Hair Trigger

“Earl, help me carry this table to the house. Been sitting out here for days now. I’m going to take it for the living room.”

Her voice was a knell to his ear. He begrudged her every syllable she spoke; every raspy breath she took between sentences. Her wheedling instantaneously made his fingers curl, as if around her fat fleshy wattle.

“Did you hear me Earl?”

Even a deaf-mute could hear you bitch, Earl snarled silently, his upper lip rising in a disgusted curl. He was not facing her, of course. He was walking behind. Always behind that jiggling fat arse and runny panty hose. She never had to turn back to look and see if he was following. She knew he always would be.

“Earl.”

The name was a warning.

“Yes Marge,” he mumbled and hunkered down to take the table onto his wide shoulders. He struggled to balance the wood while taking steps on his shortened maligned leg, walking a few shaky steps before gaining his composure and continuing to walk behind Lady Jell-o Junk.

“Wasn’t it such a nice find Earl?” Marge asked. “It’ll look mighty fine in the corner under the bird-cage. Maybe put some nice flowers on it in a vase and spruce the place up a bit. Maybe some yellow Daisies.”

Earl hated yellow but he heard the pleased tone of her voice and grunted a rough “yes ma’am”. Step, draaaaag, scuffle. Step, draaaaag, scuffle. He’d gotten used to his awkward gait by now. Normally he carried groceries home or slaved behind Marge so she wouldn’t look like an idiot talking to herself all the time. People gave them a wide berth anyway so it’s not like they would care but Marge was insecure like that. And she liked having power over him. Malicious bitch.
There was a pause when Marge stopped and pulled her red beaded purse off her shoulder. Earl stumbled to a halt and held his breath, his mood plummeting like a glacier falling into icy water. She made a show of it, slowly pulling back the zipper and jiggling it around purposefully, peering inside. If Earl could sweat, he would be and she knew it. His arms shook while he held the table on his shoulders but he dare not let her know he was uncomfortable in any way. That would only encourage her.
Marge reached inside the bag and slowly pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a fancy silver cased lighter. Earl let out a slow breath of relief, quiet so she couldn’t hear. He looked at the ground just behind Marge’s scuffed blue sandals and made sure not to get too close. She lit up, enjoyed the first suck of nicotine, and blew the smoke to the side so it might blow in Earl’s face. He saw her lip curl into a smile before she turned around.
They continued walking.

They would have to be fake flowers, he thought, focusing on the side-walk and clenching the table legs tightly. Nothing alive could reside in the same house as Marge. She killed everything. The cage had been empty for a decade or more and was rusted through in some spots. The birds sitting on the perches inside were fake too, though the daft broad still gave them fresh food and water every day. Better than what Earl got.

Step, draaaaag, scuffle. Step draaaaag, scuffle. Five more steps. There’s the dilapidated white picket fence bordering the hell he called home. Marge tried to get him to fix it for her years but he didn’t know how and had only managed to rip holes in it before she stopped his fun. Oh Marge hadn’t liked that at all. Earl had been punished harshly for that one. She didn’t let him do any house repairs after that. Step, draaaag, scuffle. Two more steps and the house was in view.

The ugly faded pink house with the dirt yard and the falling apart rain gutters. No grass. No trees. Not even the stray cats were dumb enough to wander into Marge’s yard, despite the food she left out in bowls on the porch. The screen door screeched viciously, a warning in case Earl every decided to be stupid and run away again. The back door was padlocked form the outside. His room was down in the basement. Too hot in the summer and ice cold in the winter. Nothing in there but walls and a moldy mattress.
How he hated that house. It was everything that represented Marge and he would burn it in an instant if given half a chance.

There was a long ear piercing squeak as Marge opened the gate (even though there were several holes they could have walked through instead). She didn’t bother holding the door open for him and the splintered wood snapped back onto his deformed leg with a bang. He cursed and wiggled around a bit to re-adjust the table.

“Hurry up Earl.”

He was too far behind and she sensed it. Stepdraaaaagscuffle! The brick path laid to the door was uneven and had bricks missing in places. Empty flower pots lined either side full of dirt and cob webs. He had grown used to this path by now and navigated with ease. He always hoped Marge might get her fat foot stuck in one of them and twist her ankle. The imagined sound of her squealing and crying like a stuck pig made Earl smile cruelly. Step draaaag scuffle. Ahh yes, to have the tables turned! To watch from up high while the pasty worm of a woman reached out, drooling, crying, begging for help and he, Earl, doing nothing—

“Earl, be careful here. There’s that step–”

Too late.
WHAM! CRUNNNCCHHHHHH! The extra weight of the table had caused him to misjudge the way he would ascend the steps. His crooked foot had slipped from the landing and he fell backwards. Briefly he was satisfied with the sound of splintering wood and probably would have relished it more if the beaded bag didn’t swing into view again. His eyes grew with fear.

“I’m–I’m sorry Ma’am! My foot and the table was heavy–Please–”

“Earl, you clumsy fool.”

She didn’t even hesitate.The gun came out and her chubby finger had yanked back the trigger before Earl could think another thought.

Marge shook her head and dropped her stub of a cigarette beside the puddle of sticky blood by her foot.

“Waste of a perfectly good table.”

The large woman grunted and hauled herself up the three stairs to her porch where she checked the kitty food bowls and sighed.

“No visitors today. Wonder if I should change the food again. They seem to like fish better.”

Marge took her time to go inside and fix herself a pitcher of sweet iced tea before coming back outside to the gore of her front yard and contemplating it. She flicked a piece of fluffy blonde hair out of her eyes and her pink flamingo printed mumu billowed like a parachute around her as she plunked herself into one of two chairs intact on the porch.

“Taking your sweet time aren’t you?” she called out to the red splatters.

Nothing happened.

“I’ll blow off the other leg if you don’t hurry it up. You got a yard to clean up mister.”

There was a twitch. Pink gloss smeared lips pursed in satisfaction as a hairy peach bulge started to protrude from the jagged neck.

“Merhuadijb!”

“Earl don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s rude.”

The peachy balloon of flesh inflated more, hollowing out and growing two hateful blue eyes, popping out a nose. Two nostrils curved outward and twin holes appeared beside them.

“I don’t like doing this to you Earl,” Marge said with a regretful wheeze. “You’re just a such a darn clutz!”

“Marge you bitch,” came Earl’s muffled reply.

“What was that Earl?”

Marge’s paint chipped nail rain over the zipper of the red beaded bag and Earl swallowed his next words.

“Sorry ma’am. I’m such a damn clutz.”

“Watch your language Earl. Are you done then?”

Earl felt around his neck, the skin knitting together into one smooth swath again. His right ear popped out of his head and formed into a half oval.

“Nearly.”

“Good. Now pick up what’s left of my table and clean your mess. The neighbors might come by. We can only hope.”

Blood wasn’t a new thing at Marge’s place. She used to blow off Earl’s head for fun for the kids when they stopped by. They laughed and were grossed out and thought Marge was cool. She gave them store-bought cookies and took some of the dumber ones inside with her for an “extra special treat”. She didn’t tell them THEY were the treat. She was even fatter back then and always smelled of spices. The soup pot was always on. And there were always store bought cookies.

Nothing alive went near Marge’s house anymore. But she waited. She was patient. Earl hated her but a zombie had little control when someone else was the one holding the gun.

 

Advertisements

Quickie #1 Love/Hate Story

PROMPT: Write a quick love story. It MUST end badly. 

Girl 1, quiet, creative and meek, is sitting at her desk at school day dreaming about kissing girl 2, a sassy, bold and smart-mouthed rebel. Girl 1 is a photographer for the year book and has free license to stalk girl 2 through a lens.

One day girl 2 ambushes girl 1 and kisses her. When asked why, girl 2 replied, “Because I could see you wanted to but were too chicken shit to try.”

Girl 2 started to talk to girl 1 more and they snuck kisses in empty class rooms and bathroom stalls. Girl 1 found she quite liked kissing girl 2 and they slowly came together, a small and lovely romance budding.

And then a news article came out in the school paper with a picture of them kissing as a headliner and a piece underneath it about LGBTQ. There was an immediate back lash. The school was divided Pro and Con. Girl 1 was devastated about the article and she hid in the bathroom like a frightened 6 year old, crying hysterically. Girl 2 came in, having an opposite reaction. She was pissed and ready to get revenge. She wanted girl 1 to stand up for them, to fight for what she wanted, to throw their relationship into the teeth of the criticizers.

Girl 1 couldn’t do it. She didn’t like the spotlight; she never did. It was why she was always behind the camera instead of in front of it. Girl 2 slammed a fist onto the bathroom door.

“Do you love me?” she demanded.

Girl 1 was quiet for a moment. Girl 2 repeated the question, louder.

“I don’t know.”

Three whispered words destroyed them. Girl 2 stormed out. Girl 1 ditches school for the first time ever and walks home in tears. She doesn’t come to school for three days. When she comes back, she finds her locker is graffitied and she’s been ostracized by her “friends”. She’s slowly pushed out from the year book club. Girl 2 tries to hang out and make it so that nothing is wrong but girl 1 is so embarrassed she can’t stand being around anymore. Girl 2 brings drama wherever she goes now and all girl 1 wants now is peace.

They end their romance before it ever really began.

Girl 2 moves on quickly, hurt by the rebuff and goes on a dating spree while girl 1 slowly begins to find a new set of friends; ones that have been burnt before for being “different”. The true rebels. They set up a plan to get back at the haters. A slow burning anger sets into girl 1 and she does indeed get her revenge against the author of the article using logic and legalities. One last hurrah as a nod to her relationship with the vibrant girl she loved. Girl 1 fought back, in her own way.

Abuse of the first amendment: A tale of love/hate

But any curiosity girl 1 had was stomped out for good and she never did talk to girl 2 again.

The Green Knight (Part #1)

Whatever he touched, grew.

Seeds, bulbs, out of season fruit, clearance bin brown weeds in cracked pots, dying trees set out on the side of the road and notoriously difficult plants to keep alive, like african violets and bonsais. If it could grow, then it would, under his care. That was how met him actually. They were in line at Lowe’s in the gardening department. She had one solitary succulent in a pretty pot. Behind her was a tall, clean-cut man who had a cart full of nothing but brown dying plants and some soil.

“You give new meaning to the Green Knight,” the lady commented, looking down into the cart and whistling impressively.

“Pardon?” His dark brows came together in confusion. The bangles on her wrists tinkled as she shifted her pot from one arm to the other. He saw a flash of a colorful tattoo under her flowing dress. She looked up at him with a friendly grin, a strand of her flamingo pink hair blew in front of her face.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” she explained. “A famous poem about King Arthur’s nephew and a fairy named Bertilak.” She said it as if everyone should know what she was talking about. “About testing a man’s virtue and the truth of his word.” When the dark-haired man continued to stare silently at her she cleared her throat and gestured to his cart. “Annywaayyy are you really going to try bring those back to life? They already have one root in the grave by the looks of it.”

He blinked, trying to catch up, but nodded to the last bit. Sir Gawain? Bertilak? Who talks like that? He couldn’t decide if she was flirting or genuinely being friendly. Or a know-it-all trying to impress him.

“That’s a type of magic then. I even kill these things,” she said, lifting the succulent mournfully. “They’re so pretty and graceful when they’re alive.”

Finally a response spurred his mouth into action. It came out a little more harsh than he intended but he did want to know.

“Then why do you keep trying?”

She shrugged, making more tinkling noise. One of her dangly silver earrings caught on the neck of her dress and she shook her head to dislodge it, wincing as it pulled. She was like a living fairy orchestra or something. She made noise with every movement. It wasn’t unpleasant though.

“Practice makes perfect?” she guessed with a chuckle. “I don’t know really. Just that I like having something alive in the house besides my cat. And the pots are always useful to catch water from the leaky roof.”

She peeked up at him to see if he would smile. He didn’t.

“Have you tried gold-fish?”

It didn’t occur to the man he was being rude at this point. All he could see was new life potentially being carried off to suffer a slow death by a pink haired hippie. She laughed though, accepting the hidden insult behind his words and throwing it back at him.

“Gold fish are ugly. Betas are better and my last one lived for two years before the cat ate it. He gets jealous of any attention I give other animals. Another reason for the plant.”

He nodded and looked away. Awkwardness now. She was undaunted though. She had to see him smile. He looked so stoic. A smile would transform him.

“Any tips for me?”

“What?”

“For the plant. I can see it bothers you the crazy pink-haired lady might be carrying it off to its death.”

“Don’t over water,” he said immediately and seriously. “If the leaves start browning, stop watering. Only do it once a month or so. And maybe get some succulent food.”

Slate grey eyes peered up at him and he looked into them for the first time, making him notice the smattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks. Her glossy pink lips pursed in consideration. She nodded.

“Thanks. That’s good to know actually. Do you ever smile?”

He blinked at her again and she saw his face shift from merely serious to closed down. He thought she was flirting. Not untrue but it was friendly enough. He was a tough customer. She snorted delicately and gave a rueful smile.

“Good luck on your quest, Sir Knight.”

She paid for her plant, looked behind her. He wasn’t paying attention at all. Deliberately so.

RIP little echeveria, he thought, carefully placing his dying specimens on the counter. It would have a few months of good life at least. He paid for his clearance bin projects and rolled the cart to his car. When he popped the trunk and began setting them in a box to avoid spillage, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“Here.”

The pink haired lady handed him a business card with a crystal ball and a pair of scissors on it with bright pink lettering. He couldn’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses but he had a feeling she wasn’t looking directly at him. She was biting the corner of her bottom lip. He looked down at the card.

“The Psychic Salon?”

“We predict what the future holds for all your beautification needs!”

Her voice was fakey-happy and it made his eye muscles twitch.

“Don’t judge. It pays the bills,” she sighed, acknowledging the ridiculousness of it. “My cell is on the back if you want to check on the plant. I have a feeling.”

He tried not to show any emotion on his face. A few of them swirled in him. Incredulity. Irritation. Humor. And curiosity.

“A feeling?” he asked as she started walking away.

Her hair was a waterfall of ombre pink down the front of her neon dress. He saw more tattoos along her shins and the tops of her sandaled feet.

“Yep. The name’s Flora by the way.”

“That’s ironic,” he said, tucking the card into his jeans pocket.

“Ain’t it though? But at least I’m still alive.”

She waved from a pink (what other color would it be?) VW Beetle and drove too fast through the parking lot, squealing the tires.

Welp, it’s dead now for sure, he thought. Snapped in half by the 2-G turn she just pulled off into the street. He, however, drove home carefully. He had precious cargo in the back so he naturally drove like an 85-year-old granny.

It was a long, lovely drive out of the city and he allowed the day to melt off his shoulders. Not a pink thing to be seen out there except a random tea rose or a hibiscus. When he pulled into his drive way he was greeted by the shushing of the wind through the trees all around. His mind was immediately wiped of the encounter with the pink haired Flora as he made a mental list of chores to do. It was a long list.

______________________________

Flora would be lying if she said she wasn’t disappointed that her cell didn’t ring with a strange man’s number the next day.  Or even the next week. She didn’t really expect it to given his disdain for her murdering plants but a girl could hope. He was a handsome one.

Her cat watched her with derision as she carried the phone all around the tiny apartment, even into the bathroom. She considered dying her hair green and getting it cut. Maybe some bangs? or a pixie cut? She settled on doing her nails instead. Less dramatic.

She researched succulents online. She thought about going back and getting another one, just to spite the unsmiling man. She bought a modest dark green dress and pulled her hair up into a bun. She hated it and returned it the next day for a bright orange one and some gold flats to match.

After the second week, she stopped hoping for the phone to ring with a strange number (that wasn’t bill collectors) and cut her losses.

She resisted the urge to water her little succulent as she stared at it on her table during meals. It went against nature to NOT water things, right? What a backward plant. But the serious face the man pulled on her when he talked about watering was so darn cute it stuck with her. Maybe he was like a succulent too. He was happier being dry and humorless.

She should be used to the disappointment by now. She scared men with her colorful hair, bold tattoos and even more colorful life style. Her choice of career usually put them off especially after they discovered what she could have been. They never understood why she settled for less. Pfft! Stupid male egoism and power. She was socially awkward and in-your-face and enjoyed a good laugh. She always asked for what she wanted and meant what she said. Life was too short to mince words.

She was sure the stoic man was long gone. Sometimes her “feelings” were wrong, mainly when they regarded herself. She confused “feelings” with emotions or desire. She wanted to see what he looked like with a smile. It was important to her somehow.

So it was a delightful surprise when tall, dark and lanky darkened the door step of her work, looking completely out-of-place amid their female clientele. Her first thought when she saw him at the counter was she was glad she wore the matching bra and panties that day. Jesus.

“If it isn’t the Green Knight,” she said casually, looking up from shaving half a woman’s head in an intricate tribal pattern.

She felt a frisson of mean-spiritedness hum briefly in her veins seeing how uncomfortable he looked amidst the gawdy, gypsy caravan interior of the salon waiting room. His dark blue polo shirt and jeans stuck out like a black fly in unicorn poop. The other stylists eyed him with interest, ready to pounce on virgin hair and snag a new client.

“I lost your card,” he said, looking at her and then away.

Was he blushing? Oh gawd. A fierce bubble of hope lifted her mood.

“You lost it?”

“I washed it, actually.”

The salon went dead silent and he slid his hands in his pockets self-consciously. Buzzers stopped vibrating. Magazine pages stopped turning. Bubble gum popping stopped mid snap. He looked at his shoes; probably the safest place for his eyes. The sexual tension in the room went up about 16 degrees and he had the attention of every female in the building now. He fidgeted under the scrutiny.

“Is that so?”

Flora mashed her lips together to stop herself from smiling broadly. He came. She’d been right this time. Her feeling wasn’t wrong then.

“Miha, marry him right now! He does laundry!” a plump woman named Marrieta called from the back, cackling joyfully while she washed a client’s hair.

“Lay off Eta,” Flora called out. “The poor thing is ready to run as it is. He’s a gentle Knight after all.”

“I’ll do him for free!” another dark-haired woman called out, patting the vacant washing chair and snapping a curling iron playfully at him.

“You had the last one Dionne! Give him to me!” called the resident flamboyant gay from another empty chair. He flashed a very white toothy grin and blew a kiss at Flora, who gave him evil squinty eyes.

She breathed deeply to calm the girlish giggles threatening to erupt from her throat and concentrated on finishing up the last details of the shave, before passed her client on for a break. She grabbed the man’s arm and hauled him outside and around the side of the building where they could talk without spying eyes.

“Hi,” she said, putting her hands in the pockets of her apron where he couldn’t see them fidgeting with nerves. She tried to pull off ‘causal’ even if she felt far from it. Her nerves were tingling and distracting her.

“Hi,” he replied.

He looked good in dark blue. He wasn’t looking at her. He was looking everywhere except her but he was THERE. She decided to go easy on him.

“Sorry. You look shell-shocked. Will you ever recover from my embarrassing co-workers?”

She’d worked there so long that they were more family than co-workers really. The teasing and bickering and competition was from years of ups and downs together at the salon. It was second nature to her now and most of the clientele were used to it as well. They enjoyed the casual, playful environment. Like a mexican “Barber Shop” with Flora as the resident white girl. In the face of her green Knight though, every glaring embarrassment was apparent and she felt she needed to apologize.

“Uh…yeah I’ll recover. Eventually. I hope.”

She gave a half-hearted chuckle.

“Time will tell I guess. I know a good therapist though, if you need a recommendation.”

They stood in awkward silence, her joke dying on the vine. They scuffled their feet and shifted their weight, deliberately not looking at each other.

“How’s the echeveria?” he asked quietly.

“The what?”

“The plant you confessed to possibly murdering.”

She gave a full bellied laugh now that briefly revealed a gap between her two front teeth before she covered it her hand. Her nails had been done in bright acid green since he’d last seen her. His favorite shade of green. They matched the sweep of shadow on her eye lids and complimented her mulberry purple lipstick.

“You came all the way down here and offered yourself up on a silver platter to ask about my plant?”

He blinked and looked away from her face.

“Yes?”

Oh he was a rare one.

“It’s not dead yet. I read that it’s pretty hard to kill them actually. One question though.”

He waited. She admired his profile. His lips were nice and full. They even looked soft and moist, not like most men’s lips. Her gut tightened painfully even thinking about getting close to his face. As it was she had to curl her fingers into fists to stop herself from straightening his collar and brushing a fingertip through his soft dark hair.

“You do have a phone right?”

“Yes.”

“And you know how a phone book works. And the internet?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright.”

She nodded and rocked back on her heels, grinning smugly. A car drove passed them and parked in a back spot nearer the liquor store on the other side of Flora’s salon.

“It’s okay if you wanted to see me you know. I like a guy who’s upfront with his attraction. You score extra points for coming to my work.”

She stared up at him, looking closely for any change around his mouth. Last time she tried to flirt he’d shut down. This time there wasn’t even a hint of emotion to give any indication of his mood. Damn he was hard!

“You don’t have any plants in the salon,” he said by way of changing the conversation.

And had a one track mind. What a pity.

“They die too,” she said, resigning herself to working around his pedantic exterior. “Lots of chemicals you know and kids dropping their juice boxes in them or pulling them out at the roots. Difficult to keep alive and unharmed here and fake ones are a hassle to keep dust free.”

He nodded, considering her answer. She took a breath to reply but what he said knocked it right out of her.

“I could bring some.”

Wha…? Her mouth dropped open in surprise. Was this guy for real? Did he have roots for brains? Her neatly plucked eyebrows went way up along her forehead, completing the shocked look.

“Some plants? Some living plants with real leaves and soil? Didn’t you hear what I just said?

“Yes I heard. I could bring tropical flowers maybe. Or Ivy. It’s pretty hardy and likes humidity.”

Flora barked out a laugh and covered her mouth again. Her bracelets jangled and slid up her arm. He was serious. He’d really given this some thought! She should feel flattered he’d given her a passing thought (and she was sure to girlishly flip out over it later).

“Now who’s planning to be a murderer? None of us have the time to take care of things other than paying clients. Why do you think my plants die? I’m never home to water them or too tired to remember.”

He shifted his weight and looked up at the gawdy pink sign advertising her work place.

“I’ll come water them,” he said.

Astonishment billowed off her in thick clouds. He cocked an eyebrow at her dramatic reaction.

“You’ll come every week to water them?” she asked, her voice sharp.

“Yes. Twice if it’s needed. Just depends.”

She reached out and put a hand to his forehead, checking for fever. She did so without thinking. He stepped uncomfortably to the side, out of her reach and she dropped her hand with a jarring cacophony to her side. Even more uncomfortable was the fact that she was staring so hard at him he had no choice but meet her eyes. The shimmering green shadow on her upper eyelid brought out the grey sharply and he noticed there were streaks of gold in the irises.

“You’re going to willingly come into that she-wolf den every week to take care of our plants? Do you have any idea what you’d be doing to yourself?”

“Yes. I think.”

“WHY?”

He didn’t hesitate.

“You said you liked having living things around you, not just animals.”

Flora thought he might at least consider running away. She was willing to give him a head start but the fact that he answered right away made her suspect he’d thought about this for a lot longer than the 5 minutes he’d been standing with her.

“You remembered that?”

“Yes.”

Flora thought she might burst. She didn’t know if it would be into tears or in screams but she nearly vibrated with the need to do something. She couldn’t hug him. He really would run away screaming. So licked her lips and took a step back, out of temptation’s reach.

“Alright. If you think you’re brave enough to come back I’ll let you bring some greenery in.”

He waited. There was another shoe waiting to drop in her statement.

“On two conditions.”

“Which are?”

“One, you will allow me to bring you lunch once a week as repayment.”

His sideways glance of unease made Flora roll her eyes and huff at him.

“I can cook pretty damn good, okay? And I know how to cook vegetarian. Or are you vegan? That’ll take some practice.”

“Vegetarian is close enough. More like clean eating though. I still enjoy chicken.”

Wow, she thought, he divulged something personal.

“Alright. Second condition.”

She paused for dramatic effect and he waited, tense and not looking at her.

“Can I have your name or do I keep calling you the Green Knight?”

His lips curved into the smallest of smiles, bubbling his cheeks and revealing a hint of a dimple. It transformed him into a man who was lighter and more open. Flora’s heart beat so loud it almost choked her words off.

“Finally.”

He didn’t ask her ‘what?’. He knew what she meant. She worked damn hard for that glimpse of him.

“I’m Rhys,” he said.

“Reese?” She spelled it out.

“R-h-y-s,” he corrected.

The fidgety woman stilled suddenly. The noise of her ceased and it brought his attention around. Now it was Flora’s turned to look away. Irish. Goddamn Irish man. A hundred questions frothed up in her mind and she clenched her jaw against them.

“What?” he prompted, sensing her hesitation.

“Come whenever,” she said abruptly. “I’m usually here 9-2.”

Flora walked away, fast. She walked into her salon, passed all the waiting clientele and straight back into the break room where she sat in a corner and buried her face in her knees, trying to breathe. More than a “feeling”, she thought. It was deja vu. It was a memory. A pre-memory not realized until the moment it happened.

She’d dreamed this all when she was just a girl. It was the dream that had been the start of her ending, all those years ago.

Spoilt 9th (#9)

It was never supposed to be this way. It never HAD been this way so what possessed me to try this year I’ll never guess. Maybe it was a last HURRAH before shit hit the fan. Maybe I wanted to try to inject some sunshine into everybody else’s shit storm and let them forget for a while.

I should have known better. But I wanted to try.

It started with a request. A simple request, as had been done every year before.

“Mom, I want a water balloon fight for my birthday.”

One year it was a cake. Just a simple chocolate cake with Neapolitan frosting colors. One year, she wanted a garden. I was so proud of my daughter for choosing unique gifts instead of bombarding me with requests for Tablets or Xbox One’s or Razor Scooters. Maybe not having cable in the house really did help.

It was still a huge deal to get ANYTHING for her birthday though since we used to be Jehovah’s Witness and thus eschewed any holiday traditions. What the kids didn’t know, they couldn’t miss and that’s the way it was. I did let them celebrate holidays at school since that was not at home. I refused to take them out of the classroom and let them believe they were being punished by not getting cupcakes. Ridiculous. Since we’ve cut ties with the good ol’ JW’s however, security had been lightened and I had no problem going back to my roots and getting my kid a small gift for the anniversary of her birth.

Water balloon fight. Cool. I can do that. It wouldn’t break the budget to get her a couple packs and maybe a little cake. She was all into Five Nights at Freddie’s so I knew the cake would have to be red and bloody and gory. It was a simple enough request so I got red and black frosting misters and a glittery red gel writer for the top.

That was it. That’s all that was supposed to happen. Then the texts started coming.

“What size clothes does she wear?” From my sister.

“What’s she into now?” From my cousin.

“Where are we having the party?” From my mom.

Wha…? Did I miss a memo somewhere? Since when was this a big ol’ thing? Okay, whatevs. I answered the first two no problem but as to the last… my house wasn’t big enough for lots of guests. I assumed from the texts that they weren’t just gonna drop off presents and bone out. So…a park.

Great.

This was right around the time that my brain shut off and my Debit card became an extension of my hand. People. Food. Decorations. Presents. PRESENTS! I couldn’t be the only adult to NOT get my kid something to unwrap! Toys ‘R’ Us. Hot Topic. Barnes and Nobles. Michael’s. WalMart for decorations. Target for wrapping paper and tape. Winco for food.

My god holidays are a media trap.

$400 later I was sequestered inside my laundry room for privacy, wrapping my first present in ten years thinking about whether I would be able to get a job fast enough to replace what I spent so we could make next month’s rent. Getting laid off was a bitch to deal with and humble pie tasted a lot like apple cider vinegar straight from the bottle.

But it would be fun, right? Worth it. Parties always were when I was growing up.

Well.

Mix one homeless and car-less sister who had suddenly become a single parent because of the death of her baby daddy with a depressed starving artist step dad, an over worked and under-appreciated mother and a hypochondriac cousin and see what you get.

Yeah. The tension was palatable. Yum.

On top of that, I was a terrible organizer. Or at least, this time I was. My plans had been blasted out of the water and I had to scramble to throw shit together. I over bought on just about everything. Way too much food for only 8 people. I didn’t even use the decorations because I didn’t get to the park in time to set up before people arrived and ran out of time to make the cake so I bought one instead, which was way bigger than it needed to be.  Great start!

The park site we got was bug infested. Black biting gnats were everywhere and no one had thought to bring citronella candles or bug spray. The kids didn’t care though. They were outside with the promise of getting wet, which was the whole point. I silently listened to the group of conversations going on around the table while I mixed dip and laid out sandwich stuff.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do about the funeral. I can’t even give him a good casket…”

“I’m on Somas and Tramadol for my pain and my doctor said I should have any ibuprofen in the mean time because of what happened during my surgery…”

“At work they just fuck around and take extra long breaks. I have to lecture them every damn time and I’m getting ready to write them up and give them an ultimatum…”

I mixed a drink for myself. Fireball whiskey and RC cola. I hadn’t had soda in months due to the new healthy diet I was on. I was slowly trying to  get myself off of sugar but I wasn’t sure I could deal with the negativity sober. Or at least without liquid happiness.

This was a bad idea.

I took the kids down to the creek and I plopped my jacket over my head to keep me from developing skin cancer. While they waded in and squealed over the moss collecting around their ankles I dipped my feet in the dirty silty creek shore and filled up the water guns one by one. I double-handed them and made the kids squeal louder with my squirting antics. So fun!

It’s all about the memories right? They’ll remember this for the rest of their life. The first time in a creek with the tadpoles and dirt and fish. I felt ashamed that this was the first time they’d been in a creek before. I practically learned how to swim in one as a kid, we were always camping and hiking. I was fearless.

We had a slew of visitors come and offer me drinks and conversation and snacks. I sat and tried not to think. This was supposed to be a bright spot in the middle of the craptacular month. I couldn’t add my woes to it so I smiled and drank and squirted until it was time to get things moving again. The bugs were getting too bad to tolerate for much longer and the sun was glaring relentlessly.

Time to get the ball rolling. Get on with getting on with this sham of a party.

Cake time! I announced. We wrapped the kids in over-sized towels and sand “Happy Birthday” for the first time in my daughter’s life. Then we ate cake and I smushed cake in her face. Bad mama. Ohhh she loved it though. It was gluey and half melted with way too much frosting but we ate.

Then it was Time. PRESENTS!

I don’t know who was more excited, me or the kids. Brightly wrapped gifts (or in this case, black and red to match the FNAF theme). Boxes and bundles of surprises, of unknown pleasures waiting to be discovered. And for me, I get to experience the opposite side of the equation now. Instead of the anticipation of getting the presents, I get to experience the joy of giving them.

With the family primed for pictures, we started. I gave her something boring first, trying to confuse her and lead her up the “Big Present.”

“Paint mom? Really?”

“Yeahh!” I said, upbeat with a big smile. “It’ll make sense in a minute.”

Chartreuse eyes looked at me skeptically but eagerly surveyed the big box on the table in speculation. The next one was a little purse with matching sunglasses that I thought she would love. She had complained that she needed new sunglasses and they were brightly colored in pink and green, her favorite colors, so I thought she would at least be thrilled with this gift. I bit my cheek when I saw her lips turn down and say not a word. She moved on to the next. Clothes. An emoji shirt (which she’d been all into with her class that year) and some pink capri pants.

“These are boring,” she said. “Not what I wanted at all. They’re kind of stupid.”

There was an audible snap in my brain and my rage came pouring out like liquid hot magma.

“Don’t be a spoiled brat Kate. You should be grateful you’re getting anything at all,” I whispered fiercely, bending down to her level so she could see the fury in my face. “I can take every single present back to the store and you’ll have NOTHING. Is that what you want?”

But I wanted Five Nights and Freddie’s–”

“BE GRATEFUL FOR WHAT YOU GOT, BRAT!”

Yes, I realized later that my mother came out of my mouth just then. Her eye brows were in her hair, arched in surprise, looking at the intense scene. It’s not like she wouldn’t have done any less. Hell, she would have smacked mine and my sister’s mouths if we were ever ungrateful shits like that!

There was a hushed silence and Kate looked gobsmacked. I slammed her next present on the table in front of her, emphasizing my immense displeasure. It was a new drawing book with a beautiful pastel cover that I now figured she would probably never use and moved away from her before my fingers wrapped around her little white neck.

Somebody else took pictures. I stood back in my hateful little bubble and watched as she blew through the rest of her gifts. Clothes, drawing books, scented crayons for God’s sake! And the piece de resistance: an awesome “Spin Art” activity that my sister and I begged for as kids but we never got. It was seriously, the creme de la creme of presents in my mind. How happy I was to give her something I never got to have! And it was pushed aside without a second glance.

I was done.

I started picking up trash and packing things away, silently seething. How did I raise such an ungrateful little wretch like that? I’ve always taught her manners, to say please and thank you, to share and be generous. She painted her teacher a coffee mug when I took her to a ceramics place. She ALWAYS shares her after school snack with her sister. She loves baking cookies for her class mates and giving them out just to be a nice kid. So what happened?  THIS level of nonchalance I didn’t understand. It was so out of character for her. I wanted to take everything back and teach her a lesson. Lucky for her most of the receipts were thrown away already.

My black mood seemed to be the straw the broke the camel’s back. While the kids entertained themselves with the promised water balloon fight, everyone else gathered their stuff and boned out. I got a quick kiss and some murmured advice.

“It’s just overwhelming for her. Don’t be too harsh.”

“Her first party. It was bound to happen. She’ll come around.”

Never again. This was the first and last party I would ever throw. I plunked everything in the car and drove home, trying to find room in my fridge for all the extra food no one ate and setting the half eaten cake on the counter. Fuck it. Fuck it all.

I stayed in my room like a grumpy adult child the rest of the day, barking out orders and losing myself to my own distractions. What they said was right. Kate had been overwhelmed with everything and I was willing to forgive her for that. She was still little and it was her first party ever. But this reminded me of the reason I never wanted to start celebrating in the first place, even after we left religion behind.

People make such a huge deal out of holidays, frantically running around trying to find the perfect gifts and decorations and food. They get anxious and spend way too much money and go into debt for one perfect day. Why? For what? It was too much to take in all in one day. Too much excitement, like having nothing but sugary treats all day long and then feeling hung over by the end of the night with an achy stomach and the world spinning.

I got it. I really did. But I was never ungrateful for the stuff I got.

The next day I sat Kate down and made her draw out and write Thank you cards to everyone with her new scented crayons. I still refused to look her in the eye but I did calmly explain why her reaction made me upset and that I would like a little more appreciation from her for the things she was given.

Because I was the adult. One of us had to be.

Adulting sucks. Don’t adult.

 

Little Dove (#8)

(A sample of writing taken from a fantasy story I’ve had to re-write because the original draft was eaten by my old computer >.<)

“Jo.”
A cool hand caressed the cheek of a sleeping girl, who moved slowly and opened brown eyes full of dreams.
“Addie?”
“Mhm.”
Jo twisted around in her already twisted blankets and opened her eyes more fully to see the woman leaning above her. It was still dark outside. The clock said 3am. Her voice was breathy from sleep.
“Did you just get in then?”
“Just now.”
“It was so long this time.”
“I know, little dove. I’m sorry. Did you do okay on your own?”
The other girl snorted and stretched, throwing an arm back over her face, settling back into her pillows.
“I don’t need a baby sitter anymore Ads. I did fine on my own. I car pooled to school and didn’t burn down the house cooking my meals.”
“Obviously.”
“Are the others here too?”
“Soon. I was the first back.”
Jo smiled, revealing an adorably crooked set of eye teeth that poked passed her top lip. She hated them and yet had refused to get braces to fix them. Contrary Jocasta, Little Dove of the Kinley household. Blonde, white, gentle and full of cooing warmth for all living things. And yet there were times, like being woken at 3 am, that she showed her more sarcastic side. Addison Kinely smiled down at her little sister and kissed her cheek.
“We’ll talk more in the morning. I only wanted you to know we were back so you didn’t freak out hearing us in the morning.”
“I wouldn’t freak out.”
“Still.”
“Mhm. Ni ni Addie.”
“Good night Dove.”
Addison walked on soft feet away from the bed and closed the door so she wouldn’t disturb Jo any further with the noises now coming from down stairs. She hurried down stairs to help load in equipment, taking what was offered to her and placing it in it’s proper place. Gun and bullet cases–tucked in the safe behind the false wall in the coat closet. Prosthetics, contacts, pass ports, finger printing kit– attached to the backside of the sink, behind the cleaning chemicals and trash bags. Delicate technology like bugs, taps, and wires were hid in a drawer in Mother’s room, third down from the top of the armoire and placed in a jewelry case then locked in place.
The other girls stealthily hid their own equipment; some in plain sight like Kat’s computer full of data cracking programs, blue prints, time tables and viruses even the Government would cringe to know existed. Mina couldn’t hide much in the house. Her Suzuki was parked in the garage next to the family Jeep and her darts, throwing daggers, and tasers were hidden in tool boxes covered purposely with old spattered paint cans, chemicals for car maintenance and dirty rags. All Mina’s domain. Last came beautiful but deadly Leilani, She needed nothing but her brain and a good cup of coffee. On a good day she would kill you 10 different ways before you even blinked while reciting your entire life to you. Female Sherlock Holmes. Scary.
“She’s okay?” Leilani asked, blue eyes sharp on Addison’s face in the dim living room light.
“She’s fine Lana. Everything went smoothly.”
“I’ll check when she wakes.”
Addie rolled her eyes. Always the same with Lana. She asked a question but no matter what answer you gave, she always had to find out the answer for herself. Mina came in, all leather and wind blown black hair, sucking on a lollipop.
“Lay off Lana. Jo’s been able to look after herself since she was like, seven.”
“We’ve never left her for so long before,” Mother said in a hushed voice, wiping a gloved hand across her forehead and displacing the brown waves fallen over her eyes from out of her pony tail.
“She’s going to have to get used to it,” Katherine pointed out, settling in her bar stool at the end of the table and opening her laptop. “It’s not getting any easier to do this now that we’re on the radar.”
“Yeah, thanks for that LANA.”
Icy eyes pierced the short Asian girl, daring her to continue. Mina rolled her lollipop between shapely lips and stared back nonchalantly.
“Min,” Mother warned.
“It’s true.”
“Whatever,” Addie interjected, ever the buffer between the two sisters. “Kat’s right though. Jo needs better protection if she’s going to be left on her own more often.”
“Or we can just bring her WITH us,” Mina said, crossing her arms.
She was met with three pair of frightful eyes, as she always did when she suggested it. She sighed and cocked a rebellious hip to the side where her gun was still sheathed in it’s holster.
“She’s not DUMB guys. She knows we’re not some hired rent-a-cop help for the rich and famous or whatever lame cover-up you gave her this time. She might even help if you gave her the skills. PLUS–” she said, raising her voice over the protestations rising like a wave around her. “She’s a fresh face.”
“Enough,” Mother said, putting a stop to the old argument before they woke Jo with their bickering. “She’s too delicate for this work. It’s why WE do it. So she doesn’t have to”
Mina rolled her black eyes and went back to sucking on her candy.
“Leave her out of it,” Lana warned. “Tomorrow, for her, we’re home and nothing else matters.”
The silence in the room was only a strained agreement between the sisters. They dispersed, hiding the remains of their gear, showering in turn and eating a quick snack before returning to their own beds for the first time in weeks.

_____________________________________________________

Jo woke fully to the smell of apple cinnamon pancakes, coffee and Mina’s delicate perfume wafting from their shared bathroom. She looked through heavy lids at her clock. 6:30 am. Did they even sleep? She stumbled out of bed, her sheets tangling around her legs and dragged herself to the bathroom. Mina was still in there, applying a layer of glossy pink color to her lips and touching up her mascara.
“Welcome back,” Jo croaked and reached for her tooth brush.
“We’re back,” she said airily and fluffed her little sister’s blonde rats nest. “You really should use leave-in conditioner Jo. Your hair gets tangled because it’s too fine.”
“Murph,” Jo replied, mouth full of foam.

She watched the curvy Asian woman apply a stripe of glittery liquid silver to each lash line and then top it with a layer of black in the crease. She was going “pretty goth” that day with her pink plaid mini skirt and cutesy white screen tee that had some adorable pink haired anime character on it eating a lollipop. She had on white thigh highs held up with a garter belt and some ridiculous platform boots Jo wasn’t sure she could even walk in.
“So anything exciting happen? Have a party? Kiss a boy? Go crazy and buy some land in the Galapagos?” Mina asked.
Jo snorted and spat.
“I was promoted at work to pill pusher. Yaayyyy. And I finished planting my grafted seedlings. I’ll see in a few weeks how they came out.”
“Ohh honey we need so much more than leave-in conditioner to haul you over,” Mina sighed and gave Jo’s head a one armed hug.
“Mhm.”
“Anyway, hurry down when you’re dressed. I’ll give you a ride to school so you can avoid the Lana-nater. We’ll pick up chocolate Croissants and chai tea on the way to the Studio.”
“Sounds good,” Jo said, smiling at Mina in the mirror at their own private joke. She went back into her neat as a pin room (Lana wouldn’t have it any other way) and rummaged through her drab but comfortable wardrobe. She chose something at random while Mina clattered downstairs, making as much noise as possible and yelling “Good Morning!” at the top of her lungs. It was sure to piss off Lana and Jo gave her bed a smirk.
Lana was the oldest sister and the meanest. Mina and Jo would call her Lana-nater, after the Terminater when they got in trouble with her, which seemed like every second of every day. The older, severe looking girl with the piercing eyes ran the house like a drill Sargent and Jo was interrogated every time Lana came home from a work trip. It had been the same since she was first brought to the house. There was never any praise from Leilana, not for any of the sisters. Only criticisms and the drive for everyone to do better. Addison was and always will be the middle-woman between Lana and everyone else, smoothing everything over as best she could to keep the peace. She was the only one able to deal with Lana’s harshness.
Kat brushed it off with a cool disregard, her eyes and ears filled with nothing but numbers and static. So it had been Mina who became Jo’s self-appointed buffer from Lana’s wolfishness when, at age six, she found a tiny red-faced Jo cowering in the tool shed after a particularly harsh lecture. After that Mina insisted Jo room with her and under the pulsing tones of techno played on full blast, Jo could cry in peace on Mina’s lap and heal the wounds of disappointment in herself that Lana had instilled.
As a teenager though, Mina’s role had shifted from protector to teacher for Jo. Out of all her beloved sisters, Mina was the only one who pushed Jo to broaden her horizons, to try new things. Often it didn’t work because Jo had a quiet nature and was content with simplicity. But at least she tried and some things DID stick. Which was why every day Jo left the house an hour earlier than most for school and rode her bike to a little Kendo studio for lessons.
“You’re a wimp,” Mina said, standing with Jo in front of the studio four years ago, arms crossed and popping bubbles with her bright green bubble gum. “Kendo is a non violent form of martial arts that can build muscle and reflexes. My ex owns the studio and agreed to teach you for a couple weeks to see if you like it.”
Jocasta was scrawny and weak when she first gripped the long bamboo stick and ached all over after the first day. She’d never done anything more strenuous than pick up potting soil bags. But she came back the next day and the next, enjoying the power she gained over the Kendo sticks and the release of tension from her hectic family life. No one else knew about her lessons except Mina. Sadly, Jo knew her sisters would object to them. Why? She couldn’t even imagine. She often thought they wanted to keep her deaf and dumb the rest of her life, puttering with her herbs and flowers like a little doll. Only Mina saw more; PUSHED her to do more.
The blond girl hurried into her clothes and ran a brush through her long honey blonde hair. She took a quick glance in the mirror, saw chocolate brown eyes, a sharp chin, a dusting of freckles and two tiny indentations in her bottom lip where her crooked teeth pushed past her lips. She sighed. Plain Jane Jocasta. She started downstairs and took a fortifying breath.
“Jo darling! My little Dove!” Mother greeted, her brown hair smoothed back into a bun and sea green eyes alight with joy. “We didn’t want to wake you last night when we came in but we’re home!”
She came around from behind the stove and gave her youngest daughter a hard long hug.
“Welcome back Mom,” Jo said, feeling joy trickle through her at the warm embrace.
“I’m sorry we were gone so long,” she murmured into Jo’s ear, “I know you don’t like being alone so long.”
“It’s fine Mom,” she said. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Still….”
“Did you need any help with your homework or projects?” Kat asked, never turning from her computer. “It says here that you have a History project due next week. And a test in your Geometry class tomorrow and your grade is a low B. Did you need help prepping? We can go through sample problems after dinner.”
It was an order, not a request. It was how Kat showed she cared. Jo sighed and released her mother to go peer at Kat’s screen. It had been a request of the family that Jocasta’s teachers keep a calendar of events as well as her grades online for her family’s benefit since they traveled so much.
“That’s fine Kitty. I’d appreciate the help.”
She kissed her rumpled and distracted sister on the cheek and grabbed an apple from the bowl of fruit on the table. The whole time Jo had been in the kitchen she felt Lana’s eyes digging into her. She was leaning against the sink, arms crossed, mouth a thin line of judgment. Addison was no where to be seen. Jo’s heart start to quicken when she raised her eyes to meet Lana’s and opened her mouth to greet her when Mina came barreling through the kitchen and grabbed her roughly by the arm.
“Late. Gotta go. C’mon.”
“Jocasta!”
Jo stumbled out the door into the garage, clutching her apple as she was dragged toward Mina’s sleek motorcycle.
“My bag–”
Mina shoved a heavy back pack at her and a coat after it.
“Thanks.”
“She’s been in a mood since she got home, biting everybody’s head off.”
“Awesome.”
“Let’s go, before she has Kat hack the garage door opener.”
Mina swung a long leg over the seat of her bike and plunked the keys into the ignition. She kicked the stand up and steadied the bike as Jo shrugged on her jacket, put the apple in a pocket and mounted behind her. Jo settled the heavy bag on her shoulders and took the helmet Mina offered.
“Welcome home, by the way,” Jo said, a long-time weariness in her voice.
“Yep. Same old, same old huh?”
The blond girl set her feet on the pegs behind Mina’s and gripped her waist lightly. She lowered the visor and Jo’s world went into shadow. Mina opened the garage door and cool morning wind brought goose flesh to the girls’ skin. The Asian girl never seem to mind though. She rarely got cold. Jo, on the other hand, was already freezing.
“Giddy On up! WOO HOO!!!”
Mina roared out of the garage, upsetting the two cars parked at the front of the house owned by the family and several others parked on the street nearby. Jo smiled. Mother would be getting calls again no doubt. But no one could tame Mina. Jo preferred it that way.

More Than Words– part 5 (#7)

(Part 1 Here) (Part 2 here) (Part 3 here) (Part 4 here)

Shoes. Jacket. Keys. Wallet and Phone. Sunglasses. Work Badge to bypass the witches at the receptionist desk. Lock the Door. Get in the Car. Drive the car. Go FAST.

Steph. It was Steph. Almost as bad as Jer. But thank gawd it wasn’t.

The closest hospital to the stadium was about 15 minutes away from my apartment. I careened through back roads, my emergency flashers going and I shamelessly ran red lights if I saw it was safe enough.

The first text in a week and it was an SOS. It was so petty of me to run away. I saw that now. What if it HAD been Jer? How much more of an ass would I feel right now for not being there, for not seeing something might be wrong? Gawd I was so incredibly selfish.

I screeched around a corner, setting a couple of dogs off. Their ski jacket humans put their arms up in a “WHAT THE FUCK?” gesture.

“Sorry!” I yelled uselessly.

I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket. I ignored it. I was half focusing on the road and half trying to crank my brain into giving me answers to a problem. Did Steph have any pre-existing conditions that I didn’t know about? Was he hung over today? Did he have a blood clot? Did he have an arrhythmia? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know because I wasn’t there. I hadn’t BEEN there. I couldn’t ask the question I needed to.

Left. Right. Light. Wait; now go. Almost there. I saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. It pulled in just before me.

I squealed into the emergency parking lot of the hospital and slammed the car into park. I shoved all my junk into my over-sized jacket and kicked open the door, scanning the lot for familiar cars. Jer wasn’t there? Or did he ride with the van? I disentangled my phone from my pocket and checked messages.

Alma. Alma. Gale. Jer!

-Going to the hospital with Steph-

So he WAS here. I pressed the call button and hurried out of the biting cold into the warmth of the lobby, snowflakes instantly turning to liquid on my hot skin. I waited breathlessly by the door. Jer wasn’t picking up. Dammit! My heart beat was choking me, anxious about damn near everything. My eyes swept over all the faces waiting in the lobby. Not there.When they started to blur I pressed the heels of my hands hard against my sockets and took a deep breath. It’ll be okay. Jer’s here. It’ll be fine. Steph’s in good hands.

I waited in line at the receptions area, shifting from foot to foot. I rapidly responded to the texts blowing up my phone.

Alma: “WTF Jac?! CALL ME YOU ASSHOLE!”

Alma: “OMG!!! STEPH! UPDATE ME!”

Gale: “Just saw the TV honey. Give Steph and Jerry our prayers and love.”

“Can I help you ma’am?”

I swallowed a few times, swiping at the tears in my eyes and leaned down to the clear plastic window at the bored nurse.

“Yes, a man was just admitted into the ER. His name is Stephen and I need to see him right away—”

“Jac.”

My head whipped around at the sound of my name. And then there he was. The face I’d loved for years tense with worry and no trace of his easy smile. But it was a face more familiar than my own. The beauty mark next to his left eye. The creases around his eyes from laughing. Cinnamon brown irises that revealed everything he was feeling, but only to me. Just now they were a storm of emotions and I couldn’t keep up.

A balloon rapidly blew up inside my stomach and floated up through my chest and stopped at my throat, trying to inch its way up and out. It was the same reaction I had when he told me he loved me. Was this PTSD? Panic attack?

No. This didn’t feel bad. It felt wonderful. Jer was here and he was okay.

I didn’t feel my feet hit the floor as I rushed to him. I teleported into his arms and tried to fuse him into my anatomy, burying my face into his chest. His arms went mechanically behind me in a return gesture. I clung like an adult monkey to his torso and squeezed until he grunted. My brain fought over what to say first but I still couldn’t speak. Not about what happened anyway. I was here for a reason.

“They’re doing a CT scan now,” Jer murmured in my ear. “I didn’t see what happened. I was in the locker room when he went down.”

I latched my arms behind him and was silent for a moment. I knew he was beating himself up for not being there.

“Did he tell you anything on the ride?” I managed to squeak out.

“He couldn’t really speak around the oxygen mask. I don’t know anything except he was stabilizing on the ride here.”

We stood there in the lobby wrapped around one another for a long time. Tears leaked out of my eyes and slipped down my cheeks. Tears for what Jer must be feeling and for my own sorry self. I wanted to say I was sorry for putting him through hell. I wanted to explain why I did it more than anything but I didn’t even KNOW that. I wanted to open my mouth and tell him it had been the most horrible week of my life, including pledge week for my sorority and that bad case of food poisoning I got when he tried to cook me rancid scallops.

I could only cling with all my strength. Slowly, he returned the pressure with his arms and laid his chin on my head.

“Goddammit Jer. You asshole,” I cursed softly.

“I know.”

When Jer knocked on the door to alert the nurse on the other side to open it, I was firmly gripping his other hand. He took me to a curtained stall where I saw a pile of Steph’s clothes were on the corner of the bed, neatly folded, his prized sunglasses setting on top and his yellow sneakers waiting down below.

“Do you have any suspicions?” I asked.

I looked up at the tall man and my eyes instantly went to his beauty mark. It always seemed like a bull’s eye for my lips. I would drag his face down to mine and kiss it before he left me for the day. He told me jokingly once he was going to get lip prints tattooed there since I was leaving my lip stick marks there all the time anyway. It was “Jac’s Mark”.

He looked down at me and my pulse leapt, throwing off my breathing rhythm. He probably heard the catch in my voice. Warm Tiger’s eye brown. Red brown honesty tinged with distrust and hurt.

“When we were going to the locker room after warm ups he was going on and on about a weird thing that happened at the bar. I was only half-listening but I did catch that he felt like he’d been running a marathon as soon as he stepped inside.”

“Had he been?” I wondered. This was Steph at after all. If someone dared him he would jog to the next city and back for a beer.

“I don’t know. I was distracted. I didn’t ask.”

I bit my lip and looked away. Passive-aggressive anger. I deserved it. I knew I did but it still hurt. I didn’t say anything else for a while. I stood there like a human statue, gripping Jer’s hand and refusing to let go even when he twitched to signal me to.

“You’re impossible,” Jer said.

Yes, I know, I thought.

He took his phone out and started to speak into it. Probably a mass text to let everyone one we were still waiting. I should have done the same but I didn’t reach for my phone. There was pressuring building inside me and I was focused on it. I felt it bubbling up like a geyser about to blow. What was going to come out? I didn’t even have a clue. There was a week’s worth of big things and little things I wanted to tell Jer about and I wanted to scream at him for being an idiot and ruining things. I wanted to hug him again and tell him it would be alright, that I was there even if it wasn’t.

I wanted–

“You’re in love with me?”

I felt Jer’s gaze shift to my face. It was flaming hot like a sunburn. Why the fuck did I have to start this NOW? Jesus Jac, you ridiculous moron–

“Yes, I am.”

I inhaled slowly and I felt hot warmth behind my eyes again. He squeezed my hand to try to turn my head around to look at him directly but I couldn’t. Not yet.

“Why now?”

“It was time.”

He had all the answers ready. That wasn’t fair. I still had none. There was more tense silence. I could hear my heart beat in my ears and I tried more deep breaths to calm it. What next? What could I say next that was true and honest?

“I–”

“Jac, nothing has changed for me.”

My word vomit hit the brakes. Goose flesh rose off my skin with the effort to hold it back.

“What?”

“Nothing has changed for me by admitting this to you. I’ve felt the same way for years and I’ll continue to do so for a long time. If we remain friends, I’ll still love you. If you decide you’re okay with this, I’ll love you harder and better than anyone ever has or could again. But I’m here with you, no matter what. You are my life, Jac and I will give you all the time you need to figure it out.”

“You would stay,” I asked, “Even if we can’t be more? Isn’t that kind of masochistic?”

“I’m a glutton for punishment. You’re worth it. I’m not going anywhere until you’re done with me.”

God fucking dammit. Everything rested on me now. The ball was in my court entirely and he waited patiently for an answer. He stared down at me, not asking for anything more than I was willing to give. Who DOES that? Who WAITS for someone for years, sitting on a massive secret like this and pretending everything is normal for MY sake because he knew I would flip out? He said it knowing he might lose me.

I slowly loosened my death grip on him and ran two shaky hands through my disheveled hair. Dammit, I thought. DAMMIT! I reached out, finally turning my face fully toward his and I dragged his head down to mine. My lips did not touch the beauty mark this time. They landed with irritation and desperation right on top of his and I heard his sharp intake of breath.

“I have had the most horrible week of my life,” I murmured to him, my lips brushing his while I spoke. “I hate you for putting me through it and I demand compensation.”

“And what is the price for one week of horribleness?”

His hands slid around my back and I saw his mustache elongate, parallel to his lips. He was laughing at me.

“Don’t leave.”

His eyes jumped to mine. Naturally, they were already tearing up. Why break the trend?

“I don’t have answers for you Jerry. Not good ones anyway. But I know that being away from you felt like I was going through the nine circles of Hell and I absolutely hated it.”

I paused, hearing my words and deciding I agreed with them. It wasn’t just emotion talking. It was me. I continued.

“You said you’re willing to give me time to figure it out. I’m going to hold you to that. It might be a long time though.”

“I know. You’re pretty thick in the head when it comes to this kind of thing.”

I pursed my lips at him and he finally gave me his crooked lazy grin. A tiny bit of pressure eased in my chest. There he is. At last.

“Shaddup! That’s the compensation I demand. Give me time.”

“So it’s not a no?”

The hope in his voice sent a fresh wave of goose-flesh down my body.

“It’s not a no.”

“Then I demand compensation as well.”

I raised my eyebrows at him, daring him to be ridiculous. He didn’t say another word. He rushed in and covered my mouth with his in a passionate, rough kiss. He punished me with tenderness and pressure, sliding his hands up to my face to keep me immobile while he nibbled my bottom lip and rolled the tip of his tongue across it to ease the dull ache. He demanded entrance into my mouth and I gave it, too surprised and lost to think about what this meant.

He gave me a week’s worth of frustration and sorrow when he crushed my mouth to his. There was an apology within his kiss when he brushed me so softly it felt like butterfly wings. And there was promise when he drew me close and lined his body up with mine, warming me down to my toes with pleasure.

Goddammit.

My lips felt tingly and bruised when he finally pulled away. I tried to focus disoriented eyes on him and frowned when I saw his smirk.

“You asshole!”

“That was my compensation. And maybe a little persuasion. A taste of what you could have.”

I turned away from him, face burning again, eyes bulging. My hand came up to cup my mouth holding the feeling of his promise against them. My other hand reached back toward him and he took it. We stayed like that until the curtain was drawn open and a harried looking doctor walked in holding a clip board. He looked at us and blinked. I wasn’t sure what he saw but he managed to keep his composure.

“Jeremiah?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“The patient said I should relay everything to you so you can alert his family.”

I took a step back so I was shoulder to shoulder with Jer, giving him strength as his best friend to hear whatever news came. We held tight.

“It turns out that the patient has been diagnosed with WPW, or Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.”

I looked up at Jer, who nodded. He knew what it was. He also looked relieved which allowed me to finally take a deep breath.

“He doesn’t require surgery then?”

“No, not yet. We’ll try medication and Vagal Maneuvers first and work up from there.”

“I can work on it with him. Thank you Doctor. Is he free to be discharged?”

“It’ll take a bit of paper work on my end but he can go home today, yes. Make sure he rests.”

The doctor exited the curtained stall and I immediately shifted around to hug Jer.

“Relief!” I said, sighing.

“In more than one way.”

I blushed and smiled into his chest.

“There’s one more thing though,” Jer said and I felt my shoulders sag. I waited for the other shoe to drop.

“Steph said when I talked to you again you owe him a box of coconut macaroons.”

I burst out laughing.

“He can have all the macaroons he wants! Idiot man. He might get a poisoned one though for what he put us through.”

“Maybe lace it with a laxative. It’s what he deserves after all.”

I laughed until my abs ached. This was Us. This was how life was supposed to be. Side by side with our lives stretched out before us. Who knew that it took something more than words to make me figure out it was what I wanted all along?

 

They

One step.

It is not the first step. She’d been on this path for years, suffering the injustice of detours and blockages and deserts where there was nothing. Just nothing. Only her footfalls and the vague notion to keep going. Even if it was only an inch a day, the way must be forward.

Why? Because it was where They told her to go, just like they told you.

You know, the They that starts as a feeling when you’re little. “I want to be a grown up!” You don’t know why the words come out of your mouth but it seemed to make sense and everyone laughed and patted your head. Rewards. Child-like mentality morphed this veiled self-deprecation from the adults into a Good Idea and so it tried to get more pats on the head. You dress in slacks and dresses, putting on dad’s ties and mom’s lipstick. They approve. The adults laugh some more. It’s so FUN to be an adult!

Then They shove you into a classroom for 14 years and you really begin to wonder why you ever wanted to grow up. Oh no! Throw something shiny out there! Distract! Distract! Oh phones. Oh cars. Oh wonder! This is worth it. Now it is not your parents that pat your head but your peers. You’re in with them for having the newest and best; you’re in with Them too.

Go forward, sheep. Let us shepherd you. Have we done you wrong before? Here, have a little treat.

They smack us with sex and love and desire. Now there’s a new kind of shiny in our eyes and it’s a tangled web we lay down in the middle of. Be careful, They warn, showering us with condoms and birth control and lectures of abstinence. How dichotomous. They smirk as we walk away blindly. We’re content with the knowledge that we’re doing the Right Thing. We lay down on the web, spread our legs as the chemicals mingle with our heated blood and a thin tube of latex slides over and then in. We give up our last shred of innocence for it. Shiny, happy sweaty bliss.

It’s natural! They say. God says it. Science says it. Chemistry and Physiology say so too. It’s supposed to happen. Don’t blame Us if accidents happen.

What was that? We hear whispers of the girl who dropped out of school because of an “accident”. Her friends don’t know what happened to her. She just got quiet one day and left. That boy in the locker room too. He has bruises in places boys should not have bruises. He winces when he moves and he won’t meet your eye. What–

Shhh! Shh! It’s okay! Let’s move on! See here? See that shiny seal on your diploma? That’s your ticket out kid. Ticket to better!

There’s better? Show us!

Okay. We won’t look back. It didn’t happen to us so we should look ahead right? Right. And now we’re free. Free to pursue our dreams! We’re grown ups now! But…what do we do? In the board game of Life we can either start with a career or go to college and pursue our dreams. Money is the new shiny. Do we want money now or potentially more money later with the added bonus of having our dreams come true (and thousands in debt but it’s worth it, right? Right.)

They don’t care. As long as its money. It’s the ONLY way to go. We have green blinders on with dead men’s faces glaring at us. Make money to get your own place They say. It’s freedom from your parent’s entrapment. Key word here: Freedom. No more oppression. You are your own boss! Only figuratively though. They know who the real boss is but they’ll let you believe other wise for a little longer.

Progress will be slower now. They sigh in sympathy and pat our heads again as our faces fall. There won’t be instant fame and riches like the story books say? Like Instagram and Twitter say? No, little sheep. Only work. We accept this because it’s comfort. Billions have walked this path before us and paved the way. It’s easier for us now than it was back then. It’ll be worth it, They say. Just wait and see. This is freedom! This is Life and we can live it within the parameter’s of our own determination. Go get your own place and fill it with Our stuff. We mean YOUR stuff, but really it’s our. You can make it your own though. DIY art work for the walls and cover the stained second-hand couch with crochet blankets. Call your chipped and cracked mugs “shabby chic” and display them on a shelf you made by yourself. Whatever you need to tell yourself to feed the machine.

What machine…?

We mean your soul! You SOUL. Slip of the tongue. Never you mind.

We’ll forgive you, They said, for having the thrift store crap because we know you’re just starting out. But you need to keep up with the times! New! New! New! Here’s a perk to put a smile on your face. You’re a freshly sheered sheep, bewildered and lost so here, let us give you a security blanket. Have a credit card or three. It’s free money! Why don’t you try it out, hmm? A little present for yourself. How about that laptop? You’ll need one for sure.

College or career? Money. Either way it’s still slavitude. Oh but don’t call it that! Having a negative attitude won’t do anybody any good. You’ll do your job and be happy about it or back to your parents you go. Remember that cushy hell? Remember the curfew and the fights and the oppression? Smile! Work for Them and you’ll surely go farther than you’d ever dreamed. Surely! Determination! Only you hold yourself back. Pay no mind to those shackles on your ankles. They’re just another convenient shiny to make sure you don’t lose Their way. Look, if you save enough money you can even get them in diamond and gold. Shiny.

After our shifts at the factories and after classes are done we sit tiredly with our new computers and browse the web with hate-filled eyes turning greener by the second. We stare longingly at pictures of fish faced models and rookie super stars discovered right out of high school. AMAZING!  We start thinking too much then. I Wish (insert chosen words here). Wish I’d stayed in that rock band. Wish I could have that car. Wish I could fuck her every night. Wish I could back pack through Europe. Wish I had that much money. Wish I could get breast implants.

Greedy sheep! Greedy menial sheep!

They’re furious. They scold us for wanting more. They have a plan for us and we’re going to follow it dammit or else They’ll–

No. No no, this is fine. Okay. You’re unhappy. Let’s revisit. They spread the silvery silky web out over our beds again and fill our eyes with love and lust. Little Beautiful flies. Intimate fantasies playing in our strange heads. Heart pounding and heat building. Suddenly our hands aren’t enough anymore. We have money now. We have our own place. We don’t have to hide anything or be quiet or leave the minute he’s done out of fear. Hey, your old boyfriend is single. Facebook says so. And that girl at work looks pretty cute. Wonder if she’s into threesomes.

Money and sex. Free. New. SMILE.

They steeple their fingers in front of Their Cheshire cat grins. We don’t hear their sadistic laughter. It’s drowned out by the moaning, grunting and cursing; the boss yelling and the parent’s complaining they never hear from you anymore. Our eyes are filled with tanned firm flesh and glittery gold and sculpted perfection.

When they yank away the blinders, Real Life rushes in like a starved succubus.

She fucks us like no tomorrow. She flays us with reality. There are accidents and lay offs and evictions. What? What? Help! We can’t blame them remember? They warned us. Everyone warned us. We were just too overwhelmed to hear; too blind with the shiny. Too full of wanton. We wanted and we got. Congratulations.

“Give em’ the ol’ Razzle Dazzle…”

She found out what happened to the girls who stopped coming to school. It wasn’t her fault, or his. Accidents happen. She had the chemicals and he had the latex. Bad day was all. Circumstances. They warned us. Can’t go back. Only forward along the path of millions of heart-broken and shattered.

They shook their heads and folded their arms. Fucked up didn’t you? There’s  away out you know. One easy procedure and you’ll never have to think about it again…

NO! NEVER! Moral high ground kicks in. Dreams get trampled under the crushing weight of disappointment and fear.

They take her shoulders and turn her down another path. Is this what you want? Take a good look. 18 years of that. Can you deal? We offer so much more opportunity. Work for us! Get the procedure. Forget. And when you’re ready, when you’ve paid your dues; try again.

She looked back and forth. They looked the same.

Now the truly hard grown up decisions have to be made. The ones that make us want to be a kid again. What to do? She called out. What to do? They were silent.

“I’m keeping it,” she said stubbornly and they thrust her roughly down the new path, disgusted. She landed on her knees and was scarred forever.

“Useless! Moocher! Stupid!”

They are angry now. Now THEY have to support HER. One less drop in the bucket for them. They withdrew. Now she was in their shadow, their backs turned. Forgotten like all the other girls. No more Shinies to distract. They were done investing in her.

She was alone now.

This is what she got for wanting too much. Being greedy. They told her. They showed her. Now life begins again from the other side and she will see with new eyes. She will be shackled thrice over. Ankles and breast and left ring finger and they will weight on her like a solid steel yoke. A cross to bear; a scarlet letter that in nine months will forever be walking beside her, a reminder. In its tiny newborn eyes she will see the last vestiges of her dreams die. “I do” sounds like a knell to her ear. She was round like the earth in her long cream silk dress.

She tried to slough off the cross in the beginning. They had one thing right; determination was everything. She railed against the ring bearer, blaming him. She secretly loathed the milk sucker but fear kept her mouth shut. What monster hated her children? And she didn’t really hate them. But it took away her choice; her freedom. Her dreams.

One foot in front of the other. Forward and more forward.

Years blended together. Same scenes. Sun rise and sun set. Bottles. Sippy cups. More sex and another one came. Another milk sucker but she was less scared this time. Less everything. She became comfortably numb. This wasn’t so bad. The path wasn’t as bad as she thought. There were others walking with her, bent over, eyes on the ground. Nobody wanted to look around, even for comfort. What was the point? There was no hope here. But there they all were, together.

Broken record. Broken record. Broken rec–Yes she knows this was her fault now. Hind sight is 20/20. It’s not so bad. She is beaten. They are smug. She travels deeper into their shadow.

She learned a new kind of strength, carrying her yoke around. She learned patience and acceptance. She learned it wasn’t so bad having her heart being torn; half on the inside, half outside walking around. It wasn’t bad being comfortable; being taken care of. She learned to master a new kind of role as Mother. They pigeon-holed her into it and her shoulders fit snugly into the metal machines and shiny screens that flashed numbers and dollar signs. Too little. Never enough. More! They molded her to it.

Step. Step. Step. Stumble. Knees. Get up. Dust off the scars.

Step. Stumble. Knees.

She knelt there for a minute, eyes still on the path. The others shuffled around her, stepping in time to a dull march like useless soldiers in a war they’re going to lose. Grow up, grow old, grow dead. Feed the machine. Make money. Who cares about happiness and dreams. Those are for shiny-eyed children and idealists. The rest of them…keep going. Up, Old, Dead.

She didn’t rise. She didn’t rebel. She didn’t think. She just knelt. She didn’t wait for or expect anything. Her path was laid out for her. It was easy. In a minute, she’ll get up again.

“Can I show you?”

A blue bird landed on her shoulder and she stilled. So beautiful…not shiny at all.

“Can I show you?”

“You can’t. My path. My choices. There is nothing else.”

“There is. I can show you. Let me show you.”

She shrugged and the bird flitted away. She didn’t watch it go. But she did get up and step again. Same as she’d always been; same as the others. Why her? It came back but was silent and she tried to shrug again. It fluttered and his wing brushed her cheek. For a moment, the glaze over her eyes shifted and she saw neon. The bird settled and she settled as well. Months more. She grew to accept this trifling burden and grew accustomed to saying “no” when he asked.

“Can I show you? Will you see? Let me show you.”

“No. No. No.”

“Why?”

“I chose this. This is my life.”

“Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?”

She stopped. Yes or no. It didn’t fit. It was always yes or no. Yes the path. No the walker. Yes the walker, no the path? The glaze shifted again and she saw a glimpse. Jewels. Not diamonds and facets and shiny. Colors. plants. Flowers. Where?

“Where?”

“Look over there. Look! Look!”

The bird flew from her shoulder. Her neck was stiff and ached to turn. The yoke gripped tight and it was almost too much to bear. But from the corner of her eye, she saw. A break in the path. A dark tunnel and a speck of rainbow. Her heart thudded once, very loud and then her head was forced back around and down. Back into position. She relaxed back into the mold; the effort was tremendous.

“It’s fine for now. Let me show you.”

There were more words. Not just no? She tried.

“Give me time?”

He was pleased. He ruffled his feathers in contentment. She didn’t know why.

“All you need. I am here.” And he was.

Everyday she stretched her neck farther and farther around, wincing against the yoke but deciding the pain was worth it. She tracked the blue bird with her eyes as he flew circles over her head and hid in the dull scenery of her life path. Wherever he touched seemed to glow and become alive. Brown became ocher. Green became emerald. Red became crimson. Always he would fly back to her shoulder. He would bend his wing out and tickle her cheek in greeting and her mask cracked a little more with every smile. Step by step he drew closer to her. Step by step, together, forward.

Sometimes she would return to her glazed state and plod along in line with the others. The bird knew these were times for introspection for her and he remained by her side instead of flying, ready to draw her out if she’d been under too long. She didn’t see it, but he ever so slightly loosened the bolts and screws holding her yoke in place so that every time she came awake again, she could move a little more freely.

They did not see. They did not care. She was a drop in the bucket, unworthy of Their attention. She was a Mother, not a worker. She did nothing for them. Why would They care?

He cared. He watched. She stumbled that time and paused. He saw it was time. Slowly; so slowly, she was beginning to see. There were paths hidden in plain sight if she would only look. He could show her. He could lead her. But he was only so small in her mind. A tiny voice. A pretty distraction. He needed to be bigger. So he became a child, full of dreams and ideals.

“Let me show you.”

The shock of a warm and tiny hand sliding into hers jolted her awake, the glaze leaving her eyes permanently. She was a mother. She knew instinctively what to do. She picked him up and carried him and he laid his head on her shoulder, clinging to her. She kisses his cheek and raspberried his neck to make him laugh. Her arms never grew tired of carrying him and she didn’t complain. That was what They taught her to do. This was her life. But it was more now. She began to feel joy again.

The boy watched over her shoulder as she left a trail of seedlings and sprouts in her footsteps. Bright little footsteps of green moss like a beacon against the brittle thistles. The others trampled it almost immediately after but he saw it. She didn’t but she would. Soon it would be in front of her and she would be amazed at what she could create. He would wait.

The happier she became, the bigger he became. Soon she couldn’t hold him on her hip anymore and instead, decided to carry him on her back. The yoke slipped off. It didn’t make a sound as it hit the ground and disintegrated into dust. She didn’t seem to notice. He laid against her back and watched the gold in her hair flicker in the light as she walked. Step. Step. Step. Now tireless. Strong steps. She was getting stronger.

“What do you have to show me?” she finally asked one day. It wasn’t any kind of special day. But she asked.

He rejoiced and danced and ran away and then back, carrying flowers with such brilliant shades they stung her eyes.

“What are these?” she asked, running a finger along a graceful petal. She remembered this shape. She remembered this color. There was dew on them as if a spring rain had come through when she wasn’t looking and coated them in liquid crystal.

“They’re yours,” he insisted.

“Why are they wet?” she asked.

“It’s your tears.”

She smiled at him and stood. Her eyes looked away though and were sad.

“Not mine. They’re pretty but not mine. You keep them.”

He did but he became just as sad. She still didn’t see. They didn’t speak of the flowers for a long time. He started to go away for longer and longer periods of time and she fretted. She tried not to show it. Kids will be kids. She stepped in time; kept the line. Step. Step. She was used to this.

Step. Stop.

She looked left. Looked for him and then looked right. She needed to find him. Which way? All ways were wrong except forward. No one deviates. No one sees beyond.

“Just pick and I will be there.”

She wished the Blue Bird would come again and show her which path was safe. Paths were safe and not safe. She’s stumbled before and gotten hurt. But always going forward. What kind of pain would come if she went sideways?

“You can do this. Take a step. One step not forward.”

That voice. So clear. So sure. She chose Left. She interrupted the path of the person beside her but she didn’t seem to care. Step Left. Step Left. The shiny shackles caught at her, trying to trip her, trying to re-correct her. She was almost free of the Path. One more step! The shackles dug in like a bear trap around her ankle and jerked her leg back, pitching her forward. Always forward. She would have hit the ground except for the strong pair of arms caught her. They pulled together and she felt the agonizing grip of the shackle biting into her leg. Blood dripped and tears dripped and sweat beaded on her brow.

“I WANT TO SEE!” she screamed.

And suddenly, she was free. The arms swung her up as if she now, were the child. She rested her head against the man’s neck, her ankle burning, her chest burning and the ring finger on her left hand burning. Her slavitude chains. Warning! Warning! This is not the way! Turn back and go no further. Beware. Beware! They stood there for a moment and watched the sheep-like zombies move forward.

“It’s time.”

“Yes.”

They turned away together from the forward path. She was keenly aware of her chains and it made her afraid. She buried her face in his shirt and closed her eyes. What if They saw? What if she was ripped away and sent back to follow? Could They do that? She almost wanted to turn back. The fear of the unknown haunted her and gripped her heart painfully.

“Let me show you. Look.”

The man set down and settled her in his lap, one hand on her face, coaxing her to see. Soft, like a bird’s wing. Like a child’s fingertip tracing her cheeks. She fisted a portion of his shirt in her hand, like a scared child might do, and cautiously opened one eye.

Flowers. There were Everywhere. Bright perfect blooms as far as she could see. She opened both eyes and finally Saw. There was a tiny break in the chain. She didn’t notice. She was enthralled.

“They’re yours,” he insisted.

“What?”

“You said I could keep them. I planted them and they grew.”

She climbed down off his lap now and moved toward the blossoms.

“I remember this one,” she whispered.

The shape and color of it were so familiar but she could barely remember why. When she touched it and it opened, she saw dew inside.

“Look closer.”

She bent and cupped the blossom in her hands and squinted in at it. And there it was. Once upon a dream. Her dream. She caught another flower and it bloomed in her palm, showing her another.

“All mine? You’ve kept them all?”

He smiled and came forward to take her hand. They walked through the field. Before her eyes, more and more flowers grew straight and tall, revealing their delicate blushing insides. Tender dreams and hopes, cultivated and grown with loving care.

“I thought they were lost.”

“Only forgotten,” he said. “You had to see to believe.”

The chains around her chest softly slithered down her body and disappeared into the field. She sprinkled the flowers with the tears from her eyes and they grew bigger. Hand in hand they looked and saw.

“Where are your dreams?” she asked.

“Can I show you?”

“Yes.”

The word felt alien and sumptuous on her tongue.

“Yes. Show me. Yes I want to see.”

If he can do this to her dreams, how much more alive and beautiful are his? Did everything he touch grow so fantastically? She wanted him to touch her more. They started moving uphill toward a Honolulu blue sky. She struggled a bit and he helped, boosting her up. One foot in front of the other they leaned on one another, struggling until finally coming to rest on a precipice.

Out in front and above was a clear cloudless forever. She could fly out there now. The yoke was gone. She could build herself wings from the colorful dreams in her garden and she could fly higher than she ever imagined. No anchor. No chains. Only her and the air and the sun. The thought appealed to her so much she nearly stepped into it from longing.

But then he caught her and pressed her close and she looked down. She clung to him as she looked down in terror at the dark abyss of unknown below.

“What’s down there?”

He squeezed her tighter and she felt his heart pounding against her back.

“You can’t see it yet, but I can. It’s dark for you but I see my future clear. It has you in it.”

He turned and cupped her face in his hands, kissing her forehead, her cheeks, her nose. She closed her eyes and tried to see.

“Can I show you?”

For the first time in a long time, she wanted. Wanted to dream again, wanted to lead her own life, wanted to explore this man and what he had to offer. Not follow. But be at his side for whatever he wanted her to see. It was just…

“Can I take my dreams too?” she asked.

He understood. He saw the fear of replacing one shackle with another. She didn’t know him yet, but she would and she would see everything clear. Make her own decision. He bent down and plucked a brilliant orange flower and tucked it behind her ear.

“We can plant them beside mine and they’ll grow together, if you like.”

Her heart raced with fear and excitement, alive again in her garden of eden. No Shiny. No Them. Just him and her. Organic, home-grown, love and hopes and dreams. Could she leave it for him? Could she grow another one alongside him, cherish his dreams alongside hers?

“Are you ready?”

She clasped his hand and looked only at him, trusting.

The ring from her hand tinkled on the rocks as they dove down into her unknown. It tarnished, disintegrated and blew away and she never thought about it again. She was free.