Talking to a Stone

The house was newly dusty when they entered, lugging the trunks and boxes and suitcases and shopping bags full of odds and ends. The floor was covered with the fine sawdust like a soft thin carpet. Their shoes left shapes engraved into it as they walked. Colin complained, “Think they could have swept or vacuumed. Jeez.”

Zoe rolled her eyes at him, twisting around to make the face and hauling a box after her. It skidded in the sawdust, leaving a clean patch of floor behind it. Colin wandered away, tipping his face up to look at the moldings and the light that touched the walls. “It’s bigger than I remembered,” his voice echoed back at her. “Wait, look, they left a cabinet thing. A night table, maybe? Come in here and see.”

Zoe let the box-end drop with a whisper of dust scurrying away from the thud. There was a little wooden set of drawer with a table-top in front of Colin, and he was staring at it quizzically. He didn’t turn his head when she came into the room, just said, “Seems odd they’d leave it, doesn’t it? It’s not like it could’ve been from the last people who lived here, and I can’t think the builders would need it for anything, right?” Zoe shrugged, and opened the first drawer. There was nothing in it but a pebble, the size of a quarter, so dark as to be almost black and bumpy, like it had been craggy until it spent half of eternity in a riverbed.

Zoe leaned down and picked up the stone. It sat in her palm while they both stared, brow-furrowed, at this thing so out of place in their dusty new home. Then it moved. They both started a bit, and looked at each other. Colin said, “Did you see–” and Zoe nodded. The pebble wiggled again, shook itself as though it had been sleepy and was waking up. It kept moving, back and forth and side to side. Perhaps, Zoe thought in a dazy dreamlike way, it was dancing. She held out her hand to Colin, as if to ask him to take it, and he shook his head, his hands fluttering in the air. “No,” he said, “I don’t want the thing. Put it down.”

“No,” said Zoe. “What if it runs away?”

“Runs away? It’s a rock. What’s it going to do, escape into the wild?”

“Maybe,” she said. “How is it even moving?”

Colin hunched his shoulders up to his ears. “I don’t know. God. Let it escape then. What’re we going to do with it?”

“You look like a turtle,” Zoe said. Colin scowled at her instead of relaxing. “We’re going to keep it. For now. Why not? I’m going to put it back.”

The drawer was still open. When Zoe stretched her arm toward it, ready to place the pebble on the wood, it began to tremble. It wiggled and shook until the thing was practically vibrating, buzzing on Zoe’s palm. She drew her hand back, startled, and curled her fingers around it. “I guess not,” she said. “I’ll keep it with me, then.” She slid it gently into the pocket of her jeans and patted the lump it made in the denim, stretched over her thigh. Its shiver slowed and stopped. “We should move in more stuff, and we can look at it later. I don’t know. Let’s just get this done.”

Colin nodded, and they went back to the truck to keep unloading. When they were both bent and grumpy with the ache of moving and their faces were gleaming with sweat, they stopped. Zoe set to assembling their new bed and Colin made oatmeal on their new stove. The pebble in her pocket thrummed while she moved, until it was shaking hard again. She plucked it from her pocket and held it between her fingers, before her face. “Listen,” she said, “This isn’t going to work if you’re just quivering all the time, okay? It’s distracting and I’m going to put you down.”

-Yes,- said the stone. -But. Listen.-

Zoe jumped and almost dropped it. Its voice in her head screeched. “Sorry,” she said to it. “Uh. Sorry. What in heaven’s name are you?”

-I’m a stone,- said the stone. -Can’t you tell?-

“Well, yes,” said Zoe. “Most stones can’t talk, and the normal non-sentient kinds are just all over the place. You know. Outside. Not in a drawer that is mysteriously in the living room of our new house.”

-Those are the boring kind of rock,- the stone said. -I’m the interesting kind. I used to be a boulder, you know. Great hulking thing. Long time ago. You know what you don’t want to happen to you when you’re a boulder? Have a bloody evil sorceress stub her sodding toe on you and curse you into consciousness.-

“You’re being funny,” she said, suspicious. “That isn’t it.”

-Not exactly,- the stone admitted. -Listen. I’ll tell you a story, alright? A true one.-

When Colin came to find Zoe a half hour later with a bowl of oatmeal and a bent spoon, he found her sitting on the half-made bed, talking to a pebble.

In the Rain

It was raining the kind of rain that slicked the pavement so that the road was a glistening black mirror stretched out before her. The stoplights and the signs screamed out in brilliant reflections down the highway, and everything in the night was a bright mass of light against darkness. She drove on.

It wasn’t that much farther to get home. The problem was just that everybody was paralyzed in the downpour. They crawled along at ten miles per hour under the speed limit, except for the madmen who raced by in the left land and hurled water from their tires onto everyone’s windshield. It was a highway without a barrier between lanes, and Jill was terrified that she was going to keep driving without really being able to see where she was going until she was just casually barreling down the wrong side of the road in the rain.

There was a stoplight coming up, so she eased her foot down on the brake. Somewhere in the middle of slowing down she sped through a puddle. Her tires slipped and crunched on the road, and she was seized with the horrible feeling of half-floating while the car spun away from her. Then the puddle was past and her panic was over. The cars lined up at the stoplight and its flare against the black sky had a deadly kind of beauty.

Jill looked around, her eyes drinking in the slippery lovely sight of it all even though her brain was shrieking. There was a car to her left, and a man peering at her from behind its steering wheel. He was probably her age, but she could mostly see his dark eyes looking at her through the streaking rain on the windows. She smiled at him, her practiced hello-stranger smile, and then the light turned green. The man in his car turned left, and she went on straight. It wasn’t until she was past two more stoplights that she realized.

The man at whom she had smiled a polite smile, he was familiar. What was his name? Alex, maybe? Jill couldn’t remember where she knew him from, but the set of his jaw was familiar. She definitely recognized his scruff of hair. His eyes, though, were unmistakable. Through the blur of rain and time she remembered that stare.

God, it must have been high school when she’d last seen him. She squinted at the sprawling mess of rain and traffic in front of her, trying to remember. She couldn’t tell if he had recognized her as well. She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t recognized him at once. She’d thought she was so in love with him, in high school. Her teenaged self had sighed and gazed about him. He’d been her first love, her first sex dream, her first almost-boyfriend, her first almost-sex. He’d broken her heart, of course. The rain seemed to let up now, finally, but she was almost home. Her car pulled off the highway and she was on her street in minutes. Because of the rain, probably, there was no parking. She circled the block twice until she wedged herself between two others, and then covered her head with her jacket and ran inside.

Jill sat in the kitchen for a while after she got in, her forehead against the chill of the window and her eyes unfocused. Outside, the rain calmed to a dull drizzle, but everything still gleamed. Absentmindedly, she ate scrambled eggs. There was nothing else to do, so she went to bed. The sheets were cold, so she put socks on. The world outside seemed to quiet a bit once she was under the covers again, until it was a subdued buzz hovering outside. She thought about Alex as she fell asleep, how she’d smiled tightly at his dark eyes and would probably never see him again. Oh well, she thought, as the rain beat a steady patter on the roof and dripped down the fire escape. Too bad. He’d driven off in a different direction, and that was it.

When she woke up, she was confused. There was a bad taste in her mouth, a muddle in her head, and a knocking at the door. She shuffled out of bed, getting caught in her blanket, and stumbled all the way until she could pull the door open. It stuck and protested until she yanked, and then she looked up at Alex.

Probability

There is a 98% chance that you are not the reader this is intended for. From this statement you can deduce a variety of things. For one, that my paltry words, scribbled in this mangy journal, are going to be read by a very small subset of people. More importantly, there is only one person for whom I have scribbled them. Most importantly, I am almost certain that you are not him.

Let’s see, then. That would have to mean that if there is one reader, then there will be forty-nine people reading this who aren’t him. That’s fairly nasty odds, I think, though pretty good that all those people are reading this right now. Are you one of the forty-nine? How did you stumble across this tattered book, then?

If you are he, then here is the message I wanted to send to you. You, my 2% chance, my uneven odds. You used to tell me what you learned in school. Do you remember that? You would march into the kitchen and announce, “i is an imaginary number!” Can you believe that? You were ten years old and learning about imaginary numbers. Though, I suppose, you always did live more in your head than you did anywhere else.

When you left I stayed in the house for days. Weeks, probably. I became a sullen shadow until your father threw up his hands in disgust and walked out too. Don’t worry, baby, he was back eventually. I know you didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have shouted at you. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can still hear the sharp sound of my own voice, can still see the round shapes of your eyes because you were afraid of me. Perhaps you close your eyes and hear it too. I hope not. You’re seventeen now, your birthday was two weeks ago. Did you celebrate with anyone? Did you have cake? I would have made you a cake, you know. You would have said it was silly and rolled your eyes and huffed your breath out like any seventeen-year-old, and I would have waited until your back was turned to roll my eyes too at your antics. Instead, I curled up in the bedroom while your father reorganized the kitchen. He clanged pots and pans to such a cacophony that he didn’t hear me, even when I called.

It’s been months since you’ve been gone. If you’re reading this, maybe you’re back. I probably won’t show it to you when you get back, though. I’m going to start keeping up some kind of journal because Dr. Bachman told me to try it. She said it would help. I don’t think it will, most likely. Yesterday the phone rang and I knew it was you. Nobody spoke on the line. There wasn’t even breathing audible, but I knew. It had to be you. Didn’t it?

You are supposed to be old enough for empathy. I read something about the stages of children’s development once. Around nine or ten, children move past the egocentric stage, that solipsistic phase when they think that it is impossible to be anyone but themselves. I used to joke that they also develop self-awareness around then, and as teenagers become so self-aware that they forget about everyone else all over again. You, though, at seventeen. You should know better. You are supposed to have the kind of sympathy for other people’s pain that means that you are just not supposed to do this kind of shit. You should know better, and you don’t. I guess I’m kind of angry that you don’t care, or that you don’t care enough to do anything about it.

I know that’s not fair. Probably you tried to come back, but you can’t afford the bus ticket. Or you’re, I don’t know, the hostage of a psychopath in some basement somewhere. You can’t understand how I worry, how it eats at me. You’re not supposed to. Somewhere I didn’t do my job right. I didn’t teach you to care how I felt, and I didn’t make sure you’d be safe, and I didn’t make you feel loved enough that you wanted to stay home with me.

There is a 2% chance that if you’re reading this, I’m talking to you. I’m not sure if I’m giving myself good odds or bad ones with that. Maybe the chance is slimmer than that. I don’t know. I can’t know. I hope you come home and you never have to read this, because I’m sure you’ve had plenty of your own grief to hold. I’m going to go now, I’ll write more tomorrow. My hand is cramping, and I think I hear someone at the door.

Memories of an Elephant

They called her ‘The Elephant’. It was almost a nonsensical name, because she didn’t actually have a very good memory. In fact, if she hadn’t been able to keep memories in jars she’d probably never have remembered anything at all. She never showed more than a glimpse of recognition, of familiarity. She just stayed as she was. She always sat at one end of the bar, cradling a glass of something or other, and her jar perched neatly on the corner. People would go up to her every once in a while. They knew where to find her, because she was always in the same place. Sometimes they would give her a memory, and a couple of dollars. She’d tuck the memory into the bar, screw the top back on, and then use the money they just gave her to get another drink. Sometimes, they’d take a memory. She’d wrench the lid off of the jar, pluck out the memory and hand it over wriggling like a little pink larva, and then use the money they just gave her to buy herself another drink.

Things went on like this for a long time. People came and went, and they stored their most important memories with the Elephant. Often they’d give her memories they never wanted back, and those would curl into the bottom of the jar and stay there. Some people had a tradition of coming back for a memory regularly, on the anniversary of a birth or a death. They’d hold the things in their palms right there in the bar, the love and pain and glory seeping into their skin, and then they’d hand them back. The Elephant shoved the memories back into the jar with no expression, and the poor little things would press against the glass. She never flickered with anything when she passed memories back and forth – not despair or hope, not disgust or joy. For all that she grabbed and dropped memories, not an iota of their power seemed to touch her.

This all continued for years until a strange man came through town. That wasn’t uncommon, as it was a small town. He came just for the Elephant, though. He’d heard of her, and he went straight to the bar in the late afternoon. The man walked to the Elephant where she sat at her barstool, and he handed her a wad of cash. Her eyebrows lifted, but she just looked at him. That was the closest to surprise (or anything else) that had ever lit her face for anyone to see who remembered. The strange man said, “I want the jar.” The Elephant looked at him for a long time.

She said, in a voice that was scraping her dusty throat, “Why? I don’t know you. You’re not from here. I don’t remember people real well, but I don’t know your face at all. What do you want with my memories?”

The strange man smiled. “I just do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. I’m a circus performer, or a sociopath. A writer, perhaps. A storyteller. That would make sense. I’m an insurance salesman and an astronaut and a government official. It doesn’t matter. Tell yourself something. I want the jar. Please”

The Elephant stared at the man, and his smile did not waver. The bartender poured himself a measure of scotch. The Elephant blinked. A man at a table in the corner coughed. Finally, she pulled the jar over to her and twisted off the top. Her eyes were fixed on the man before her. She drew out one slim memory and curled her fingers around it. She handed the jar to the man, and he screwed the lid on. The Elephant’s face crumpled, just slightly, in what might have been sorrow. The man nodded to her, and murmured something. She nodded back. With that, the stranger walked out of the bar with half the town’s memories in his hand, and he never returned. The Elephant stood up and left, abandoning her half-empty drink. The door swung shut behind her, bringing a thrill of cold wind into the musty bitter air of the bar.

They say that the Elephant died, not too long after. She certainly didn’t show up at the bar anymore. Perhaps her neighbors stopped seeing her light flare on at night, and the post office piled high with catalogs and bills that had overflowed her mailbox. It’s more likely that people stopped seeing her, with her ever-present jar, and so they assumed she had gone. It might as well be true, because they wouldn’t even know if she were among them. Nobody remembers what she looked like.

Tell Me A Story

Okay, honey, one. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You have to go to sleep after that, promise?

Once upon a time in a faraway forest there was a fairy named Erstenpraktertolanima. She was a very lonely fairy, because she had no friends. This is because all of the other fairies who tried to befriend her could never pronounce her name, and so they gave up. One day Erstenetc. walked away and climbed up a mountain and then she met the trolls. She met a lovely (though ugly) troll named Prince Lumpy, and he told her, “Ersten… um, Fairy, you should go visit the goblin-people of Shhhhton. They are exactly what you need.”

Don’t you remember Prince Lumpy from the other story? Well here he is. He’s doing fine, happily ever after. Are you feeling sleepy yet?

So Erstenetc. walked and walked and walked, and just when her feet were so blistered that they had polka dots and her body slumped so that her fingers nearly dragged on the ground and her wings were folded like a moth’s to her body, she came across the goblin-town.

Well, it looks just like our town except that all the houses are green and there are signs everywhere. Like there’s a sign outside the first house that says, ‘House Number One! The Collinses!’ and the second one says ‘The Post Office!’ and the third one says ‘The Bennets! Also The Bakery!’ You see, goblins really like signs, and they are often excited about everything.

She walked in and tried to introduce herself to the little old goblin-lady selling doughnuts, but the lady shook her head helplessly. She waved her hands in the air and looked at Erstenetc. with a look of expectation on her goblin-face. After several failed attempts at conversation, Erstenetc. realized that the goblin-people of Shhhhton did not speak with voices. They spoke with the quick-sharp-graceful-soft fluttering of their long-fingered goblin-hands, and they shaped words and sentences and whole stories with those drawings in the air. Erstenpraktertolanima learned the sign-language of the goblin-people and made wonderful friends who never had to pronounce her name at all, and she lived with them happily for ever after.

There, sweetheart, there’s a story. Did you like it? Oh, you’re half-asleep already. Good night, darling, see you in the morning. Sweet dreams.

 

Nicole and the Pumpkins

Once Nicole used to watch the pumpkins bloom on their vines, swelling and blushing like so many bee stings. She used to run her fingers along the smoothness of their skins, fingertips in the beginning ridges. She used to dream with those pumpkins, in the musty damp air of her pumpkin patch with the moisture in the soil soaking through the knees of her jeans.

Now she’s too old for that sort of thing, even though she’s not that old. If you look close in the mirror you can see the parentheses etched into her skin around her lips, so faintly, as if her mouth was an afterthought and the proof was showing too late. Nicole is sure that soon other lines would make their way onto her face as well, commas and apostrophes spiking out around the edges and quotation marks outside her eyes. There will be punctuation engraved into her face, pauses and stops with nothing to say.

For now she is still mostly young-looking, plain as she’d always been. She never had expected much, really, and her skin will crinkle until she is caressing the new pumpkins with creased hands, bent fingers, reaching them after a stiff lunge toward the ground because her back is aching and her arthritis acting up.

Sometimes she still wishes that she didn’t live alone. She has a decent job and lives in her parents’ old house. The pumpkin patch is still outside, and she still visits it. Now, though, Nicole really just hacks at the soil and rips out weeds, cursing when they leave shiny pink weals striping her palms. The pumpkins are big these days. She plants them carefully, watching the new ones take root and balloon out.

When she was a little girl playing outside, she thought that she might find a pumpkin in the patch and coax it to grow so big that she could sit inside it. She would have been a tattered sort of Cinderella, the kind without a fairy godmother, but she might have met a prince anyway. She had hoped. A prince never came along though, and the pumpkins only got to a normal kind of big. She lives alone and doesn’t visit her pumpkins, because they could never really take her anywhere. Sometimes she sits on the porch with her laptop and scares off the birds with the sound of her fingers on the keyboard. She always typed loudly, angrily, as though she had to get the words out in a hurry or she’d forget them entirely.

The air doesn’t smell damp and musty anymore, even when she pats down the soil around the pumpkins. It just smells like dirt now, and she puts down a towel so that the soil won’t dampen her knees. When she brushes a pumpkin with a knuckle she stiffens, surprised, because its skin is smooth and cold against her warmth. She wins a prize for her pie every year now at the fair. It brings her a brief flush of pride, silly really. She knows it doesn’t mean anything, but she always makes an extra or two. She lives off that pie for a week, letting it melt on her tongue and debating whether she ought to have added more cinnamon.

She gets a grim pleasure from hewing into the pumpkin and watching it spill its slime and seeds onto her counter. Her kitchen smells like the distinct sour tang of cold pumpkin flesh for days. The little air freshener plugin that she buys at the drugstore never really helps. Most of the pumpkins stay on the vine until the cold bites, and then she chops them off and throws them into the woods. One of these days, she really has got to start selling them. In October they would make her a mint, to be turned into jack-o-lanterns and all that. Her backyard would be mostly empty, just the bare vines and the scatter of autumn-colored leaves.

For now, Nicole lives alone in her too-big too-empty house with a pumpkin vine out back. She has a decent job and she wins the prize at the fair every year for her pie. It’s good enough, for now. She tells herself that and is reassured. Someday perhaps things will change. Her job will get better, or she’ll get promoted. A prince will come along with a perfectly sized glass shoe and a glint in his eye. The soil will smell like must and damp again, and she can be a child without lines starting on her skin. One of her pumpkins will grow big enough for her to ride away in, and she’ll never have to look back or be in that house again or go to work or make pie or wish for anything else ever after.

Breath

He had missed the lilt of her eyelashes when she looked up at him. Sam missed her intoxicating smile and the comfort, the cool sheer relief, of seeing the wisps of hair curl away from her face the way they always did. All was quiet in the room, though he was breathing a bit too loudly, from the nerves. She was patient, fingers pleating and smoothing the fabric of her blouse. He could almost smell her perfume, faint and sweet.

“I miss you,” Sam said, and she nodded. He took a deep breath, filled himself with air, and launched into speech. “I missed you for a long time and I still kind of miss you. I can see you right there in front of me and it’s like you’re not really there, and I miss you still. You look at me like you’re looking over a long distance and you barely recognize me, like you don’t care, like you don’t want me. What’s wrong with me that you’d leave me? What’s wrong with me that you don’t want me? I’m sorry, love, I am. I love you anyway, but I don’t understand. Why don’t you love me anyway? Why don’t you love me still?” He paused to catch his breath, and his gulp for air snagged in the silence after his words.

She didn’t move. She sat folded in the armchair, her legs under her. She didn’t make a sound. She just looked at Sam with her dark eyes welling with tears, but he didn’t know why. It could have been sadness or anger or fear. Or he could be imagining it. He was choking on his disappointment and his pain. The bemusement in the twist of her mouth was clogging his throat, like sawdust he’d swallowed. It tasted bitter in his mouth. The words he wanted to say were crammed in his chest until his ribs ached with them. They crowded until they burst out again, all tripping through his mouth.

“I just can’t, I don’t know what else to say, but why are you so far away? Why, I mean, what happened to make it like this? I want to be able to go back, you know? I want to make it like it was. Or at least, I don’t know, I want to be able to have what we did, but better. I know it’s not like that and I know that everything happened like it did, but my god, I don’t know.” He stopped talking for a moment. The sunlight from the window had turned yellow and bright in the last gasp of day. She moved in her seat, and the light shifted and trickled down her face and shoulder like gold. He took a deep, shuddering breath.

“I didn’t think that would really be the end. I didn’t really think about it, I mean, I didn’t let it sink into me that you were just going to be gone like this. It still is hard to think it, like it’s not real, that it’s never going to be like that again. How can that even be? That it’s just gone and there’s no getting it back? That seems like it can’t really happen. I can’t believe it. I really can’t. That I’ll never get a chance to have you again, to be yours again, to make it right and make it real? How could I let that be true?” Sam rocked back against his chair, as though the words had given him a parting kick on their way out.

She looked at him with crinkled brows and a different twist to her mouth now. It might have been pity. His words were still repeating through his head, a skipping song lyric stuck and playing over again. She shrugged, and faded, and then she was gone. The armchair she’d been sitting on was smooth and undisturbed, without a dent or wrinkle. Sam slumped, his shoulders loose and his head lolling back. He was still grasping at the air with lungs full of dust. The room was just starting to empty of light, the shadows stretching from one wall nearly to the next. The lamp hanging from the ceiling seemed brighter now, bravely bursting with light in the oncoming dark. Sam sighed, his breath soughing over the heavy knot in his throat, and glared at the empty room.