Tiny Stories: Naiara And The Missing Piece

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

Naiara was a precocious child and at the age of 10 her intelligence quotient tested at 443, far above that of her mother, who was the smartest woman Amador had ever known, and he himself lagged behind them both, for on his brightest day he was merely averagely smart at best.

That hadn’t stopped him from trying to stimulate her voracious appetite for knowledge with books, magazines, and family-friendly websites. Amador encouraged questioning and anything that stumped him was turned into an adventure of learning the answers together.

They visited museums, attended concerts and live events to help to expand Naiara’s knowledge and ignite curiosity and excitement about a variety of areas of potential interest. Amador also made sure his daughter got an ample amount of playtime with children her own age to help her develop proper social skills.

Naiara inherited a love for a good yarn from her mother, Viviana, so Amador made a habit of spinning fantastical tales in order to keep her mind occupied, which sometimes backfired as she would poke holes in his story logic, and sometimes worked like a charm when she joined in on the worldbuilding of the fable.

Then there were times when her boredom was such that no story would assuage her desire for the acquisition of knowledge, so he began providing her with challenges. The latest one was designed to keep her occupied for a while.

“There are a number of global challenges that exist today: food insecurity, refugees who often lose their lives during dangerous journeys in the hope of finding a place to live that offers safety and stability, climate change, gender discrimination, and child abuse,” Amador paused, caught his daughter’s eyes and asked, “Do you know what I mean by child abuse?” He knew she understood but the father in him had to make certain.

“Yes, Papi,” Naiara nodded. “Child marriage, child labor, and trafficking.”

“And you understand what these things are?”

Her expression saddened, “Yes, Papi.”

 “Then your assignment is to find solutions for these problems.”

“Written or oral?”

“Your discretion.”

“All right then,” she said, her brow knotted as she walked away, the telltale sign that Naiara’s mind was already on the case.

And for the following eight days, apart from mealtime, Amador scarcely saw his daughter as she confined herself to her room and devoted herself to the project at hand.

On the ninth day, Amador and Viviana were called into the living room, where Naiara decided to deliver her presentation. She was proud of the solution she came up with, he could tell by the flush of her cheeks and how tightly she gripped the index cards in her little hands.

Naiara cleared her throat and began, “The Universe is not infinite. It expanded just wide enough to allow worlds to form. And those worlds were meant to spawn beings. And those beings were meant to learn the ways of the Apparatus Universi in order to keep the universe running, for The Universe is not a living thing, as most intelligent people have postulated.

“The Universe is a machine constructed by the Vetus Mundi Tinkerers, a race of cosmic free-thinkers and craftsbeings who, though long-lived, are not immortal, and eventually succumbed to the end fate that awaits us all, while waiting for their successors to arrive to remove the heavy burden from their weary shoulders and carry on in their stead.

“But the changing of the guard never occurred. Somewhere down the line, the sacred knowledge meant to be handed down the generations until the various races sufficiently evolved to the point when they were ready to transition into tinkerers, had been mistold, mangled, and eventually forgotten.

“Now The Universe is winding down, beginning to fail because a piece is missing. Some small, yet vital part has somehow come loose during millennia of daily operation and is set adrift on the spaceways, with no one to find it, no one who even knows what to look for. This has caused an imbalance in the way of things and the ripple effects are responsible for the illogic that led to our global challenges.”

What on Earth was she talking about? When Amador presented these challenges, he had no clue what solutions his daughter would come up with but this was certainly not the response he was expecting. It sounded more along the lines of one of the stories he invented to distract her. Did his daughter not understand the assignment?

As if sensing his confusion, Naiara said, “I know you have questions and comments but I ask that you please reserve them for the end of the presentation. And now, if you would please join me on the roof for the conclusion.”

 Amador was about to protest but Viviana squeezed his arm and whispered, “Let’s hear her out, I’m sure this is leading somewhere.”

They made their way onto the rooftop patio, where a pale crescent moon shone like a silvery claw amidst the blanket of stars that stretched to infinity, and the occasional barking of faraway dogs broke the silence of the night. Naiara stood dangerously close to the roof’s edge.

“Be careful, mi Amor,” Viviana warned.

“I’m fine, Mami.” Naiara smiled, but something about her demeanor had changed now that they were out in the open air. Before her parents could question it, the young girl continued her presentation.

“The answer was here all along, hidden in plain sight amongst the stars, and all it took was the proper mathematical equation to tumble the locks set in place at the beginning of time to limit human perception and knowledge. Now it has made itself visible to my mortal eyes, making me gravid with omniscience and I know what I must do.”

“Madre mía,” Viviana exclaimed as, before their very eyes, the stars in the sky began to shift and move but it wasn’t the stars themselves, it was a cloud of stardust that twisted in upon itself like a murmuration of starlings until it formed a circular platform that lowered itself to the level of the roof near Naiara’s feet.

Viviana was about to protest but this time it was Amador’s turn to squeeze her arm. He whispered, “I understand all this less than you, but this is something she was meant to do. I know you feel it, too.”

Naiara’s impressive vocabulary consisted of over 95,000 words, yet Amador could tell by the way their daughter’s mouth opened and closed in silence that she found none of them suitable for the occasion.

Finally, she settled on, “Thank you, Papi, for setting me on my path, and Mami, I promise you I will return and together we will go about setting things on the planet right.”

The young girl motioned for her parents to come to her as she extended her arms to cuddle them both. Amador had been hugged by his daughter before but never like this. Her embrace was stronger than anything he had ever known, as if a lifetime of hugs had been compressed into one single act…and he knew what it meant. This was goodbye. So, he snuggled in and squeezed a fraction tighter pulling his precious angel and his wife closer together, trying to merge them into a single being.

Though time looked the other way to allow the hug to be indefinite, after all the tears had been shed and everything that needed to be voiced had been said, Naiara slipped from her parents’ arms and kissed them both on the cheek.

“I love you both so much,” Naiara said as she stepped off the roof and onto the platform. The stardust swirled around her petite frame, enveloping her like a cocoon and she was lifted up past the troposphere, stratosphere, and mesosphere, past the thermosphere, ionosphere, exosphere, and finally into space, where the tiny particles that made up solar wind swarmed around her stardust cocoon.

Although air and breathing were no longer a necessity, she sighed a young lifetime of relief and drifted peacefully amidst the cogs and gears of The Universe.

Naturally, Amador and Viviana were concerned for their daughter’s safety in the face of the universal unknown, but Naiara’s parting gift to them was expanding their minds with just enough understanding to allay their more serious fears and causing their already loving hearts to open like a cosmic flower so that she could establish a tether with them. Now, they would forever remain connected to her as she went in search of the missing piece.

Not The End.

12 Plays of Christmas: A Tin of Snow

Tin of snow

There was a time many, many moons ago when I hadn’t yet become the noted curmudgeon that I am today, a time when I still believed in magic and Kris Kringle and I put a great deal of effort into crafting the perfect Christmas list, one that was sure to grab Gifty Nick’s attention. Many items on that list changed from year to year but there was one thing that always held the Number One position: A Pet.

And who could blame me? Nearly every book I read or tv show I watched at the time clued me in on the fact that no young boy’s adventure life was complete without an animal companion. Dick had Spot (oh, grow up!) the Cocker Spaniel, Timmy had Lassie the rough collie, Mark had Gentle Ben the American black bear, Sandy had Flipper the bottlenose dolphin, and Sonny had Skippy the bush kangaroo. Who did I have? N-o-b-o-d-y and I only had one person to blame. Somebody in the house was allergic to pet dander, and that somebody’s name was Trista, my middle sister.

Undaunted, I penned (okay, it was in crayon but same difference) many letters to Santa detailing my dilemma and making a request for a non-allergenic pet (don’t look at me like that! If anyone could have pulled off that miracle, surely it had to be the red-coated gent whose belly shook like a bowl of jelly) but year after year no little-boy-bestest-pal-in-the-whole-wide-world ever showed up beneath the family Christmas tree (don’t waste your time naming hairless pets in the comment section below. It was the ’60s and we didn’t know anything about that, or if my folks did, they kept it a closely guarded secret).

Since my pleas fell on deaf Clausian ears, I was forced to take matters into my own hands and come up with a different plan. To my credit (hey, if I don’t toot my own horn, who will? Again, get your mind out of the gutter!) it didn’t take long for me to devise a unique solution to my problem.

Tins were a wonderful thing to me. They were a depository where the things a boy kept precious could be secreted away and tucked into the backs of closets or under loose floorboards. Mostly the contents of tins included stamps, coins, marbles, smooth and colorful stones, and the bits of refuse that could be viewed as a treasure to the furtive imagination of a young mind.

I collected snow.

Not just any snow, mind you—I wasn’t some type of frozen vapor hoarding lunatic—I collected the flakes from the first snowfall of the year and packed little rectangular bricks in the back of the freezer. Why? Because of Frosty the Snowman, who came to life after being imbued with the magical properties of first-fall snow. But I wasn’t going to build some ratty old snowman, no sir, not me. My goals were slightly loftier than that.

I was going to build a griffin. Agrippa the Ice Griffin. I couldn’t see my parents objecting to that, unless Trista suddenly developed an allergic reaction to ice, which she might have done, just to spite me.

I’d be the envy of my neighborhood when Agrippa and I went for a walk, and since I read somewhere how griffins have the ability to sense and dig gold up from the earth, I knew we’d be financially sorted for life. And we would totally rule the airways. That went without saying.

Yup. I saw it all clear as day and my plan was foolproof. Since my childhood predated the internet, I had to go to the New York Public Library with sheets of onion skin and trace pictures from mythology books and experiment with PlayDoh so I’d know how to sculpt Agrippa accurately, and knowing he’d be curious about his heritage, I constructed a fascinating family history that would have made any newly birthed mythological creature proud.

As I collected tins of the first snow and carefully hid them in the freezer, I knew the world was finally mine and I was destined to live the most incredibly awesome life ever imagined, and nothing could have prevented it…

Until I discovered the hard way that refrigerators came equipped with a defrost feature. All my carefully stacked magically imbued briquettes had been reduced to not-so-magical freezer run-off that dripped impotently into a catch tray.

Needless to say, I have yet to bring Agrippa into existence. And life, well, it hasn’t quite reached that most incredibly awesome high watermark yet.

But this year’s snow hasn’t fallen yet in my neck of the woods, so here’s hoping I can still lay my hands on those old tracings…

Can You Keep A Secret?

Walton had done the calculations. The building stood twenty-two stories tall which was approximately two hundred and forty feet and his freefall wouldn’t last longer than four seconds, reaching seventy-five miles per hour on impact.

That should do the trick, he thought as he closed his eyes, held his breath, and stepped off the building ledge.

A hand caught the crook of his arm in a vise-like grip and yanked Walton violently back onto the roof. He was confused when he opened his eyes and saw…

A ghost?

No. Although she was so pale she almost looked faded and thin to the point of anorexia, skin stretched over bones, the woman standing over him was definitely corporeal. Walton wasn’t one to judge a person’s appearance but she wasn’t attractive. Her hair was baby-fine and lifeless and it collapsed onto her shoulders. He was in midair when she grabbed him but there was no way this frail, bony woman could have yanked him back onto the roof.

“I didn’t mean to manhandle you like that. I just didn’t know your story,” the woman said. Her voice was mousy but her tone was strong.

“Are you insane? What are you talking about?”

“I wasn’t the one about to swan dive into concrete, so let’s not judge anyone’s sanity here, okay? And I’m talking about your story. Everybody’s got one and it would be a shame if you did what you were about to do and nobody knew your story.”

“Wait, you stopped me because you wanted to know my story? Not because I was going to kill myself?”

“Let’s be honest here, if you aim to top yourself, you’ll find a way to do it, and there’s nothing that I or anybody else can do to stop you. I’m just curious to know who you were.”

“You mean are.”

“I mean were. You’re going to kill yourself after all.”

“You really are crazy.”

“There you go again, with that label. Hello, pot, meet kettle.”

“What are you doing up here anyway?”

“I could ask you the same question.”

Walton pointed toward the building ledge. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Oh yeah, right.”

“Look, I don’t have time to waste talking nonsense with a stranger,” Walton said, rising to his feet and dusting himself off.

“Vonda Darleen Honeycutt,” Vonda said, extending her hand.

“What?”

“My name. We’re not strangers anymore. And you are…?”

“Not interested.” Walton walked past her to the roof’s edge.

“I’m just going to go downstairs and rummage through your gunky remains until I find your ID, so why not save me the trouble?”

He let out a sigh of exasperation. “Walton.”

“Got a last name there, Walton?”

“Summers, all right? Walton Mayson Summers, are you happy now?”

“Hey, we got something in common, you’re a three-namer like me. Ever wonder why middle names went out of fashion?”

“No, now if you’ll excuse me…”

“Uh-uh, not so fast. I still don’t know your story. It must’ve wrapped up in a shitty day to bring you to this.”

“How about a lifetime of shitty days?”

“That would certainly do it. Wanna get it off your chest? You may not know it to look at me but I’m a helluva listener. Besides, I’m only gonna keep snatching you off the ledge until you tell me.”

“Then I’ll take you with me,” Walton said.

“Are you a murderer?”

He wasn’t. Walton sat on the ledge and asked, “If I tell you my story, will you let me do what I came here to do?”

Vonda made the sign of a cross over her left breast. “Cross my heart and hope to…well, you know.”

And with that, Walton told her the story of an unsuccessful author whose work failed to connect with an audience of any kind, who turned to alcohol, an addiction that chased away his wife, his family, and his friends, relationships he wasn’t able to repair even though he had been sober for almost five years.

“Not exactly a life worth living,” Walton concluded.

“What if I could show you something?” Vonda asked.

“Let me stop you right there, I’m not religious, never have been, never will be.”

“I’m not proselytizing, not trying to sell you on a cult, but what I have to show you will damn sure feel like you’re having a religious experience.”

“What have I got to lose? This will all be over in a minute, anyway, so go on, show me.”

Vonda began feeling the air. looking like a mime trapped in a box. Walton rolled his eyes and was about to swing his legs off the side of the building when the odd woman found what she was looking for. She traced her fingers down an invisible seam in the air and dug her fingers into it. With a bit of effort, the bony woman pulled back a piece of reality.

Walton’s eyes grew wide as saucers as he looked upon a sight that altered his perception of himself, his life, everything. It was similar to the overview effect reported by astronauts who viewed the Earth from outer space. What stared back at Walton from the rift in the space/time continuum allowed him to see, for the first time with his mere mortal eyes, the big picture: his life in relation to the universe at large.

Vonda closed the rift, making sure it was sealed tight. Walton walked to where the rift had opened and felt around. He had to see it again but his hand touched nothing except air.

“I never knew,” he said.

“And now you do,” Vonda said. “But there’s a catch.”

“What sort of catch?”

“What you just witnessed has to remain a secret.”

“I’ve just had a cognitive shift in awareness, how can I not scream this from the mountaintops?”

“Them’s the rules,” Vonda shrugged. “In exchange for this experience, you can never tell anyone about what you’ve seen. You can’t even write about it, not in a story, journal entry, email, or text. You are forbidden to utter or issue a single word referring to it.”

“Then why show it to me?”

“You’re about to kill yourself, who are you going to tell?”

“Well, I don’t want to kill myself now, do I?”

“I don’t know, do you?”

“You know damn well I don’t, which is why you showed it to me!”

Vonda shrugged again and held out her pinky. “So, do you promise to keep this a secret?”

“You want me to put it on a pinky swear?”

“It’s universally accepted as a binding contract,” she smiled.

Walton locked his pinky with hers and agreed to keep the secret.

Then something occurred to Walton. “Wait, if this is such a big secret, how were you able to tell me?”

“I have special dispensation, you should have been able to work that out on your own by my ability to peel back reality. Besides, I didn’t tell you anything, I showed you. Big difference.”

“Will I be able to do that, too?”

“Learn to crawl before you walk, pal.”

It turned out that Vonda had been sleeping on the roof since she had no place to live. How could Walton not allow her to crash at his rundown apartment? She was the keeper of the greatest secret unknown to mankind, after all.

Sheer proximity to one another and the sharing of a perception-altering experience led them to become involved in a serious relationship and through her encouragement, he sold his first short story. Vonda turned out to be his good luck charm because published short stories turned into published novellas and Walton’s life soon improved as his struggling writing career became wildly successful.

The couple eventually married and had two beautiful children. The years rolled by as years were wont to do and Walton’s career continued to blossom, however, he had written so many books that he exhausted all of his ideas. Yes, he had earned enough money and invested wisely enough for him and his family to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, and if he needed to work there was always the lecture circuit or he could have sculpted aspiring author minds by teaching a masterclass, but a writer in the pit of their soul wanted to write, wanted to be read, and if he was being honest with himself, fame was a difficult thing to let go of.

Walton had written forty novels at a rate of four books a year and on the tenth anniversary with his publisher, his agent thought it would be a spectacular idea to mark the occasion with a new release. He agreed, even though his new idea well had run dry, because he felt he owed it to his fans to attempt to put out at least one final book before announcing his retirement.

The road to hell was always paved with good intentions.

He wrote in secret, and Walton’s conscience should have plagued him to no end but he somehow convinced himself that what he was doing wasn’t a breach of his promise because he wasn’t detailing the wonders his wife showed him ten years ago. He wrote a fable in allegory and metaphor, craftily altering elements and tweaking details until they in no way resembled the precise details of the truth. But the moment he put the finishing touches on his manuscript, Vonda and the children appeared in the doorway of his study.

“All you had to do was keep one secret and the world would have been yours,” Vonda sighed heavily, letting her head drop. Her teardrops beat patterns on the hardwood floor.

Vonda held out her pinky, a reminder of the vow he made, and Walton watched her pinky fade into nothingness. She screamed and clutched her two daughters tight, who emitted a heartbreaking wail as they began to unravel corporeally and dispersed into so much stardust.

And after they were gone, his current reality followed suit. Films and television programs based on his books became unmade, audiobooks were unspoken, novels melted away from bookshelves, his words vanished from the minds of fans and his publishing company, deals were unsigned, his house unbought, all the positive things that paved the path to his success were undone and time reversed on itself, speeding faster and faster until he was back on the ledge of the building again taking that first big step off.

But this time there was no hand to pull him back onto the roof and gravity did what it was designed to do.

No Future In Arguing

Because of the argument with her mother, Lakshmi wasn’t able to sleep. It happened ten days ago to this very minute and her hatred for her mother hadn’t abated one iota. Truth to tell, she wasn’t able to remember who started the argument or what the initial disagreement was about but, as with most feuds, it opened a doorway for all the other things, the niggling bits of minutia to spill out, and words were exchanged and feelings were hurt on both sides.

Ten days of freezing her mother out. Ten days of refusing to eat or talk or even be in the same room with that woman. Ten nights of lying awake in bed, staring at the headlights of passing cars that trailed rectangles across her ceiling. Lakshmi knew every inch of the ceiling and walls of her room like the back of her hand…which was why she was shocked when her eyes fell upon the crack.

It was beside the mirror that sat atop her chest of drawers, a horizontal crack no longer than a foot in length that resembled a demonic smile. Lakshmi stared at the crack long and hard, wondering how she had missed something so obvious before…when it blinked. All right, so perhaps blinked wasn’t the proper word, but she could have sworn she saw a light flicker from within the crack.

Probably just the wiring, she thought as she pushed a chair against the wall beneath the crack. At night, Lakshmi regularly heard mice scurrying between the walls. One of them must have nibbled on a wire and exposed it. She’d have to remember to tell her father in the morning as it had to be a fire hazard.

Standing on the chair to inspect the crack, she ran her index finger along its jagged yet smooth edge which was surprisingly cold to the touch and she thought she felt a slight suction…then the flicker again!

I didn’t imagine it, Lakshmi thought as she leaned forward and stared into the crack. There was something moving within and she was surprised to see that it was…

Herself.

It was like watching a movie. She watched herself being herself, doing the things she normally did, but not on any day she ever remembered. The images began at a normal pace, then sped up to such a degree where, to anyone else, they would have appeared to be nothing more than a blur but Lakshmi was able to follow along because she was somehow connected to them. They were her personal images, of her life and she was living them, retaining the information contained within them as the events unfolded.

Eyes glued to the craggy slit in the wall, Lakshmi watched the rest of her life, the entirety of her existence, unfold before her in a series of flashes. Her life was quite literally flashing before her eyes.

Flash: Her relationship with her mother falls apart after a series of little spats over the next few years, which leads to the fight to end all fights when she turns seventeen which causes irreparable damage. That will be the final time the two will ever speak to one another.

Flash: Her father grows miserable with all the constant fighting, which wears on his soul until he can’t take it anymore. Lakshmi cries uncontrollably the day he finally leaves their home for another woman. She begins smoking to handle the stress.

Flash: Her dream career of becoming a geophysicist vanishes that day she quits college for a job that allows her to move out of the family home and away from her mother for good.

Flash: She works so many menial jobs, none of which manages to hold her attention for very long, and slowly saps all the dreams and creativity she holds in reserve. With each successive job, the sheen in her eyes dulls a bit more.

Flash: As with the job situation, so too her love life. Her many attempts at love fail for the same reasons time and time again. Somehow, she becomes relationship poison and seeks the same.

Flash: Eventually, her worries and frustrations in finding a mate cause her to settle for a man beneath her worth, a man who adds nothing to her life, a man who also works dead-end jobs with no hope of career advancement.

Flash: Then comes the struggle to save money for secondhand furniture and a used car, and as rents increase, their apartments over the years become smaller and rattier.

Flash: She cries alone in the bathroom with a pregnancy test showing a positive result.

Flash: The birth of her daughter, Rani, is agonizing and when it’s done and the baby is placed in her arms, she knows she should feel something, tries to feel love, but the emotions just will not come.

Flash: Not long after, she’s pregnant again with a premature boy this time, Samesh, and makes the effort to spread the already nonexistent love even thinner.

Flash: Samesh is born sickly and remains that way. Medical bills mount that they’re unable to pay, and her husband comes home later and later, complaining of overtime that is never reflected in his paycheck.

Flash: Fed up, her husband leaves in much the same way as her father did, for another woman, and she now is forced to get a second job to make ends meet.

Flash: Her already distant relationship with her daughter grows volatile when Rani turns to drugs after running with a group of delinquents.

Flash: Samesh’s condition worsens and neither her husband nor Rani are present at the hospital when he dies.

Flash: She develops a cough that turns into a hacking fit that turns into lung cancer that kills her a day before her sixty-sixth birthday. And like her son, she too dies alone.

Lakshmi thought the images would stop there, but she was mistaken. Somehow she was actually able to see beyond her own death, where Rani, holding a one-year Narcotics Anonymous recovery coin, arrives at her hospital room moments too late. Too late to apologize, too late to make amends, too late to say “I love you.” And the pain of this sends her running back to a drug den to score, where a fatal hot dose takes her life.

***

A noise, the sound of wood and plaster breaking in reverse, pulled Lakshmi away from the visions of her future and back into the room with such a quickness that she staggered back, falling off the chair, and hit the hardwood floor with a heavy thud.

A concerned woman’s voice called from outside the room. Her mother. The woman she hated mere moments ago and wished all the nastiness a seven-year-old girl’s mind could muster…but now, there was something else. Something she couldn’t quite remember. The images of her future started jumbling inside her head to the point they no longer made sense and began evaporating like so much mental vapor.

Something about her father and her husband leaving? Something about a baby…a girl, or maybe a boy, sick and dying? And a fight, a big fight…

Scrambling to her feet, Lakshmi raced out of her bedroom and down the hall as memories greyed out and faded from her mind. There was something she had to do, something before these feelings vanished and she went back to being angry.

She burst into her parents’ room, where her father, just about to fall into a deep slumber, leapt out of his skin at the girl’s sudden arrival.

Her mother, on the other hand, was fastening her dressing gown, about to investigate the sound from her daughter’s room, when Lakshmi rushed up, arms flung wide, and embraced her.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Lakshmi sobbed as the recollections of her future life disappeared completely.

Her father watched in confusion, while her mother shrugged at him, smiled, and stroked her daughter’s hair, cooing, “Everything will be all right. Everything will be just fine now.”

***

In Lakshmi’s room, the crack in the wall, once the length of a wooden school ruler, began to shrink, as the wall knitted itself whole again.

Tiny Stories: Our First Time

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

I almost passed on the blind date. I mean, when had that sort of thing ever really worked out? A friend who claimed they knew you, your tastes, and your interests, matching you up with your soulmate? In reality, all it really amounted to was pushing two single strays together to avoid being the couple saddled with a fifth-wheel friend.

But the moment I saw her, Orelline, my blind date, I knew two fundamental things at the exact same time (1) that I was punching above my weight class because she was phenomenally out of my league, and (2) I would be so nervous and foul things up so badly that this would be our one and only date.

And I was nervous, embarrassingly so, and clumsy, and tongue-tied, and trying way too hard to seem more interesting than I actually was. I replayed that night over in my head at least a thousand times, cringing at every fumble and misstep, and for the life of me, I could not understand why this stunningly gorgeous woman agreed to a second date.

I wish I could say that the second date went better than the first, but whatever small measure of confidence I had amassed over the years abandoned me completely. I floundered like an insect drowning in yogurt. And when the date ended and I saw her to her door, I was prepared to apologize for, well, for being me, for not being good enough for her, and I probably would have stammered my way through that speech, that I had been mentally preparing on the way to her house, had she not shut my thought processes down…with a kiss.

By date eight, we had forgone the need for meeting in a restaurant or catching a movie, or going to the theater. Instead, Orelline insisted that I come to her place and bring a change of clothes. I would not allow myself to presume what that meant but I secretly prayed that what I thought might happen would indeed happen.

Her text notified me of the key under the mat and when I let myself in, I discovered a trail of rose petals, lit by a row of candles that led to her bathroom. I had brought with me a bottle of champagne to help ease the pressure of our possible first time together and made a detour to the kitchen in search of glasses.

The bathroom door was slightly ajar so I entered but upon seeing me, Orelline hid her body beneath the suds of her bubble bath.

“I’m sorry,” I said, immediately regretting my intrusion and turning to leave. “I shouldn’t have come in unannounced. I just thought this would be sort of, I don’t know, romantic? It was stupid of me.”

“No, don’t go, it’s sweet, really,” she beamed a smile that seemed forced. “You just startled me, that’s all.

“Look, if you’re not ready for this, if we’re moving too fast, just say so. I can wait until the time is right.”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Then what is it? And please don’t hand me the it’s not you it’s me line. I’d prefer it if you were just honest with me.”

“But it is me,” Orelline confessed. “I’m afraid.”

“You’re afraid? Of what?”

She couldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m afraid that if we make love, your opinion of my supposed beauty will change drastically.”

I studied her face and the peaches and cream flesh of her exposed arms and answered, “I can’t imagine a scenario in which that would be even remotely possible.”

She exhaled slowly and stood up in the bathtub. The soap suds slid down her glistening body, revealing the fact that every inch of her skin that her clothing normally covered was a labyrinthine knotwork of scars.

“I’m into a particular kind of sex,” she said, as the champagne flutes slipped through my fingers.

13 for Halloween: Final Thought (audio)

Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4 * Part 5 * Part 6

Six months. That’s all it took for the world to collapse. Six months after the first demon portal opened and if there was another living human soul left on the planet besides Mitchell Larkin, they’d be living an isolated life within a hidey-hole in the deserted ruins of some city or town, which meant they might as well be on the moon.

But that hadn’t meant Mitchell gave in to defeat, no siree bob. Part of his daily routine, after searching for food and supplies, was to scour all the books on the occult that he was able to scavenge, searching for a way to reverse the damage done by that lunatic couple in the deadly viral video.

He never had much use for religion, never believed in the supernatural, let alone the occult, but now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more devout man on the face of the Earth, that was if you could have found another man on the face of the Earth.

He managed to survive so long because he barricaded himself inside his heavily fortified house, setting snare traps along the perimeter, and studied the patterns of the demons’ movements and attacks, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. That, and he uncovered a ritual that somehow masked his house from the demons’ senses. The practicing of dark arts went against the principles of his newfound religion, but he was a desperate man working on the fly so he hoped God would realize this and cut him a little slack.

This wasn’t to say that Mitchell was always on the top of his game. There were days that he simply went through the motions, and it was on one of these days that he accidentally stumbled on a possible solution. Within the pages of a book he thumbed through a thousand times, there were details that, when combined with a separate incantation from another book, should theoretically do the trick of exiling those bastard demons from Earth forever.

Mitchell was now a man with a mission. He checked and triple-checked his calculations, made special runs into dangerous territories to secure the items he needed, and prayed that God would look the other way this one last time. The newly converted should have been eligible for a three-strike rule, in his humble opinion, even if this was strike four.

The ritual was dangerous in the extreme, and if Mitchell mucked it up he could wind up pushing daisies, and to be clear, he didn’t want to die, but he couldn’t see any other options at this point.

Pulling off the ritual required knowledge and power. The former Mitchell was sadly lacking being a novice and all. The latter? Well, he just had to hope that the power of his convictions was good enough.

Mitchell created a large circle out of sea salt in the center of the living room floor and inside that circle, he salted the pattern of a pentacle. Dragging a steak knife across his left palm, he squeezed several drops of blood on each of the star’s points. Then he stripped down to his birthday suit, placed a lit white candle anointed in olive oil within the circle at magnetic north, and sat in the middle of the power circle.

Concentrating on the candle flame, Mitchell attempted to clear his mind of all distractions even though the salt was irritating his bare butt. His nervousness showed in the recitation of the rhythmic chant, he was speaking the words too quickly and had to force himself to slow his pace. Yes, time was running out for the human race, but in truth, he had all the time in the world.

He repeated the incantation over and over again, to the point of his throat becoming raw, and he thought he made an error somewhere, mispronounced a word, Latin wasn’t his strong suit, after all, and his confidence was on the verge of faltering…when the air suddenly crackled with charged particles.

Then he felt it, the tingle of the raw power of the earth itself, traveling up his chakras, filling his frame with the awesome energies of nature. For the briefest of moments, Mitchell existed in the sweet spot of existence, breathing in the rarified air of a cosmic entity as his soul made a connection with not only the planet of his birth but the entire universe as well.

And he wasn’t alone. Something tapped the outer fringes of his expanding awareness, a force that was unmistakably feminine. As their essences intermingled, Mitchell discovered her name was Flora when she used to have a physical body. She had been an astral traveler exploring higher planes of existence when the demons feasted on her dormant flesh.

Mitchell’s chanting drew her essence to this spot and as she had a score to settle with the beasties, Flora graciously infused his energies with her own. For a scintilla of a second, Mitchell felt invincible, filled to bursting with power and endless possibilities. Alas and lack, this power brought about its own set of difficulties.

The Mitchell/Flora union caused an energy surge that shattered the magicks which cloaked his home from the demons and, to make matters worse, it served as a beacon, beckoning the interdimensional invaders, challenging them to come. And they came in droves, from every direction, wave after wave.

Flora tried her best to keep the creatures at bay in order to give Mitchell the chance to finish the ritual and send the hellspawn packing back to wherever the hell they came from, but they both knew sure as bread fell butter side down that there was no way in hell that their combined energy was strong enough to see the matter through. And even if they had been able to draw upon more power, neither had the knowledge base to pull off a feat of that magnitude.

In his final act, Mitchell thanked Flora for trying to help and released her energy back into the universe. There was no sense in taking her with him. And when the ravenous demon horde eventually tore through his makeshift security measures and entered the room, an odd thought struck him:

“Will I taste like chicken?”

And that just about does it for the 13 for Halloween series. I want to thank all of you who followed me on this experimental journey. I know I run this phrase into the ground but, it's very much appreciated.
And not only is it Halloween but it also happens to be my birthday, so please feel free to pick up a slice of PumpKill BirthSlay cake (okay, okay, I'm officially laying off the Cryptkeeper puns) on your way to the egress. HAPPY HALLOWEEN, all!

13 for Halloween: Disobedient Iczer (audio)

Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4 * Part 5

Once upon a dimension, there existed four little hellspawns named Qemno, Gatoix, Byanki, and Iczer, and they lived with their mother in the festering pus sac of a decaying creature trapped in the dried magma of the root of a very large bleeder tree.

“Youngling rapscallions,” said Mama Hellspawn one morning, in her guttural native tongue. “This pus sac is devoid of nutrients and so you must go out into the realm and fend for yourselves for a while. You may have noticed portals opening to badlands, stay away from these doorways. Your father entered one and was slaughtered by the beasts called hoo-mans. They are unnatural creatures and must be avoided at all costs.”

“Why?” asked Iczer.

“Because they will put you in a stew and eat you until you are no more,” answered Mama.

“No, Mama, why did we open the doorways to danger?” Iczer clarified.

“The hoo-mans opened the portals…to slay us. Now, run along and feed yourselves but do not become prey. When I have found a new home, I will send for you.” Mama Hellspawn turned to leave, resetting her jaw from conversation mode to evisceration mode in order to hunt and take down a large beast for their new home.

Qemno, Gatoix, and Byanki were obedient hellspawns and did as they were bade, venturing out and using their enhanced sense of smell to detect the scent of victuals and root through the gravepits until they reached pockets of cadaverous dung worms.

But Iczer, the disobedient one, scampered straight to the nearest portal and clambered his way into the badland place his mother called Errth.

But what made these lands bad? Iczer wondered. He encountered several beasts that traveled on all fours just like him. Were these hoo-mans? No, for they were not scary at all. He unhinged his jaw and swallowed them whole for his stomach teeth to gnaw on.

But then, when his belly was slaying the meal inside him, whom should he meet but a hoo-mans! Mama was right, it was frightfully ugly and walked on twos instead of fours.

The hoo-mans ran after Iczer, waving a painstick and screeching something unintelligible. Iczer was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the badlands, for he had forgotten the way back to the portal. He lost one of his legs when it became wedged in a crack in the stone ground and he was forced to detach it to evade capture, and sacrificed an exploding eye which emitted a poisonous gas to choke the hoo-mans.

After losing the hoo-mans, Iczer thought he had gotten away altogether, but he unfortunately ran into a web of some sort and got himself all tangled up.

Iczer gave himself up for lost as more hoo-mans came with their painsticks to kill him, but he remembered Mama showing him how to escape a web, so he wriggled and wriggled just as he had been taught. It was no use, he was still trapped even though he was sure he had done everything the right way.

The hoo-mans beat him with painsticks and he was helpless to defend himself. Iczer shed big tears and let out a wail that only made the hoo-mans beat him harder. They beat him and beat him and when they tired themselves out or lost interest because he was unable to scream anymore, they picked him up within the web, probably to put him in a stew and eat him all up. He would have cried if he had any tears left.

This was the end, he felt it in his three hearts, so he said the only prayer he knew, a youngling’s prayer for safety before hibernation, and tried to be a brave little hellspawn as he gave up his life.

But there was a commotion and he was thrown violently to the ground. All around him the hoo-mans were squealing, squawking and yawping at a decibel that hurt his ears to hear. And they were exploding, spraying liquid everywhere.

Was that what their blood looked like? Iczer wondered. And when the last of them had fallen, the reason for the sudden burst of chaos came into his line of sight…Mama.

“I came as soon as I heard your call,” Mama Hellspawn said, extricating the broodling from the web.

Iczer collapsed into the folds of her being, comforted at first by her cooing. When her tone turned to admonishment, he didn’t care for he was safe within her now, and the world was normal again.

And after she was done reprimanding and punishing him, he would ask her to show him what she had done to the hoo-mans to rescue him because Iczer planned to return to these badlands when he was stronger and make every single creature here pay for their cruelty.

13 for Halloween: Baby’s First Feeding (audio)

Felicia Dunner hated people. Always had. Even as a little girl.

Why? Because people were ineradicably violent, unavailingly vindictive, immeasurably self-righteous, and the list went on. But plants? Oh, with plants she could just sit in their company for hours, enjoying the warm summer nights, breathing in the relaxing scents of honeysuckle and jasmine, plumenia, and gardenias.

Nighttime was always best. When she was young, Felicia would sneak out of the house while the rest of her family was asleep, step into the peaceful hush of her dormant neighborhood, kneel in the rich soil and listen to the gentle and soft evening breeze that rustled the leaves in the trees. And it was on one of those oh so long ago summer nights, when she was fed up with dealing with people, that her lifelong purpose came to her with a clarity she had never experienced before or since.

She studied botany, first on her own, devouring any and every book the library had to offer, then as an elective when it became available in school. Felicia had been blessed with strong analytical, mathematical, and critical thinking skills, and threw herself into the fields of botany, plant science, and biology to earn her doctoral degree.

A sizeable grant aided her in setting up a research facility deep within the Amazon Rainforest under the guise of discovering a plant-based cure for cancer. In reality, Felicia’s goal was to transcend the trappings of matter and biochemical pathways in order to twist evolution by stripping two disparate species and braiding them into a new, better, and stronger whole. If successful, the homo sapiens would experience the slow fade of an endangered species and give way to plantae sapiens, a race of human plants.

During her college years, she dated voraciously. Those who were narrow-minded and envious of her accomplishments branded Felicia as promiscuous, while those who sought to know her better thought she was coming out of her shell, stepping outside her comfort zone. Little did either faction know that she was collecting samples. Enzymes and plasmids were needed to help fuel her gene splicing and cloning experiments, so she compartmentalized her disdain for human contact and cast a wide net into the dating pool, male and female alike. To her, flesh was flesh, and as she was asexual and only interested in collecting raw genetic materials, she was immune to the preference of one gender over the other.

Felicia was plagued with failure upon failure, approaching her experiments from the standard cloning procedures of taking the plant-human spliced DNA and preparing an egg cell, inserting somatic cell material, convincing the egg that it was fertilized, and implanting it into an artificial womb. And it wasn’t until she had exhausted all of her genetic materials that she realized her error and cursed her meat-based brain. She was approaching the matter all wrong, thinking like a human.

Her misanthropic manner eventually drove away all her assistants so Felicia was forced to use samples cultivated from her own body, and instead of creating a replica of a human egg, she created a plant-like seed the size of a peach pit.

Felicia placed the seed in a container filled with a solution infused with human and plant enzymes and stored it in a dark place at room temperature for twelve hours to let the seed soak and initiate the germination process.

Failure.

Then she tried sowing the seed in quality soil with a sterile, seed-starting mix, planting it at the proper depth according to her calculations. She watered it wisely, maintaining consistent moisture, kept the soil warm, fertilizing, giving the seed enough light, and circulated the air.

Again, failure.

Giving up was never an option, but Felicia couldn’t deny she was balancing on the precipice of admitting the futility of her efforts, when, out of the blue, a thought struck her. Had she been planting the seed in the wrong soil? It had been nutrient-rich, to be sure, but perhaps it was missing that certain something, that bit of magic that existed in the blindspot of her prejudice. A human variable.

Hoping against hope, Felicia extracted the seed from the soil, rinsed and drained it, and then replanted it in the richest soil she possessed. With equal amounts of care and effort, she placed this unique seed, neither fully plant nor human, deep within her lady garden. She knew full well the dangers of retaining foreign objects in the uterus: infection and purulent malodorous discharge, granulation tissue formation leading to adhesions, and fibrosis, but she was desperate.

At first, she thought she was facing yet another failure but a missed period and tender, swollen breasts clued Felicia in that she was finally on the right track. All the other symptoms soon followed: nausea, but thankfully no vomiting, only dry heaving, increased urination, fatigue, light spotting, cramping, bloating, and constipation. Also, her sense of smell and taste became heightened and she was experiencing abdominal twinges, the sensation of her stomach muscles being pulled and stretched. All this occurred within the first three days.

Felicia’s stomach became upset on day four, as if her digestive system was in turmoil, swelling like a tidal wave before gradually subsiding. On day five, she awoke to a dull ache in her back and lower abdomen and there was a pressure in her pelvis that was indescribable, accompanied by strong waves that felt like diarrhea cramps. They couldn’t have been labor contractions, it was far too soon, and it hadn’t matched with any of her calculations!

Despite that fact, there was a pounding in her uterus and a wrenching intestinal cramping that felt like severe gas pains and just when it felt like she was about to pass out, her entire body was flooded with numbness. Felicia was aware of anesthetics that existed in nature. Was the seed releasing eugenol to numb her nerves?

Reclining on a makeshift examination table, she watched in absolute calmness as if detached from her physical body, as thin tentacle-like vines pushed their way free of her lady garden, extending, probing her thighs and calves until they located her ankles. Snaking around the bone just above her feet, the vines slowly drew her legs close. Felicia could feel her baby shift and move, it was extricating itself, pulling itself free from her womb, in essence, birthing itself.

Once breached, the vines released her ankles, leaving nasty welts, and crawled up to her belly, using its tentacle appendages as legs. Felicia cupped the leafy infant in her hands. It was so light yet so firm and it radiated such heat. She tickled the bulb of its head on some sort of motherly instinct and the petals began to unfurl to reveal the humanish face within that bore a resemblance to pictures of herself as a child if she had been made of foliage.

Felicia bore her breast and placed her baby’s lips to her nipple. This was indeed a product of her loins, her experimental hybrid baby was a flaming success, the next step in evolution, and yes, it would replace humankind but not in the way that the botanist had envisioned. Homo sapiens would become an endangered species because her progeny was a creation born not with the need for mother’s milk, but with the taste for human flesh, and she had no other choice than to see that her baby was properly fed.

13 for Halloween: Helpless Beauty (audio)

Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4

A fortnight after the news reported the first interdimensional portal opening, Campbell stepped out of a gutted convenience store with several tin cans missing labels, a few jars of baby food, and a couple of packets of smashed ramen in his backpack. It was the first find in the seven stores he visited and while it wouldn’t have passed as fine dining, it was a damn sight better than the zero food in his apartment.

The main avenue outside looked like the aftermath of a demolition derby, abandoned cars smashed into one another in the street and on the sidewalk for more than three blocks. It was eerily quiet, especially for the city midday, and the air stank of insect musk and mildew. Soot-laden clouds hung so low a person could stand on the roof of a building, reach out a hand, and touch their underbelly as they drifted past.

He was about to head off in a different direction to try another store when he spotted a woman standing in the intersection, naked and alone, shivering in the ninety-degree heat. Campbell stopped dead in his tracks and rubbed his eyes almost like a cartoon character trying to clear a mirage from his vision. Head on a swivel, he looked around for any sign of demon threat and when he found none, against every ounce of common sense in his possession, he approached her.

Campbell made a throat-clearing sound and it startled the woman as if she hadn’t noticed him although she was looking directly at him as he approached.

“Don’t worry,” Campbell put his hands out. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“…hurt you…” the shivering woman said. Her quavering voice was an octave higher than his but still on the husky side, and she spoke in an accent that he couldn’t quite place.

“Now, I know how this looks,” Campbell said as he set his backpack down and began unbuttoning his shirt. “But I assure you I’m not that kind of guy, okay? You just look like you need help.”

“…need help…” the woman repeated. She wrapped her arms across her bare breasts.

Campbell held his shirt out. “Here, take this.”

The woman said, “…take this…” but stood motionless, paying no regard to the shirt at all.

Poor thing must be in shock, Campbell thought, or maybe she didn’t understand English, the way she kept parroting the last words he spoke.

Holding his shirt out like a muleta, Campbell approached the woman slowly like a timid matador and made the shushing noise parents used to calm newborns. She remained stock-still as he maneuvered behind her and draped the shirt over her shoulders, but shied away when he tried to adjust it for a better fit.

“Okay, no touching,” Campbell said, backing off. “Understood. It’s all good.”

“…all good…”

“Are you all right?” asked Campbell, moving back into her line of sight. “What happened to you? Are you alone? Where do you live?”

“…you live…”

“Okay, too many questions at one time. How about this, are you hungry?” Campbell mimed putting food in his mouth and chewing.

“…hungry…”

Scooping up the backpack, he opened it and pointed at the tin cans and ramen. “Food.”

“…food…”

“That’s right, food, eat food, but we can’t eat here, we have to go someplace safe. I live nearby…”

“…near by…”

“I’ll share it with you but you have to come with me back to my apartment.”

“…apart ment…”

Campbell sighed. He wasn’t sure how much of what he said had actually gotten through but too much time was spent standing out in the open in this one spot and he was beginning to get nervous. And if he was being totally honest with himself, he had never been comfortable with his body and he was now shirtless in front of a beautiful woman. Yes, even though she was covered in grime, there was no denying how breathtakingly beautiful she was.

That wasn’t the reason he stopped to help her, he told himself, and almost believed it to be true.

Slipping the pack on his bare back, Campbell gestured for the woman to follow him before he turned and walked away. If she did, fine, and if not, then he tried, but he wasn’t about to risk burning any more sunlight out in the open. He hadn’t looked to see if she was following because if she wasn’t he’d be more depressed than he was willing to admit, but he did walk at a much slower pace than normal, just in case.

Remarkably, there was almost a peaceful quality to the city today, no roaming packs of either demons or human scavengers. All things considered, it was a good day in the apocalypse. And it just kept getting better because when he reached his apartment building, the woman was ten paces behind, walking with an unusual gait. He hadn’t lost her or his lucky shirt.

I’ll check her for injuries once we’re safely upstairs, Campbell thought, because the woman walked with an unusual gait, which made the climb up the stairwell time-consuming. When they eventually made it inside the apartment, the sun was beginning to set and the power had gone out eight days ago, so the first task was to light a few candles.

He silently cursed himself for not thinking to look for more candles when he was out. Sure, he had enough votives to last a few nights but having extra certainly wouldn’t hurt. He was going to have to learn to start making lists before going out to forage for supplies, especially now that he’d be providing for two.

He offered the woman a seat several times while he was darting around trying to tidy the messy apartment up but she continued to stand by the front door, shivering.

When his place was as clean as it was going to get at the moment, Campbell ducked into the kitchen to fetch a bowl which he filled with distilled water from a plastic jug. The building still had running water but the pressure was so low as to be nonexistent. He added a few drops of dishwashing liquid and gave it a quick stir with his index finger to kick up some soap bubbles.

Snatching a mostly clean tea towel off the rack, he set it along with the bowl on the foyer table near the woman.

“Get yourself cleaned up,” he said. “I’ll rustle up something for you to wear.”

“…to wear…” the woman said but paid no attention to the water or cloth.

“Look, you’re gonna have to get that gunk off you if you wanna stay here…”

“…stay here…”

With a huff of exasperation, Campbell took up the tea towel, dipped it in the sudsy water, and attempted to wipe the schmutz off her face, which up close was even more beautiful, almost unreal, like an oil painting.

The woman twitched and from somewhere inside the apartment came a scrabbling noise, which made his hand jerk and touch her face. A faultline appeared where the cloth made contact and divided her features. He gasped and took a step back as the crack in her face traveled down her body. She was being torn apart!

Campbell’s mind clutched at the straw of reason, explanation, anything that could have made even the tiniest bit of sense out of what he was seeing. The first thing to come to mind was that a creature had somehow burrowed its way beneath her skin and now it was eating its way out but as he watched the way her body segmented itself and rearranged the parts in a way that defied the laws of biology, he saw that she wasn’t being eaten alive. Something unholy and unnatural was unfolding from within her.

All too late he pieced the clues together. Of course, she was too beautiful to be real because it was a clever disguise, a camouflage used to lure in dumb human apes, the way certain animals and insects disguised themselves to fool predators or attract prey. She wasn’t shivering because she was cold, it was struggling to keep itself compressed within the bits of its carapace that resembled a human woman when pressed together in the proper formation. And its voice, that sounded oddly familiar now that he thought of it, was his own parroted back at him at a higher pitch.

What a complete and utter fool he was, thinking that rescuing a helpless beauty would put an end to his loneliness when all it actually did was end his life.

13 for Halloween: Better Left Unasked (audio)

“I don’t believe you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your husband just walked past us looking like he stepped out of an abattoir, which isn’t exactly a normal look for an accountant, and you don’t seem fazed by it at all.”

“Well, it’s not the first time.”

“What?”

“Lately, Hughie’s been coming home bloody every night.”

“And you never thought to ask him why? Or what’s going on in his life?”

“No. My mother taught me early on that sometimes the secret to happiness is figuring out which questions you’re better off not knowing the answers to.”

Consider this light fare a palate cleanser from yesterday’s post while I concoct tomorrow’s entry.