Meliphi

            “Just press play.”

            “I don’t want to,” the man snapped and crossed his arms.

            Meliphi sighed. Humans were always infuriating, but somehow, dead ones were even worse. It was like they realized they had nothing left to lose and took it out on the poor incorporeal beings just trying to do their jobs. 

            “I don’t like it any more than you do,” Meliphi said, nudging the replay device toward the man whose name the being could no longer remember. “But I’d like to get home sometime before the next millennium.”

            The man’s lips pursed, and he hunched down in his chair. Meliphi was tempted to tell him he could die there if he was going to be this stubborn, but unfortunately…

            “It won’t be so bad,” Meliphi coaxed. “And then you can get out of this waiting room, this…” The being waved a hand at the blank whiteness. “Nothingness and on to” — The man’s eyes flickered to Meliphi. Curiosity. It always worked on humans. — “something else.” 

            The man humphed. 

            “Please?” Meliphi was desperate.

            The man sighed, and his arms dropped to his sides. “Why do I have to do this? Is this hell?”

            Meliphi burst out laughing, quickly stifling it behind a shimmering wing. “Sorry,” the being mumbled. “That heaven hell thing was all you guys. As if the entire divine doesn’t have better things to do than devote itself to your reward or punishment. No, this is purely for cataloguing purposes.”

            Meliphi nudged the replay device forward with another wing, offering what the being hoped was a friendly smile. The man sighed. “It’s just… a lot of it sucked. I don’t want to see it again, alright? Can’t you let me be dead in peace?”

            “Unfortunately, no. Look, I’d really love to do this with you all millennia, but I have other appointments, other people dying to see me.”

            “Hilarious,” the man muttered to Meliphi’s confusion. It was simply a fact. “Will you stay and watch with me at least?” he asked.

            Companionship, that strange human desire. It wasn’t standard, but why not if it got this over with sooner?

            Meliphi arranged next to the man, tucking wings and various other appendages into a semi-human sitting posture. “Let’s do this,” the being said with a grin.

            The man rolled his eyes before jamming the play button. 

            The screen flickered and went black. Meliphi’s seven eyes stared unblinkingly at it. The being had been ready to bail after year thirteen. Seventy-two more had followed. The man sighed.     

            “I… I’m sorry,” Meliphi said. “I know you said it sucked, but I… I had no idea.”

            “Eh, it wasn’t so bad. Seeing it all together like that… Damn, I did a lot.”

            Meliphi glanced over with three eyes to see him smiling. The being couldn’t even begin to understand this.

            “Would you do it again?” Meliphi asked quietly. “If you could.”

            The being always asked this question, but that was after the dead needing to be cataloged watched their lives replay while Meliphi’s seven eyes closed and the being’s consciousness popped over to the sixteenth dimension for some fresh air. Meliphi had never fully realized what the question meant.

            “I think I would,” the man said thoughtfully. “Except, maybe not that one day at the hardware store.”

            Meliphi grimaced. That was understandable.

            “Thank you,” the man said with a smile. “I think I’m ready to go now.”

            Meliphi nodded as the man next to him faded away into the something else. The being had always considered the Valori people of the Felta Galaxy, with their precognition and prehensile eye-stalks, to be as close to divinity as the universe came, but humans? Humans were the cockroaches of the universe, digging themselves in with remarkable stubbornness and continuing to exist even when all odds were against them. The being had never taken the time to consider what this meant, what such a life must be like. Earth was Time’s domain after all, and she was a merciful goddess of remarkable cruelty. Or a cruel goddess of incredible mercy. Meliphi was never sure which.

            The replay device pinged with a new arrival. Human. A young woman was sitting on the chair, wiping tears off her cheeks. Meliphi arranged into a sitting position next to her and held out one of many hands. “I’ll be right here,” the being said. “And when you’re ready, we’ll watch together.”


Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_zur_Abmessung.jpg

The Honest Half

                The door was set into the smoke-stained stone wall and locked with a heavy black padlock. When she had been brought to the kitchens, as payment for her father’s debt to the crown, she had been told the door was to stay locked at all times. When she’d been caught with an ear pressed against the rough wood, she had been told it wasn’t to be touched, and when she’d stared at it too long, brow furrowed thoughtfully, she had been told it wasn’t even to be looked at. This was punctuated with a hand across her jaw, but it only fueled her curiosity.

                All she’d heard through the wood was a faint drip, like water. And sometimes, when she was sweeping the floors, she saw what looked like scuff marks, like something heavy had been dragged, trailing across the floor and disappearing beneath the sealed door. And as the stiff straw bristles slowly erased them, she would try to puzzle out what could be behind it.

                “Vari!” The cook’s snarl yanked her from her thoughts.

                She set the broom back in the corner and picked up the tray of food from the table. If she pretended to forget, to be busy doing other things, she hoped the cook would let her be and take the tray himself, but he never did.

               When she entered the great hall, the prince stared at her, one arm thrown over the back of his chair. “You’re late,” he said, as she set the tray on the table.

                It was a lie. Vari said nothing, serving the king first, who ignored her, then the bejeweled queen, and finally, the sneering prince. He grabbed her wrist and yanked her closer. “I said, you’re late,” he snarled.

                “Forgive me, Your Majesty. It won’t happen again,” she said, her eyes fixed on the poached egg sitting on his plate.

                His other hand grabbed her jaw, his fingers digging into her already bruised cheek as he forced her to look at him. Dishes clinked behind her. “Pass the butter, would you?” said the queen to the king, and the king did.

                “See that it doesn’t,” the prince hissed before shoving her.

                Vari tumbled to the floor. A half-eaten crust landed next to her. She snatched it and fled, wishing her hunger wasn’t greater than her pride.

                The cook was snoring in the kitchen, his feet thrown up on the hearth, the chair sagging under his enormous, greasy weight. A key ring hung from his straining belt. Almost before she knew what she was doing, Vari was sliding it free, taking the heavy black key and putting it in her pocket. She looked defiantly at the door.

                It stood still and silent, as it continued to stand later that night when she returned to the empty kitchen, barefoot, a candle in her hand.

                The padlock opened with a click, and a rush of dank air fluttered her skirts as the door creaked open. Behind it, stairs spiraled into darkness. Holding her flickering candle aloft, she descended. The drip of water, far below, grew louder, and the air became stifling, as she spun downward.

                She was dizzy when she reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled through a black doorway. Putrid water coated the floor. She held up the candle and snorted. The light flickered off bare stone walls. The room was empty.

                “So, this is what all the fuss is about,” she said, glancing around the small chamber.

                “Depressing, isn’t it?” said a voice behind her.

                She whirled. A familiar figure stood before the stairs. With a gasp, Vari fell to her knees, hitting her forehead on the stones. The candle skittered across the water, sputtered, and went out.

                There had been no mistaking him, even wreathed in shadow. The prince.

                “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she said. “I know I’m not supposed to be here. Please…”

                She would be lucky to get away with only a lashing. Men were killed for less.

                “Why are you here?” he asked after a moment. “You’re not the usual fare.”

                “I was curious, Your Majesty.”

                “Curious?” He laughed softly, then sniffed. “Is that… fresh air? Did you unlock the door?”

                She took the key from her pocket and extended it into the darkness. A cold hand took it. Water dripped steadily behind her.

                “You can get up,” he said.

                She pulled herself to her feet and wiped her dirty, trembling hands on soiled skirts. Something shifted in the darkness, and the candle flared to life in front of her, illuminating the prince’s grotesquely pale face inches from her own. But… he wasn’t quite the prince. Shaggy hair hung over sunken cheekbones, cheeks that just that morning had been full.

                “You’re frightened,” he said, looking down at her shaking hands. “Why? Afraid I’ll eat you?”

                He grinned with a mouth full of pointed, white teeth. She scrambled back, slipping on the wet stones, and he laughed.

                “What are you?” she gasped.

                “The prince,” he said. “Or the honest half of him, at least.”

                She backed against the far wall, pressing herself against the damp stone. “Honest half? What does that mean?”

                He sighed. “I suppose we have time for a story, but just one.” He lounged against the wall, absently running one sharp nail over the stone. “When the prince was born, the entire kingdom rejoiced. And why wouldn’t they? Another century of subjugation assured. The king and queen on the other hand were dismayed to find that another babe had appeared in the cradle beside their precious son. An exact copy. Well… almost.” His pointed grin glimmered in the candlelight. “There were certain differences. The affinity for human flesh, for one, but whenever they tried to kill the child, this abomination as they called it, the same torments were inflicted on their little prince. So, they locked me up. Fed me on beggars and desperate thieves.” He spat disgustedly. “Enough to keep me alive, to keep him alive, to keep him hungry.”

                “You… you eat people?” she stammered.

                The insolent grin returned. “We’re royalty. It’s what we do. But now…” He tossed the key into the air, snatched it, and shoved it into a tattered pocket. “He’s lived off of me long enough. It’s time to return the favor, don’t you think?”

                “Return it? What does that mean?”

                The prince but not quite the prince cocked his head. “I’m going to eat him.”

                “Won’t that kill you?” she whispered, frozen in fear.

                “Oh, I imagine it’ll hurt,” he said. “But then I’ll be free. Two made one again, and the likeness is startling, as you’ve proven. No one will know a thing has happened.”

                With a burst of courage that could only come from looking day after day into the face she feared most, Vari stepped forward. “I won’t let you,” she said, her voice shaking, her fists clenched. “I won’t let you hurt anyone.”

                The man who looked like the prince, but most certainly was not, raised an eyebrow before he sighed. “Fine.” The key clattered at her feet. “I’ll let you lock me up again, if you really want to, but I don’t think you will.”

                She fumbled with the key, her gaze fixed on the man in his circle of candlelight. “Why?”

                “You groveled like a frightened animal when you saw me, scared for your life.” He drew closer and tilted her chin up with a pointed nail. “Believe me, I know the look. You thought there was a monster in the darkness with you, but it wasn’t me you were afraid of. They locked me up, took my life to serve them, and left me so starved, I’d eat whatever scraps they gave me. Sound familiar?”

                She lifted a hand to her bruised cheek. “But you’re a monster.”

               “Am I?” he asked with a frown. “I devour to survive. What’s his excuse?”

               His face was so like the prince’s, except for the pointed teeth in his slightly open mouth. And his eyes. They looked more… human, less hungry. “If I let you out,” she said finally, quietly. “Promise me you won’t eat anyone else. Only him.”

                “I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, but I will tell you this.” He bent closer, his breath cold on her ear. “I won’t eat you. Besides,” he added when he’d straightened up. “I’m in the mood for something more”—he licked his lips—”royal.”

                His footsteps were almost silent as he followed her up the stairs, and she shivered, imagining she could feel his icy breath on her neck. When they reached the kitchen and stepped out of the dark doorway, he inhaled deeply and sighed before turning to her. “Stay here,” he said and disappeared into the hallway.

                He returned a few moments later with a thrashing bundle over his shoulder. It was mumbling frantically. The man who looked like the prince tossed it into the darkness. “Shut the door behind me,” he said and padded down the stairs.

                She shoved the heavy door closed. She could lock it, turn the key in the padlock, and they’d both be trapped forever, but eventually, someone would notice the prince was missing. Questions would be asked. Answers would be taken, willingly or not. She stood, indecisive, twisting the key in her hands until there was a soft knock on the door. She pulled it open a crack.

                The prince, or maybe not the prince, stood at the top of the stairs.

                “Smile,” she said warily.

                His teeth glistened, all pointed and white. “Worried about me?”

                She yanked the door open then slammed it behind him, locking it tight.

                “He isn’t going anywhere,” the not quite prince said, picking at his teeth with a sharp nail.

                “What happens now?” she asked.

                He took a deep breath. “I think I’ll take a bath.” And he padded out of the kitchen.

                The door in the kitchen, set into the smoke-stained stone walls, was locked with a heavy black padlock. It was not to be opened, not to be touched, not even to be looked at. The heavy black key hung on a cord around Vari’s neck. Each morning she carried a tray of food to the great hall. She served the prince first, who thanked her graciously, then the pale queen, and finally, the nervous king. The prince never smiled, but when she left the hall, looking back over her shoulder at him, the corner of his mouth would twitch up, just for a moment.


Picture Credit: Joseph Mallord William Turner
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_(1775-1851)_-_The_Long_Cellar_at_Petworth_-_N05539_-_National_Gallery.jpg

Eternity

The cave glittered like a starry night. A web of paths, jagged with stalagmites, stretched across a black sea, and the lights above shimmered on its ebony surface.

Blackness muffled the crunch of pebbles beneath my feet. Branching, weaving, splitting and re-joining, it led ever onward, and I had no choice but to follow.

Across the sea of blackness, the paths become one again before a black gate, and beside it, stood a figure. Her face held the mysteries of infinity, and she glowed like a waning moon.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“Eternity,” she replied.

“Then what’s beyond the gate?”

A smile twinkled across her face. “Wonders beyond comprehension.”

I raised a hand to the stone, trying to push it open, but it was cold and solid beneath my touch. “How do I get through?”

When I turned back to her, her face was sorrowful. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But you can go no further.” She held out her translucent hands and gazed sadly down at the shards that lay within them. “This crystal was set aside for you since before time began, but it’s been broken and none can pass empty-handed.”

“What happened to it?”

“None can pass empty-handed,” she repeated, and the shards fell from her hands, raining musically over the stones.

The ground before the gate was strewn with broken crystals, their edges broken and cruel.

“Someone took mine? They used it?” My voice shuddered off the black walls. “What will happen to me?”

“You will stay in the blackness of eternity until you fade to nothing. Unless…” Her face became pensive. “If you could find another, the way would be open to you. But you must hurry.”

Already the stars were winking out, and the darkness closing in on us.

I followed the shore where the black waves lapped. What I thought were stars were crystals, innumerable, set into the walls, but they glittered high above me. The stone beneath my hands was dark, pocked and scarred, empty. The darkness drew nearer, gathering itself around me.

At last, at the base of a stalagmite, I found one last crystal, pulsing a dim blue. The black rock crumbled away at my touch, and the stone thrummed in my hand.

“It was the last,” I said when I rejoined her. “Whose is it?”

But she merely stepped aside. “The way is open.”

I laid a hand on the gate. The stone was warm now, and the crystal vibrated, humming in the blackness. She stood at the edge of the sea, watching me, her light glimmering on the waves.

My hand fell to my side, and I gave her the crystal.

“Will you stay with me?” I asked. “Until the end? I’m afraid.”

We sat together until the last star winked out and only the crystal in her hand remained. I waited, but the darkness halted at the edge of the blue light. We sat on an island of light, adrift on a sea of darkness.

“When will the end come?” I asked.

Her face glowed with a soft smile, and she pressed the crystal into my hands. “It was always yours. If you had tried to pass beyond the bounds of eternity, it would have shattered and the darkness taken you, but you chose destruction and in so doing, lived.”

“Then what will become of me?” I asked.

A smile twinkled across her face. “Wonders beyond comprehension.”

The cave glittered like a starry night, empty and silent, and at the base of a lone stalagmite nestled a single blue crystal, faintly pulsing in the darkness.


Photo Credit: Hermala
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Light_Blue_of_Indonesian_Gem.jpg

Kismet

                I was greeted at breakfast by a shriek. My mom’s coffee mug shattered on the kitchen tile.

                “Who are you?” she screamed, brandishing a cream-cheese covered butter knife.

                “Your son?” I was still half-asleep, trying to rub the drowsiness out of my head.

                “Get out of my house, you lunatic! Get out!”

                A bagel bounced off my forehead, and I made a hasty retreat as she rushed me, wildly waving the knife.

                I was chased out of the house, pelted with bagels and threats of the police hauling me away if I came within ten feet of her again. The front door slammed behind me. I stood on the sidewalk in my plaid flannel pajamas, rubbing my cold bare feet against my ankles. My mom was peering out of the blinds.

                They say you can never go home again, but this was ridiculous. If she was trying to make a point that I didn’t visit enough, she could at least have let me get a coat first.

                “Hello, Mrs. Jones,” I said, waving halfheartedly at the elderly woman walking by with her Pomeranian.

                She put her head down and sped past me, glancing anxiously back as she reached her front porch and fumbled with her keys. The door slammed behind her.

                She’d known me my whole life. Either she was in on this too or something odd was going on. I walked gingerly down the street, wincing at the icy pavement beneath my feet. Four blocks down, the small street met a larger road, and a dingy diner huddled on the corner. I stopped in front of it, rubbing one foot over the other to wipe off the pebbles that had stuck to me. At least it would be warm inside.

               As I appeared in the doorway, the waitress behind the counter loudly cleared her throat. She was looking pointedly downward, and I followed her gaze to my bare feet. With a sigh, I trudged back outside. I had no keys, no wallet, no shoes, and no idea what was going on. I only knew it was cold.

               A stack of typo-ridden local newspapers sat in a sad damp heap in the metal rack outside the door. I folded two of them around my feet, scrunching the paper together to make paper slippers.

                When I walked back through the door, I was given a disapproving look but was allowed to enter.

                The scuffed metal tables were mostly empty, but a young woman sat near the window, gazing forlornly out. She was wearing fuchsia pajama pants and paper bags on her feet. She straightened up when she noticed me.

                “No shoes, no service,” she said sadly when I sat down across from her.

                “Where’d you get the bags?” I asked.

                “Recycle bin.”

                “Good thinking.”

                “Coffee’s free.”

                “Thank god.”

                I flagged down the waitress and watched eagerly as she filled a slightly dirty mug with steaming coffee. She looked at our thin pajamas and paper-wrapped feet, clucked sympathetically, and brought us six packs of crumbling crackers.

                “What are you doing?” the woman across from me asked as I peered at myself in the metal napkin dispenser.

                “Making sure I’m still me,” I said.

                “Did everybody forget you too?”

               I took a sip of the scalding coffee-flavored water and grimaced. “I think so. My mom tried to kill me with a bagel.”

               “I came downstairs for pancakes and nearly got arrested.” She sighed. “It’s been a weird morning.”

                We sat in silence as I sipped my coffee and she stared out the window, a blank expression on her face.

               “What’s your name?” I asked.

                She considered a moment. “Better not take the chance. If we don’t know each other, we can’t forget each other.”

                “There’s got to be a reason this is happening. Something we did,” I said, cupping my mug to catch the last hints of warmth. “That or our families… and my neighbor… all went crazy at the same time.”

                “Seems unlikely.” She absently tapped her spoon against the handle of her mug. “But why us? I don’t know you. At least, I don’t think I do.”

                I drank three more cups of the vile coffee as we tried to figure why. She was in town to visit her parents. I was in town to visit my mom, but she had arrived three days ago, and I arrived yesterday. Her birthday was in the spring, mine in the fall. Nothing added up.

                “Maybe it’s something that happened yesterday,” I said, brushing cracker crumbs off my lap.

                “I haven’t gone anywhere or done anything!” she said. “And now I’m going to spend the rest of my life in a cardboard box wearing Barbie pajamas. I forgot to bring pajamas. These were all I could find, and they don’t fit anymore.” Her face crumpled, and she let out a hiccuping sob.

                I grabbed her hand. “At least we have each other.”

                “Yeah, great,” she mumbled, wiping her nose on a paper napkin. “We can die cold and miserable, together.”

                “Just try to remember. Yesterday. Walk me through it.”

               She sighed and buried her fingers in her tangled hair, leaning her elbows on the table. “I got up… watched a documentary with my dad and fell asleep on the couch… played Scrabble with my mom. Oh, I ran to the store for milk, and on the way home, I bought some flowers.”

                I leaned forward. “Flowers? Where?”

                “Some man on the corner over there.” She pointed out the window.

                I was bouncing in my seat. “What kind of flowers? Purple roses?”

                Her eyes widened. “How did you know?”

                I jumped to my feet, instinctively grabbing for my wallet that wasn’t there. “I bought the same ones for my mom. Let’s go.”

                My left shoe blew away and her bags rustled as she waddled like a snowshoer toward the flower stand.

                The flower vendor, a big man with a thick mustache, stood next to the stand laden with brightly colored bouquets, all cheerfully blossoming despite the frigid weather. He examined us curiously as we shuffled up. A woman picking through bunches of daisies looked up, started, took her child’s hand, and walked around to the other side of the stand away from us.

                “We both bought your purple roses yesterday,” I said to the vendor. “And now nobody knows who we are.”

                “Ah, yes.” He nodded knowingly. “I did notice two bunches were missing this morning.” He was watching us keenly now, tugging at the end of his mustache. “I didn’t think they’d work so quickly, but they are special flowers.”

                The woman in pink pajamas glared at him. “How’d you like some special flowers up your—”

                “Special how?” I cut in.

                A customer asked for carnations, and the vendor turned to dig around through the bunches. “I’ve never sold two bunches in one day. It’s, uh, what’s the word?” He waved his hand like he could snatch the elusive word out of thin air. “Kismet.”

                “It’s our fate to die alone in our pajamas?” the woman in pink snarled.

                “No, no, no. You misunderstand.” He handed off the carnations and shoved the cash in his pocket. “These flowers brought you together, changed the rules of the universe to help you find each other, to help you find your true love.”

                The woman in pink pajamas and I exchanged a wide-eyed glance before edging away from each other.

                “Her?”

                “Him?” she asked, eyebrows raised higher than I felt was necessary.

                “You don’t have to look so disgusted,” I grumbled.

                “Oh, I’m sorry,” she snapped. “I didn’t realize this was a serious conversation. Next time a crazy flower vendor erases me from existence and tells me my true love is a man with newspapers on his feet, I’ll try to be more cheerful about it.”

                “They blew away, so there!” I said, turning on her. “You’re not the picture of hygiene either.”

                She threw her hands up. “How is this what you’re worried about?”

                “Shut up!” the vendor yelled, and we turned to stare at him, mouths still open. “You’re scaring my customers. Don’t you realize how lucky you are? Some people spend their whole lives looking.”

                “I want to go home!” she yelled.

                “Clearly, we’re miserable,” I said. “Whatever the flowers intended, it didn’t work. So, fix it.”

                He shrugged, leaning back against the stand. “I can’t. The spell stays until the blossoms fade.”

                “And how long does that take?”

               “Eh, five or six days, give or take. But look on the bright side, now you’ve got almost a week together. There’s nobody else in the world for you but your true love.”

               “You’re crazy, man,” I said and turned to the woman in pink pajamas beside me. “Let’s go.”

               “Don’t buy the flowers!” she shrieked at the gawking customers as I pulled her away from the stand. “The flowers are a lie!”

                She yanked her arm away and stomped down the street. Her jaw stuck out and her eyes blazed.

                “Where are we going?” I asked, hurrying after her.

                “To send those flowers to an early grave,” she growled, nearly falling as she tripped over the bags on her feet.

               “But how are we going to get inside? My mom is going to stab me if I come anywhere near her.”

               She slowed, her forehead wrinkling in thought. “There’s two of us, and she doesn’t know who I am. I can lure her outside while you destroy the flowers.”

               It was better than my plan to huddle up in the diner, living off weak coffee and cracker crumbs until they dragged me away. A bitter wind whistled down the street.

               “I’m so cold,” she groaned, hugging herself.

               I held out an arm to her, and she huddled against me, clutching my shirt with icy fingers, as we shuffled down the street toward my house.

               “I’m holding you purely for survival purposes,” she said through chattering teeth.

               “Understood.”

               My mom’s house was quiet. No accusing eyes glared out of the blinds. I hid behind a tall shrub, out of view but ready to dart through the door.

               The woman in pink pajamas tossed the damp paper bags aside and rang the doorbell, gasping as the door opened. “Oh, thank god! I can’t find Frito. I’ve been out here for hours.” Her face morphed into the picture of wide-eyed innocence, and her lip trembled a little. “Please. He’s just a little dog.”

               Her performance was impressive; I’d have believed it myself if I hadn’t known better.

               “Oh, you poor thing,” my mom said. “Let me get my coat.”

               They were halfway down the walk when I ran inside and slammed the door behind me, bolting it. My mom beat on it, screaming and cursing with a fervor I had no idea she had.

               The roses were sitting passively in a glass vase on the table. I grabbed them and frantically looked around the kitchen before throwing them in the microwave and setting it on high.

               “Come on, come on, come on,” I muttered as the petals slowly wilted, shriveling, folding in on themselves until they were dark purple clumps.

               The banging had stopped. I threw the front door open.

               “Evan.” My mom stood on the porch, surprise on her face. “I didn’t think you were ever going to get out of bed.”

               “Oh, uh,”—I pulled on my winter boots and a coat—“man, I was just really exhausted.”

               I handed the woman in the pink pajamas my slippers and a sweater.

               “Who’s your friend?” my mom asked.

               She didn’t seem to remember anything. We exchanged a glance, and the woman in pink pajamas sighed resignedly. “Elle.”

               My mom eyed Elle’s pajamas before looking between us with an increasingly suspicious look on her face.

               “So, we’re going to go,” I said unnecessarily loudly. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

               “Alright,” my mom said, absently, looking down at her coat then back at the door. “I forgot why I came out here.”

               “Don’t use the microwave,” I called as she disappeared inside.

               Elle snorted out a laugh. “She thinks we were—”

               “Yeah, I know.”

               She had my sweater pulled up over her nose like a little turtle in its shell. “You could’ve put some clothes on.”

               “Nah. Let’s get you home.”

               Her eyes crinkled, her smile hidden behind my sweater.

               “What’s the plan?” I asked as we trudged down the street toward her parent’s house.

               “There’s a window in the back that doesn’t lock, but I need a boost to reach it. Then you distract them.”

               We sneaked along the side of the house, keeping out of view of the curtained windows, and through the back gate. She put her slippered foot in my hands, and I hoisted her up to the narrow window, struggling not to drop her as she yanked at it.

               “A little further,” she grunted, and I shoved her upward.

               “Oh sh—” She vanished through the window.

               There was a loud thud.

               “Are you okay?” I called anxiously, trying to pull myself up to see inside.

               “They moved the couch,” she moaned, then a moment later, “ow.”

               “They might have heard that. I’m going around front.”

               I sprinted to the front and mashed the doorbell.

               “Hello!” I extended my hand to the woman who opened the door. “I’m Evan. I woke up this morning and decided to introduce myself to the entire neighborhood. It’s the neighborly thing to do, and after twenty-six years of living here, it’s about darn time, don’t you think? You sir!” I waved over the man walking down the stairs. “Hi! Hello! I live a few houses down, on the corner, next to the old lady that talks to her plants.”

               I proceeded to ramble through my life story. It didn’t matter what I said as long as I kept them occupied.

               “I’m still terrified of zoos. Then in the sixth grade, I sat on my friend’s hamster, accidentally of course. He still thinks it was the cat, but—“

                “Evan,” a soft voice interrupted me.

               Elle was standing behind them. Her parents shook the glazed expressions off their faces.

               “There she is!” Her dad mussed her hair. “Sleeping ‘til noon, like usual. Your pancakes are regular pans by now.”

               He wandered off, chuckling at his awful joke.

                “You two know each other?” her mom asked. “Evan was just telling us that he, uh…” She blinked several times “Oh, is that a new sweater, honey?”

               Her mom bustled off to the kitchen to reheat the pancakes, and Elle joined me on the porch, pulling the door shut behind her.

               “All fixed then?” I asked.

                “Seems to be,” she said. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.”

                We stood on the curb and waited for a van to lumber by, leaving clouds of exhaust in the wintry air.

                “How much of that did you hear?” I asked, trying to sound indifferent.

                “I didn’t hear anything,” she said, unsuccessfully hiding her smile.

                Five houses. That was all that stood between her house and mine. I counted them as we walked past.

                “Kismet,” I snorted, kicking a pebble.

                “True love.” She rolled her eyes. “I’d be happy if I never saw you again.”

                “The feeling’s mutual.”

                But when we reached my mom’s front porch, we stood and looked out at the bare trees and quiet houses. I shoved my hands in my coat pockets, rocking on the balls of my feet. “You, uh, always live down the street?”

                “Only since high school. Still, it’s kind of crazy we’ve never met.”

                She shifted her weight, rubbing her arms against the cruel wind. She had to be freezing.

                “So…” I loudly cleared my throat. “How about dinner?”

                She tugged my sweater up to hide her smile. “Ya, sure. Might as well since the universe went to all this trouble. And I have to give your slippers back anyway.”

                She shuffled off down the street, tugging at her too-tight Barbie pajamas.

                “I’ll bring you flowers,” I yelled.

                She flipped me off. I grinned after her. True love flowers, what a joke.

               Now I just needed to figure out how to explain a microwave full of wilted roses.


Photo Credit: ladyloneranger / Marcia Thompson, from Colorado Springs, USA
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lavender_rose.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

The Folk of the Forest

Content Warning: Mild Profanity


                I’m sure you’ve heard tales of the strange folk said to dwell in the forests, folk not human. Go ahead. Laugh. Call ‘em nothing but fairy tales, stories to scare defiant children. There was a time I’d have joined you, but I’m here to say that whatever you’ve been told is probably true. Listen to your mother. Don’t follow the lights. And for the love of whatever god you pray to, do not piss off the folk of the forest.

                I was warned to stay on the path and avoid the dark parts of the forest, but no true wanderer can resist the call of untouched lands. I left the road behind and found where gray branches grow gnarled and brittle, the ground is soft with moss, and light hangs dim and shadowed beneath the trees.

                I made camp there as night fell. A fire crackled at my feet. The smell of my foraged dinner mingled with the wet sweetness of a forest after dark in the spring. A log collapsed in the fire. Behind the rising sparks, a pale face glowed out of the shadows.

                I jerked upright, blinking. An impossibly thin woman was perched on a fallen log, arms crossed, glaring at me.

                “Where the hell—?” Dazed, I looked around for where she could have come from. Cascading hair wrapped around her wiry body, but she didn’t have a thread of clothing underneath. “Are you lost?”

                She pursed her lips, angular face contorting. I blinked and we were nose to nose.

                “You’re the one who’s lost,” she hissed, bright eyes changing color with every blink of her translucent lids. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you it isn’t wise to interfere with the faerie folk?”

                She hurled a handful of mushrooms at my chest. I’d noticed they were growing in a circle, but that had seemed like good luck at the time. Half had been cooked for dinner, the other half, now scattered, set aside for my breakfast. She leered in my face, fingers digging into my chest.

               “You’ve wedged yourself in where you’re not wanted!” Her voice swelled from a growl to a shriek. I clamped my hands over my ears, but the noise reverberated in my skull. The forest erupted in waves of color, shifting, shuddering. The trees swayed. Lights flickered beneath their branches, and her scream rushed back through the dark trunks as soft laughter.

               “I—I’m sorry!” I gasped. “I’ll put them back.”

               Her twisted smile pinned me. The fire flared, crimson and emerald. Grotesque shadows danced across the trees. Other figures, faces pointed and bright, ivory and mahogany and ebony, whirled in the firelight. They tried to drag me into their wild dance, but I lay like a stone. So they flailed me with sticks and rocks and clods of dirt, dancing over me with sharp heels.

               The world pitched, and the ground surged up, threatening to throw me into the fire. I clawed at the dirt as the flames roared, climbing, licking at my heels. The monstrous shadows laughed. I was falling, tumbling, and the world went black.

               I woke in the pale light of dawn, face down next to the dead fire. The skin beneath my shredded shirt was covered in welts and bruises, and my mouth full of dirt. As soon as I could stand, by god, I put those mushrooms back where I found them.


I was bored with the writing prompts I’ve been getting, so I picked one for myself: a 500-word story about mushrooms. I know what happens when you step into a fairy circle, but what happens if you EAT a fairy circle? Inquiring minds want to know.

~ R. E. Rule

Photo Credit: Painting by August Malmstrom
(https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dancing_Fairies_(August_Malmstr%C3%B6m)-_Nationalmuseum-_18226.tif)

Little Red – Part 2

If you missed Part 1, find it here.


               Only the brightest, most fragrant, most perfect blossoms would do, and the sun had passed its peak in the sky by the time Little Red continued down the path, downy stems clutched in her hands and the basket on her arm. Her stomach was beginning to grumble, and she hurried now, eager for the biscuits and jam carefully wrapped up in their basket. Around the last curve, the cottage came into view, and Little Red stopped and stared.

               The trees grew tall and close, lacing their green hands together over what looked more like a worn barn than a cottage. Rotting leaves blanketed the uneven roof, and furry, green moss crept up the water-stained wood. Little Red struggled through tacky mud, past a dilapidated well, to the door, stopping for a moment to examine the tracks next to her muddy shoes. A line of shallow paw prints ran from the door into the trees. Wondering if her grandmother had seen the wolf too, she hurried inside.

               Quilts hung over the windows, and the hearth was cold. Little Red stood a moment in the dark doorway before she noticed a figure in the cot against the wall. “Grandmother?” she whispered, timidly drawing closer.

               The figure stirred, turning, and the drawn face of her grandmother gazed up at her. “Red?” she murmured hoarsely. “You… you shouldn’t be—” A ragged cough shook her body.

               Little Red anxiously smoothed back the tangled hair streaked with gray. “I brought flowers,” she said, laying her small hand on the flushed cheek.

               Her grandmother clutched it, pulling it to her lips. “So… hungry…” she moaned, drawing a rasping breath.

               Little Red yanked away from the tightening grip, horrified to find both her and her grandmother’s hand coated in drying mud. “You need to wash up,” she said, pursing her lips. “Then we can eat. I’ve brought biscuits and jam.”

               Leaving the basket and the flowers heaped on the table, she hurried to the well, the empty water pitcher in her hands. The rope was rotting, blackened and stiff, and it bit into her hands, but she held on tight, her feet sliding in the mud as she struggled to heave the water up from the blackness. She had watched her father pull water from the well in the village. He had crouched down to look her in the eye, telling her never to use a well alone or to lean over the edge to look down, and she had solemnly promised she wouldn’t. But now there was no one to help her, and her grandmother was very sick. As carefully as she could, she leaned over the crumbling wall to dip the pitcher into the bucket before jumping back as the rope buzzed against the stones and the bucket landed with a splash.

               Water in hand, she turned back to the cottage, but she stopped in the doorway. The figure in bed was moving. The blankets shifted against the darkness, writhing, thrashing, contorting, growing larger and bulkier until the cot buckled beneath it.

                Little Red’s voice shook. “Grandmother?”

               Two glowing eyes blinked back at her. White teeth glistened through the shadows, and the wolf, the same wolf that had followed her on the path only seeming much larger now in the small room, leapt from the bed. A white nightgown tangled around its legs, and it crashed to the floor. Thrashing and snarling, it clawed at the fabric, sending the table flying and scattering the flowers, then it was back on its feet, advancing on Little Red, bared teeth dripping. The pitcher of water crashed to the floor.

               With a shriek, she ran, slipping and stumbling in the mud, and the wolf bounded after her. With a snap, its jaws closed on her cloak. She tried to scream, but the world pitched, the air driven from her lungs, as the wolf shook her. The fabric in its jaws gave way, and she tumbled into the leaves. Her head slammed into rough bark. The wolf advanced, claws raking furrows in the dirt, fur bristling, fangs dripping. With a snarl, it leapt.

               Little Red clenched her eyes shut, clamping her muddy hands over her eyes, but the bite never came. There was a dull thud and a sharp yelp, and when she looked up, a familiar figure stood over her, axe in hand.

               “Father!”

               He dropped to one knee, pulling her into his arms. The wolf struggled to its feet, but its legs shook and it crumpled back into the leaves with a shallow whine. Little Red’s father carried her into the cottage, setting her on the bed and anxiously checking her over, folding his handkerchief to press against the gash on the back of her head.

               “Stay here,” he told her, moving her hand to hold the handkerchief.

               He strode out the door, a quilt in one hand and an axe in the other. When he came back, her grandmother was beside him, huddled under the quilt, her face pale and bloodied. Little Red ran to her with a sob of relief, but her father snatched her up.

               “It’s gone,” her grandmother said, her voice thin.

               “For now!” He gripped the axe tightly, backing toward the door. “How long until it comes back? Until it’s brave enough to leave the forest?”

               She sagged onto the edge of the bed. “It’s… so hungry. I’ll leave. I’ll go further away.”

               “What good will that do?” he yelled. “This has to stop.” He pulled Little Red closer, leaning his forehead on her hair. “I can’t let this continue.”

               Her grandmother stared at him, eyes wide, before she sighed, shoulders sagging. “I know. But please…” She held out her arms. “Let me see her.”

               “No.”

               Her father left the cottage, striding down the path, Little Red still clutched in his arms. Behind them, her grandmother stood in the doorway, the quilt around her shoulders, hand over her mouth, watching, until the forest swallowed her up. Down the winding path and back through the dark mouth, they went, to where Little Red’s mother stood waiting, baby in her arms. Her face paled when she saw the tattered and muddy cloak.

               “What happened?” she cried, stroking Little Red’s bloody hair.

               “A wolf ate grandmother,” Little Red sobbed. “Father had to cut her out.”

               Her mother turned to him with questioning eyes, but he said nothing, guiding them away from the forest.

               The next day the meadow stood empty and the stream that ran along the dark wall of trees murmured to itself. Little Red sat next to her father on the bench outside their tiny house as he sharpened his axe, the whetstone grinding against the blade. Leaving a kiss on her head, he set the axe on his shoulder and strode down the road toward the forest.

               “Where is your father going?” her mother asked, stroking Little Red’s hair as she sat on the bench next to her.

               Red gazed out at the dark wall of trees, to the darker mouth and the path that wound through it. “To kill the wolf.”


Photo Credit: Painting by Fleury François Richard (https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_Red_Riding_Hood.jpg)

Little Red – Part 1

I didn’t intend to make this a two-part post, but life happens. This is the portion I was able to edit in time for today’s post. The conclusion will be posted soon.

This story is an altered re-telling of the classic fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” In his MasterClass, Neil Gaiman encouraged writers to take a fairy tale, dissect it, ask what parts didn’t make sense, and write a version with those questions answered.


                On the edge of a brooding forest, there stood a little village, and in the village, there lived a little girl. She spent her days running through the flowery meadows that skirted the village and skipping from stone to stone in the stream that trickled along the dark wall of trees. In that dark wall was a darker mouth where the meadows ended and a dirt path fringed with ferns snaked beneath the towering trees. The little girl often peered down that path, wondering what lay around the curve where the mossy trunks swallowed it, but she had been told never to wander the forest alone. So she sat and watched and wondered, and when the sun began to set, she ran home to the village, to the small house where she lived with her family.

                On a day near the end of summer, when reds and yellows were just beginning to stain the leaves, she met her father as he strode along the road toward home, and he swept her up onto his hip. “Hallo, Little Red,” he said, tugging the scarlet cloak she always wore down over her eyes. “Have you been good today?”

                “I caught a frog!” she exclaimed and pulled the wriggling thing out of her pocket to hold up to his face.

                With a chuckle and a kiss on the head, he set her down by the gate outside their little house. “For your mother’s sake, let’s leave the frog outside, eh? Or there’ll be no dinner for either of us.”

                Little Red hurried along the fence to where the grass grew thick and green and the frog would be safe from trampling feet. She left it there with a kiss on its lumpy head. “Be good. Don’t wander off or there’ll be no dinner.”

                Inside the little house, her mother flitted between the fussing baby and the pots steaming on the hearth. She shooed Little Red to the washbasin and shook the little scarlet cloak free of dirt and grass with quick hands. They ate together as the sun sank below the horizon. Only the fire lit the room now, and the village outside was dark. Little Red filled her pocket with crumbs and scraps for the frog, but when she tried to go back out, her father shut the door and locked it tight.

               “The door stays shut after dark,” he said, bending down to look intently at Little Red.

               She knew there would be no arguing, and so she was left to wrestle stubborn peas from their pods by firelight as her mother cleared the table and her father paced the room, a crying baby on his shoulder.

               “The village blacksmith was by today,” her mother said to him, stacking up the dirty dishes. “Asking after your mother’s house. His son found a wife, and they need a place to live. I told them they’d just have to keep looking, that she would need it when she came back.”

               “She won’t be back,” her father said quietly.

               The dishes clattered back onto the table. “She can’t intend to stay in the forest forever! What—”

               “She’s taken ill. She won’t be back,” her father said with the same stern tone he used when he told Little Red to stop knocking her feet against the legs of her chair.

               Little Red, who had been listening intently, accepted this answer, but her mother stood still, dismayed, wiping her forehead with a thin wrist. “But the harvest, and winter, and then third one on the way.”

               Her father took her hand in his. “We’ll make do.”

               Little Red had never questioned why her grandmother lived in the forest instead of in the clattering village. She often thought that she would like to live at the end of a winding path herself someday, so it all seemed perfectly logical. But she was concerned to hear her grandmother had taken ill. The next day, she begged her mother to let her go visit. Her mother, who had been all morning trying to spin a basket full of wool into yarn and weed the neat garden rows while shooing the chickens out, all with a fussing baby on her hip, finally, tiredly, agreed.

               “Stay on the path,” her mother said, her hand tightening on Little Red’s as they walked together to the edge of the meadow. “Go straight to your grandmother’s and straight home. And don’t speak to any strangers.”

               Little Red bounced excitedly, swinging the basket of biscuits and jam her mother had packed. She stopped once inside the dark mouth of trees to wave before skipping down the path. The clatter of the village faded. The leaves whispered above her, the trees creaked around her, and everywhere birds chattered.

               At first, she rounded each curve in the path eagerly, but finding only more trees, she started paying less attention to the world around her and much more attention to the one in her head. She was so engrossed that when she saw a wolf loping along the path behind her, she didn’t pause to consider whether it was a real wolf or an imaginary one but instead greeted it cheerfully.

               “Hallo!” Fancying the wolf asked where she was going, as she guessed all polite travelers did, she said, “I’m going to visit my grandmother. She lives in a cottage right down this path. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Why, I bet you have, and—oh!”

               Little Red drew up short. Through the trees, she had caught a glimpse of sunshine on golden flowers and butterflies flitting from blossom to blossom. Her mother had told her not to leave the path, but only a few trunks stood between her and the clearing. Certain that a bunch of fresh flowers would cure whatever ailed her grandmother, she waited only a moment before darting into the sunshine and gathering up as many blossoms as she could hold. Once, she looked up to see the wolf sitting at the edge of the clearing, just beyond the circle of sunlight, but when she looked again, it was gone and was soon forgotten.

(Part 2)


Photo Credit: Painting by Carl Olof Larsson (https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carl_Larsson_-_Little_Red_Riding_Hood_1881.jpg)

The Fall

               The mountain rose out of the clouds, a silent island adrift on white sea-billows stained crimson and violet by the setting sun. Limbs shaking, weak from exertion, he dragged himself onto the rocky ledge. Jagged black walls surged up to the rugged peak, looming over him. For three days he had climbed, driven by desperation, clinging to the bare rockface as desperately as he clung to his last shreds of hope. Now, without wings, he could go no higher.

                “Is anyone here?” His voice shuddered against the rock, lost in the whining wind. The mountain stood silent. “Please!”

                A flurry of wings beat against the wind, and he turned to see a great bird, cloaked in scarlet feathers, alight on a boulder at the edge of the shelf. Golden talons gripped the rock, and golden eyes peered out over a golden beak. He knelt in the creature’s shadow cast by the setting sun.

                “I come to make my plea to you, wings of the mountain.” He fought to keep his shaking voice steady. “I have heard that a request may be granted to those with the strength to climb and the courage to ask.”

                He awaited the bird’s response, but it only turned its head to fix its golden gaze upon him, and around them, the wind wept against the stones.

                “Please!” he cried, beating his fist against the passive mountain.

                The bird clicked its beak, and he fell silent. “Many come,” it rasped. “Seeking power. Seeking riches. Peasants, beggars, kings, and lords of men come to make their pleas. Which are you?”

                “I have little gold and less power. But tell me your price, and whatever I have, I will give.”

                The bird shook its crimson feathers, beating its wings and throwing its head to the sky. Its harsh, barking cry reverberated off the mountainside. “What use is gold to a mountain? or the word of men, fleeting as the clouds?”

                “Then tell me the cost. There is nothing I would not do!”

                The bird examined him before turning to gaze out over the darkening clouds.

                “Jump.”

                “I’ll die,” he protested, but the bird gave no response. He stood, walking to the edge and gazing down to where the wind stirred the clouds over the rocks. Frustration overwhelmed him. Three days he had climbed, three days wasted. “I have scaled the mountain!” he yelled over the wailing wind. “I do not have time for riddles or tests! Tell me your price!” The bird only stared to the horizon, its feathers ruffling beneath the fingers of the wind, and his shoulders sagged in resignation. “If I do this, will I be granted my wish?”

                The golden gaze turned upon him again. “There is no courage in the asking, only in the taking.”

                Staring into the gathering darkness, he willed himself to leap. It was that he feared, not the fall. He had only to jump, to force his feet from the rock, then there would be no turning back, only the inevitable embrace of the earth. And even if this was the price, he couldn’t turn back now. Closing his eyes, clenching his fists, he jumped.

                Nothingness surrounded him, the wind whistling in his ears. He waited for the jarring end, but when it didn’t come, he opened his eyes. He stood in the meadow at the foot of the mountain, the peak lost in the blanket of clouds. The breeze that stirred his hair was only the wind that rushed through the valley and past the tossing trees. His legs gave out, and he fell to his knees, all strength leaving him in his despair. He had failed. The mountain had refused his offering. He pressed his forehead to the earth, ripping at the grass, his wail of anger lost in the wind. The sun disappeared behind the trees and the shadows lengthened as he lay in the grass, hollow with grief.

                Pulling himself up, he turned his feet toward the small house at the edge of the meadow. The last light of day faded as he passed through the low door. Inside, his wife sat in the shadow of the dying fire, her head bent, weeping, the cascade of her hair hiding the small bundle in her arms, and his heart crumbled within him. He knelt next to her.

                “I’m sorry,” he choked, his hands shaking. “I tried.”

                When she lifted her face, he saw that she wept not from grief but with joy, with relief after long suffering and the passing of a shadow after lingering in darkness. In her arms, the tiny face once flushed and mottled was clear, and the dulled eyes were bright. Her sob choked with laughter as a tiny hand reached up to her chin.

                He sagged to the floor. The mountain had heard his plea. He tried to wipe the tears from her cheeks, but his hand passed through her as through a fog, and when he called her name, she paid no more attention to him than the rustling of the trees. At the flutter of wings, he turned to see the bird perched on the foot of the bed, its crimson form immense in the tiny house.

                “Is this death then?”

                The bird cocked its head, the pupil black in its unblinking golden eye. “Does it feel like death?”

                He remembered the darkness that had come over him at the foot of the mountain, when all hope had vanished and he had tumbled into the blackness of despair.

                “No,” he said, his cheeks wet with tears.

                He kissed their foreheads as best he could before passing back into the shadows of night. As he walked to the mountain, the great bird wheeled far above him, glinting crimson in the moonlight, and behind him, upon the windowsill, lay a single crimson feather.


Whatever I’m reading tends to seep into my writing, and this week is certainly no exception. I’m halfway through Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The writing adventures continue…

~ R. E. Rule

Photo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charity_red_feather_(29251735662).jpg

Kaput

Blog Update:
The name of this blog is changing from “In the Writing Studio” to “Tiny Tales.” This is an aesthetic change only. The content and posting schedule will remain the same (podcast episodes on Monday; short stories on Wednesday). All content will continue to be free. If you like my work, you can support me on Kofi or Patreon.
My blog can now be accessed from www.tinytalesblog.com, but all previous links will continue to work.
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And now, as promised, today’s short story
:


                Ruined. Doomed. Kaput. That was the state of my day after wading through the chaos of work, cramming myself like a sardine onto the crowded bus, and fighting my way through driving rain to the grocery store, only to discover that my lifeline, my reason for living, had been replaced with empty shelves. I stared blankly at the chipped metal, errant droplets pattering from the hem of my coat onto the dingy tile. I didn’t ask much from the universe. The usual really: not getting hit by a bus, my apartment not burning down, my hair and teeth not inexplicably falling out. But this? This was a low blow, even for the distant and indifferent cosmos.

                “Excuse me.” I flagged down the bleary-eyed teen in a green vest wheeling a cart of bread down the aisle.

                He slumped forward to lean on the cart, his head swinging to face me, which I assumed was as close as I was going to get to ‘can I help you?’

                “Do you have any Oreos?”

                He stared past me to the empty shelves.

                “We’re out.”

                “Could you look in the back?”

                “We’re out,” he repeated, resuming his agonizing trudge down the aisle, one of the wheels on the cart wailing with each rotation.

                Maybe a packet nestled somewhere out of sight, waiting for me. I shoved aside the other, lesser cookies, hoping for a glimpse of cheery blue and the chocolate delights within. Not just any Oreos either, the double stuff. All I wanted was to slouch on the couch with a packet of Oreos on my stomach, twisting those little disks apart, numbing my mind with some pointless TV, and pretending nothing else in the world existed. That wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

                The slouching teen reappeared, a blue packet in his hands.

                “Here.”

                My savior! But my hopes were dashed as he extended it to me, and I tried to keep the disgust from my face, willing the corners of my mouth into a friendly smile instead of a sneer. These weren’t Oreos. They were abominations, cream sandwiched between two deceitful yellow wafers. Anyone who thought they were even in the same genus was an idiot.

                “Thanks,” I said, taking the packet of little Judases. If they had mouths, I’m sure they’d be laughing at me.

                When he disappeared around the corner, I shoved them between the chocolate chip cookies and Swiss rolls. Having no Oreos was better than having yellow Oreos. Chocolate Oreos were soothing, nostalgic, comforting. Yellow Oreos taunted you, made you embrace your own mortality and tasted bland while doing it.

                I cast a last glance at the shelves, still refusing to accept that they were empty, before trudging to the front of the store, hoping I could drown my sorrows in a few travel-sized packets from the register. Maybe the world knew something I didn’t. Maybe the apocalypse was upon us. What other explanation was there for a store in the twenty-first century being completely and utterly out of Oreos? Tomorrow the world would end, and some lucky bastard out there would at least have a pack of Oreos when it all went up in smoke. If society did hurtle back to the stone age, I knew who I was hunting down first.

               My search by the registers, accompanied by the relentless beeping of scanned items, like an erratic EKG, was just as fruitless. A cart rattled by, limping on a stuck wheel, and a blue packet perched on top of the pile of lunch meat and chips and broccoli blazed out like a beacon. “Milk’s Favorite Cookie.” Forget milk. They were my favorite cookie. Milk could get its own.

                “Excuse me, where did you find those?”

                This was what I was reduced to, scavenging from carts like someone bumming for cigarettes. If I wasn’t careful, someone might think I had a problem, like I was standing there scratching at myself and looking for my next hit. But I did have a problem, dammit. Forty-five little creamed-filled problems.

                “The candy aisle,” she said, nodding down the row of nondescript aisles toward the one I had just emerged from.

                I stared sadly at the passive blue packet. I could grab them and run, fly out the door, my raincoat streaming out behind me like a cape while all the bleary-eyed attendants stared after me, murmuring to themselves, “who was that?”

                But no, I only stood there, at least no longer dripping, watching the cart slowly roll away with a rumble as its lame front-wheel shuddered, leaving straggled black streaks across the dingy tile. From the sheer volume in her cart, I guessed she was a mother just trying to feed her ravenous children. Those Oreos were destined for school lunches and grubby little hands, not my pajama-covered tummy.

               I stood forlornly at the end of a closed register, gazing out at my fellow shoppers weaving in and out of the aisles, their wet shoes squeaking on the floors. The world wasn’t ending. It would turn just as reliably and relentlessly as always, and in time, my distress over a solitary pack of Oreo’s would be nothing more than a faded memory, sparks of electricity that vanished into the ether instead of working its way into the web of experiences that came together to form me. In a year’s time, it wouldn’t matter one bit whether the shelves had been empty or full. It was just another day, like so many others, so many other identical, indistinguishable trips to this same store. If anything, this should be a wake-up call, a reminder that the real things in life weren’t sold in packs on store shelves. Those things faded into a lost haze of existence. The real things, the real memories were out there, waiting to be taken, waiting for me to go and take them.

               With a sigh, I trudged toward frozen foods. Maybe they had Oreo ice cream.

The Monkey

                Oranges were the only thing that damn monkey would eat. The lettuce and apples were flung away, but the orange he’d take in his wrinkled feet, retreating to the highest perch he could find. There he’d sit, ripping off hunks of the rind with his fangs and spitting them onto the floor, his piercing gaze fixed on me.

                The dealer had parked in the dusty parking lot of an abandoned building and was lounging against the side of his unmarked van when I pulled in. It was the kind of van you thought twice about parking next to, with dark curtains pulled over its barred windows, but a friend of a friend told me he could get you any pet you wanted, no questions asked. Calm and low maintenance, the dealer assured me, pulling a cat carrier out of the back of the van. Through the mesh door, I could see a small mass of brown fur curled up in the corner, the thin ribs etched into its fur heaving. He looked so fragile, so frightened, so vulnerable. I handed over my envelope of cash without another thought.

                I set my TV to play jungle sounds and talked to him whenever I was home, acclimating him to the sound of my voice, but I was given little reward. He refused to play or groom. His fur grew matted and frayed. He only sat and stared at me, lurking in the highest corners he could find, and as the weeks went on, it began to drive me crazy. Everywhere I went, he eventually appeared: on top of bookshelves, huddled under furniture, always staring, until I felt like I was being hunted in my own home. If I tried to get near him, I was greeted with glistening fangs, and bristling fur, and that black gaze prickling up the back of my neck.

                I tried taking the oranges away, to force it to eat something else or better yet to take its precious oranges from my hand, but it would only angrily fling away the undesirable food before retreating to its perch. It would rather starve to death than come near me. I shut the oranges away in the refrigerator with a slam. I had given it food, water, toys, ropes to climb, and a place in my home, but the ungrateful thing wanted nothing to do with me. It left claw marks in the refrigerator while I slept.

                The dealer said it needed time to adjust, like all animals put into a new environment. He laughed when I said it was staring at me, whispering into the phone as I met the black gaze. He wouldn’t take it back. He even had the gall to suggest I get another one of the vile creatures. ‘Company,’ he called it.

                The thing moved closer now. I hurled slices of apple at it, screaming at it to stop staring, jumping, thrashing my arms, trying to chase it away. But it never flinched. It gazed blackly, unwavering, its tiny fists clenching.

                Tomorrow. Tomorrow it would stop staring. A black trash bag would see to that. And I shut my bedroom door to keep the creature out.

                I woke to the light from the hallway spilling through the open door, illuminating the face of the monkey perched on my chest. Black lips curled back to reveal glistening fangs. It peeled my neck like an orange.