Archive for October, 2009

Friday Flash: How to Capture a Soul

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Tonight, I am afraid of myself. I am afraid I’m not strong enough to fight what’s coming. What has come for the past six years on All Hallows’ Eve.

Dusk falls. My skin has gone slick and pale; nausea stalks me. At twenty-five I’ve learned no one wants to see me like this, so I am alone. The metamorphosis has become a private ritual. Pain should be private, shouldn’t it?

I push the tip of a Virginia Slim into the candle flame. The smoke slides down my throat. The room spins. I don’t smoke. Except for this night when I begin to be less of myself and more of someone else.

Dip, wipe, stroke. Painting my toe nails with a thick layer of Eggplant Frost has become part of the ritual, the unbecoming of me. Also the dark rum. Any other time of the year, I wouldn’t touch the stuff.

Time strikes. It is nine p.m. My tiny, cold apartment smells like a brothel. I light another candle.

Walking on my heels so I don’t disturb my toes, I carry my digital camera into the bathroom. One last drag on the Virginia Slim and I toss it into the toilet bowl to sizzle out.

I’d like to hear some jazz.

       “I don’t like jazz.” I watch my hips sway in the mirror to some big band swing humming in my head.

I know it’s best to just keep going, so I twist the stick of mulberry lipstick from its gold case, lean into the mirror awkwardly and apply. Smooth as velvet, bitter taste. I let my eyes meet their reflection in the mirror. This is always the startling part. I do not recognize the flecks of gold, the swimming sadness. “Gotcha,” I say. These parts recede quickly and I am there once again; grey orbs, ringed in dark blue with a strange mulberry mouth.

I lift the camera as the music becomes more insistent. Thinking becomes movement in mud. I have lost time. There’s the cigarette floating in the toilet bowl. Click. My eggplant toes against cracked floor tile. Click.

Why must you do that?

“It’s what I do.” My voice is raw, husky from the late hour, the rum, the smoke. But I still recognize it as my own. Not the one I am answering, though. This one is foreign to me. A long line of mental health professionals have assured me I’m not schizophrenic. I’m just stressed, anxious. Apparently only on Halloween.

“Oh no.” It’s coming. The part I hate. I feel T.S. Eliot’s hollow rumble of wings. Darkness descending, a crushing weight. It is swelling, seething hopelessness. I fall back against the towel rack and slide down the wall. Lift the camera. Point it down. Click.

I’ve blown out my face with the flash, erased all the freckles, the etchings. I feel invisible and it is soothing.

Set me free.

“I don’t know how!”

Sobbing echoes off the thin plaster walls, reverberates in the shower. My vocal chords. Her pain. I scratch and claw at my neck, my chest. Long, streaks of blood pool at the surface. I have hidden the sharp objects but now I realize I could tear myself apart with my bare hands. Just to escape. “Please,” I whimper, out of breath. “Leave me alone.”

A sudden stillness within my head startles me. And then, she whispers:

Okay. I will show you. Watch.

A movie begins to play. She is dragging out my memories, sliding them into the cue.

I am in graduate school. Photojournalist is what I want to call myself. Dreams, goals, hope. These things fill my thoughts like cotton candy. I am practicing with my new camera, dressed as a Hippie, snapping shots of trick-or-treaters in New York. I have wandered off from my group of friends, toward the park. There is an angel there on the bench, moonlight shining through transparent wings, sparkly silver halo glowing over a bowed head. The breeze is lifting the edges of her blond hair. I snap some shots from behind. The bench, the wings, the full moon. Click. Click. Gorgeous shots. I still remember being pleased with them.

And then I sit up. “Oh,” I pull myself up to the mirror. “Was that you?” My eyes are full on brown and gold now. Her eyes. My head nods in answer. I rush from the bathroom, tripping over things in the darkness. I pull out box after box from the bedroom closet to find the ones from college. Tear the right one open. Black film canisters spill out, falling around me. I find the one labeled 10/31. The familiar smell of film fills my nose as I pull out the amber negatives and hold them uncoiling like a flattened snake. I hold them up to the bare closet light bulb and see her. Six shots. Slightly different angles.

Set me free.

       I carry the film back to the bathroom, put it in the sink and throw a lit match on it. The fire eats a hole in the emulsion and the hole spreads slowly. I lift my head back to the mirror. She is watching me. Crying with my eyes.

“How? Please tell me, before you go…how did I do this to you?”

I can feel her slipping from me. The darkness lifting.

Suicide.

“Suicide?” And then I get it.

Death.

Click.

                                                                                                                                                          (photo credit: Nevit Dilmen)

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Friday Flash: A Family Ghost Story

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Much of my life has played out in one rehab circle or another, so you can take my story or leave it. All I can do is tell it, tell the truth…and the truth is, I’m not even sure I believe it.

My mother was one of those people who collected souls. Vagrants, husbands kicked out for the night, down and out relatives, everyone and anyone was welcomed to grab a meal or a bed in her old farmhouse. As you can imagine, this opened up our world–me and my two brothers—exposing us to endless possibilities through stories and illegal substances. Instead of our minds being stuffed with skewed parental beliefs, closed off and capped…we soared, we expanded, we soaked up lore and logic, creating an environment where anything could happen. And eventually something did.

It began with a dream.

I could see myself sleeping; blanket tossed on the floor, one arm thrown over my head, chest rising and falling in soothing slow motion. Then I could see the wall alongside my bed breathing; white plaster pushing out, sucking back in. IN. OUT. Eventually, the bulge expanded like a balloon and began to move. It slid toward the adjacent wall and turned the corner, ending up behind my headboard. I watched beads of sweat form on my sleeping self’s forehead. My breathing became jagged, more like panting. Suddenly, large hands pushed through the wall as if the wall was giving birth, stretching out, reaching for my sleeping self. Blood trickled down the arms in thin channels, rolled over the knuckles and dripped from the fingertips onto my white pillow. I tried to scream, ‘Wake up!’ No sound would come. My sleeping self whimpered as the hands wrapped around my throat. I wheezed, my air cut off, my eyes bulging under the pressure.

Brrrrring. Brrrrrring. Brrrrring.

Startled, I jumped up and slammed my hand down on the alarm, knocking it to the floor. Something wet remained on my face. I ran into the bathroom and collapsed in relief. Tears….no blood. I checked my neck.  No signs of being strangled by some lunatic behind the wall.

“Just a bad dream.” I reassured myself. “A really bad dream.”

My hands were still shaking as I buttered my toast at breakfast.

“You all right, Joan?”

“Fine, Mother.” I rolled my eyes. Why was she always so observant?

A week later, I wasn’t feeling so fine. I was still having the dream, only it was starting to cross some kind of barrier. What do I mean? I really have no idea. All I know is, it was becoming stronger, breaking through to the physical world. The hands were beginning to leave marks. Finger imprints on my neck that I would wait to fade before heading downstairs for breakfast.

I decided to move my bed to the center of the room.

There was a new guy at the table that morning. He looked like I felt: sleepless and scared out of his mind. I glanced at him as I reached for the butter.

“He’s your cousin, Marti, from New York. Say hi.”

“Hey,” I waved. He looked fried. Mother smiled and began to make small talk with him about his bus ride, some family up north, whatever. I was just glad she had someone else to worry about that morning. I was in no mood for her scrutinizing. I glanced at my older brothers, realizing they were unusually quiet.

“What’s wrong with you two?” They both looked drained of blood.

“Nothing,” Jacob answered without looking up. Bobby ignored me.

No snappy comebacks or cut downs? Something was definitely wrong.

Brrrrring. Brrrrrring. Brrrrring.

I jerked up, gasping for air. It hadn’t worked. The bloody arms had just stretched, gotten longer to reach me. This time they tried to drag me from my bed. I ran from the room and slammed the door behind me.

That morning at breakfast, I had an idea.

“Mom, I think Marti should sleep in my room. I’ll sleep on the couch for awhile. It doesn’t look like he’s getting much rest.”

“How thoughtful of you, Joan.” She beamed at Marti, who really did look like he could use somebody to knock him on the skull and put him out for a few days. Anyway, I knew this would work because mother was always trying to instill unselfishness in us. She looked at my brothers and I noticed her smile wane.

“You two sick or something?”

“Can’t sleep, stupid nightmares,” Bobby grunted. Jacob reached over and popped him in the arm. “Ow!”

“Jacob, don’t hit your brother.”

At this point, I had dropped my toast and my jaw. Nightmares?

“Hands?”

With that one word, I had silenced both my brothers and watched terror widen their eyes for the first time in my life. I nodded. It felt good not to be crazy, at least.

A week later there was a new guy at the table. He was tall, pale with minty, round eyes; almost otherworldly.

“This is Samael.”

We all stared at her. Just ‘Samael,’ no long lost cousin, uncle, friend, grocery store bum?

       “You all right, Mom?”

“Yes, of course.”

We glanced at each other and then at Samael.

He was calmly reaching for the butter, with mom smiling beside him like she was on something. I felt my face drain, my heart begin to race. His hands were large, each knuckle and vein very familiar to me. I glanced up the stairs.

“Mother? Where’s cousin Marti?”

“I don’t know.” She looked confused suddenly. “I guess he decided to move on.”

Samael’s eyes gleamed. My brothers and I excused ourselves from the table, making our way upstairs one at a time, trying not to draw Samael’s attention.

Then we all stood around my bed, staring at the blood spots dried brown on the pillow. Bobby began to cry.

Bobby doesn’t remember it happening like this. He became a psychiatrist.  Jacob remembers it being worse. He became a priest.

And me? Well…I became a writer.

(photo credit: Hendrike)

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Friday Flash: Sea Glass

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Fiona heard Roger come home, recognized the soft thud of his suitcase tossed on the bed.

“Fiona? Where are you, Darling?” He joined her on their bedroom balcony, wrapping his arms around her and kissing the top of her head. “Of course. Out here listening to the whispers of the sea again?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I’ve brought you something back from Ireland.” He kneeled down in front of her.

Fiona pulled her watery green eyes from the ocean to stare at his outstretched hand. Surprise reshaped her mouth.

“It’s sea glass. I thought of you the moment I saw it.”

Fiona reached out and carefully lifted a piece from his palm. A tiny vibration tickled her fingertips. “Oh,” she whispered, the surprise deepening.

“It’s good to see you smile.” He took her hand and slipped the remaining pieces of smooth, cool glass into her palm. “Like emeralds, aren’t they? The same color as your eyes.” He closed her palm around them and kissed her fingers.

Fiona gasped as a more intense vibration moved through her hand, her arm and then branched out to consume her body, warming it from the inside out. The whispers she usually had to struggle to hear were whisked into her mind by the vibrations, suddenly as clear as a bell: Hoooommmmeeee.

“Home,” she repeated.

“Yes, Darling. I’m home.”

Over the next few weeks, Roger watched as his wife blossomed. She stopped spending her days as a lost, sad soul on the balcony and began haunting their marble mansion restlessly. Her voice echoed through the rooms as she sang strange and mystical tunes with a voice so sweet, it made his heart swell, his eyes tear.

By fire and wind and sea and rain,

       Beloved, he made me

       With hands of light,

       And feathers of flight

       Come close, come close to thee’

He began to find more and more sea glass; in jars on the kitchen counter, on her nightstand, glittering in the potted plants and even around her neck.

She looked up from making a salad as he stood staring at her on the other side of the kitchen island.

“Yes?” she said, the corner of her mouth pushing up in a seductive smile.

Roger’s heart skipped. “Wow, Fiona, you look amazing.” And she did. Her skin glowed like a pearl, her red hair lay in waves cascading around the curves of her shoulders and her eyes…he could get lost in her eyes. They glittered with ancient secrets and the light of a million stars. Who was this woman? He moved his gaze to the sea glass necklace.

“I’m glad you liked my gift so much, Darling. Where did you get more?”

“Ebay.” Her smile widened and she moved her attention back to slicing cucumbers.

He shivered as he thought about the old village woman he had bought the sea glass from and her broken English warning:

In the wrong hands, it will bring out one’s true nature. Connect that person to their imprisoned soul.’

       Well, if this was his wife’s true nature, he thought as he looked lovingly upon the gorgeous creature in front of him, then he could live with the old lady’s warning coming to fruition.

Or so he thought.

“Fiona?” he called, peeling off his wet tie and dress shirt. “I’m home. That’s some storm out there, huh?” No answer. Steam was seeping from beneath the bathroom door. “Fiona?” He opened the door cautiously. Through the steam, he could see his wife stretched out in the spa tub, unmoving. His heart did a back flip in his chest. It seemed he was moving in slow motion as he crossed the white tiled floor, tripping over emptied cans of sea salt to stand above her body.

Her eyes were closed, her hair fanned out around her like fire, her skin an eerie green glow. It took him a moment to realize the color was coming from all the sea glass she was laying on. The tub was half full with it. And then he noticed something that horrified him. He could barely take in a breath. His mind struggled to grasp what he was seeing. Falling to his knees, he peered through the water at the large cuts in her abdomen, beneath her ribs. Open wounds so deep he could see the pink of her organs.

“Oh my god, Fiona,” he cried, his hands moving helplessly in the air. Shock giving way to grief. Should he try to lift her? Should he try CPR? Where was the blood?

“What did you do?” And then he cocked his head and leaned closer, his face inches from the water. There was slight movement. The cuts were opening and closing. Almost like she was breathing…

He glanced at her face as her eyes popped opened.  Her lips parted in a grotesque smile that exposed a mouth full of pointy teeth.

Roger screamed and thrashed as she tore flesh from bone, feasting until the twitching stopped and the only sound was the storm still raging outside.

And then she began to sing.

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Friday Flash: Outsourced

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Bernard Smith lowered his suitcase quietly onto the porch he had lovingly repainted this summer.  He wasn’t sure what he was going to say to his family.  Nothing had changed on the outside of his life; the sun hung dutifully behind their house, birds chirped, a slight chill let him know Fall had arrived. Nothing could stop the flow of time, the changing of the seasons. The world would go on. But he knew inside the cozy Cape Cod, in the world he and his wife built for their family, everything was at a full stop. There would be no more Friday paychecks, no more security.

He was back from training his replacement and his job was over, his career was over. He had spent the last month posting and reposting his resume on Monsterjobs, Dice, I.T.-Jobs-R-Freakin’-Us. Fifteen years of experience and no calls.

“Hi, Honey,” he forced a tired smile. “I’m back.”

She was stirring oatmeal at the stove, staring out the window. She turned slightly and let him kiss her warm cheek. He wanted to slide his arms around her, bury his face in her dark, almond-scented hair, but he knew this would only scare her, make her worry.

He was going to try to squeeze out something sunny and hopeful, but he suddenly realized something didn’t seem right. He looked around the kitchen and it hit him. His entrance had been way too quiet.

“Honey, where’s the dog?”

“Oh,” she said, briefly smiling. “Duke required so much money for you know…food, vet care, grooming.” She turned back to stirring the oatmeal. “I got rid of him. We now have a fish.”

Bernard stared at the back of his wife’s head in disbelief. “But…but fish can’t bark when someone’s at the door…or…play with the kids…and you can’t pet a fish to relieve stress.”

“We have to think of the bottom line, Bernie. Fish are cheaper.”

A tall, skinny teenager wondered into the kitchen. “Hey, Mom. Breakfast ready?” He glanced at Bernard.

“Say hi to your father, Dear.”

“Hey, Dad.”

Bernard walked across the kitchen and stood next to his wife with his arms folded.“Honey?”

“Yes?”

“Who is that?”

“Mitchell, our son.”

Bernard tried not to yell or shake his wife. There had to be some explanation for all this madness. “Okay. Honey. Eleanor, when I left two weeks ago, we had one son and one daughter. Our son, Mitchell, was only nine months old. This is not our son.”

“Well, of course not, silly. He couldn’t have grown up that fast. But I replaced him. This way, we skip all the cost of diapers, baby food, doctor visits.” She turned suddenly, flinging oatmeal as she waved the spoon at him. “Do you know they say it costs a million dollars to raise a child! A million dollars. Mitchell is almost seventeen. Do you know how much money we’ve saved?”

“But he’s not our child! Our responsibility is to OUR child! This boy has his own parents…” Bernard began to look around the room for a hidden camera. “Oh, I get it.” He smiled at Mitchell. “Right.” He decided to play along. “The bottom line.” That did sound like a good name for one of those hidden camera shows.

He peered around the corner into the living room, where their four year old daughter is usually playing on the couch with her dolls. “And Lilly? I suppose you replaced her, too? Seeing as how she would require so much more money to raise than say…a hamster?” He chuckled to himself, wiping the sweat from his brow with a dishtowel.

His wife turned to stare at him. “I didn’t even think of a hamster!” Just then, a fuzzy ball of fur with mischievous blue eyes sauntered in and rubbed itself on his pant leg. “No, no, I went with a kitten like the Jacobson’s next door. We have to stay competitive in these times, right Bernie.”

Bernard began to tremble as he studied his wife’s face for the first time: the permanent smile, the vacant stare that reminded him of a wave less ocean. Yep, Eleanor had left the building.

He reached out and gently took both her hands, turning her toward him. “Eleanor. Where are our children?”

The teenaged Mitchell was nodding from behind Eleanor. He stuck a finger in the oatmeal and popped it in his mouth. “Sacrificed on the alter of the bottom line, dude…I mean, Dad.”

An image of his children strapped down to his corporate boss’s desk was the last image in his mind before his wife’s smile blurred and his head hit the tile floor.

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Friday Flash: A Bottle of Spirits

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I should have known the sweet sound of jazz music wafting from a town all-but closed up for the night would be trouble. I should have made Lizbeth walk to the next town when our car engine refused to turn over at the gas station. I should have got down on one knee and slipped that damn diamond ring onto her finger right there in front of the ninety year old deaf gas station attendant. What I did instead was let her lead us right into our last moments together.

“What are you thinking about?” Lizbeth purrs at me now.

‘I hope you can’t read my mind,’ is what I’m thinking.  I glance at her. She isn’t smiling. I don’t bother answering her. What’s the use? Instead, I think about the last time I saw her smile.

“Oh, come on. It’ll be an adventure.” She had said, pulling at my arm.

“I don’t know. What about the car?”

“Well, it’s not going anywhere tonight, obviously.”

“Fine.” I wasn’t too upset. I enjoyed giving her what she wanted. In exchange I got her smile.

As we walked down the sidewalk, hand in hand, passed the closed shops, palm trees swaying above us, I began to think maybe this was the universe…fate or whatever giving me a romantic place to pop the question. I stroked the ring in my pocket, feeling good about my secret.

Warm light, cigar smoke and jazz poured out of the opened door. We stepped in and glanced around. The place was cozy. A couple of tables with red velvet table clothes, flickering candles, a long bar with a few patrons grooving along with the music. The bartender watched us take a seat at an empty table and nodded at the waitress.

We were huddled together with a small paper menu in front of the candlelight. I had never heard of any of the wines on there.

“Evening, folks. What can I get you?”

“What do you recommend?”

“Well, we have a good honey wine if you want simple.” At this point I saw her eyes dart to the bartender. “Or the raspberry delight is good if you want something frozen.”

Why did she seem so nervous?

“I didn’t know you could make wine out of honey,” Lizbeth said.

“You can make wine out of things you wouldn’t believe,” the waitress mumbled.

“Well, I’ll try the honey wine.”

“And for you, sir?”

“Water, please.” I don’t know why, but I was suddenly feeling like I needed to stay on my toes.

Halfway through that glass of honey wine, Lizbeth gasped. “Oh, isn’t that just exquisite!”

I was still thinking about the fact I had never heard her use the word “exquisite” before as she got up and lifted a black and gold mask from the corner of the bar. She was turning it back and forth, admiring it as it glittered in the candlelight. I stuck a finger in my ear and shook my head like a dog. What is that? Voices? It sounded like thousands of whispering voices entwined in the music and they were getting louder.

“Liz?” I called. The bartender was standing in front of her now. I thought maybe he was going to tell her she wasn’t suppose to be touching the décor, but instead he motioned to her and she lifted it to her face. “Oh, Lizbeth.” I stood up, feeling anxious and realizing that the voices had stopped, but so had the music. I glanced around and everyone was smiling at Lizbeth.

She suddenly whirled around and my heart skipped a few hundred beats. The mask was moving, molding itself to her face. It didn’t seem solid, more like gold and silver threads as fine as spider webs spreading in waves over her face. Her eyes were closed. My feet felt like lead. I watched helplessly as the bartender came around the bar, kneeled down on one knee before her and held up a glass of red wine. Without opening her eyes, she accepted the glass and titled it toward her lips.

“She has been chosen.” The waitress was standing behind me. Her words knocked me in the back of the head like a baseball bat and I fell forward, my feet suddenly free.

“Lizbeth, don’t!”

I pushed the bartender to one side and grabbed her by the shoulders. She dropped the empty glass and her eyes popped open. I fell back. Her eyes were slick black orbs, shiny and wet.

“Oh my god.”

I watched in disbelief as they began to dull and shift to a cool green.

She smiled at me then. “I accept. I will be your god.”

The mask seemed to lose its shine, too and she reached up and plucked it off her face, tossing it back onto the bar. I couldn’t stop staring at her mouth, stained red, a stringy chuck of something stuck in her tooth.

“You have something,” I motioned to my own teeth, “stuck…”

“Enough,” she hissed. The music started back up and she walked to the door. “Come, I’m ready to see the world.”

She stepped out into the moonlight. The waitress slipped in front of me and placed something hard and warm between my palms.There were tears in her eyes. I moved toward the door on shaky legs, glancing at the tiny glass perfume bottle in my hands. As I slipped it in my pocket, I heard it clink against the ring and almost broke right there.

I didn’t. I’m being strong.

“Oooo,” she gasped, placing a warm hand on my leg. “Pull in, over there. I want to try one of those.”

“Yes, dear.”

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