Sticks on Stretched Leather

The drums thud in time to her heart. She feels loud some days, her mouth as wide as the sticks she plays with. She runs and runs and runs and is always behind the other girls running to school. She can’t catch up. Her legs don’t let her. The girls don’t know what she does in secret. They don’t know she runs at night too. She runs and runs and runs at night to the valley. Her head thrums with rhythms and she falls asleep in lessons and there are no two ways about it, she won’t be going to school next year. She knows she is wasting her time and her father’s money. Her mother’s care. Her sister’s sacrifice. But the books in tatters at the school and the walls dripping with sweat and Teacher shouting when they forget their lessons – there is no reality to it. There is no tradition.

The rhythms. There is tradition in the rhythms. In the footsteps on the ground and the dances and the songs. She sees the way the women look at the elders. Even the elders who have forgotten how to eat by themselves and who don’t go far enough away from the river to do their business, even they get looked at with respect. Even the smallest elders with the biggest ears that the little children laugh at, even they remember the drumbeats when everything else is gone. It is soul, the rhythm. It is heart. It is mind and body and memory.

Everyone’s history is in that beat. She thrums to the story of them all and practices far from anyone who can hear, and waits until one day she will be able to show them, show them all, that she has learned their family names in the language of sticks on stretched leather.

Dish & Tin [Flash Fiction]

I woke up in the evening, oversleeping my alarm clock by two hours, as usual, and stumbled out of bed to look something to put in my mouth. My stomach was like a gaping black hole that was consuming all my other organs into it, excruciatingly slowly. I wasn’t sure when I had eaten last, but it had probably been sometime during that day, although the light outside made me think it was dawn rather than dusk. I always feel effed up like that after a nap, but hey, what else am I supposed to do when I work nights and still have to get up in the morning for classes? Naps are the only way I can keep my eyes open and my wits about me. Last week someone on the same block I work on got some serious booze stolen from her because she wasn’t paying attention to the monitors. Working at a convenience store during the night shift is no joke. If anything is missing from the register it comes right out of my paycheck.

My disgusting roommates left the sink full of dishes, like they always do. I hate them. I really do. I sometimes have violent dreams about what I do to them – I think I’ve killed them in several different ways, all painful and quite bloody. I’ve been watching too many gory tv shows lately, I guess. Or maybe I’ve always had a sick imagination. It’s kind of hard to know, because when I was a kid, sandwiched right between three older and three younger siblings, I kind of lost track of whose ideas were whose. When you share a room all your life, even in college, you sometimes end up losing track of when you come up with things and when other people give you ideas. I know from psych classes that everyone influences everyone, whether we want to or not. That’s just how it is, I guess. Makes sense. I don’t think I’ve really influenced anyone, though. I’m pretty boring.

Here’s an example. I always eat the same thing after I nap. Like now. I scraped out one of the pots that one of the bitch roommates left in the sink – I don’t even know what was in there, it smelled so foul, I think she might have marinated something in Bud Light – and then I washed it a few more times and then I made myself spaghetti with tomato sauce. Best dinner in the world. When everything sucks, you end up kind of taking pleasure in the little things, like how pasta always tastes the same, reliable like the old rag doll I brought from home and keep hidden under my pillow so no one will see it and laugh at me.

After I ate, I threw my plate into the sink. It broke. I think I threw it a bit too hard. I stood there for a while, with my hands on the counter, and tried to convince myself not to pick up the pieces of the plate. To just leave them there and let the others deal with it. But I ended up picking them up. And, like I always do, I also ended up doing all the dishes in the sink. I don’t know why I do it. It’s not like they ever say thank you, or even acknowledge that the dishes have been magically washed while they’ve been away, doing whatever it is that they do. For all I know they actually think that we have a magical house-elf that cleans everything for us. But I just can’t leave dishes in the sink before going to work. It’s too depressing to know that when I come back home I’ll have all those dishes sitting there, just looking at me, the stains on them like growths from a bad skin condition. That happens sometimes anyway, even after I wash them, because the roommates sometimes have parties when I’m not there to make a noise complaint to the security company on campus. And then I end up doing those dishes at five in the morning, before I take a shower.

I pick up my coat and my book-bag, and my tin with the weed in it and I leave the room. So okay, so I smoke weed. I promised Mom that I’d quit, but I deserve one luxury, don’t I? It’s all my money, after all. And I need something to take the edge off. Something to keep me going.

Forgotten Ground

There is nowhere in the city where people don’t put their feet inside of their shoes, their sticky, stinking shoes, with gum and grime and dog waste and spit of a thousand disgusting young men on the bottoms of their souls. No, that is not a mistake, in case you were wondering. I never make mistakes. I am deliberate a fault, each and every one of my fault lines is purposeful and is there to make you trip and fall and break your necks, the same necks you take such pains to make smooth with operations and suctions of various sorts and different kinds of nips and tucks and pulls and lifts, as if you can climb into an elevator and make time go back if you take it from the seventieth floor to the twentieth floor fast enough but what you forget is that the hand that you use to press the buttons will always look the same no matter what happens to the rest of you on the way.
The only places that are forgotten are misnamed thus because things that are forgotten are done so by accident, but these, these places are as purposeful and deliberate as each of the cracks I put in the sidewalks for you to slip and trip and pool your blood and life and your lifeblood in. The forgotten grounds are always remembered by those who live in them and wish they could forget about them and return to the places they came from, the places they used to live and that they fled from because they thought that they could come here, where everything is oh so much better because that’s what you tell them on your black boxes with people smiling so brightly with little white pearls replacing their teeth.
There are no forgotten grounds. There are only those neglected by the shoes of those who think that their souls are so much cleaner and that their behinds never let out a single spray of brown waste and that there is nothing but smooth plastic between their legs and that the pits between their arms smell of the sweetest perfume at all times. Those people don’t even really think that this is the truth but they wish it was so deeply that they try to make everyone else in the world believe that it is and it is there, in their minds and hearts, that the real forgotten wastelands of kindness and feeling and truth lie.

Venison

Three winters ago, Mick and I went hunting. I didn’t know what I was in for. For one thing, the gun was so much heavier than I thought it would be. For another, I hadn’t realized how much waiting around happens.
Mick was so excited about my finally agreeing to go with him. He promised me that he would show me how to cook whatever we killed. When we first started going out, I couldn’t believe that he was the kind of person who went hunting. When I found out that he did, I was horrified. For a while there, I was going to break the whole thing off because it bothered me so much. But Mick was… well, Mick, and I guess I just sort of decided to see where things would go. I think I also didn’t quite believe him, because he has such delicate hands and he plays the piano. I couldn’t reconcile those long, large-knuckled fingers and his mild tenor with what I imagined hunters to be – rugged, rough, hairy manly men.
Eventually, though, I had to accept him in all his various incongruities, because there just isn’t a way to ignore a rabbit carcass roasting over a bonfire in someone’s backyard.
When he took me hunting, Mick told me that it would be a real adventure. I guess it was. We tramped all around through a forest with brightly colored vest things over our jackets so that no one would accidentally shoot us. We crouched down and waited, and breathed, and I felt the mist turning to a drizzle on the back of my neck.
I could hardly hold the gun up, let alone shoot, but watching Mick was fascinating enough to make the ache in my muscles worth it. There was something in his face that seemed akin to his concentration when he plays – but there was something else there, something almost feral. I didn’t, and still don’t, get it. There wasn’t anything exciting happening, but at every breath of wind and rustle of the leaves, his pale skin would flush and a small smile appeared on his mouth, but otherwise he’d stay absolutely still.
He killed a deer that day. That’s something else I didn’t realize – that we would have to carry something huge like that back to the car. Deer are much bigger than you think they are from far away. It was heavy, and Mick almost didn’t want to take it home, but I couldn’t stand the thought of him having killed it for nothing. If we brought the poor thing home, at least we’d be making use of it.
I couldn’t watch him turn the deer from animal into meat. I went to the bathroom and threw up after I saw him slit its stomach open, but I didn’t tell him. I pretended to be hungry, and, to be honest, the smell of the meat roasting actually made me hungry. It was easy to separate the venison from the deer I’d seen lying dead on the forest floor with its thick tongue hanging out and its eyes glazed and empty. I’m glad I never told Mick that I threw up, though.
We didn’t last for very long after that, but it wasn’t because of the hunting. It was because of his other passion – the piano. He got picked up by a touring orchestra and went to Europe. He cried a little when he said goodbye to me, and he apologized. He told me he would always remember me. I know I’ll always remember him too, especially when I see a deer or smell the telltale scent of venison.

Where No One Can See

The floor shook, and ornaments began to rattle on the shelves, the painted china ladies knocking elbows and skirts with the delicate porcelain men. There was no earthquake, no shifting of plates deep within the earth, no shifting of magma or stone so old that it remembered what it was like to have the weight of much larger creatures stand upon it. The house that the floor belonged to looked peaceful from the outside, every blade of grass intact and the little red bench on the porch perfectly clean and gleaming cheerfully.

The disturbance, as the reader may have deduced, was arising from one of the rooms. It was a small one, near the back of the house, far from the street as well as situated at equal distances from the neighbors on either side. It was the only room in the house from which sounds would not emerge for the entire neighborhood to hear and judge, as members of small, well-mowed neighborhoods will. A woman named Gina stood within this room, which was hardly a room at all, more like a linen closet that had been stripped of its shelves.

Gina wasn’t remarkable looking, for she had no one feature that stood out particularly, nor was the symmetry of her features pleasing enough to be remembered. There was an aura of the average about her, a sense of potential that may have shone for a while but was quickly snuffed out by its owner for no real reason except, perhaps, laziness or lack of motivation. This is not to say that she seemed defeated. At the moment of the shaking floors, she looked, in fact, full of restless, angry energy as she screamed and jumped up and down again and again until her voice became ragged and her throat raw.

No one who knew Gina would ever believe that she went into this middle room several times a day to perform this ritual, this cleansing of all the sour emotions that would build in her over the course of her day. Her husband, with whom she was in the process of getting a divorce, would have been surprised to learn that Gina had any such strong emotions at all. As far as he was concerned, she had taken the news that he wanted to marry one of his graduate students quite well. He even entertained the notion that they would be able to remain friends and support each other emotionally during their later lives. He thought he would rather like that, because the graduate student he was engaged to was quite vapid and, if he was truthful with himself, was mostly attractive to him because of her smooth skin, her bouncy hair and her insatiable sexual appetite.

The ornaments settled, the floor ceased its tremors and Gina emerged from the room; slightly breathless and only a little red, she resumed the duties of her everyday life.

He’s in the Kitchen [Flash Fiction]

Who? Satan, that’s who. He’s a chum, a pal, you see, of my pop. Pop has him over round ’bout once a month, for beer and a chat. They yap their jaws like nobody’s business. They talk and talk and I lie abed like Pop told me to and try to listen, but I can never understand no words nohow. It gets so mighty hard to take, knowin’ the king of hell is in the room just across the hallway, but Pop says he made a deal and he’s gotta abide by it. Pop’s a man of his word, I know that. He’s never made me a promise he didn’t keep, and I know he won’t ever.
Lacy says that Satan once came and spoke to her but she’s a big liar and likes to make hersel’ seem big and important, that she does. She says that Satan gave her an offer, jus’ like he gave Pop, but she said no on account of bein’ too young. She said he should come back in five years and ask again. That was two years ago. Lacy is seventeen now, and I’m fifteen. I guess fifteen is the age Satan likes, cause tonight he comes and knocks on the door to my room.
“I haven’t seen you since you was in diapers,” says Satan, nodding his big head and smilin’ all kind-like. He ain’t so scary once you get used to him. Sure, his skin’s a little strange, and his horns take some gettin’ used to, but all-round he looks a mighty lot like Santa Clause, only in a fisherman’s gear and not a big red suit. He’s fat and jolly, is Satan.
“Yessir,” says I. I wait but he jus’ smiles down at me. He looks like he’s gettin’ taller every second. Pop says that can happen with him – he doesn’t look the same two seconds in a row.
“Gertie,” he says all solemn suddenly.
“Yessir?”
“I have a proposal for ya.”
“Sir?”
“The same one I made your pop all those long years ago.”
I guess Lacy wasn’t lying, and that’s a surprise right there. I think my mouth stays open too long, cause Satan puts a finger under my chin and closes it and says “Don’t want the flies getting in there, do ya?” I don’t know what to say, so I shut up for a while and think.
What have I got to lose? I’m short and ugly, Lacy got all our ma’s looks, and I ain’t brainy neither. Pop is good to me and I’m his favorite, that’s true, but nobody else in town takes much store by me. I think now that Pop maybe never made an effort with Lacy and me really cause he knew Satan would help us along by and by. I think of Sunday school and the old preacher-man who talks for hours and doesn’t say anything. And I think of the talks that Satan and Pop have. I hear ’em laughing a lot. It sounds kinda nice, the way they talk, and Pop always looks kind of young and smooth after Satan leaves.
So I stretch out my hand and tell Satan “Alrighty then. Shake on it.”

Full of It [Flash Fiction]

The world outside my window seems to be covered in mist but I don’t know whether my vision is screwed up, my medication is affecting my eyesight, or there is simply a haze due to pollution and humidity. I find myself doubting my own perception a lot lately. Ever since I had that dream the other night, my reality has been compromised.

My boyfriend tells me I’m full of crap, of course. He’s tall, six-foot-something, and he has to bend down quite far to kiss me. Not that he does that a lot anymore. Usually he expects me to climb up on my tip-toes or stand on some higher ground and reach up to him. He still leans down to whisper in my ear, though. I used to love it, but not anymore, not since the dream. I made the mistake of telling him, yesterday, that his whispers were giving me the creeps. Maybe I could have been more tactful about it, but I was telling the truth, asking him to stop sneaking up on me like that. He blew a gasket. I’m not actually sure what ‘gasket’ is (according to Google, it’s “A shaped piece or ring of rubber or other material sealing the junction between two surfaces in an engine or other device.”) but I think that’s what he blew. He told me that I was losing it, and that if I wasn’t careful, he would force me into the loony-bin.

I’m not scared of psychiatric hospitals, though. I sort of, kind of, accidentally-on-purpose forgot to tell him that I spent a lot of time in them when I was a kid. Although I’m kind of still a kid. But you know what I mean; when I was prepubescent and innocent, I spent a lot of time in hospitals. They were quite helpful, actually. I wish I hadn’t agreed to quit therapy for my boyfriend. But he told me that we needed the money for a bigger place, and I caved in without really thinking about it. But I wonder what Sonia, my most recent psychiatrist, would have said about the dream.

A scream echoes outside, and I can’t tell whether it’s a cat or a baby. Sometimes they sound the same. Maybe my neighborhood is actually full of shape-shifting babies, turning from human to kitten and back again? There are old people in the park, with Filipino caretakers swarming around them, chattering in their local dialects, socializing with others who know the village where they grew up. The old people drool and blink at each other, silent. Actually, they’re not there now; but I know that they’ll be there soon, gathered around the benches, so I’m already prepared for the way they’ll all look and the conflicting emotions I’ll have when I see them.

I can’t really remember the dream from the other night. I think it involved old people. And Filipino caretakers. Maybe even babies morphing into felines. And maybe none of these things. The dream has passed beyond the veil of my coherent memories now, and all I know is that I feel, for the first time in years, bereft of something. It’s as if, when I woke up from the dream, I woke up into this life that I wasn’t really aware I was living. The thought has even occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t living in this body before I woke up the other day. Maybe I was an old person in a wheelchair, or a lonely Filipino sending money to my wife back home, or a baby watching in wonder as its fingers grow claws and its thumbs retract back into its skin.

My boyfriend says I’m full of crap, though, so maybe I’m just imagining things and foaming at the mouth, desperate for something different to come along and save me from the monotony.

Haunt [Flash Fiction]

The three ghosts glided out of the movie theater, grumbling. It had been a slow night, and they’d finally decided to pass the time by watching a film. They’d been disappointed. It had been a horror movie about ghosts, ghouls, goblins and girls, and none of them – not even the girls – had been represented accurately.

“There are two common mistakes,” the oldest-looking ghost said. “Either ghosts are made to look opaque, or else they retain the wounds and symptoms that they possessed when alive.”

“Don’t start lecturing,” warned the ghost-woman, raising a finger threateningly.

“Yeah, please don’t, dude,” the third ghost said. He picked his nose with his pinkie, digging vigorously in the cavity with his mouth slightly open and a vague expression on his face.

“Gross!” the ghost-woman said, turning away and rolling her eyes.

“You, my young friend,” the first ghost said evenly, “are truly a shameful specimen of the afterlife. We have higher standards than humans, you know.”

“But what’s the point of being invisible if you can’t do the stuff you’re not supposed to do when you’re alive?” the young ghost whined.

The woman and the older man exchanged glances and mouthed a word that looked suspiciously like “newbie.”

“Come,” the elder-ghost beckoned to the two others after glancing at a digital clock displayed over the door of a store selling watches. “It’s late enough to get to work now.”

“I’m so not in the mood,” complained the woman-ghost. “But you gotta do what you gotta do. Or whatever.”

“Indeed.”

And so, with well-practiced moves, the three ghosts ducked into the supermarket and began to haunt it.

Amelia [Character]

Amelia thought about death a lot. She didn’t consider herself morbid. She told people she was a realist. “Every time you cross a street, you might die,” she would say. “A freak tornado can happen at any time. Earthquakes aren’t that rare. All it takes is one moment of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you’re dead. And that’s a fact.”

She ran a finger underneath the velvet choker tied round her neck. Lifting the long-stemmed glass in front of her, she took a sip of champagne. The bubbles burned her tongue. The restaurant was brightly lit, clean and simply decorate, but Amelia saw dozens of opportunities for death all around her. If the waiter slipped right there, he would bang his head on the corner of a table. If the bartender poisoned the beer barrels, everyone who was ordering on tap would be in trouble. If the electric chandelier fell, it would crush the angry family sitting at the table directly beneath it.

“Ah, Amelia! Welcome back, welcome back,” the head waiter said, shuffling over rather nervously and drying his sweating hands on his tailcoat. “What can I get you today?”

“Nothing much, nothing much. This champagne is rather nice, you know.”

“I’m glad it’s to your liking!”

“Yes. Do you know that if you swallow something the wrong way, the fluid stays in your lungs? You can accumulate so much fluid there that it can kill you.”

“Indeed?”

“Hm. I think so. Maybe not. But it makes sense, doesn’t it?” Amelia realized she was a little tipsy. This was, after all, her third glass. “Death is a beautiful thing, my dear sir, did you know that?”

“Amelia, now,” the head waiter extended his hands forward, trying to ward off the oddness. “You remember what happened last time we had this talk?”

“Yes,” Amelia said, her voice serene and her eyes gazing far away. “You ended up escorting me out very rudely and then calling the police. The police, mind you, could have been very rough with me. Did you know that there was a kind of thing as ‘suicide-by-cop?'”

“No, I wasn’t aware. The cops weren’t rough with you, were they?” The head waiter’s anxiety levels were rising and he could almost feel the blood pressure closing his arteries and making it difficult to breathe. Amelia, or maybe it was Amelia’s money, often had that effect on people.

“No, no, of course not. But they could have been, you know. I just think you should get us both some lemon pie and then sit down and have a chat with me. What do you say?”

The head waiter made his excuses and hurried away to get the bill which he would put, not so tactfully, beside Amelia’s plate of pie. He sometimes had nightmares about Amelia. It was hard for him to envision her as someone like him, with a family and a past and some future. She had significantly less future than he did. Maybe that was part of why she frightened him so much.

It was so convenient and easy to see her as a scary old witch who was fascinated with her mortality; it was rare that people saw her for what she was – her friends dead, her family members all involved in their own lives, she was an old woman who was, indeed, fascinated with her mortality.

X-Men: First Class [Review]

I watched the first two X-Men films on a television screen in preparation for seeing the third in the theater. I remember choice moments from the series, although if you asked me to organize them, I wouldn’t be able to figure out which bit belonged in which film. I remember, for instance, the talented Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto; I remember lovely Anna Paquin playing some character with a white streak in her hair and not being able to kiss anyone; I remember the fascinating Mystique, her character a silent, blank, dimension-less shadow; I remember Xavier’s infuriating calm and how angry I was that he pronounced his name Exavier instead of Zavier.

The newest addition to the X-Men saga is a prequel that follows the origins of the mutant movement. The film was fun, gripping and action-packed but managed to move through a coherent and interesting plot as well. No small feat for a film based on a comic series that includes so much information that it could never hope to all be transferred to the screen. I enjoyed seeing Xavier’s arrogance as a young man, his high-and-mighty nobility that really stems from a need to be accepted and adored. I found the friendship between him and Magneto to be a beautiful thing, but very much like that of Sebastian and Charles in Brideshead Revisited or else Dumbledore and Grindlewald in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – that is, beautiful, but with a clear lack of balance and sticking-power. It was, I suppose, to good to be true, and so of course they must part. This isn’t a spoiler, mind you, because anyone who’s seen the X-Men series so far will remember that Xavier and Magneto are sworn enemies who speak very nicely to each other and allude to a former friendship.

And yet, sadly, there was much to complain of. Mystique’s character was annoyingly vague – fine, she appeared in Xavier’s kitchen one day, they became staunch friends… and? Where did she come from? What makes her trust him? Why does it take her so many years to realize that she has feelings for him? And those feelings, once displayed, disappear so quickly that I wonder if they were even there at all! She’s very confusing, which isn’t helped by the fact that the actress seemed, to me, to be having a tough time stringing more than a couple of words together at a time. The script, too, failed me towards the end, when I began to predict every line the characters uttered because they were a string of clichés that explained, very quickly, several facts that are supposed to make the audience go “ooooh!”

Finally, I remained unconvinced that the film was taking place in the early sixties. Everyone’s clothes seemed exactly like those we wear now. Maybe the X-Men all have another mutation that allows them to predict the fashion sense of the future? Maybe I’ll find the scene explaining that one in the deleted scenes on the DVD.