughing fit died down. He spat the last of the salty taste from his mouth. His neck hurt, as did his chest, lungs and knuckles. None of this made sense.
Unane helped Nodj to his feet and checked him for injuries. The mad brother assured him he was fine. Hurt, but unharmed. They both stood shoulder to shoulder, their arms folded across their chest, with a strange look in their eyes. A look Kadari had never seen from them before. Admiration.
The youngest triplet’s realization was a rusted, squeaky gate that hung on a broken hinge that opened slowly and with great effort. But it had opened, eventually. And his brothers waited patiently as Kadari sussed it out.
“You think I do not see the fear in your eyes when you look at me?” Nodj asked. “No brother of mine should be afraid of any man, not even his own brother. Do you understand me, runt?”
It took a moment for things to settle on Kadari. It had been some sort of test, a rite of passage, staged by the pair. “I am not a runt!”
His brothers laughed but not in a mocking manner. “No, I suppose you are not.”
They clapped him on the back and walked back home as equals. No, better than that, as brothers.
About Runt: The original version of this piece was written back in the dark ages when people didn’t have personal computers. Scribbled in the 80’s in a notebook with a pencil, then typed into manuscript form on a manual typewriter.
It was inspired by my then girlfriend who met up with her two estranged sisters when she went back home to bury her father. She never really got along with any of her family, her sisters especially, but attending her father’s funeral served as some sort of closure for the feelings she had for him.
The youngest of the three, she was constantly abused by her sisters, which is why she left and stayed away, and sure enough, when she returned, so did the abuse. Until she gave back as good as she got. Which earned her a little fearful respect.
I swapped genders, rolled back the years a bit and tried to write a coming of age story. Tried.
Dissatisfied with the result, I put the idea aside for a long time and came back to it only last year. A good friend who is a voracious reader often leafs through my box of regret and plucks a story out.
This was her latest find and she told me that I was being too judgmental and the story was fine as it is.
Ya Jiji was nestled on the peak of Muntanyes Oraș, a tiny tourist town with one road in or out and that road was always the scene of an accident which meant it was always choked with traffic. Antiquated traffic. Perambulators. Bicycles. Velocipedes. Motorcycles. Monocycles. Boneshakers. Wagons. Go-carts. Scooters. Skateboards. Any wheeled vehicle not pulled by a beast. Skip cars were banned on the winding mountain road that, at its widest was barely two-laned, and at its narrowest, well, where did you think all the accidents occurred? Besides, a line of sight teleportation car wasn’t of much use if you couldn’t see around the never-ending bend.
It was a two-hour trip down the mountain and another hour to Golainbale where the moon jitney traveled to the nearest natural satellite, Waioni. As we left the quaint town, the road—amazingly smooth and unmarked—opened up a bit. Before we left, we hit a convenience store and were absolutely fleeced out of our local currency for heater meals and MREs. At least the clerk did it with style. He was nothing but politeness and smiles before, during, and after he fucked us.
When we arrived in Golainbale there was a great deal of negotiating, which translated to me having to pay. I paid a man, paid the man who knew the man, paid the man who knew the man who knew the man, and finally, I paid the man who employed all the men. Fucking governmental red tape blew dead bears no matter what planet you were on. The first man returned with a wad of receipts and boarding passes, stapled six times. We boarded the jitney and waited for a solid half-hour before being told the rocket was being taken out of service to undergo routine maintenance. I started to argue if the maintenance was routine, why had we wasted half an hour gnawing on tasteless MREs, but thought better of it. We were all so very far from home and running aground of off-world travel authorities was a notoriously bad idea.
So, instead, we hauled ass to board a second jitney scheduled for departure. The boarding staff was nice enough to hold lift-off for us. That last sentence was dipped in heavy sarcasm and spat through a gritted-toothed grin, in case it wasn’t obvious. As we settled in, my travel companions drifted to sleep immediately. I envied people who could sleep anywhere. Sadly, I wasn’t blessed with that mutant ability.
As we reached escape velocity, out of the window I saw bodies that floated in space like flotsam. Men. Women. Children. Pets. So many lined in a row they almost formed an organic ring around the planet. From a seat somewhere rows behind me came a rhythmic muttering. I caught the eye of an older gentleman across the row and chanced a question, “What’s he saying?”
“It’s a song to open the gates of the afterworld,” the old man said. “To allow the souls of the illegal immigrants jettisoned in space to move on to their final resting place.”
“Do you know the words?”
“I don’t speak Shadese. Sorry. I only know about the song because it’s a local custom and I’m here on business often.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a space marshal.”
He nodded. “In accordance with the Intergalactic Space Travel Securities Act, I carry out my duty of committing to space any person or persons who illegally board any transplanetary vessel—otherwise known as stowaways—and lack the money to pay for passage and proper identification with which to travel.”
He said it so matter of fact as if he wasn’t talking about human lives like his job entailed nothing more drastic than taking out the trash. There was no challenge in his tone, nothing that suggested that he dared me to question his profession.
My mind was a wasp’s nest of questions and emotions, buzzing to know how this man justified his actions, how he slept at night if he was a religious man and if he was under any delusion that God approved. I tried to express my shock, my outrage, my disapproval, or even simply voice my personal opinion, but the words failed me. I felt my mouth opening and closing, wordlessly.
Stunned and silent I sat back in the chair and stared at all the wasted life that drifted in the inky sea outside. An abyss dotted with stars that once had names like Peter and Elizabeth and Scott, stars that once breathed air same as I had, stars that ate food like me. Some so distant they had to crowd together to be seen in the endless black. Clouds of flesh, oceans of skin. Further from life but closer to the universe than anyone had ever been.
When the jitney touched down on Waioni, the marshal said goodbye. I pretended not to hear.
My travel companions and I checked into our hotel rooms. It would be another eighteen hours before our return flight home. They wanted to spend the time getting rat-arsed in the hotel bar but I went for a walk outside. It always helped clear my mind. I walked off the paved paths, far from the obstruction of man-made lights and checked the sky.
Stars. So many stars. Some of them falling. Making the trip back home.
About The Trip Back Home: A few years ago, I wrote a manuscript which never got published. It was sort of a vacation scrapbook in outer space, detailing the travelogue of a man who hated to travel but got roped into a sweepstakes interplanetary cruise by his best friends. They’d travel in style and want for nothing—once they made it to the starcruise liner that was on the other side of the universe.
As I said, the manuscript didn’t get published. Because it was never quite what it needed to be. Not quite ready. This aspect needed tweaking, that aspect needed editing. Two years into the editing process, I decided I needed a break from this manuscript to write something else. I was too involved with that manuscript.
I have no idea whether it’ll be salvaged or chopped up into bite sized bits and shopped as short stories, or reworked into other projects.
This slice was the first bit of writing that inspired the idea for the novel.
In the beginning of what most believed in their heart of hearts to be the End of Days, there was The Distant Signal. It came in the form of a definitive and verified multi-language message broadcast to all the countries of Earth simultaneously.
What should have been a moment of joyous acknowledgement that we were not alone in the universe, was tainted by a subliminal signal that triggered an automatic flight response in all the various and sundry life forms on the planet.
Dubbed The Great Terror by the media, it opened the door to speculation about the global impact alien contact might have on world governments, organized religions, stock markets, and most importantly human existence.
Then came news of the one person on the planet unaffected by the subliminal signal.
His business card was made of carbon-fiber reinforced thermoplastic. Laser etched in red on the back was his phone number, four digits, no area or country code, because it wasn’t needed. The number could be dialed from anywhere in the world, toll free. The front of the card delivered the most accurate message any business card ever had. It told the bearer exactly who he was in two simple words:
Normally slang that referred to either the government, an authority in a position of power, or a drug dealer — which he had no issue with, as he had allegedly been all those things in his youth — it currently served as a term of respect and praise.
The Man had no official credit rating, never owned a bank account, and his fingers never knew the texture of cash. His currency was the Boon License, a service performed, payable by a service at his behest.
The Man never advertised his services, and thanks to a universal binary code, he wasn’t searchable on the internet. His legend was viral, spread word of mouth from those who benefited from his services. The downside of this Chinese whispers campaign were all the old wives’ tales that attached themselves to his accomplishments like gossip remoras:
He was incapable of telling the truth and he gained supernatural powers by winning a bet with the Devil in a liar’s competition.
He thrived on the broken hearts of virgins after he stole the purest form of love from them.
He was born without a soul.
He was a genetic engineering experiment using stem cell materials that hasn’t been able to be duplicated.
He was born with one hundred percent brain capacity and as a result has all the information stored on every computer and the internet in his brain.
He averted World War Three by winning the jackpot in a poker game with the world’s superpowers.
For a person who bartered in boons, how could he resist collecting favors from the entire planet? But when The Man accepted the offer, he scoured governments, both domestic and foreign, for help, with absolutely no success.
Once The Man signed the contract, he was elected to make first contact, and the world leaders resigned from their posts and contingency plans were underway to build underground shelters. He could not find a government, nation, country or individual to stand by his side.
The final extraterrestrial message contained a set of coordinates for the rendezvous point. Although no one would stand by him, he was able to call in several favors to arrange transport to one of the remote volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean, Tristan da Cunha.
The alien armada arrived like a meteor storm, ships of shifting geometrics burned through Earth’s mesosphere and parked themselves in the stratosphere around the entire planet so that they blotted out the sun.
Plunged into darkness, The Man stood his ground as a lone, illuminated craft, smaller than the other ships, descended to the rendezvous point and touched down on the soil light as a feather.
The ship altered its form and peeled itself away from its passenger and repurposed itself into a ramp. The alien glided forward. It existed on the outer fringes of humanoid description but The Man found its features and its form somehow alluring.
The alien handed him a card with strange markings and upon contact with his skin, the card pricked his thumb and took a DNA sample. The markings changed, cycling through alphabets until it hit his native earthbound English. When all the letters were in place, it simply read:
Aeton was made for Ioasephyn, and she him, of this there was never any doubt. Formed during The Great Making and united in an unbreakable union when the world was in its infancy, the couple consummated their love as the molten planet cooled. Theirs was the first love and the fulcrum on which all love that followed would be balanced.
In the days before there were others, Aeton and Ioasephyn relaxed in fields of spun gold and stared upward, watching as the void caught fire, pinprick flames burst into life throughout the inky black and became stars. As the land masses grew restless and pulled away from one another, separating the waters into greater and lesser portions, the pair frolicked while the planet went through its growing pains.
When others came, some as a byproduct of their union, and the rest molded from clay or evolved from simpler lifeforms, they watched as gatherings became villages became towns became cities, and those overpopulated cities became nations. There were those who sought to rule these nations, some successfully, others less so. Aeton and Ioasephyn had seen the noblest of endeavors corrupted by pettiness, jealousy and greed and wished to separate themselves from the inevitable outcomes.
Time passed for everyone but the young lovers. Their children grew older, as did friends. Not all were accepting of the fact, so they vanished from the daily workings of societies, and only visited occasionally when curiosity got the better of them.
One such visit proved disastrous for Ioasephyn when someone in a new city recognized her. She thought enough time had passed and the world had forgotten them. How could she have known that she and Aeton had become the stuff of legend? A legend planted in the soil of truth, watered by myth in each retelling until it sprouted the belief that their blood, the liquid of pure first love, granted eternal life.
They surrounded her, the entire city did, and forced her into a prison until they consulted with an elder on the precise details of the ritual needed to extract the blood for the immortality elixir.
Aeton was on the opposite side of the world when he felt Ioasephyn’s fear tug at his heart. He pleaded with the moon to create a tide that would carry him to his true love’s side. It obliged and he rode the waters day and night without rest until he arrived at the city that held her.
Without delay, he met with the officials who held his love and attempted to reason with them. With a father’s patience, he listened to their wild tales and struggled to dispel the myths. He told them the truth in the Voice of Authority, but they paid no heed and took him prisoner, as well.
The legend warned that the couple’s invincible power was only focused in their union, so the jailers locked Aeton and Ioasephyn in cages separated far enough apart so they could not touch. Upon seeing one another, the lovers wept for they knew their demise would soon come. But they were not angry, instead, they pitied those who could never have seen the world through their eyes. The love they declared for one another stood the test of the sometimes wondrous sometimes terrifying times they lived through, and it would survive this as well.
Though they had accepted their fates, Aeton could not bear the thought of Ioasephyn not existing, so he hid her away somewhere no one would ever think to find her. He hid her in plain sight, tucked away in the corner of the mind’s eye of everyone in existence. He spoke the words of the incantation in his native tongue, acquired at the dawn of language when words contained magic.
Unbeknownst to Aeton, Ioasephyn had done the same to him. They truly were of one mind.
So now they lived where visionaries and dreamers created and though they often tended to their own affairs, sometimes they could be glimpsed frolicking on the cusp of thoughts or relaxing in fields of gossamer daydreams, staring upward and watching as the void caught fire, pinprick flames bursting into life throughout the inky blackness to become ideas.
“I’m not a liar. I just have a good memory for things that never happened.” ― J.T. Bock
There’s a story I’m fond of telling, about a girl I met in a park during a blizzard. Sad fact of the matter is I don’t remember what she looked like. Not exactly. In my fading memory’s defense, I only saw the bit of her frosty red face that was nestled within the furry ring of her hooded parka. And I’ll admit that my recollection of events might be slightly dramatized and infused with more schmaltzy innocence and devil may care fun, as we built a snow fort to defend ourselves from the invading snow army, but it happened, the girl was real and not some imaginary snow playmate—I’ve had plenty of those, so I know the difference—and a good time was had by all, or at least by me.
The memory gets more Michael Bay-ish with each retelling. It takes on mass and bulks up and challenges me to become a better liar in order to bear its additional weight. But am I actually a liar? If the current version records over the initial memory on the VHS tape in my mind and all I have left is the most recent telling, then I am relaying events as I recall them, no? And why shouldn’t I drape this memory with grace so that it might straighten its back and hold its head higher as it strolls amongst my other remembrances? I am one of only two people who possess this memory and since I cannot verify that the other party is holding up their end, it’s my sworn duty to keep it alive, embellishments and all.
It started out as one of my favorite kind of schooldays, you know, where you wake up and the world outside is completely white and Alice Cooper’s voice is on a continuous loop in your head as you do your victory dance in front of the window, “School’s out forever…“
What was that? Just me, then? All right. Good to know.
Anyhoo, after lying about leaving my books at school–thereby avoiding studying to get ahead of the class (perish the thought)–and breezing through my chores, I ventured forth into snowmageddon and discovered… no one else was outside. Oh, sure, people were attempting to dig their cars out, but none of my friends, hell, no one my age was visible in the dense thundersnow.
Cowards, the lot of them!
Undaunted–I wasn’t going back inside, not on a day like this–I trekked to the local park and that was when I saw The Girl. Out on her lonesome, rolling the lower portion of a snowman-to-be with all the intensity of a Winterland Victoria Frankenstein.
When she eventually caught sight of me, she stopped and glared, trying to suss me out. Was I friend or foe? We stood there for ages, still as statues, locked in a silent Mexican Stare Off. She was determined, this one, to wait me out. She had staked claim to this park and I was the trespasser. If we were ever going to come to an accord, I’d have to make the first move. So, I did the only thing I could do in that situation…
I began rolling the middle portion for her snowman. That seemed to be good enough for her.
You ask me what her name was? Well, there are only two words that come to mind when I think about her: amber and hazel. So, either her name was Amber and she had hazel eyes, or she was an amber-eyed Hazel. Perhaps even something in between like Hazamberel or Amhazelber? I can’t rule any options out at this point.
The park was ours and ours alone, we two intrepid children of The Bronx. We laughed in the face of the snowpocalypse and frolicked–as much as our starfish overlayering would allow–and built an ominous snow army that we waged snow war against, plowed through the snow soldiers and beat them down to the ground, before turning on each other in the snowball fight to end all snowball fights, tried to sled downhill on a ratty piece of cardboard, discovered how truly fast squirrels are when we tried to catch one, marveled at how far trees could bend under the weight of snow and made a pact to be friends forever.
I learned that day that pacts are not unbreakable–I never saw Hazamberel again–and just how like a snowflake a memory is.
Not a terribly exciting story to hear, I realize, but I’m not telling it for your enjoyment. I tell it so that I don’t lose it, so that it doesn’t fade any more than it already has from the weathers of time, or become trapped and freezes to death in the hedge maze like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
That’s part of the duty we owe to our past, to not only remember it but become the architects and build up the bits of the foundation that have crumbled away due to neglect.
So, please stop me if I’ve told you this one before, but once, when I was younger, I met a girl in a blizzard, at least I think it was snowing, maybe it was rain, and her name was some sort of color, Vermillion or Fuchsia, maybe…
“You have a messiah complex, got to save the world.” — Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas
I’ve never been much for crowds, not even as a child. People huddled en masse tended to embrace a hive mind of boorishness, which was why I tended to do all my necessities shopping early on Tuesday mornings. Fewer people and less hassle as I collected my weekly provisions, zipped through the express lane, out of the market and on to the next chore on my list that required social navigation. But something wasn’t quite right today. Tuesday? Of course. Early morning? Naturally. Empty supermarket? Not by a long shot.
The aisles were crawling with miscreants of every possible variety. Attention deficit disordered shoppers who treated their shopping cart like cars out of a Fast and Furious film, crashed into other carts and shoppers with reckless abandon in search of the ever elusive sale of nearing-their-sell-by-date items they probably had no practical use for; forsaken carts parked in the middle of aisles blocking throughways and creating bumper to bumper trolley traffic; and coupon carrying cretins stalling checkout lines because they hadn’t quite mastered the simple art of having payment in hand for their items and beating a hasty retreat out into the open plains of the parking lot.
I contemplated pivoting on my heels and leaving the shopping for another morning or possibly next Tuesday—surely I could have survived a week on basic rations. But had I left, I wouldn’t have run into Tatum.
It was seventeen years since I laid eyes on her last. She was still attractive, more so now, a slender Honduran with mocha skin, shoulder-length dreadlocks, and a disarming smile that tended to pull a bit to the right side of her face. Unlike previous times when I randomly encountered someone from my past on the street and immediately began flipping through my mental card catalog for any excuse to walk away, I was actually pleased to see her. In that moment of reciting the usual social pleasantries by rote, all the negative history hadn’t existed. We waded in a pool of heart-warming nostalgia.
Her smile never wavered as she told me how her life hadn’t turned out quite the way she planned. When we were together, she studied to be a lawyer. Now, she worked as a marketing senior manager for a cosmetics firm, was the mother of two, a girl and a boy, seven and nine years old respectively, who were fathered by a deadbeat boyfriend who ditched both the wedding and his kids in one fell swoop.
I had no idea how long we stood there blocking the aisle much to the ire of the other shoppers nor did I care. For the first time in quite a while, I honestly enjoyed exchanging words with a person who wasn’t trapped within the confines of a television set. But all good things, as they say—so, we exchanged numbers, promised each other we’d call and went our separate ways.
And on the way home, the strangest nagging notion crept up from the back of my mind: had we been able to work things out all those many years ago, her life might have turned out differently. Better. Then came the guilt as if my absence was somehow responsible for the direction her life took. And on the tail end of that guilt came the shame for not being a better boyfriend to her and a better person in general.
I promptly crumpled up her number and kicked it down a storm drain. Neither she nor I needed to be reminded of what might have been.
Less than a week later, once I had time to regret trashing her phone number, she called me out of the blue with an invitation to have lunch and meet her children. I wasn’t particularly keen on the latter, but I definitely wanted to see her again.
We met at a faux Italian restaurant, a fast food chain done up in dime store décor to give the eatery a stereotypical taste of Italy, and I had to admit that I didn’t mind her kids all that much. They were a bit unruly, but what children weren’t at those ages? Although I felt a little awkward being interrogated by her brood, it was nice being in Tatum’s company. I experienced a level of comfort in her presence that oddly felt like home.
That was, until her daughter, Tracie, asked, “Did you and Mommy have S-E-X?” as if spelling the word somehow made the question safe to ask.
Confirmed bachelor that I was, I wasn’t comfortable chatting with a nine-year-old about sex. I had no idea what the proper protocol was, so I turned to Tatum and with a look, asked, Did we have S-E-X, Mommy?
Without batting an eye, Tatum answered, “Yes. We had sex.”
Was that how it’s done nowadays? Was it the norm for ex-boyfriends to be brought to lunch with the kiddies to openly discuss their sexual history? I was still reeling from that exchange when her son, Lee, chimed in, “You could be our Dad!”
The old one-two punch. These kids worked me over like a speed bag. They laughed at my embarrassment and I tried to play it off, but it unnerved me on a deep level. The rest of the conversation was downhill after that in terms of my personal discomfort. We got on well enough, the four of us, better than expected and when we said our goodbyes after lunch, I was hit with another weird sensation—jealousy. Because her children weren’t our children and in her family, there was no place setting for me at the table. It only lasted an instant but long enough to have registered.
I tried to put things into perspective, tried to remember why our relationship ended in the first place, it wasn’t a build up of all the minor things, the petty annoyances that masked the underlying truth that people simply grew apart. If I was honest, it was the Santería, the Afro-Cuban ritualistic and ceremonial worship of saints her family practiced religiously that rubbed me the wrong way. She asked how I felt about it and I told her I didn’t believe in things like that and it was the truth, but the other truth, the deeper truth, was that it scared a part of me that I didn’t want to acknowledge.
To be clear, it wasn’t Tatum practicing rituals so much as her mother. That woman hated me from the moment she clapped eyes on me, no rhyme, no reason, just pure unadulterated hatred. For some reason, I hadn’t measured up to her exacting standards of what constituted a proper boyfriend for her daughter and she never bothered hiding that fact. She visited our apartment constantly and after she left, I would find things hidden around the house, under the bed, in the refrigerator. Little Santería objects tucked away everywhere.
One day when I arrived home early with the intention of whipping up a surprise dinner for Tatum when she got off from work, I walked in on Tatum’s mother and sisters in the middle of a Santeria ritual. There were others with them, perhaps family members I hadn’t met or just fellow practitioners, all clad in white. Drummers talked to the saints, playing their specific beat, eyes closed in a trance while robed dancers chanted in ancient Yoruba as they spun and shook off the evil eye.
And in the center of the living room, Tatum’s mother stared at me like I was a burglar, like I was the thing that didn’t belong in my own home. Before I knew it, the last of my resolve evaporated and I began yelling for her and everyone else to get the hell out of my apartment, jabbing my finger in the air at her for emphasis. The old woman ignored me and she walked in ever-expanding circles while smoking a cigar that smelled of things I’d never smelled before and blew smoke in my face as she spoke in tongues. It made me gag and start to cough. I clutched at my throat and lost consciousness to the sight of Tatum’s mother and sisters laughing at me.
When I came to, Tatum was home. I told her what happened and she called her mother on the phone. After a lengthy conversation, she said she understood how things must have seemed and apologized for not telling me she allowed them to use the apartment while we were out but ultimately she sided with her family over me.
That was all it took. I moved out of the apartment that night and never looked back. Depending on how you looked at it, if her mother was casting a spell to get rid of me, it actually worked because I was out of her daughter’s life.
I kept this firmly in mind when Tatum phoned and invited me around hers for dinner. I accepted the invitation, mind you, but I kept the incident with her mother firmly in mind. It had been a month of Sundays since I had a proper home-cooked meal because no one in their right mind would have called what I did cooking.
Tatum greeted me at the door, apron on, dusted with flour and seasonings, happy homemaking in full effect. The kids were in the kitchen and to my astonishment were finishing up washing the dishes. They dried their hands before they ran up and hugged me. I looked into their faces and something seemed off. Their smiles were too wide, teeth too white and there was something unnatural about the intensity in their eyes. And their faces looked different. They still possessed features that were reminiscent of Tatum but the rest was somehow different, incomplete, like faces in transition. I chalked it up to being overly tired and thought no more of it.
Dinner went well. Who knew Tatum could have been such a gracious hostess? The kids made the meal a pleasant experience, as well. They stopped bickering and playing with their food when I asked them to, laughed at my jokes and listened with rapt attention as I talked about the time I met their mother.
When dinner was over we sat in the living room. The apartment was too small for two growing kids but Tatum arranged everything in a way that made it feel roomy, as though it was a real house.
We sat on the sofa, all of us, Tatum paging through a family photo album on her lap. Pictures of vacations with the deadbeat boyfriend, of her during various stages of her pregnancy, of her and deadbeat holding a newborn Lee and later with Tatum holding a newborn Tracie while deadbeat lurked somewhere in the background. A life well documented.
Tatum told me how difficult things had been. Deadbeat had developed a drug habit and came around under the guise of seeing his children only to beg off some money to score and if that hadn’t worked, he stole things to sell or threatened to take the kids.
One time when Tatum refused to give him any more money, he made good on his threat and Stacie and Lee were taken from her by Child Services because of alleged abuse charges. She described the hell she had to go through to get her family back.
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. It was deadbeat, whose Christian name was Oscar, most likely coming around again to score. She spoke with him in hushed tones through the space in the door allowed by the security chain. When his shouts turned to raged kicks on the door, I stepped up behind Tatum so that he could see me. “Everything all right, Tate?”
It was like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Oscar lost his mind and no manner of reasoning calmed him. I showed him my cell phone, made sure he had seen me dial 911 and only then as he weighed the options in his mind did he leave, but not before he made his threats. He would be back, to kill me, get his kids and make Tatum pay.
Tatum convinced me not to involve the police but only after she agreed to let me stay the night in case Oscar decided to return. We tried to salvage the rest of the evening for the sake of Tracie and Lee but deadbeat’s presence lingered in the air.
The sofa was made up for me as comfortable as she could manage, but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was afraid that Oscar would return, afraid that I wouldn’t be much use since I wasn’t a violent man. All I could have done was to block his attack while Tatum grabbed the kids and made their way to safety. And if that was what it took, then so be it.
When the tension of the evening finally loosened its grip and I began drifting off, Tatum came to me. Without uttering a word, she slid her nightgown off her shoulders and let it fall to her ankles. Why hadn’t I ever noticed just how perfect she was before? She stood there, naked and beautiful in the moonlight that poured in from the living room window, and I knew then and there that I would have done anything for her. Smiling, she climbed on top of me and it was paradise.
After we were done, after all the love I was capable of making had been made, after the pillow talk in which things were said that were sweet and emotional and ultimately meaningless, Tatum gathered her nightgown and went back to her bed. I understood her not wanting the children to find her in my arms in the morning, but a small piece of me was gutted.
My head swam with a million thoughts, my heart filled with far too many emotions, and that, combined with the feeling that something still wasn’t quite right, meant there was no sleep for me this night. And so preoccupied was I that I hadn’t heard it at first. The sound. The jingling of keys.
I strained my ears, trying to locate the noise again. After a few moments of silence, I wondered if it had just been my overactive imagination. It couldn’t have been him with a set of keys, surely Tatum would have changed the locks. Then it happened again. The sound of a key sliding into a lock. I sat bolt upright on the sofa, eyes scanning the darkness for a weapon. Remote controls, game console controllers, DVDs—the candy dish! It was no gun, but the glass was solid enough to crack a skull.
I stared into the dark hallway from the living room entranceway and heard the front doorknob turning. The door opened a crack and light spilled in from the apartment building’s hallway. An arm slipped in through the crack holding a hooked wire, perhaps a piece of a clothes hanger, that scratched at the door until it found purchase in the handle of the security chain which it then dragged along the track slowly until the chain fell away.
I should have acted then. I should have rushed the door, slammed his arm in it, put my full weight against the door, held him there and called the police for them to cart him away. But I was held in place by a tension that locked inside of me. Instinct had taken over. So had the fear.
The intruder’s silhouette appeared in the doorway before the door clicked shut behind him, plunging the hall back into darkness. Footsteps, slow and deliberate. The floorboards creaked as if they were screaming a warning. I threw the candy dish with all my might into the darkness and knew that I missed my target completely when I heard it crash off the front door and glass rained down on the floor.
Then I heard a rustling come from the kids’ room, obviously awakened by the noise. Were they coming to investigate? Something snapped inside me. This bastard wasn’t going to harm those kids!
I charged into the darkness until I collided with the intruder. But as angry and determined as I was, I was no match for his explosive violence. He heaved me into the air and threw me onto the floor, unleashing a hail of punches and kicks that knocked me senseless. I put my arms up to protect my face and instinctively curled into a ball but my defensive position blocked none of his attacks.
He must have sensed how weak I was, what a uselessly pathetic man he was dealing with because he stopped hitting me and chose instead to wrap his hands around my throat. I flailed spastically to get him off as I gasped for air but the intruder was having none of it. He slammed my head against the floor in a violent demonstration of his control over me as I gasped my last remaining breaths.
Then light flooded the room. Tatum and the children stood at the end of the hall, staring at me. My emotions were mixed. I wanted them to go away, I didn’t want them to see me like this. I wanted them to get to safety, but on the other hand, I wanted them to help me. I didn’t want to die.
But there was something in the way they looked at me, something that told me things weren’t right. And I looked up at the intruder—
Who was no longer there. And now I understood why they were staring at me. Here I was lying on the floor with my own hands wrapped around my neck. It took some effort for me to loosen my own grip. I staggered to my feet and tried to explain how Oscar had come back, how he had a key and he broke in and was going to do something terrible to them, but they didn’t understand.
“Who’s Oscar?” the kids asked and, “What’s wrong with Daddy?”
“Stop that! It isn’t funny anymore!” I tried to yell through a raw throat. “I’m not your father!”
A genuine look of pain danced across Tracie and Lee’s faces as they turned to Tatum, asking, “Why is he saying this, Mommy? Why is he acting so strange?”
And I was feeling strange like my entire world had suddenly shifted on its axis.
“I can prove it,” I said as I ran past them into the living room and grabbed the photo album for proof and flipped through the pages of—
Tatum and I on vacation. Me posing with her during various stages of both her pregnancies. The pair of us cradling a newborn Lee and later with us holding a newborn Tracie while Lee lurked in the background pulling a silly face.
These weren’t the pictures I had seen earlier and I had no recollection of having taken these photos, yet they existed.
And I looked at Tracie and Lee and they were different again, now a mixture of Tatum and I thought I actually saw bits of myself in their faces. The kids asked Tatum what was wrong and she explained that I, Daddy, just had a nightmare, that’s all. She told them that everything would be all right in the morning, everything back to normal.
After Tatum swept up the shattered candy dish, she began to usher me to the bedroom, grabbing the pillow off the sofa when something fell to the floor, something that had been resting under the pillow. It looked like a figure made of red-tinged folded palm leaves, bound together by hair but I couldn’t see it properly because she quickly brushed it under the sofa with her foot. I asked her what it was and she said it was just one of the kids’ toys and she would talk to them about picking up their things, or she suggested maybe I should do it, after I got back from Tuesday morning shopping, because she wouldn’t have time since she was staring at a monster of a day down at the law firm tomorrow.
“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.” ― Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
I have a memory like a sieve. My recollections of the past come to me in flashes and snippets and I have to be mindful not to fall into one of the many great blank holes when traipsing around in half-forgotten yesterdays. Part of it is the result of a built-in self-defense mechanism, tamping down the harmful events that one never quite survives intact. The rest? Just plain negligence. I am a poor caretaker of retrospection.
And for a while, I wasn’t bothered by it. Then I reached a point in life when memories—–of love and pain and the whole damned thing—-became important because I found myself wanting to catalog my journey before I reached the end of the race (it’s always closer than you expect and they say you never see the finish line with your name on it).
But now, when I recount the tales of the various and sundry someones who impacted my life before blowing away like a leaf in the wind, someones whose names I used to be able to recite by rote, those names have now taken up permanent residence on the tip of my tongue but never so close as to venture past my lips.
I find that in order to remember a past event, I have to place it in a location that’s visible so that I don’t misplace it along with my keys and smartphone. I have chosen this place as the soil in which to plant my evaporating memories before they’re gone forever.
I put this moment here:
Of the girl that I fancied in the first grade whose name might have been Cheryl or Shirley but for some reason I remember it as “Squirrel,” whom I wrote about when the teacher asked the class to write about something we loved. And that selfsame teacher thinking it was so adorable that she took me to Squirrel’s class and made me read it aloud to her. You’re never too young to discover embarrassment.
I put this moment here:
Of the German woman who made me my first brown bag lunch for school that consisted of a healthy liverwurst sandwich which I enjoyed the taste of but stopped eating altogether after being teased at school by the other kids for eating dog food. It hurt her feelings and I wish I had a stronger conviction to continue eating the lunches she prepared with love.
I put this moment here:
Of the asexual woman I worked with at a car rental agency who looked like a young Peggy Lipton and lived in New Jersey. I remember riding the Path train to her house and we would regularly break dawn discussing her passion, serial killers. She didn’t own a television and instead had an impressive collection of serial killer and unsolved murder case books. I found her fascinating and in hindsight I suppose I’m lucky that I never went missing.
I put this moment here:
Of the woman I worked with at a banking institution, who I spent a bizarre New Year’s Eve with as we dropped tabs of acid that didn’t work and searched Manhattan for the perfect place to ring in the new year and ended up laying on the grass of Central Park making resolutions and wishing on stars for a better year to come.
Sometimes when my mind is idle, I struggle to recall the names of people and events trapped within synaptic pathways that withered from non-use, names and events I feel I should remember because of the emotions that linger despite the fact the memories have faded and recognition has faltered.
I lament the loss of these remembrances because they’re all a part of me and I’m afraid to learn the answer to what of myself will remain when all the memories have faded away.
Gather ye memories while ye may. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.