On Another Earth

As an exercise, I used the three contest words in another 500(ish) word story. One Drop in The Sea of Love is the obvious entry, so with this one I tried more for fun, writing out the first paragraph as a riff without really thinking about it. I just finished the tweaking and editing. Hope you enjoy it.

On Another Earth

On picture day at her school, eight-year-old Georgia had been warned not to mug for the camera. She did it anyway. Her mother, Amandine, tore the mailed proof into tiny pieces (discarding them into different trash cans on separate floors of the downtown mall), then tried to have the photo redone before it was sent to every personal news outlet on earth. But Georgia’s cross-eyed, bulgy-tongued, ‘fingers pulling from both sides of the mouth’ grin would be traveling the ether alongside beautiful glossy photos of sweet little darlings who had learned well and done as they were told. The response would be quick, the embarrassment intense as reaction upon reaction piled in. The Book of Faces would never understand this. Amandine knew she was going to get a letter.

It was bad enough when someone’s camera was on the fritz and the ministry acted as though the world might end. A purposely ridiculous likeness could bring a fine. They were both getting low on their specially blended, Ideal Personal Color lipsticks– Amandine’s multifaceted plum with highlights of poppy and the subtlest touch of gold, Georgia’s translucent age-appropriate honey mixed with pale peony pink. How would they be able to buy lipsticks and pay a fine?

Amandine decided that this time Wyatt should be the one to admonish the child. Georgia hadn’t been listening to her mother for weeks. Perhaps the father so chiseled that he could do no wrong could get his daughter to stop pretending that unkempt and weird were actually viable options in life. That silliness was for history books. Modern Life took one’s visage very seriously.

If Wyatt couldn’t get the child in line, Amandine had one more idea. She’d seen an advertisement the other day for something called an Outer Layer Converter. One of its settings enabled the wearer to look good in every photo taken during a twenty-four hour period, from studio shots to selfies– perfection, no matter the angle. The thing was pricey, but there were low interest beauty loans for big ticket items like that. Anything to keep The Book of Faces happy and off their backs.

Amandine was jotting down notes about this at her desk, when little Georgia pushed through the front door, smiling as splendidly as she hadn’t for her school photo. With her bookbag and mary janes left haphazard on the the front hall carpet, the girl sidled up to her mother’s chair and pushed a sheet of glossy paper across the glass top desk, gliding it toward her mother with ceremonious glee. She said, “Look, Mommy.”

Amandine turned over the paper to find the brilliant face of her only child wearing her best graceful smile.

“They didn’t mail the proofs, Mommy. They passed them out at school today. Daddy and I played a trick on you.”

Amandine’s happiness dulled the impulse to scold. She embraced her daughter, pondering the effect a bit of her Hair Away cream would have on Wyatt’s Bald Be Gone.

One Drop in the Sea of Love

While trying to get back to my writing, I came across this contest at MashStories.com. The prize is $100 (oh how I can use that!) and the rules are few — mainly a 500 word limit, and the use of this quarter’s words within the story: converter, mug, happiness. 

I’ve been a no-show here for quite some time, but if any of the friends I miss so much come across this, and could spare a few minutes to give impressions on what I’ve come up with, I’d be very grateful. Any thoughts at all would help me decide if this is too little, too much or just plain boring. Or if I should choose a new subject and just start over, which has been a prominent theme in my life for quite a while now.

Thanks in advance for any help you can give. My love to you all.

One Drop in the Sea of Love

Ivy stood in the farthest corner of the garage from Abner. He was underneath the car removing its catalytic converter, flouting the law, thumbing his nose at the EPA, risking a fine.

“Half the scientists say one thing. Half say something else.” He said that to her with a straight face. “Liberals pretending the world’s dying… If it’s that bad– time to give up anyway. I’m gonna drive a car that works the way its supposed to.” She thought he was behaving like an ass and almost said so, but that felt like giving up on him. She wasn’t ready.

Ivy had emailed links about global warming gleaned from university websites, offered evidence on how the world’s skewed environment already affected their own area, even pleaded for their baby’s lungs to make it more personal, but mountains of misinformation were standing between truth and Abner’s heart. He’d always been strong. Now he’d crossed over to hard, battered by the gulf between their hand-to-mouth reality and the lost luster of his dreams for success. He wasn’t talking things through with her anymore or finding comfort in his family. She sensed herself simmering in the distance between them, too tender and unsteady, as if the best part of her had broken and was setting wrong.

She listened to him under the car, willing away science with a hammer to make himself feel superior, or remind himself of his strength. She braced herself, suppressing her ache, stitching her family together for the moment until she could decide if their happiness was going to be out of the question.

That evening, she made soup. He lingered in the garage, then paced the front porch, hands deep in his pockets, face contorting, head tossing now and then for punctuation as if arguing with himself or working out a problem. Ivy kept a wide berth until dinner was ready.

They sat at the kitchen table. In his high chair, baby Carl nibbled crackers and slurped cooled noodles and carrots Ivy proffered on his little spoon between sips of juice from his mug with the no-spill lid. Abner went on about the merits of movies on television later. When he paused, Ivy realized she’d stopped listening.

After Carl slurped another spoonful of noodles, her eyes met Abner’s, whose gaze fell over his soup bowl. A low, wet, sound clenched in his throat.

She was so used to arguing and contradiction that she stared in silence, anticipating the phantom guilt that often followed.

He sucked air into his lungs, hard, as if pulling something back inside. “I said, I can watch that Hugh Jackman thing. The one you’d like, without blades in his knuckles.”

Ivy reached for him, curling her fingers around his, and said, “Okay.”

After dinner and the cleaning up, they put Carl into his playpen with the fluffy blanket and his purple bear. The baby yawned as his parents settled together onto the sofa to watch a romance unfold.

Suicide

I wrote this story in 1979. Before this one, my stories were stuck in a genteel loop of trying to find my voice in the ‘longing for love’ and ‘love lost’ stories that rolled off my pen, stories that incorporated the tearjerker side of the underlying otherness and pain I felt every day into the kind of stories I’d been exposed to that I thought were special because they’d been published in popular magazines.

I was the oldest ‘kid’ in my household and I didn’t have friends — definitely none to help me expand my oeuvre. I had an acquaintance who I thought was a friend at the time, who didn’t really understand me, but she wasn’t drawn to art the way I was. We didn’t explore galleries or offbeat places together and I didn’t explore those places much on my own. But I listened to a lot of radio and ran out and bought Elvis Costello’s album “Armed Forces” because it did something to me. I loved Neil Young and understood the breadth of emotion he wrote about, but Costello woke me up to how different words could be while still expressing things I understood deeply. I loved the old school rat pack feel of his pinched vocals, his melodies juxtoposed with the lyrics and way the music sounded, and I loved going to the dictionary or encyclopedia to understand the words and phrases he used that had gone over my head. Mostly I reveled in the otherness in his work that made me feel like I did belong on earth after all.

One day I sat down to write something different from the stories I’d written that I’d come to hate. In the blank that took over my mind (which felt as blank as the paper) I got restless and scared that I’d been chosen by a nebulous something to do a thing I had no skill at. I sat for a long time before I challenged myself with this: What would Elvis Costello write?

Of course he couldn’t have written this. He wasn’t me. And of course I couldn’t know that he might have written this sort of thing. The point is that with one idea, I thought differently about my writing and the stories I’d lived that already made up my life and I thought differently about what my words could do. Other writers will understand what I mean. No one else needs to ‘get’ that part. With a little editing after rediscovering that story this week (much less than I would have thought after having learned so much this year) this is the story I wrote from the prompt that changed my writing life:

Suicide

by Ré Harris

The city is never dark, he thought. Too many lights everywhere, staring in your face, assaulting you even through the windows of your own place. People are too scared, afraid of their own shadows — weaklings running through the streets like rabbits, squealing at the slightest sound. Why don’t they stay home, he thought. When the sun goes down all the little rabbits should stay at home in their little holes, nibbling cabbage and sleeping in the far corners, with one eye open.

He was angry. The world didn’t suit him and he had long before cultivated an attitude of perfect apathy toward everyone and everything except his own butt, but now everything inside him was shaking. He had feelings again that ran in more directions than he could name — all of them negative.

He tapped his cigarette with his thumb, letting ashes fall over the bed. Then he turned on his side and kicked her, a calculated move intended to wake her up and (although it fell short of this objective) to knock her to the floor. She shrieked and extended a foot quick to keep herself from falling. As she sat up in bed, that one long bare leg holding her steady, she shook her head, willing wakefulness into the remnants of a dream. She stared at him, seeming to hold her head in place with the back of her hand beneath her chin, the blandness in her expression unique to those who hold tight to sleep for as long as they can — two eyes, a nose, and a pair of lips saying nothing at all except ‘let me go back’, but he was smiling.

“Let’s go again,” he said, slapping at the knee she left curled around the sheet.

Incredulity crossed her face. “What is it with you lately? You crazy for me all of a sudden?” She yawned. “Or just crazy?”

He smiled broader. “Of course I am,” he grunted, stretching his arms out as if reaching farther than he ever had, making a show of reaching out to nothing and pulling nothing around him like an overcoat. He dropped ashes onto the floor and turned back to the lights. “But you knew that didn’t you?”

She rubbed one of her eyes and tilted her head back and forth like a ball between her shoulders. He grabbed at her with one hand, but she darted out of his reach. “I’m going home,” she said.

She slipped out from under the sheet and stood for a moment blinking before walking across the room to where she’d left her clothes on the floor.

He stared at her as she sorted through her things. The neon light flooding through the window, shone on her skin, giving it a luster that made her appear luminous, like an angel. At first that vision made him laugh. She was anything but an angel, yet standing there bathed in that blue-white light …

He found the thought unsettling. He decided he had never liked her, never cared what she felt or what she wanted. From his view, the only reason she drew breath was to take care of him, do his bidding and take care of all those unsavory little chores that were far beneath him.

He put his cigarette out in the ashtray instead of on the nightstand he’d pitted with scores of circular and oval shaped burns through the veneer down to the pale wood base. She had turned toward him as she shimmied into the lace-trimmed thong she’d worn for him, that she knew he hadn’t noticed and never would. She watched his expression cycle through spoiled, sneering little boy to something serious she hadn’t seen from him before. Her thin blouse was in her hands as she watched him come toward her, slow, deliberate, without humor — puerile, twisted or otherwise.

He said, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re not through,” the near whisper of his voice belying the command and the look on his face that struck her as strange. She thought it odd, but was still reacting to the kick. He’d kept her awake for hours that day after knowing she’d had a long night before, so she was trying to slip the blouse over her head when he came at her, punching her in the face and pushing her over the chair. He watched her fall to the floor on the other side of it, listened to the thud of her hip on the bare wood. For all his demanding, grabbing and little kicks, he had never hurt her that way. She knew to be afraid then, that she would have to get away from him or be devoured by his runaway sense of self, overblown now into an unrecognizable version of the man she’d never really known, but had been drawn to like insects around light bulbs.

She crawled across the floor as fast as she could toward the door, but he stepped in her path. “No,” he said. “You’re not leaving.”

He punched her again, pulled her up by her hair and tossed her on the bed. She rolled over the side and tried to crawl under it.

She attempted to yell, but her voice cracked as she felt her jaw swell. “Stop it … what are you … why are you doing this …”

He ran around the bed and pulled her out from under it with one of her legs. She swung at him and kicked and tried to dig her fingernails into his angry face, but he was much taller and heavier than she, and in his crazed, violent state could do her more harm than she could do to him without a weapon. She fought him anyway, flailing and jabbing, accumulating battle scars and inflicting as many as she could until he slammed her against the nightstand on the side of the bed he slept on when she was there. She closed her eyes tight while anticipating another blow, and remembered something from the week before while waiting for him to hit her again.

*****

“See this?” he said to her, loading the gun, then holding it in his hand and pointing it at various objects in the small dark room tinged with the neon he hated. “Loaded and ready.”

She tried to stifle a giggle. “For what?”

He dropped the hand with the gun to his side and turned to face her long-legged body sprawled sideways across the easy chair. He barked at her, “What the hell are you laughing at?”

“Everybody’s scared of you already, so what d’you need a gun for?”

He lifted it until it pointed straight at her face. She stiffened and he began to sneer.

“Come on … stop that,” she said. “I mean, hey, come on …” She sat up in the chair. “You know, everyone else thinks I’m crazy, putting up with you. You know? But, like, aside from getting paid on time, I really like you.” She looked into his eyes and tried to ignore the gun. “I don’t think you’re as different from everybody else as you want us to believe. I think you got real deep feelings. Lot’s of ’em. So come on … you’re okay with me. Why do you want to play with me like that?”

He came a step closer, pointing the gun so deliberately at her that she got angry. “You want me to be scared? Okay, I’m scared. Put that goddamned thing down and stop it, okay? Shit.”

He lowered his arm with a triumphant smile, walked over to the nightstand, opened the drawer slow and placed the gun inside. He watched her watching him as he closed the drawer, and as she wiped sweat off her neck, she couldn’t help wondering what the whole scene had been about. If there was anything she was sure of about him, it was that he always knew what his twisted doings were about. He didn’t care if he made sense to anyone else. In his own head, in his version of reality, his actions were fully thought out and sensible.

In hers, he paid her when he was supposed to, tossed her extra for food when she was hungry, and never asked where it all went. He never bugged her about other johns and hadn’t put a lasting mark on her, even when he was rough. In her mind, that was a version of love that got her through the day and brought her back when she wasn’t on the clock. Once he put the gun in the drawer, she wanted to smack him, but she was fine so she forgot about it.

*****

She opened her eyes now and reached up to the drawer above her head. She expected another blow as she fumbled for the pistol, but when it was in her hands, she pointed it at arm’s length toward his chest. “I’ll kill you,” she spat out at him. “I’ll do it.”

He’d been close enough to knock it out of her hand before she could focus, but he stared at her, taking heavy breaths, his heart pounding as though he was sick and close to sinking down with something like fever. He eyed her, but the rage she’d seen had dissipated. He took a step toward her, but there was no malice in the movement. If not for the beating, she would have accepted him into her arms, but she was bruised, maybe cracked, her shoulders scratched and aching, face bleeding. She could no longer take her chances with this strange man. Being hurt that way wasn’t what she expected from him and she couldn’t take the time to figure out what she’d done.

“I know it’s loaded,” she said. “I remember from when you were playing with it. So don’t come near me. I’ll shoot you.”

“Yeah?” he said.

“I’m not playing  … I’ll do it.”

“So do it,” he said, soft like when he wanted her to do something she didn’t think she had time for, like when he wanted her to rub his back for an hour or suck his toes.

She began to cry from the confusion, and he came toward her, head cocked, elbow raised in the air, fingers clenched into a fist and angling down at her.

She shot him in the chest, but he didn’t seem to feel it. He was almost knocked over by the bullet’s force, but his fist was still hovering over her so she shot him again as his figure blurred behind her tears. She was sure he would kill her because he had become invincible, shot twice in the chest (through the heart, she was sure) but still standing. She blinked and waited for him to move, but he didn’t.

She slid across the floor, around him to her clothes, dropping the gun and gathering most of her things in a sloppy scoop as she barreled toward the door. He didn’t try to catch her. He dropped his fist and stood where he was, waiting for her to leave. She had served her purpose and he no longer had any use for her. He listened for the door to slam, then went to the window and looked out at the street ablaze with a thousand lights. He sneered at the sight and sank down to the floor.

At least half the neighborhood had heard the shots, he thought to himself, but no one would come. Chances are no one would even call the cops. They would just run and hide and pray they wouldn’t be next. He’d be long gone before anyone discovered him.

In a few minutes, he felt the two burning holes in his body, looked down and touched the blood running out of his chest faster than he thought it would. Then he closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall, and waited for death.

Entanglement – Part Twenty-One

At sidewalk's edge

“At Sidewalk’s Edge” by Wanderin’ Weeta via Flickr

Previous installments of Entanglement can be found by clicking Home on the header menu and scrolling down. If you haven’t begun the series and would like to, here’s a shortcut to Part One.

Aliss hadn’t forgotten logic. She’d stopped searching for it. “If you can relax a little, you’ll see the sense here — what there is of it.”

An older man in a dark suit with vest and tie, stepped onto the edge of the lawn. She observed him peripherally at first. He was shorter than Miller with thin shoulders and limbs, yet broad around the middle. Beneath his brown fedora, she saw a fine spray of white hair flutter in the breeze at his temples, garnering her attention like something caught in a camera, as if that was where she was supposed to look. The man watched Miller with a focus that accentuated the creases of his face, and spoke to Aliss. “Are you all right, dear?”

She answered, “Yes,” without thinking. The man held the handle of a long umbrella with both hands and leaned his weight onto it like a walking stick. His gaze moved to her. With a second’s thought she added, “It might not look that way, but I think we’re all right.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

His question hung in the air, shifting in her mind as though the breeze was catching it like the strands of his hair. She appreciated his concern, but not the interruption.

Miller moved his hand away from her shoulder and rubbed the palm on the front of his sweater as if wiping away something he hadn’t known was there. As if waking from slumber, he stood taller, faced the stranger and said, “I was upset for a minute, but I … I’m calmer now. I’m sorry.”

The gentleman straightened and raised an eyebrow. “You should say that to the lady.”

Miller turned dutifully toward Aliss and she saw reason returning to his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, the heft of his anger retreating to some corner or another inside him as he spoke the words.

She said, “I know.”

As if chastised by the man’s very presence, Aliss was unsure what to do or say next. She walked closer to him thrusting her hands into her pockets, trying to smile. “We’ve had a little trouble lately. Sudden trouble … but we’re figuring it out. I hope we didn’t upset you.”

“You’re so young,” he said, the skin at his eyes crinkling even more though his expression relaxed, “the both of you … there’s less time than you think. You should be enjoying yourselves as best you can. Leave the fighting to the inevitable wars and people who don’t care about love. I can see in your eyes, I heard in your tones of voice, that something draws you together. Let the feeling be pure and unclouded.” He bent lower to her, his face imploring. “If it can’t be, then protect yourself. Each one of us is worthy of that.”

Aliss stared for a moment. “Who are you?”

The man smiled. “I suppose I’m no one to you. Just making my way home to share supper with my wife. When I saw you, I was reminded of my daughter when she was a younger woman.” He sighed. “Perhaps I’ve intruded. Perhaps I’ve given you two a bit of time to settle down.” He nodded in both their directions. “I’ll be going now.”

As the gentleman walked away, Miller went to Aliss’s side at the edge of the walk. His voice a hoarse whisper, he said, “The old man’s right. I’ll try to listen.”

“What happened?”

“Just now?”

“Back there. You had to be talked down from something.”

“What you did … reminded me of something.”

“Something that scared you?”

“I guess … when I was a kid.”

Aliss leaned into his body. “Let me take you someplace wonderful.” She placed her hand in his and waited.

 

Hidden at the Edge

Photo by Ré Harris

This started out on Words One Hundred as a hundred word story from one of Julia’s prompts. It seemed interesting to some of those who read it, and they wanted more. I realized how much I liked writing it and how it seemed to be writing itself, so since this week has been weird for me and I have to get a lot of things done tomorrow, I figured I should just let it flow.

As always, feedback is very much appreciated. Whether you like the story or you don’t, I’d love to know. Here goes:

It was 1926, back in Utah.

With trouble hot on our trail, I woke with another headache. Vince gazed out at the mountains like he was thinking of another woman.

“You want to fend for yourself?” I said, checking the gun under my pillow.

“What’s your problem?”

I raked fingers through my hair, staring at the latch on the door while cold wind blew through the cabin and grabbed me under the threadbare blanket. I rose, fully dressed, holding my gun.

“You’re always upset about something,” he said.

“And you hate women with brains.” Light reflected outside the other window as I crept closer to it. “Too bad you need ’em.”

Vince’s pause before saying, “Now what?” said he’d caught on to his lack of diligence. Could’ve been cornered before he remembered to check another direction.

“What’s the point of the gorge at the back and only two ways in? Why take watch, if daydreaming’s all you’ll do?”

He cocked his piece at the window with the mountain view, before tossing a whispered yell. “Shut up.”

I let it go.

I woke with another headache for sure — Vince. Not sharp, but damn if his neck didn’t smell like clover sometimes.

Billy approached behind bushes, pistol in hand, rifle slung. I eased the window up and aimed.

After the shot, Vince was quiet as Billy’s whining started up outside, muffled but gaining volume as my heart ticked off the seconds. “You see anything over there?” I said.

I didn’t watch him check before he said, “No.” I felt his eyes turn to me. “Was ‘at Billy?”

I didn’t answer.

“Why the hell’d you shoot him?”

I wasn’t in the mood for stupid questions. Vince would see what was what in time. I waited and watched as Billy wailed. If he knew anyone had followed him, he’d let it slip while writhing on the ground clutching his bleeding leg.

“Maybe he was just mixed up about the meet,” Vince said.

“Should’a stayed mixed up someplace else if he wanted to go on two legs.”

“Shit, girl … we made it here okay, didn’t we?”

“Halfway to Mexico in a car’s better.” I shot Vince a nasty look. “Why was he on foot?”

Vince strained himself. “Crap.”

I searched the brush past Billy and waited some more.

Billy kept saying, “Aw, come on! I can’t walk! Help me! Help me dammit!”

Any time someone calls me Dammit, it makes me take longer. Vince didn’t even ask. Good thing. I wasn’t done running permutations in my mind. We didn’t just have to wait for signs he wasn’t alone, I had to figure out the order of things as best I could before we dragged him in. I wished we had a wireless so I could get some idea what the cops were thinking.

I didn’t see any more movement, no more reflected sun flashing. I told Vince I’d cover him while he dragged Billy in. From the sigh he let out and they way he flew out the door, you’d think the two were best friends from childhood or something. Maybe he just wanted to know what had gone wrong as much as I did. We thought Billy’d been pinched.

Once inside and on the bed, crying as loud as he had outside in the dirt, our no-longer-missing wheelman was submitting to Vince’s attempts at a tourniquet around his bleeding thigh. While writhing in pain, his eyes looked for me in the background. I moved around the room to vex him. Every time he lit on me, he looked scareder than usual. For a minute, I tried to remember what he’d seen me do that’d make him worry so much. Then I figured it must just be the bullet in his thigh.

When Vince had done the best he could, I went over to the bed and looked Billy in the eye.

“I couldn’t get there,” he said, sucking up snot. “The car … stopped on me.”

I reached my leg over and sat on his chest.

“What the hell?” I heard Vince growl. “The man’s hurt. What’re you doing?” I was glad I was wearing slacks. Vince couldn’t have a cow because a stupid skirt was hiking up.

I pressed the tip of my gun against the side of Billy’s forehead and his eyes closed tight. “Jesus, girl …” he slobbered. “You got no call to do that!”

“I fixed that car myself. She ran sweet and fast.” I stopped right there. It doesn’t do to talk more than you have to. Billy wasn’t the kind to know that.

“I don’t know what happened. It just stopped … it stopped right past the Mattson bridge. Running just fine, then she just stopped an’ I couldn’t get ‘er going.” He must’ve thought that sounded good because he added, “Maybe you don’t know all there is about engines.”

I held the gun steady and ruminated. I started back at the beginning and thought about how I’d laid out the parts as I took each one out, cleaning and checking. That line of thinking didn’t go on for long. I’d been making pocket-money since I was fifteen fixing cars for anybody who wanted it done cheap and right and didn’t care that a woman was doing it. I cocked the hammer and reached back to Billy’s wound. He squealed like a baby when I poked it. Vince was breathing hard, but when it came to fixing cars instead of driving them, he always kept quiet. “Where’d you say it stalled?” I asked the baby.

“Mattson bridge … Come on, Maybelle, put the gun down. We’re all in this together, remember?”

I leaned in as I reminded him of something. “Call me May or Belle, but if you ever slap the two together again I’ll shoot you on the spot.” I waited for him to nod, then I straightened up. “Now tell me exactly where it stalled.”

“R … r … right after the bridge, right after that little bend.”

“He’s lying.” I said.

Vince asked how I knew.

I stared into Billy’s weepy eyes as I dug the barrel harder into his temple. “If it stalled on the town side of the bridge it would’ve rolled down, all the way down to Burt’s dusty five and dime at the edge, before stopping. Road’s on an incline down to there. He would’ve only had to steer. He coulda got to us in time and warned us before we started.” I turned to Vince. “You don’t think for a minute I fixed a car that stalled out right away.”

Vince shook his head.

I looked back at Billy. “Who’re you working for?”

Billy wept and sputtered. “I don’t know what you’re on about …”

“I guess it doesn’t matter which ones,” I said. “Benson’s gang, or those city boys fighting ’em and wanting to run all the counties. One side or the other figured us out. Or maybe you told ’em. Did you do that to get in good with the ‘big boys’? They waiting for you to report back? You came up here to shoot us and take the money back to one or the other.”

“How the hell’d you figure that out?” Vince said.

I knew he didn’t expect an answer to that. “We don’t have much time.”

“How we gonna go without a car?” he said.

I smacked Billy across the head hard enough to put him out cold. “We’ll talk about that later just in case he can hear a little.”

“You’re not gonna kill ’em?”

“Whichever gang he went to will take care of that, if he doesn’t bleed to death first.”

Me and Vince hadn’t spread out much in the cabin, it was too cold in there to even undress, so we strapped a lot of the sacks with the cash around our bellies and buckled the rest of it, and anything else loose, into the two big over-the-shoulder bags we’d brought it all in. I strapped on Billy’s rifle and Vince got his gun and all the extra ammunition. As we started putting on our coats, I got an idea for a way to get down the mountain that I was pretty sure neither gang knew about. I’d lived and explored around there since I was real little — sometimes with my dad.

Watching Billy in all that pain put me in mind of Daddy’s last moments, when he’d grabbed my hand and made his peace.

Daddy’d been laid on the kitchen table by coworkers from the mine. They’d put a couple of dish towels under his head and the little crocheted blanket from the couch over him, up to his chest, so I wouldn’t see the wound when I got there. When I took his hand, he turned his grip on me and kept trying to raise his head as he rasped and blood dribbled out of his mouth and down the side of his face.

“They killed me, May,” he said. “They done killed your Daddy in that mine.”

I started to cry but he told me to stop.

“You listen to me,” he said. “I taught you everything I knew after your mama passed. I did the best I knew and I never cared you were a girl. You’re smarter than I ever was. Once you know something, you just do. You don’t have to think too long. That’s a good mark for a mind.” He spat out some more blood and went on, holding my hand even tighter and pulling me closer. “Do better than I did. Don’t go out poor. They got plenty, girl. Don’t you go out poor.”

“Oh, Daddy,” I said. I tried so hard not to cry, but tears fell.

“Promise!” he said so loud that it scared me.

I whispered into his ear, “I promise, Daddy.”

He’d been the one to teach me about cars. He taught me how to shoot and run as fast as any boy. He told me how he’d robbed strongboxes, store registers and a bank before he met my mama and went straight. He wasn’t scared to tell me that. He knew I’d still love him.

It took me a few years to figure things out. I wanted to do it once, big, then go someplace warm and live the way Daddy wanted me to. I would’ve got it done someday on my own, but meeting Vince made it perfect. He was another set of hands and someone who knew most of the ropes. He knew enough to see that I could plan things well. And since that wasn’t his strong suit, he let me plan it all. The coal company would never know who’d robbed their safe if we could just get the hell out of there and on our way south. I wasn’t going to let the little problem with Billy mess it all up.

As I was about to put my hat on, Vince caught me under my coat just above the waist, just above the tens, twenties, and fifty-dollar bills I was sure we’d get across the border. He moved his thumb around just under my breast the way he knew I liked.

I said, “I thought you dreamed of bleached blondes.”

“What’s a bleached blonde got over you?” He looked me up and down, those thick lashes of his threatening to melt me all over again.

I wiped a wisp of brown hair out of my eyes and felt for the pins holding my curls in place.

“You gonna listen to me for a change when we get to Mexico?”

“I’ll listen to you all you want,” I said. “I’ll even buy one of those pretty dresses and walk through the garden holding my shoes in my hand like we saw in that picture. Maybe wear a big straw hat with flowers around the brim …”

“Not gonna buy yourself a diamond ring, too?”

“Husbands are supposed to do that.”

“All right then. I will.”

I smiled at him.

“How ’bout babies?”

“Sure,” I said. We had plenty of money for that life. “We’ve got to get out of here now,” I said. “Let’s go.”

As we went down the side of the mountain farthest from town, going my most secret way, I kept my eyes and ears open, but I couldn’t stop smiling.

Entanglement – Part Twenty

Green blades of grass

Photo by jcolman via Flickr

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Frozen where he stood on the stair, Miller scanned the area around Aliss, eyes avoiding her as he hunted for something he seemed unable to find. She couldn’t help smiling, as she thought back to the look on Hugh’s face when he’d seen her do the same sort of thing and run away before she could speak.

She noticed Miller’s fingers clinging motionless to the railing and walked over to place her hand over his. Stroking his skin with her thumb, she tried to compose the right beginning for a story he couldn’t be ready for.

He examined the scenery over Aliss’s shoulder, standing quiet another moment before parting his lips. “What the fuck …” he said, lips still moving as his words cut off.

“It’s all right, Miller,” she said. “It might not seem like it, but things are better now.” The light behind her smile dimmed and brightened as she gauged his reaction, but didn’t go out. “I’ve remembered some important things today.”

“Remember …?” he mumbled.

“There are things I have to explain … so much I have to tell you.” She watched him close. “What did you just see?”

Miller shifted his attention and weight upward on the stairs.

“Let’s not go up there,” Aliss said, grasping his hand.

Frozen again, he glared straight ahead, then back at the patch of lawn at the corner of the building.

Aliss said, “Let’s go someplace and talk. Someplace else. You’ll understand better if you can see what I mean. Come down and let me show you.”

“Show me … what?”

“Just come and see.”

He responded to her gentle tug and came down the steps, eyes searching ground.

Aliss kept hold of his hand, backing away with him in tow, his body loosening rag doll-like, aiming his limbs where gravity dictated, until his fingers locked and resisted her pull. When the tension took him over, he shook his hand free and grabbed her wrist, holding it up inches from his heart. She waited for him to say something, watching disbelief, shock, and fear as they overlapped in circuit across his face.

He said, “I saw you walk through a wall.”

“No, I didn’t …”

“I know what I saw. How the hell …”

“I came out in front of the wall, not through it. I can explain.”

“I’m not losing my mind …”

“I know you’re not. Let go of my wrist so I can show you what happened.”

His fist gripped tighter.

Beneath each of the emotions she understood, Aliss saw anger in him that made her chest clench inside as it had every other time she’d seen that kind of heat up close. How Miller could be capable of that without her having seen it before, escaped her. She was in no mood to revisit her own raw emotions, to be scared again, especially of him. And it was just that easy for her to purse her lips and rip at his fingers with her other hand. She thrashed at them until she felt moisture under her nails. It was when he didn’t flinch, that she realized how deep his shock had been. He hadn’t been able to look into her eyes. Perhaps his wasn’t another dominating personality to run from. Maybe he was that scared.

“Miller,” she commanded, “look at me.”

His eyes moved in her direction. “What’s happening here, Aliss?”

She modulated her voice, hoping to calm. “You’ve trusted me until now. Think about why. You know me. Stop hurting my arm.”

He breathed harder and let go of her.

She placed his hand on her shoulder. “I’m not afraid, Miller. I know what I’m doing and I’m not afraid. Why are you?”

“Because things should make sense,” he said.

Entanglement — Nineteen

Photo via Wikimedia

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Aliss slammed the door and stood on the porch, heart beating heavy in her chest, loud in her ears. Footsteps on pavement caught her attention before her flight response had begun to wane. Two dark-clothed figures, faceless in the shadows between lights, walked toward her from across the wide street. The sight of them told her something quicker and clearer than anything she had come to know that evening.

They were much bigger than she, seemingly men, so she threw her bag’s strap over her head and across her body, ran down the steps and rounded left over the lawn as they followed. Her hands worked as she ran, years of practice focused into a reflexive search, leading to an opening in the dark that she slowed down just enough to get into and search for a path. She felt such relief when she found one …

 ~

Aliss remembered the things she and Carlene said to each other, needing to get away, being chased by men she was sure her mother had known were waiting for her — and instead of shutting her down, the memories aroused a desire to unfold out into open spaces. She put shoes on, got her keys and went downstairs to walk around the block and watch the sun begin to set.

She stopped at the east wall of the building as she passed, drawn to the tiny patch of grass meeting its corner and the walk, just before the shadows began. Standing there, she tilted her head to examine the area, but without using her eyes. She listened instead for something that wasn’t a sound — tuning, she thought. Then, as her words turned down low like a dial had been adjusted, she felt for what she knew was there.

She slipped a hand in close to the shadows. Smiling, she drew herself farther in and felt for the path she wanted, her favorite place since childhood any time she needed to rest or explore something quiet — when she wanted the freshest air, the softest places to nap, and the richest, truest colors.

With little effort, she sensed the junctions between paths and kept on course toward the world she wanted, as if that place wasn’t a strange maze or the most foreign place on earth, as if traveling there was the same as turning down familiar city streets. She moved along the pliant, curved walls that seemed barely there, close yet free, their reflective brightness all around, and just enough air somehow — so many properties she’d never understood or worried about. All that had ever mattered to her about it was what mattered then, that she got to her chosen destination, or discovered new ones.

Aliss exited fast and sure onto a green carpet of fragrant, thick grass her feet disappeared into as she walked toward fat, gnarled trees about thirty yards in the distance. The air almost made her dizzy with the crisp, intoxicating undersmell she and Hugh had supposed signaled its pristine nature. Mixing in, like top notes of subtle perfumes, were scents of flowers neither of them had seen before or been able to find in books. She’d taken bouquets of them to Carlene, twice, before realizing her mother’s curiosity about their rarity made that a bad idea.

On her way to the trees to make a meal of her favorite fruit, Aliss realized Miller could be back soon. Her hands were up without a second’s thought, guiding her back along the paths, sensing directional differences that compensated for having walked away from the place where she had come out.

Emerging on the building’s lawn at home, she spun and saw Miller standing on the bottom step, staring in her direction.

Entanglement — Part Eighteen

Quiet night

Photo by daita, via Flickr

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The hot tea had lost enough heat for Aliss to gulp hers down. She poured another cup, her hands steady yet feeling uncooperative, the fingers and palms working together as if by chance. ‘Hows’ weren’t communicating to Aliss at all while the ‘no’ she hadn’t uttered yet agitated the air in her lungs and pressed to get out. She sipped more tea in the silence and imagined ‘no’ expanding wide enough to push back any argument.

Carlene took a mouthful of sweetened tea and swallowed it down in bits. She smacked her lips and raked her fingers through her hair again. “This is the strangest conversation I’ve ever been in,” she said, pushing away from the table and going to look out the front window.

Aliss heard a tinge of laughter in her mother’s voice. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Carlene staring past the porch at something out in the darkness. Turning around, she heard Carlene’s footsteps marching back to her and stopping short.

“Come on, Ali. Fifteen thousand dollars … that gets me out of trouble the minute they put it in my hand.”

“You’ve worked it out well. I show up and do the work … and you get the money.”

“Well, it’s not like you need it. Anybody could use it, I guess. But you know you don’t need it.”

That was true. Aliss hated owing money, preferring her bills whittled down as small as possible, no amounts carrying over, always something saved each week, but she was bothered that Carlene mentioned it. She tried to think of a contingency plan. The one in question wouldn’t work for her, but her mother’s situation was dangerous and called for one.

“You’re acting like you have all the time in the world, Aliss. You need to answer me now,” Carlene said. “What’s the matter with you?”

“I’ve been trying to think. There must be something we can do.” Aliss stood and approached Carlene, wanting to hug her but knowing that she’d need to wait for the right opening and that it might not present itself. “Let me hide you someplace safe while we figure it out.”

Carlene’s instinct backed her away from Aliss inch by inch as her daughter came closer. A wounded dangerous edge, familiar to Aliss, punctuated each word her mother said, and she strung them out as if they needed to be slow enough for an infant. “It’s already figured out. Very simple. What is it that you don’t see?”

Aliss stopped trying. “The part where I should be responsible for something like this. There are things you do for the people you love, but this is my life. I don’t want to do this.”

“You mean you won’t help me.”

“We can think of something else …”

“You are the worst person … why would I ever think I could count on you. I can’t believe I did such a bad job as a mother, but this is how you are. You’ve always resented me for something … nothing that makes any sense. I don’t know why I ever worried about you, but believe me, those days are over.”

Carlene hadn’t raised her voice this time, but her words hit Aliss like fever and sickness — raising welts, spotting her vision, tumbling her insides. She whirled in the direction of her bag so she could escape, hating herself for hurting, wanting to hate Carlene for casting the blow.  “That boyfriend of yours … he has money, doesn’t he? Why didn’t you ask him? Because it’s for me?”

Aliss found her satchel and ran for the door.

Carlene shouted. “Does he know about you? What’ll he think?”

Lightheaded, Aliss exhaled, “I hate you.”

“I know.”

“I’m leaving.”

“Don’t ever come back.”

Entanglement – Part Seventeen

Lightning striking the Eiffel Tower

Lightning striking the Eiffel Tower – Photo via Wikipedia

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Carlene stirred sugar into her tea. Aliss braced herself during the lull, out of habit, considering how to ask the logical questions her mother would perceive as challenges. She soon accepted that Carlene’s reaction would be the same no matter what she said or how. “First of all,” she began, “I don’t know when I’d do it. You know I work a forty hour week.”

“So do I. You think that makes you special?” Carlene eyed the tea service pieces that didn’t match, gifts Aliss had given her long before — the celadon stoneware teapot (set over a linen dishtowel) and creamy porcelain cups and saucers embossed with the shapes of berries. The rosy Eiffel Tower woven into the linen caught her attention. Her fingernails picked at its edge. “Why did you come? It doesn’t seem to be for my welfare. Maybe you should’ve stayed home and waited to hear what happens to a person who can’t pay her debts.”

Gambling debts, Aliss thought. “Who do you owe the money to again?”

“Does it matter? Illegal lenders don’t have many differences when it comes to how they intimidate or how they collect.” She turned to her daughter. “I’ll never borrow from anyone like that again. And after all I’ve done for you — all I’ve done without and given up … after every ridiculous thing you’ve ever asked me for or expected from me in your snug little life — you don’t have the right to say anything about it. What you can do is behave like the world doesn’t revolve around you and do something for me for a change. You’re young. What’s six months in the scheme of your life? And you love to do it. It’s obviously no skin off your nose.”

“Why’re you sure they’ll only study me for six months?”

“Because that’s what they asked for.”

“How’d they find me?”

“You asked me that before. I told you. You slipped up in front of the wrong person but they couldn’t find you again. They found me.” Carlene dropped the spoon alongside her cup and turned her body toward Aliss. Her expression remained hard, but a deceptive calm lowered her voice. “You may think I didn’t know what you were doing all those years after you figured it out, but I did. I tried to make you stop before you got hurt, or worse, but what was I supposed to do? I finally thought it might teach you a lesson if you did hurt yourself. Maybe you’d get yourself into trouble and learn to listen to me. But I guess you didn’t. Why you’d walk into something like that, I’ll never know. I wouldn’t.”

Part of Aliss was shocked. “You’ve never gone in? You never explored it?”

Explored? Why the hell would I do that? I’ve always had enough trouble right here. Why would I do something strange that doesn’t make any sense? That’s obviously your kind of thing, not mine.”

Aliss could’ve screamed. If Carlene had been versed in the merits of visiting other worlds, she’d know she could escape into one, instead of trying to force her daughter to submit to scientific tests in return for the money to pay her loan shark. “Why are you so sure nothing bad will happen to me?”

“Ali, it’s not the military. They’re scientists — like NASA. They’re paying. They don’t want to hurt you.”

Aliss knew her mother believed this, that she wasn’t trying to be malicious. This was her way of forgetting, willing away unpleasant facts to gain breathing room. Her truth became elastic out of necessity. She supported her sanity this way, not by slipping into dreams, but by constructing them with all the precision her lies would allow.

Entanglement — Part Sixteen

from a series of photos i took for a book cove...

Photo via Wikipedia

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Trembling, she realized she had no idea where to start with him. So much of what she’d remembered made her feel crazy, and it was her life. She stared into empty space and was overcome by the desire to leave as Hugh had done. Instead she lifted her hands, trying to recreate the experience of ‘searching’, hoping that success would erase the feel of water or let it recede.

Nothing miraculous seemed anywhere near. Air felt like air, her hands like hands. She’d been able to ‘feel’ other memories deeper than this one she’d mastered — played with, escaped through — but she couldn’t find the way now. Perhaps nervousness was stunting it — guilt, Hugh’s attempts to fix her, his anger juxtaposed with the heaviness of the things he’d undertaken on her behalf.

She stopped trying and had a woeful, healing cry about how mixed up life could be, the good and the damaging packed together so tight that the monumental task of separating them had long scared her into remaining unhappy. Trying to fix everything Hugh thought was wrong with her, trying to save a mother who wanted to be saved and looked after by her only child, hadn’t made her happy. Those efforts reinforced the illusions that their desires were faultless, and anything Aliss wanted was suspect until they told her otherwise.

The last thing Carlene wanted from her may have been what drove her away. Aliss didn’t understand why Hugh thought a man had followed her to this world — she couldn’t recall leaving, only bits of having arrived — but she remembered that night’s conversation at her mother’s house.

~

Walking through the front door, toward Carlene’s smile and outstretched arms, made Aliss think things could be different. Maybe she’d meet apologies, not prodding. Unsure if Hugh knew she’d seen him in his car halfway down the block, she refused to go near him until after talking to Carlene. His admonitions had been coming for days, so she’d avoided him when she could. She was determined to ask her mother more questions before making a decision.

Carlene wore sleeveless gold silk over faded jeans, repeating with ease the alluring look she’d never lost, one Aliss had hoped she inherited. She’d been as glad as her mother when people mistook them for sisters. It meant she was pretty enough to be compared. Even when Aliss tried not to be pretty, fancying the sort of initial power Carlene wielded wasn’t far away.

“I’m glad you’re here, Ali,” Carlene said, leading her daughter to the dining room table set with some store-bought almond cookies and a pot of tea. As they sat next to each other, she raked her fingers through her waist length hair the way she did when trying not to appear nervous.

Aliss savored the aroma of the peach-scented black tea she liked, soon realizing she’d have to pour.

“You see now that it’s not a bad thing, right honey?” Carlene said.

“We’re not going to visit first, like civilized people?” Aliss poured their tea, then dipped a cookie into hers.

Carlene’s smile took a familiar hard edge before flattening. She reached for sugar. “I don’t need your twisted sense of humor right now.”

Aliss hadn’t gauged the toll before letting the line slip. She hoped her flinch was imperceptible. If it showed, Carlene would load the reason for it like ammunition and aim without hesitation. Aliss would fall, no matter how the truth in Hugh’s tirades about Carlene stood in relief to the way he’d delivered them — no matter that Aliss wanted to be comfortable saying no to her mother. What mattered was that she’d only said it when no one would suffer — no one but herself.