Sparks

                Two fish swimming circles, an endless dance around the tank. One red, one yellow, darting sparks in a watery sky. A single plastic stalk waved lazily. Bubbles shuddered to the surface, breaking with a soft gasp, and the infinite spiral continued.

                Put a finger to the glass, and they swam faster. Never touching the walls that contained them, always surrendering to its shape. If placed in the openness of the sea, would they know? Or would they only swim and swim, unseeing, looking for invisible borders?

                A delicate layer between them and the vacuum, destruction. Inside, a haven, but so fragile. And they swam as if it were their only purpose. Swam with nowhere to go. Swam to swim, leaving no ripples behind.

                Until they stopped. Until they turned inward, vanished. Became nothing.

                The plastic plant waved alone. Bubbles trembled through empty water. Green fuzz dimmed the glass. In the blackness of night, a pair of stars, red and yellow, streaked across the sky.


Photo Credit: Image by 성혁 이 from Pixabay 

Kaput

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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.

Butter & Honey

Butter and honey spread thick on a flaky biscuit. It tasted like memories. Like gingham table clothes and the smell of an old house. Like legs swinging furiously against the rungs of heavy wooden chairs. Like mysterious cupboards and closets filled with a lifetime of memories to be peered into and poked with sticky fingertips.

Childhood was always so sticky. Sticky hands. Sticky faces. Sticky, like the golden rivers of honey running down onto hands and wrists, shredding paper napkins, and we had to scrunch up our faces while she scrubbed at them with damp towels. Floral towels. Towels always cradled those biscuits in their basket, and we unwrapped them like a present, crushing them in the overeager grip of children.

It was some sort of magic the way she threw ingredients into a bowl and biscuits appeared, steaming and edged golden brown. Only an explosion of flour on the counter with a few clumps of forgotten dough remained from whatever spell she’d used. Biscuit recipes now were arduous, and they didn’t come out of the oven smelling like innocence or the sleepiness after play on a summer afternoon. They were lopsided and dry, crumbling away to nothing. Even honey couldn’t hold them together.

So the basket sits empty on the table, a towel crumpled up inside. Empty. But maybe if one spent the day trouping through the forest and ran through the door with muddy shoes and carefully pulled back the corner of the towel with sticky fingers, one last biscuit might be found nestled inside.

Truth

One day while traveling along the road, a man came across a small blossom of truth. Its petals were pure white and its stem soft and delicate. Fearing for its safety, he carefully picked it, wrapped it up, and put it in his pocket before continuing down the road.

                As he went, he met a woman sitting next to a tall flower. Its petals were a deep red, and the vines of its stems crawled up her arms.

                “What is that?” he asked, amazed.

                “Truth!” she said, inviting him to sit beside her and enjoy the scent of the flower, but he turned away.

                “That is not truth. I have seen it, and its petals are white as snow.”

                He continued on, clutching at the tiny blossom in his pocket as he went. Still further down the road, he passed a man leaning against a tall tree stretching up into the sky.

                “What is it?” he asked, astounded. “I have never seen anything like it.”

                “Truth,” said the man under its great branches.

               “That is not truth,” he scoffed. “I have seen truth; I carry it with me even now. Its stem is soft and delicate, not hard and rough.”

               He turned away and continued down the road, clutching at the blossom in his pocket still harder. Eventually, he came to a field filled with bright yellow flowers where several children were running and playing.

               “What is this that grows here?” he called to them.

               “Truth!”

               “This is not truth!” he cried, angered. “I carry truth with me!”

                “Let us see it then.” And the children gathered around, curious.

                He pulled it from his pocket, but to his dismay, the flower had withered, its stem becoming twisted and the petals blackened in the darkness. The roots clung to him, digging into his skin, and he hastily hid it away again.

                “You are children. If I say I have seen truth and this is not it, then you would be wise to listen.”

                He rushed away down the road, but as he tried to walk, the roots grew around him, tripping him and making it hard to breathe until he had to stop.

                “Curse this truth,” he sighed. “I wish I had left it where I found it.”

                With great pain, he ripped his truth from himself and cast it aside. But even as he did, he noticed another flower beside him, its petals a dark blue.

                “I will leave it where I found it this time,” he said as he studied the flower. “But I will visit it again to see if the rains have swept it away or the sun burned its leaves.”

                So, he went on his way, passing many blooms of different shapes and colors as he went, but he returned often. And each time he did, the flower had grown and changed, its roots digging deep and its leaves reaching for the sky.

               —Hold your truth in an open hand

Date Night

            “God, my hand still smells like s**t!” I scrubbed violently at it with lavender-scented soap for what felt like the hundredth time.

            “I said I was sorry,” Veronica sniffled. “I don’t understand! The website said it was fun!”

            “Don’t cry,” I sighed, drying my hands on a dishtowel. “It’s not your fault.”

            She started crying anyway, and I tugged her into a hug, making sure to keep my soiled hand well down-wind of both of us.

            “I’m horrible at planning dates,” she moaned, burying her face in my shirt.

Four Hours Earlier

            “Is this it?” I asked skeptically, gazing up at what seemed to be an abandoned factory. The brick walls were crumbling, the windows had been boarded up, and a giant condemned poster was plastered across the gate. “This doesn’t look right.”

            “It’s supposed to be spoooooky,” she crowed, holding her flashlight to her chin to throw grotesque shadows across her face, and I smiled reluctantly.

            She confidently led me through the squeaky gate to one of the vacant doors. Her flashlight beam illuminated dark and silent hallways, moisture stains creeping across the cement floors.

            “Hello?” Her voice echoed through the empty rooms.

            “Are you sure this is the right place?” I asked, edging closer to her. “Shouldn’t there be… staff or something?”

            “There’s like a billion doors. We probably just came in a side entrance.”

            She took my hand, and we started down one of the halls, peering through dark doorways into darker rooms as we went. That hallway soon branched into others lined with more doorways or shattered windows. Our footsteps shuddered against the cement walls as we walked.

            “Whoa, they really went for realism,” Veronica laughed.

            A giant X of faded police tape hung across a doorway, and inside a dark stain had soaked into the floor.

            “Are you sure this is the right place?” I asked, glancing around nervously. “Why haven’t we seen anyone else?”

            Veronica shrugged. “It’s a big building. What’s wrong?” Her face twisted into an infuriating grin. “Scared?”

            “No,” I snapped.

            “Ooooooooh,” she moaned, tickling the back of my neck.

           “Stop!” I writhed away from her, swatting her hand away.

            She burst out laughing, but I quickly shushed her.

            “What was that?”

            A faint rustle floated down the hall.

            “Finally,” she sighed, dragging me toward the sound.

            We stopped at the end of the hall, but there was only darkness in every direction. The rustling had stopped.

           “Huh,” she sighed, turning around. “We must have taken a wrong turn, but I swore it came from in he—”

           A black figure lurched out of the doorway, and she let out a bloodcurdling scream. I grabbed her hand and sprinted down the hall, dragging her behind me. Empty doorways flew by as I ran blindly through the maze of hallways. We burst through one of the side doors into a bathroom, rows of stalls lining one wall, and I slammed the door shut behind us. Veronica started laughing hysterically.

            “What’s so funny?” I demanded, sagging back against the door.

            “Oh my god! I nearly peed my pants,” she gasped between peals of laughter.

            “How is that funny?! I thought you were about to be murdered!”

            She fell against the stalls, a crazed look on her face. I was starting to wonder if adrenaline and fear had caused her wild laughter, not amusement, but the hair on the back of my neck stood up as a muffled sound floated through the door.

            “Do you hear footsteps?” I hissed.

            Someone was making their way down the hall. She sighed in relief.

            “Finally! We should—“

I frantically held my finger to my lips. Scraping joined the heavy footsteps, pausing and restarting, pausing and restarting, like metal dragging against the cement walls, silenced by each open doorway. I dragged Veronica into the farthest stall, locking the door behind us, and we huddled into the far corner. I valiantly placed myself in front of her, though it might be more merciful to let her die first. The footsteps paused for a moment then continued down the hall. Scrape. Pause. Scrape. Pause. It slowly faded to silence, and I let out the breath I’d been holding. A violent crash reverberated through the building, echoed by a soft splish behind me. I turned to see Veronica staring in horror at the toilet.

            “What happened?”

            “I… I jumped and I… I dropped the keys.”

            We both stared into the murky depths of the porcelain vat filled with what looked like vomit from the depths of hell. With a resigned sigh, I handed her my flashlight and rolled up my sleeve.

~~

            She’d finally cried herself out against my chest and was sitting miserably, her shoulders shaking with tiny hiccups.

           “I’m leaving them a horrible review,” I sighed. “They should be shut down.”

           She pulled up the website and slid her phone to me. I stared down at the screen.

            “This is the place?”

            She nodded miserably, blowing her nose.

            “This place? Right here?”

            “Yes!” she snapped.

            “52 W. 16th Street?”

            “No, it’s W. 60th Street.”

            “That’s… not what the website says.”

            “What?” she snatched her phone and stared down at it, horror growing on her face. “Oh my god! OH MY GOD! Where did we go?! Wait, where are you going?!”

            “To disinfect my arm.”


The prompt I used said to write a story based on the last text I sent. Any guesses what it was?? I use it verbatim in the story.

More soon!

~R. E. Rule

Leaving the Mountain

            There were six of us in our little tribe, when we were young and ran free across the mountains like a pack of wild things, feet muddied, hair tousled, cheeks reddened by the wind as we planned our next great conquest. We ruled with the order of the innocent, strict but merciful. Then we turned thirteen, and our fate was stamped onto our skins.

            Mitra, the bravest, always the first to plunge into dark caves or scamper across fallen logs, who planned the assaults of our imagined foes, was told she should be meek and her voice hidden away.

            Ordin, the gentle one, who kept bugs in his pockets and nursed fallen baby birds, who tended bloodied knees, was told to pick up the spear and take his place as warrior.

            Tiva, the fair beauty, with her gentle voice and dexterous fingers, who sang with the birds and wove crowns from tender vines, was taken to labor in the fields.

            Nex, the strong one, who carried us when we were tired and knew the woods like a wild animal, was locked away with parchment and quill.

            And Salin, keeper of my secrets, who fought back to back with me against our invisible foes, would stay while I was sent away to learn to mend and tend. We were told we would meet again, would spend our lives together, but when we did, I could not look him in the eye nor speak without invitation and all my secrets must be mine alone again.

            So, we left the mountain, leaving behind only muddy footprints and the echoes of our laughter.


**Today’s short story was based on the prompt: Young. Wild. Free.**

~ R. E. Rule