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I can’t decide if the gnawing in my belly means I’m sick or just anxious, but I think it’s probably both.

Yesterday was an odd day.  I cried yesterday.

I cried today, too.

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Maybe that’s what happens after you wear too many masks, when you smile when you’re supposed to and go to bed every night at 10 pm sharp and always refill your gas tank when the gauge needle hits the midway point.  Maybe that’s what happens when you forget what your real face looks like.

I never cry.

Yesterday, I stared at my reflection, my real reflection.  I saw a frightened girl with sunken eyes and a down-turned mouth.  Her arms, outstretched, waiting for some comfort.  She began to cry, so I did, too.

The worst part of being anxious is being unable to get out of my own head.  I know I invented the Jupiter-sized asteroid heading toward me (yes, just me – not the Earth, not the continent, not my hometown, but ME), that my situation is only as destructive as I make it, but none of that matters.

My intestines feel like an octopus, writhing with intentions of escaping my tense, poisonous body.

Today, I tried to talk to the girl in the mirror.  We could only cry together, just like the day before, but today was different, somehow.  I could feel her heart beating, and I swear I could almost sense her thoughts.  She carried a squirming creature inside her belly, too.

All I want is to be myself, but I don’t know who that is.  I don’t know where I went, or if I can return.  I stretched my arms toward the girl.  I think she understands.

Tomorrow, I’m going to burn these masks.  I’m going to shoot a rocket into this stupid asteroid, blow it into oblivion,  and get drunk and spew out this churning thing inside me.  Perhaps then I’ll be able to find myself, find my place, my soul.

 

– sld

 

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The Selfish One

He took the personality and left me with the good sense.  Mother often said we were like two sides of the same person, and it was true. We were similar, but my brother and I presented a host of paradoxical traits, none of which Mother was seemingly equipped to handle.  He was full of mischievousness; I was not.  His bad behavior only seemed to make her tighten my noose, while his “last night” stories were merely the spoils of boyhood.

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My brother could make strangers laugh and fall in love with him, but he couldn’t be trusted.  He loved lying almost as much as he loved talking.  I hid anything of value, locking it away in my room, and I held the only key.  That was the only way to make sure things didn’t end up at the corner pawn shop.  Mother hid money from him, only to hand it over at the last second.

“You’re enabling him!” I screamed.  “He’ll never get a job if you keep giving him money!”

“But he’ll go to jail!” she’d cry.

“Let him go!”

I was the baby, so everyone loved me, but no one really liked me.  My appetite for nuance and imagination couldn’t be satisfied with their small talk and gossip.  I learned to turn people off, endure the chatter, but never participate.  Solace became my best friend.

I remember the day I told Mother that I wasn’t sure I wanted children of my own.

“You’ll never have much of a life, then,” she said, “but I think that’s a good idea for you.  You’ve always only cared for yourself.”

Selfish.  That’s what she thought of me, what everyone thought.

I didn’t dare give it voice, but I’m sure my eyes asked the question:  Has your life been so grand because of us?

Was I to assume that by “a life” she meant sobbing while I’m in the bathroom?  Whimpering as I do the dishes?  Streaking my pillow every night with mascara?   Was that the real test of selflessness?

After Father died and Mother remarried, my then middle-aged brother moved in with her and her new husband.  She banished him to the couch for a few years, and then, finally, gave up her TV room to make a bedroom for him.  Nothing ever changed.  Pawn shop, job loss, whiskey, jail, Hep-C, free clinic, more whiskey… this was Mother’s retirement, a shouting match between she and her son, refereed by a (no doubt) hoodwinked man who had no mentality to deal with a troubled adult stepchild.

I always assumed she was miserable, and I’m sure that in some conversation or another, she admitted to it.  I used to ask her, “What I am supposed to do with him when you’re gone?  What will become of him?” She used to say she wished my brother would just move away, across the country, and stay there.  That way, she didn’t have to deal with him, even if he did go to jail or lose a job.

Those conversations were held in vain.  My brother died first.  Several months ago, he simply fell over dead.  Medics restarted his heart after 20 minutes or so and placed him on ventilation, but the doctors offered absolutely no hope, saying he shouldn’t have even been revived.  Mother’d talk to him as if he were 40 years younger, leaning over his bloated face, strapped down in case his brain stem, the only part of his 300-pound body that worked on its own, decided to trigger the seizures again.

Mother had to agree to end the life support, but I’m the one who talked her into shutting it off.  My brother would’ve cursed her for leaving him on it so long, for letting his friends come and see him like that.  She didn’t seem to care, content to let a machine force air into his lifeless body for as long as the law allowed, even inquiring about admission into hospice care, until I told her I wouldn’t come back the next day if she wasn’t going to let him go.

So, she did.

I miss his laugh and his spot-on impressions. When things were good, they were extremely so, and I miss those good times.

When someone dies so young, you can’t help wondering what might have been.  His death was tragic, but it could have been so much worse.  He could’ve overdosed, or caused a highway pile-up, or shot himself.  These were all ways in which I expected him to die.  Instead, he died watching football with an old friend.  One second, alive; the next, gone.

Because of this, I am able to move forward knowing that God called him for a reason, and He called him while he was happy, doing something he enjoyed.  I can be happy, and there’s no shame in that.  I’ve a good life with my husband and my two dogs, and we have a lot of living to do.

In spite of this, Mother is horribly depressed.  She’s still sobbing, only now she cries at any given moment. I’m not sure what she misses, other than her favorite problem, but she’s clinging onto whatever she can.  She totes around the nearly seven-pound box of his cremains when she visits me, and she even decorates it for the occasion.  For Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mother ties on a small ornament of appropriate theme. For beach trips and visits to my house, a seashell.  I’m not sure what she does on the other special events, and I really don’t want to know.

There’s no sense of closure.  My brother wouldn’t care less about what she does with the ashes, but I don’t think he’d like knowing that she’s punishing the rest of us with her grief.  And guilt.  And fear.

Even now, she worries about my brother.  I know Mother hangs on the belief that he drank himself to death, even though the doctors said the amount of alcohol in his system was negligible.

She found a way to blame him for his own death.

I wonder if she blames me for his ashes.

 

Old World Ink

Old-World-map-1689.mediumthumbPerhaps someone noticed the robot’s iridescent sheen, or the hexagonal head that abruptly rotated of its own volition.  In fact, those were rather common qualities in robots on Starship PM15xB.  Yet, no one noted the delicate foreign markings on this robot’s surface.   No one noticed the gentle sway as the robot hovered above the floor, whereas other robots glided across the shiny aluminum on three nonskid, rubberized wheels.

A group of students strode down the landing dock with cacophonous voices, their garments emblazoned with the red and blue of their affiliated nation.  A short boy with orange hair generously tossed the too-yellow peelings of a cloned Starfruit on the ground, inches away from the receptacle, as he tended to do for all Recyclebots.

It did not retrieve the boy’s trash.  Instead, the robot’s green laser eyes flashed for a mere hundredth of a space-time second, and a holographic file of the undisposed waste soared across the universe.

This visitor hid in plain sight.  The inhabitants of PM15xB depended on artificial intelligence for everyday living, and the robot was equipped with an advanced Incognito Mode.  Discovery by a native being could result in a failed mission, but the most important feature of this alien robot was what it carried inside its hollow innards.

The boy and his companions passed through the Antiquities classroom gate, one-by-one.  The mechanized gate scanned each and every student’s workstations, grading homework in an instant and simultaneously checking Memory Book assignments for completion.  A pleasant ding-ding indicated that scanning was complete and that assignments were satisfactory.

Zeb never received the gratifying chime.  He stepped into the scanner.   An angry buzzing filled his ears, and he swiped a strand of fiery hair from his eyes.  The class instructor glared at him, her gloved hands balled up on her pre-polymer-clad hips.

“Zebulon!  Why won’t you complete your Memory Book?” Miss Aurora huffed.   He looked back at her with big, round eyes and swore that, truly, he had no recollection of the Old World.  Of course, he really did; he simply had no desire to relive the old, gravitationally orthodox ball of dirt.

On the Old World, up could only ever be up, and down, only down.  To catch a fly ball, he positioned himself underneath it and consciously stuck a tentative hand into its speeding path.  Here, in zero gravity, he just fired up his pressurized Manu-Unit and soared after it.

On the Old World, he cleaned his sleeping quarters, prepared his own meals, washed his own garments.  Trash was sorted by hand – perishables, glass, aluminum, paper.  On the Starship, Nanobots and Biobots completed those chores for him.

Zeb loved his life on the space station, and he intended to never leave.

The robot’s internal clock ticked.  Finding suitable equipment storage was the first mission mandate.

Laser eyes switched on and scanned the area.  No life forms detected.

The robot wavered along, heavy, across the dock and around a metal-walled corner into the school.  A hallway loomed just ahead, bright and shiny, rows of pods lining its sidewalls.

Innumerable invisible beams scanned all the pods simultaneously.  They locked on a single pod, and the robot floated down the hall, stopping in front of the pod marked 865.  An invisible slot on the bot’s upper trunk materialized, and a multi-jointed arm shuttled outward.  At the arm’s end, a jointed claw twisted the pod’s handle, and the door eased open.  The contents amounted to a Manu-Unit headset and gloves, a ball made from synthetic fiber and a synthetic club.

The robot’s front panels clicked open, and an inner shelf presented a large grey box filling the body cavity.  Mechanical rotators moved the box forward, setting it onto the floor.  The robot reassembled itself, picked up the equipment box, now using two arms, and placed it inside the chosen pod.  The door swung back and latched into its closed position.

Cyborg 1176, Intergalactic Cerberus, report follows:  Stationing on Starship Planet Model 15xB:  Completed.  Mandate 1: Completed; one holofile logged.   Mandate 2:  Commencing.  

A quick scan revealed that all had converged on the south side of the building.  The robot zoomed down the hallway, thrusters humming with speed, toward the Antiquities class in session.  It stopped just outside the entrance and peered inside.

The windowless lecture arena held 149 midyear students, plus one instructor.  Diagrams, photographs and various other visual aids flashed across a large board at the helm. Insect, flower, leaf, musical instrument, coins.  The students raised hands when they remembered an object and were called upon to share the memories with the class.  The next image appeared to be quite primitive, black and grey, some form of sonography.  The lighter parts of the image depicted a fetus, an unborn Being.

No hands.

Miss Aurora looked around the arena.  “No one has any memories of babies?”  Her gaze lingered to her left.  “How about you, Zeb?”

Zeb didn’t respond.  His head lay on his workstation, eyes closed.  Seated directly behind him, Persephone landed a sharp kick to Zeb’s rear, and he jumped awake.  The class stifled their laughter.

The instructor sighed, frowning.  “I’ll ask again.  Zeb, do you have a memory of babies?”

Zeb squinted.  “Babies?  No, why?  Why would I remember babies?”

The robot’s eyes zoomed in on the orange-headed boy.

“Because your mother had the last biological baby in our history,” she replied, her face softening.  “Surely, you remember something.  Think hard, Zeb.  This is important.”

“Why is this so important, huh?” Zeb hissed.  “We’ve perfected genetics cloning. Human copulation was so… so animalistic… barbaric.  Why do we need to remember the old ways of, well, anything?”

“We’ve had this discussion on several occasions,” the instructor said, shaking her head.  “Our interest lies in the tools we once used, the implications of primitive processes and the bearing of them on our future.  We want to explore the What, the Why, and the How.  We cannot shape our future if we do not understand our past, Zeb.”

Zeb sighed loudly.  “Despite all of that, I still don’t remember anything about babies.  Why don’t you ask my mother?”

The silence was as vast as space itself.

“Zeb, I didn’t – “

“Please, carry on,” he huffed.

The robot recorded the exchange between Zeb and the instructor and sent the file to its superiors, noting the boy’s relationship to the holofile sent earlier.   Once the transmission was complete, Cyborg 1176 detected movement.  Class had dismissed, and the Beings would exit the lecture arena into the hallway in three… the robot floated to a corner away from the door… two… activated Incognito Mode… one.

Persephone trailed her friend through the mire to his pod.  She jumped in front of him and leaned against the pod door.  “Hey, do you want to talk about what just happened?” Her designer burnished hair eclipsed her golden face, one eye peering at Zeb, soft and warm, like melted chocolate.

“Why?  What just happened?” he feigned.

She frowned.  Her perfectly constructed button nose wrinkled, but not so much as to appear ugly.  “Cut the crap.”  She looked away and sighed.  “I have to work on my Astronomy project tonight, but we’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”  She cocked an eyebrow that would never need grooming.

Zeb squinted, and his bushy brows scrunched together, revealing where a wrinkle would form with age.  His father bore an identical mark.  “Yes, ma’am,” he mocked.  Persephone nudged him the ribs and walked away.  Zeb stared after her, a strange uneasiness in his belly.

He opened his pod, picked up his Manu-Unit headset, and stopped.  A grey box sat in the bottom.  Zeb glanced behind him, right and left, and slid the box’s lid to the side.  Something flat, electronic, was inside, metal, with glass tubes and small lights.  He recovered the box, put on his Manu-Unit gloves, grabbed the box, and kicked the pod door.

The robot observed Zeb carry the equipment down the hallway, pushing through the crowd.  Cyborg 1176 was unable to move, playing the part of trashcan.

 

 

Pieces and parts of the alien equipment littered Zeb’s dormitory room floor.  He’d tried to power the machine to deduce its function.  When he realized he could not turn it on, Zeb deconstructed it.

“Whoa,” he breathed.  He held up one of the thousand or so miniature syringes he’d found in an inner compartment.  The needle’s point glinted under the overhead halogen light.

The syringe compartment attached to several glass tubes, possibly feeding through some type of scanner or detector, maybe even processing the substance by fractionation, then the resulting components stored in glass vials.  The lights on top of the machine were labeled, but the words were indecipherable.

Zeb neglected his homework that evening, and he ignored an invitation via Satellpad from his dorm mates to toss around a ball.  Not even the intermittent green flash just outside his door caught his attention.

 

 

Zeb rubbed the sleep from his eyes.  His dream replayed in his mind, of a slender woman with red hair and freckled skin being stabbed by the machine with a thousand needles.  He glanced at the floor, expecting to see the machine jumbled and strewn as he’d left it the night before.  But it wasn’t there.

He tossed the covers back, jumped from his bed and padded barefoot to the grey box sitting in the corner.  He lifted the lid.  Empty.  He spun around, dove onto the floor and peeked under the bed.  Nothing.  He stood, his fingers running through his ruffled mane.

His Memory Book lay open on the desk.  Zeb shuffled a bit closer, his head cocked.  The page before him had been filled with a drawing of such detail, such delicate intricacy, that it might have been taken for a digital image.  It depicted a dimpled baby, his eyes shining bright and cheeks flushed with glee, swathed in fleece.  Zeb glowered and flung the book shut.

On the landing dock, he rushed to Persephone, his face locked in a scowl.  “Did you come into my room last night?”

She smirked.  “Happy landings to you, too.”

“Did you?” he demanded.

“No,” she said.  “Why would I be in your room?”

“You didn’t do this?” he said, holding out his Memory Book.

She sighed.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Zeb.”

“Look,” he said, and he flipped open the book to the drawing.

Persephone gaped, taking the book in her hands.  “Oh, Zeb,” she breathed.  “This is… it’s so beautiful.  In essence, you’ve exemplified two memories, the baby and… art.  Antediluvian, yet mesmerizing.”  She handed the book back.  “You should be proud of yourself.”

“I didn’t do this!” he shrieked.  “Someone else… if not you…”

Persephone’s eyes widened.  “No, Zeb, I swear.  I couldn’t have made this if I’d wanted to.”  His freckled nostrils flared.  “Hey,” she said, “don’t be upset… someone just left you a gift.  You’ll finally be favored by Miss Aurora.”

The pleasant chime sounded as Zeb stepped through the Antiquities entrance, and Miss Aurora cried, “Zebulon, how wonderful!  Thank the Moons!”  He smirked as he sat in his seat.  She did not call on him for the duration of the class, but whenever her gaze passed in his direction, her eyes shone a bit brighter.

 

 

After class, Persephone joined Zeb in his dorm room.  She thumbed through his Memory Book.  “Who do you suspect?”

“You.”

“I’ve already told you,” she laughed.

“There’s something else,” Zeb grumbled.  He told Persephone about the machine.  She examined the grey box that had once held it.

“Do you think whoever created the drawing also took the machine?” she asked.

“I can only assume so.”

“Then let’s assume this person will return for the machine’s box, or perhaps to leave you another gift,” she said, her voice quiet.  “Let’s set up a trap.”  They rummaged through Zeb’s storage crate and dug out some old Laser Tag gear.  Persephone recalibrated the receiver vests to alarm when the lasers missed them, and Zeb tied string around the pistols’ triggers to make the lasers fire repeatedly.   They tested pistol and vest positions until they were satisfied that the rig would catch any intruder.

Nanobots delivered their evening meals to Zeb’s room, and they cheered when the alarm went off.  Persephone hugged Zeb, an excited goodbye, and Zeb waited alone in the dark, staring at the spine of his Memory Book on the desk until his eyelids grew too heavy.

 

WEEEOOOWEEEOOOWEEEOOOWEEEOOO!

Zeb scrambled to his feet, yelling “LIGHTS ON!  LIGHTS ON!”  The overhead lights blinked on, and he shielded his eyes until they adjusted.  He stood on top of his mattress, his head twisting and turning to catch a glimpse of the artist-thief.  The laser vest alarmed on without ceasing, but there was no one to be seen.  A trashcan sat in the center of the room, blocking the pistol’s laser from reaching its target.  Zeb glanced at his closed door, then ran over and flung it open.  The hallway was empty, so he closed it back, and he disconnected the vests’ power source.

He sat on the floor.  The robot wavered lightly, and Zeb leaned in.  “Your markings…” he whispered.  “They’re like the ones on the machine.”  His hand ran over the surface, his fingers tracing invisible lines.  “You’re not a Biobot, are you?”

The robot responded with a green flash.  Zeb jumped back, and the robot zoomed underneath the desk, knocking the Memory Book to the floor.   Another green flash.

“Stop it!” Zeb shouted.  “Will you come out of there?”

Green flash.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing-“

Flash. Flash, flash.

“-but I just want to talk to you!” Zeb growled, protecting his eyes.

The robot’s appendages materialized, reaching out and snatching the Memory Book. All four phalanges on each of the robot’s hands morphed into needlepoints, and an inky substance flowed from their ends.   Zeb’s jaw went slack, watching the image unfold.  After only moments, the robot pushed the book away, its green eyes glowing steadily.  The drawn image covered two pages, like a centerfold; it was a rendering of the Galaxy, complete with Zeb’s starship and the neighboring ships – all the PM15x models.

“How did you do this?” he asked after a long while of silence.  The robot stared, motionless.

“Can you speak?  Do you know my language?”

The robot took the Memory book and flipped the page.  He wrote in perfect, straight lettering: “I am unable to communicate vocally.  I understand all known languages.”

“Where are you from?” Zeb said.

“From a planet many light years away.”

“Tell me about it.”

“The home planet’s atmosphere is 78 percent Nitrogen, 21 percent Oxygen, and .9 percent Argon, with trace amounts of carbon dioxide and water vapor.  The temperature on the surface ranges from –127 degrees F to 136 degrees F; the average temperature is 59 degrees F.

“The planet completes its elliptical orbit around the sun in an average solar year, 365.24219 days.  The axis is tilted 23.45 degrees away from the perpendicular to its orbital plane, producing seasonal climate variations.

“The tilt of the axis causes different parts of the planet to vary in the way they are oriented towards the sun at different times of the year….”

Zeb interrupted the robot’s scribbling.  “Okay, okay… that’s enough.  Why are you here?”

“The mission objective is to collect organic data samples from the PM15x starships and send them to base, in addition to observing the inhabitants of PM15x starships.”

“You’re observing us and collecting samples?  Why?  What are you looking for?”

“My superiors want to know if your kind is worth saving.”

Zeb frowned.  “What does that mean?”

“My counterparts have deemed your kind unworthy.  You destroyed your home planet with pollution and overpopulation.  The waters ran black with chemicals, the fields turned to poison and the native habitats died.  My superiors deemed your kind a threat to the delicate balance of the universe.”

“We’re doing fine out here on our starships.  We’ve developed new ways of living.  We’re not hurting anyone,” he laughed.

“If I do not find sufficient evidence that your kind is beneficial to the universe, you will be destroyed.”

Zeb laughed harder.  “Robot, I like you.  You’ve got a good sense of humor, and that’s a difficult quality to find around here.”  He stood up.  “I’m Zeb.  I’m the last natural-born of my kind, and I hate it.  I don’t look like anyone else.  I don’t have the perfect features or superfast reflexes… so I’m happy to be here in space.  Space is kind of the great equalizer, you know?  No one is faster or stronger than anyone else.”

The robot moved out from under the desk.  It wrote:  “This is why your kind is unworthy.  You have abandoned nature.”

“No, robot, we abandoned it because it failed us.  Nature gave us too many kids like me.”  Zeb frowned.  “Hey, do you have a name?”

“I am Intergalactic Cerberus, Cyborg 1176.”

Zeb smirked.  “That’s a mouthful. Intergalactic Cerberus.  I-C… I-N-C.  Inc.  Ink.  How about that?  Ink?”

“O-K.”

“Ink, did you take the machine I’d disassembled?”

“Yes.  It is highly sensitive equipment.  You should not have taken it.”

Zeb commanded the lights off and lay down.  “I’ll find you a reason to like my kind.  You’ll see.”

He slept and had another uneasy dream.  The slender red-haired woman and Zeb were surrounded by faceless, ambiguous beings.

When Zeb awoke, Ink was gone.  The Memory Book lay open on the floor.   The page read, “Do not alert authorities to Ink’s presence.  Ink will help Zeb find evidence worthy of saving.”  Zeb sighed.

 

 

The happy chime followed Zeb into his Antiquities class.  Miss Aurora beamed.  She started the class as usual:  “Are there any questions?”  Today, Zeb raised a hand.

“Zeb,” she said, unable to hide her surprise, “yes?  You have a question regarding Antiquities?”

He lowered his hand.  “Did we abandon nature?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you are asking.”

“On the old planet, did our people abandon nature?  Change and kill it when it we could’ve learned from it?”  Zeb’s voice was strong.

“Well, I don’t believe ‘abandon’ is the correct word,” the teacher said.  “I do believe we made improvements, made some processes easier on ourselves… such as DNA manipulation.  We’ve all benefitted from that development.”

“But how did we know what the result would be?  How did we know there wouldn’t be major consequences to manipulating DNA?”

“Because of scientific research and testing.  A great amount of time and resources went into the study of DNA manipulation, and all other scientific improvements, I’ll add, so that we know we are benefitting our kind, not hindering.”

The other students began to chatter.  Zeb hardly spoke in class, nor paid attention, and his sudden interrogation was cause for concern.  A boy’s voice in the back of the arena called out, “He’s just jealous because he’s natural-born.”

“No, that’s not what I’m talking about, but that brings up an interesting point,” Zeb called out above everyone.  “What is so wrong with being natural-born?  Why does everyone have to be the same?  Like robots?”

As Miss Aurora struggled to regain control of the class, Ink listened just outside the door and recorded.  The sound file traveled across the light years along with a report:

Mandate 2:  Completed; multiple samples and holofiles logged.  Awaiting instructions for Mandate 3.   

 

 

Persephone stalked Zeb all day.  He ducked into the restroom during lunch and hid behind a Biobot in between classes.  So, she waited outside his dorm room, twisting a strand of hair through her fingers.  Before he could reach the end of the hall, she besieged.

“What happened last night?  Did the trap work?  Who was it?  And what caused the confrontation in Antiquities?”

He stopped her from entering his room.  “Nothing happened.  No one came in.”

Her face scrunched beautifully.  “But… your Memory Book.  I heard the chime.”

“Oh… right,” he breathed.  “I… I did it myself… this time.  I thought it would be nice… for Miss Aurora.  She was so happy yesterday….”

“And then you blasted her,” Persephone snickered.

Zeb faked a yawn.  “I’m really tired… didn’t sleep well.  I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”  He shut the door and rushed to pull out his Memory Book.  Then he sat on his bed and flipped through it, reading over Ink’s responses, silent and thoughtful.

 

 

Ink nudged Zeb awake with the Memory Book.  Zeb commanded the lights, took the book and looked at the page the robot presented.  A woman with a full, happy face, her eyes and her lips stretched in smiles.  Her copper hair was drawn up into a loose bun high on her head, and she wore thick-rimmed glasses low on her nose.  Her white shirt was pulled tight across a belly heavy with child.

“Who is this?” he whispered.  He swallowed hard, his face stern.

Ink reached across the bed and wrote one word:  Mother.  A tear slid across Zeb’s cheek and followed the curve of his nose.  The robot reached across again and wrote, “You have her eyes.”

Zeb smiled, and whispered, “I do, don’t I?”  He pushed the book away, and swiped at his nose.  “How’d you know?”

“A holograph of this image is available on an obsolete network hard drive.  It seemed that you should know that you are worth saving.”

“Thank you, Ink.”

“You are welcome.”  And then, “Friend.”

The two sat still and wordless, the alien robot and the last natural-born boy.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

“We have two-for-one drink specials tonight… can I get you ladies a couple of Top Shelf Margaritas?”

“No.”  Her face scrunches into a sardonic expression, the kind that causes me to look away and shift in my seat.  The kind that begs Sharissa, our cinnamon-skinned waitress, to spit in her spinach dip.   I try to make up for it by being overly friendly.  Maybe Sharissa won’t spit in my food, at least.

Why can’t you be nicer to strangers, I say when we’re alone.

She’s plenty nice to people, she says, her eyes blaring at me as though I’m the one being disrespectful.  She just hates change, she says.  Her voice is soft.  She just wants everything to stay exactly the same, always, she says.

But she doesn’t want to be left behind.  She wants to be up-to-date.  She tries to learn new things.

Her texting skills have markedly improved.

No, I say, you don’t just want things to stay the same.  You want them to regress 25 years, and then stay the same, I say.   But I’m not talking about learning how to use an iPhone.  Accepting change isn’t the same as being open-minded.  You’re so judgmental, I say.  I can look at her face and know exactly what she’s thinking.  Our waitress isn’t in the country illegally, I say.

Well, you don’t know that, she says.  She has a tattoo on her wrist, she says, pointing to the location on her own.  Some kind of tribal tattoo, she bets.  I offer her the same expression she gave Sharissa.

Asking if you want to see a drink menu, or to open a charge account, or if you need help finding anything – those questions are all part of a job description, I say.  They’re not asking those things because they’ve made an assumption about you or what kind of person you are.  I sigh and shake my head.  As if the very word “margarita” is offensive to her.  And tattoos are NOT the mark of the devil, I say.

She giggles.  Joan at church has a tattoo on her foot.  She thinks it’s silly, but sometimes it looks kind of cute, she says, smiling.  It’s a cross, she says, with lilies curved around it.

I give up.  I have no response.  All I can think is, please, God, don’t let me turn into my mother.

Sharissa arrives with lunch.  I notice that she only looks at me this time.  Mom tries to make me happy with a forced “Thank you.”  Sharissa pretends she didn’t hear as she walks away.

I remember my mom’s frustration with my grandmother.  She had no capacity for hiding it, ever.  If she tried, her words came out condescending and trite, and the only result was my grandmother responding with a tired, drifting “Well,” and then sitting quietly for a bit.  My mom would fume, reciting all that she’d wanted to say in her head, her breaths going in short, uneven bursts.    This scenario took place pretty frequently, usually in the car.  I’d be in the backseat, my innards pulling taut, because I felt my mom was too harsh, too quick to anger.  I was uncomfortable with any confrontation, and I could pick up on the slightest threat of one.

I still can, and I guess that’s why her coldness towards strangers makes me so uncomfortable.  I’m sure Sharissa has had a worse patron than my mother.   I know I did, back in college when I worked at the mall.  Within my first week, I upset a lady by smiling at her.  She actually complained to the customer service desk, because she thought I was making fun of her.  I was flabbergasted, but she taught me a lesson.  Since my experience with that poor, self-loathing woman, I’ve always tried to think about what could be going on in the other person’s life.

My grandmother never learned to drive, and she happily sat inside her apartment all day, watching t.v. and talking on the phone for hours upon hours from the comfort of her recliner.  She only left to go shop or to visit family for a few hours.  She worried incessantly about thunderstorms, I-40, the music I listened to, and other ordinary pieces of life.  She’d led a somewhat sheltered life, apart from the normal dramas of familial relationships, so she never outgrew her fears.

My mom has absolutely no sense of the ridiculous or the unconventional.  Every single thing she does is with purpose.  She knew how to be a better housekeeper at 6 years old than I am now at age 34.  She could make breakfast, wash up afterward, sweep floors, dust furniture, and tidy up the whole house before school.  Her uncles were drunkards, and my grandmother catered to them, giving her brothers beds and meals, because, well, they were her brothers.  Her kindness towards them caused problems between she and my grandfather.  I’m sure my mom witnessed all of this, and that little girl held onto all of those experiences and turned them into unfounded judgments and false generalizations.  She simply never outgrew them.

When I was a kid, life was full of extremes.  Both of my parents and my older brother all had healthy tempers.  I was the odd one out.  When things were good, they were fantastic.  On-top-of-the-world amazing.  When things were bad, they were nightmarish.  They would say the most hurtful things to one another, and I learned way more than any kid every should about their parents.  I would get this horrible empty pit in my stomach when I sensed a oncoming rift in my glorious technicolor world.  Now, I’ve come a long way from that scared little girl, but I never outgrew that fear of uncomfortable situations.

You see, I am already my mother.  Maybe not in what I do or say, but we share the root of our actions.  The root is fear.  She is afraid of how other people see her.  I am afraid of how I see other people.  Admittedly, I am happier with my fear than I would be if I shared hers.  I feel that I can use mine to make myself a better person, but this means I have to apply this to my mom, too.  I have to remember her fear, no matter how unfounded it is, when she makes a snarky comment to the waiter.  I have to be patient with her when she says the Internet is useless and sends me a text message of nothing but zeroes.  I have to attempt to build her up and weaken her fear.  And, hopefully, in doing so, I will weaken my own by confronting hers.

 

 

– sld

 

When You Go

The garage door wakes me. You’ve gone for the day, drove right out of our home and into a world of strangers. No goodbye. You thought you were being kind.

The bed is cold. The room is cold. I’m certain if I look closely, I could see my breath. The heat from the rising sun makes these old wooden joists pop, but I’m still cold. You’ve left me here to freeze.

I get up. I wrap myself in a throw, the one on your side of the sofa. It smells like you, fresh from the shower. I remember you, here, just hours before. How we talked and laughed and kissed.

I work. I try to create, but my usual flood of ideas is an ice floe inching downstream, so I resign to the mundane. Dishes. Laundry. Shower scum. The television drones on in the background, constant, like falling snow. I think I can’t go on another second, not like this, not with the frost creeping in closer and closer, and then I hear the garage door again. I’m suddenly so full of life and love and warmth that I forget how cold I’d been.

Why must you take my sun with you when you go?

– sld

Excerpt 2 from Sheep Among Wolves

“What a pleasant surprise,” she cooed.  “Didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”

“Can we go someplace… a bit more… private?” he said, and swiped at a stray drop of rum on her décolletage.

Shelby’s cherry lips trembled.  “My darlin’, I thought you’d never ask.”

He followed her to the opposite end of the bar, up the old, winding stairs.  Green doors lined the second floor hallway.  They walked past the occupied rooms, lights out and doors locked, but the sounds revealed the activities within.  Levi took a deep breath, and Shelby led Levi by the hand to the very last door.  A brass plaque affixed to the door by large coppery rivets read “Honeymoon Suite,” the words scrawled on in red paint.

“Only the best for my best man,” she said.  Levi followed her inside and shut the door behind him.

“Shelby,” he said, “I need to ask you some questions, and you’ve gotta swear you’ll never say nothin’ to nobody.  Not even Tatianna.”

“Okay.”  Shelby sat on the edge of the king-sized bed, legs crossed, and leaned back on her elbows.

“Those three men downstairs, the outsiders… when did they get here?”

“About two hours ago.”  Her eyelashes fluttered.

“Did they say anything to you?  Ask any questions?”  He paced across the creaky hardwood.

“Not really.  Just ordered three beers.  I told ‘em the beer tastes like shit, but they insisted.”  She uncrossed her legs, spreading her knees wide.  Her fingers played with the metal clasps on her purple brocade corset.

“Did they speak to anyone else?  Has a person, or a group, maybe, been in, y’know, like them?  Not your typical outsiders?”

She let out a long sigh.  “We’re not having any fun tonight, are we?”

“Shelby – I need to know.”

Her eyes narrowed.  “Does this have anything to do with your little girlfriend outside?”

Levi’s heart temporarily halted.  He spun to face her.  “What did you say?”

Shelby smirked, and she sat upright.  “Your cute little girlfriend.  I saw you two sneaking around out back.  Where’d you find her?”

“You have to forget you saw her,” he said, his voice low and serious.  He knelt in front of Shelby, placing his hands on her knees.  “She is in danger.  Some Skulls might be after her, and I’m trying to help her get back home.  We thought some of her people might be here…”

“Well, I’ve never seen Skulls like those men, so I think you’re safe there.  And I haven’t seen anyone else around like them downstairs.  Wish I could help you more, honey, but if your girl’s a little, um, off like they are, I’d bet they’re from the same place.”

A wild grin spread haphazardly across Levi’s face.  He jumped up.  “Thank you.”  He bent down, kissed her on the lips, and ran out of the room, leaving her on the bed alone.

The outsiders remained seated, waiting.  Levi walked straight to their table.  All three looked up at him, silent.

Well, this is more awkward than I’d expected, he thought.

He took his time sitting down in the empty chair.  The men on either side were closer to Levi’s age, just a few years older.  They were muscled and hard, their hair cropped short, military style.  The man directly across from Levi had graying hair, but his deep set blue eyes were chilling.  Levi made a point to look each of them square in the face.  They looked back, expectantly.

“Gentlemen,” Levi began, “I think I know who you’re looking for.”

Suspicion filled the old man’s eyes.  “James, I presume?”

James?

“Of course, yes,” Levi said.  “I am James.  You’re looking for me.”

The man’s expression remained stoic.  “I believe we may have an imposter.”

Levi kept calm.  “No, it’s just that no one’s called me ‘James’ in years… almost didn’t recognize my own name.”  He snickered.

Several seconds passed as the man evaluated the truth of Levi’s lies.  “You seem awfully young for someone of your expertise,” he said at last.  “But I suppose this dump of humanity spawns the most sinister of criminals… what was that old saying?  ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’  But we all must do what we must to survive.”

“Spoken like a man who understands the criminal mind.”

“Yes, I do, rest assured.  You’ll be well compensated for your service here.  Actually, what you’re doing is rather noble… giving this town the very thing it has searched for since the Exodus.”

Levi nodded in agreement, but he had no idea what this man was talking about.  “Glad to be of service, sir.”

“Good.  I’ve sent a message to the town’s ombudsman, a Preacher Skaggs…”

Perfect.

“… We will meet in the morning to discuss our plan.  I will require your presence to detail your duties.”

“Sir, I prefer to remain anonymous to Preacher Skaggs, if I may.  We are not on the friendliest of terms.”

“Very well.  Meet me here, tomorrow, 2 p.m.  I will arrange for a private room in which to speak.”  He stood, and his companions mimicked.

“Yes, sir.  Thank you,” Levi said, standing, reaching a hand toward the man as an offering to shake, “I didn’t catch your name.”

The cold eyes squinted.  “Perhaps you should stop your drinking habit while you are working for me.  I need your full mental capacity.”

Levi smiled, and picked up one of the full beers on the table.  “Well, I guess I’d better get my ‘habit’ under control right away,” he said, and chugged the foul drink in four giant gulps.   A belch escaped just as he set the empty glass down heavily.

The man’s face was stone.  He turned from Levi just as he said, “It’s Montgomery.  Remember it this time.”  He walked away. The two men followed on an invisible lead.

Bodyguards, Levi thought.  Who the hell is this man, and what sort of plan would he need to discuss with Skaggs?

He started toward the front door, but before he reached it, Levi noticed a delicate, round face peeping through a window.  He burst outside, grabbed Cam’s arms and pushed her back into the shadows.

“What are you thinking?” he whispered fiercely.  “What if someone saw you, huh?”

“I was worried!  You were gone twenty minutes!” she whispered back.  “Besides, everyone in there is either too drunk or too horny to notice a face in the window.”  Cam crossed her arms.

Levi sighed.  “Did you see the men I was talking with?”

“No,” she said, “I only saw you drinking and then walk towards me.”

He sighed again.  “Let’s get out of here.  We need to talk.”

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Comments are appreciated, as always!

Thanks for reading!

– sld

The Escape Artist

The Escape Artist wears many faces.  With each encounter, she exchanges one for another with practiced fluidity and poise.

She keeps her masks separate, each in its own room. One honors her quick-witted side.  Another embraces her spirituality and transcendence. The next celebrates her material choices. 

But where is She?  Which room really holds Her?

There is no mask in this room.  There is only a mirror. She sees her real Self from every angle. Nothing is hidden. And she hates Her reflection.

Past the mirror, she runs.  No one wanted to see her for who She was, so she hid from Herself, too. If no one loved Her, why should she?

Then one day, He arrived.

He saw all of her faces, witnessed all of her attempts to escape into her many rooms, but She could not hide from Him.  She led Him into the mirrored room, nervous and exposed. 

He saw Her, and He loved Her.  And so She made the greatest escape of Her life.

-sld

Excerpt from Sheep Among Wolves

Green pines towered overhead, their fresh, peppery scent carried on the wind.  Broad-leafed Maples and sprawling Hickories added to the canopy, their leaves flapping in the hot wind. A bead of sweat trickled down Levi’s lower back.  He did not swipe at it, he did not flinch.  One uncalculated move could kill him.

Death wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen, he thought.  He could break a leg. Yes, a broken leg would be infinitely worse than dying.

He felt the Hickory tree sway and moved with it, shifting his weight for balance.  The branch beneath his feet yawned.  Tree hunting was difficult, but he was particularly talented.  Even though game was scarce, he always made a kill.  An ability to keep focused was that which most people lacked, and it was that at which he excelled.  He liked to think of it as his mother’s genetic contribution, the prowess of the Iroquois.

Hours had passed, and the sun was at its highest point.  A ray of light found his bare shoulder through a hole in the canopy.  He was forced to move.  Unlike his mother, Levi was not gifted with tan skin, resistant to sunburn.  No, instead he thanked his father for the skin of the Irish, intended for colder climates and cloudier skies.

He started to stand and climb down on the branch below, but a rustling stopped him.  In the pine tree on his right.  He listened.  One branch to the next, the creature jumped.  Squirrel, he thought.  He tracked the rustling as he readied his slingshot.  A healthy, full grown squirrel appeared on a lower branch, his tail full and haunches fat.

He whistled once.  Bo crept to the bottom of the tree and sat, waiting.  Levi pulled back on the rubber band, and then a baby squirrel appeared behind the adult.  He held his aim for a moment.  The tiny animal flicked his tail, mimicking the parent.  He lowered his weapon.  The mother and baby scampered off.

He sighed as he placed the slingshot and stone back into the leather pouch at his hip. He looked down at the wolf looking back up at him, eyes glowing amber, still waiting for the payload to drop.  There will always be more squirrels, Bo, he thought.  He removed the belt from his waist and slung it around the tree trunk.  Holding an end of the belt in each hand for support, he placed his feet on the trunk and inched his way down.

About halfway down the tree, he heard a soft whimper.   Looking down, he saw Bo standing, facing east, ears fully up and listening.  There was a path that direction, a sort of clearing.   He could see the area from his current stance in the tree, but he and Bo were far enough back in the woods to be hidden from sight.  He perched onto the nearest branch.

“Sit, Bo,” he whispered.  The wolf obeyed.

A teenage boy ran past down the clearing.  Something glinted in his hand.

It was not his habit to interfere with those he did not know.  Especially those carrying weapons.  But Levi’s interest was piqued.  The runner’s clothes looked new, obviously pre-Exodus.  A rarity these days.

A couple of minutes later, another young man passed by, walking, with a person hoisted over his shoulder.  Both wore the same type of clothing as the runner.   The walker was saying, “Hang on Mike.  Almost there.  Almost there.”

Mike wasn’t moving.

Maybe these guys need help.

Levi hurried on down the tree, and fastened his belt around his waist.  He whispered a command to Bo, and the two followed Mike and his carrier, keeping quiet and hidden in the woods.  They arrived at a cabin.  Mike and his friend were with the runner on deck.  They were talking.

Okay, they’re friends.

He’d seen this place before.  He’d also seen many different people at this house over the years.  Mostly squatters.  Squatters were not his sort of company.  They rooted through homes, schools, stores, clinics, which everyone did at some point to survive.   The difference was that Squatters didn’t care if these places were abandoned or not.  They just took whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it.  This house used to be a vacation home, he guessed, being in such a remote area.

The cabin was an A-frame, a once popular style for mountain getaways.  The rusted metal roof nearly went to the ground on two sides, just two large sloping panels.  Three pipes stuck out of the top with teepee-like covers.  One pipe was larger than the others, he guessed, for a fireplace.   The siding underneath was a light shade of green.  He couldn’t decide if it was painted that color at one time or if moss was growing on it.  A redwood stained deck was attached off the left side.  One of the railings had rotted and fallen down.  A smaller deck, just big enough for two people to stand, was attached off the second floor.  Large flat river rocks outlined where flowers or vegetables must have grown around the deck’s base.

Ethan looked in through windows.  Alex helped Mike sit down on the deck’s steps.  They both looked expectantly toward the east.   Soon, another tall man carrying a girl walked into view.   They stopped in front of Mike.

Levi admired her hair.  Long and dark, like his mother’s.

Cam meandered around the patio, walking over the deck.  Ethan, Alex and Jackson appeared to be searching for a way into the cabin.  Mike remained seated.

Bo gave a low growl.

“Shh,” Levi whispered.  Bo only growled when he smelled danger, but Levi didn’t want him to draw attention.  Spying usually wasn’t viewed as a sign of trust, and that’s exactly what he was doing.

Bo growled again, low, just under his breath.  The wolf detected the approaching danger long before the hunter heard the heavy footsteps coming from the south.  Levi darted behind the trees, following the sound of crunching leaves until he saw them, two large men dressed in black, heads shaved.

Squatters.

The second man turned to look over his shoulder, revealing a dark tattooed eye socket.  These weren’t just Squatters.  They were Skulls.

The Skulls were once criminals, pre-Exodus, sent to serve their time in one of the harder correctional facilities in the state.  All men who survived their first year in the prison, which consisted of a rather harsh hazing period involving beatings, rape, torture and starvation from both fellow prison mates and the guards, were accepted into the Skulls.  One side of their faces received a crude tattoo meant to look like a fleshless skull.   Even the eyeball was tattooed solid black. They wore it like a badge of honorJust before the Earth’s people packed up and shot off into the great unknown, they unlocked all the prisons.  It had been decided that the new world didn’t need thousands of prisoners to feed, so they left them here to fend for themselves, along with the other thousands who either couldn’t afford to travel into the sky or simply didn’t want to.  All the innocents left on the planet had to contend with the meanest, most hardened convicts in their region for survival.  Like Cam and her friends were about to do.

The hunter smirked.  This should be interesting.

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Let me know what you think… did you enjoy this?  Want to read more?  Visit my Pinterest  to see my idea board for the novel…

Thanks for reading!

-sld