June 23rd, 2006

The following was transcribed from an audio file discovered by the Tucumcari Highway Patrol on June 23rd, 2006.

Unknown Speaker, female (US):

It’s a long drive back, so I thought I’d get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind. Honestly, it was a huge waste of time. What is it with whackos and trailer parks?

[sighs]

Alright, I’ll try to keep this official for the archives. The date is, uh, June 16th, 2003. We received a call three days ago on the hotline about some unusual activity in New Mexico. The caller wouldn’t go into specifics, one of those “won’t talk on the phone, you never know who might be listening” types. So, I drove down from Chicago.

Turns out the town was a dustbowl: trailer park, convenience store with a fifty-year-old gas pump, and one stop sign which was apparently optional.

I met the caller at the address they left with the hotline… umm…

Papers rustle in the background

US:

It’s in my files somewhere. The caller was male, 5’6” maybe, about… Oh, I’m not good at descriptions. He was old and bald and completely out of his gourd. I mean, I’ve heard some crazy theories, everything from little green men to government conspiracies, but this was a new one even for me. I drove 1,200 miles to be told that Earth is being invaded by, wait for it, space wizards. That’s right, folks. You heard it here first. Wizards from space come down to recharge their cosmic mana.

[laughing]

I don’t know who this guy thought I was. He kept rattling off acronyms, some I’ve never even heard of: CIA, NSA, FBI, PTA, WTF. I tried to explain an organization funded by UFO fanatics and museums didn’t have that kind of pull, but he kept saying we had to alert NASA. He had this whole theory worked out that they’re here to siphon energy from our nuclear power. Blah, blah, blah, something about temporal inconsistencies, time jumps, metaphysical phenomena, blah, blah, blah.

[sighs]

There’s not enough tinfoil in the world. The data he pulled looked real though, so that’s worth checking out. Anomalies over Japan, Russia, and the lower United States. Don’t ask me where he got that information. Seriously… don’t ask me. Anyway, that’s worth looking into. Probably nothing more than…

The ambient sound of the vehicle softens, suggesting it slowed.

US:

Uh… I seem to have driven into the middle of some kind of historical re-enactment.

Cattle mooing can be faintly heard in the background.

US:

Wow. These people are really committed. That’s a lot of cows. They even have—

There’s a dull thud.

US:

Hey! What the hell?!

A window rolls down.

US:

You! Yeah, you! On the horse! I saw you throw that! You’re going to pay to get that dent fixed! Oh, what’re you going to do? That gun’s like two hundred years old.

Yelling can be heard faintly. There’s a loud bang that seems to be a gunshot.

US:

He shot at me! Oh my god, these people are insane! They’ve all got guns. They’re… I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Just get these cows out of my way! I’ll just go if you—

There’s more gunfire, the sound of a vehicle revving, and angry voices. It eventually fades into the background.

US:

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ! [omitted expletives]. I’m reporting these people to the police.

He could’ve killed me! Stupid cowboys! There has to be a town nearby. I’m going to… [static] …when I… [static] …to…. [static] ….wait…. [static]

Is this thi— working? [static]

…what… [static] … can’t be… [static]

…help!… [static] …no!

The audio goes dead for several minutes.

US:

I, um… managed to get this working again. My car’s dead and I… I have no phone signal. I can’t…

[crying]

I think we’re under attack. There was a huge cloud to the… I think it was the west. Everything went dead. I couldn’t get the radio to work and… I tried to call the police. Anybody. But there’s no signal. The cloud was so huge… It…

[crying]

I’ve been walking. There’s nothing out here, and it’s dark now. There’s no way it’s nighttime, but I can’t see the sun. It’s just… it’s just dark. I don’t know what to do, and…

A low whining becomes audible and gradually grows louder.

US:

[whispering] There’s lights in the sky. Everywhere. Oh my god… They must be bringing more bombs. Who is doing this? I have to try to tell someone, but my signal is gone. I—

[static]

Those… those aren’t planes. It’s just light. So bright. It’s… I can’t see anything. Wait, something’s moving. I can’t quite…

A low voice speaks, gibberish.

US:

Is someone there?!

Gibberish. There seem to be multiple voices speaking.

US:

Who’s there?! I can see you moving!

Running footsteps and heavy breathing. The low voices grow louder, overlapping.

US:

[yelling] What are you?! What are you doing?! No, I—

A loud rumbling grows until the audio cuts out. Several hours of blank audio follow.

Neither the speaker or her car have been recovered. No missing person has been reported in Chicago or the surrounding area. No UFO investigatory organizations are missing personnel.

The phone was at 25% battery when it was discovered. It was connected to an unlisted number, and no record of purchase exists.

No record of historical re-enactments taking place within the area have been found, and no nuclear activity has been reported. There was a single report of lights in the sky observed by a Tucumcari mailman on November 13th, 2004.

An investigation is ongoing.

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 

Unintended Consequences

                I took my morning coffee to the balcony and looked out over the swaying trees as I sat and sipped. Living in the forest was as pleasant as I had always thought it would be. Peaceful. Calming. Once you got past the fact that just last week my apartment had been in the center of an urban tangle of cement and metal.

                A shiver ran through the red leaves. It wasn’t autumn. They were just angry. A lamppost on the street corner sparked and collapsed with a creak of rending metal.

                The best and the brightest had put their heads together, deciding that what we needed in the age of deforestation and ozone-shrinkage was the fastest-growing, strongest, tallest, most oxygen-rich tree ever, and they were going to make it. They’d succeeded.

               Sentience had been an unintended side effect.

                It had been on the news as the greatest discovery of our generation. And then there hadn’t been any news.

               The rain forests were gone. Only bare dirt and a few fallen branches and confused jaguars remained. It wasn’t our doing this time. They’d come north to return the favor.

               I’m sure it was horrifying to wake in a world ruled by fleshy predators who stacked up the skeletal remains of your kin to live and park their fume-spitting metal carriages inside, carrying bits of your skin around inside their pockets and bags and burning your remains for fun on a cool summer evening.

                The ground was a writhing mass of shattered concrete, dark earth, and twitching roots. If you were fool enough to go outside, and there wasn’t much inside left to speak of, it wasn’t long before the ground swallowed you up and the new, hungry trees turned you into a human juice box.

                Still, of all the ways to go, in the peace and quiet of nature, enveloped into the welcoming, dark softness of the earth, wasn’t the worst. The roar of the city had stilled. Birds flitted in the leaves, bursting out in laughing flocks as the trees irritably shook their heads. A soft breeze floated by carrying the scent of fresh blossoms.

                The foundation of my building creaked. A long crack lanced up the wall next to me. I took another sip of my coffee. It wouldn’t be long now.

PUBLISHED: Toward Light

My short story “Toward Light” was recently published in the inaugural issue of DreamForge Anvil by DreamForge Magazine.

For something to thrive, something else must be consumed. Or is it possible to circumvent the cycle wherein the energy to sustain life is taken from a living thing? What would such a world be like?

~ DreamForge Anvil introduction to “Toward Light”

Read the story by clicking here.

Access the entire issue by clicking here. You’ll find some wonderful fiction stories and articles about writing and story craft.


Photo Credit: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Nisus III

Nisus III looked like a marble from orbit, a swirl of purple and black beneath fraying sheets of white cloud. As the shuttle hurtled toward the surface, shaking and rattling in the thickening atmosphere, curls of gold began to streak across the mauve soil, growing to thick patches, the first sign of human settlement and habitation.

               The wheat had sprung up faster than we could have hoped. The rest of the grains languished, if they sprouted at all, but the wheat had lifted its golden head and spread like a weed. It grew faster than any crop at home, even without water or rain, coming to harvest in merely a few weeks. When we flew across it, making the fields ripple and bend in our wake, it looked like home.

                The shuttle came to rest on the bank of the black river where we made our camp. It was only a few portable buildings, a lavatory, and a water purifier chugging softly. Mona stood at the edge of the field, a broad-brimmed hat hiding her face. A few grains of wheat sat in her tan, wrinkled palm, and she poked at them, inspecting. “I think it’s ready,” she said.

                She pushed up the brim of her hat to gaze out over the fields. “From sprout to harvest in less time than even the fastest syntheticrops. Every agricultural unit in this sector is going to be dropping into orbit here.”

                “Are there more than yesterday?” I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun and peering toward the edge of the field.

                Mona shrugged and scattered the wheat kernels over the mauve soil. “They’ve been showing up off and on the past few days. Curious, I think.”

                They stood as dumb and still as trees, great bulbous lumpy things, watching us with black eyes. Their skin was knobbly and rough, like lichen-covered rocks. Someone had called them Ents, and the name stuck. Sometimes they bent down to the soil, spreading their elephant-like hands against the earth and humming, or waded into the black water to stand there quietly. Mona had scanned them. Brain waves indicated they were somewhere been dolphins and octopuses, too intelligent to become farm animals but not intelligent enough to understand resource management. They never touched the wheat fields, never came near them, but they watched.

                The scythe glimmered in the sun, and the wheat fanned out over the soil. It could stay there to dry, in the eternally temperate weather, but we filled our arms with stalks, impatient for a taste of our labors. We shook the tiny kernels from their papery skins until only the small oval grains remained.

                “What are they doing?” I asked, looking up to see that more of the Ents had gathered, standing mutely between us and the field.

                Mona glanced up from the small engine unit she’d been rewiring into a grinder. She snorted. “They’re getting comfortable. Likely to be a nuisance soon. Jorn will have to put up that electric fence.”

                We, five lone researchers in a strange purple land, gathered reverently around the small cookstove as Mona mixed the fresh ground grain with water and a sprinkle of salt, the only piece of home we could bring with us across the expanse. The sticky mass of dough clung to her fingers as she shaped it into an uneven round.

               The smell of baking bread filled my nose, and my mouth watered. The intensity of the sensation after weeks, months, (had it been years?) was almost overwhelming.

                The warm, flat cake was pulled from the burner and broken between us, the jagged pieces held like precious stones in our palms.

                “To human advancement,” Mona said and bit into her piece.

                The brown surface crackled against my teeth. It was dry and had the bland, dehydrating taste of under-seasoned grain. It was the best thing I could remember tasting since I’d left home. But something was wrong.

                A strange sensation burned in my chest. Mona collapsed running to the portable buildings for med supplies, one hand outstretched, fingers digging into the soil. Jorn was on his knees next to me, retching. Through bleary eyes, I saw another one of us fall into the river, trying to drink the black water. Bubbles gurgled then nothing broke the dark surface.

                I collapsed backward. Figures appeared above me, lumpy and solid against the pale sky, staring down at me with black eyes. A murmuring filled the air, a stirring whisper like wind through the trees. In the last struggling gasp of breath, I realized they were laughing.

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. 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

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 Lost Goodbye

The writing prompt for “The Lost Goodbye” was provided by Reedsy.com: write a story that starts with two characters saying goodbye.


                 People in brightly colored jumpsuits bustled around us, loud voices echoing off the spaceport’s metal walls, as we stood in silence, foreheads pressed together. I held him as long as I could until the blaring voice announcing the last call for his flight tore us apart. His hand slid from mine as he reluctantly moved toward the gate, but he stopped halfway, turning back to me.

                  “What are you doing?” I asked.

                  “Memorizing you.”

                  Tears spilled down my cheeks. He stood with his bag over his shoulder, watching me until the attendant told him this was the last chance to board before the doors closed. I waved half-heartedly as he paused in the doorway, and he raised a hand in response before the metal throat swallowed him completely.

                  I walked to the window and watched his ship detach from the station, silent plumes of steam evaporating in the vacuum of space. My head sagged against the glass as I fought against my grief, but the garbled voice blared again, calling for me this time. I sprinted through the spaceport to the ship that would carry me a world away from him.

                  We had met at the base of the small metal craft that was to be our new home. His unruly hair and bright red jumpsuit matching mine marked him as a fellow researcher in the sea of buzz cuts and starched uniforms filling the docking bay. He had been sent from our sister station on the opposite side of the planet to be the other half of our two-person team.

                  “You must be my fellow sardine,” he laughed, extending a hand to me.

                  His easy manner was a welcome relief from the tension of what lay before us. I eagerly shook his hand, opening my mouth to respond, but a man with a clipboard and a permanently creased forehead interrupted us, greeting us each with a curt nod before launching into his lengthy briefing.

                  “Sir. Ma’am. You will be entering RA 2-15-2 and passing through an unknown energy field. Once inside the field, all electronics in the craft will malfunction and communications disappear due to the ele… electro…”

                  I exchanged a glanced with my shipmate as our lecturer stumbled over the technical jargon, holding back a smile as he dramatically rolled his eyes. We had dedicated our lives to researching space phenomenon and undoubtedly knew more about what lay before us than our dedicated informant, but we dutifully listened as he droned on.

                  “Our calculations place you emerging from the other side approximately three months after entry. Our ship will retrieve you and take you to the main Earth transportation hub where you will return to your respective research stations.”

                  We were handed emergency supplies, a thoughtful but useless gesture considering where we were headed, and told to strap in for departure. When he turned to climb the ladder up to the small door, I could see a fresh incision matching mine at the base of his skull. We entered our tiny craft to resounding applause and blaring klaxons as the hangar cleared for our launch. They sealed us in and threw us into the void.

                 I gripped the safety belt across my chest with white knuckles as our craft shuddered and jerked in the lingering gravity from our mother ship. He was muttering to himself, apparently unfazed, engrossed in the stack of papers in his hands.

                 “What are you doing?” I croaked, desperate for a distraction.

                 “Reading our new operations manual.” He tapped a finger on the incision on the back of his neck.

                 Only organic machines worked inside the field, the electricity in our bodies stubbornly continuing to flow when all other electronics shorted out. We had each been given a chip, wired into our brains, to record everything we experienced, turning us into living sensors. There was only one problem.

                 “Not that it matters since I won’t remember any of it,” he laughed.

                 Removing the chip erased our memories from the moment it had been activated. When they sawed my skull open to jam it in, I thought that was a mercy.

                 The cushion of space caught us, smoothing out our flight, and we tossed aside the safety belts. Stacks of papers clamped in clipboards lined the walls, and in the center of the ceiling, a large glass portal faced up into the blackness. There were two small rooms with beds and various exercise equipment, and that was it. It reminded me of the black and white pictures of antique submarines, small and suffocating, but it had to be. Our bodies were our heat source, the insulation of our tiny vessel keeping the cold out and our warmth in. Blankets and packs of hand warmers had been provided, but we were on our own except for the microscopic organisms in the walls, gulping down our carbon monoxide and excreting oxygen.

                  We drifted ahead, carried by our momentum, until the lights on the consoles blinked rapidly and died. The whir of machinery faded, leaving us in silent blackness.

                 “We’re here.” His voice floated through the darkness, filled with infectious excitement.

                 The ship gradually solidified around us again, stained pink in the faint light, and the field came into view through the glass portal, arcs of rosy energy lacing across the void. Our feet lifted off the metal grating, and the papers lining the walls swooped up into art deco motifs.

                  “Well, that’s interesting.”

                  I turned to see him floating upside down, grinning at me. Our first day in nothing, he made me laugh.

                  We threw ourselves into our work, taking measurements, shoving liquids and instruments through the tiny airlock into the unknown, checking and re-checking oxygen levels and air quality, and monitoring our internal systems as closely as we did the ship’s. Temperature, pulse, blood pressure, muscle mass, hydrations levels, all recorded in pencil on rudimentary charts. He sang while we worked, and if he wasn’t singing, he was turning slow somersaults in the air and pelting me with questions about myself, my life, my research. I had volunteered because I had no family, no attachments, no one to grieve if this ship became my crypt. He had too.

                 At first, the days passed easily. But days became weeks, and the sensation that my feet were where my head should be, and my head was where my feet should be, that everything was inside out and upside down, grew until I locked myself in my room where he couldn’t see to throw up into vacuum-sealed sanitary bags. I tried to focus, to pour myself into the work, to distract myself from the immensity of the darkness closing in on me, but there was no time here, just an eternal pink light, unchanging. The X’s we drew through the days on our paper calendar meant nothing.

                 Every eight hours, we tried to sleep, shutting our doors against the pink light. The bed had straps to hold me in, but I couldn’t sleep tied down. I hovered over it instead, wrapping blankets around myself like some miserable nebula. His singing had stopped for the night, and silence closed in around me until I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. I couldn’t touch anything. There was nothing. No sensation, nothing to cradle my body, no gravity to press me to the earth. I didn’t exist. I was a lost consciousness, disembodied, floating on a sea of blackness, and it took him shaking me for me to realize I was screaming.

                  “I can’t,” I sobbed, panic blotting out everything. “I can’t do this.”

                  I gasped at the cruel air that refused to let me land. I needed touch, the security of gravity, the sensation of my body, and I thrashed against the merciless nothing. His arm closed around me, pinning my arms to my sides and anchoring my back to his chest.

                  “Look.” He shoved his wrist in my face, showing me his watch dimly illuminated by the pink light filtering through the door. “It’s practically an antique, but it’s the only thing that works out here.”

                  I stared at the tiny glass face as the second hand marched in deliberate circles, its quiet tick deafening in the silence. My breathing gradually slowed to match it, and his grip loosened as I regained my senses.

                  “How are you so calm?” My tears floated through the air around us, tiny diamonds shimmering in the faint light, and he caught one on his fingertip.

                  “I’m not calm. I sing because it’s too damn quiet. I ask you questions because I desperately need anything to distract myself. I’m terrified. When you started screaming, I thought it was me.”

                  He smiled weakly at me, but his face was drawn and haggard. I wrapped my arms around his neck, needing anything to hold on to.

                  “This is the warmest I’ve been in weeks,” he laughed shakily, embracing me back.

                 Any lingering unfamiliarity between us vanished, and we clung to each other, the only specks of life in a vacuum. After that night, we slept holding each other. It was the only way to combat the excruciating nothingness. I fell asleep to his breathing and the tick of his watch and woke to his soft singing and a protein bar hovering over my head.

                  We fell into a dance, a rhythm, orbiting through the ship from waking, working, exercising so our bodies didn’t waste away, back to sleep, over and over, always together, always talking. He became my gravity, and as the weeks passed, so did my fear. I left behind the jumpsuit, the fabric becoming suffocating against my skin, and stopped ferociously pinning my hair to my head. I would hover under the arcs of pink light, eyes closed, strands of hair lightly brushing my face. I was free. I didn’t need to know I was anything; I was nothing. I was everything. When I closed my eyes, I became the universe, limitless and unending. And when he touched me, it was not my body I felt but the heat of his skin, the pulse of life he carried within him echoing in my ears and beneath my fingertips. While all was still and silent, he moved freely. He spoke. He laughed. There was a universe of existence within him, and he fascinated me. I was happiest when he smoothed my hair away from my face and smiled at me.

                  We continued our work only because that was our routine, but the numbers stopped meaning anything. I couldn’t remember why this mattered, and I hastily scribbled data into white boxes, rushing to when we could hover together on our backs, gazing up at the pink arcs of energy.

                  “I think I’m in love with you,” I said, staring up at the expanse.

                  On Earth, I would never have been so bold, but I was free of that weight, looking into the mouth of eternity with the only other being in existence at my side. He was warmth in a sea of coldness, the only light in a void of darkness, my gravity, holding me together, and we were eternal. His fingers twined with mine, and the pink light splashed across his face as he pulled my forehead to his. When he kissed me, I wondered if I had ever known what sensation felt like.

                  We would hover over the blankets, weightless, only the insistence of our muscles holding us together, my hair floating around us, the heat of his breath in my mouth keeping me alive.

                  “I wonder how this will show up on the chip,” he laughed, and the coldness that washed over me at his words was more agonizing than the vacuum of space.

                  When our journey first began, dread overwhelmed me whenever I looked at the calendar and saw the sea of days remaining before our return. The same dread filled me now when I saw the days we had left growing fewer. We had survived, and now they would erase him. Us.

                 On our last night, I woke him with my crying. Work abandoned, charts blank and data unmeasured, we clung to each other until the pink light faded, and we were left in darkness. I hoped this was death, that we could spend eternity here in the black void, but the ship shuddered around us. Metal shrieked as the door was pried open, and gravity welded us to the bed. I tried to hold on to him, but a flood of medics and researchers tore him away. I was laid on a stretcher and adorned with sensors and needles and liquid running through tubes. I tried to see him through the crowd, to find any trace of him, but he had vanished. The lights, the colors, the noise, the grating touch against my skin was unbearable, and I ripped at the needles, deaf to my own shrieking, until someone emptied a syringe into my arm and merciful nothingness returned.

                  They put us in chambers with dimmed lights and soundproofed walls, not together but close, separated only by a plexiglass partition. We would sit as close as we could, our foreheads leaned together, palms pressed against our transparent prison. Our vitals were under constant observation, red alarms screaming if our heart rates wandered too far. Doctors poked and prodded, asking questions and gauging our reflexes. I couldn’t remember how to fake sanity, but time slowly secured my mind back in my body. I had lost myself in space, but I still loved him even though gravity had made him thin and tired. He spent most of his time writing furiously. When I knocked tentatively on the glass, he would turn to watch me for a moment before smiling and turning back to his writing, and I wondered if he had already forgotten.

                  By the time we reached the transportation hub, we were deemed fit to return to our work and released from our plexiglass prisons. The first thing he did was reach for my hand, and we walked together through the halls, out into the bewildering crowds, to his gate.

                  “I can’t. I can’t do this,” I sobbed.

                  He took my face in his hands.

                  “I will find you. I swear.”

                  “But you won’t remember.”

                  He yanked his notebook out of his bag and flipped to the middle, showing me his meticulous notes.

                  You met a woman on board. You don’t know it yet, but you’re in love with her. Find her.

                  The pages were filled with our journey, our time together, me.

                  “I wrote down everything,” he said. “I don’t have to remember. I’ll find you. We’ll make a new story.”

                  “What if we don’t? What if it isn’t enough?”

                  “Then…” He swallowed hard. “At least we won’t remember what we lost.”

                  The vacuum of space had fused us together, but now gravity was too heavy. It was ripping us apart, wrapping our skin around us again. Even if he found me, those moments, those beautiful moments when we were alone in the universe, would be gone. He unbuckled his watch, securing it around my wrist.

                  “I’m coming to get this back.”

                  I held him as long as I could, but now I was back where it had all begun, where they had put a chip in my brain and told me I would be advancing space research by a hundred years. I traced my fingers over the watch face. He hadn’t shown me how to wind it, and the hands were slowing.

                 A nurse ushered me into a sterile white room, and I lay back on the chair as they shaved the base of my skull, wiping it with cold sterilizer. A needle pricked for the injection of the local anesthetic.

                  “The other researcher,” I said as I went numb. “Is he okay?”

                  “They removed his chip this morning. He’s fine.”

                  Hot tears blinded me. He had already forgotten, and no notes could bring me back. The doctor came in, snapping her gloves as she pulled them on.

                  “Like last time, we will keep you awake in case of complications.”

                  She disappeared behind me, and I felt a tug at the base of my skull, but no pain. I closed my eyes and let myself float back to those moments in his arms, weightless, fearless, when it was only him and–

                 I sighed, waiting for them to finish. I knew having this chip installed was necessary, but that didn’t mean I was enjoying it.

                  “Is it in yet?” I asked, twitching my feet nervously.

                  The doctor appeared at my side, a bloody chip clamped in a pair of forceps. I slowly realized I was on the other side of… I had no idea what. The clothing I thought I had put on just that morning was different, and my body was thinner. A hot tear trickled down my cheek, and I wiped a hand across my face, staring at the moisture on my fingers. An antique watch had appeared on my wrist, the second hand frozen in place. My heart ached, but try as I might, I couldn’t remember why.


~ R. E. Rule