Shelter

My mind is four walls, and a roof. A whole life of memories decorates it. Sometimes, I flick the lights on and off. Here I sleep, drink.

 
However, there’s no door. I can see other rooms, even have conversations with them.

 
But only through windows, through tight blinds.

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Topography

I spend so much time indoors that, sometimes, I forget where I live.

I’ll wander off in my head, daydreaming of someplace I’d like to go visit. I’ll picture it, someplace in West Virginia. There’s a particular restaurant that I haven’t eaten at in forever; I’ll grab something there. It’s just a drive, I think. Until I realize that it’s three states away, and that I’ve been here, in this same apartment in Knoxville, for almost four years.

Not that I eat out much these days, anyway. There are a lot of things I don’t do anymore. For some reason, I used to think that I’d be content with a life of bar-hopping six days a week, well into my sixties. I moved here thinking that I would: to this city with strange traffic, strange weather, and mountains that I don’t recognize. It’s hard to daydream of places to go, here. I don’t recognize them well enough in my head.

There’s something about the geography of East Tennessee that’s unfamiliar to me. This is still Appalachia, but it’s not—it’s more…jagged. West Virginia is covered in waves. If you stand on a mountaintop there, you can see three or four more just like it, behind it. Here, the tops of the mountains cut through the landscape like crooked fingers. The hills are sometimes bigger here, but fewer and irregular—broken up. Here, maps show lakes that look like rivers, and rivers, lakes.

There’s a reason I moved. I didn’t like the familiar, it can breed contempt. I used to frequent the same places, the same bars, with the same people. I eventually grew tired of these places, so I stayed home and drank for awhile. Then, I got tired of home, so I left, and moved to Knoxville. Fast forward some, and I basically just sat around and drank here for awhile.

I suppose habits are like familiar terrain. One minute, you’re born into the world confused, trying to get the lay of the land. Once you do, you’re relieved to rid yourself of certain unpleasant surprises. Then comes the boredom of predictability, so you venture out, and are reminded of the uncertainty that led you to routine to begin with.

This is probably where many of us find ourselves stuck, and at an important decision point in life. Sometimes, when entering into a new terrain, it’s important to note the differences between what’s familiar and what simply looks familiar because you’ve seen it elsewhere. It seems to me to be equally important to note what’s unfamiliar, and to distinguish that from what simply “looks” unfamiliar because you hadn’t noticed it before—falsely assuming certain things to be the same everywhere.

The familiar? For me, thinking that I’d somehow move to a new place, perform the same habits, and see a different landscape—failing to realize that the difference is often found in one’s perspective.

The unfamiliar? The occasional, but thankfully fleeting, feeling of homesickness.

(Image: http://www.pixabay.com, “West Virginia”)

The Justice Machine

The pock-marked scabs that dotted the treeless, barren landscape on the face of our stronghold city, Labrinthia, were what held the valued remnants of that old 2110 nuclear holocaust: the mangled airplanes, cars, trucks, trains, and other salvageable engine parts needed to build it: the Iustitia Machina, the automaton that we hoped would be the ultimate solution for our social ills. The bombs had taken away our foodstuffs, while the people either starved, or killed and pillaged. In the face of such scarcity, all life had almost ended itself on Earth. And with the institutions of the old world having been long carved hollow by the fallout, the machine was what we’d aspired to be our Ark: a cocoon from which we’d hoped all misanthropy would molt, while justice, truth—Ratio, our salvation and regained dignity—would triumphantly emerge.

The mechanism itself was a massive, gangling organism of crankshafts, pistons, spinning belts and combustion whirs, spewing exhaust fumes that billowed up and up, defecating into the sun. It spat out punch cards: instructions taken to the head of the formalist priests, Solomon, who would interpret these etchings, surrounded by the murmurings of the city’s innermost dwellers. He would sit atop his wooden rocking chair—that paramount symbol of refined wisdom, and the only wooden thing left in this whole world—and scrawl out statements into the sand before him: For every instance of (∀ ); there exists (∃ ); is an element of (∈ ); and so forth, until each and every Labrinthian had their own set of daily instructions for which to conduct all civic affairs.

Thus, the day’s work was given, justice was meted out, and—for awhile—the people had faith.

And so it was, according to such precise instruction, that the sadi-toriums were built to house the rapists and murderers, the petrol junkies were issued supplements of grain whiskey to soothe their nerves, and through much tedium, the machine carbureted communal solutions with the fervor of a twin diesel.

It wasn’t until we’d experienced such great abundance that the once destitute eyes of the Labyrinth city’s denizens began to gloss over with greed—wanting not only enough, but in excess of the daily carni-plant rations (for that was our only crop, in those days)—that Solomon had considered it wise to make assumptions regarding the punch cards, and to consider it “doubly wise,” as the formalists remarked, to regard the day-to-day regimen of the Iustitia Machina as merely a half-measure of greatness.

Rather, they wished to give birth to Moralis Perfecta, which many were wary of, given the machine’s limited, analog resources—its lack of digital processing capacities (such technology had long since been lost). Nevertheless, the Machina itself would not issue any such edict to pursue these “full” measures via punch card, so the people eventually voted to pursue it themselves.

To do so, as Solomon had advised, the day’s punch cards were generated, but then re-purposed as interconnected strips that now fed the machine—with a nautilus belt added, drawing a pulley system into an infinite digression of π (3.1415926… and so forth).

We fed the machine that morning, and it thus began to issue forth a new set of punch cards: the ones that we now know led to the foundations of all music and poetry, all art and beauty. As noon approached, the people rejoiced at first. Soon, however, mirth turned to uncertainty, turned into madness, and Labrinthia began to digress back into disorder and panic.

As citizen rose against citizen in civil chaos, the automaton began to shift its millions of valves and pistons, contorting itself smaller and smaller as the people watched on in a mixture of horror and wonder. As it screeched, hissed, revved, and wailed, eventually, Iustitia Machina began to take on a humanesque form: with steel arms, axle legs, and the face that was the mixture between what some compared to Eve, while others saw the insides of an automatic transmission.

The machine slowly became a young woman, and, as the people watched on, some began to question among themselves, “What do we do that is right? To whom do we look for solutions?”

To which that perfect form said nothing, but reached into itself, and produced a mirror—by which every Labrinthian gazed into, and finally saw the solution to every social dilemma that needed to be seen.


Balloon

“Yes, you’re going to die one of these days.”

Libby stood on the porch to my best friend, Mikey’s, house. “You’re going to be a grown up, just like…”

“No, I’m not!” In my three-year-old mind, the concept was silly. You people are old, I thought. Grown-ups. I didn’t trust a damn one of them, and this idea was absurd. Everything was ageless, we all just came into the world that way, and everyone knew that. I was being lied to.

“Yeah…” Mikey said, as he was “fixing” his bike, and trailed off (“fixing” is what we’d do when we’d sit our bicycles upside down, and spin the tires. Mikey’s dad was a mechanic). He was exactly my age, minus one month. Maybe, I thought, he’s just too young to understand, and he’s falling for this typical grown-up chicanery.

I thought about the grown-ups, and their boring, hum-drum lives. There was me, my mom, my grandmother, my great grandmother—all living in the same house. Then, the bus driver, the clerks, the police, the firemen, and the government—all in exactly that order (before the school teachers came—which Mom had warned me about, saying “I can’t wait until you have to go to school!” But I never paid any mind to her). And we were all gonna stay that way, too. My life was fun. All the while, those poor people had to go to work.

I wondered what the government had to say about Libby’s assertion, as I began to break down. She was just being mean, I thought. For no good reason.

“I’m not being mean, I’m just trying to tell you something. Don’t cry.” Libby tried to console me.

“I’m not crying!” I lied.

Later, I asked Mom about it, and she nonchalantly confirmed: I was going to be a grown-up one day. But I wasn’t buying any of her business, either. So, I asked my grandmother, Faye—who knew everything.

She laughed, “Of course you are, sweetie. Don’t worry about it!” And for some odd reason—if only for her demeanor—I just…kind of thought it odd to concern myself with aging and death? Like, if she’s not concerned enough to think of this as some big, foreboding thing, why should I be?

Still, I spent the next few days milling it over. My fourth birthday came, and Mom got me a balloon.

“Keep a hold of it. If you let it go, you don’t get another one,” she warned.

I found myself in Mikey’s front yard again that day. I remember playing this weird game, where I’d let go of the balloon’s string to see how far up it would go, and then jump to grab it. I don’t know why I found this game of petty risk so enticing, and the balloon seemed to be keeping my mind both on and off of…something…as I kept pushing the envelope, letting it go further and further, grabbing it at just the last second.

Finally, I let go one last time, missed, and my jaw kind of dropped.

“Why’d you let go of it for?” Mikey asked.

“I don’t know. I just want to see where it goes.”

Mikey watched with me for a few seconds, but got bored and wondered off. I stood there with a sort of unfamiliar amazement, and watched the red orb float, getting bounced around by the March wind. It got smaller and smaller; the sun burned into my retinas; clouds came and went, giving my vision some relief in between.

Finally, after several minutes, my neck began to cramp. I looked away.

“You wanna fix your bike?” Mikey asked. I looked back up. The balloon was gone. I had it, I played with it, and I let go. That was the end of such things—fading away into the deep, cloudy blue.

“Yeah,” I said.

And I never worried about it again.


Trial Run

“Put the gun down, Amy!”

My voice went hoarse, unexpectedly, as the girl I’d just started dating three weeks ago stood, in the middle of my Persian rug, tense as the hairs on the nape of my neck, with her sweaty hands gripping my 9mm. She had the “kill” look on her face: eyebrows cringed downward, eyes wide open, nose and upper lip cringed upward—an uncommon mixture of disgust and surprise that only shows itself on a human face when something violent is about to occur. Not what I expected to come home to.

“Where is it?” She asked, as I looked around, pretending to want to answer her question, but knowing better. My living room was a mess of shattered picture frames, a toppled bookshelf, and a flipped over couch. I knew I might come home to this, which is what can happen when you’re a bio-engineer working for a private, but low-budget firm that’s experimenting on a series of drugs to treat PTSD, and you decide to take the drugs home with you and experiment on the side. Because you got drunk, told said girl about said “designer” drug, and failed to come up with an alternate explanation behind your pet mice. Speaking of which….

“Where are the mice?” It was a dumb question, meant to deter her, to which her response was an arm twitch followed by two steps closer, letting me know that she meant business with the end of the gun. I just held my hands up dumbfounded, when her eyes glanced down and saw my work ID badge. She reached for it.

“No! They’ll kill you on site if you show up there!” I tried to caution, which was almost entirely an exaggeration, as she hit me square in the forehead with the butt of the firearm, and yanked the badge right off of my shirt pocket.

“Move!” she yelled, as I kicked the front door entrance to my home shut behind me, and threw my hands up higher, but wider—a mixed signal of surrender and defiance. I knew I couldn’t let her leave like this; that it was my fault that she, an otherwise calm but carefree, twenty-five year old, had ended up in this state to begin with; and that anything that happened from this point forward—to her, to me, to the world—was all my fault.

And I didn’t want to get caught, fired, arrested, or, in this case, shot.

“Fucking move!” she shrieked, and shoved me with her one free hand—at which point, I thought she was close enough to disarm, and almost went for it, but didn’t—with that one small, stupid part of me thinking that I could still reason for her. Then, I realized that there’s no reasoning with someone going through the yet-untested withdraw effects of DT242. I know. Not a very popular street name, but….

Bang.

She fired once, which sent white-hot flames shooting through my abdomen, as my intestines slowly began trickling bile into my bloodstream. I hit the ground, expecting—hoping—that she’d just pull the door right open and…no. Another gunshot rippled right through the center of my back—this time, from behind—as if she hoped I’d stay down while she went off to alleviate whatever psychological hell that she was going through, which was no doubt my fault.

In agony, I reached for my phone. I dialed nine…one…and then, pressed the backspace button.

I couldn’t call the police. Not yet. I realized that Amy visited me at the lab on my lunch break last week. I’d buzzed her in. This time, she could let herself in. It wouldn’t take much for her to find the stash of DT242.

But she might be stopped. Probably. Most likely. Someone might catch her in the act of using my stolen badge. Someone might, or…someone might get shot.

Or, she might walk right in, and right out of the place, with an armful of DT242.

I decided to call Brenner, the security officer at the lab; that stuff can’t get out onto the streets.

##

Six months later, as I sit at my desk filing insurance claims at twelve dollars an hour and facing a foreclosure, I can’t help but think that, maybe one day, those kinds of experiments will lead to a cure for a lot of ailments; mice may one day have have the most riveting stories of human progress.

And then, maybe I won’t be stuck in this wheelchair.


Red

“What are you doing, here? Oh, I see. Good day!” I smile a lie. I find my way to where she’s going, and let myself in. I wait.

All the better to hear her, to see her.

All the better to consume.

(Microprose, 42 word limit)

Trickster

“Look at the puppy, Daddy!”

My just-turned-four-year-old-today stood next to my wife, Sarah, and a newly-erected porch gate in front of our house.

I stood there for a moment, dumbfounded, as I got out of my Volkswagen—with my mind trying to adjust to the new pet-owner contract my wife and daughter just signed me up for. It was medium-sized, with yellow fur and beady, slanted eyes. I couldn’t tell what at first, but something looked off about it. It just stood there, wagging its tail.

“I think it’s cock-eyed,” I said, while Sarah closed the gate behind her. She came up and hugged me. “Um, what is that smell?” The scent of burnt rubber wafted off of her sweatshirt.

“Hallie and I found him at the park, earlier,” Sarah explained. I cringed and sighed. Sarah gave me her guilt-scowl, “You told her that she could get a dog.”

“I was hoping we could…” talk about this later, I was going to say, but Sarah cut me off.

“Well, Hallie likes him, and we’re not buying a dog, Sam. We’re adopting one, and this one likes us.” Then, Sarah gave me the pouty-face, “Sooo…?” I looked up on the porch.

What the hell!?

“Sarah, Hallie…” I motioned forward, “You guys need to get away from that thing!”

“Sam!” Sarah yelled.

I looked into its beady eyes as I walked toward the porch gate and lifted the wooden latch, “That’s not a dog.” I grabbed Hallie’s hand, and motioned her toward her apparently clueless hippie of a mother, and trying to plant myself all father-protects-family between me and the hellhound. “That’s a coyote!” It sat, looking up at me with its head cocked sideways. Apparently, it was as confused as I was.

“What?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah, coyote.” I leaned down and cautiously put my hands on its too-low-to-be-a-dog shoulders, tilting its head—only to find the weird canine oddly complacent with my doing so.

“Yay!” Hallie exclaimed.

“No, not yay. This is a wild animal.”

“Are you sure?” Sarah rarely left the city. I was raised on a farm.

“Where did you find this guy?” I asked, as I finally figured out where the smell from Sarah’s shirt was coming from. “And…honey? It’s been sprayed by a skunk!”

“I know! Poor thing!” Sarah rejoined me on the porch. “He was just wondering around the park, and started following us.”

“In broad daylight? With people around?”

“Yes! And…honey?” Sarah gave me the pouty-face again. “I picked up some tomato tins from the store earlier. Can you give it a bath while I get the cake out of the oven? Hallie’s party is tomorrow, and I need to get presents wrapped, and…”

“We can’t keep it. It’s probably illegal.”

Sarah frowned, “Are you sure? Can you at least give him a bath?”

I sighed again, looked at the complacent mutt, shrugged, and gestured everyone inside.

It followed me in, as I sat my wallet and keys on the counter, and began running a bath. This is going to be fun, I thought. I’ll end up with rabies.

Surprisingly, the animal got right in the lukewarm tub, and I began scrubbing him with tomato and soap. Just when I thought things were going along fine between me and Cujo, a fire truck whizzed by outside, blaring its sirens. The animal immediately flipped out, turning into Cerberus: sprinting out of the tub, while I chased him through the house, hoping that I could catch him before he stained the carpet or turned Hallie into Bride of Chucky.

“Open the door, Sarah!”

She did, but before we could keep Wolverine from sinking his claws and teeth into a freshly-baked cake, smearing icing all over the place, and not missing a beat while he chomped down his fair helping of chocolate truffle.

The siren rang loud in the distance, while man’s-best-friend’s second cousin stopped to celebrate—letting out a deep howl in the middle of the street to resonate with the truck’s horn.

“Daddy, he’s singing!”

“Coyotes don’t know music, sweetie,” I explained.

“Why?”

“Because there’s no music in the woods.”

“Actually, I think that’s D-flat…” Sarah added. She elbowed me, “And there is so music in the woods.”

“Well, at least he got a bath. And…a meal,” I said.

“Yup.” Sarah grinned, “Coyotes are tricksters.”