Goodbyes

Talia had always been bad at goodbyes. When she was a little girl, she had been squashed into hugs and set down to turn and run, to leave without looking back. When you’re a little kid that’s okay. When she got older, she never learned.

She finished all her finals, turned in the last term paper and went to her last class. Her teachers nodded and waved at her. One of them gave her a hug. He tried to pat her shoulder just as she turned to leave, and he swiped lightly instead at the bare flesh of her back, the skin peeking from her underarm. Mostly she ducked out of their classrooms without a word, just a cool relief that spread through her veins slow and heavy, like honey.

Elizabeth was leaving, transferring to another school across the country, and there was a party on Thursday night. She and Sam went, holding hands tight, knuckles pale on flushed hands. Everyone there was laughing, drinking, singing in low silly voices that clattered and banged together. It was loud, and they couldn’t hear one another talk. Talia got a drink, ginger ale in a plastic cup, and watched the bubbles rise to the top and then pop away. Sam watched her looking at the fizz of her soda, and he sighed. She couldn’t hear him, and she ignored the droop of his hand in hers. She was going away next year, studying in England for both semesters. He was staying.

The music pounded into the air, suddenly and without warning. Talia’s pulse jumped in her throat and she squeezed Sam’s hand. He pulled at her, so she set her cup down and they danced. He held her close, hands low on her back, pulling her sweaty skin to his. She looked over his shoulder. People were all wriggling and jumping, twirling and smiling. Elizabeth grinned from across the room, and crooked a finger at Talia. They met in the middle of the dancing masses and swayed together for a moment. Talia leaned forward to hug Elizabeth, who turned to kiss her cheek. Their clumsy embraces collided, and Elizabeth’s lips touched the soft thin skin under her ear. She let go of the hug, and they swayed for another minute before she went back to Sam.

They were quiet that night. They kissed and clung in the darkness. He was going home the next day, his parents driving all the way to collect him and his stuff. The morning was going to be bare and awkward. Talia knew already. He pressed at her back as they lay in bed, their breathing the only sound in the still room. His hand was draped over her waist, his fingers twined into the space beneath her ribs, light on her skin. They fell asleep like that, barely touching in the heat, closing their eyes against the silence.

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Inside the Dollhouse

We only move some of the time. It’s sporadic. There is silence, a long quiet relaxation. Dominique is propped up against the toilet, and Leonardo is next to her sitting on the stove. The others are all piled in what is definitively the kids’ room, as it’s the one with the cradle and the swingset. I’m in the room above, under the sofa. Then, so sudden that our breath would catch if we had any lungs, the hand of Fate swoops in and plucks up Dom and shakes her, upside down. Her hair sways, brushes the floor, and then she’s tossed to land with a clunk in the corner.

Later, when everything is over, Leonardo is in the room with me. He’s looking at me, flat eyes gleaming in his faraway face. He’s dipped in the shadow that splays across the room. I look back at him. I know he doesn’t believe in Fate, in the things that move us. Just because the hand flashes in and out of our lives, isn’t there all the time, moves too quickly to see. I’ve seen it, though. I’ve seen the pain and the destruction it causes – why, AshleyBelle was thrown half across the world. Sometimes we can hear her calling out, half-crushed, gathering dust alone under a bookshelf. Sometimes we can hear Marianna calling back. Their voices are the only noises that ever really interrupt the silence when Fate’s not around.

When Fate is around, it’s often noisy. There are shrieks and cries, from Fate I mean, but often the muted sadness that escapes us as we’re separated or bent backwards. But even the hand of Fate thumping against the floor or a body seems loud to us, with our small ears and small lives. It makes an awful lot of noise thrashing about, and then when it’s gone again the quiet presses sudden and hard against us. We collect ourselves slowly, figuring out where we’ve ended up and where our loved ones are.

The rest of the time we wait for Fate to come rearrange our lives again. We wait – AshleyBelle under the bookshelf, Dominique hanging out of the refrigerator, Marianna’s plaintive voice still sounding through the body-strewn rooms. Eventually the hand of Fate will come through and we will scatter again. We wait, upside down and sprawled on the floor, for something to happen.

The General’s Dream

The general tossed in his sleep that night, plagued with a bad dream. He rose with the sun and rubbed the crackle of sleep from his eyes. He walked out to where the men were waiting. They looked so clean and smart in their pressed uniforms and their straight serious faces. They were very dear, he thought, and he felt a pang. Generals of armies were not supposed to think words like “dear,” least of all about their own young soldiers. But the sensation was there and it was growing, so the general began to speak.

The sunlight shining through these clouds in E...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

This was supposed to be his stirring speech, readying them all for battle, lifting the sodden soldierly spirits up to the brightness of the sun that must be shining somewhere above all that foggy grey. Instead, he told them to wait until the sun came out on its own. There was no reason they had to die on this dark day, without ever feeling the sunlight sift on their faces again. They were free, forgiven of any loyalty to the army, just go. Go, he urged them, and watched doubt creep onto those rigid faces. Go, he said again, and the first broke away. One by one they scattered, and he watched them huddle into their tents with a pinprick of pride. Then he went to the other side, and here things got blurry.The general went to talk to the opposing army, to the surprised faces that awaited him there. He wasn’t sure what happened. He explained what he had done, and why, and recounted several important events in the war as though they hadn’t been present – though they hadn’t, he supposed, for his version of them. He wasn’t sure if that was when light began to dawn, or when he was taken out by a lone shot. Either way, the early sunlight was filtering its rays onto his face and into his eyes, so he blinked awake. The dream ended abruptly and there was no peace being brokered, as yet no fatal shot, no young lives saved.

The general dressed quickly and went to meet the soldiers, filing into line with fear in their expressions. The smell of soap and dread mingled, and the morning’s cold stole into their bones. The general recited his stirring speech, the last comma memorized and intoned to them. Then they went to battle.

Becoming God

Luke was a follower of his very own school of religious thought. It was somewhere in between Method acting and, perhaps, that vague soppy brand of spirituality that tells you to believe in something, anything, so hard you nearly strain your faith muscle. So rather like a lot of religion, actually. Luke was just the first to really put it into practice in this way, and he knew this. Knowing it, he reckoned himself just about a god. So he thought of the Judeo-Christian god that had scowled down on him from the stormy heavens all his life, and he imagined himself that god.

He closed his eyes, and he focused really hard, and he did this on the linoleum floor of his ratty apartment. Luke stayed there, too, for two days. He drank a bit of flat soda that was in the cup he’d cleverly reminded himself to put there, and he got very hungry but eventually stopped noticing. Then, all at once, it clicked and shifted into place and sunk into him and then he was God.

He could peer down on all the world and zoom in to see what people were doing and twist toward people’s thoughts and examine their ideas and somehow he could do all of this at once. It was fascinating and confusing and beautiful and bewildering and very very ugly at times. He swapped views from a woman reading poetry to a child holding its sick mother’s hand to a bird lazily circling the top of a mountain where two hikers were slowly running out of food. He looked at lovers fighting and children squabbling and criminals shooting at each other in desperate spurts. He saw babies crying and people kissing and the long sad sigh of a man who had almost thought that today he wouldn’t be alone again. He saw all of this and more, spinning from one head to another and reading one person’s “fuck that, I don’t like him anyway” and another’s “my God, though, what will I do?” He descended into the gritty details of people’s lives, and the mind-numbing boredom of sitting in the waiting room or standing uncomfortably in line or typing for another long afternoon in the confines of a cubicle. He sat in on courtrooms and classrooms and bedrooms. He watched people until he became them, winding himself into bones and sinews until he saw through their eyes. All of their eyes, every godforsaken orb among them.

Somewhere, distant, Luke was aware that he couldn’t feel his own body anymore. He was too entwined in everyone else’s, and his muscles weren’t aching with the strain of it. His soul was tired. His mind was sore. He concentrated again, pushed away the people and stamped on the pain. With a shove and a wrench he was free of the burden of the world and he opened his own eyes in his own familiar ratty apartment. He lay on the floor for a long while, blinking slowly, and then he got up.

Familiar Shifts

Kate was uncomfortable as she walked over to meet her father. Her new shoes were rubbing blisters around her heels and she could see the skin already reddening. He was waiting when she got to the cafe, his coffee already half empty.

He looked up, and gave her a flat grim smile. “Hello, sweetheart.”

“Hi Dad,” she said, sliding herself into the seat opposite him. “Joey’s all unpacked.”

He scowled at once. “I was hoping we could have some nice conversation before we started fighting about this, Kate.”

She pushed out her lower lip. “Well, we can’t,” she said, using her best firm-but-clear voice. “I’m not going to change my mind, so you just have to get used to it. You should just talk to him already, this is dumb.”

“No,” her father said. He leaned onto the table, folding his arms over each other and looking straight at her. “He comes to his senses, or we don’t talk to him. You know that’s how that is, and I’m surprised at you that you’d go against us like this.”

“Really?” She felt suddenly upset, heat flushing up her face. “You’re surprised I’m doing something that you didn’t tell me to do first? God, Dad, he is my brother and he is your son whether you’re mad at him or not. And you’re mad at him, I’m not.”

“We’re not angry with him, Kate, but he needs to change before we’re willing to talk to him again.”

Kate folded her arms back at him. The anger built in her chest, boiling and overflowing until she spit it out at him. “You can stop talking to me too then. I’m done with you.” She said it and watched his face drop into sadness, and then she left.

She started home earlier than she’d expected. She had to help her brother settle in, after all.

The Magic Hat

The first time Allison found the magical hat, she was six. She had clambered up to the attic when her mother wasn’t looking, and she climbed over boxes and ducked under old furniture until she happened upon it. It was hanging off the edge of the cabinet that had hidden in the attic from before they bought the house, and it was beautiful. Fuchsia, wide-brimmed and velvety, with a profusion of fake flowers and a spray of feathers.

Allison tugged on it and set it squarely upon her head. She was most surprised when she looked down and she had disappeared. She tested it – walked downstairs, where her mother was cooking dinner, and outside. She only stopped herself from walking across the street, since the cars probably wouldn’t stop for an invisible girl. After an hour of watching quietly as her mother diced, chopped, stirred and leaned on the counter watching television, she took the hat upstairs and laid it gently back on the cabinet corner.

She used the magic hat sparingly. Perhaps she already sensed somehow that she had to keep from using up all the magic in it. When Allison was eight, she remembered it was there and she spent a half hour rearranging the desk and ten minutes moving her mother’s coffee mug around the kitchen. She carried a pen past her father and watched him crinkle his forehead and stare at the patch of air where a pen had just floated merrily by.

When she was ten, she walked into the kitchen and listened for twenty minutes to her parents having a conversations she was sure she wasn’t meant to hear. When she was eleven, she hid an entire package of cookies in her room. Just after she turned thirteen, she learned to juggle and watched the mirror in fascination as little plastic balls flung themselves into the air to bob up again. At fourteen Allison snuck out of the house, hid the hat under the rhododendron book, and slipped into a waiting car. When she was fifteen, she walked downstairs and her mother said, “Hey, sweetie. Where did you find that ridiculous hat?”

The magic of the hat was over, she concluded. She put it under her bed, but she remembered it when she moved. Allison kept the magic hat – just in case, she thought.

Dragon Problems

There was a hoarse roar and a puff of flame, which swirled and flickered into a glowing thread in the air. A hacking sound followed, hitting the hot dry air and hurting Sylvia’s ears. She sat and waited, and then Anna emerged from the cave. She was coughing, waving the smoke from her face and holding the side of her face. When she peeled her hand away there was a blotch of blistered pink skin, and Sylvia gasped and frowned. Every time Anna went to confront the dragons, something like this happened. Anna looked up and smiled, in a tired resigned sort of way.

Dragon

Photo credit: Wikipedia

“Stop, dear,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt so much, and the poor thing didn’t mean it.” Anna sighed and sat back, crossing her legs and leaning to peer at the cave’s entrance. It was quiet for now, a dark hollow with the occasional faint glow.

Sylvia crooked her eyebrows at her friend. “What, he just spat fire at your face without realizing?”

Anna glared at her, crossing her arms and then wincing. Her tone was soft, though, when she said, “No, it just wasn’t his fault. The whole litter’s colicky, and I swear I don’t know how to make them feel any better.” There was a loud scraping sound from inside the cave, and both women flinched. “Poor sad little beasties,” Anna said. “I hate to see them in pain.”

“I hate to see you in pain!” said Sylvia. “You’re going to really hurt yourself one of these days.”

“Oh hush. They’re harmless mostly, and now they’re just sick. Don’t be a snob.” Anna’s voice was scolding, but she smiled. Her hair was slightly singed too, Sylvia noticed.

There was another scrape and flourish of fire that billowed from the cave, and both Sylvia and Anna started back again. “I’d better go in again.” Anna stood and dusted off her skirt. “Why don’t you come in with me? I’ll make sure I aim them away from you, dear, and you’ll be surprised how they’ve grown in just a couple of months.” Sylvia shrugged.

They stood, and Anna grabbed Sylvia’s hand, who followed her reluctantly into the cave. They both ducked their heads at the entrance, and shuffled together into a room in the back. It was warm and small, and full of dragons. Anna went in first, sinking down at once into the pile of scaly small creatures that writhed up to surround her. She wound her arms through the swarm and scratched a bony little head, which closed slotted eyes and purred.

Sylvia hung back, watching. Anna picked one of the dragons up with both hands, holding it out to her friend. It was red and shiny, whipping its tail from side to side. It thrust its head forward toward Sylvia, who jumped. “Shhh,” said Anna, her voice low and comforting. “She just wants a pet, go on, put her hand on her head.” Sylvia reached forward, timid, and laid her palm on the bumpy brow of the little monster. It wriggled and crooned, starting to rumble. Sylvia rubbed its head and pulled her hand back, and the dragon swooped back to Anna’s side. It mostly fell, shrunken wings barely keeping it aloft, and then nestled into her.

Sylvia folded herself on the floor to watch Anna cuddle and play with the beasts. She tensed and shivered with the spurts of flame and hisses, but those were infrequent. They spent the afternoon that way, quietly together with the dragons.