Excerpt from [flash fiction]

The day the earthmen came, we were settling into an educational module in the Viewing Room. Twelve of us, one monitor, and an exhausted Instructor who was no doubt underpaid and whom we certainly didn’t appreciate. Instructor was of the tall sort, limbs more twisted than usual, a point Instructor had no doubt been picked on for at our age. But we were not yet so confident as to make fun of an Instructor the way we would one another.

John* was the only one among us who was missing and we didn’t know why yet. We thought we were safe and sound, if bored to tears by the outdated moving image we watched and pretended to learn from. There wasn’t one among us who wasn’t secretly tapping into the Sphere** to check how our pets were doing at home and how our sports teams*** were faring and whether or not we would be able to meet our friends that afternoon at our favorite watering hole.

All of which is to say that everything was incredibly normal. That normalcy is part of the heartbreak of that day in my mind.

The monitor flickered and very suddenly we were being subjected to the live footage**** of the earthmen coming. The government had clearly taken over all monitors and the Sphere was so shocking that several of us cried out in fear and tried to put the images away. But, as our new overlords say, you cannot force the furry mammal with claws back into the bag. We had seen the earthmen, and we were getting live updates on their descent from their crashed ship.

We didn’t know what was to come then. We were students, with little to worry about beyond the exams we were to sit – the first serious ones we were ever to take – and the wrath of our parents if they found out what we’d been hiding around the Sphere for friends to find. We were concerned with our next meal and the pressures of procreation that would soon be upon us. We wanted to go to our moon during the next vacation and learn to pilot our own Bubble.

Instructor started to keen when it became clear what was happening. Instructor said nothing would be the same again. We didn’t believe it then, but we believe it now.

*Names are untranslateable and untranscribeable so characters have been given standard Christian names.

**The English name given to what is, to the best of our understanding, like the Internet crossed with a technologically developed collective unconscious.

***We are as yet uncertain as to what such sports look like or where they are played, for we have found no evidence to show that these beings have any fields or arenas or other dedicated areas to play in. Some theorize that by “sports” the beings mean something more like online chess.

****No actual footage or recording material has been found; the assumption so far is that monitors were played through the Sphere, with a being controlling what was being shown on the monitor – actually a gaseous oval in which images resolve in 3D in varying degrees of detail

Long Time No See

Hold my bloody fingertips close to my nose and sniff. Oranges, apricots, plums, passionfruit – smell everything the color reminds me of, but not the substance itself. Plunge the fingers into the bathtub and watch the red spread. Curling, curlicuing into shapes more beautiful than anything I could paint in a swirl of color on my canvas.

Perhaps that’s why it’s been blank for so long.

The bathwater is warm, now bloody, so climb in. Sink, let hair down. See naked skin flush with the heat. Feel lungs constricting in the steam. Turn on the cold water, watch it rinse the drying blood from under my fingernails. The evidence is still on my face, deep scratches not yet welting shut, dripping fresh droplets into the hot, now cooling, water.

What makes a person eviscerate a face? Eviscerate a self? Let’s see. Maybe the wounds of defection, watching friends leave and lover spurn when they find out. Maybe it’s having the past dragged up and needing to face it yet again. As if the past time and the time before that and the one before weren’t enough. As if it is always necessary to be reminded of crimes committed when too young to think clearly, let alone decide.

So. There was a crime. There was foster care. There was counseling. Seven year olds don’t get sent to jail. Maybe they should. Maybe I should have been. Records sealed, name never in the papers, only a description of what I looked like and what I’d done.

No use pretending. I killed them. I did. I killed them with cold blood and no malice. I was curious. And I wanted to make it stop. What they were doing to me. Aunt and uncle. Uncle more than aunt. Aunt enough, though. Wanted it to stop. There’s no malice in stopping the pendulum of a clock with your finger. There was none in my actions either. I just wanted them to stop moving. And I’d watched enough TV to know guns could make that happen.

Eons gone by, forgiven, forgotten, but not yet. Not every time they find out. And so – boxes. Empty canvas needs to be packed up. Suitcase needs to be pulled out of the closet. Clothes need to be folded up and placed inside. A new apartment to be secured, new friends to be made, new lovers to be met. I’ve lived in more states than I was ever interested in, yet it keeps coming back up.

So. Blood in the bathtub. Face scarred worse than ever they scarred me – they left no marks. Newness to be introduced to everything again. Running looks like this.

Returning looks like this too. Resolve this time to return. To go back to where it all started. To where they know my face. My scars, visible and not. My crimes, never forgotten, still probably the most scandalous thing in a town of five thousand. Maybe someone will believe me after all these years.

Lie in my blood and plan.

Riddle Me This

There is a train going so and so miles an hour. On the train are people. Many people. People in love, people in last, people lonely, hurt, confused. People happy, people painful, people paining others. People in awe, people overwhelmed, people dirty and mean, people with wants and needs and desires and fears and haunts and favorite flavors and skeletons in the closet. People with scars on their arms and peace in their hearts. People unblemished with souls heavy with use and abuse. People striving and giving up. Fortunate and alive and ill and surviving and for better or worse they are all there, in one place, divided by seat backs and armrests. Divides by belief systems and opinions and shrapnel and allergies and hemmerhoids and diagnoses and money and parents and circumstances in and out of their control. 

The train crashes. 

Who lives? 

Let’s say it’s you and I. I live. You live. We are the only two to survive. This isn’t a romantic vision. Death and destruction aren’t beautiful this close up. And here we are, two lone survivors, separated by history and power and culture and beauty and futures and loves and lives given and received, sacrifices and allowances, privileges and knowledge. Nothing to bridge the gap but survival. 

There is one bottle of water, one useless sugary treat wrapped in a plastic bag. Will you take them and run? Will you give them to me and die? Will we share? I know my answer. Do you know yours? 

Progress Report

Are you scared? Are you scared because of the pigment of your skin? Because of what’s between your legs? Because of how or if your legs work? Are you scared of how you love? Who you love? Are you scared to be seen? Are you afraid of being hidden? Are your elbows too sharp for the world’s soft temperament and your body too wide for the chair it’s giving you? Are you afraid of breaking? Are you afraid of being broken? Are you afraid of your tongue and teeth and voice? Are you afraid of losing them, if you had them in the first place? Are you afraid of what you see when no one else is watching you see it? Are you terrified of the emptiness behind your eyelids and the eyelets of your shoes if you have them and the glass on the floor if you don’t? Are you afraid of conflict? Are you afraid of being conflicted? Are you scared of where you’ll be in forty years or four, of being alive for just four minutes more? Are you afraid we’re not moving fast enough? Are you scared of moving? Of going places? Of change? Are you terrified that you’re changing? Are you scared of being changed? Of being short changed? Of being shortly denied your right to live? Are you scared of being right? Are you scared to exercise your rights? Are you afraid of exercise? Of your body? Of the bulk of space you take up in the world? Are you afraid of space? Of the world? Of never discovering it fully? Of coming up in it? Of going out in it? Are you afraid to come out? Are you afraid of being out? Outside? Are you afraid of toxicity? Of being toxic? A danger to others and yourself? Are you afraid of others? Of yourself and self worth? Are you afraid of being worthy? Are you afraid? Are you? Who are you?

A Guide to Apathy in the Face of Tragedy

  1. Remember that apathy is a coping mechanism.
  2. Eat all the chocolate.
  3. In the house. All the chocolate that exists in the house.
  4. Don’t go out to buy more chocolate if it is raining.
  5. If it is not raining, cuddle your cat, your dog, your fish (the fishbowl, don’t take the fish out), or your stuffed animal. Then go out and get more chocolate.
  6. Once you’ve eaten enough chocolate to make you throw up, let loose. Try to aim at the toilet bowl but if that doesn’t work, any surface is fine. Maybe even better. More memorable.
  7. Vomited chocolate looks remarkably like old blood. Brown and sticky and vaguely metallic in your mouth.
  8. Remember that chocolate is a coping mechanism.
  9. Look at the chocolate you threw up. Think of it as blood.
  10. Feel the pain in your stomach. In your throat. The pounding in your head. Imagine that after hours of dancing. Keel over. Pretend you’ve been shot.
  11. Realize that unless you go out and try it, you will never approximate what getting shot is like.
  12. Stop blaming other people.
  13. It’s all your fault.
  14. The apathy.
  15. The tiredness.
  16. The knowledge that you should be sad.
  17. The intellectual response that is being appalled yet functional.
  18. Remember that it is all.
  19. Your.
  20. Fault.
  21. Not the shooting.
  22. Only the aftermath.
  23. Try to imagine a loved one.
  24. Anyone.
  25. Your mom.
  26. Your dog.
  27. The fish.
  28. Picture them getting brutally murdered.
  29. If you feel something, let yourself cry. You’ve accessed it. The place you’ve been hiding all this time.
  30. If you feel nothing, find a box of pins. Or paperclips that you can bend and make pointy.
  31. Insert the pins, the pointy paperclips, anything sharp, into your eyeballs.
  32. See the truth.
  33. See why you’re unable to feel.
  34. Think of your history with violence.
  35. Think of how you’ve learned to be blase.
  36. Because you’ve had to.
  37. Or you’d always be scared.
  38. Afraid.
  39. Terrified.
  40. Remember you used to live this way.
  41. Remember you’re not useful this way.
  42. Remember you are giving into the oppressor when you are not useful.
  43. Remember.
  44. Remember.
  45. Never forget.
  46. Remember.
  47. That is the only way for you, apathetic slug that you are, to feel something.
  48. Cerebrally.
  49. Intellectually.
  50. Until you die a little inside. It’ll happen eventually.
  51. When it does, forgive yourself.
  52. Not too much.
  53. Just enough to keep going.

Nude Awakenings: Grayscale by Ilana Masad

My #StoryADayMay for today! ❤ Thank you, Dirty Chai Mag.

Dirty Chai

Dirty Chai’s latest publication in the Nude Awakenings column comes to us from Ilana Masad, who was inspired to write “Grayscale” during her senior year of college after her “really kickass writing teacher” assigned the piece “We Were Our Age” by Dawn Raffel—a piece Ilana describes as being “all about language and emotion and allusion, a piece that you can’t classify as a story but can’t classify as anything else either.”

Says Ilana: “‘Grayscale’ is what happens when that teacher then tells you to try to write something where you pay attention to the way words sound and connect and allude. ‘Grayscale’ is what happens when you’re a clinically depressed and anxious writer and find yourself with a vehicle to tell a story that is about someone sad and angry and dreary and gray and tired.

“‘Grayscale’ is also something you look back and cringe at a little bit, but…

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No Touching (Story A Day May)

Touching people wasn’t in the job description.

“Baltimore, Maryland! Baltimore, Maryland, next stop, next stop, Baltimore, Maryland, ten minutes, ten minutes to Baltimore, Maryland!” A stooped figure walks through the car, calling out the words that come so naturally that they slur together. “Baw-mor-mar-lan-nexzop-nexzop.”

Clarence’s belly protrudes over his uniform pants, but his shirt buttons don’t strain. They make the uniforms in his size, for which he is grateful. He doesn’t know how he obtained the gut; in the way of men of a certain age who have always been meaty and wide, it is only the stomach that really changed over the years, even as his arms remained strong and his legs carried him the distance of the train and back so many times a day. His wife likes to joke that he’s become pregnant with the weight of the world, and that he won’t give birth until he quits his job and gets off his feet.

He doesn’t think she’s wrong, but he also doesn’t think she’s right about this. He does know that touching people was never supposed to be his lot in life. And here he is, counting down the minutes to the next stop with dread, his palms beginning to dampen no matter how dry the train is kept. It is dry, he often hears complaints of it, and the daily commuters are savvy enough to bring moisturizer with them, even the men, he notices, always surprised at how his own quirks have become acceptable, such as keeping his nails trim and neat, his hands moisturized, his skin clear, using makeup when it isn’t, plucking his eyebrows out of growing into fuzzy caterpillars, these are all normal to other men now, and he remembers hiding his habits in shame when he was younger. But his own hands, so well-moisturized, now begin to sweat as he hollers the nearness of the station, and yet plenty of people are still sleeping, the ones whose tickets indicate that this is their stop.

And so he starts. The first is a lady, not a usual one, with the detachable hood of a coat resting on her head, maybe in place of a hat or because it helped shut out the noise of other passengers. Clarence doesn’t know and he doesn’t ask. He puts his hand on her shoulder and shoves roughly. He used to try to be gentle, but it meant he missed people, that people missed their stops, and the rage or despondence that result when people wake up to find themselves a state over from where they need to be is even more insufferable to him than the touching. So he’s perfected a harsh yet impersonal push that tends to wake people up for the most part. The woman is a starter – one of those who wakes up with a half-snort and an inhale of breath as if rising to the surface after too long submerged in water. “Baltimore, next stop,” Clarence tells her. She nods, and begins to get her things together slowly, sleep still weighing heavily on her.

The next is a man, an old man that Clarence sees often. He needs barely a nudge, he’s used to Clarence. He’s a smooth waker, one who opens his eyes as if he’s never been asleep, as if he was only pretending. He smiles at Clarence with his dentures and asks him how he is. Clarence says fine, fine, and “Baltimore, next stop, five minutes.” The man doesn’t need to gather anything. He always keeps his outerwear on, whether it’s a coat in the winter or a just his suit jacket in the summer, and even if it’s very hot in the train. His briefcase is always tucked between his arm and his body, and his legs are always crossed, one way or the other.

There’s a teenager at the end of the car. A pretty young woman. Clarence notices this precisely because he knows he shouldn’t notice, because she is his twin daughters’ age, and because he worries that men may look at his daughters and notice how they are pretty young women too. No one said he’d be touching anyone when he took the job all those years ago. No one. But here he is. He wishes he had a stick, something he could poke people with so his hand wouldn’t need to come into contact with this girl’s leg – which is the closest part to him and the only one visible. She’s is curled up on her seat with her upper body and head are covered in her coat, and he doesn’t want to reach up into the murky purpleness that is her coat and end up touching the wrong thing. Her knee seems the safest but most awkward place to put his hand, but he does, and he shakes roughly.

The leg jerks away from him and the girl rises and backs away, scooting herself back in the double seat towards the window, her curled hair matted with sleep on one side, her eyes bloodshot, a look of utter terror on her face. “Don’t touch me,” she says. “Baltimore, next stop,” he says, and touches his cap to her in a gesture of respect and detachment, he hopes, and goes on to the next car. Four minutes to go. Another carfull of people he is responsible for and whom he may need to wake up.

Touching was never in the job description.