The Swirls on Paper

He smudged the paper with his hand. The paint slipped outside the penciled line. He grunted, but kept going. Smudge again, another splash of color, another grunt.

Outside the snow fell, deep, cold and unrelenting. The swish of the cars down the road became a quiet hum and soon there was nothing. But still, in his little loft area, he splashed, smudged and grunted.

Only when the light flickered off did he finally rise from his position. He capped off the open tubes, doused the brushes in water, and left them to rest on spotted paper towels. He wiped his forehead, hiked up his pants, and shuffled out of the room, all in the complete darkness.

He walked down the winding stairs slowly, feeling the aches and pains of sitting in one position for such a long time. He eased himself by stretching, first his calves, then his shoulders, his neck and his wrists. With each stair he shuffled down he went through the routine: calves, shoulders, neck and wrists. It was slow, but methodical.

At the bottom of the stairs a lone light was on. A pile of envelopes waited just inside the door. He stooped low and picked them up. There was a green envelope, mixed in the sea of white. It had a drawing on it: a lone child, with an easel and a paintbrush in his hand. He smiled. Then he exhaled.

With that rush of air, the world came back in. The sounds of clattering in the kitchen. Laughter from a child sitting cross legged in front of the television in the living room. The hiss of the gas stove, and the whoosh as it ignited.

He shook his head and marched into the living room. “What is this crap?” He mumbled.

“Awww, Grampa, it’s a drawing show! Art attack! So I can be like you when I grow up.” The little face beamed up at him. He noticed the spread of crayons, paper, pencils and erasers on the floor.

“So it is,” he mumbled. He crossed the threshold into the room and eased himself (with extra grunts) onto the floor. “Well, what are we drawing?” He asked the child expectantly.

“An alien!” The child’s eyes went big, the whisper secretive.

He let out a hearty laugh. “Alright then, let’s get to it.”

Together they sat, entranced, as the illustrator walked through the steps. “First you make a cylinder type shape here, that’ll be the space ship. Make sure you go ahead and shade that in, remember shading gives the illusion of depth…”

His ears hum. His hand handles the pencil. His eyes watch, but he’s somewhere else again. The words melt and meld into one another until silence reigns supreme once again. The clattering in the kitchen is unheard as the two sit there, pencils on the paper, drawing together.

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The Tirade

The tirade lasted for less than a minute, but damaged her reputation far more than she could have guessed. Instead, she paced her empty office for the last time, thinking hard about that tirade, that one minute, that lead her here.

As she stretched back, further and further in her own mind, thoughts whizzed by at breakneck speed. She frowned. Had it all lead to this? Was all of it for nothing? She thought back to the very beginning, and winced. What she had come into was nothing like what she was leaving. She had done some good here, hadn’t she?

She hefted the last box and left the room, leaving the door wide open. She tried to pretend she didn’t really care about the office after she left, but she had spent so many hours of her life there. So many hours she could have spent in a sunny spot somewhere else.

The grief rushed in later, when her girls were in bed, and it was just the quiet of the house. It was then that she realized she had been sitting on her couch, in front of a black television set. “Well, shit.” She muttered, standing up. A plate that had been on her lap fell to the floor, bouncing gently on the plush carpeting. She watched it bounce in surprise. She didn’t remember eating anything.

Sighing she bent over and picked it up, carrying it to the kitchen. She placed the plate in the sink and glanced out the window into the darkness of her backyard. She could see the faint outlines of trees, swaying in the breeze.

They seemed to be whispering to her. “You can’t stop now, you’ve got more to accomplish.”

Sighing, she nodded. “I know. More to accomplish.”

“Infest those minds,” it whispered. “We need you to brainwash them with desire.”

“Must brainwash. My team.”

Then the clock above the stove clicked as it changed from 10:59 to 11:00, and she shook her head, removed from her trance.

“No, no! This is bullshit.” She screeched. “Something is going on here. I know it.”

Crying erupted from upstairs, and she quickly left the kitchen up to her baby’s room.

The sounds of crying grew louder, and were mixed with sounds of thrashing. A lamp hit the wall with a crash. There was cursing and the screaming started. “Mama!”

She flung open the door. Before her the room was perfect. The lamp was still on the dresser, dark. The room was filled with silence, her baby sleeping in her crib. She closed the door half expecting to hear screaming and the sounds of thrashing. Instead, there was nothing but silence.

She went into her own bedroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Her eye was bruised and purple. She had scratches across her face. Her hair was torn and matted, clumps missing. Her hands flew to her face. She could feel no scratches, feel no sore spots. She felt her hair, tied neatly in a bun on top of her head. Nothing was amiss.

She looked in the mirror again and was relieved to see her own reflection staring back at her. Then a branch tapped on her bedroom window, and the leaves whispered. “If you fail, the consequences will be dire.”

She nodded, though she could see no one.

The next morning she woke and dressed, getting her girls ready for their school days. She hummed as she frittered around the kitchen, packing lunches and writing notes. Then she picked up her briefcase and out the door they all went.

When she arrived at the office, she was given strange looks and her office was mostly empty. Mike, another manager, was sitting at her desk, his feet up. He was reading the newspaper from that morning. When he saw her, he jumped up.

“Do I have to call security?” He asked, his face in complete disbelief.

She stared at him, her mouth wide. “Security? What for? And what are you doing in my office, Mike?”

Silence descended on the room. A cough from the doorway broke the trance. It was two security guards. “Excuse me, ma’am. We have to escort you out.”

She pushed past them. “What is going on around here? First, he’s in my office. Then you both show up. I just want to get to work.”

The taller of the two guards looked at her. “There is no more work for you. You were let go yesterday.”

“Yesterday?” She asked, then her eyes went wide and she crumbled to the floor.

Before their eyes, she started to transform. Her blonde hair turned brownish gray. Her cheeks shriveled in, covered in scratches. Her eyes bruised and her skin began to wrinkle. Within minutes she looked like someone else completely.

The security guards exchanged glances with Mike but no one spoke for several long moments.

“We should pick her up off the floor.” Mike muttered.

“And do what with her?”

“I don’t know, you are supposed to be the experts. Who is this woman?” Mike shook his head. “Call the police? Call 911? Something? Is she dead?”

The smallest security guard was nudged gently so he bent over and checked for a pulse. “Can’t feel nothin’, except she’s real cold.”

He put his hand in front of her mouth to feel if she was breathing. “I don’t think she’s breathing, boss.”

The “boss” grunted, but said nothing, still staring at the woman on the floor. Finally he reached for his radio and called for an ambulance.

When the ambulance hefted the body onto the gurney, there was the softest escape of air from between her lips. Mike could have sworn she said “I’ve failed,” but no one else said they heard anything.

When they lifted the gurney into the ambulance, there was a gusty wind that suddenly kicked up, and when everyone looked down, there was nothing left but a plain white sheet.

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Running Away

It seems like it happens every third day or so. Somehow, I come home, expecting to him waiting there, wagging his tail. Except, he’s not there.

The doors are all locked. The windows, too. And I don’t have one of those damn doggy doors. I live in the country and was always afraid a raccoon or skunk would come waddling through, so I never bothered with one.

So damned if I know where he goes. He just goes missing.

For about twelve hours or so. He’s usually back by breakfast, laying somewhat awkwardly on the little round pillow type bed I bought for him six years ago. He’ll watch me come into the kitchen and get his breakfast ready.

It’s become our routine.

Every time, I look at him quizzically and mutter, “And just where did you hide last night?”

I swear sometimes I can almost see the grin in his eye and he lets out a yawn which I interpret as, “As if I would just give away all my secrets, human?”

Then I place his bowls on his little bench and he stretches, gets up and starts hungrily slurping down whatever’s on the menu.

This morning, it’s his favorite: chicken. But this morning, he also goes through the routine, except when he gets to his bowl, he lets out a long howl, and refuses to eat.

I leave it there while I prepare my own oatmeal, ignoring him as if my behavior is some sort of punishment for not telling me where he goes every few nights. Maybe he has a girlfriend. Or maybe he just hides under the bed, waiting for me to sleep and then…

I leave the thought unfinished. After all, I’d hear him. Right?

He shuffles into the bedroom, leaving his food bowl untouched. I shovel down my bland breakfast, and follow him, feigning interest in my wardrobe, but sneaking glances at him.

This is insane, right? I mean, he’s a dog. Who somehow hides somewhere in the house overnight where I can’t find him. Every three days. Like clockwork. There’s something strange about this whole thing, right? I’m not just imagining this?

I shrug off my worries and finally get ready to leave the house. I notice his food bowl is still untouched. “If he’s still not eating by tomorrow morning, then I’ll take him to the vet,” I reason with myself.

I fret all day. What if my keeping him in the house so much is slowly killing him? Don’t dogs need to run? We go for a long walk everyday, but is that enough?

I’m mentally exhausted during the commute home.

I walk in the door and know that something’s not quite right. Nothing is out of place, but it is as if everything has been moved a little bit.

His dog bench is pushed over so now it is blocking the back door. His bowl is still full. The table by the front door seems pushed over by a few inches as well. The living room furniture. The rugs. Even the pictures on the wall.

I see him though. He’s laying on the pillow. Head down, eyes closed. When I look at him, its as if he can sense me. His eyes pop open and he gets up and greets me the way most dogs greet their owners, with a wagging tail and a lopsided tongue.

“What happened here boy?” I ask him, while scratching behind his ears.

He gave a low moan, and a short growl. Then he sniffed in the air.

Taking his lead, I lifted my head and sniffed the air. It smelled like lavender, with a hint of jasmine. “A woman?” I ask quizzically.

He seems to nod his head. “Is she still here?” I ask.

I get no response. “Of course not, he’s a dog.” I tell myself. But there’s something, something strange that has my senses on heightened alert.

Then he whips around so that he is facing the kitchen and he lets out a low growl. I start forward, because, well, because I’m a damn glutton for punishment.

I push through the swinging doors that separate the kitchen from the rest of the house. There’s an old woman sitting at my kitchen table, a spoon raised in her hand, and a steaming chicken pot pie sitting on a plate in front of her.

The dog’s bowl is now empty.

“Can I help you?” I ask, giving her a curious glance and a wide berth.

“Oh no,” She says smiling. “I’m just here for a visit to see my old husband. He died in this very house you know.”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that.”

She laughed. “No worries, it was many many years ago. But he likes your dog. He likes to come back as him sometimes. There are sometimes when he comes to visit me, your dog. But I know who he really is,” she grinned. “Walter.”

My dog was still waiting in the hallway. I whistled. “Walter, come in here.”

I turned to the lady sitting at my table. “How funny,” I said, “that they have the same name.”

She put down her spoon and looked at me. “Why wouldn’t they?”

My face dropped. “I don’t know.”

The dog came into the kitchen quite reluctantly then, looking between me and the woman at the table.

“What are you eating?” I asked her, stepping just a little closer.

“A chicken pot pie of course. I haven’t had one in so long, so when Walter told me there was chicken here, I had to come see for myself. And he was right, and I’ve been longing for some home cooked chicken pot pie so I made one, you see?”

I shook my head. “Who are you again?”

She laughed again. “Abigail.” She said. “Abigail Hastings. Married to Walter Hastings in 1813.”

“But that’s over two hundred years ago!” I protested. Something about me was trying to come up to my attention. I looked at her hard. “That’s impossible.”

She picked up her spoon again and devoured the last of the pot pie as I stood there watching her. She was lying, I was sure. Either that or the old woman was senile and had escaped from either an old folks home or the mental institution ward in the hospital a few blocks away.

Then, as clear as day, she put down her spoon. She gave me a smile. “Thanks for taking care of my Walter,” she said and winked at me. Then I blinked and she was gone. Instead a little brown mouse raced across the floor and skirted between the wall and the cabinets on the other side of the kitchen. Walter watched it go, and made no move to chase after it.

He nudged me as if to say, “I’m ready for breakfast now.”

This time, I put out the dry dog food, bacon flavored.

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Laughter

It showed up the morning after a restless night. A little slice across the biggest toe, on both my child and me. I noticed mine when I took a shower, and I noticed his when I went to put on his socks before school.

It wasn’t red, though, as cuts usually are. And it wasn’t black and blue or tinged green or anything like that. It was the pale red of a slice that happened weeks ago and was now mostly healed. But I swear they hadn’t been there when we went to sleep.

The following night the dreams came.

Vivid. Intense. And personal, oh so personal. I didn’t want to write them down for fear they’d come true. Horrifying. Absolutely horrifying.

We both woke up that night sweating and crying out in what seemed like an on and off pattern. He was first, since he fell asleep first. Then I woke up screeching, which woke him up. We both cried for a while.

Then we fell asleep again, and forgot what the nightmares were about.

This went on for three nights, until at last people started to remark on how tired I looked. The bags were dark and heavy under my eyes, and I started to zone out during meetings.

Then we had one peaceful night of sleep: deep, dreamless, utterly restful and rejuvenating.

The next day, we both woke up happy. That is, until we saw the creatures wrapping our feet in a blueish purplish gauze like material. They were muttering, almost chanting between them. There were four working on me and two working on him.

When they realized we were awake, they screeched and jumped off the bed. My son made a movement to see where they went, but then he realized that the largest one was still there, screeching and waving his hands about frantically.

“Hush, now,” I told him, “stay still. I think they’re afraid.”

He nodded quickly, then leaned back against an extra pillowcase-less pillow and watched as the rest of the group peered back over the edge of the bed. We stayed very still and they went back to work again, though they eyed us wearily the whole time.

Then one happened to brush up against the bottom of my foot. I let out a giggle, I couldn’t help it, and I jiggled ever so slightly. They all glared at me, but I couldn’t help it. I let out more laughs.

Then next to me my son started cackling too. We looked at each other and grinned. The creatures at the end of the bed started clucking and clicking their tongues. They started talking in low tones.

But as we continued to laugh, their faces started to light up and they began to smile. Then chuckle. Then full out giggle. Then came the release of hearty belly laughter.

I imagine that day often. We left the purple and blue gauze on our toes until it fell off. Or melted, in my son’s case. Either way, after that our toes were fine. No scars, no cuts, nothing.

Our dreams became more vivid from that day forward, too. Except we never had nightmares anymore. It was as if whatever had been worrying us had evaporated.

I’m sure those creatures had something to do it, I swear.

But as of today, we have never seen them again. Though every once in a while, I feel the slightest brush on the bottom of my foot and I hear the faintest giggle while I hold in my laughter until I cannot any more.

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Like a glove

I was done rotting in the jail cell, or so they told me. I’d shown good behavior, but my time was up and the governor couldn’t think of a reason to pardon me.

The list they handed me was on pink paper. I scowled. Just because I was a girl, they were putting my last meal on pretty pink paper. And nothing on it appealed to me. I circled nothing, and handed it back in.

The night before I was sentenced to die I was brought nothing, like I’d asked, except for a glass of water. “Gotta keep you hydrated,” the prison guards teased, “electricity won’t flow through your body if you aren’t hydrated. Remember that scene from the Green Mile?”

My sweaty palms betrayed my calm exterior. I said nothing, but rolled my eyes and shook my head at their jokes. I laid down on the scratchy bed surface when the lights went out. The tears that sprang to my eyes as I thought of all the things I’d miss pushed any thoughts of why I was here, in this very situation in the first place, out of my mind. Instead, I daydreamed about the happy times I’d had in life.

When the sun’s rays touched the ceiling, I sat up and let my feet touch the cold floor. I could hear the footsteps moments later, with the unmistakable jangle of keys, even though the doors were now all electric and remote controlled.

All those prison movies are good for is instilling fear in society.

I stayed still on my bed as the door slid open. The newest prison guard, a quaint woman named Patrice, shuffled in. “Stand up.” She ordered, without looking me in my eyes.

I did as I was told. She solidly gripped my elbow and escorted me out of the room. There were three other guards waiting for me, all with solemn faces. They flanked me as we walked down the hallway. At least they knew enough to respect me during my last few moments on earth.

I was brought into a room, pushed into an electric chair. I wiped my palms casually on my jumpsuit as I sat down. The lights dimmed. I could hear the hum of static electricity filling the room.

I counted my breaths as my escorts faded into the background. I looked out at the one way glass, trying to catch a glimpse of something, anything, on the other side. I saw nothing. Then the door behind the chair opened.

Must be the executioner, coming in to do his job. How does he even sleep at night?

Fighting to keep my breathing even, I hardly flinched when the warden appeared in front of me. He was a squirrelly type of man, always dressed to the nines, even when he was supervising us out in the hot sun. There was something about him that held my attention, but his eyes scrutinized me as they strapped me in.

He held a manilla folder. It wasn’t as thick as I thought it would be, but then again, I didn’t even know what was in it.

“This,” he began, “is your new life. There’s a passport, birth certificate, new name and identity and twenty thousand dollars cash. You have a choice, right now, right here in this moment.”

He took a deep breath. “You can become,” he peeked inside, “Stephanie Brown, a woman from Northern Nebraska who’s looking for a new start in South America, OR, you can be electrocuted. The choice is yours really.”

I looked at him, disbelief evident, I’m sure. “Has anyone ever turned you down and instead asked to be electrocuted?”

He grinned. “Actually, yes. You see you’re never allowed back in the country. No one can know that you’re alive. And we actually ship out a cadaver with your name on it, so your family will think you’re dead and gone. No one is to know about the deal, or else you will be hunted down and killed. Is that clear?”

I nodded. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but to be given the chance to leave the country paid for by the government and live free once again? Who wouldn’t take it?

What’s the catch? There’s got to be a catch.

My voice was steady. “And what’s the fine print?”

“Fine print?” He laughed. “There is none. You see we don’t like to kill people. The government doesn’t like to kill people. But, we can’t have people running around killing others because there’s no retribution. So, we ship you out of the country, you don’t tell anyone and you don’t come back, and we both win.”

“When do I leave?” I asked.

“Now.” He answered.

The straps were removed from my wrists. He disappeared, back through the same door, I’m sure. The manilla folder was at my feet.

Each of the guards looked at me, slight grins on their faces. “Stephanie, how nice to meet you.” They said as they walked up and shook my hand.

Just like that I was someone else. And she fit like a glove.

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The Bear Who Followed

Deep in the forest, the bear slumbered. It was close to spring, but the smell of the earth waking up hadn’t come to his nose yet. His eyes were still closed, his breathing rumbled evenly. He was not yet scheduled to rouse.

Outside his den, the lights flickered, waiting for him to catch the scent. They tried to flicker by day, so as not to catch any unwanted attention. It was, after all, the bear they were here to collect and only the bear.

One day a fox meandered closer than before, her nose to the air, sniffing. She caught the sweet smell and followed it, but the lights stopped flickering, and seemed to disappear right there in daylight. The fox lost the scent and returned to her own hunt – the rabbit hidden in the garden – to feed her own cubs.

Struggling to hold in their luminous wonder, the lights finally allowed themselves brief flickers again, for their own sanity. They attracted no more attention that day, nor for the next few days.

At last the rains came. They started off softly, gently nudging the earth’s ground awake. The air filled with the scents of soil, leaves and the bugs that had recently returned to the surface.

The bear stirred.

Then he rolled over and went back to sleep. This time the rains fell harder. The sky crackled with electricity as thunder and lightening permeated and the air became much more humid. The clouds rolled in low, leaving behind morning fog as thick as icing on a professionally designed cake. The bear stirred again.

This time, the bear sniffed cautiously in the wind. He caught scent of the lights, their sweetness, and he opened one eye. Seeing nothing, he sniffed again. The scent was there. And it was enticing. But he wasn’t quite ready, just yet.

Instead he snorted, expelling the sweetness from his nostrils and rolled away from the den’s opening. There he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

The lights flickered outside the den, daring each other to go inside and rouse the bear. He had slept long enough, and his time was now. He needed to come. And the only way to get him to do that, was to wake him up.

Once they agreed, the lights entered the damp den. The bear’s breathing was now laced with the humidity of spring. His wet, sticky tongue hung out of his slightly open mouth and wobbled with every breath. The lights danced dangerously close.

The bear snorted. He pawed at his own nose, in an effort to banish the smell. Finally sick of smelling the sweetness, and longing for a taste of… something, he opened his eyes. With a grunt, he realized his den was no longer empty. Before him, the lights flickered together, the shape that startled the bear to backing out of his den.

He raised his head high up into the air, standing on his hind legs, hoping to get a clear breath full of springtime air. Instead the lights flickered nearby and all he could smell was their sweetness. They lined a path, and he started to amble down it, afraid to cross their trail.

The bear moved faster, hoping to lose the lights behind, but there were always more of them, lining the edges. Realizing the futility of his actions, he slowed, lumbering while squishing his feet in the damp earth. He stopped now and then to nuzzle some of his favorite flowers, or scratch his stiff back on a big enough tree.

When the tower came into sight, he thought about crossing the light path. He stopped, but the lights eagerly  flickered, pushing him forward. A part of him remembered this place, from memories that seemed to happen in another time. In his memories a young man with shiny golden hair stroked his young fur. Shaking his head he plodded along, stealing glances at the tower’s astonishing heights.

The lights continued to flicker. Then they disappeared from his sides and formed a circle close to the tower’s main door. The bear stopped.

The lights began to spin in a circle, growing larger, and larger. They seemed to fuse together, and spin together and the bear watched with open eyes.

The clouds moved in, and still the lights circled. There was a loud thunderclap which echoed off the tower’s stone, and the bear jumped back instinctively. When he raised his head again, he was looking at a young girl.

She wore a white dress, with pink shoes and curly blond hair. Her smile was crooked though, and her eyes gleamed devilishly. She put her hand out for the bear to come nuzzle his fur in, and although every particle of his being balked at the idea, his feet moved forward.

She gently stroked his fur and whispered, “It is good to see you my old friend. I have missed you.”

The bear looked up at her, his black eyes reflecting the confusion in hers. “I know I have changed. I am no longer the man you’d recognize. But it is still me, my friend. Only I have something extra, I know. I have the devil inside me.”

The bear trembled slightly underneath this young girl’s outstretched arm. The girl grinned. “Together you and I can be the predators we need to be,” she whispered. “We can kill the bad, and decide about the good. If there is any good left. There’s no more innocence, that’s for sure.”

The bear snorted. The scent was becoming heavier now. He suddenly recognized it as the stench of death. The sticky sweetness of fresh blood spilled.

He tried to back away, but found his feet rooted to the spot. “Who do you want to be?” she whispered.

Within seconds he felt heat searing through his body. Followed by pain, he let out a bellow he was sure would be heard two towns away. His bones crackled, his fur fell away. When he could once again stand, the little girl let out a belly laugh.

“You wanted to be me?” She laughed again, this time even harder. “With all your power, your prowess, and your strength you wanted to be nothing but a man with a kind heart. What kind of predator are you?”

The bear, who was now the blond man from his memory, opened his mouth for the first time to speak. The words circled his mind, but his heart stepped in and took the lead. “I’m the kind of predator that takes only what is needed for survival and leaves the rest. I am no predator.”

She laughed again. “Then you shall be of no use to me.”

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All in the Eyes

For a child, you could see the weight of the world in his eyes. Even at his young age, he’s seen how the world works. How things like kindness and humanity are dropped for a dime. How people who don’t deserve the world’s hate have all eyes on them as they go about their daily lives. He’s seen too much, for such a young boy. There’s little hope left in those eyes. Little to smile about.

Most of his village believes cameras steal their souls. Perhaps that’s what happened, over time. Cameras stole souls little by little. Images left behind pieces of who a person could have been, given hope and a little kindness. But kindness is banished now, left behind on slips of glossy paper in brighter colors than you’ll find on any ordinary day.

In his eyes you see the reflections of the daily race of war. You see the clouds of dust bombs leave behind. The bloodiest bodies, dropped where they were hit and never moved. The outlines of a daily life that once included laughter, but now only include tears. The worn coffins, large and tinier than you’d ever want to see. All that shows in his eyes. In his hard set mouth. In the lone tear growing in the corner of his eye.

But he’s different than the rest of the village. He let them take his photo, but only if they took it in black and white. That way, they’d take his sadness, and leave his colors alone.

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