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.

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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.

Survivor

Oh god, sometimes I wake up at night seeing the gleam of his teeth in the shadows lurking in my bedroom and my throat is too tight with terror to scream. He’s coming closer and I can’t make him go away, I’m too afraid, my blood is running cold and my muscles all seize up and my heart is beating a rapid message, telling me that this is new, this is wrong, all of a sudden I’m prey. The adrenaline surges and tries to make me leap into a run but he’s already on me, already lacing his cold cold fingers over my shoulders and drawing me to him. His mouth is cold on my skin but then blood spurts and it’s hot, burning against my skin with his icy lips like brands clamped on me.

I knew it was wrong when I saw that shine. He was already baring his teeth, the monster, already unsheathing the fangs when he slunk closer. He got excited, I guess, he made a sound, a growl that rumbled and muttered in his throat and then he pounced. He grabbed me and just bent me back, like I was a doll or a rabbit or something small and helpless that he could just throw about. Like a packet of ketchup. I was, I guess. I was small and helpless to him. I’ve been small and helpless ever since.

He let me go before I died. They must have to do that, otherwise the people wouldn’t survive, they’d all be left as cold bloodless corpses in the alleys and the corners of the city and the beasts would have to start feeding on rats and pigeons until there was no life left anywhere, and then I don’t know what would happen. I don’t go anywhere by myself anymore, I’m too scared. The next one might let me die. Even if he didn’t, I’d rather he did. I don’t want to be limp and hurting on the ground again. I don’t want to be clasped in freezing hands that dig into my flesh like something human, almost, except that doesn’t know I’m a person. There are more of them these days, stalking the city. They spot a flash of exposed flesh of a pulse beating in someone’s throat and then they hunt. They follow you, soundless in the shadows, until they can smell your fear because you know that you’re being followed in the part of your brain that knows it’s prey. That’s when they come for you. When the terror is rising, they shuffle closer. They slip through the dark and put cold hands on your warm living flesh. When you are afraid, when they can see your eyes go round with horror, when the shivering crawls in murmurs on your skin and your breath is coming short, they get you. Then they bite.

Jump

Colors faded and cooled as the light dimmed and the shadows grew and vanished, an early winter night setting in. Elena was walking with brisk steps, thinking about nothing in particular, in that space between stress and the rest of the day where she didn’t really register the world except to avoid walking into people. There was a diner on 3rd Street, where she was headed. She was supposed to meet Daniel there for dinner and a talk, and she was late. He had said that he needed to talk to her soon. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. At this point she didn’t even know which things were good and which were bad, so whatever happened she probably still wouldn’t be sure.

Thinking of what it could be was distracting. Her mind flitted between possibilities – Daniel saying “I think we should take a break” in a deep flat voice, Daniel lowering himself to one knee and looking up at her with round hopeful eyes, Daniel knocking over a glass and storming away forever. There was a mess of emotions weltering in her chest at each scenario, but she wasn’t clear-headed enough to figure out what they were.

When she got to the block with the diner, she paused. The people walking behind her nearly bumped into her, and as they stepped around her one of them made a slit-eyed nasty face at her. The other paused. He was a middle-aged man with a beard clinging to his jaw and hair beginning to let go on his scalp. Elena took an involuntary step back as he moved closer to her, and he held up a hand in reassurance.

He said, “You don’t know what will happen, but you could.”

“Um.” She gave him her best I-don’t-talk-to-crazy-people look. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know who you are – ”

“No, of course not.” He shook his head, as if impatient. “You would’ve. But no, that’s not the point. Listen, you’re at one of those crossroads right now, one of the things that decides everything. You ever think about the fact that in twenty years, this will be a memory you can barely hold onto? I mean, the pattern of events in the future is unknown now, but everything that’s going to happen is already going to happen.”

“That’s very interesting,” Elena said, backing away as slowly as she could, hoping he wouldn’t see her feet moving. “But I – ”

He interrupted her again. “No, no, you’re still not getting it. I mean, I can see that and it looks like you don’t know what will happen but you could. I could, you know, like with a remote control – what’s it called? Where you speed up a movie? Fast forwarding. You can do that if you want, be ten years later or twenty or something, and already know all of what’s so awful and scary now.”

That sounded crazier than the last bit, but Elena was intrigued. After all, the worst that could happen was nothing. She looked down for a moment, and shrugged. “I suppose. I mean, I guess. Why not?”

The man had a smile on his face that wavered between triumph and something that looked like sorrow. “Okay, listen then. You just need to shut your eyes for a minute, and then I’ll, you know, press the remote control button.”

Elena nodded and took a breath, closing her eyes. She didn’t feel anything except, abruptly, the sun on her skin. There was a shriek of joy, and her eyes snapped open. Ricky was chasing around that little girl – what was her name? Natalie? She really should remember it by now. It was nearly 5:00 already, and she stood to call the kids inside. They started at the sound of her voice, and slumped into the kitchen.

For a moment she felt dizzy. There was a memory tickling at her mind, a younger version of herself. She remembered not being sure if it had worked – what had worked? In the past few years her memory had gotten so spotty. She liked to joke that having kids was using all her brain, and she didn’t have a whole lot left. Jack laughed every time she said it, and then she would joke that he only thought she was funny because he loved her. He laughed at that too, every time. The kids would usually laugh along with their dad, too. But what was it she could almost remember –

She had been walking to that diner somewhere downtown, going to meet – who was it? Daniel, right? He was a sweetheart. She was going to meet him for dinner, and they were going to talk, and in the end she didn’t go. She turned around right on that same block and went home, and she deleted all the messages he left. The memory felt distinctly confused – she had been so bewildered, she just hadn’t known what to do.

That was after the time-traveling crazy man, though. She couldn’t remember why she had listened to him, but after him she’d just gone home, and never even talked to Daniel again. She could almost remember making that decision, an impulse that pushed her away. It seemed very odd – she could remember everything after meeting the crazy man and closing her eyes tight, but it felt so recent. It felt like she had just opened her eyes to sway unsteadily in the summer breeze, dropping there from that city street so long ago. Despite everything that happened after, everything that lay in scrambled memories. Leaving Daniel – she remembered doing that, but somehow she felt as though she hadn’t yet made the decision.

“I wish I hadn’t done that,” she murmured.

“Mom, what did you say? I’m thirsty.”

The kids were getting restless. Elena blinked and the remains of the memory slunk into the shadows. She smiled and got up, to go make them chocolate milk.

Pictures of Memories

A man with a long-handled paintbrush colors images on his skin. He paints pictures on every shape and every muscle, every strain of sinew and each concave curve.

He twists his wrists into angles and contorts his limbs to reach the small of his back where he paints the moment that a hand slipped over that stretch of skin during his first kiss with his first love. The soles of his feet, where he paints the pounding run to the subway stop trying to be on time for an interview that could have changed his life, if he hadn’t gotten lost. The curves of the insides of his thighs, where he paints the story of the first time he had sex, slightly drunk and confused in the tumbled sheets of a bed that was not his own. On his knees are the ragged colors he remembers of being a child, of tripping and climbing and shouting. On the back of his neck he outlines the breath of wind that made him shiver, that night he lost his keys. Below his ears are the colors of everything he’s heard, the gentle whispers and the gasps, shouts and screams, moans and cries, murmurs and barked commands. Down his chest he shades the way his mother used to hold him, and the ache of a breakup, and the breathlessness of having run too far. He twists his arms to paint his shoulders, where he marks the hollow where a head sometimes lay and the almost-forgotten soreness that a backpack left every day until he graduated high school. On one cheek he streaks the skin with the print of smiles.

He paints his life on his skin, and when his body is colored and shaded and marked and cross hatched with the pictures of his memories, he puts the paintbrush down.