A Bedtime Story

When his dad told him a story the whole world disappeared. It faded into the background and a new one took its place. The empty spaces were filled and the ceiling became sky. Alex liked to sit and watch as the ground grew green and grass sprouted from his carpet. The walls were gone and he could see to a horizon, far off and dimly red with the sunset over the water.

Tonight the story was an old favorite – the shining white castle, the prince and princess, and the angry dragon. He’d heard it so many times already that he already knew to turn left and look at the castle there as the story started. Its walls were tall and beaming, bright against the lengthening shadows of the night. The princess was just coming in, head bent and horse plodding after a long day of riding.

“Daddy, you forgot reckless.”

“Right,” his dad smiled at him, “sorry. After a long day of reckless riding.”

Alex settled back against the pillow. The princess was racing through the forest on her horse, hair streaming behind her and a wild grin stretched across her face – eventually her horse slowed and she sighed, until they were trudging together over the moat to slip under the portcullis. The prince was waiting for her inside. He’d asked the kitchen to keep dinner warm. When the princess left for the day she usually came home too late to eat with everyone else.

Alex suspected that this was a hint – a dig or an apology, he wasn’t sure – to his mother, who sometimes listened. She complained sometimes that Daddy would leave her cooking dinner but never get home in time to eat it when everyone else was hungry.

While the princess was eating the reheated leftovers with her princes, they had a murmured conversation. In an instant, though, everything changed. Their words were drowned out by a roar, the view through the window was suddenly blotted black, and the air filled with filth. The ashes were swirling into the room, and the prince and princess huddled together with their hands clasped over their eyes. Straining, they could see outside the window and through the billowing smoke. The faint outline of a dragon was looming over the castle, massive wings flapping to keep it hovering in midair. Alex always gasped when he saw the dragon for the first time. He hugged close that feeling of fear and delight that made his heart flutter and pound.

The prince and princess ran, until they were hiding in a hallway with no windows and the doors were bolted on either side. They curled up there together and waited for the noise and the choking smoke to go away. There on the cold stone corner of the hallway, they fell asleep. The servants found them the next day as they spread through the castle with mops and brooms and as much medieval-style cleaning solution as could be found on short notice.

Alex loved that part. He didn’t really know what it meant, but he could tell his dad was being funny. His dad made a lot of people laugh, and especially Alex.

His eyelids were sinking shut, and he slid a little further down on his pillows. The prince and princess were tottering out the door now, looking aghast at the smeared black walls of their castle. Those stones had been so pure and lovely, only yesterday.

“Hey buddy, you look pretty sleepy. Do you want me to finish the story tomorrow?”

Alex mumbled, “S’ok,” and felt his dad’s kiss press onto his forehead and the covers settle around him. The light flicked off, but he could still see the castle. Now there was spidery scaffolding climbing up its walls, and the prince and princess were clambering up its walls along with the servants, all with sponges and rags in hand. Alex watched them through half-closed eyes, and fell asleep as they all scrubbed and sprayed and set everything to rights.

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Annoyance

“Hey, though, do you know about the new episode next week?” His voice was loud and heavy. Amid the delicate calm of their conversation, it felt like it was smashing down on them. Charlotte bit her lip so that she wouldn’t say anything. He kept talking, telling the others about whatever it was that was so important it had to come in the middle of her sentence.

Right in the center of her chest, the irritation was pressing hot and thick on her. She took a breath, trying to exhale the edge of anger. If he weren’t there for the fourth time when none of them wanted him there, if he would just even say something relevant to their conversation – but that wasn’t helping. He probably couldn’t figure out what they might have wanted them to say, nor realize that somebody else talking was a good enough reason for him to hold his tongue. She told herself that, and concentrated on the spot of pain that her teeth were pressing into her lip instead.

It didn’t work. Charlotte still felt the knot in her chest, so she told herself again that he didn’t mean it. More than that, he probably wasn’t aware at all of how he was affecting anybody else. With her eyes closed, she could imagine that he felt that. It was almost easier to feel it.

His voice was still braying across the table, so she imagined that it was coming from her lips. She saw the group, mostly clustered across from him with their gaze fallen to the crumpled napkins instead of his face. This was important right now, and it had to be said. Even something so small as that, but after all it was interesting and maybe the others would want to hear it. Maybe they would be glad that he’d said it. They could have a whole conversation and he could tell them what he thought. She said this to herself, and she saw his hands clenched under the table as if they were resting on her knees instead. The words were dropping from him, and it was a relief to be talking to somebody, as though his mouth had been filled and now it could move. She saw herself, across the table. She was sitting curled over her lap, her eyes closed and her lips fighting a frown. He just wanted to say something, that was all.

She drew in another breath and felt the knot in her chest loosen. He was still talking, and his voice still grated. Still, Charlotte straightened. Maybe she could see all of those things in his face as he talked. They might just be imagined. Even so, with a flare of effort she pushed a smile onto her face and told herself to be patient as he talked.

 

Things Get Blurry

The fog grew heavier at night. It was a thick white mist that made everything fade, as though they were bleached and would all eventually disappear into white, even the faint outlines erasing from the pure pale air. Anna hated when it was all foggy.

During the day, mostly, she could hold the mists at bay. Sitting in class, the air grew heavy, but when she was doing nearly anything else it was all right. When she was sitting with Sarah to eat lunch, or walking home in between classes – then everything was clear and bright. She could see without trouble and move without uncertainty. There was never any doubt about where thoughts were, or whether she would stumble over her ideas instead of finding them easily.

At night, though, the mist crowded until her thoughts were caught and pressed into the lightness of the wet air, and she wasn’t sure which way to reach for them. Today Anna had sat patiently through two classes and had quite a good conversation over lunch. She’d even held up all through dinner, though it was starting to threaten. As she walked back, still nibbling at the remains of a cookie, she watched the mist advance.

In her room, she had work to do. Putting away laundry, folding sheets, marking up a chapter for homework. She could do all of these things even though it was getting harder to move from one thought to another. The words were sinking into the background, and halfway through the chapter Anna found herself reading every sentence at least twice. The letters were there in the fog, but she couldn’t bring them any closer to her. She could almost feel the moisture clinging to her hands as she groped for expression. She gave up, eventually. Still she struggled valiantly to finish a list of the things she had to do tomorrow and what she needed to buy at the drugstore. There was one last thing, she knew. It was probably there, somewhere she couldn’t see. She went looking for it, but she always ended up trudging over too much ground and not bumping into anything, except maybe the memory of giving the wrong answer in class that morning.

Finally she put on her pajamas and admitted defeat. In the morning, maybe – and with the help of some caffeine – the air would clear. She would be able to finish her list, and remember what she needed to buy. The chapter would be easy to finish, and maybe that other reading would seem closer than it had been. She wouldn’t have to stumble blindly through the choking white while she flailed just to think. For now, though, it was night. She curled into bed and closed her eyes, and let the fog roll in to cover her.

Tell Yourself A Story

The static on her wool socks was making the wisps of yarn reach for her skin like soft fingers, clinging to her knuckles as she folded. She told herself a story as she did, thinking about all of the things that might happen. In the current version, she was folding socks when there was a knock on her door, and Andy had gotten there to surprise her. It was a nice story, and it meant that she wouldn’t have to deal with the train. She was trying not to think about that.

Instead, she folded socks and caressed the knit wool absently, the story in her head pulling her attention away from the pile of folded clothes that was threatening to topple. The music was playing from her computer, soft voices twining into her hair and nudging at her ears. She liked music as a background, even though she barely listened. Otherwise she could hear the silence.

Her phone buzzed, breaking the reverie. The sound grated, the phone’s edges tapping the wood veneer of the desk. She glanced over at it, and sucked in a gasp. It had lit up with a message, but the time on it was 12:32. Her train was at 1:00, and she hadn’t even packed. The socks landed on the pile and it slumped across the bed, the clothes all suddenly blooming from their folds. She grabbed a handful of cloth – a pair of jeans, a couple of shirts – and stuffed them into her duffel. She just remembered to put in undies and an extra bra, and then she was flinging herself through the door and fumbling for the key. It turned in the lock and then stopped, as if it had hit something. Yanking on it didn’t seem to help. She was nearly ready to leave her door unlocked for the week, but she pulled in a deep breath and let it seep out slowly. On reentry the key turned with only a shudder of resistance, and as soon as it clicked she was whirling away to clatter down the stairs.

Halfway down, it occurred to her that she was wearing her shabby shoes, the ones she slipped into for things like folding laundry. After a very brief pause, she decided it wasn’t worth the extra two minutes and resumed the headlong rush down. The door stuck, and she wrenched past it. It was 12:38 now – at least she had remembered her watch. The station was too many blocks away to get there at the leisurely pace she’d imagined when she planned the trip. She scurried instead, wishing she’d worn shoes that wouldn’t let her feel the sidewalk smack her feet. As she walked, she told herself a story. In the story, she was the girl rushing down the sidewalk while someone looked at her sidelong. Their eyes would catch hers, and she would pause only long enough to smile before turning back to her study of the sidewalk. She would run the last two blocks, and the station would suddenly loom. She’d hurry in and get there early, maybe even a couple of minutes, and see all the people clumped on the concrete with a sigh of relief. Andy would call her just to tell her that he was excited to see her – though admittedly, only in a story. Now it was 12:46.

Her feet were really beginning to hurt. It seemed she could feel the impact, shock jarring her heels and ankles and running up her shins until they shook. She had to keep going, though. The pain would go away as soon as she got there, as soon as she got to sit. The seats on the train would be cushioned and comfortable. Her watch read 12:53.

The station was there now, at the end of one more block. She tried to go faster, to will her feet to move. They were stubborn and hurting, and she was already walking quickly. Like magic the doors were right in front of her now – but it was 12:56. She would just make it.

The pain was flaring in her feet, and so to ignore it she told herself a story. Its doors would get closer until she was through, tripping lightly down the steps toward the platform. The train would be just hissing to a stop as she leapt onto the platform, and she would squeeze in and sink into one of those seats. There would be time to get settled before the conductor lumbered through to punch tickets, and she would pick up the newspaper somebody had left and do the crossword. She would even figure out most of it – well, in a story she could do that.

Down the smooth steps and into the station, she looked for a schedule. There was one standing a bit away, so she hurried to it. Her train, the one she’d told Andy she’d be on, was leaving from Track 11. As she turned to scan the numbers on the walls, a realization hit her fluttering heart. She had forgotten her socks. It didn’t matter, she supposed she could just borrow a pair of his. She spotted 11 and began to walk that way, digging for her phone in her pocket. When she got on the train she could text him and tell him that she would need to wear his socks. It could be a funny joke.

She was through the arch to the train now. 12:59. Her pocket was empty except for a gum wrapper. It must be in the other one. Her phone wasn’t in the other pocket, and she reached desperately into the duffel bag. She started toward the train as she did, trying to walk and search at once. Her phone wasn’t in the duffel bag. She was sure. With an uneasy feeling she remembered it sitting on her desk, buzzing on the edge. It must still be there.

That would probably be fine, and she glanced up from zipping her bag to see the doors slipping closed. She almost cried out, and ran a few steps, but it was too late. The train was shifting forward, and as she watched it slid into the tunnel and away. She stood looking at it retreat into the darkness for a moment, and as she did she told herself a story.

In the story there was a girl running for the train to take her to her true love – well, stories are romantic versions of life. Running for the train, for if she did not get on it she would lose him forever. That made it a better story. The girl was standing on the platform, watching the train disappear as her throat closed tight with disappointment.

She stood on the platform, very still, and felt a vague sense of pity for the girl in the story.

 

Subterranean (and Silly)

The subway platform was full and busy. Eddie hated that feeling of standing only a few feet from the edge. He always felt as if he might just drift over and onto the rails, that being too close to the edge might make him teeter over it. It was like the rails were pulling at him, humming with an electricity that he couldn’t hear. He just had to wait for the train to come, and the screen said it would be another three minutes. It wasn’t as if he were going to get on the train, anyway.

While he waited, he fiddled with his coat. The hem on the bottom was fraying, and the threads splayed like frail wire under his fidgety fingers. The train was in the distance now. The light was a bright suggestion in the distance of the tunnel. As he watched, it grew more definite. They could all hear the rush of its movement as it sped toward them and slowed down. Eddie watched as women in long coats and couples holding hands stepped toward the edge of the platform, and as a few men with business suits hurriedly pulled their tickets from the machines and thrust through the turnstiles. The crowd was clamoring at the doors, going through the usual dance of stepping and wriggling around one another to get on the train. The people in the train always had to fight their way through, ducking and weaving to get off while everyone else tried to get on. It was that sort of busy time of day.

Subway train in tunnel

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eddie turned from the train as people crammed into its doors. He walked along the platform, toward the tunnel from which the train had just appeared. The crowd was still buzzing and squirming when he glanced back to check, so he slipped into the tunnel unseen. There was a ledge clinging to the wall in the darkness, and he leaned against the concrete and placed each foot carefully. One after the other, and he knew the fork came soon. His hands found the wall on either side of him, and he closed his eyes to the graze of palms on the jagged surface. When the fork came, he remembered the wall just ending. He wanted to feel the corner before he took another step off of the ledge and into the train tracks.

It was hard to call the image into his mind of the place where he was going. He remembered it being warm, and lit with gold. The people were quiet but friendly, and Sasha was there. Eddie had never meant to do anything with his life that would bring him someplace like the community living in the abandoned subway. Nevertheless, when she had led him there it had seemed obvious. Of course he was there. She was taking him.

Sasha had always been the crazy one. When they were kids, she was the one daring him to eat a grasshopper and climbing to the very tallest boulder that jutted from the hill in the woods. Eddie had always followed her.

When he first found her on the subway platform, he hadn’t seen her for two years. She had smiled as if she were expecting him, and taken his hand. The surprise welling in his breath was cut off by her whisper. “Follow me,” she hissed at him, and pulled him away from his train and into the darkness.

He hadn’t made this trip alone until now. Sasha had taken him a few times by now, introducing him to the leader of their group and showing him where they stole through forgotten stairwells to go grocery shopping. It had seemed like another world there, a little town secreted in the concrete underground of the city. There were platforms and tunnels that hadn’t been used for decades, except that now they held little lean-tos and an old picnic table. It was a whole community hiding where nobody could see, and everyone in it only wanted to be seen when they were there.

Eddie wondered a couple times, after going there, if there were people escaping their aboveground lives. He supposed there were. Probably that was mostly his romanticizing it, but there was something fairytale-like about the little village huddled under the streets and skyscrapers. Even if it was childish, he already wanted to stay here. He mulled on this as he inched upon the ledge. That might be the end of the wall just ahead, and he could almost see it.

When his fingers reached the corner he smiled to the black, and pressed himself around the finger of concrete until he was on the other side, gasping a little and grinning. He was almost there, almost to Sasha. If he stayed with her, he would be alright. Perhaps he was building some glorious romantic daydream of life under the city, but it already felt as though he’d left that real world and this was his new place. Here there would be new people, new ways. He would learn that instead, and everything about this strange and lovely way to live would fill in for the empty hard life above.

Besides, in the darkness he might find dragons.

A Forgotten Character

English: Picture of an open book, that does no...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Olivia was reading a book. Ferdinand had figured that much out, at least. It had been so difficult at first. Things had been happening. His life had been moving along for what seemed like the first time. Then everything was gone. Things kept happening. They just weren’t happening to him anymore.

After what must have been a year watching life happen to everybody else, he got impatient. The year had gone by so quickly – he didn’t remember most of it – but now time had slowed down again. He would wander the white hallways and look wistfully at the black lacy buildings, wishing he were in them instead of shut out. Everything seemed so well-crafted, in the way one relationship built up to the next.

He had been dating Amy, so briefly. She was having another romance now, one that took hold of her and didn’t let go. Ferdinand knew that he hadn’t been a very good boyfriend. He was sort of boring with her, forgot things, wasn’t attentive enough. The problem had been that he was so nervous. She was beautiful in the way that made you catch your breath when the light caught the angles of her face. Every once in a while he would just be staring at her, marveling at the shapes that made her, and she would catch him looking. Her face would turn confused, a little worried, and he would give a weak grin. He hadn’t been a very good boyfriend, but he had been so afraid. So in love with her, after two dates and a couple conversations over coffee. Nobody would have been able to tell that his quiet dullness was only wonder. Nevertheless he remembered it with the sweet ache that comes with memories of the beauty that could have happened.

Anyway, after that year he had set himself to figuring it out. Watching Amy speed through the early throes of love with her new guy was painful enough. He needed something to distract himself. Ferdinand had always been curious about their world. It was a blank, airy sort of world piled up from the white in daydreams that slid through the air. Sometimes it changed. People were always noticing little details – the edging on a coverlet, the sheen of silverware, the cluster of paintings on a wall. Other than those things, though, Ferdinand had noticed that there wasn’t much detail anywhere else. His own house was so faded and smooth that he sometimes wasn’t sure that it existed at all. When Amy had been there – the one time – things had brightened. The colors had spread, lines and curves traced themselves into the woodgrain of the coffee table, and the floor had sprouted smudges and scuffs. She’d been gone so long, and he couldn’t even see the coffee table anymore. Sometimes it felt as though there was a fog in his life, and once she left it had spread until everything was far and white and softly fading.

That couldn’t have been it, though. He was stuck in the margins of everything, watching life go on with other people while he nursed his broken heart in his pale timid house. It had occurred to him that going on a trip might break through his gloom, so he had. He’d gotten into a plane and flown over to a city in Italy, where there was some complex intrigue unfolding. Everyone was tense and passionate and there was a man with a mustache who wanted to kill a young couple. He had mostly been confused, and left early.

Something happened on the flight back home. He craned his neck to peer out the window, and through the scratched glass he could see something bigger and more terrifying than anything he had ever imagined. He was flying past huge bulky cliffs, square tops rising and falling. The colors changed, and there were lines carved up the side of each. When the plane banked to land, Ferdinand stared out the window again. What he saw there changed him forever. There was a person out the window. A giant. She was bigger than anything he’d ever seen, and she was holding something. It was white, and he couldn’t get a good look. Before he could squint to try to make out the designs on the white object, the plane dipped and dove straight into it. The page and its script had rushed at him until suddenly the world filled in around him and the plane was rolling toward the airport. As he was hurrying through the bewilderingly nondescript terminal, he figured it out.

Ferdinand got home, made himself a strong pot of coffee, and took to his sofa with a notebook. He reasoned it out, peppering what he wrote with arrows and circled words, until there splayed on the sheet of paper was an understanding of everything. It gave him a strange sense of pride, though of course he would never tell anyone.

In his imaginings, he had sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a story told by somebody else. He had never imagined that something like that was his life, his world. Nobody knew that their world was just structures made of the words in a book. Maybe he couldn’t even choose what to do – free will couldn’t really exist in a book. He had never thought that his life only amounted to being a fleeting secondary character.

Ferdinand sipped his coffee and pondered. He did that for a month while the idea settled into his mind, and then he put on real clothes for the first time in weeks and left the house. Amy might be written into a relationship, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to talk to her. It was hard to push into the black script city, but once he did he thought he could find her easily. There might be time for him to try to change things. He was going to try to change everything while Olivia read. He would do what he could and be glad of it, until she got to the end and closed the book.

Unabashedly Cheesy (but only for Valentine’s Day)

There weren’t any cards left at the drugstore. It seemed surreal, that each place under the “Valentine’s Day!” emblazoned on the shelf was empty. Natalie was looking for a card, and she had to settle for an ambiguous wedding-anniversary card. It had a cartoony couple on the front and the words “I love you” on the inside in pink script, but nothing else. That would do. She wasn’t going to give it to him, anyway.

She and Jim had been doing that dance for months now – that dance of sneaking glances and blushes. The one where one of them would ask “to hang out” and they would both wonder if it was a date the whole time. They’d been not-dating for nearly three months. She wasn’t even sure they were, though. Jim could actually think they were only hanging out. It was very hard to tell, when neither of them said anything outright.

It was late when she started to walk home from the drugstore. Nearly five, and she’d started out in early afternoon. The town was dimming around her, and the shadows stretching long and cold across the snow. She tucked the card into her purse and clasped her fingers around the cup of coffee. It was cold by now, mostly, but she hadn’t seen a trash can since she’d stopped drinking the dregs left at the bottom. She walked slowly, placing each foot deliberately. There was hardly anybody around, and she was in no hurry. The flower shop loomed ahead, pink and red balloons festooning the sidewalk in front of it. It looked to be winding down. By late afternoon on Valentine’s Day, the only people buying flowers anymore were the last-minute husbands who’d been too harried to think about flowers and chocolates and pink bouncy hearts. She was before the shop now, and she paused. There were an awful lot of pretty flowers. They were mostly perfect spiraled roses, some in bud and some spread into full curling bloom. There were carnations too, and some of those big colorful daisies. She’d always liked those. There was an orange one hanging off the side of the can, away from the rest of the clump, and she plucked it out. Orange was a good color. Cheerful, and determined. Something like that, anyway. It wasn’t pink, at least. She went inside to buy the flower, and grabbed a chocolate bar at the counter. Even if she didn’t have a not-date today, she could at least have a flower and eat chocolate.

The woman behind the register smiled at her, one of those pitying smiles you give to strangers who are doing pathetic things like buying themselves flowers on Valentine’s Day. Natalie smiled back at her tightly and left. Her face felt hot. She was probably blushing. The corners of her mouth wanted to pull down, despite her firm instructions to herself. She was very certain that she didn’t need a date, even a non-date. Things like flowers and chocolate weren’t important. Valentine’s Day was a silly holiday anyway. If anyone were to love her, she told herself, they had better do it every day and not just when ordered to by Hallmark. Even so – her thoughts went, unbidden – it would have been very nice to have one good Valentine’s Day. Maybe next year.

She could be strong-willed. She thought hard about other things as she walked back to campus. It was only a ten-minute trek from where the flower shop sat on the corner of the main streets. During that time, she managed to recollect her homework, her shopping list, and the three phone calls from her mother that she hadn’t returned. She wasn’t going to call her mother on Valentine’s Day, though. She was only a block from her dorm now, and the shadows were stretching toward her. It was nearly dark already. She didn’t like winter much.

She was just considering tearing open the chocolate bar wrapper when she heard her name. The voice was strained, as if it had been calling her and she hadn’t answered. She hated when people did that. She hadn’t heard, though. The voice sounded again, and she stopped. Jim was hurrying up to her, breathless and red-faced. He looked very beautiful there, catching his breath in the cold. She smiled at him, uncertain. Her fingers were still locked around the stem of the orange daisy, so she held it out to him.

He took the flower and, after a puzzled moment, he grinned. They started to walk, his steps turning to line up with hers. Neither of them said anything, but Jim reached out to hold her hand.