Art is the same.

A short story inspired by The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. He’s truly an excellent writer. I recommend reading any of his work; The Things They Carried is probably the best book I’ve read in a long time. I tried my best to do his voice justice in this short piece about artists.

At 12 p.m. on April 10th, 2015 Monterey Grover popped the kickstand of his 1960 Schwinn Jaguar and set off down the narrow streets of Eugene, Oregon. A leather messenger bag carrying his Polaroid SZ-70 clattered against his leg as he pumped the pedals. The sky sulked in heavy sheets of gray, as if to make sure that the world below didn’t cling to any hopes of seeing the sun for another two months. 

The sun snickered over the balcony of Raul Castell’s high-rise apartment in San Francisco, California. Raul stood by the railing, drawing from a Toscano cigar and wondering how the dramatic arches of the city’s skyline would look on a suit jacket. He tapped out the cigar and turned to call for Eric.

Olivia Markowitz turned in her desk chair to call for her cat. When Sir Snouffles failed to round the corner, she glanced at her alarm clock and winced. Crap, it’s 3 o’ clock! I have class in thirty minutes! She bent back over her charcoal and tried to drown out the racket of the New York City streets with the trance of Rachmaninoff.

Crackpot kids. Senseless racket, Sean Reynolds thought sourly as he tucked the spray paint can into the front of his oversized jacket. He shrunk back into the shadows of the Philadelphia alleyway to wait for the gang of teenagers blasting rap music to move along. How was it that every time he picked out a new spot to paint something got in his way?

Every time Lien Phan returned to wash the stained glass windows, she found fresh smudges and grubby fingerprints. She sighed and set down the rag, turning to look at the wooden apples and grapes of Grinling Gibbons’ mantelpiece carvings that were on display across the open hall. Maybe today I’ll actually pick up a wood block, she thought. But it was only 2 o’ clock. She would be here cleaning windows at the Sugar Land, Texas Art Center and Gallery for another three hours still.

In the pockets of Olivia Markowitz’s oversized School of Visual Arts hoodie she carried stale cat treats that had never been thrown away. She didn’t even know why she held on to them; Sir Snouffles always spit them out every time she tried to coax him onto her lap. She carried pencils upon pencils upon pencils, HB and 9B and charcoal, chipped and chomped from long nights of nervous teeth chattering. She carried them in grocery bags and in coat pockets and in her hair, though she never seemed to be able to find them.

Raul Castell carried a tin of Toscano cigars to his studio every day in anticipation of client conferences that might need a little nudge in his favor. He liked the simplicity of the Toscano brand, the classic oily must of tobacco and tang of spice. He also knew that a fresh cigar paired with his diamond-cutting gaze could swing any interview his way. He carried a sketchbook of rich red leather, filled with drawings of evening gowns and feathered lapels and checkered pant cuffs.

Monterey Grover carried The Man, The Image & The World: A Retrospective by Henri Cartier-Bresson. It was the closest thing he had to a bible, and he liked to have it handy to whip out and prove his points during debates on the philosophy of photography — debates which he had surprisingly often. He carried a titanium tea mug that was virtually indestructible and impenetrable, and always had fresh bags of oolong and chai handy in his messenger bag pockets.

Lien Phan couldn’t fit much in her apron pockets, but she carried a stiff and square-shaped handbag in which she kept a small tub of vaseline, a flip phone, an unused pad of yellow paper, and a collection of tickets from fortune teller machines and cookies. They read phrases like “The beginning of wisdom is to desire it.” and “Your many hidden talents will become obvious to those around you.” She carried a small wood carving of a cross-legged Buddha that her grandfather had whittled for her when she was twelve years old. He always seemed to be smiling up at her, inviting her to admire his chubby chiseled fingers and toes.

Sean Reynolds carried a couple of cans of Rust-oleum Touch N Tone spray paint whenever he could scrape up $6.95 to buy them at the corner store. They always seemed to be running empty though, choking on their last fumes, and he never had quite the right colors. He carried in his Walgreens shopping bag a stick of chipped deodorant, a role of quarters, and a wallet with nothing in it except for his driver’s license from 1989. He liked to take out the license and imagine that he still had his steel Sedan and fresh, unlined face.

Lien carried a mountain of what-ifs between her shoulder blades. They started low with “What if I slept in this morning?” and peaked with “What if I was born in Hoi An, in the Kim Bong woodworking village? What if I grew up with Grandfather, with Ong Noi to teach me?” She carried the blind hope that one of her fortune tickets would come true, that a fresh start would put her on her way or her hidden talents would reveal themselves. She carried the fear that she would never be taken seriously in the presence of geniuses like Gibbons and Moriggl and the master woodworkers of Kim Bong. She carried the fear that she wouldn’t know where to start or how to start. She carried the fear that she’d never start.

Sean wore a worn Phillies cap that he knew would never collect enough change to guarantee his next meal. Weighing heavy on the back of his neck was the dread that he would turn a street corner and be caught in the crossfire of vying gangs, or that one morning he’d just drop on the sidewalk by a dumpster, left cold and forgotten and dead with the trash. He carried the tangled wires of panic and pride — pride in his work, in his signature that stamped back alley buildings and boxcar walls, that brought color and vibrancy to an otherwise grim and uninviting place. But panic in the price, in the worth, in the wondering — is this all there is to remember me by? Panic in the knowledge that he was alone with his art that everyone could see.

Raul carried rivalry, hot and bitter in the pit of his stomach. It fermented at all hours of the day and bubbled up whenever he opened a magazine and saw that his name wasn’t in the featured fashion column. He stubbornly lugged around his cutthroat passion and pressed it into pages of designs and long hours of stabbing and stitching around mannequins. But he also harbored vulnerabilities — the wanting to give only the finest in life to Eric, the conviction that nothing but the best was acceptable, the need to prove with Marsala wine and Persian carpets that he was thriving. Succeeding. Unbeatable.

Monterey carried carelessness, steaming in the lenses of his useless glasses. It clouded his 20/20 vision, causing him to fall back on the comfortable cushion of stability that his parents had built beneath him. He bore a name that he had given himself when he decided that ‘Michael’ was too mainstream. His evolving identity toted his aversion to the conventional. He sprouted a beard, tied his hair in a bun, and proclaimed to all 36 followers of his blog that he was going to look at the world more authentically. He carried cockiness, but he also carried passion — for the still, silence of photography that could capture loud and angry moments and manage to make them look peaceful. Monterey carried fear, the fear of being like everyone else, the fear of never establishing a self, the fear of being crushed by conformity.

Olivia liked to think that she didn’t carry anything but unpaid student loans and unanswered emails from her parents. But really, with each sleepless night and completed canvas she carved a new tally into her growing doubt. She hauled around the doubt that she would never be able to support herself on art alone, that the wide-scale, carefully detailed charcoal portraits she slaved over were really worth no more than the crappy doodles she did on her napkins at lunch. She hunched over the worry that her parents had been right all along — that art school was a mistake, that she would never hold a stable job, that in the end she was better off sticking to her napkin scribbles and going to some business school. Olivia carried uncertainty, and to a lesser extent, insecurity — because though she lived for the gruff grasp of charcoal on paper and feeling of all the parts of a portrait becoming a whole, she still bent her back to the fear that she would never be good enough.

They carried what-ifs and rivalry and carelessness, and panic and pride and sleepless nights. They carried contradictions, but they also carried the same fulfillment, the same gratification in creation. The same satisfaction in wanting to make something that was more than them.

We are different, but art is the same.

Raul Castell snuffed his cigar in an ash tray by the door and walked inside to the kitchen, where Eric stood over the stovetop frying eggs. He wore a simple ivory button-down, an early design of Raul’s from 2005. A shirt that Raul had sworn to never let see the light of day. But seeing it on Eric stirred something in him. It made him…happy. It made him want to go back, to the days when he designed not for maintaining his brand or stealing the runway — but for him and for his loved ones.

“Eggs? At noon?” Raul pressed.

Eric shrugged and scraped the contents of the pan onto a plate. “You looked like you were seething. Here’s to something soothing.”

The soothing draw of Rachmaninoff crowned on a mellow note, and Olivia Markowitz dropped her charcoal pencil, her fingers smudged black. It was too late to get to class now, but she had finished. Finally finished. Suddenly the grade didn’t mean anything, and she was left with just her and her smudged fingers and her art. A grin crept across her lips as she felt a familiar tail rub against her legs.

Blades of dewy grass rubbed against Monterey Grover’s legs as he knelt into the dirt, focusing his polaroid camera on the peeling paint of a park bench. Angle, zoom, and snap! He chuckled to himself as the picture processed — he liked it, he liked being alone in a park and taking pictures of friendless benches. He liked the solidarity of it; he liked having a piece of something that no one else cared about. He shook the photograph dry and waited to see whether or not the image would be worthy of his wall.

Lien Phan had spent a good five minutes staring at the wall displaying the Grinling Gibbons carvings before she remembered that she wasn’t getting paid by the hour. She returned to her window scrubbing, and thought that maybe she should give her mother a call and ask about the family back in Kim Bong. Maybe, just maybe, a trip home would find her the answers she needed. After all — “Your happiness is before you, not behind you!” her fortune of the day declared.

Sean Reynolds declared to himself that if the loitering teenagers didn’t move along then he would have to settle on finding a new spot. But where was he going to find a canvas hidden in plain sight that wasn’t infested with cops and pink-eyed dealers? He waited in the shadows and held his tongue, and eventually the lot of them moved on, their music shaking the dust in the air and pulsing through the ground to Sean’s feet. He advanced in on the cement wall and pulled his only two spray paint colors from his Walgreens bag: blue and black. As he shook up the first can, he glanced over each shoulder to make sure that the alley was good and empty. He could feel the energy in him, building up and sparkling at his fingertips, like firecrackers charged and busting to pop on the asphalt. A raw glee stirred the smoke in his belly, and he flicked the cap of the can to the ground.

Then he stepped back, saw his signature draped in sea-salt waves and midnight oil, and painted.

© 2015 Stellular Scribe

In Which I Find Myself In A Horror Movie

"the woods" by Simon Christen
the woods” by Simon Christen

There had always been a soft and slightly twisted part of my heart that loved the eerie, the delightfully creepy, and the suspenseful. It’s not like I had this deep-seated obsession with horror movies or an unhealthy fascination with the macabre — no, I mostly just liked the idea of something being so unearthly that it sent prickles up your spine or that something could be so bizarre and awe-inspiring that it filled you with a mixture of glee and cold, run-for-it panic.

Yesterday nature was confused as to whether it was ready to grow into its big boy March pants or revert into its temperamental Ice Age. This created a dilemma between the cold and warm air, and the rising tantrum resulted in fog. Lots and lots of pea-soup, fleece-lined, cotton-candy fog.

At 5:30 I locked up the house, got into my car, and began the commute to my music school, just like any other Wednesday. As I descended the hill out of my neighborhood, I sunk into a fog so thick that I could barely see the yellow line on the road. It was slow driving from there, and to relax myself, I turned on the radio.

It was the classical and jazz station — no harm there, right? Just some nice, soothing Bach or Rossini. Ha. Ha. Aha-ha-ha. When I turned up the volume, I was met with a chilling scream and crescendoing notes, all in discord, screeching against the ripple of thunder. My knuckles instantly tightened, and I hunched forward as I tried to make sense of what my ears were picking up. Turns out, the classical and jazz station was having a horror movie soundtrack special, complete with ghost wails and creaks and moaning waterphone cacophonies.

The mood in my little car on that winding, murky road changed abruptly. Suddenly I was hyper aware of the black silhouettes of every branch and bramble, each clawing finger that poked through the fog, straining towards my car. I could see the channels of mist that hugged the road, snaking in and out between the wheels, and the shadows that formed when the smoke lapsed and the moon loomed overhead.

A ghoulish sigh, the anxious spiccato of violins, a foghorn’s lament, the shatter of glass, the childish tinkle of a vibraphone… I drove sitting on the edge of my seat, willing myself to focus on the road ahead and not stray to the demon eyes that glowered from the trees above or the hulking shadow in the side mirror that stalked my car from behind.

I was thrilled and horrified and giddy and mortified. Oh my God! I’m in a horror movie, the enchanted part of me mused. Oh my God. I’m in a horror movie! the terror-stricken part of me cried. It continued like this up the rest of the road. This is so cool! They’re going to find my car abandoned in the woods. Wait till I tell everyone how creepy this was! Wait till everyone finds out I’m dead…

After about five minutes, the music switched to a Chopin piano concerto, and the legions of ghosts and living dead that marched on the woods around me melted away. I breathed a sigh of relief, and drove on.

© 2015 Stellular Scribe

True story.

The Story Dealer — a short story

"Hermione Reading before Bed" by Lincevioleta
Hermione Reading before Bed” by Lincevioleta

I had just learned how to recite “The Pledge of Allegiance” in a perfect monotone when Olivia Briarly dealt her first story.

It was the second week of first grade, and the classroom smelled of sidewalk chalk and Mrs. Peter’s pumpkin spice perfume. We stood to attention, piggy fingers clamped over our chests, staring with fervor at the faded American flag over the door.

“…with liver tea and justice for frog.”

Mrs. Peters waited for a few straggling voices to mispronounce the last line before giving us permission to sit. On any other day, we would’ve collapsed into our chairs, overworked first graders that we were, and looked onward to her for the morning announcements.

But on this day, we collapsed into our chairs, and our attention was turned to the center of the room, where Olivia Briarly stood, palm pressed firmly against her blouse as if she were afraid that her heart would fall out.

Mrs. Peters tilted down her glasses. “Olivia, do you have a question?”

Olivia grinned. “Can I share a story with the class?”

“May I share a story,” Mrs. Peters corrected, “and no, now’s the time for announcements.” She turned to the chalkboard.

“But I just thought it up, and it’s really good.”

Mrs. Peters curled her lip, but quickly masked her annoyance with a tight smile. “You can tell your story at recess, Olivia. Now sit down.”

Olivia sat, but she jittered and squirmed and knocked her feet against the legs of her chair as if they were the iron bars of a cell. While Mrs. Peters spieled on about the lunch menu (salisbury steak with a side of Jell-O), I couldn’t take my eyes off the back of Olivia’s head. I snuck peeks at her from afar for the rest of the morning, and was so occupied wondering whether or not her story really was any good that I penned my sums right on the desktop.

After lunch, the clang of the recess bell summoned us to the playground, and the fastest kids dove into the swings like the wood-chips were lava. I noticed a small gathering of kids from my class amass over the hopscotch grid, and jogged over to see what was going on.

“Well, you have to tell us now. What’s it about?” a nasally-voiced kid said.

He spoke to Olivia, who stood tall in the middle, hands planted on her hips and bony elbows sticking out every which way. She wore purple and black striped stockings, and had thin lips that seemed to be created for the sole purpose of smirking.
“What will you give me in return?” she asked. “You can’t just expect me to tell it for nothin’. I’m offering valuable merchandise here.”

Fat Matt spit his gum into his palm. “You can have my Wrigley’s.”

She pulled her lips back over her teeth. “Ew…there’s a germ on that. I can’t get a germ!” She crossed her arms. “My story’s worth much more than some chewed gum.”

“What about this?”

I felt my cheeks bloom with color as ten pairs of eyes switched to me. In my outstretched hand was a sealed cup of raspberry Jell-O. I had stowed it away in my coat pocket with the goal to eat it under the slide, where I always got my best thoughts.

I was completely aware of the fact that Jell-O to a first grader was like wobbly, artificially-flavored gold. So naturally, a hunger that mirrored that of a hyena’s sadistic glee flashed across their eyes as I held the snack up. Olivia took a step closer, considering the scruffy, obviously-dressed-by-his-mother seven year old before her.

Then she flicked one of her sugar and spice grins, and snatched the cup from my hand.

“Ok! So once upon a time, there was this evil witch who cursed a poor family to live in a tissue box…”

In the second grade, we learned how to write in cursive, and Olivia mastered story dealing.

From sweet September till sweat-slick June of my seventh year, I could always count on finding Olivia in the same spot at recess: feet glued to the seven square of the hopscotch grid and hands tucked under her armpits. She wasn’t waiting for anyone; she would just stand there, and sometimes kids walking by would offer up goldfish packs or juice boxes or funny erasers in return for one of her stories, because everyone knew that Olivia told the best stories. She had a new tale to tell every day; I once overheard her narrate the life of a girl who could talk to bugs and went on the five o’ clock news to inform the world that bugs were, in fact, not gross. Then there was the story aptly titled Rockets in Spain, which was, as coincidence would have it, about sentient rockets in post-apocalyptic Spain.

By the second grade, my writing skills had refined to the point where I could print an e without the loop resembling a deflated balloon, and I had become astute at the art of experimental writing. But while I was struggling to piece letters together, Olivia was stringing up sentences.

The ‘news’ that Olivia was selling her written stories swallowed the student body faster than that nasty case of lice in kindergarten. I first took notice of the frenzy during lunch, when I went to empty my tray and saw a flash of color in the trash bin. Sandwiched between a chocolate milk carton and rumpled napkin was a pastel notebook page tucked into a neat square. I surveyed the area to make sure no one was looking, and then snatched it up into my pocket.

Two hours and a bellyful of undercooked pasta later, I unfolded the note in the shadow of the slide. Before me scrawled a page of beautifully misspelled words, and what I could only assume to be a ghost illustration in the bottom margin. It took about five minutes to discern the title (The Mysterious Swishing Sound), but I recognized Olivia’s signature right away. She had this feline way of writing: Os like stretching cat yawns, and lazy tail-like Ls.

I was about halfway through the haunting tale when the bell rang, and a teacher yelled at me to get out from under the slide. My shoes were untied and socks stuffed with wood-chips, but I didn’t care — my mind was somersaulting, dipping, twirling, splitting! Later I would realize that Olivia’s story, The Mysterious Swishing Sound, was just a grammatically flawed amalgam of every ghost story cliché to curse a page, but in that moment, it was nothing short of genius. How could she write like that? What kind of person could dream up stories like that? My mind performed gymnastics for the rest of the day.

The week before winter break, Sophie Wu promised Olivia all of the candy canes in her stocking if she could be written into the next story. Olivia sniffed a bargain, and whipped out three pages of the nail-biter Santa Claus is NOT Coming to Town within the day, in which the orphaned heroine, Sophie, saved Christmas from the cyborg elves. The next day she brought a crisp journal to school, and on the first page wrote Sophie’s name next to “a stockingful of candy canes.” She sat atop the monkey bars all through recess, bare feet dangling as she jotted down story requests.

The more Olivia wrote, the more people wanted to be written into her stories. And she delivered: Fat Matt was transformed into the gawkish knight of the Jellyfish Kingdom, Greg Bello assumed the persona of a transcontinental tortoise, Lily Sharma became a teenaged ghost on the hunt for the afterlife’s mall, and even the lunchtime custodian, Miss Maisie, was done over as a firefighting-winged-wonder-woman in The Adventures of A-Maise-ing Miss Maisie. As enlistment for character creation boomed, so did Olivia’s cult of readers. During one snowed in recess, I saw ten folded pastel papers on Gill Simon’s desk. Someway, somehow Olivia’s stories had become collectibles, and an unspoken competition sprung to see who could accumulate the most original works. I still hung on to The Mysterious Swishing Sound. That was my story. I had rescued it after all, hadn’t I?

Every writer, of course, has her critics. The technology teacher, Mrs. Wolf, once announced to the class that Olivia’s piece, The Gremlins Who Lived in the Computer Box, was unrealistic and un-researched. “Gremlins,” she spat (Mrs. Wolf suffered from hypersalivation), “are silly, inappropriate fictions, and don’t belong in computers. We’re here to learn about computers. Not gremlins.” Even the “gifted” counselor who came in once a week told Olivia that the main protagonist of The Green Gumdrop Man was “creative yet ultimately unlikable.” And who can forget her faithful flock of anti-fans? They were the sort of kids whose parents lied to them about Santa Claus’ existence, viewed reading as the most grueling of chores, and considered fart jokes the height of comedic enterprise. Olivia either didn’t notice or didn’t care when they snickered during her readings and left scraps of her stories in her desk, but my fists would roll into rocks whenever I saw them whisper venomously to each other.

I had always been just that kid — the observer, the extra, the background character. That kid who sat in the back of class, who sometimes knew the answer and sometimes didn’t, who never had anything particularly profound to say on any subject, who would much rather be busied by comic books and doodling musclebound super-villains than little league soccer or beginner violin. I wasn’t the kind of kid whose parents would write to counselors about, urging them to consider their child for the “gifted” program. I wasn’t the kind of kid who got rushes equivalent to that of sugar highs from succeeding or exceeding or even just completing. I was quite content to be unextraordinary.

I watched with quiet admiration as Olivia dug her roots into each person she met. I watched as she tossed her seeds across the playground, and I watched as she force fed them water and sunlight and steroids. Olivia didn’t just sprout. She erupted skyward, a rampant beanstalk bound for the heavens, and no cloud could overshadow her path.
Part of me wanted that untethered ability, that easy know-all and do-all flair that earned Olivia so many I-know-you’ll-be-rich-and-famous-one-day smiles from adults. But I couldn’t write a word that didn’t collapse beneath the sins of syntax and I had no stories to tell. What could I do? Midway through the second grade I had my first midlife crisis.

Third grade only fed Olivia’s fame as her writing gained mild coherency and consistency, while still clinging to her uncommon creativity. She dealt out stories by the genre, dabbling in sci-fi (The Cosmic Cactus), absurdist (When the Butter-People Attack), historical (The Real Witches of Salem, MA), and even poetry (Henry Hickle Hiber Hoo is Frightened of the Color Blue). Once, in the middle of a language arts test, she bust out in fluent tanka — a style that we would not be introduced to for another three years.

For Olivia, the third grade was a year of bountiful monkey erasers and enough Jell-O to jam her cubby for the winter. But in the fourth grade, something changed. Her fame fizzled.

There was this toy, moon shoes, that was really popular when I was seven. The chromatic advertisements touted them as “super-fun mini trampolines for your feet”, and everyone had to have a pair to strap to their sneakers. Those technicolor kangaroo-kids in that epilepsy-inducing commercial were just so gosh darn happy. For about a year, you couldn’t walk through a neighborhood without seeing kids trip-bouncing over curbs. But only for a year. Kids got bored, and maybe it was because moon shoes couldn’t get you more than a foot off the ground, or that nine out of ten kids suffered twisted ankles — or maybe they were just forgotten to collect dust in garages. Either way, moon shoes’ fame quickly fizzled, and dumpsters everywhere overflowed with broken rubber bands and kangaroo-kid dreams.

Olivia was the moon shoes of fourth grade.

Jealousy might’ve had something to do with it. I imagine that some people just got sick of hearing her trickle iambic pentameter into conversation, or listening to her explain exactly what iambic pentameter was. Suddenly having your name written into a story wasn’t so earth-shattering, and offering up your Oreos for a swashbuckling, time-traveling western didn’t have the same appeal as actually eating said Oreos. Kids got bored. And hungry.

Part of me was surprised at how willingly Olivia retreated from the limelight. Instead of standing over the hopscotch grid and chatting up prospective clients, she curled in the shade of the maple tree and lost herself in her notebook. Instead of interrupting the math teacher with propositions for penning his biography, she hunched over her desk, head low and pencil poised. I watched as her signature pastel papers all but vanished from desks and whiteboards and trash bins. I watched…but that’s all I did, watch. I was an observer, an extra. Like the guy who watched Godzilla destroy Tokyo from the safety of his television screen.

I thought maybe — if not for just a little bit in middle school — that Olivia and I were the same. Like me, she shied away from attention. Like me, she preferred to keep her true self safe beneath a sheet of water (or paper). I understood her. I got what it was like to love something but never be able to talk about it. I…

I don’t know why I thought of her this way. We weren’t even friends. She didn’t even know me.

God, writing this makes me sound like a creep.

Why do I act like I know her?

I’m thinking about how people can change but always stay the same.

I’m thinking about how people can do nothing but still mean something.

I’m thinking about talent and self-worth and being extraordinary.

I’m thinking about “The Pledge of Allegiance” and raspberry Jell-O.

I’m thinking about shadows and slides and being a mouse.

I’m thinking about delusion.

I always thought that I was just that kid — the observer, the extra, the background character. And maybe I am. I don’t know. But I think I’m ok with it.

Olivia was always the main character. Even in middle school and high school, even after she reverted and cast off her story-selling ways — she was still the girl who I watched haggle tales from my spot under the slide. Still the smirking, tanka-talking know-it-all. Still the story dealer.

I acted like I knew her. Because we were the same, weren’t we? I never talked to her, but I knew her. Or maybe that’s what most people call delusion.

When I see her sitting at the library desk, one hand twined into her hair and the other pinched around a pen, I suddenly don’t think of myself as a background character anymore. I am seventeen, and unextraordinary, but maybe for just a few minutes I can be a main character. So I get my guts together sit down across from her.

She bites the inside of her lip as she writes close, angular sentences that bleed into each other. I remember her feline way of writing in the second grade: loose and languid and floating on the page. Now her writing is sharp and hurried, as if she is trying to get the words out of her brain before they slip away forever.

I unfurl my hand over the table, dropping a folded square of purple pastel paper. Does she remember me? Did she ever even know me?

The tendons in her arm relax as she stops writing. Her eyes find mine first, quiet and confused, and then switch to the paper. I nudge it to the center of the table with the tip of my finger. The library buzzes with hushed voices and clacking keys, certainly not a malapropos environment to speak in — but I remain silent, urging her on with my gaze.

She tilts her head, her folded brow challenging my advance. After a few seconds of suspended library hum, she reaches for her pen.

“A deal.”

She looks back up. “A deal?”

Her eyes search mine for some sort of answer, but I give away nothing. With a soft sigh, she reaches for the paper, unfolding it slowly and holding the edges like an empty egg shell. It’s worn thin with thumbed down and frayed sides, but the words are clearer than the day they were penciled. As she reads through, she heaves a small gasp, tightening her grip on the paper before setting it down gently.

“What’s your proposition?” she finally asks, eyes still glued upon the pastel page.

I lean forward. “An old for a new.”

She releases a bubble of laughter. “You’re trading this crappy story for something new?”

“Hey, The Mysterious Swishing Sound is a classic.”

“But how do you even still have it? We didn’t exactly –” She falters off, but reclaims my gaze. “Something new? What do you mean, new?”

“Anything. Something you’ve already written. What you’re writing now. Something you hate. Something you love. I’ll read anything you write.”

She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “I…I haven’t done this since the third grade.”

“Done what? Story dealing?”

“Story dealing.” A thin smile stretches across her lips. “No, I guess not. I didn’t think anyone wanted to read my stuff. An old for a new, you ask?”

I nod. “So do we have a deal?”

She pauses, considering.


© 2015 Stellular Scribe

Pride and Pain

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.

-Bob Marley, Trench Town Rock


Very funny.

Mr. Marley, I’m sure that you intended this sentiment to be digested in the loosest sense: that listening to music is essentially listening to emotion, and that emotion cancels out all other pain. And in my heart of hearts, I hear you. I’ve been a musician since my guppy years, playing the flute, the piano, the piccolo, the guitar (I tried my throat at singing once: never again).

But no pain? The absence of pain, you say?


Very funny.

Allow me to drag you back exactly one year, to a full house and the hum of Mozart. Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet warble across the stage to each other their chemical angst, sweating under layers of period clothing and the glare of fluorescent spotlights. I sit behind the first violinist in the pit, my fingers clammy against the keys of my instrument and ears ringing from the piano behind my head.

It’s halfway through the first act of Pride and Prejudice the opera, and I begin to see spots. As the sole flautist in the orchestra, I’m responsible for carrying quite a number of the themes (my favorite of which is Mr. Wickham’s- such a dashing and demanding tune!) A binder stuffed with twenty plus pages of sheet music lies open on my stand, twenty plus pages that I only had a few weeks to perfect- no, not perfect- stumble through. The days leading up to opening night were stuffed from morning till evening with constant rehearsing, tunings, and timings. And now here I am, halfway through Act 1, and I begin to see spots.

For a bit of background info: these ‘spots’ are telltale signs that a brutal and debilitating migraine will ensue. Also called a migraine with aura, it is characterized by visual symptoms such as blind spots or scotomas, blindness in half of your visual field or in both eyes, flashing, zigzag, and prickling lights/patterns, or straight up hallucinations. They can last from five to twenty to forty minutes. And they suck.

I managed to squint my eyes through the next song, but by the time it got to Wickham’s solo, my vision could be classified as legally blind. Every huff into my flute was daggers in my temple, and I had to rely on my memory to hit the right notes at the right time. When I didn’t have to play, I sat bent over with my head in my hands, which I’m sure the conductor didn’t appreciate. I flubbed my way though till intermission, and then bolted from my seat to the backstage, where I sat in a dark room and drank three bottles of water, all the while feeling like puking and ripping my eyes out of their sockets.

Migraines can be initiated by stress, anxiety, light, sound, temperature, food- and now that I think about it, I’m sure that they all applied to me. I was stressed (having only a few weeks to learn the music and not much sleep the night before), I was anxious (it was opening night and a full house, and I was the only flutist), there were bright white lights in my face throughout the performance, the piano behind me was thundering and the violins beside me were screeching, it was uncommonly warm in the pit, and I hadn’t had anything to eat that day.

I’ve come across several studies in which the researchers claim that musical performance can ease migraines; but I call hogwash on that. It. Was. Awful. 

Just imagine a horse with rusty daggers for hooves kicking you in the head, and then maybe you’ll get the picture. Ur…or lack of picture, seeing as I had lost the ability to open my eyes.

I remember releasing the last note in the finale, and feeling an overwhelming rush of relief intermingled with agony. The next day, I slept for fifteen hours straight.

So you see, Mr. Marley- music can cause pain.

I’ve sort of dropped off the radar for the past week, mostly due to an overwhelming load of work. I wanted to try to get back on the horse though, so here’s a speedy memoir.

The Invasion of the iThings

by Joe Dator
Joe Dator

Blame it on the warped, sci-fried, and only slightly sadistic sector of my brain, but I think we’re being invaded.

Before you slap down your cuckoo claims on alien conspiracies or little green men who worship the moon or whatever hoodoo-voodoo, spacey-raciness crosses your mind, cool your jets. This isn’t War of the Worlds or Body Snatchers; I’m not about to hoist myself onto a pedestal and scrub your brains with the (very true) tale of how the pyramids came to be or the (also very true) gossip on Area 51 shenanigans.

No, I lament on an invasion initiated by the human-breed. On ourselves.

Bear with me; this is for the children.

I too was once a hopeful homo sapiens, wrapped up in the metallic sheen of imminent computerdom, internal epidermis calculators, and infinite virtual viability. My flip phone was the single most extraordinary device in the galaxy; it could take pictures and everything. In the seventh grade, I was a tech mogul, and my only regret was that I was unfamiliar with the glorious gleam of the inter-webs, which had this magical ability at transforming my peers into worldly individuals.

Pray patience; the point is pending.

Around the time that I mastered the art of phone-flipping, I received my first mission objective: watch TV and make sure that the mini-folk don’t kill themselves; a.k.a., babysit the neighbors. Thirteen years old and ready to whip out my patented ‘mom’ voice, I agreed to watch the little buggers from five till nine on Friday night. Just to prove that I was the stuff of babysitting legends, I packed a bag of artsy-fartsy things and a few choice narratives.

One short boy, one tall girl, and one grande boy (skinny, of course) greeted me at my neighbor’s door. They were all of the smallish species, ranging in age from four to nine. I plastered on my milk-and-cookies smile and hailed them in their native tongue of toddler. They chirped back their hellos, and then turning on their heels, sprinted up the stairs. Mother and father beamed; oh, those darling kids! They’re too shy! I’m sure they’ll warm up to you soon enough.

Soon enough, in two minutes, within the decade…I didn’t quite care, so long as I got paid. I waited for mom and pop to split in their Ford Fusion, and then bounded up the stairs.

“[Redacted]? [Redacted], where are you?” I peeked down the empty hallway. “I’ve got a build-your-own bouncy ball kit! We can throw them at the cat! Or we could read a story? Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Or maybe something more cheerful? Charlotte’s Web? Actually, come to think of it, that one’s a bit depressing as well… Or we could just go outside?”

I was met with cold, deliberate silence, and the faint squawk of a dying bird.


I catapulted through the nearest door to find the short child lying across his bed, with an iPad in hand and possessed look in his eyes. That was my first inkling of the invasion.

The floor was strewn with untouched toys; there were legos still locked in their cases, cars shiny as the day they were forged, books unbent and unloved, and Nerf guns loaded but never fired. A glass terrarium sat on the table by his unkempt bed, containing a perky, plastic palm tree and out-of-order hermit crab.

He bit his lip as another bird was flung to its death, and grumbled his frustrated, four-year old garble when it failed to strike the swine. At first my voice abandoned me, and I watched as his chubby fingers smudged the screen and his eyes whirled white with a hundred thousand pixels. That thing in his hands- it commanded him! It was even more powerful than I!

Swallowing my horror, I enquired after his pursuits, and again offered to release him into the wilds of suburbia. He oinked a non-reply, and motioned for me to close the door.

Exiled into the hallway, I extracted my flip phone from my pocket, and suddenly it didn’t seem so fanciful. A quick search of the menu revealed that I didn’t have any bird-smashing games, but I could play solitaire for three easy payments of $9.99. I wondered what it was that really rattled me- the invasion of the green-eyed monster, or the invasion of the iThings?

I was just beginning to contemplate whether or not I should call SETI (I had them on speed dial) when I heard another peculiar noise. I tentatively entered the second room, and found the tall child tucked into her bean bag chair with an iPhone pressed to her nose.

“Watcha doing?” I asked. A pink, polka-dotted iPad cozied up to a pillow pet on her bed.

She wagged her hand at me. “Come see.”

I hesitated. Seeing that the phone was firmly latched to her face, I could only assume that it was sucking all of humanity’s secrets out of her brain. But after a few suspended seconds of muted music and obscure sound effects, I crossed over to look at the screen. I was bestowed with an exciting scene of penguins creaming each other with snowballs.

“Hey, how about we go outside? There’s no snow, but we can make mud balls and mud forts…”

She rolled her eyes.

Hold up…this little tall girl was radiating sass like a flippant cosmic ray. I could handle a good serving of sauce, but something told me that this wasn’t the organic kind. I yanked the phone from her fingers and was about to chuck it out the window when a noise escaped her lips that sounded somewhere between a cat’s painful death and a hen laying an egg twice its size. It’s assumed her mind, I thought in horror. There’s no going back now. I tossed the phone into her lap amidst weepy wails of “It’s a matter of life and death!” and “I need to beat the guy!”

Suffice to say, I removed myself from the room.

Back in the hallway, I thought over what I knew about the family. To their name: an acre of clean, green grass, a basement boasting a bar and toy room, three snazzy rides, and ample devices to dazzle their kids’ minds. They were well off, but good people. How the aliens could’ve slipped past their line of sight was mind-boggling to me.

I wolfed down my apprehension, and knocked on the third door. The grande boy opened it a crack, and squinted out at me.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re on your phone playing Fruit Ninja, and much too busy to be bothered.”

He pulled the door all the way open, and I saw that his hands were empty. “No. I’m doing homework.” He pointed to his desk, where a sleek Mac was booted up on a math website.

There were other gadgets in the room as well: an iPhone charging by the bed, an iPad on the top bookshelf, an Infinity Stone beside the goldfish bowl, and a set of speakers atop the chest.   I looked into his eyes, and saw that they weren’t sewn by cobwebs. They were clear, coherent, and untainted by feathery explosions or virtual snowball crusades. And the darling dear is doing his homework! I backed out of the room, smiling sideways, and said, “I’ll let you get back to work.”

I stood in the center of the hallway, penned in by the three doors, and once again pulled out my sad flip phone. For all my purported cellular savviness, I sure was scraping the bottom of the barrel with this scrap of metal. If the iThings were parasitic aliens that sucked the attention out of children, then ol’ Flippie here was a prehistoric beetle, and the only thing it sucked out of life was fun and battery juice.

When I was younger, I didn’t even have a notion of what a computer was. Coloring books, broken dolls, and funny-looking leaves were my distractions, and lanky-limbed trees growing alongside muddy streams served as my playground. I was dependent on the weather more than anything; no rain meant free reign, and shady skies did I despise. There was no risk of an invasion when the closest thing to technology I possessed was the clunky TV in the living room.

But Short, Tall, and Grande- they would mature alongside the aliens, taking them by the hand through elementary school and becoming life long friends as college rolled around. They would know each other, inside and out, until they weren’t merely ‘possessed’ by the iThings, but one with them. Would they ever know the kind of childhood I led, where creativity was consummated in hands-on learning? Where every day was one of elbow bruises and grass stains, and games were played not with pixelated penguins, but with imaginary friends? Where instead of throwing irritable fowl at pigs, you could just go out to the farm and butcher one? Well, ok, maybe not that…

In the seventh grade, I considered myself a tech mogul. I thought I knew it all, and I prayed for the day when computers would be interpolated into brains and psionic manipulation would be a skill possessed by the masses. What I was unaware of, though, was just how distinctly the road to bionic bliss would affect people, especially those of the child-sort. Most of modern technology is necessary and resourceful and glistening with promise, and we need it; it’s a tool for studying, learning, growing, molding minds and promoting knowing…plus a little entertainment never hurt anyone.

The invasion is not in the appeal or the perception; it’s in the obsession.

And perhaps that’s why I both loved and hated my flip phone. It was stark enough that I could go for days without touching it, therefore eliminating the chance of addiction, but it also lacked the glimmer of boundless ability. We crave to contain our lives in something, so that it won’t seem as complicated. And children, above all else, crave to control something- a virtual character, a game’s outcome, a high score.

I was tossed from my thoughts when an explosion sounded from Grande’s room. “Mayday! Mayday! Gun him down, you -” What followed was a string of cusses so colorful that I could practically see the rainbow seep under his door.

Then I realized…what kind of kid does his homework on a Friday night?

© 2014 Stellular Scribe

Not Running- a short story

Sad Mountain
“Sad Mountain” by Fawaz Alolaiwat

I’m not running.

I’m not running…at least, not anymore.

I can still hear her laugh, like the tinkling of crystal bells. Her song still dances through my mind untainted, and her voice is as clear and pure as it was on the day I lost her. Every child I see on the street is her; every giggle makes me turn my head, ready to call out her name. The little boy next door’s smile stirs buried demons within me; it awakens monsters that tear through the crust that has over time come to encase my heart, and with searing claws they rake at my already battered spirit. They moan of dead beasts, long trapped away in the recesses of my mind, and cry out in a bitter agony.

I would sit in my room and stare out the window, watching as children scurried across the pavement. Their happiness churned up discarded memories, and unable to handle the asperity that the sight of them brought upon me, I’d draw the curtains and crank up the volume on the television. I ran. I always ran.

But not anymore.

I sit on the porch and watch as they play. I allow the demons to devour me, and I don’t struggle when a pearly vision bleeds into my mind. A lone swing creaks in the sweet-smelling wind. Little blue shoes with the buckles undone rest in the dirt by the tree. A distant call, a mother’s song, brushes the warm air. Then I hear a string of laughter, her laughter. I smile and push aside the branches of a bush. She’s there, where I knew she’d be, her hair snagged with crumbling, brown leaves. “Found you!” I say.

She sticks out her tongue, stained green by the popsicle she just ate, and leaps from the brambles. “You’ll never catch me alive!”

A laugh escapes from between my teeth as I watch her bolt for the house, and I see my mother standing in the back doorway, her hands planted on her hips. She yells at me for playing in the dirt, and scorns my unkempt hair. “Get in for dinner!” she says.

I pick up the blue shoes left behind in the shade and dump out the wood chips. I hear her voice again, coming from the house. She reminds me that I still haven’t caught her, and that she won’t let me rest until I do. A smile peaks on my lips as I start after her. In this moment, everything is perfect. 

Nothing ever stays perfect.

The fingers of my memory creep across the scene, and now I’m in a church. She sits beside me in the pew, her black-stockinged legs kicking at the kneeler in front of us. Her gray, cotton dress is ruffled up to her hip, and her braid has fallen apart in ribbons of frizzy hair. She looks at me with solemn eyes, and asks, “Why’re they putting Mommy in that box?”

Tears tug at the corners of my eyes, and a lump nestles in my throat. I want to stay strong for her; I want to show her that I’m brave, but I feel limp. I look away, my eyes losing their focus as I stare ahead at the droning priest at the altar. I tell her the same thing I told her ten times before. “Mommy’s dead.”

The air is stale and thick with incense, and the smoke from the candles burns my eyes. I don’t look at her reaction. I don’t offer her a comforting arm. I’m a cold statue, stony in body and mind. 

“She’s not dead,” she says to me, grabbing my sleeve. “She wants to get out, she doesn’t like it in there. It’s too dark.”

My eyes well up with tears, but my cheeks remain dry. “No,” I say. “She’s dead.”

Her voice turns sour. “No! Can’t you hear her? She wants to get out!”

I pull my arm away and grab her wrist. “She’s dead, and she’s not coming back!”

My voice rings through the church, and the pensive faces of chromatic saints look down on me with judging, glass eyes. The mourners pause in their sniffling to look at me in pity, and I know what they’re thinking. Those poor children, scarred forever. Forced to live with a mother who didn’t care, a mother who didn’t bat an eyelash before she tightened the rope.

Now she’s crying, and I can’t bare to look at her anymore. I leave her in the pew, and whisk up the middle of the aisle. Her cry reverberates in my ears, but I don’t look back. I run.

They said we’d be happy with the old couple across the country. They said we were distantly related, and that they were eager to have us. And that might’ve been so, we might’ve truly been happy there…but we never got the chance to find out.

I wake up to her screams from the bed beside mine. She flails under the thin sheets, writhing back and forth frantically. I switch on the lamp by my bed and rush to her side, peeling away the sheets tangled in her legs. She looks up at me with red eyes and a nose slick with tears.  I grab her shaking arms gently, and say, “Shh, shh…it’s all right. The nightmare’s over.”

She shakes her head, and her forehead creases. “It’s not.” Her voice is clear and mature, and I’m taken aback by her forwardness. “I am so sorry,” she whispers. “It’s not your fault. I know you think it is, but it’s not. I love you.”

I don’t know what to say, and I pull away from her. I realize now that my fingers are trembling, and I tuck them under my arms. “What are you saying?” I ask.

She remains lying, but props her head up on the pillow. “I’m sorry,” she says again, and her voice quavers. “You two don’t deserve this. But I’m scared. It’s so cold.”

I’m terrified now, and I jump to my feet. The aged floorboards of the house groan as I step back on them. “I don’t understand,” I say. “What-”

“Good night.” Then she rolls over, facing her back to me, and pulls the sheets up and over her head.

My last memory of her is her laugh. 

She trails after me on the way to school, stepping on the curb one foot at a time like a gymnast on a balance beam. She doesn’t seem to remember the night before, and she jabbers on about her crabby teacher like nothing had ever happened.

I begin to cross the bridge that hangs over the river, but I stop when I see that she’s not following. “Hurry up,” I say.

Her face goes ashen, paler than the moon. She whispers to herself. “No, don’t make me.”

“We’re going to be late,” I say. “I don’t have time for this.”

Her expression switches, and her feet jerk towards the bridge. “Yes, free me! I can’t stand it any longer!” She starts to run towards me, but halts a few feet before me. “No, I don’t wanna! I’m scared!”

Annoyed, I grab her wrist. “Let’s go. School is just around the corner.”

But she jerks away from me, and grabs the bridge railing. “I tried!” she cries, her eyes brimming with tears. “I tried, but I just can’t! I’m hurting!”

“Where are you hurting?” I ask, but she shies away from my hand.

Her eyes go wide like disks, and her eyebrows arch up. “I know,” she breathes. “That does hurt…”

I’m scared now, and I look around wildly, trying to see if she’s talking to anyone. But we’re alone on a rickety bridge, with nothing but the surging creek below us and the golden leaved trees framing the sky. 

I look back at her, and my heart leaps into my mouth. She’s under the railing, and hanging off the bridge. I see her blue shoes slip on the ridge, and I lunge forward to grab her. “No!”

She looks at me with shining eyes, and the tears are gone. “Don’t you see? She’s hurting. It’s dark and cold there, and she wants to be free.”

“Who?” My voice is shrill, and I grab at her arm. “Who is she?”

She flutters her eyelids, and laughs blithely. “Mommy.”

Then she jumps. 

And my grip slips.

And she’s gone.

I open my eyes, and the little boy from next door is standing on my porch. He grins at me, his freckles stretching across his cheeks, and says, “I’ve never seen you before!”

His eyes are an eggshell blue, just like hers. A stabbing ache roots itself in my stomach, but I ignore it. I’m not sure what to say.

“My mom says you’re a grouchy, old i…intro…introvert!” He struggles over the last word, but seems very pleased with himself when he gets it out.

I can feel the demons shrinking away, and my heart lightens. For so long I have shut away my memories; for so long I have ignored the guilt suspended in my mind. I would drown out her ghostly laugh with pointless tasks, and I wasted away my life without giving each passing day a second thought. And now…I am free. I remember, and my memories are raw and cruel, and they gnaw at my spirit like a voracious beast…but at least I have come to terms with them. At least now I can breathe.

I am seventy-five years old. I have seen hell. And I have survived.

I smile at the boy, and the more I look at him the more his elated grin reminds me of hers.

And it makes me happy.

I excavated this story from the disorderly abyss that is my documents folder. It was a for-fun-thing I did last year, and boy, was it unedited… I was almost afraid to touch it for fear of it shattering beneath my cursor, but I think it came out ok in the end.  

Automaton- a short story

“There, now isn’t that remarkable!”

I gazed upon the machine cautiously through the stilted light, my eyes catching the glint of copper off its face. It smelled of oil and metal, and had eyes deader than a corpse’s. 

“It’s…” I tripped over my words, and chewed at my lip. “What is it?”

My father’s eyes were alight with glee, and his upper lip curled into a smile. “An automaton, of course! But not like the ones you see in the shops, my dear, no… Those machines can hardly count their twos and threes. This, this creation here is capable of intelligent thought!”

I looked into its cold eyes again. “Really?”

Father pinched the end of his mustache with two fingers and twirled it. “A little enthusiasm would be welcomed,” he said. “I’ve been slaving over him for months!”


“Why, yes! I call him Cephas. Marvelous, isn’t it?”

Marvelous wasn’t quite the word that came to mind. The machine was tall in stature, with exposed gears at the neck and joints, and a ridiculous top hat perched upon its head that I assumed was my father’s attempt to make it look more human. Human. I would sooner compare it with a toaster.

But my father had always wanted a son, and he was an excellent clockmaker by trade. Perhaps this would offer him some solace in the fact that he got glued to a daughter who had no interest in befriending androids. 

“Well! Let’s ignite him, shall we?” His eyes crinkled at the corners in elation, and he reached to flip a latch across its chest. It opened to reveal a small compartment with an assortment of buttons and knobs. “Would you like to do the honors, my sweet?”

I drew my lips into a thin line. “No, no, you do it.”

He pressed a red button, and at first nothing happened. Then a faint humming came from the inner mechanisms of its chest, and all at once the metal shuddered. A puff of dust escaped from the thing’s mouth, and a bluish glow bloomed in its empty eyes. I jumped back as its neck snapped to attention, and its head swiveled in its socket to behold my father and me. 

My father clapped his hands. “Ah, do you see this, Parthena? It’s extraordinary!”

I took another step back, all the while keeping my eyes on the machine. “Yes, very extraordinary…”

Its icy sockets switched to me, and I felt my insides congeal. It was looking right into me, as if observing the deepest reaches of my consciousness. That’s…not possible… It’s a machine, it can’t be sentient…

“Greetings, Cephas!” my father exclaimed, grabbing hold of its mechanical arm so forcefully that he nearly knocked the thing over. “I’m your maker!” His voice was on the verge of delirium, and his eyes wild with an enthrallment that frightened me. The automaton’s head cranked towards my father, and that only caused him to squeal in excitement. “Oh, do say something!” he said. Then to me: “He can speak, you know. Can do anything! I won’t need your help around the shop so long as I have him. Cephas, you card, don’t be shy! We’re your friends here.”

I felt a bit of bile slopping up my throat, but I swallowed it and began to turn towards the stairs. “I’ll just be going, now…”

“Don’t be such a wet blanket, Parthena. Look, I think he’s about to speak…”

I looked back, just in time to see the machine’s jaw unhinge, and a few lifeless words tumble from its copper lips: “I want.”

My father blinked rapidly, and he clutched the side of the automaton. “What? What does that mean? What do you want, my son?”

With that, I could no longer stand to be in the room. I gathered up my dragging skirts and hurried up the stairs.

Days went by, and my father only grew more attached to Cephas. He no longer worked on his clocks, but spent hour after hour fawning over the mechanical creature, and boasting to anyone who would listen about its infinite database and unparalleled abilities. I avoided the thing as often as possible, but its eyes followed me everywhere, and it always seemed to be around every corner. It was in the workshop constructing perfect clocks with perfect pendulums and perfect glass casings; it was out in the shop charming customers with its perfect articulation and perfect wit and perfect salesmanship. It was perfect in every way.

But I hated the thing. Oh, my blood curdled and my fingers clenched whenever I saw it amble up the street, carrying the basket of groceries that Father had bid it to fetch. That used to be my job. I used to be the gopher. Now all I did was sit around, listening to the oohs and ahhs of entranced window shoppers as they admired its metallic sheen and sparkling personality. For God’s sake, it didn’t even have a personality. It was a toaster with a voice box. That was it.

And then Father began to speak of constructing more of them, ones that he could sell or rent off to make a bit of extra cash. He even jested about building enough to form a mechanical theatre troupe. When I told him he was being silly, he said, “Oh, but Cephas has an exquisite singing voice, Parthena. He lullabies me to sleep every night! I can bid him to do the same for you, if you’d like…” I scoffed the notion away, but his words did make me think. If he were able to organize an entertaining ensemble of automatons, then it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to assemble an army.

My father was a brilliant man with foolish notions. And I think that more than anything, that was what drove me away.

I left because I earned a scholarship that would be idiotic to pass on at a school in the country. At least, that’s what I told everyone. I really just wanted to get away, to go to a place where machines didn’t breathe down your neck and ribbons of smoke didn’t lace the sky. My father hardly noticed when I left. He was too busy in his workshop building another friend for Cephas. I didn’t care. Not anymore.

The country was a refreshing change of scene, and I was finally able to get the stench of oil and smoke out of my clothes. For years I studied, and over time my father and his mechanical doll faded into the back of my mind. He never wrote, asking after me and my studies. He never cared.

After two years, I decided to be the better person and travel home over holiday to visit him. A small part of me was glad to be returning home, and to see him again, but a more dominant portion of my brain was afraid at what I would find when I got there. 

I boarded off the train at eleven o’ clock, the time when my father would be sending Cephas to prepare his lunch. My boots stabbed the cobblestone road as I headed up the street to his clockwork shop, and my mind reeled in anticipation. Would he have an army of automatons, as I feared? Or perhaps that theatre troupe he wanted so badly worked out, and he was on tour with a circus three countries over. 

I rounded the corner, and stopped dead in my tracks. The windows to the shop were boarded up, and the scrawling script that once read “Orville’s Clockwork Emporium” was faded and missing letters. At first I didn’t move, I didn’t do anything…but stare and fret that my greatest fears were realized. He was dead. He was dead or lying in a ditch somewhere, dying.

No! I didn’t know that! My heart leapt into my mouth in a sudden strike of adrenaline, and I rushed over to a man who was sweeping his front porch. “Sir!” My voice was leadened with dread. “Excuse me, but do you know what happened to that clock shop?”

He looked at me with tired eyes, and said, “What clock shop?”

Surely, he can’t be genuine… “The clock shop across the road. Right there. With the boarded windows. I’m pointing to it?” That last sentence ended in a sort of question, because the man’s eyes offered no reassurance or familiarity.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “I’ve been here for seventeen years, and not once has there been a clock shop across the road.”

“No,” I breathed. “You’re lying. That’s not possible. My father worked there! He had an automaton!” I was practically shouting now, my voice harried and distant. “You must remember!”

The man gave me a leery glare, and shrunk back onto his doorstep. “I’ve already said, there is no such place!”

“No!” I spun away from him, and hurried back to my father’s abandoned shop to see if I could find an opening to peek through the windows. No such luck. The door was barred as well, and I was beginning to give in to defeat when I remembered- there was a back way. I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, and ran off down the alleyway, coming around to the back of the shop, where the overflowing rubbish pails filled with rusted cogs and springs gathered in stinking heaps. I flew to the back door, and was about to toy with the knob when I heard a cranking, followed by, “I want…”

My head whisked around, and there, lying against the fence, was Cephas. He was rusted beyond repair, and one of his arms lay in pieces a meter away from him. His cog springs coiled out at random, and the gears around his jaw made an incessant ticking noise as they jammed together. But still, his eyes burned with a blue fire, and he looked up at me. “I want…”

“Where’s my father?” I demanded.

“He…he…he-he-he-he-heheheheheheeeee…” Cephas’ head began to jerk, and the light in his eyes blinked rapidly as he malfunctioned. I gave him a good kick in the side, and he snapped out of it.

“My father? What did you do to him?”

“My maker…” His voice was deeper than usual, and slurred like a drunkard’s. “…wanted to re-re-replace me…”

“What are you talking about?”

“He di-didn’t need me anymore. He didn’t want Ce-ce-cephas.”

“What did you do?”

“He wanted to re-replace m-me. Cephas wouldn’t let th-that happen.”

My heart sunk in understanding. “You did away with him.”

“Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. N-ne-never go in. Cephas m-made sure no one ever g-goes in.”

“What beast? What do you mean?”

Cephas cocked his head, and a whistle squealed in his joints. “Cephas was t-too la-la-late.  The automaton-ton-ton that Maker made is dange-danger-dange-”

“Dangerous?” The world around me went still, and it was only the machine. My father was gone…and it was this monster’s fault. But if it had stopped my father from bringing something even worse and more unnatural into the world…then I didn’t know what to think.

“Do not go in. No one go in. No one gooooo…” His voice become heavy and sloppy, and I knelt down beside him on the litter strewn ground. 

“I want…” he garbled.

“I never liked you,” I said. “You replaced me.”

Then I flipped the latch on its chest, pressed the black button, and watched as its eyes died.

“Automaton” by Kazuhiko Nakamura

I’m a huge steampunk fan, and couldn’t help myself with this one! I wrote it all in one go, too, so there’s bound to be a few typos here and there. 

Memories- a short story

These memories aren’t mine.

I first remembered my sister three weeks ago, while sitting in my cubicle and moping over a mug of coffee. It came like a musty memory, sealed away in the crypt of my mind and only just resurfacing. I saw her toothy smile in my coffee, swirling in the black liquid with the hint of a laugh playing off it. Then I felt her grab my arm, yelling at me to not walk so slow, and I saw her eyes shine as she told me that she was engaged.

I don’t have a sister.

These ghosts, these whispers of a past long slipped between fingers — they’re not mine. Not my ghosts. And I don’t know why I remember them.

I’m a simple person; I live alone, have a cat, and I drink more coffee than I probably should. I have a mother in Florida who struggles to remember my name, and a father buried with the rest of my family in Virginia. I have no siblings, no children, no husband, no friends…so when I remembered my sister, a person who never existed, naturally I was alarmed.

At the time I brushed it off as a trick of the mind, a result of working on only three hours of sleep. I laughed at myself that night as I heated up instant noodles. Me? Have a sister? Sure, as a girl I had always begged my parents for a little sibling I could play with, but I think that after I was born they swore off the prospect of having more children. I never had a sister, and I was being delusional.

That was until I remembered my husband. I heard his voice first, a song in the back of my mind, and he was laughing, laughing at me. I felt a blush coming on, and I told him to quit teasing. He only laughed again, and then I saw his wallet lying on the counter, that pitiful, falling-apart piece of leather that he insisted on using despite me buying him newer, more expensive ones.

But I was never married. I never had a husband.

The next day I remembered my childhood friend, a long and lanky girl with buckteeth that were every dentist’s nightmare. I remembered growing up beside her, and I remembered her chasing me down the rows of chairs after high school graduation, her gown billowing and her cap flying out behind her. I remembered her crying as we parted for college, her cheeks smudged and black from running make-up. As I stood in the back of the bus on the way to work, I could still hear her crying.

Slowly, these memories took over my life.

They came in flashes, each more vibrant and horrifying than the last. I would be in a conference meeting and suddenly my daughter’s voice would screech out, “Mommy!” and I’d jump to my feet, calling out a name that I didn’t even know I knew. “Angie!”

I’d wake up in a cold sweat at three in the morning, remembering how I forgot to tell my husband goodbye, how I forgot to apologize. But apologize for what? I didn’t know.

It got to the point where the memories consumed my life, and I’d stay in my room, weeping and laughing and moaning and wondering and weeping some more. I saw places, too. A cottage nestled in a cliff by the sea, with dogs running wild on the beach. A high rise hotel in the city, with silver walls and a hundred post-it sized windows. A vacation, a family portrait, in front of Niagara Falls, the faces of my family nipped by wind and wet from spraying water. No, not my family. They weren’t my family.

Or were they?

I didn’t go to work. The phone rang, but I didn’t answer it. I became absorbed by these memories, by this world, by these people. I replayed images in my head. I re-experienced the moment when my husband and I met. I watched as my sister walked down the aisle, her gown shimmering with sequins that I helped her sew in. I relived the birth of my daughter. I remembered watching her grow up.

I became attached. I became obsessed.

And I questioned what was real.

I wanted this family, these shining people with their beaming smiles and complete lives. I wanted to feel their love again, or for the first time, or for real. Maybe they were my true family; maybe I was trapped in a bad dream, or lying comatose in a hospital somewhere. Or maybe it was from an alternate world, a universe where I was happy, where I had what I wanted. Or maybe it was what could have been, the life I could have lived if I had done something differently, been someone else.

I didn’t know anything…not anymore.

That weekend I sat on the edge of my bed, staring out the window on the muddled street below, watching as cars creeped along the roads like slugs and people scampered about like roaches. This life, this world…what even was it? What was the point of this monotonous routine, this rigid schedule of droning events, when I could have this other life? I had always considered myself sub-par, not entirely useless but mediocre enough to lead a dreary existence. These memories brought an escape, they offered an alternative that I could’ve never imagined, a world where I had what I wanted, one where I had friends and got married and had a child and loved a sister.

But why? Why me? Why now? And what for?

My questions are snakes that worm through my mind, eating away at every sense I thought I possessed. Now I’m left with nothing but bare instinct, and I shrink away into my mind, fitting my thoughts with armor and blocking out the world. I live in the memories now; they are everything.

And I become them.

Then I remember the car crash. It’s an explosion of metal and sound, a fireworks display of blood and blaze. I don’t remember the impact, but I remember the pain. And then I remember the black.

It’s a warm sort of blackness, thick and wet and suffocating, and as I remember I close my eyes. For so long the black has just been there — a dull and lonely piece of oblivion that I sit in, blind and deaf. Then I remember my dreary life, the life of budget meetings and tasteless coffee and watching reality television. The two converge, and the life I abhor becomes the swallowing black. A bleak hole of dark, pointless nothingness.

The voices start out as soft, spindly wisps, brushing against me like feathery tendrils. Voices, calling out to me. Calling a name that must be mine. They build up, pressing in around me and looming high over in staggering towers. Then all at once, they tumble, and I’m buried in noise. Weeping, calling, singing, laughing. The voices of my family, my family from a dream. And ringing clear over all the others is my sister’s voice. “Wake up.”

The black melds into gray, and the gray breaks into a million shades. A million shades that brighten and lighten and whiten…

“Wake up.” A voice choked by tears.

I open my eyes.

I’m in a room with white, speckled walls, lying on a frameless bed with tubes snaking up my limbs and needles sticking out of my skin. My sister’s voice cracks in a flood of emotion, and she begins to sob, clutching my arm with rigid fingers. I blink back the crust that rims my eyes and open my peeling lips. I try to speak, but my throat is tight and my voice a muffled croak. She blubbers nonsensically, her tears gathering at her chin and dripping off onto the covers.

My sister…I don’t have a sister…

But I do. I know I do, because here she is, with her gleaming eyes and toothy grin, so real and alive and here.

She calls out to someone, and a doctor arrives, his pink lips parted as he mutters, “Not possible…”

My sister’s grip tightens over my fingers, and she says something about my husband and daughter. Then I know…this is real. This is more real than anything.

They told me that after the delivery truck plowed into my mini-van, the doctors had little hope for me. They gave my family three months, and they said that by the end of it if I hadn’t woken up, I never would.

It has been two years.

I often think back on that drab and depressing life I lived in my mind. I think back on it, and I’m happy that it wasn’t mine. When I feel a stab of morose for my dementia-ensnared mother, I remind myself that she was a figment of my comatose mind. She wasn’t real.

But then I wonder…is this life real?

I live with the fear that I’ll wake up one day in that bleak apartment, with a hundred missed calls and an endless list of unread emails. I try not to think about the unpaid bills and my unfed cat. Because this life, with my whole family and close friends, is the one I want to live. It is the real one.

But what if it’s not?

Broken- a short story

I could’ve said no to the old man, the time-worn sailor with withered skin that hung loosely on his cheeks, and wispy, salt-spun hair that created a snarled halo around his head.  I could’ve turned the other way, and gone on without ever knowing what approaching him would mean.  I could’ve…but I didn’t.

He sat on the edge of the dock, swinging his legs over the peaking waves, sucking on a hastily wrapped cigar.  I was a penniless and broken wanderer, with nowhere to go and no one to go to.  I watched him kick at the waves from my spot on the beach.

The moan of a fog horn penetrated the early morning quiet as I scaled the dunes.  It was a forlorn sound, the call of a lonely, bygone drifter…a sound I recognized all too well.  Salty wind whipped around my neck and stung my cheeks, and my hair was sent dancing out behind me.  Before me rose black arches of murky water.  Bleeding fingers of foam branched out from the clashing waves, the remnants of its eternal struggle.  The black sands beneath my feet shifted with the wind, glistening like hot coals.

The old man stood, tapped out his cigar into the sea, and stretched out his ancient bones.  He turned to his boat, a nicked and battered old beast that strained against the ropes keeping it tied to the post.  I watched him walk up the dock, and an inexplicable emptiness sunk within me.  I wanted to cry out, “No, don’t go!”, but I didn’t.

Then he called out to me.  His voice was warped by the sound of the surf, but I knew he was calling to me.  

My bare, calloused feet adhered to the spot, and I strained my ear towards the dock.  

Without turning to look at me, he shouted out again, louder.  “Well, what’re ye doin’?  Get yer britches up here!”

I was confused, but I crossed the beach and stepped onto the dock for curiosity’s sake.  He turned, revealed a mouth full of bronze teeth, and said, “Storm’s settin’ in the east.  If we want to beat it, we best be ridin’ the waves before dark.”  He clapped a hand laced with blue veins on my shoulder, and clambered over the dock and into the boat.  I opened my mouth in question, but he spoke over me.  “Are ye comin’ or not?”

But where?  I tilted my head back to look at the empty beach.  Past the rolling dunes and bowing grasses was nothing for me.  What life I once had was gone.  I had used up all my second chances; I’d drunk any money into the gutters.  My clothes were tattered rags hanging off my knobby shoulders, and I had nowhere to call home.

So I swung my leg over the side of the boat.  “Yes.”

A crooked grin etched across his face.  “We’re off on an adventure, Sullivan!”

I didn’t know who Sullivan was.

We set off on the bucking waves, heading directly towards the swirl of black clouds and white water on the horizon.  All the while the old man called me Sullivan.

With his cigar dangling in his fingers and one hand on the mast, he talked about my mother, an elegant ex-noble woman with hair like a thousand chalky icicles.  He told me how I had her nose, and that my spidery fingers reminded him of how beautifully she played the harpsichord.  He chortled as he managed the sail, and reminded me about the time when I was fifteen, and I stowed away in the neighbor’s carriage to the market.  I had wanted to see a girl, he said, a pretty one; she worked at the bakery with her father, and made my favorite kind of sweet rolls.  Her father caught me with her in the closet, he said, and he chased me out of the marketplace, threatening to bash my brains in with a rolling pin.  My mother was so angry at me that she locked me in the cellar for a week, but she was even more furious with the baker.  In her exasperation, she boycotted his bakery until a guard escorted her out of the village.

As the waves dipped and rose and the wind picked up, he talked about my uncle, a husky naval officer who shared my sense of ambition.  His eyes glinted with pride as he told me about how his son earned his medals.  “Dove in after a comrade durin’ a frightful raid,” he said, his colorless lips stretching as he recounted the memory.  “Saved the man’s blessed life.  Would’ve drowned if hadn’t have been for yer uncle.”

A smattering of icy rain drops diced my skin, and he brought me below deck, where we feasted on stale bread and stinking cheese as the boat lurched and groaned.  He asked after my sister, and without thinking, I said she was fine.  “Well, I ‘spected as much!” he said, taking a swig of ale.  The drink slopped onto the front of his rough-spun shirt when a monstrous wave rocked the boat, but he didn’t seem to mind.  “What with her bein’ married to that duke!  Must have gold spillin’ out of her ears, I always say.”  He offered me his canteen, and when I refused, he waved it in my face.  “Oh, don’t be that way!  I never knew ye to refuse a drink, Sullivan.”

So I drank from the canteen, even though my whiskey sodden stomach frothed at the bitter taste.  

That night, the howling wind lashed against the boat, hissing through the cracks in the ceiling, and the churning waters boiled and belched around us as we slept in our cots.  I drifted into a shaky slumber, but was awoken when I heard whimpers coming from across the cabin.

He was trembling in his cot, clutching to his chest a ceramic vase with swirling shades of blue and green.  I asked him if he was alright, and he looked up at me with a sagging brow.  “She was the prettiest gem ye ever did see,” he said in a thick voice.  His arms tightened around the vase.  “Never did no wrong, had the heart of a doe…but they took her.  They took her from me.”  His eyes shone with a buried melancholiness in the light of the swinging lantern, and his face contorted with the shifting shadows.  “She always wanted to sail ‘round the world, to see all there was to see.  So I take her with me, so she can see with my eyes.”

He planted a light kiss on the urn, and hid it away under his cot.  Then he fell asleep.

The next morning, the storm still raged, and the rain had turned to hard beads of ice.

He told me stories about when I was a child and he’d take me out on the sea in his row boat.  He chortled as he told me about the time I fell into shark-infested waters to go after a fishing line, and he had to dive in after me.  “Scared ye skinny, it did,” he said, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes creasing.  “Ye swore off swimmin’ from that moment on, but yer a sailor’s boy at heart…I knew ye’d never truly give it up.”

He nearly choked on his cigar when he retold the time when my sister and I hid under the banquet table during a family feast and went about tickling the feet of each and every guest.  Smoke billowed up around us, hanging near the ceiling like a hazy smog.  “Yer uncle threatened to tan yer hides when ye got ‘round to his feet!  Said he’d feed yer liver to the goats when he caught ye!  Yer poor sister; she was scared stiff.  Cried for a good hour straight, but was as plump as a peach at the end of it all.”

That night I found him on the deck, braced against the wind and rain, leaning into the torrents with his eyes closed.  His clothes clung to him, and his beard was stippled with rain drops.  I rubbed the sides of my arms and hunched against the downpour, calling out to him.  My voice was lost amidst the shrieking gusts and grumbling thunder.

He blinked back the sheets of rain as he looked at me, and my heart sunk when I saw his lips wilt.  I approached him, and he said in a soft, broken voice, “It was a storm like this that did it for him.  The night before a battle, too..and the sea devoured him.”  He stared out at the angry, black water wistfully.  “Took his whole crew.  Swallowed them up like wee minnows.”

I took his shaking arm and led him below deck, where he met the warm embrace of sleep.

The next day dawned with the winking sun, and we spent the morning on the deck, warming our icy feet and drinking from his canteen.  

He told me how much he had missed me.  How lonely he’d been without my sister and me, how he prayed every day that we’d show up at his doorstep or send a letter or at least attempt some contact.  And it was true; his face would bloom into a metallic smile when he’d see me emerge from the cabin, and he always gave me the larger portion of bread and cheese.

I felt like a monster.  I was a fraud.

On the fifth day, as the sun melted into the sea, he approached me on the deck.

“Yer not Sullivan, are ye?”

My heart dropped into my stomach, and I blinked up at him with sore eyes.  “No.”

He smiled sadly, turned, and without saying a word, disappeared into the cabin below.

The next morning I woke to an empty boat.  The urn beneath his bed was gone.

I wished I had never said yes.