Castle in the Sky

The castle in the sky where Annie lived wasn’t made of pink cotton candy or gumdrops. It wasn’t spun out of wistful fairy tales or princesses with impractical hairstyles. That’s not what a castle in the sky is. It’s simply a dream, or a wish, or a hope that’s been held close for too long. Annie’s castle wasn’t made of anything but longing, and so it was a frail and brittle castle, stretched too thin as it braced against the whipping wind above the clouds. She stayed inside, mostly, and didn’t venture too close to the windows for fear of heights. Looking out through the glass to the dizzying pinpricks that were houses below always made her sway and clutch at the wall.

People didn’t often come to visit Annie in her castle where she lived most of the time. It was a long and lonely trek to get there. It always is, to reach somebody else’s hope. Her very best friends would brave it, and they would huddle with her inside her castle built of longing, because they wanted to be with her there. They spoke in whispers, as though they were afraid that their voices would echo against the slender walls. They spoke to Annie as though they were afraid to injure the silence that reigned in her castle. She was always glad to see them there, because it meant she didn’t have to be alone for a while. They left eventually.

Annie had to leave the castle in the sky at times too. She liked going out, most of the time, for a short time anyway. Dropping backdown to earth meant that there were no heights to pull her brain to bits of vertigo. It wasn’t as lonely back on the earth as it was in her castle. She could see people’s faces there, and hear their careless voices. Eventually, though, the faces started to seem strange to her, and she had to go back up. The castle was always waiting. She returned with a twinge that now everybody real was too far away to touch. There was relief in it too, though. Her castle was cold and it was empty, but it was familiar. The rooms fit her like a shawl she could wrap around herself, its touch cold on her skin but comforting and soft. The castle is beautiful, because it is built of longing. Wist makes for lovely decorations. The rooms are narrow and stretch forward before her, and the hallways wind in a maze. It is made for wandering.

For now, Annie spends a lot of time in her castle in the sky. She doesn’t like to, exactly. The chill in the air and the distance from the ground brings a shiver of foreboding to clasp at her. She does not like to be lonely. The emptiness does not make her happy. But she needs the castle right now. It’s like a drug, and it fills her veins with an ache that she craves. She comes back to it, makes the ascent, settles into the rooms of thin frigid air and sinks away behind the gossamer weave of stone walls that veil her from the clouds and the world. Someday, the castle might not be enough for Annie. It might no longer pull at her. Perhaps she’ll simply stop coming, because she will gaze up at the sky and realize that she doesn’t need to leave the earth anymore for longing. The rooms will get dusty and birds will perch on the sills of the little windows until the castle crumbles and falls from the sky.

Annie might also come back to the castle and stay there until she knows that she has to leave. If she does not know on the ground that she isn’t able to live in longing anymore, she might realize it while she’s still there. It’s possible that she’ll walk closer to the wall and put her hand to the stone, feeling the pits and cracks that threaten to break the whole place apart. She might look down and see the world far below, her castle sitting on a cloud, and the two homes of hers so far away that she can never live in both at once. Annie could realize that she can’t live in the sky anymore in a castle made of longing. She may not be able to let it collect dust in the sky while she lives in the world and forgets she was ever there. Maybe she’ll jump.

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Losing Light

The sun was singing on the bricks the last day of Malcolm Trench’s life. He had always liked to sit and watch as the sun went down. The day aged and the light yellowed until it faded and left altogether. Something in it enchanted him.

When he was younger, he had used to sit with Eva, his arm around her shoulder, and watch together as the sun went down. He worked odd hours as an engineer, so he was home around sunset. She was an accountant and she got out of work just after five, usually, so she would meet him at his apartment at six and they would sit in the living room by the big window. They used to just be friends, because she had been the younger sister of his childhood buddy. He had loved her forever. Even when they were friends she often came to his apartment to watch the sunlight disappear. There wasn’t a very good view from the living room window. The buildings leered at them, dirty windows and chipped paint, and they could barely see the sky. Instead they watched the sunlight shift colors, briefly making beauty skim the cracked and crumbling buildings. The white inside of the apartment cooled to eerie blue-gray as if the apartment was closing off to the rest of the world, dipped in shadow, and it was just them inside with the blue-gray walls around them.

One day Eva brought a pizza over and they ate and talked in low voices as the sun went down. She made a joke and he grinned. They were quiet for a moment. Malcolm remembered, later, how she looked then with the light cast in a glow down the line of her face and the hair curling free to her shoulders. She leaned forward, as if it was a casual calm motion and not one that sent shivers through him, and she pressed her mouth to his for the first time. Her lips were slippery with grease and soft. They didn’t notice the sun slip past the horizon or the dimming of the world to darkness.

After that Eva came over every evening and they watched the sunlight sidle away across the sky together until they were too distracted by the press of his arm on her back, the warmth of her thigh against his, and they scrambled and pushed at each other on the living room sofa. He could still remember what her sweat smelled like.

When she got pregnant he knew they had to get married. It was the right thing to do. She cried, tears trapped between her cheek and his shoulder, and he held her. They were too young, but they didn’t know that until later. They sat together, her with her growing belly, in his living room looking out the window. He rubbed her feet while the sun retreated. They got married in a courthouse ceremony. Malcolm’s mother came, and Eva’s parents sent them a letter of congratulations. The baby was born three months later. They named it Henry. Malcolm wanted to love the little red monkey as much as he loved his wife. He tried very hard.

Two years after they got married, he left. Perhaps she left. Probably neither of them really knows anymore. There wasn’t any reason to stay together any longer. Technically, they never got divorced. It comforted Malcolm for a while to know that there was still a piece of paper somewhere tying his name to hers. Eva sends him postcards sometimes with updates on Henry, who recently turned fourteen and has so far obstinately refused to discover girls. They both visited Malcolm last year. It was a short and awkward visit, except for the last night they were there. The three of them, the disjointed family, had sat in Malcolm’s new living room in the chairs he picked up for cheap down the street. There were two windows without curtains. The family sat with their dinners on their laps, waiting for the sun to go away. The light stretched thin and the shadows invaded. Henry was calm and quiet, not in the sullen teenage way he was growing into but in a peaceful way. Eva smiled unconvincingly at Malcolm and there was a kind of recognition in her smile. For one moment, they were together again in the onset of evening.

Earlier this evening, Malcolm left work. His boss had finally handed out the Christmas bonuses, apologizing grudgingly that it had taken him all the way into the new year. Malcolm cashed the check and waited too long to tuck the money into his wallet. A teenager shoved into him and yanked a gun out of his shorts. Malcolm looked into the trembling barrel of the gun and the kid told him to hand over the money, now. Malcolm backed away, tried to look around. The teenager whipped the gun into Malcolm’s head. It bounced off his skull with a thud, and Malcolm collapsed back onto the bricks. The kid grabbed his wallet and took off without looking back.

When the gun hit Malcolm’s skull, a blood vessel burst in his brain. He died at once. The kid would probably have been horrified to know that. His name was Brian and he carried a gun without bullets because he wanted to look threatening but didn’t want to go to jail. He thought he had just knocked out the guy outside the ATM. He ran and congratulated himself on making so much easy money. Brian had a long and convoluted life that led him to this moment, that thud, and the pieces of his life fit together in interestingly intricate ways. However, this is not Brian’s story. It is Malcolm’s and it ends here, with the setting sun singing on the bricks.

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.

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.

Empty Chambers

For Rent: Two chambers of the heart belonging to a 31-y-o woman, available for lease or sublet, mostly furnished, very clean and spacious. Please contact Meredith Elton, 839-2983 or email meredith.love@hotmail.com.

There were often long stretches when nobody answered the ad. Meredith got busy during those times. She reorganized the kitchen and swept clean the tiled floor. She wiped down the counters and table and she did loads upon loads of laundry. She sat in front of her computer and hit “refresh” while the same page disappeared and returned, still with no answers. Usually it was a while before she heard anything, but usually too there was an inquiry from someone before she started to seriously worry. Only once did the waiting go on long enough that she had no laundry left to do and no reconfiguration of cabinets to try. It had been so long that Meredith was probably less careful than she should have been. When a new email finally slipped into her inbox, her pulse stuttered. She flew up and sat herself back down. Her fingers twitched and hurried over the keyboard.

They set up a time to meet for an interview the following week. When she walked into the café, she recognized her new tenant at once. It was a man this time, a lanky bearded man with blue eyes and dark hair. He smiled when he saw her. She sat across from him and they had a pleasant conversation. The words shivered and dropped into the air between them like coins into water, shimmering to some distance away and then resting at the bottom. The words didn’t matter so much. Meredith had already decided that this would work.

The man moved in at the start of the next month. She helped him. It was difficult at first, between the heavy furniture and the boxes filled with the miscellany of his life, but it all seemed to fit, more or less. She was sure that even the oddities would find a home on a shelf somewhere. He seemed very glad at first to be there. He looked into her with a smile she knew would grow familiar, and she trusted him. She gave him the keys and a brief lecture on things he shouldn’t do, though she told him she was sure she didn’t need to say these things. They rested their tired shoulders against the bare wall and watched the light filter in through the windows.

She was often wary about people staying in the chambers of her heart. After they left, the lease done with and ripped up and the keys returned, there was work to do. She had to scrub the traces of them from the rooms they had just left. She had to pick up the litter they left crumpled in the corners. She had to decide what to do with the movie posters, the folk music CDs and the canned black beans left hiding around corners like thieves. Then she had to get used to her empty heart again. She walked through the rooms that echoed with each footfall and paused in the hall, knowing that nobody could see her there with her hand caught in half a caress of the doorframe and her fingers fitted to the bumps in the molding.

With this new man Meredith was not wary. She didn’t worry about the scuff marks of his shoes on the floors or the scrapes he might leave on the counters. He settled himself into her heart and she let him without reservations. He looked like he belonged there. She thought the color of the carpet in the bedroom was just the same shade as his eyes. The windows were the right height for him to look from and his bookshelves fit across the living room wall as though made for them. He walked into her heart and belonged there like nobody else had done.

When he left it was a surprise. They were halfway through the lease. She knocked one day and nobody answered. When she went back for her spare keys and let herself in, worried, there was nobody there. She found a note taped to the refrigerator with too few words on it. She let herself sink in sadness against its cold smooth surface. She’d thought this one might stay. He’d taken most of his things. She walked through the rooms, forcing herself to step through each doorway and look at the neatly made bed, the swept floors, the empty bookcases he must have decided to leave. He hadn’t left her anything to do. It was all clean, without even a whisper of him. Her heart was left empty.

Meredith had to be busy, so she did her own laundry. She cleaned her kitchen and she swept her floors. She stayed out of the chambers of her heart. She had nothing to do there. She spent her time crinkling her forehead at stains and resting her aching back. She hasn’t decided yet whether she will let out her heart to someone else again.

Lost Dreaming

When Amanda saw him, even though she was dreaming, she lost her breath. She wavered and probably said, faintly, that she might need to sit. He was so close and so real, three-dimensional, his face before hers and she could reach out and touch it. As soon as she did – as soon as her fingers lit on skin – she woke up. Of course.

When she gasped in the darkness, gathering the sheets around her shoulders, she felt Mark stir. At once she tried to be still, to keep her hands from grasping and her voice from breaking out. She wanted to wail, but she shivered instead. Mark woke up anyway.

“What’s going on?” His words rustled and rasped in the black bedroom.

She shifted closer to him and tucked her head down. “Nothing, I’m sorry for waking you. I had another dream.”

“You saw him?” Mark pulled her closer. “Honey, come here.” Amanda nestled against his chest, fitting her cheek into the hollow of his shoulder and stretching out against his body, trying to let her arms relax. The tension of waking up still ran like electricity through her bones. It took her a long time to fall back asleep, but at least she had no more dreams.

When she woke up, Mark was already out of bed. He couldn’t have been up for long because his heat was still fading from the sheets. The muted clatter of pans sounded from down the hall. With a shudder, Amanda climbed out of bed and began to dress in the numb air. Mark must have heard her footsteps, because he called down the hall, “Want eggs?”

She paused and thought about it, then called back, “Okay. Thank you, sweetheart.” It took much of her concentration to pick out clothes. The red sweater – no, she’d been wearing that, there was a picture, that time they went to the park together and pushed the swing for an hour. Not those jeans, there was still a marker stain on the knee. That shirt had been her favorite to wear on weekends, when Mark had made pancakes for all of them on Saturdays. Eventually she found clothing that was unburdened by memory and she ducked out of the door, down the hall, turning her head from the closed door. They acted as thought that door wasn’t there. She hoped that eventually it would be easier to ignore, just like part of the wall, and they wouldn’t ever have to go back inside. They could pretend that it didn’t exist.

When she got into the kitchen, Mark snagged an arm around her waist and kissed her. Her smile back was wan at best. They sat with eggs, toast, and orange juice, across the table from one another in silence. When the sound of their chewing stopped, Mark sighed. “I hate when you dream about him. You’re upset all day.”

Amanda’s heart thumped in her chest. She said, “I don’t hate dreaming about him.”

Mark lifted an eyebrow. He was trying to be brave, she thought. He always tried to comfort her, as if it weren’t his loss too, as if it didn’t hurt him as much. It made it all worse.

She struggled to find the words to explain. “It’s not like that’s bad. I mean, they’re not nightmares. He’s there, you know? Still there, still fine, nothing’s wrong. It’s, I don’t know, do you know what I mean though? I just get to see him, while I’m asleep.”

Mark’s mouth twisted. His eyes were beginning to sprout crinkles when he smiled or scowled. She had just begun to notice them. He swallowed, and said, “Right, that makes sense. Okay, so why is dreaming about him so bad if you get to see him?”

She looked at him as if he were crazy. Surely he didn’t really need to ask. “I always wake up.”