Journeying

It was already six when Evan showed up at the house. They’d meant to leave at five, but Sarah’s phone needed charging and Evan’s keys were at the bottom of his laundry basket. He got inside, hugged her in a perfunctory kind of way, and sat at the kitchen table while she flitted from room to room, taking a bag from bedroom to kitchen and then hurrying it back in to add something else. It was seven by the time they left, throwing the bags in the trunk and scooping up an armful of snacks on their last swing out the door.

They played music for the first hour of the drive, humming or singing along. Some of the time they just sat in companionable quiet and listened to the voices buzzing from the car’s speakers. Sarah drove. She promised Evan that when she got tired they’d pull over and switch. He was glad, because he didn’t like driving much anyway. It was dark out, and their headlights hollowed a patch of night before them as they went. He was easily spooked and more easily anxious, so he watched comfortably as Sarah navigated the twists in the roads and the stoplights blinking to yellow as they approached. They were on the highway within half an hour, and from there the way was smooth and plain. There were no more turns and no more interesting buildings at the side of the road.

Highway at night

When the radio played the song they both loved, they threw their voices into it. Their singing filled the car, thin and wavering as it was in their imperfect voices. On the flat straight highway the notes bounced and rocked. They wailed the last soaring word and fell silent as the next song began to sprinkle pinging notes into place, and their song faded out. Sarah, without looking, turned down the volume and said, “I love that song.”

“Yeah,” said Evan. “I know. Me too.”

“The ones I love best, the songs I mean, they’re the ones that I feel like really say something. You know what I mean? Like the songs that have lyrics that make sense to me, or that I relate to. That sounds dumb, but you know, the words that I feel like I could’ve written. If I were any good at writing songs.”

“Exactly.” Evan smiled. “I know exactly what you mean. Things mean more to you when they have to do with some experience, or feeling or whatever, something that you’ve lived. Some kind of common perspective, kind of.”

“Right,” said Sarah. “That’s what makes something really meaningful, right? Something that people have in common. Right. But like, not that you have to have the same interest or situation in common. You can feel the same way about a situation, though.”

Evan said, “You know, I always wanted to write songs or something like that. It’s like poetry, I don’t know. Because you said, I mean what you’re saying is exactly what I always really loved about songs or movies or whatever. Movies, actually. I would love to write movies, the kind of movie that you watch and then it ends and you just feel understood. You ever watch a movie to make you feel like that?”

“Just last week, when we watched that one online, that gave me that feeling at the end. I totally know what you mean. When you see something, and you hear it saying something you already know. Except in a new way, maybe. Or like you have the same problem in the movie and in the movie they find the solution and watching it makes everything make a little more sense for a while.”

“Right!” Evan’s voice rose. “You so know what I’m saying. You should help me write a movie. We could do that, you know. Make something that helps people understand their lives a little better.” He settled back, quieted a bit. “I mean, okay, I know that sounds crazy. But we could, I think.”

Sarah smiled at the dark highway ahead, and signaled right. “Yeah. Okay, anyway, I’m going to go to that gas station at the next exit, I want to switch for a little. Or maybe I just need to stretch my legs.”

Evan nodded, though she couldn’t see. She pulled into the gas station, filled up the car, and leaned over to his window. She said, “Actually, you know, I think I’m fine. Just needed to get out of the car for a minute.”

She went around to the driver’s seat again and started up the car. She sat, staring out the windshield, for a long moment until Evan’s voice pulled her out of her reverie. He said, “Right then, let’s go. We still have a long while to go.”

Advertisements

Coffeeshop Stories

Eva sipped her coffee. It was just cooling to lukewarm. The curls of steam had fallen like limp ribbons and the bitterness was tepid on her tongue. She was still holding the pen in her right hand, clicking the retractable tip in and out, in and out. The two women at the table behind her were animated. Their voices rushed along, clattering together.

“I know, but then at the end –”

“When he did, and then it could all have been, I don’t know –”

“Like a dream or something, the whole thing made up –”

“Brilliant, right?”

They paused, presumably to sip their drinks. Eva leaned over her notepad and scribbled a few words. Talking, conversations, television, vampires? She scratched at the letters idly, and then noticed her pen wasn’t writing. She’d clicked it without noticing, and she jabbed the button again. Then she looked at the pad, focusing on it. Time to really write something, get a head start on this story, maybe sketch in an outline. Anything, really. The women began to talk again.

“So have you heard from Charlotte?”

“Yeah, actually, she just called me a couple days ago. You know she broke up with, um, what’s his name?”

“No way, really? I thought they were going to stay together forever. She was so crazy about him.”

“Oh well, I guess. She’ll do better next time.”

“That doesn’t help now, though. She must be crushed. Poor thing.”

Eva clicked her pen again and wrote, Breakups. Gossip. Friendship. Two friends discuss the life of a third. Are they concerned? Just gossiping? Do we learn more about the friends or about the subject of their conversation?

That seemed like a good start. It was an interesting idea. She took another sip of her cooling coffee and made a face. She didn’t love it to begin with, but when the heat masked the taste she didn’t mind so much. When it was barely warm she couldn’t fool herself that she was drinking coffee for anything but the caffeine. She stood and walked a few steps to toss her cup into the trash. When she sat back down, she picked up her pen and click-click-clicked. She had to really concentrate.

“Anyway, we should hang out and watch something. Have you been watching anything good lately?”

“A few things. I have ideas. What are you in the mood for?”

“Huh. Well, nothing too sad. Nothing dark, not today. Not romance either. Something funny, or maybe an action sort of thing. How’s that sound?”

“Let me think about it.”

They kept talking, but Eva stopped listening for  a moment. She wrote more words. Movies. Escapism. Grief. Pretending.

She would go soon. She wasn’t getting any work done here, not really. Click-click-click. The page looked so empty with just her lists and half-broken sentences down one side of it. Absently, Eva doodled a flower in the corner. That cheered the paper up a little bit. Maybe she could get a little farther with the story once she got home and thought about it some.

The women at the table behind her were talking still. One said, in a lowered voice, “God, that clicking is really annoying. Is that her pen? Maybe we should go.”

“No,” said the other. “I think she’s leaving. Look, she’s getting her stuff. She was here with a notepad. I wonder what she’s writing about?”

Five Minutes to Breathe

Clouds stood crisp and white against the blue of the sky. The edges furled and wrinkled, faraway fjords in nothing but sunlit mist. It looked so close that he could touch it. Higher up the clouds dissolved and swirled like sheer scarves of gauze. Brian settled back onto the grass, letting the soft blades tickle the back of his neck and his shoulders. He had five minutes left. Then he’d have to get back to the factory for another four hours. He let out a long, slow breath.

A sigh sounded next to him. He’d nearly forgotten that Tam was next to him. She scooted over to press her arm against his. The warmth of her skin thrilled against his own, deeper and more solid than the sun melting on his face. He turned his head to smile at her. She was looking at the sky too, her eyes fixed on a cloud or maybe just lost in the dusty blue. He smiled at her profile instead, at the intent eyes and the peace smoothing her face.

After a moment she turned and saw him looking. They were so close that her breath whispered against his cheek. Abruptly she shifted, pushing a hand onto his shoulder to lever herself up. Once standing she offered a hand and pulled him to his feet. She kept her hand in his, her fingers small in his, and tugged him toward the road. “We should start walking back,” she said. Her voice was husky after the silence, raw in the still air.

Trees and sunlight

Photo credit: Takashi(aes256)

They walked side by side on the scruffy grass at the side of the road. She let go of him, and his hand felt empty. He curled it into a fist, and his curled hand hung by his side. The sun was high in the sky. The trees were shattered kaleidoscopes of light. The greens and yellows and blues tangled and sliced together, bright and beautiful. Brian could never walk past this street without staring a little. Even after six years in this town, his eyes went to it at once and stayed.

Tam checked her watch. She had to get back at the same time as he did, though she was going to the school instead of the factory. They were right across the street from each other, though. They stole off nearly every day during lunch to slip down to that secret spot of theirs. Sometimes they even brought food, though mostly they forgot. That had been their tradition for a year, since Brian graduated and had been working at the factory. On days when Tam couldn’t meet him, he wandered around listlessly. Sometimes he felt like when he didn’t see her he was holding his breath. The world faded a little bit, and when she was there again it was like the air rushed back into him and he could breathe again.

They were still a ways away from the school factory. They should have left earlier. Lines were creasing in Tam’s forehead as she fiddled with her watch. “We’re going to be late,” she said. Her voice had evened out, losing the quiet rasp it always got when she didn’t speak for a while. He loved that rasp.

“Race you back,” he said. Tam grinned, and then sprinted off. “Hey!” he called, jumping forward. She laughed back at him over her shoulder, her eyes bright in the midday sun. She ran, her feet kicking up little puffs of dust and her elbows swinging. Brian took a quick deep breath and followed.

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.

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.

A Halfway Draft of an Ice Cream Scene

“Inside someone’s mind?” Devon was folded in the corner between the bed and the bookshelf, his arms wrapped around his knees and his neck craned upward to look at Isaac. The man offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet and away, and he blinked onto a long flat road. The sky reeled for a moment and he tipped over, landing sprawled on the gritty road. The air bumped out of him and he sucked in a gasp to say, “I’m so buggering mad this keeps happening.” Isaac let his hand go and began to walk, his head bent toward the dusty shapes clustered in the horizon. Just a few steps closer, it cleared into a bumbling house.

Devon scrambled to his feet and tripped toward Isaac, steadying into a lagging walk a step behind him. Isaac half-turned his face, giving Devon a glimpse of his profile, and said, “It gets weird. You okay with that then?” Devon snorted, and the sound echoed against the bare sky.

“Right,” said Devon. “Because only now it’s getting strange. Right.”

Isaac shot him a flat look, eyebrows raised. “Yeah, well then. When it goes all upside-down, don’t look at me.”

Devon gave Isaac his best wry expression back, and nodded. They walked on for a while, the only punctuation to the silence the thumps of their footsteps and the occasional shriek wheeling through the distance that made both of them jump.

When they got to the house at the horizon, it was tall and rickety. The outside was painted a rich deep reddish brown, and the windows stretched crossed and crooked up the walls. Isaac walked right up to the blue front door and into the house. Devon hung back, and when Isaac leaned to call him in he said, “Isaac, though, isn’t it, I don’t know. Isn’t it sort of rude to just walk into somebody’s mind like that?”

Isaac grinned at him, his face creasing and his eyes twinkling. “Nah, kid, this’s fine. No problems. Listen, anyway, haven’t you seen the subconscious we’ve been walking through? Nary a thing here except what’s hidden away. Outside the house you have to go exploring to find stuff, most often. The inside’s the only interesting bit for them as have not so much time in the area. It’s sort of the guided tour version of the brain.”

Devon rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, well, that’s not really what I was asking.” But he walked into the house, to be struck with a faint but distinct odor of eggs. His mouth dry, he followed Isaac through the first room – a quite respectable-looking foyer – and into the next. It looked as though perhaps it had started out as a kitchen until things had started growing from the walls, the counters, and the chairs. Still, it was nothing so strange as what they’d seen in just the last couple of weeks.

In the next room, there was a room of fluttering wings. Some even had birds attached, who flapped over to the men cawing for breadcrumbs before they gave up and raced in quick windy paths through the air. Isaac said, “Cripes, look at that,” and Devon said nothing. The next room was piled high with clothes, some of which seemed to move suspiciously. Isaac didn’t let him poke them with a foot. They went through a room with fish swimming through the air, and one books with flapping pages. There was a room full of blank-faced people who looked to be made of wood, and a room full of hands clambering about like awkward fleshy spiders. Isaac kept up a cheerful commentary as they walked – “Oh, haven’t you had dreams like this?” and “Bugger if this isn’t a funny mind. Suppose it’s about as funny as the rest though.”

Devon stayed quiet. His mind was troubled. He was thinking about brains, and minds, and thoughts and things. Specifically, he was wondering if all minds were very different. He didn’t think there were rooms of faceless dolls in his head – not that he minded that, but there probably weren’t less disturbing things there either. Perhaps his mind was a neat orderly house with maybe a library and a wraparound porch. What if it wasn’t nearly this interesting?

When they were walking up the spiral staircase that drifted in all directions, very slowly, he voiced the question. “What if my mind doesn’t look like this? Can I find out what it does look like?” Isaac turned to look at him.

“No,” Isaac said. He was already shaking his head. “You can’t never go in your own mind, kid. Messes you up, your own mind does.”

Devon sat and thought about that a while, watching a phoenix spinning and flashing before him. After a while turning and nudging the words in his head, he gave up and left them in an empty corner.

The Dragon Slayers

“It was horrible!” Seth’s voice was high and wavering, jumping to scrape against the ceiling before thinning and fading. “It was huge, and, and, it was giant, and oh god it had so many legs! I was scared.”

Danielle crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t even that big.” Her voice was loud, even in the bustling cafeteria. Jenna smirked, next to her.

Seth glared at both of them. “It was a monster. Don’t make it sound like it was nothing.” He ripped a bite from his sandwich, as if to emphasize his words.

Mark jumped in. “So tell me the story from the beginning, guys. I mean, who did something about it?”

Danielle’s grin spread across her face. “Me. I grabbed it and threw it out the window.” She took another dainty bite of ice cream, pursing her mouth, clearly enjoying her role as hero. She was the one known to battle the frights amongst the friends, despite her airs.

“You threw a monster out the window? By yourself?” Mark was skeptical. He looked from Danielle’s eyes rolling at Jenna to Seth’s tense stiff expression, and scooped another spoonful of rice into his mouth.

“Well,” Danielle relented, “It wasn’t that huge, I guess. But Seth was plenty scared, useless hiding in the corner. Even then, though, it was pretty scary. It was lucky Eric and Jenna were there. It took three of us to kill the bastard.”

Mark’s eyebrows quirked up. He was clearly impressed. “Three, huh?”

Danielle said, “Yeah! We sort of took turns hitting at it. It had, like, a million legs.”

Seth’s frown deepened, and he shoved the spoon into his mouth again. While he glowered at the corner of the table, Mark’s mouth quirked into a smile. “Not a spider, though?” Mark said.

Danielle rolled her eyes again, but Seth leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table. “No, though. It wasn’t a spider. Spiders I can do –kind of,” he added when Danielle snorted. “This was a goddamn centipede.”