Homeless

You love your work. You’re thankful every day that you get paid, even though the donations trickle in slowly and the funding gets cut year after year. You still have a salary and you’re still doing something important. Something you care about. Something that moves people. You are in the very kernel of life, eighty-thousand leagues below the sea and down deep to the center of the earth. You have two children and a partner and you love them all. There are good days and bad days, because life isn’t perfect. But when your fortieth birthday rolled around, you were happier than you’d ever been in and you wondered whether people could see it on you, on your lined face and in your tired eyes. Happiness, joy, you’ve come to realize, are quiet things for you, and you experience them in the pit of your belly and the tips of your fingers and in the peace that falls on you when your head hits the pillow and you smell the familiar body of the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with stirring beside you.

Two weeks after you turn forty, you get the assignment. You accept it, because you’ve never turned one down before. You will do your best, but you’re not sure how to begin. You make the usual phone calls. You do the necessary research. You watch the episodes of the better TV shows that involve these people whose lives you’re supposed to start showcasing. You get lots of help. But when you walk to the metro that whole first week you’re more aware than you’ve ever been before. Your eyes have been opened. You see them everywhere, lurking, smoking, talking, even laughing. You see them going into stores and buying things. You notice that they have cellphones. You see them near churches. You see them rummaging in their bags and baskets.

You don’t approach them on your own. You’re too scared. Too nervous. You feel superstitious about them. They are your black cats and ladders and umbrellas inside the house. They threaten to shake you out of your joy. They’ve already begun, without knowing it.

The couple you speak to, the pair of them, have been handed to you on a silver plate by a charity who wanted to help you. You’re grateful to the charity, to their contribution, which feels strange since normally it is the other way around with charities. They’re grateful to you, usually. The couple they’ve supplied are perfect for your story. They’re around your age but look like your parents, they have health problems, they are coherent and can be recorded. You go with them everywhere, that first day. You took with you a wad of five dollar bills in your pocket, anticipating the need to get them to cooperate with you. You’re surprised. They talk to you as if you’re a tourist to their world. They’re eager to show you around, share their complaints, explain their situation, but they don’t ask for a thing in return. It’s another upside-down situation – you’re the tourist, but they’re asking you to take the sound-bite photograph of them. They trust you with their lives. The man lets you hear him begin to cry in the soup kitchen as he worries about his partner’s health, and you wonder if you would feel the same responsibility in his place, caring for this woman with no teeth. The woman looks at the man, concerned at his expression of emotions, so rare and untried, and you wonder whether you would worry about another man’s feelings if your legs hurt all the time as much as hers do.

You are brought into reality by them, and it is painful, a red-hot poker to your guts. When you fall into bed that night, your partner rolls away from you and mutters that you smell of smoke. You sniff. You showered, but didn’t bother washing your hair. You were too tired. You imagine the couple, stretched out on the sofa bed in your living room, piled under duvets and heads resting on clean pillows. They aren’t there, of course. They’re in their tent underneath the highway overpass, where you left them earlier. You left them where you left the job, somewhere else, to be resumed and returned to tomorrow, when you’re ready to leave your home again.

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This story was inspired by this news story on NPR’s All Things Considered. It is entirely invented and bears no real relation (besides that imagined) to the reporter or the subjects of the story.

Conversion

“Convince me.”

The whispered challenge echoed in the otherwise silent, empty space. The words didn’t seem to disperse and the lips that had uttered them were still curled aggressively around them. A skittering noise in the wall broke the spell of rage, announcing that the place wasn’t quite as empty as it seemed; there were mice in the walls, at the very least.

A statue loomed at one end of the hall. It was a tragic figure, mouth turned down, eyelids drooping sadly, shoulders drawn up in a helpless gesture. If it was expected to respond, it stayed disappointingly still.

“Convince me!”

No whisper this time; a harsh, ragged voice flew around the high ceiling and traveled up and down the walls. The mice stopped their scratching, fearful of the stranger invading their nocturnal freedom. Sharp whistles came from the speaker’s chest as air wheezed in and out of it. Illness was in the air. The statue’s frown almost seemed to deepen, perhaps in mourning.

“CONVINCE ME!”

The shout dispersed the quickest. Two thumps followed; the mice fled, thinking it was the cat jumping down from some high object. What followed was the most profound lack of sound, more of an absence of anything substantial rather than true silence.

Another Birthday

Freckled with the usual sorrows that inevitably mark the crevices of our faces as we grow older, Ally celebrated her fiftieth birthday alone, stretched out on a foreign beach. She was wearing an old one-piece bathing suit that had become baggy on her during the last year. She’d never known how strange a baggy swimsuit could feel; it was like she was wearing a second skin that had begun sagging and stretching. She wondered if people who lost a lot of weight very quickly felt this way about their extra skin, and then she remembered that technically she could fall into that category and that none of her own flesh and skin felt this way.

The sunlight felt warm on her skin and she fleetingly worried about skin cancer, before bursting out laughing. A passing local – she could tell he was local because he was wearing tight Speedos rather than swim trunks – stared at her, startled. She smiled at him but silenced herself. She was still capable of being embarrassed. Shame and modesty seemed to be human qualities that you didn’t lose, even after being poked and prodded and operated on over and over again.

Three to six months, they’d said. It was now the seventh, and she got to celebrate another birthday, something she’d resigned herself to not being able to do. So she took herself to somewhere warm and faraway, where people didn’t look at her with tears or panic in their eyes at the idea that she could go at any moment.

“Happy birthday to me,” she sang quietly to herself. The crowded beach was noisy and no one heard her, thankfully. She flung an arm over her eyes and decided to take a nap.

Night Lessons [Flash Fiction]

Stephanie got to know her sister at night. The two shared a bedroom, for the apartment was small and there was no chance of their mother and father ever earning enough to allow them to move. Cordelia complained to anyone who would listen, listing the ways a room of her own would benefit her, explaining how the pipsqueak of a sister who shared what used to be her sanctuary was disruptive to her everyday life.

Cordelia was twelve when Stephanie was born. She knew it was an accident; everyone knew it was. There was a lot of speculation among the neighbors as to whether or not the girls even shared the same father. Stephanie never heard those rumors herself, because Cordelia never told her anything. That was why she could only learn about her sister through her dreams.

Communication didn’t play an important role in their family. It wasn’t a silent house by any means; there was a television, a radio, a computer and a stereo, and they often made sounds all at once, causing a confusing sort of ruckus. Even at night, the urban streets outside streamed with traffic and sirens were heard at least once between dusk and dawn. Stephanie didn’t learn about silence until much later, and by then she wasn’t able to abide it.

The first time it happened, Stephanie was three. She awoke in the middle of the night, during a heavy rainstorm, and saw Cordelia sitting up in her bed across the room. “Coria?” she whispered into the dark room. She’d always had trouble with her sister’s name, and this butchering of it stuck with her for the rest of her life, although she never dared use it in public when she grew up. That night, her sister didn’t answer her; instead, Cordelia spoke to the wall in front of her: “No fair. Fancy dress with crocodiles. Nu-uh.” Then she lay back down, still fast asleep.

Stephanie was puzzled, and in the morning, she asked her sister what she’d been talking about. Cordelia pushed her over irritably and told her that she was making things up. “I don’t talk in my sleep, ugly-butt,” she said. But Stephanie knew that she did.

It didn’t happen every night, but once or twice a week Stephanie would wake up, quite by accident, and hear her sister mumble about tornadoes, boys, Mom and Daddy, motorcycles, and other obscurities. The nonsensical sentences began to take shape in Stephanie’s mind over time, and she watched her sister closely, yearning to understand her, thinking that if she knew things about her life, Cordelia might like her. When she had an abusive boyfriend, Stephanie was the first to know, because she heard “Bobby, don’t!” and “Makeup won’t cover the clover, it won’t work. Daddy, you try,” and other bizarre fragments that she pieced together.

Not that Stephanie did anything with the knowledge – she was too afraid of her sister’s temper to tell her parents anything, and more often than not she didn’t understand the reality of the situation in quite the way Cordelia was living it. But she felt like she got to know her sister, and that was what mattered.

When, many years later, Cordelia lay in a hospital bed, Stephanie told her about the things that her big sister had never told her and Cordelia raised her eyebrows in surprise. Her voice was almost nonexistent by this point, and it was hard for her to breathe, but she managed to utter “Smart ugly-butt. Who knew?” before a fit of coughing overcame her. Stephanie handed her a glass of water from the bedside table and helped her drink it, before laying her back down against the pillows.

Flash Fiction – Mark

“Is it possible you just don’t know anything?” Mark barked, his voice pulled tight as a guitar string on the point of snapping. Beneath him, cowering, sat a twelve-year old girl. Her flaming red hair was fanned loose about her face and there was brilliant color in both of her cheeks.

“Daddy,” she whimpered. “Stop it. Please,” she begged.

“No! Not until you admit that I’m right! Gloria, look at me!” he demanded. His fists clenched at his sides, and the girl eyed them warily, her mind going to the bruise on her shoulder that had only just begun to turn yellow.

“Daddy, I-”

“Stop calling me that!” he roared.

“But-”

“I’M NOT YOUR DADDY!”

The girl’s face crumpled. She’d been doing this for months now, and it was getting to be too much for her to take. She remembered her mother telling her once that she needed to promise that she’d be good to Mark, that she’d help him get through the tough times. But it was hard, so hard, and she felt like a little girl. She wanted to curl up into her mother’s embrace and cry. She wanted to hear her favorite lullaby and then fall asleep, feeling safe and whole again.

“What?” Mark’s fists unclenched and his daughter risked peeking up at him. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Honey?” That whine, that fearful, childish note in his voice made the girl wince, but she got up slowly, leaning on the wall to help stable her shaking legs.

“Daddy?” she asked quietly.

“Oh, honey,” he said, reaching out a hand, his beautiful and familiar hand, to caress her cheek. “Did I do it again?”

“Daddy!” she cried and flung her arms around him. It was like this every time. She felt as if she were emerging from a bad dream. Mark hugged her back, but it wasn’t the embrace she remembered. It was weaker, frailer.

Dawn led him over to the couch and sat him down. She used to always sit on his knees, but now she settled beside him. He couldn’t take her weight easily anymore, and she knew it made him feel bad to try and fail to do so. “Do you want something to drink?” she asked quietly.

“Some water, please. Thanks, sweetie,” he smiled shakily, his head bobbing a little with the tremors that always took him when he was lucid. Dawn filled a glass in the kitchen with water, but changed her mind and poured it into a plastic cup. He’d broken a glass once before, and it was so hard to clean it up from the carpet. He didn’t seem to notice that she brought him one of the old green cups she used to drink in when she was a toddler, but drank greedily, reaching into his pockets for some pills.

“More?” she asked, reaching for the empty cup. He shook his head.

“Did I-” he paused and winced as he swallowed the pills. “What did I do?”

“You thought I was Mom again. And you were going to hit me…”

Mark’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry,” he murmured.

“Did you ever hit her?” Dawn asked. She kept her face icy cold, determined, once and for all.

“No, no, oh – darling, no!”

“Good.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Dawn never knew what she should do. She knew that her father’s violence came from his confusion, from the utter displacement he felt when he got an attack. The doctor had said it was early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, but it looked to her as though her father was simply going mad. It was getting harder and harder to forgive him, to remember he was her father. It was a nightmare that never ended.

Mark watched his daughter. I’m losing her, he thought. She’ll be gone before I know it, and I won’t remember her anymore. The thought was more than he could bear. He burst into tears.

 

Mandy Meets the Goblins (Part 2)

” A goblin, of course,” said Rocky. “As a young lady like yourself should know already.” This puzzled Mandy. A lady? She, a lady? And how would she know what goblins looked like, anyway? The look on her face must have mirrored her thoughts, since Rocky spoke up again. “Well, maybe in this, this country you’re in, they don’t teach young ladies how to recognize goblins.”

“No, they don’t,” Mandy confirmed. “I’ve only ever heard about goblins in the picture books that Miss Turner has up at the school, and in those, goblins are big and really mean. You’re not mean, are you?” She’d already realized he wasn’t big.

“No, no, not at all!” Rocky looked shocked at the very thought. “We’re like… like… What is the word for someone who makes wishes come true?”

“A genie?”

“No, that isn’t it. A longer word. I cannot remember it.”

“A fairy godmother?”

“Yes!” Rocky beamed at her. “Goblins are like fairy-godmothers!”

Mandy took another good look at him. He really was quite green, and apart from the horns on his head, his skin seemed kind of strangely prickly looking too. He definitely didn’t look a thing like any fairy-godmother from the picture books.

“So,” she began slowly, thinking hard. “You’re here to make my wishes come true?”

“Well, it’s like this,” Rocky began. He tried to stand up again and fell over, so Mandy lifted him off the pillow and onto her bedside table where he could stand. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s like this,” he began again. “Goblins can’t exactly do that. Not exactly. No, what we can do is help you make a wish – only one wish, mind – come true.”

“But how does that help?” Mandy was disappointed.

“If you make a wish come true, it’s much more special than just having it come true all on its own, isn’t it?”

“Not really,” now she was getting angry. “I don’t care if it’s special, I just want my sister to stop being sick!”

Rocky jumped, with surprising speed, onto Mandy’s face and, feet on her chin, he held to pieces of her hair in his hands and leaned back so she could see his face properly. “Shush! Do you want your parents to wake up?”

Mandy shook her head, and Rocky along with it. She was a bit afraid of him now. He was very fast, and even though he hadn’t been mean, exactly, he’d been quite strict for a creature that was as tall as her hand. Once he’d jumped off her back onto the table, she whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” he said briskly. “We’ve just got to get started. You’ve told me your wish already, right? You want your sister to get better.”

Mandy nodded vigorously.

“Let’s get started then!” He rubbed his hands together, and started bouncing around the room at incredible speed, dropping things into Mandy’s lap. By the time he’d finished, Mandy had in her hands a get-well card her sister had written for her when she was small and had gotten chicken-pox; a scarf that Mandy was trying to knit for her sister; a shoe that had been a hand-me-down to Mandy from her; and finally, a bouncy ball that they’d played with together.

“Um, what do I do with all of this?” Mandy asked.

“Look here – your sister gave you a card when you were sick, a shoe when you needed one, and a ball when you needed a friend to play with. You started to knit this scarf almost a year ago, but I can tell,” here he nodded wisely, “I can tell that you haven’t touched it for months.”

“I know, it was just too hard,” Mandy started to explain. And then she stopped. And then she thought. Her sister had stuck by her when she was growing up. But Mandy hadn’t visited her for weeks now, scared of what she’d find. She and her twin had used the neglected chores as excuses to stay away, but maybe their parents would have left the invalid’s room if she’d had someone else to sit with her for a while. But they couldn’t, since Mandy and her brother were so scared of seeing their big, strong, beautiful sister just lying there, listlessly.

“But,” Mandy began, as if she’d thought aloud. “But even if I finish the scarf, even if I sit with her, how will that make it better?”

“Maybe it won’t. But maybe it will. Maybe she misses you, eh?” Rocky stretched both hands over his had and held onto his horns. He swayed back and forth, smiling, and then, with a sudden, rushing noise, he was gone. A whisper remained in the air after him – it told Mandy that if she needed a little help, she could call on the goblins.

Mandy was never quite sure if she’d dreamed that night or not. She did, however, start going to her sister’s sickbed. She insisted on opening the windows and letting in sunlight and air. She forced her parents to leave and do some chores themselves. She knitted her scarf, sitting on the edge of her sister’s bed and getting tips from her on what she was doing wrong.  She got her twin brother to make up jokes and tell them to their sister and make her laugh.

She spent time with her. And neither Mandy, nor her sister, ever forgot that.

Mandy Meets the Goblins (Part 1)

The day that Mandy met the goblins was, from dawn to dusk, perfectly normal.

She woke up, as usual, with the crowing of the rooster. She went around the farm with her brother, and they both did their chores. Sometimes they asked Mother or Father for help, but mostly, they knew how to milk the cows and collect the eggs and check up on the sheep in the pasture. Mother and Father would have helped them if it was a year ago. But it wasn’t a year ago, it was today. So it was normal for Mandy to cry a little bit when she heaved a pail of milk into the kitchen. It was also normal that she had a silent but violent tussle with her twin brother over the ripest apple from the forlorn apple tree.

At noon, almost the whole family gathered around the table for a very quiet meal. Mandy kept her eyes down and ate quickly so that she could get back to her chores. Chores made it easy not to think about the beautiful, teenage girl who had been lying on a bed upstairs for the past year; a girl who also happened to be Mandy’s big sister. She was also the reason that Mother and Father didn’t do much anymore – they were always upstairs, or running down to bring up broth, or running into the attic for some old and moldy doll.

After Mandy finished eating, she and her brother did their afternoon chores. Some of it was weeding the garden, but only when the sun was going down and it wasn’t so hot. Another chore, which they did right after they’d eaten was attend to their lessons. Every weekend, they went to the school that was five miles away and had lessons there along with many other children who lived on other farms. During the week, they’d need to study those lessons, and their parents used to be so strict about it that the habit stuck, even though Father and Mother weren’t strict about anything anymore. This was Mandy’s favorite chore, since she had to think very hard indeed about what she was doing, and couldn’t think about the invalid upstairs.

Dusk came, and with it, the end of Mandy’s day. She went up to the room she used to share with her sister (her brother slept in the room next door). She got ready for bed, like she always did, and climbed into it, like she always did, and put her head down on the pillow, like she always did. Except that now things stopped being normal. Because there was something very hard under her pillow that went “Ouch!”

Sitting up, Mandy reached a hand under the pillow and pulled out… what looked like a very strange, greenish rock, with pointy bits. Then she saw it wasn’t a rock, but a small, man-shaped thing that was curled up tight, trying to look like a rock. The pointy bits were its horns, and he couldn’t apparently, curl those up tightly too.

“Who’re you?” Mandy asked, laying the little person-thing down on her pillow.

“Mnthngjstrck” it said, without opening its mouth.

“Listen,” Mandy reasoned. “I know your not just a rock because rocks don’t make sounds. So you can stop being all scrunched up like that.” A tiny eye blinked open in what Mandy assumed was the thing’s face, and it looked suspicious. “Don’t worry,” she added quickly. “I’m not going to scream or anything.”

“Oh,” the creature unfurled, tried to stand on the soft pillow but lost its footing and settled for sitting. “Well, I suppose you’d better call me… Erm… Rocky.”

“That’s a sort of funny name. Did you just make it up now because you were pretending to be a rock?” Mandy was a very inquisitive girl, really, and this was the first time in a year that her curiosity really perked up. She was acting, technically, with what her parents called “bad manners” but she didn’t mind. It was good to do that again.

“No,” the thing answered, sounding a bit peeved. “It’s the closest translation of my name into your language.”

“So you’re from another country?” This was exciting – Mandy knew all about other countries (well, she knew that there were some and that people were a bit different there) but she’d never met someone from them before.

“You could,” hesitated the thing. “You could say that, yes.” Mandy stared at the thing, and it stared right back at her, neither saying anything for long moments.

“Um,” Mandy knew she was about to be very bad-mannered, but she couldn’t help it. “What are you?”