The Price She Paid (a poem)

With a Yes, she married him

young bride in virginal white

starry-eyed lovers, high expectations

spawned from biblical promises

then…

Honeymoon tinged with blood

dripping with cold, wet shock of disappointment

while he writhed in ecstasy, head thrown back

high on new pleasure

she shrank beneath him

cringing at the sharp pain and burn

deep shame

falling short

eyes wide open at his kiss.

“You’re beautiful,” he told her. “My sexy wife.”

His own words spurring his hunger

while her stomach turned to gravel

bile filling her mouth.

Months stretched to years, a decade come and gone

while he filled himself

and she gave, and gave, and gave

an obedient faucet

succumbing to the painful act

his touch turning riverbeds dry

green grass shriveled, trampled underfoot.

She curled alone on her side of the bed

far from his gaze and wandering hands that always sought more.

“What do you want?” he asked

eager for her to know how to fix herself

(but not willing to slow his advance).

A wife must submit.

Her body belonged to him

the Bible said so, see?

What she wanted was to make it all disappear

to give him back his ring

to admit that it was all a mistake

to stop being beautiful. Hide her sexiness in sweatshirts and

dark rooms

but the more she said no, turned away, begged

the more his insistence mounted

determined to subdue his opponent

at any cost.

The word No came with steep price tag

Insults, accusations, financial withdraw

surveillance, imprisonment at home

“You have to,” he told her. “God says so.”

“Then fuck your god,” she snarled, finding her voice

and his fists pummeled her like angry rain.

The price increased.

He strayed

seeking out other females

paying for services

blaming her, taunting her

always her fault

because she said No.

If she had known

that marriage meant she would be his marionette

dancing on short strings of lust

CONSENT tattooed in blood on her forehead

even though his touch ripped her insides

and made her feel like less than dirt

made her hate being called “beautiful”

(which also came at a cost)

Then No

would have been her first word

her loudest word

long before his knee ever dropped to the ground.

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Pearls (a Short Story)

PEARLS

string-of-pearls

“You burned the toast again.” Stuart made clicking noises with his tongue.

Ruby shot him a scornful look. “I didn’t burn the toast,” she said, setting his plate on the table. “That cheap toaster you bought burned the toast.” She poured more coffee into his favorite mug – the red one with the picture of the hula girl he’d brought home from their trip to Hawaii eight years ago. Now it had a small chip on the rim, a minor defect, like a blemished tooth. Her fingers itched to throw it away, but she knew Stuart would notice its absence.

With a heavy sigh, she sat across from him and fished the soggy teabag out of her cup. “Anything interesting in the news today?”

Stuart folded his newspaper and set it aside. “The usual overblown political circus and a workplace shooting somewhere in Colorado.” He scooped his eggs onto the unburnt center of his toast and bit into it. “The community section mentioned something about that women’s circle again. The Purple People, or something.” He chuckled.

Ruby frowned. “You know perfectly well that they call themselves the Pearls.” The Purple Pearls were like a cult, always trying to recruit people to come down to the community center for Tuesday craft days and Thursday reading groups, and who knew what else. But Ruby had no intention of knotting a purple bandanna around her neck and going on outings with those women, who were always cooing and chirping like a flock of city pigeons.

“Yeah, well turns out that those Pearl girls are planning to take a big trip. Guess where to?”

“Where?”

“Fiji. Isn’t that something?” he added, when Ruby folded her arms and glared at him. “You and me have been talking for years about flying down to Fiji.”

“That’s different.”

“Different how? It’s the same Fiji. Pristine beaches. Crystal clear water, coconut trees. Paradise!”

“But I’d rather go with you.”

“I’ll be here when you get back. You can bring me a new mug.” He held up the chipped red one. “You don’t want to miss your chance. Think about sinking your toes into that white sand. Think of that warm tropical breeze.”

“But I’m not one of them. Those Pearls.”

“You could be. You already know a couple of those women. And that one with the sparkly earrings—”

“Pam.”

Stuart nods. “Yeah, Pam. She isn’t going to stop trying until you give in and join them.”

“I don’t have time for them.” Ruby stood and began briskly scraping their plates into the trash. “I’ve got to finish crocheting that blanket for Sadie’s baby.”

“You could crochet with the Pearls,” said Stuart, “while talking about your Fiji plans. Come on, sweetheart,” he coaxed, softer, when Ruby didn’t respond. “What’s that I keep saying? Come on, now.”

Ruby gripped the edge of the counter and stared down into the abyss of the sink drain. “Don’t fear death,” she started.

“Speak up!”

“Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life.” It was a quote from Tuck Everlasting, a book they’d taken turns reading aloud years ago, Ruby curled into Stuart’s lap on the soft brown sofa after they’d put the kids to bed. Fear the unlived life. Those words had wormed their way into Stuart’s very being. Suddenly fearful that he hadn’t been living life hard enough, well enough, bravely enough, he’d adopted a new favorite word. Yes. Ride a bicycle across three states? Yes. Read fifty books in a year? Yes. Give up his Saturdays to mentor young men at the job training center? Yes, yes, yes. No wonder they hadn’t had time to travel to Fiji together.

And what about Ruby? Was she living an unlived life? She thought of all the years of raising kids with Stuart. Driving Sadie and Laura to school, to tap classes, to birthday parties. Years filled with Christmases and summer barbecues and family trips to the mountains. Years of bandaging scraped knees and cleaning up after pets and sewing costumes for the annual spring play. When the girls were older, Ruby had taken a part-time job as an office clerk, which later turned into a full-time job, which lasted all the way to retirement. She and Stuart had retired on the same day. They’d planned it that way. And after retirement, Stuart had gone right on saying yes to everything and everyone. Everyone but her. Until recently, she’d had to wait her turn for moments with Stuart. She hated to admit it, hated the selfishness of it, but she was glad that now, he was here all the time. Here just for her.

“Doesn’t Pam live pretty close to where you’re going today?” asked Stuart.

Ruby gripped the counter even tighter and swayed on her feet. She’d almost forgotten she had to go. Almost. “Yeah.”

“Then here’s your chance. Ring her doorbell. Say hello. Tell her your bags are already packed for Fiji.”

“My bags aren’t packed.” She turned around to look at him, mouth twisted.

“You could get them packed in two minutes. What would you need for Fiji, anyway? Besides a swimsuit.”

“I don’t have a swimsuit that fits.” Not anymore, now that she’d lost so much weight. “Guess I could get one, though.”

“Now you’re talking.” Stuart’s grin made his eyes light up, made the whole kitchen light up. Ruby almost felt like grinning, too. “What time is Sadie supposed to pick you up?”

Before Ruby could even glance at the big wooden clock, the front doorbell rang. And rang. And rang, three long chimes and a series of short chimes. Sadie must have let the boys ring the bell, she figured, hurrying to the living room. Sure enough, when she threw open the front door, both her grandsons stood there, wearing grins that looked so much like Stuart’s, her heart squeezed tight for a moment, like someone was wringing out all the blood.

Sadie’s face fell when she saw Ruby. “Mom! You’re not even ready to go yet!”

Ruby glanced down at her stained lavender house robe, then placed a hand on her thinning cloud of white hair. “Guess I’ll just go like this,” she mumbled.

“You can’t go like that!” Sadie sounded dismayed. “It’s…it’s disrespectful!”

Ruby scowled, then headed off to pull on some real clothes to appease her daughter. “I’ll see you later,” she told Stuart as she breezed through the kitchen again.

Stuart winked, then waved his arms like a hula dancer. Ridiculous. She pursed her lips. Did they even have hula dancers in Fiji?

Sadie said nothing about Ruby’s too-baggy attire this time. In fact, her words were syrupy sweet as she drove them across town, talking about the boys’ activities and Halloween costume plans in that kitten-gentle voice people used with small children. It dug under Ruby’s skin like a tick, but she just clenched her teeth and stared out the window, picturing pristine beaches and coconut trees. She really could do it. She could fly to Fiji with the girls, maybe sip some kind of tangy, coconutty rum drink under a strip of the bluest sky. She could bring home a mug for Stuart, and maybe a new toaster so his toast wouldn’t get burned. This time, she did laugh aloud.

“Mother, are you even listening to me?” asked Sadie, her voice tinged with irritation.

“Yes,” said Ruby.

Then they were there, pulling into the parking lot. Damn the parking lot, thought Ruby as they trudged across the asphalt. Damn the tall iron bars they passed through. Damn the perfect grass, as green and manicured as a golf course. She wanted to turn and run back to the car, drive it back home, where Stuart was waiting.

“Are you ready?” asked Sadie. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers, just like a bride. Splashy, yellow flowers. Purple flowers. Tiny sprigs of white flowers. She placed them in Ruby’s empty hands. Ruby imagined herself walking barefoot across a beach, long veil flowing behind her, and Stuart in a suit with the pant legs rolled up, standing ankle-deep in the crystal blue waters.

“Hello Ruby.” Pam was here, too. Not on the beach, but here in the green grass, that damned purple bandanna knotted around her neck. Two other women stood beside her. More Pearls. “I asked Sadie if we could join you today, and she said yes.”

Yes yes yes.

Ruby’s head began throbbing. She took tiny steps forward, Sadie supporting one elbow, Pam holding the other. Fiji, she told herself in a stern voice. Think of Fiji.

“These anniversaries can be hard,” Pam was saying. “We Pearls like to support each other. All of these ladies know just what you’re going through.”

Ruby didn’t answer. She was frozen on the spot, staring down at the slab of stone jutting up from the grass.  Her blood had gone cold, like the coffee in Stuart’s chipped red mug.

“One year ago today.” Pam said this like one might say it’s raining outside, or there’s a sale at Penney’s, or we’re out of milk. “I always did like that quote.” She tilted her head to one side, squinting at the stone slab. “Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life. Wonder who said that?”

“Babbitt.” Ruby cleared her throat, tried again. “Natalie Babbitt. It’s from a book. Tuck Everlasting.”

“Well now.” Pam’s dark eyes burned into Ruby’s. “I hope that you’ll come to our next meeting and tell the Pearls some more about this book. We’re planning a big trip together, you know. To Fiji.”

“Yes.” Ruby nodded. There. She’d said it. Yes.

“So you’ll be there?”

“Yes.” Ruby laid the flowers at the foot of the grave, then turned to go. In her fingers, she clutched a single flower she’d separated from the rest. It was purple, like the Pearls. She was never going to join them, she knew. Never going to wear their stupid bandanna or attend their meetings. They might eat up all her time, then she wouldn’t have any left to spend with Stuart.

Tonight, she decided, she would cook pork chops, his favorite dinner. And she would place the flower next to his plate.

“That’s the color of my new bathing suit,” she’d tell him.

“So you’re going to go to Fiji after all?”

“That’s right,” she’d say. “You and me. So pack your bags. We’ve waited long enough.”

 

 

The Golden Hour (a Spooky Poem)

I love the tradition of Halloween. The creative costumes of young and young-at-heart. The zany and macabre decorations. The celebration of the shadow side of human nature, done in a spirit of good fun and camaraderie. Enjoy your parties and sugar-fests as we each perform a role tonight in the great play we call Halloween. Be safe out there!

jacko

The Golden Hour

At last the golden hour is here

The night we shadow-box our fear

And march into the inky night

Armed with jack-o-lantern light

So come you fierce and wicked things

Painted grins and fairy wings

Hear the magic doorbell rings

Come!

Heed the creepy creature’s stare

Perched upon her rocking chair

Grab a candy, if you dare

Beware!

Hear the whistling windy tune

Ghosts and witches flying soon

Silhouette on silver moon

Boooooo!

Tempt the spirits, play your part

Chilling bones and racing heart

Let the hurly-burly start

Happy Hallowe’en

Bastet Bast Egyptian goddess

Me, as Bastet, Egyptian Goddess of warfare and cats, protector of the pharaoh, of women, and of children.

 

The Ah-Mazing Life of Danielle (and Annoying Audrey)

Well, Jupiter Girl is still hanging out in her cave, waiting for inspiration to strike her in the head like a rock or something. So I decided to step in and take charge of things for a while. And believe me, I am really good at taking charge. Plan your party? Manage a work project? Write your blog? I’m your girl!

Danielle and iPhone Downtown

My name is Danielle. I live and work downtown in a major metropolitan area, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I adore everything about life downtown. The fast pace. The restaurants. The nightlife. Just yesterday, I hopped on a Jump bike during my lunch break and rode over to my favorite independent coffee shop, where they make an ah-mazing pumpkin spice latte. Seriously, I don’t know how people can stand it out in the suburbs, where you have to get in your car and drive like, twenty minutes to the nearest Starbucks.

Danielle and Audrey besties

Now everybody say hi to Audrey. Audrey is my bestie. My partner-in-crime. My sistah from another mistah. I don’t know what I’d do without her. But between you and me, Audrey can also be pretty annoying. When I started going to the gym to get in shape a couple of years ago, Audrey started copying me. I lost a few pounds and felt pretty good about that. But next thing you know, she’s lost a ton of weight, gotten super strong, and now she’s a fitness instructor. Seriously, Audrey?

Danielle and Audrey gym rats

It’s like it’s her life goal to show me up. I bought a sleek little downtown condo last year and adopted a cat. So what does Audrey do? She buys a ginormous house out in the ‘burbs, and adopts a cat plus two cocker spaniels. So extra. And then this summer, I text her some photos of me relaxing by the pool. So of course she has to show me up by traveling all the way to the beach.

Audrey at the beach

Ok fine, to be fair, she did invite me to go with her to the beach. But I couldn’t get away from work. You see, I have a very busy job. When I was a girl, somehow the idea became engrained in me that I could do anything. I could become a pilot, or a veterinarian, or a lawyer. But I had more exciting ambitions than that. So I studied computer software engineering, and went to work for the U.S. government on a top-secret assignment. I get to work with ah-mazing technology and even travel the world.

Danielle working outdoors on her computer

But don’t tell Audrey. She thinks I’m just an accountant.

Spile (a poem)

Spile (a poem)


Silence

your reward and punishment

for my kindness, for my love

Your silence

spreads, acid creeping through my veins

quells the muse

binds my tongue

turns my words to ash



Your spile dug deep into my wood

honeyed spirit drained in great golden drops

spilled to the cold ground

wasted

like the blood of a too-young soldier

branches pale, leeched of life

Silence

grows like vines

webbing around me, a metal tomb

and I trapped within

my love for you

the melody

that plays on and on

drowning out your

silence

The Outers (a Short Story)

The Outers

Futuristic Dome City

I felt a pair of soft hands slide over my eyes and knew it was Glen before he even spoke. “I hope you haven’t made plans for this Freitag night,” he said, showing off his knowledge of ancient languages. “I’d like to take you out.”

I smile and gaze into his round, bistre eyes. “Where to?”

He gives his eyebrows a mysterious waggle. “Somewhere special.”

“Hasta viernes,” I said, showing off my own command of languages that had once been widely spoken, but had long since disappeared from the earth. Glen leaned down and kissed me on the cheek, then sauntered off to do his own studying.

After that, it was hard to concentrate on my studies. Glen and I had both been so busy lately, preparing for our detail examinations, that we hadn’t had time to go anywhere together, unless you counted quick lunches on the Green, surrounded by our other sixth term friends. And I did not count those at all. But studying was our lives right now. Our scores would determine our detail placements, and those would determine the paths for the rest of our lives.

Glen didn’t seem to take the exams as seriously as I did. Of course, he had a lot less to lose. His parents were both placed in Detail 1, the most important, influential positions in Oberon. His family had money, status, and connections that my Detail 4 family only dreamed of having. I was so flattered when he’d begun to show an interest in me during our second term of academy, since high-detail jacks like him don’t usually notice low-detail girls. But he claimed to be in love with my mind, and pursued me until I agreed to be his pair.

Right away, I was swept. Glen turned out to be intelligent, witty, and charming — a lethal combination. I didn’t have any choice but to be swept. Lately, however, something inside me had begun to hesitate when he told me he loved me. Now that I knew him so well, I could also see the cracks in his smooth, polished surface.
Glen owned an heirloom guitar — a real guitar, made from actual wood. He’d impressed the other students, and even some academy officials with his ability to pluck the strings and produce beautiful music. But one day, I’d discovered that he wasn’t playing it at all. His hands made clever strumming motions in rhythm to a high quality recording, which played from a device hidden in his pocket, the music streaming out from a speaker built into his shoe. It was just one of many small tricks he played to sharpen his image of he ideal jack, worthy of maintaining his place in Detail 1. I tried not to think about it, to instead focus on his better qualities, like his ability to think up creative algorithms to solve complex issues, or the way his mouth curved when he observed something aesthetically pleasing, like the gentle lines of the new resident building in South C, or the plump, purplish tomatoes hanging from the plants on the academy’s rooftop garden. But though I went through the motions of being his pair, something inside me had frozen, keeping me from giving my all, expressions of love painted on my face like the antique porcelain dolls at the Museum of Human History.

Though my mind raced with curiosity, I forced myself to focus on my studies until the evening chimes floated across the academy campus. Then I ran to my quarters to change clothes and tame my short, wispy curls into a manageable twist. I had no idea where Glen planned to take me, so I played it safe with a comfortable elegant slacks and a top edged with colorful embroidered flowers.

“You’re joking!” I said when he told me the address of our mysterious date. “We’re taking the express?”

“All the way to Titania,” he confirmed. We parked our solar scooters next to the station, then rode the air lift up to the express platform. My heart thudded against my chest as we boarded the sleek machine, which could be powered to travel almost as fast as a rocket, but was often slowed down so that passengers could enjoy the scenic vistas outside the windows. I had only ever ridden the express twice, due to its cost, and only at night. So I’d never seen what lay beyond the windows.

The express glided out of the station, and Oberon faded behind us as we flew toward Titania. Glen relaxed as though he’d made this trip dozens of times. But I pressed my face against the glass, eager to see a world that was unknown to me, except for brief mentions in digibooks.

“What is that?” I frowned at the cluster of squat, square buildings in the distance. They were the same hazy brown color as the foreign sky outside — nothing like the slender towers and clean, blue sky inside of Oberon. The whole cluster had a shabby, thoughtless air, like whoever built them had no concept of aesthetics.

Glen looked over my shoulder. “Those are the Outers,” he said, his voice grim. I said nothing. We did not often mention the Outers, as their very existence was somewhat taboo. A society of miscreants, criminals, people who were unable to thrive within the bounds of a civilized community. Every once in a great while, we’d hear of someone who had committed an act so heinous, that they were deemed beyond the help of the usual redirection and counseling, so they were banished to the Outers.
I shivered and pulled my gaze away from the window, not daring to look again until the train came to a stop inside the walls of our sister city, Titania.

Glen’s surprise exceeded my expectations. He took me to an air skating rink, which very preme among the academy students. You strapped on a pair of wheel-less skates and hovered around a smooth, glowing rink on a cushion of air. I had never been, due to the high cost of traveling to Titania, but I had good balance and physical skills, so I was gliding around in no time, even keeping up with Glen.

Afterward, we went out for dinner at an authentic Old Western restaurants, which served foods like chili and fried chicken and hamburgers, some made with real meat! I looked at Glen, shocked, as he took a bite of something that was cooked with the flesh of an actual fowl. But he just grinned and offered me a bite. I made a face. I wasn’t that adventurous.

After we’d eaten, Glen did something else unexpected, and so old-fashioned, that it fit right in with the themed restaurant. He handed me a small box, then crouched down on one knee on the floor.

“Glen!” I looked around, blushing. “What are you doing?”

His eyes gleamed. “Open the box.” I did. Inside sat a slender silver ring, set with a tiny, round stone that caught the light and sparkled with every color. “It’s called a diamond,” he said, and slipped it onto my finger. “Very, very rare.”

As I held up the ring, staring in awe, he took my other hand in his. “Sochi, will you share with me?” He asked. I redirected my shocked gaze from the diamond to his hopeful face. Share my life with him? Be his permanent pair and bear children with him? My stomach rose and fell like an air lift. A part of me was tempted to say no, to return the expensive ring. But sharing with him would mean a rise in status. A better chance at Detail 1. Better living arrangements and influence for my aging parents. And besides, there were parts of him that I had grown to love. Maybe, like plants choking out weeds, those parts could overtake the parts I didn’t care for.

“Yes, of course.” I throw my arms around him. When I did, I noticed something strange over his shoulder. A small group of young people wearing dull gray uniforms, cleaning and repair supplies in hand. Detail 4 crew, I thought. But then, one of the jacks looked my way. His jaw was set in a disapproving way, his unusually pale eyes squinted and hard, filled with a coldness like metal. His hands clenched and unclenched, and even from where I sat, I could see how red and chapped they were, from hard labor. I sucked in my breath.

Outers. I had seen them before, in Oberon. Such crews were shipped in, and heavily guarded as they performed their work. Then they disappeared, like puddles evaporating from asphalt. I wondered what this young jack had done, what his parents must have done, to lead him to such a hopeless fate, to live in a place still choked with pollution and illness, where survival was more important than aesthetics, and life barely spanned eight decades.

Gale and I planned our sharing ceremony for six months after exams, to give us both time to gain new jobs after placement. We spent time studying together when we could, though it was easier for me to work alone. At last the week of examinations came and went. On shaky legs, I took my place on stage as my peers looked on, then breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as the officials announced my placement. “Detail 1.”

“I knew you could do it,” said Glen, who had also received Detail 1. Within the next two weeks, we were both granted jobs as junior environmental engineers at Tyros Agency. There was no time to even think about planning our ceremony, as the following weeks were filled with orientations, training, and learning how to be taken seriously as professionals, and not just empty-headed neos.

“This is the environmental control room,” said a bored-sounding employee during our initial tour of the agency. “This is where we monitor levels of gasses in the air. Here is where we track natural plant growth, as trees and plants shift the amounts of gasses and reduce polluting toxins in the environment. And here is where we store data.” I peered through the locked glass case at the rows of tiny compartments. Each compartment held a single round, sparkling stone, not unlike the one on my ring.

“Are those diamonds?” I asked.

The employee’s snorting laugh made me cringe. “Real diamonds are more rare than cats,” he said, referring to the once-cherished human pet that had been abolished from society years before I was born. “These are synthetic storage chips, each able to store enormous amounts of data, which can be read by even the simplest computer systems.”

After that, I clammed up, afraid to ask any more brainless questions that might lower my status in the eyes of my fellow engineers. I quietly listened and learned about ways to keep Oberon’s air and water clean and healthy. My mind flickered to the jack from the restaurant, and the unhealthy conditions of the Outers, and I wondered why, with our advanced technology, they still chose to live that way.
Though Glen and I now lived together in our own luxurious quarters, we hardly saw one another. Our work kept us both so busy, we only had time for a few brief kisses before leaving in the morning, and quick, shared evening meals before collapsing in bed, exhausted. It was hard to believe that we would soon be a permanent pair, since at the moment, we were more like distant roommates.

Three weeks before our sharing ceremony, the world came crashing down. “Sochi, someone is here to speak to you,” said the desk assistant over the phone. “Please report to the front lobby right away.” I blinked in surprise and locked my computer. Who could be here at work to visit me? Was it one of my parents? Had someone been injured? I twisted my ring around my finger nervously as I approached the front lobby.

It was not my parents. A team of security officers stood waiting, their faces stern. Palo Vyer, the head of the agency, stood nearby, and Glen was beside him, his expression filled with worry and doubt. My pulse raced with sudden fear. What was going on? Was Glen in trouble?

“Sochi Desai?” said Palo. I nodded. “You are being charged with theft. A very large amount of data was recently downloaded from agency servers, and the download was traced to you.”

“What?” I stared, openmouthed. “There’s no way! I would never do that.”
“As you know, our agency contains very sensitive data that could be dangerous in the wrong hands,” he continued. But I was so stunned by the accusations that I barely heard what he was saying.

“I swear, I had nothing to do with this!” I tried to twist away as the security officers restrained me, locking my hands behind my back. “Glen, tell them I wouldn’t steal.”
But Glen refused to meet my gaze, his eyes cast downward at his own folded hands.
“It was Glen who told us the truth,” said Palo. “Glen chose to come clean when he realized that his pair,” he spat the word as though it were filthy, “is a spy and a criminal.”

Hot tears filled my eyes. “Glen, no…” But the truth was sharper than a razor. Glen, my charming, clever pair, had conned me, like he conned everyone else. He was never going to become my permanent partner. He had set me up for this fall.

I was silent as the security officers took me away. Silent as they strapped me into an express train headed toward an unknown location. Silent as they handed me a rough, dingy gray uniform to wear. I changed into the strange new clothes, and as I did, I slipped my sharing ring into one of my pockets. The security officers had not noticed the ring on my finger. The slender, silver ring set with a small, round stone, which caught the light and sparkled, and contained the secrets that had the power to transform even the most hopeless of worlds.

Plant (a Sort-of Short Story)

For Alan (because I promised him a short story for his birthday. Sorry it doesn’t have a shiny happy ending.)

houseplant1

Plant

 

I’m in a hospital. The word flared across his mind, then quickly faded. No, that couldn’t be right. A hospital had nurses that checked your pulse every ten minutes, and noisy machines that blipped and beeped like video games. This place was calm and white. Blazing white lights. White, sterile walls stretching up toward a high ceiling. White tile floors that felt cool and hard under his bare feet as he dangled his legs over the side of his cot. A long mirror ran across the wall opposite him, reflecting the sparse room, and him – a middle age man with a paunch and hair that resembled a dried-out lawn in need of mowing.

Is that me? He frowned. Were his eyes always ringed by such dark shadows? How had he ended up in this room? What was his name? He clenched the edge of his mattress, straining to recall any details about himself. But there was only emptiness.

He stood, approached the mirror. It reminded him of something he’d once seen. An observation window. Somewhere behind the glass, someone was watching him, maybe taking notes.

“Hello!” He rapped his fingers against the glass. “Is anyone there?”

No response.

He wandered around the room, searching for a hidden door. But the walls were smooth, blank. No way out. But if he got in here, then there must also be a way for him to get out, right?

In one corner of the room, a low privacy wall separated a toilet and sink from the rest of the room. Resting on the sink, a metal cup. He pressed a small button to activate the sink, cupping his hands beneath the thing stream of water and splashing it on his face. Then he explored the rest of the room, which didn’t take long. There was his cot in the center of the room, metal legs bolted to the floor. A few feet away sat a narrow desk with an attached swing-out stool, also bolted to the floor. On the white laminate surface sat a white book and pencil.

He perched on the stool and opened it, hungry for words of instruction, or a written explanation as to why he was confined to this strange place. But there was nothing. Every single page in the book was blank. He looked at the pencil. Were they expecting him to keep a journal? To write a confession for some crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t remember?

He twisted around, facing the mirror again. “Hey!” He waved his arms, certain that they could see him. “Is this some kind of joke? What is this?” He picked up the pencil, threw it across the room. Then he hurled the book at the mirror. It glanced off and landed against the floor. Thwack! “I want out of here! Do you hear me? Let me out of here!”

Still, no response.

The next day (Or was it a day? He couldn’t be sure), his throat was parched from yelling at no one, his hands red and sore from pounding on the glass, on the walls, on the floor. As he sat up in bed, his stomach let out a low, angry growl. When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember.

“Are you going to feed me, or what?” His voice came out in a croak. Didn’t matter. No one responded from behind the glass. Maybe he’d been mistaken to think that someone was observing him from the opposite side. Maybe there was no one. Maybe they, whoever they were, had locked him in here and left him alone. The idea lodged in his throat, too big to swallow.

It wasn’t until after he’d used the toilet and gulped down two cups of water from the sink that it occurred to him. Something in the room had changed. The white notebook and pencil once again sat on the little desk. And in one corner of the room, where before had been nothing, sat a potted plant. It was knee height, with glossy, arching green leaves that reminded him of something. Tree. He closed his eyes, savoring the brief flash of memory. Outside. Trees. Gardens. He’d had a garden at his house! His heart accelerated. A garden with plants like this, sprouting from the ground. Flowers, too. And a tree that burst with orange, sweet fruit. His stomach rumbled again.

Could he eat the plant? He ripped off an experimental piece of leaf and chewed it. Then he spat it out, retching from the bitter taste. The plant was useless.

He stood and began to pace the room, until hunger made him so weary, he at last sat at the table. With nothing else to do, he opened the notebook and lifted the pencil. He intended to write his name, but it still eluded him. Instead, he sketched the plant. It wasn’t a great sketch – maybe he’d never learned how to draw well. But the moment he finished and set the pencil aside, there was a small whoosh sound as a small panel opened in the wall across from him. As he watched, openmouthed, a tray loaded with food slid toward him. Shaking with relief, he pounced on the tray and ate every morsel.

The next day was the same. Only this time, the food didn’t appear until after he’d drawn several pictures of the plant and given it a drink of water from the metal cup. On the fourth day, he filled the entire notebook with sketches and words – rambling, almost childlike writings about the plant. His plant. His living, growing, leafed companion. He was rewarded with more food than he could eat, so he saved the scraps on the edge of the sink.

The day after that, the scraps had mysteriously vanished. And like before, there was a fresh, empty notebook and new pencil. But though he filled the notebook as he had before, no food appeared.

“How do you like that?” he said to the plant, fists balled in frustration. “Now what do I have to do?” No sooner had he spoken than the wall panel opened, whoosh. “Talk? All I had to do was talk to you?” he said to the plant.

He spent the next few days engaged in one-way conversation with his plant. As faded memories returned, he told it all about his life. His lucrative, though unfulfilling job at the bank. His black and white cat, Panda, who curled in his lap as he sat reading in his favorite chair. The strong black coffee he ordered every morning from Java Hut. His routine had been so simple, comfortable, dull. But he ached to return to its familiarity. He longed to sleep in his cozy bed, lulled into drowsiness by Panda’s purr. As he spoke, Plant listened, but of course, never responded. He sometimes offered it water, even reached out to stroke its smooth, rubbery leaves.

One day when he woke, a large pair of scissors sat gleaming on the desktop. He stared at the, puzzled. Were the rules about the change again? “What do they expect me to do now?” he asked plant. When food didn’t come, he turned the scissors around in his hand, feeling the cool, heavy blade. When at last his stomach began to grumble, he lifted the scissors, opened them, and snapped the blades together. A hunk of graying brown hair floated, featherlike, to the floor.

Still no reward.

At last he collapsed on his cot from exhaustion, mad with hunger, the cold floor littered with tufts of hair, white scraps of notebook paper.

He rose with a sick feeling, knowing what they expected him to do. Before he could think, before he could allow himself to feel, he grabbed the scissors and raised them to his plant. Snap! One shiny green leaf dropped to the floor. Snap! Another. Then another. When at last his plant was stripped bare, doomed to die of starvation, the wall panel slid open. He ate, hating himself for his own desperate hunger, tears seasoning each bite. Then he buried a handful of leaves along the scissors, beneath his thin mattress, and slept.

He awoke with a lead heaviness in his chest, not wanting to open his eyes to see the lifeless plant in the corner. But he opened them anyway and yelped with surprise.

Someone else was in his room.

Several feet away, a second bed was now bolted to the floor. In it, a bearded, gray-haired man was sleeping.

“Hey,” he said aloud. Beard stirred. “Hey!” Louder this time. Beard startled awake, confused brown eyes meeting his. In seconds, he was on his feet, backing away, looking around the room with a wild expression on his face.

Guy held up his hands, like he would to calm an agitated animal. “It’s okay,” he said. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

Beard shook his head and spouted panicked words some another language. Russian? Slovakian? Guy had no idea. He watched from his cot as Beard went through the same desperate gestures, feeling the walls for a hidden exit, pounding on the observation mirror, yelling what sounded like a stream of foreign obscenities, complete with hand gestures.

“They won’t answer,” he said. Beard ignored him.

Hours later, when Beard was rocking on his bed, holding his stomach, Guy tried to draw pictures in the white notebook to show Beard where the food came from. But he had no idea how to explain the unpredictable things he’d had to do to earn it. Nor did he know what they were expected to do now.

The next day, Beard turned his back to him, and to the mirror. Guy tried to talk to him. Then he tried singing songs. Were the Food Givers fond of eighties pop tunes? Folk songs? Dancing? He tried everything he could think of, until he was weak with hunger. He even drew lame pictures of Beard in the notebook, and then on the walls. But there was no food. That is, until Beard hurled the notebook at his head, then kicked the pencil across the floor.

The panel slid open.

The next day, Beard destroyed the notebook and cracked the pencil. When he was not rewarded, he took out his frustrations of Guy, pinning him against the desk and twisting his arm behind his back. The resulting tray was piled high with food. Beard left him little.

Guy’s anxiety rose like a swarm of insects, stinging his insides. Whoever was watching was obviously thirsty for blood. Sadistic, the word came to his mind. He couldn’t remember, but he somehow knew that outside these walls, he was not a violent person. He was patient, cool-headed, even under pressure. But this went far beyond pressure.

Beard barely waited for Guy to awaken each morning before the beatings began. Afterward, Guy would collapse on his cot, weakened and bruised, listening to the munching noises as his stronger opponent ate all of the food.

One day, Beard struck him with a blow to the temple that made his ears ring and his vision fade to black. When he awoke, he was lying on his cot. Beard was straddled on top of him, face screwed into a frightening leer. As Guy held his breath, waiting for the next blow to come, Beard lifted a pillow and held it above Guy’s face. Then he brought it down.

Lewis! Fight back! A voice said in his mind. Guy kicked and struggled, trying to shake the pillow from his face. But Beard was too strong. Guy was suffocating, he knew, tiny white points sparking in his vision. He was going to die, just like Plant.

Plant!

                Somehow, Guy managed to slip his hand beneath the edge of his mattress, where it closed around a hard metal object. They hadn’t taken the scissors away. With his last ounce of strength, he thrust the point upward, felt them penetrate the pillow.

No, not the pillow. Beard’s body jerked, then went slack on top of Guy’s. The pillow slipped to the floor, and fresh air filled Guy’s lungs. Still gripping the handle of the scissors, Guy pushed upward, until Beard’s body rolled off of his, landing on the floor with a thud.

Blood, so much blood. Warm and sticky on his hands, on his clothes, on the floor. Still gushing from Beard’s abdomen, where the scissors were still planted. Bile burned the back of Guy’s throat. What had he done?

He clambered off the bed, crawled across the room, retching. What had he done?

“I couldn’t be a soldier. I could never kill someone,” his own voice had said once.

“Anyone could kill a person if your life depended on it, Lewis,” another voice had said.

“Not me.”

The observation mirror slid down like a car window, revealing a dozen watchers in lab coats, all applauding. At the same time, the impaled man on the floor vanished, as did the traces of blood. When the large panel door opened, and a medical team entered to retrieve Guy, he still sat in the corner of the room.

“Lewis,” he said, still clutching the lifeless plant. “Lewis. My name is Lewis.”