There Are Worse Places

The wave rolled towards the shore, slow and slushy. It was not completely frozen — not yet. Determined, it tried to reach the wide, sandy beach and break, just as it had done for a millennia. However, there was no glorious white cap of water followed by a crash. No. The wave was low and dull, the crystals of frozen water tumbling like a Slurpee machine and reflecting the moody sky above. I heard it strike the shore, a steak slapping against a marble counter. I did not think of it as a wave at that moment. It was something unnatural — a thing that did not have a name. It retreated, and there was a brief moment of silence before it repeated.

These were my days. I spent them watching the ocean, the sky and the direction of the wind. I knew there were worse places I could be. Yet, sometimes I thought it would have been more merciful to be at home when the Froid happened. I imagine I would have been outside on a wintry day, with my long hair tucked inside my warmest cap, trudging in the early morning to the grocery store to get coffee filters and an almond danish. I know myself well enough to predict that I’d be out of filters by that time and would not have planned ahead by buying them the night before. Besides, those almond danishes were temptingly sweet. The thought of them alone would have rousted me out of bed, though more likely it would have been the dog licking my face, begging to go out for a pee.

If that had happened — if I had gone to the grocery store — I would have frozen solid, maybe mid-stride, without even understanding what was going on. I would have never known about the Froid.

However, that had not been the case. I had been on vacation, wanting to get away from the grip of winter. The irony of it was that I rented an apartment for a week, and I never left. The owners didn’t contact me; I assumed they froze somewhere up north. The local management company went silent. I presumed they just didn’t see the point in harassing me for more money.

There were the initial news reports. I hated thinking about them, but I kept finding myself searching for answers in those final blips of moving electronic images. “Sudden Freeze,” read the headlines in English and “Le Grand Froid” in French. All were followed with talking heads discussing the phenomenon, some denying that there was climate change at all by referring to a sudden blizzard recorded by pioneers in the Dakotas and a frozen lagoon in eighteenth century France.

If it had been fleeting, I might have been inclined to believe the skeptics. But the Froid persisted, spreading its icy fingers across the rest of the U.S. and Europe, even those areas that were mild, until most of Earth was arctic. The final news reports stated that electricity in most major cities was down, and there was rioting over food and oil supplies. I can’t say what happened afterwards because the news stopped broadcasting.

It was more peaceful in the Caribbean, where the Froid was slower — more nefarious, some here would say. It seemed to get a little colder everyday. We watched mostly from our windows.

Yesterday, I went to buy pain sucre from my neighbor, Jean, who sold bread from his kitchen. I wrapped myself in blankets and hooded my head in towels. I ran as quickly as I could, feeling the sharp sting in my lungs from being out-of-shape and equally sharp pricks in my fingers and toes from the cold. The beach village, painted in bright Creole colors, was quiet, except for the slapping of the slushy waves and the wind threading through the curving streets. Garbage bags were piled near the fence line. All the Citroens and Peugots had flat tires. We’d run out of gas ages ago, and of course there was no trash service.

Along the way, I saw a purple orchid near the hedges, preserved in a crust of clear ice. I paused to study it, my breath twisting like smoke into the air. It had roundish petals with dark purple veins that were lighter at the edges. In the center was a yellow lip splashed with whites and electric violets. A creeping vine sprouted from the orchid’s side with another small bud that never had the chance to bloom. I’d run by the orchid countless times. How had I never seen it? I wanted to pick it up, but my hands were too cold. I stuffed them beneath my blanket and hurried on.

“Jean!” I said, bursting into his tiny apartment with a view of la plage. “Did you see the frozen orchid?”

Comment? Tu parles trop vite.” His shorts were dusted white with flour; his skin so much paler than it used to be.

I repeated myself in French.

He replied that oui, he’d seen the orchid many times. He was surprised that I had not. Then he kissed me as he always did.

I was like that — not very observant. But I thought that I was becoming better. I had time to sit and watch now. My mind was becoming more still. I was preparing for death as the creep of the cold slipped over my head like a wool sweater.

Today, the wind was stronger than usual, and it was blowing in from the north. Certainly, this was a bad sign. I suspected the temperature would plummet even further that night. I wondered if the last of the palm fronds would fall as a result. Most of them had already broken off, though there were still a few stragglers.

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/weather/frozen-slurpee-waves-lick-shores-nantucket-n314116

Nightmares of Light

My puppy cried out in the darkness and heaved in an asthmatic grip. As she tried to inhale, her ribs moved like an accordion, in and out, her back rounding and arching. I hugged her close and stroked her. “Shh. It’s okay,” I said. “Relax. Easy.”

Curling against me, shaking and licking my hand, she was inconsolable from what could only be a nightmare. The moonlight spilled between the half-open blinds and mixed with the yellow glow of the streetlights and the distant rumble of a siren. I talked softly to her, petted her narrow head and stroked her wiry fur. As she drifted back to sleep, I wondered what it was that she saw in her dreams that had frightened her so.

She was well-cared for, perhaps overly adored. She had a woodchuck that yodeled when its belly was squeezed, a Chewbacca stuffed doll purchased at Comic-Con, chicken breast dinners baked in our slow cooker and an alpaca sweater from Peru. She went with me to work often, commuting to the West Village by train, then weaving through the cobblestone streets to SoHo. At work, she played with a dog named Pickles and lay on the couches while co-workers petted her belly. On days that I couldn’t take her to work, our dog walkers took care of her at 11am and 3pm. At night, she begged for goulash and hamburgers, ran after her yellow ball and chewed on an antler to amuse herself.

Her life was simple and should be free of worry. I wonder then, could her nightmares be like mine? Did she dream of being attacked, dying or things that were lost? Did she see monsters? In her doggy-mind, did Chewbacca come to life and chase her down the hallway? Was she afraid of intruders, or of being abandoned?

Perhaps it was the position of the stars, the shape of the moon or the pull of the tides, but I too had an unsettling dream that night, before my puppy had hers.

In my dream, my father’s ghost was locked inside my uncle’s closet. My uncle had painted the closet white, added red paneling and new shelves. He said that the remodel would keep the ghost away. I peered into the closet. The pendant fixture inside was bright, washing the small room with artificial light that reminded me of being inside a shopping mall. I gave my uncle a wary look. “Are you sure he’s not in there anymore?”

“Well, no,” My uncle said, standing inside the closet, rubbing his balding head. “He’s still here, though less so than before.”

“Shouldn’t you keep the door shut then?”

“Yes, that’s probably a good idea.” He stepped out of the closet and closed it without turning off the light switch.

I stood there for a moment, unsure how I felt. There was a crack beneath the door, and I could see the artificial glow of the fixture inside. It pulsed with a supernatural energy, as if it were viscous, full of dark matter and the wisdom of an infinite universe. My father was still in the closet; I was convinced of it. I backed away, afraid. Then awoke in my bed with my heart pounding.

At that time, my puppy had not yet rounded her soon-to-be nightmare. I watched her twitch in her sleep, then got up to re-fill my water glass to wash away the sour taste in my mouth. I lay down again, snuggling her into the crook of my arm. The night folded over me until my puppy awoke me with her little cries.

I wished I could ask her what she’d seen. Knowing this to be impossible, I fell asleep.

 

Sleep Walk

The notes of the song scratched over the record player into the living room, twisting and then hanging in the early California evening. Bobbi stretched out on across the soft shag rug and arched her back. The fibers stuck to her damp skin, still warm from the day’s oppressive heat. She dug her fingers into it and pulled loose long threads flecked in beige and cream. A pathetic breeze wafted through her cheap Ikea curtains, fluttering dissonantly against the chords of the song.

The rug had been on final clearance at the Crate & Barrel outlet. Even a year later, its fibers still shed and clogged the roller of her broken down vacuum cleaner. She could not fathom that anyone would have paid more for it than one hundred and twenty-five bucks—the most expensive thing she had bought since she was phased out last year. It was her prized possession, second only to the record player purchased at Target with the last of her unemployment check.

Bobbi heard his footsteps on the stoop before the key, and somewhere in the recesses of her mind she knew that John would be annoyed to find her there, spread out in an old pair of cutoffs and a ragged white tank top, braless and unshowered, just like he had left her that morning.

“Hey, Bobbi.” John dropped his computer bag in the living room.  The apartment was so small that there wasn’t even an entryway.

“Hey, baby.”

“What are you doing?” There was a slight tick of disapproval.

“Listening to music.” She rolled onto her stomach and buried her face in the shag, breathing in the must of dust and human and cat. The smell of home.

He stood for a moment and she guessed he was trying to decide if they should argue again. She cut him off before he could answer.

“Isn’t it beautiful? I found the record at Half Price Books today and had to have it. It even skips. Think about how much someone loved it to scratch just this song.”

Bobbi turned her head and pressed the side of her cheek into the rug so she could see him. John smiled then tried to hide it. She knew he did not approve. She should be looking for work, not listening to old songs. He moved to the grey couch that sat on the edge of the rug, still in his shoes. How many times had she asked him to take his shoes off before he touched it? Too many to count. She shrugged. It wasn’t worth the fight.

“It’s pretty. I feel like I know it somehow. What is it?”

Bobbi knew, but she liked the fact that he couldn’t place it. “I think it was in La Bamba.”

“Maybe that’s it. When Richey was picking up Donna at school, I think.” John moved his arm to the edge of the couch where her cat had clawed out the stuffing. He settled back into the cushions and stared at the record player. “I like the guitars. It’s a little Dick Dale, but slower and less L.A.”

“Exactly.” She turned over onto her back again so she could look at the ceiling.  Her breasts sank to the sides of her tank. “It sounds like the surf coming in.”

John sat motionless and listened to the final coda. “What made you buy this?”

“I needed to press pause.”

The last notes reverberated into the small room. As they ended so did the breeze. The two sat in silence. Dusk settled into the cracked white walls of the apartment, bathing them in purple.

“Did you look for a job today?”

“Tomorrow, I promise.”

In This Eternal Night

Sitting at the kitchen table, I opened and closed the shears in time with the ticking of the wall clock. Tick tock.

The shears’ blades glinted under the soft glow of the ion therapy lamp mounted to the ceiling, and the steely handles were cool between my thumb and forefinger. Unlike the new ones made of graphene, these shears were heavy, forged from steel that was mined during the era when smoke stacks pumped black clouds into the sky, in the days before the sun eclipsed.

I hadn’t been this down in years. I hadn’t shaved in days, and my reluctant beard was patchy and sparse. I was low. Really at the bottom. And the shears could end it all with one well-positioned jab to the jugular.

I raised the blades to my throat and pressed. I felt nothing, except the uncertainty that I may not be able to do it.

A siren cried into the night, rattling my determination. I didn’t need to glance out the window to know it was an ambulance going to collect yet another suicide. I covered my ears with my hands, shears hanging from the base of my thumb. My C-tag slipped down the chain around my neck and landed with a clunk onto the table. The siren’s red light splashed the walls of the kitchen, followed by a shadow.

I waited until the wail subsided, then I set the scissors down, removing my fingers from the handles with a gentle release. There were was too much death these days. I could not be among them, at least not tonight.

I touched my C-tag, rectangular, smooth and shiny. It had a small speaker at the top and a neon green panic button in the center. I’d chosen neon green because it reminded me of blades of spring grass — the way it used to look when I was little and the sun would still come out. Besides, red was too cliché. Only old people and kids had red panic buttons. I wondered what color my Ward had chosen. I had never asked her, and of course we’d never met. A Counselor was not supposed to meet their Ward; the pain was too sharp if they died.
I brushed my finger over the button, hesitated, then pressed it. There was a click, followed by a small beep.

“Jeff, is that you?” my Counselor said from the C-tag’s built-in speaker.

“Yes, it’s me. Thanks for picking up, Rity.”

“Sure. Are you okay?”

I could hear the concern in Rity’s voice. I didn’t answer. Of course I wasn’t okay. I wouldn’t have called her if I was.

She sighed. I imagined her running her fingers through her red hair, though I really had no idea what color it was at all. “Is your ion lamp set to high?”

“It is. It’s just not working any more.”

“You should check yourself into a sunlight center. Just for a couple days. The ion glow baths will cheer you up.”

“Honestly, Rity, I’m not sure I am motivated to do that.”

“Tell me where you are.”

I looked around my kitchen. Small, with checkered tiles and white walls, there was a box of herbs growing under a lamp on the countertop. I needed to water them. The wall clock with black hands mounted next to the stove was ticking, ticking, ticking.

“I’m at home.” I paused and looked out the window again. The street below, lined with cement block apartment buildings, was silent. There had been trees along the sidewalk once. Under the glow of street lamps, I could still see plots of dirt surrounded by low metal fences designed to keep dogs away, though the empty spaces were now littered with paper cups and crushed cans.

I turned my attention back to Rity. “Another siren just went by. I think another person lit themselves on fire.”

“That’s weak. You know it is. They have failed the test. One day, history will talk about this dark period. You want your great-grandchildren to celebrate your decision to stay alive, don’t you?”

I looked at the shears. I couldn’t contemplate great-grandchildren. I didn’t even have a girlfriend, let alone a partner. Maybe I was weak too. “I know why they light themselves on fire,” I said instead. “They just want to see light again. Natural light. And fire is the closest they can get to that feeling.”

From the C-tag’s speaker, I heard a man laugh. I thought I heard music too, but I couldn’t make out the melody. I suddenly felt bad that I’d interrupted her. She was probably out with friends, having fun, like a normal person should. “Rity, I should go.”

“No, I’m here.” She paused. “Listen, they said that we’ll get 24 hours of daylight at the end of the month. You heard that, right?”

I hadn’t.

“Seventeen more nights until daylight. Think you can stick it out until then? It will be worth it. Everyone will be out. A huge party. It’ll be epic.”

“And what about the next day? Will it be dark again? Because I need more than 24 hours. I need a week, a month, a year.”

My hand moved back to the shears.

“Jeff,” Rity said.

“This endless night will kill us all.” I slipped my fingers into the handles. I couldn’t take it anymore. This was a crazy way to live. “We need sunlight to survive. We are creatures of the sun, of warmth. We need its energy to recharge.”

“Jeff.”

“One day, I’ll press my C-Tag and you won’t answer.” I felt my eyes well up with tears. “And when you are gone, I’ll go through with it. Then when my Ward calls me, I won’t answer, so my Ward will kill herself too. And then her Ward will do the same. The domino effect will have begun. We’ll all be dead.”

I had a brief flash of Rity, my Ward and myself in the afterlife, skipping hand-in-hand through a field of daisies beneath a sunny sky with white, fluffy clouds. I pictured my Ward blonde, like a flower child from the twentieth century.

“Jeff, listen to me.”

My hand was opening and closing the shears to the time of the ticking wall clock again. “What?”

“I’m coming over now.”

I froze. She wasn’t supposed to do that. “Rity, no. You can’t.”

“I can, and I will.”

She hung up.

w04

The Ice Rink

She brushed the snow off her jeans and pulled her hat down over her ears, then looked out over the ice, her ghost-like breath hanging in the air. The snowy landscape stretched in front of her, cold and desolate, spattered with a few pine trees and an old fence, paint peeling. She wished that there were a hill, a river, a waterfall, or anything that would break up the monotony of frozen cornfields and empty pasture. But there was nothing, only a thin layer of snow, a cold wind, a long endless horizon, and of course the ice rink.

The wind nibbled at her earlobes as she laced up her ice skates. Left, cross, around the hook, right, cross, around the hook, pull, repeat. She had a good rhythm going, when the left lace snapped. She cursed, then removed her pink glove and began to tie the two broken pieces together, her hands clumsy with cold. It was no wonder the laces broke. The skates were from the fifties or sixties. They used to be her mom’s, and they hadn’t been touched, sharpened or polished for nearly thirty years.

She looked down at the knot, hoping it would hold, and flexed her fingers. She couldn’t feel them anymore. They were swollen red. She stuffed them back into her gloves, then shoved them into her coat pockets. She sat on the ice for a moment and felt the stinging pain in her hands grow, then taper off. She hoped they weren’t frostbitten.

When her fingers felt warm again, she pulled the laces on the ice skate, tighter and tighter until the old, cracked leather buckled around her ankles. She tried to move her ankle, but could not. Satisfied (it was easier to skate that way), she left the first foot and began to work on the second. Left, cross, around the hook, right, cross, around the hook, pull, repeat.

Finished, she stood up, wobbling only for a moment before she found her stride and skated through the center of the ice, twirling, then slipping her hands behind her back and leaning forward to gain speed. She traced the perimeter, one skate crossing in front of the other, though she had to be careful to avoid the edges. The rink was really just a large pool of shallow frozen water, long and narrow, with brittle fingers. The worst thing that could happen was to skate too close to once of these fingers. The ice would break, and she would fall. It had happened before.

The rink formed in the pasture about the same time every year. In early autumn, torrential rains fell upon the farm, flooding it until the pasture, which happened to be shaped like a shallow soup bowl, caught all the water in its natural basin. The water sat there until it smelled sour and grew stagnant from goose droppings and rotting leaves where upon it became the color of egg yolks and sour milk. But when the first freeze came, the knee-deep water froze solid. A wet snow accompanied the freeze shortly thereafter; this happened every year in the North. Then then snow had to be cleared, not just for ice skating, but also so that the horses wouldn’t slip and break a leg.

She always cleared the snow with her dad. They shoveled the ice clean, or as clean as they could get it, considering that it was nearly a quarter mile long in each direction. It usually took several weekends to clear unless there was more snow, in which case it took longer. They would carry wide, stainless steel shovels through the paddock, over the fence, and onto the frozen flood plain. The horses would stand off in the distance, observing them with cautious curiosity. She always felt safe; the horses were tame, and besides, they would not come too close to the ice. They seemed to sense the danger.

Before they began to shovel, they would set up a shanty-town camp of sorts, equipped fully with thermoses of coffee, a battery powered cassette player and an orange milk crate that served as a make shift chair. There wasn’t much talk when they worked since Dad wasn’t a man of words, but the tinny speakers filled up the silence between them. As they listened to music — usually Billy Idol or Lou Reed —  they would heave the snow up over their shoulders and onto the edge of the ice. Gradually, the pile increased to the size of a row of well-trimmed hedges.

It’s a nice day to start again. It’s a nice day for a white wedding.

When she got tired, she would sit upon the milk crate and sip the lukewarm coffee as Dad went on, barreling through the snow with a fierce determination that she admired. When he was too exhausted to continue as well, they would both call it a day, leaving with plans to come back in the morning with a snow blower. But they never did come back with the snow blower. Instead, they returned the next day with shovels, enjoying the silent time and the serenity of the frozen lake.

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Last Days on Latmos

It had been a long time since Été had heard another person’s voice outside of her own and Image’s. True that she listened everyday from the cockpit of the broken starship, for this was the final order her commander had given. But so many years had passed that she did this now out of habit rather than in the hope that someone else was out there.

Yet she had heard something just now. A voice. Far away, but well within the 100,000 radius of Latmos. Hunched in the pilot’s seat of the cockpit with the shattered window, she tightened the gray rabox fur over her shoulders and listened. At first she couldn’t hear anything except the sound of Imidge chopping wood by the shed.

Black like licorice drops. Shiny and dull. Dull and shiny.

Yes. There is was. A man’s voice. Thin fingers shaking, she adjusted the dial on the communicator. Gods — she was trembling all over. Could it really be?

I sewed two Xs where the eyes had been, and a third where its nose should have gone. I found one later while I was sweeping, the windows open, the first of spring.

The voice stopped. Her fingers turned the tuner again, but there was only silence this time. “No-no-no,” she muttered. So dumb. She’d forgotten the record button. She’d been so flustered and was out of practice. Seven years ago when they’d crashed on Latmos, she’d been a trained military pilot. But the planet, and Imidge, had made her soft. She rubbed the chill out of her hands and pressed record.The light blinked steadily.

Été waited, then the voice began to speak again.

… It was beneath the radiator that had been tipping into the floorboards. The eye had rolled there. I can’t possibly know why. And no matter what she says, I still have no sense of her true feelings.

Imidge had to hear this. “Imidge!” He didn’t answer, so she leaned her head out of the cockpit, the cold air sapping the flush from her cheeks. “Imidge! I found something!”

Another tangle of static. The thunking of the axe continued. The little wooden cabin that they’d built was only three hundred yards from the crash site, so he should have heard. Damn him. He was always lost in his own world. He had become so undisciplined.

Été glanced through the broken windshield at the hip-high red grass on the forest floor as she continued to twist the dial. She still hated the color of that grass. It reminded her of freshly spilled blood — the blood of the crew after they’d crashed. She couldn’t shake those memories, even after seven years. She could still see it happening. She was in the pilot’s seat; the hatch would not open; the crew was not responding; the starship was filling up with smoke. She pulled out her pistol and shot at the windshield until it cracked, hoping to gods the atmospheric readings had been right. She braced herself against the seat and kicked until it broke. Imidge had been next to her, in the co-pilot’s seat. Coughing, she pulled him out through the windshield and onto the nose of the ship, his body limp and cut from windshield’s broken glass. It was not far to the forest floor, so she rolled him off. He landed on his back with a dull thump, eyes still closed, surrounded by the tall scarlet grass, as if he were floating in a bath of blood, a halo of death and desperation.

Two days later, she and Imidge had dug the crew’s graves. Four of them in all. Their bodies were buried near a grove of alien trees that had birch white trunks and scarlet leaves, albeit not the same color as the grass. These leaves were darker, more like crusted blood.

If she ever saw green plants again, it would be a funny thing.

Imidge ran towards the starship, his figure appearing suddenly from the cover of the forest. “Été? What it is?” he said. “What did you find?”

He climbed the makeshift stairs to the starship and dropped into the co-pilot’s seat. He was wearing his navy blue co-pilot’s jacket, buttons missing, the golden thread insignia frayed and a sleeve torn by their first encounter with a rabox — all teeth and claws. Aside from the way his hair had begun to gray at the temples, he still looked the same as when they first crashed.

“You’re not going to believe this.” Été turned up the volume and adjusted the dial. At first the cockpit was filled only with the sound of static, but then, they heard the voice.

… I watched as she tore at its face, gnawing on those black eyes, working each with her bone white teeth. Those beautiful lips. I wanted to know what she was thinking. For she loved me, and I her, though it is hard to say who loved more.

Imidge looked at her, his eyes wide. “Where is it coming from?”

“I don’t know. I’m recording though. We can analyze it back at the cabin. Hopefully we can pin-point its location.”

They listened. Imidge reached over and squeeze her hand. She still liked his touch.

I was not a tack. I was flesh, and my world was sound, movement, breath, stars, long stretches of blackness and then light and memory. I think she understood. At least I hope so.

“What is he talking about? Is he insane?” Imidge asked.

“I’m not sure. It could be a beacon. Just a looped message designed to get someone’s attention.”

“Maybe. Or maybe not. What if it isn’t a beacon at all?”

Été leaned her head back against the seat. Was it possible that the could be rescued? That Latmos could one day be a memory?

“Try it.” Imidge gestured to the palm-sized mic that hung on its hook next to the tuner.

“What if he’s crazy?”

“Maybe he’s by himself. It’s easy to be crazy when you’re alone.”

“They don’t send starships with one-man crews.” Été looked out the window again. The red grass swayed in the breeze. The sound reminded her of playing cards being fanned.

“They also didn’t plan for our starship to crash. There are a lot of things that can go wrong out here.”

… and if it does, and should there be no witnesses, then does it matter what I’ve done? Likewise, if I am one person who is replaced by another who is born at the time of my death, do I mean anything at all?

Été picked up the mic. It felt heavy in her hands. She flipped the switch on the side. “Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is Captian Été Scylla aboard Hermes 2. We are stranded on Latmos. Do you read?”

The voice stopped. A swirl of static rushed through the speakers.

Imidge covered his head in his hands. She stared straight ahead through the cracked windshield into the red grass, swaying, whispering, calling her name. Été-Été-Été.

The words that came next were thin and tired. “Hermes 2. I read you.” The voice paused. “I read you loud and clear.”

back yard 2