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.

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

Missed Connections

           Green waves of corn with golden spume blurred by as the bus rumbled down the country road. Through dusty windows edged with fog from the cool air within laboring against heavy summer heat, a lone telephone wire undulated across a drab sky. A curly head leaned against the glass, his sneakered foot tapping in time with the tinny pulse of music escaping his headphones. The reclining figure in bright florals beside him snored softly, mouth agape. A fly wandered over her bare shoulder, rubbing its spiny legs together.

           The bus dove into a pothole, rattling the rows of empty seats, and the sleeper jerked awake with a snort, blinking groggily at the verdant sea around them.

           “Where are we?” she asked, leaning out into the aisle to address the man sitting diagonally from her.

           Polite shoes peeped from under stiffly cuffed trousers, the angular lines of his suit mirroring the severe mustache perched under his nose. He placed a forefinger on the page of his book to mark his spot before turning over his shoulder.

           “’bout two hours out, I believe. The driver said we should arrive by sunset.”

           She leaned back in her seat to squint at the cloudy sky, and he turned back to his book. Her hand landed on the back of the seat in front of her, pulling her closer again.

           “You visiting family?”

           “No, no family,” he replied absently, eyes flickering across the page.

           She scooted to the edge of her seat, precariously bracing one leg in the aisle to balance herself.

           “What brings you this way?”

           He deliberately shut the book, running a thin hand over the cover, before setting it aside and twisting around in his seat to face her.

           “I’m a code inspector for factories,” he said, straightening his tie. “Make sure they’re following the guidelines and safety standards before they open for production. Normally, they fly me out, but the date was pushed up, and there were no open flights, if you can believe it.”

           Her eyebrows raised in appreciation before she quickly added, “My son’s had a baby.”

           “Congra—”

           “The poor man, bless him, told me not to bother, but I couldn’t not what with him working and her so thin. I told him I’d be on the next bus, and he shouldn’t mind a bit. I know he was trying to put on a brave face, but I heard the relief in his voice. She always was a frail thing.” She shook her head gravely.

           “Is she—”

           “Oh, she’s fine, but I had three myself, and we never had help like they do today.”

           He nodded in agreement.

           “One of the factories I visited just last week instituted family leave for all employees with their first. It just goes to show that factory work isn’t so bad. You hear stories about deplorable conditions and such, but my job proves how mistaken that bad reputation is.”

           “My son’s an accountant. We were proud as punch when he decided to go to college. Blue-collar work is all well and good, but finances… Well, that’s where the money is!” she exclaimed with a laugh.

           He responded with a tight smile.

           “What about you, young man?” she said, turning to the curly-headed figure beside her. “Where are you headed?”

           His head continued bobbing, his mouth moving to unheard lyrics as he gazed out the window.

           “Young man!”

           He jumped as she smacked his arm and yanked a headphone out of his ear.

           “Where are you headed?” she repeated loudly.

            “Oh, I’m going to see my dad,” he said, grinning widely at them. “He had to move for work, but he bought me a bus ticket to come see him. It’s pretty great. I know he misses my—”

            “You’ll go deaf.”

            “…what?”

            “You’ll go deaf,” she repeated, nodding to the headphone in his hand.

            His smile faded, and he jammed it back in his ear, turning back to the window. She shared a bemused smile with her aisle mate over the attitudes of the younger generation. The bus jerked, slowing as it drifted onto the shoulder. The driver snagged a receiver off the wall, bending down to hear the garbled speech blaring through the speaker.

            “Well, folks,” he sighed, pulling himself up and planting his hands on the back of the seats on either side of the aisle. “Bridge’s out ahead, so we’re being rerouted. Looks like you’ll be missing your connections.”

            “Isn’t that just the way?” she sighed.

           The inspector had turned back to his book. She sank back into her seat with a sigh as the bus jerked back onto the road. The fields blurred by, the sneakered foot tapping and pages occasionally flipping. Her head soon sagged onto her floral chest, and a soft snoring again filled the bus.


Today’s fiction was a writing assignment from Joyce Carol Oates’ Masterclass: write a scene taking place in a single location over a unified period of time.

Since the prompt was basic, I added simple metaphors to the plot and scenery. I tend to write genre fiction simply because that is my preference, but stripping away the allure of non-realism requires a more intense focus be placed on detail and characterization… i.e., making a good story that doesn’t need a fantastical bandaid to hold it together. Definitely a work in progress, but it was an educational experience. I see more exercises like this in my future.

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule

After Dark

They never talked about what they did in the shadows, after dark when the house was still. Their quiet voices would float through my slightly open door, but it was only a wordless murmur. Once I tried to follow them, but my mother saw me and whisked me back to bed. I knew it must be something important, something forbidden, maybe even something sinister. After their door closed, I would sneak out of bed, creeping on bare feet to inspect where they had been, but they were too sly to leave any evidence.

So, one night I pulled the blankets up to my chin and pretended to be asleep. My parents whispered beside my bed, my mother feeling my forehead and cheek with the back of her hand, but I kept my eyes tight shut and waited. The next thing I knew, my father was kissing my forehead to wake me up, and I realized I had done my job too well.

The next night, I tried again, only this time I pinched my arm to stay awake. Finally, my door creaked shut, and their voices faded down the hall. I slid out of bed and crept after them. They were sitting together in the shadows, faces close, my mother’s hand on my father’s cheek. She lifted herself over him, bending her face to his neck. He grabbed a handful of her hair and tugged at her clothing, but she didn’t let him go.

I had read a book once I wasn’t supposed to about creatures of the night and what they did in the dark. It had given me nightmares, but now I understood why my mother had been so upset when she caught me with it. She was trying to hide the evidence. I backed away in horror. The floor creaked under my feet, and she straightened up, whirling to face the shadows.

I sprinted back to my room, diving into bed. Footsteps followed me, and my heart pounded as my door creaked open. Whoever it was eventually left, and I lay there, terrified, until I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

I woke to my mother bending over me and scrambled away with a shriek. My father burst through the door a moment later. I tried to tell him, tried to let him know that I knew my mother was a monster, but he just laughed and said I had a nightmare.

“But she bit you!” I wailed. “I can see the bruise.”

He whirled on my mother, eyes wide, clutching a hand to his neck, and she burst out laughing. I wrapped my arms around his waist, hiding behind him. Now he knew the truth. He sighed, his shoulders sagging, before shaking his head at my mother who was still laughing.

“Well…” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed and holding out a hand to her. “We were going to have to do this eventually.”

I learned several things that day, but surprisingly, none of them involved vampires.


The writing prompt for today’s story was from www.writerswrite.com: “They never talked about what they did in the shadows.”

~R. E. Rule

**All writing on this blog is the exclusive property of R. E. Rule and is not to be reproduced or retransmitted without permission from R. E. Rule. Link and email sharing is welcome as long as proper owner/authorship is attributed to R. E. Rule.**

What Butterflies Wonder

The prompt for today’s story was, “She was on her way home when it happened. She knew she could never see her family again.”

I decided to set a timer for 15 minutes and write whatever came to mind. I edited a few things for readability, but this was the result.


           She was on her way home when it happened, when she knew she could never see her family again. They wouldn’t understand the transformation. She hadn’t noticed it herself until she caught a glimpse of a stranger in a rain puddle and stared down at the wavering reflection, finally realizing when she reached up to scratch her nose that it was her own. Even if she did go home, they wouldn’t realize it was her. Or maybe she wasn’t her anymore and had somehow become someone else when she wasn’t paying attention. It could happen. Sometimes other people said they weren’t quite feeling themselves. The problem was, she was feeling more herself today than she’d ever felt.

            She stared down at the reflection and wondered what she was supposed to do if she wasn’t quite herself but wasn’t quite anyone else either. She decided to follow a street she’d always wanted to go down—the brick walls looked so inviting—but never had. The windows she passed were full of interesting wares, but her reflection fascinated her more.

            She waved at passersby. Normally she was shy, but she wasn’t herself today, and she hadn’t decided if who she had become was shy or not. There was no reason she had to be. This her had never been told she talked too much or been anxious in a room with strangers, so why wouldn’t she wave cheerily to them in the street? A few waved back, but most just cast a glance in her direction before passing by. It didn’t bother her. Why should it? This her wasn’t worried about what they thought of her.

            The buildings fell away, and the shore stretched out in front of her. She walked onto the pier, the water growing dark and frothy between the boards under her feet. At the end, she gazed down at the face looking back up at her. That face seemed to know who it was even if it wasn’t her face. It didn’t seem distressed by how different it looked despite being attached to her personage or frightened by the dark water churning over her. Maybe that person knew something she didn’t, since it wasn’t her but also had to be her.

            She wondered where she was supposed to go since she couldn’t go home. She could try to go home, try to convince them she was still who she was. Maybe if she adjusted her hair just right, maybe slouched a little, they wouldn’t notice. But then she wouldn’t be her anymore, or whoever this her was she was looking at. She’d just be someone pretending to be her, and that didn’t seem very appealing. She could leave and go far away and then she could be her. They would wonder where she’d gone, what had happened to her, why she had stopped being who she was, but she hadn’t. Staying would have meant not being who she was. They wouldn’t understand she had to leave so she could be who she was.

            She sat on the edge of the pier, swinging her feet lazily, leaning her chin on her folded arms resting on the railing. Maybe caterpillars felt this way, and that was why they locked themselves up in their cocoons, trying to look as much like a caterpillar as possible, but inside they were ripping apart and reforming, breaking and mending until everything was inside out, and when they emerged, all the other caterpillars said, “You’ve changed. You’re not you anymore. We don’t like this new you.”

           And if the caterpillar-turned-butterfly listened to them, it would never spread its wings and fly but spend the rest of its life trying to chew leaves and crawl over twigs. But butterflies didn’t do that. They spread their wings, and soared on the wind, and drank from flowers. Maybe they worried they’d made a mistake, if they thought of their caterpillar families and wondered, but surely, she thought, it must be better to fly.


I’ve been reading Alice in Wonderland. Can you tell?

~ 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

Where She Walks

Roses bloom from her palms,
Orchids tangle in the vines of her hair.
Where she walks, life awakens.

Bees and butterflies, her aura.
Pools of water, her eyes.
Her skin, the earth.

Thorns adorn her limbs.
Nectar drips from the well of her lips.
Life to some; to others, poison.

Death and beauty, embodied.


This poem was based on the writing prompt: flower power.

Wait! There’s More…

           The ground wavered far below as I uneasily stepped over the gap to the top of the building. The door slid shut behind me, and with a whoosh, the airbus rejoined the lanes of aerial traffic whizzing past. Rows of dormant aeromobiles lined the rooftop, and at the far end, a sign emblazoned with ‘Fergin’s Discount Transportation Sales & Services’ hovered in midair, affixed to the transparent, electrostatic walls of an office. Inside, a man sat with his feet thrown up on a desk, his back leaning against the wall. Only open air lay behind him, and it looked like he was sitting on the edge of oblivion.

            I wove through the vehicles and knocked against the solidified air of the office wall. A low snore floated through the door.

            “H-hello? I’m… here to buy an aeromobile.”

            He jerked awake with a curse, sending a flood of papers to the floor as he yanked his feet off the desk. “Course you are, course you are, course you are,” he mumbled, jumping to his feet and shaking the dazed expression from his face. “And may I compliment you on your good taste.” He proudly patted a faded plaque. “100% sales rate. Satisfaction guaranteed when you fly off the lot.”

            He popped a giant, pink square into his mouth and loudly gnawed on it as he joined me outside.

            “This is a strange place for an aeromobile dealership,” I noted, inching away from the dizzying drop over the edge.

            “Where else would I sell them? On the ground?!” He guffawed loudly. “Naw, you need to see the vehicle in its natural environment.”

           With a deep sigh, he surveyed the open sky around us, filled with whizzing traffic and towering buildings, before steering me toward a vehicle near the end of the lot. I stopped halfway, eyeing a sleek red model. “What about this one?”

            “Good eye, good eye, good eye,” he rattled, bobbing his head and gnawing viciously on his gum. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be a good fit for you.” His eyes flickered across the empty lot as he leaned closer, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Between you and me, you’re better off without this one. Gravity manipulator has a nasty habit of malfunctioning. Only upside is the fall would kill you before it turned you into a metal pancake. Now, this bad boy”—he slapped the walls of the gray, amorphous blob next to it—“can’t go wrong. State-of-the-art technology back in its day, and only a 2% chance of it hurtling you into the fourth dimension.”

            “E-excuse me?”

            He slowly shook his head, his eyes fixed on the sloping metal walls, his jaw still working furiously. “Not many of these left in this condition. Honestly, at this price, it’s a steal.”

            “Did you say… the fourth dimension?”

            He ignored me, dragging me across the lot to a black, boxy model. “Now, over here we have an interesting find. Only one owner. Foreign import, but it’s been refitted with all the standard safety features.”

            He nudged one of the blank walls, and a panel popped out, sliding aside to reveal the interior. I peered inside at the deep seats and neon lighting lining the ceiling. “There aren’t any controls.”

            “Ah, that’s the beauty of this model! It’s all powered through, um…”—chew, chew, chew—“synaptic energy. Instead of using the telepathic abilities of the native manufacturers, they put together a new system. You drive it”—he leaned closer, tapping a forefinger to his temple—“with your mind.”

            “Fascinating!”

           The exterior was surprisingly free of scratches or burn marks from atmospheric re-entry. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but I had a feeling this might be the one.

            He bent over, digging through the vehicle. “Yup. It’s real simple. You just stick this”—he emerged holding a headpiece with a giant needle protruding from it—“into your brain, and voila!”

            I gaped at the needle. “Th-through your skull?!”

            He frowned at it, turning it over in his hands. “Ya know, I think it might have to go through your eye area. I’m sure it’s not so bad after the first time.” He extended the headpiece to me. “Wanna take it for a test drive?”

            “I… think I’ll pass.”

            “Suit yourself,” he mumbled through his gum, tossing the hardware back into the vehicle. “Can’t blame you. Don’t trust those foreign builders anyway with their non-auditory communication. It’s not natural…” He shook his head again, his jaw furiously chewing. “Not natural.”

            I myself was from two planets over and beginning to regret this whole situation. “Well,” I clapped my hands together uselessly. “Thanks for your time. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. I’m going to sleep on it, and uh… I’ll let you know.”

            He waved a dismissive hand in my direction. “Yeah, sure. Whatever you need.”

            I glanced around, looking for an exit sign or an airbus pad. “How do I… get out of here?”

            He gnashed on his gum, pointing past a line of vehicles, but his extended finger only led me to the edge of the building and a steep drop.

            “There’s nothing here.”

            “It’s there,” he called, lounging against the invisible walls of his office. “You just can’t see it.”

            I scanned the open air, looking for any flicker of electricity or sign of a platform. “Could you show me?”

            He stalked over and frowned at the air, hands on hips, jaw working furiously. “Well, look at that,” he sighed. “Looks like it’s out.”

            “I’ll just wait for the next airbus then.”

            “Sorry. No buses run here without special request.”

            “Can I use your communication device then?”

            “Eh,” he gnawed loudly on his gum. “’fraid that’s not working either.”

            “Well, how do you get down?!” I snapped, reaching the end of my patience.

            “I use my aeromobile.”

            I stared at him, the reality of the situation dawning on me. “So, the only way I’m getting out of here is if I buy—“

            “Looks like.”

            He watched me expectantly. I wanted to argue, but I wanted to leave more. My shoulders sagged. “I guess… we’ll have to make a deal then.”

            “Great!” He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll draw up the paperwork.”

            My payment was exchanged for a worn activator device, and he carefully inspected the vehicle, muttering to himself and making haphazard marks on his clipboard before planting himself in front of me. “Would you say you were satisfied with today’s transaction?”

            “Actually—“

            “Because if you’re not, I am morally obligated not to finalize the sale until you are.”

            “Then… yes, I’m satisfied.”

           He was watching me intently, his jaw tirelessly gnawing. “100% satisfied?”

            “Yes,” I sighed.

           He triumphantly placed the last check on his clipboard before saluting me with it and striding back to his office. It landed with a clatter on his desk before he threw his feet up after it. The panel slid closed behind me, and I eased off the roof, merging into the flow of traffic. Maybe this wasn’t so bad. It was only a 2% chance, and the fourth dimension was supposedly nice this time of year.


This story was inspired by a very unfortunate encounter I had with a, for lack of a better word, skeezy car salesman.

~ R. E. Rule

Published Jun 17, 2020
Updated Dec 11, 2020

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~ R. E. Rule

All writing on this blog is the exclusive property of R. E. Rule and is not to be reproduced or retransmitted without permission from R. E. Rule. Link and email sharing is welcome as long as proper owner/authorship is attributed to R. E. Rule.

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