Huge thanks to Martin Lamb and all the good people at the Liars’ League for breathing such life into my story:
[Montparnasse Cemetery by Paul Oilzum, 2010]
The seat was uncomfortable: rigid at the back and lumpy underneath. It pained her to sit there, bruised her bottom and put her legs to sleep. It also made her think of him. So she sat there as often as the groundskeepers would let her.
“Are you looking for something?” he had asked her that first night. It was the dead of morning, two hours since she’d snuck in through a crack in the fence. She was just a co-ed then, a philosophy major susceptible to the odd sorority prank.
He offered his hand and helped her off the ground. “You don’t belong here.” She wasn’t foolish enough to argue. The morning broke as he ushered her through the heavy iron gates. When she turned around he was gone.
She came the next night and he found her again. This time they talked. A lot had changed since he’d been a student at the college. He spoke of regattas and winter formals; there was a whimsy to his voice. She told him she liked his smile. He stopped showing his teeth after that.
The last midnight they met she admitted she was looking for something. In fact, she thought she had found it. He didn’t reply, but they held each other under the blanket. She tried her best to warm him. His body was still cold when the sun came up over the wall. The blanket went empty beside her. She never saw him again.
She was too old to fit in through the crack in the fence anymore. Now, when she came, it had to be during the day. The groundskeepers knew her. They would take pity and look the other way as she creaked up the grassy rise and found her seat. Back against the stone, resting on the cold ground, she would wait for the sun to set, and wonder why he had hid his smile.
[Jigsaw Puzzle, by Eva the Weaver, 2007]
The puzzle was complete. Everything brought back to its proper place, just like the picture on the face of the box. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the package told her, but that didn’t matter so much. Considered by itself the place looked lonely and remote. The magic was in conjuring this unnamable beauty in its jig-saw increment: sewing the sky one azure stitch at a time; stone upon massive stone joined by the mortar-less strength of cardboard tongue and groove. There could be no secret, no disappointment, in a world that fit together so well.
And yet, something wasn’t right. She ran her fingers over the smooth spider-web of interlocking cracks and creases. From one corner to the next it was all there; a patchwork quilt of effort held together in this single flow of fragile creation. No hole remained to beg patient question; no opening presented itself; no chance to reach further down the table for the next challenge. It was done. It was over. It was complete. But still, something was missing.
She looked again at the face of the puzzle-box. Her eyes returned to the finished work spread out in front of her. It was perfect, was it not? An exact replica. A poem, transcribed one image at a time, and set, trembling with the resonance of reproduced life, at the center of her coffee table. No mere photograph, no string of words printed on a page. There was nothing else that could so fully capture and rarify a distant beauty than its pieces sent, boxed, across the world, and reassembled with patient care. A thousand puzzles had come before this one, all of them flawless, each a potent distillation of her affection for sites and sacreds she would never otherwise have experienced. She had already traveled the world, gone beyond its limited map, and all of it without ever leaving the confines of her living room couch.
Why, then, did this one refuse to share its breath with her? What had she done wrong? The place, the truth of it, remained uncaptured. The couch beneath her backside remained no more than a lumpy seat. The coffee table bore no greater strain than the weight of cardboard on glass. The Dome of the Rock stood out there, somewhere, real and unrealized. This puzzle had proven little more than a distraction. The destination was not yet achieved.
She closed her eyes and touched the surface of the puzzle one last time. Delicately her fingers traced a month’s worth of lonely, painstaking effort. 35,316 pieces in all, cut and shipped on special order; none of them larger than her pinky nail.
“Wait for me,” she whispered to the unopened doorway, before seizing the edge of the frame and sweeping it wholly off the table. The portrait had come apart before it even reached the deep tangle of carpet. No booming concussion, no unearthly tear, nothing to signify the consequence of a stillborn world undone.
She got down on her hands and knees and began to gather the pieces back into the box. She could not bring herself to start the process again tonight. That would have to wait for the morning. Neither did she consider the possibility that, a month or more from now, the puzzle would remain closed to her. That was a thought she could not bear, not under any circumstance imaginable.
It was true, she had traveled a thousand times before, slipped through a thousand different cardboard windows, and brought back enough wonder to fill her small house to the brimming with life and laughter. But her house was silent now. It had been ever since she’d lost her husband. He’d left in the middle of this last puzzle. Left her to piece the distant reality together by herself. Two hands, instead of four, sorting with care through the pile of tiny promises. One heart, instead of two, racing with anticipation as the last of the pieces was pressed firmly into place. But the door hadn’t opened this time.
Left all alone, left behind, she shoved the pieces back into the box. She would try again tomorrow. She had to, despite knowing the missing part was not to be found in any box. The missing part was on the other side of a closed doorway, waiting for her to find a way through. She would have to find a way to make all the pieces fit together again, not as a mere reproduction, but as a thing more real than its many, delicate parts. Until that distant day, until she made a new sense of it all, her world would not be complete.
[originally published in Long Story Short and republished in Joyful!]
[Haida Slate Carvings, by Edward S Curtis, 1907]
She chewed quietly at the pencil. From time to time, between bursts of frenetic key banging, she would yank the gnarled wood down from its familiar perch to scrawl some illegible note across the cluttered page. Screen, keyboard, pencil and paper, they were all tied together in a sort of circulatory system for the same primitive, hot-birthing creature: her story.
It had been this way, the same process, the same components, since that very first publication. She could still recall herself sitting, bathing in the warm glow of the magazine’s electronic acceptance for so long that her face began to flush. That’s when she noticed the pencil for the first time. It was brand new then, and only barely gnawed from its first story. It smiled back at her, matching her euphoria with its own hungry indentations. It was love at first bite.
A dozen written journeys soon followed, all of them chewed down into the welcome wooden body of her creative partner. Each shared piece had found its place in magazine, chapbook or e-fiction. It was miraculous, stupefying. Magical. Sitting at her desk, firing up the computer for another go, she knew she would never put the pencil down again.
Until that day when her totem-self snapped in two. It happened as she approached the climax of her most recent story: our heroine chained to a guillotine, no escape in sight. The blade descends. And. The pencil splintered between her teeth. Her mouth filled with the potent mix of blood and stale graphite. She spat the shrapnel into the wastebasket; was forced to stare down at her mangled accomplice. She wanted to cry, but that felt too silly. Too contrived.
She finished the story with an empty mouth. Her tongue felt dry and the prose came out flaccid. She told herself it was in her head. She sent the story out anyway. Rejection.
She tried every sort of pencil after that. All colors, designs, and lead grades. She even tried a mechanical version. Nothing. Pens. Quills. It was no use. The words would no longer sink past the surface of the paper. Her fingers could not press them onto the screen so that they held.
Finally, desperately, she took the fractured limbs of her old friend and ground them up in a sharpener. All that remained was a pouch of grey-tinged sawdust. She would use it as snuff. Conjure the old magic a lip-full at a time. It tasted bitter as it mixed with her saliva and ran rough streaks down her throat.
And so she writes now. Even dictating these strange events to you. She chews slowly, lovingly, on her old charm; hoping the magic will resurface. Knowing it is all in her head. And no longer on the paper. Nor screen.
[originally published as a contest winner for CoolStuff4Writers.com]
[Still life with rooster, by Louis Ducos du Hauron, 1869]
Lost and profound, the two sit amidst the wide spray of chatchky half-memories. The boy can’t take his eyes off the beak: the brightest splash of sunshine yellow he’s ever seen. The elder speaks over his circling thoughts. She’s talking about porcelain eyes and lacework hems. It’s the bird that has the better story to tell. Perched on the shelf, just behind her whispy glome of errant hair, all color and curve and in your face spirit. It stands out from the line of fragile ballerinas and cottage families like a good blast of cigar smoke caught between layers of saccharine perfume.
“Where’d that one come from?” he asks, cutting her off mid-anecdote. Now he’ll never know which is her preferred style of miniature button.
“Oh, the spring dancer. That’s one of my favorites. I found her–”
“No, the bird,” again he slices with an embarrassing lack of delicacy. But it’s crept under his nerves. He has come to the home for a week now; his community service is almost up. He has to know.
“The rooster?” she composes herself enough to ask. There’s a sudden flush to her; the eyes are still murky, but now with a whiff of dream.
“That was my first pipe,” the woman says, finally. The playful vitality of her voice stealing the boy’s breath.
She stares at him, her challenge of a smile spanning the three-score years that separate them.
The glass rooster stands bright and proud, crowing over them both.
[Come In, by Katie Tower, 2010]
The room was dark. It was too dark to see the covers; too dark to sleep.
“You ever notice your ears twitch when something unexpected happens?”
“You know, like when a loud bang makes your face just sort of jerk real tight. It’s weird.”
She was silent. It made the darkness insecure. He began to wonder if he wasn’t the weird one.
“You mean that’s never happened to you?”
“Maybe it’s my glasses. Could the weight of the frames make my ears more sensitive?”
He was concerned now. His ears were forgotten. The thought entered his head that the bed was empty beside him. She was gone; she had left a tape recorder in her place. Voice activated, it spat out a series of one-word answers in response to his noise. The theory must be tested.
“Am I bonkers?”
“Answer the question.”
His mind tripped through the dark. Was he asleep or was this real? There was something wrong with him. It was too dark. He couldn’t breath. Was his heart beating? He couldn’t hear it.
“Am I dying?”
It was too much for him. He flung himself across the bed and throttled the mattress. It was empty. He was alone. He bunched the covers around him, knotting them into restraints. This was death; his self-imposed prison of darkness and paranoia.
A blinding light appeared through the door.
“You’re bonkers,” she said and left the room.
The door slammed. His ears didn’t flinch.
[Grass at Night, by Elliot Moore, 2007]
The engine idled beneath him, its occasional cough and sputter mirroring the hiccups in his own head. The lights were on inside the house. His mom would still be up, watching the late show; his dad likely passed out like a drunken uncle on the couch. There was still time to change his mind. Still time to go back to the airport and pretend none of this was necessary.
“Yo, buddy, you want to close this thing out or keep the meter running?” the cab driver jarred him out of his decision-making.
“Here,” Henry pulled the plastic from his wallet and offered it through a slot in the Plexiglas partition.
“You ain’t got no cash?” the cabby asked with no small accusation.
Henry shook his head and the man snatched his credit card. As the driver mumbled under his breath, Henry pulled his things together. He hadn’t brought much; his saddlebag was packed with exactly one change of clothes, a single book of Kipling, and the small sundry of hygienics you might expect. He wrapped the scarf around the neck of his coat and hoisted the bag over his shoulder. Outside the vehicle, the cold night wind felt clean against his flushed features.
The cabby shoved the card and crumpled receipt out the window.
“Thanks,” Henry whispered to the spiral of exhaust the taxi left in its wake.
He stood there, at the head of the long driveway, waiting for something to happen. The gaze of the stars from above; the layered shriek of a siren in the distance; the cold babble of wind over his collar; none of it was enough to dissuade the inevitable. He’d made this long trip for one reason only. A singular, unavoidable responsibility.
The frozen grass crunched beneath his feet. It was still quieter than the click of the pavement, he supposed. He reached the front doorway, casting about for fast fading distractions. All that he remained was a heavy wooden door ripe for the knocking.
The light in the front window went out then. His mother must have finished with the late show. He thought he heard the tired tromp of feet shuffling up a staircase. Well, he’d missed his window. A real tragedy. He was already considering which hotel he should take for the night; where he was least likely to be recognized.
He turned his back to the door and escaped across the pavement. The light click of his heels snapped along to the staccato beat of his heart.
“Who’s there?” the ragged, swollen voice barked out from the suddenly open doorway behind him. It was a voice that had just woken, likely been shaken awake by his mother’s frightened hands.
Henry turned slowly, clearing his throat to stave off the darkness. “Hey, Dad.”
The flip of a switch; the blaze of an exterior flood lamp. Henry closed his eyes against the wash of blinding, white incandescence.
“No,” came the high, strangled shriek of his mother.
“You son of a—” came the low snarl of his father’s surprise.
They both rushed him then; his mother in her worn, peach robe, his father in a t-shirt and flannel boxers. He thought to run, to turn and bolt and never look back. Clearly he’d outpace these two; neither wore shoes and the hard, cold ground would swallow up their toes as he disappeared back into the open-ended night.
Instead, he stood his ground. He studied their anguished features as they reached for him. The pain of his mother was ugly and raw, her face distorted into a sob that reached up from her stomach and made no sound. The anger of his father trembled from elbow to gnarled fingertips; his reach had a clear weight to it, a heavy mix of desperate clutch and lunging violence.
They fell upon him in an awkward press of bodies and emotion. It was all too much for his skittish frame and the three of them fell over in a tangle of bathrobe and frost.
They all lay there for a moment, sharing a heavy breath and taking in the surreal beauty of the twinkling night sky.
“You’re alive,” his mother said, at last. “It’s really you.”
“Yes,” he nodded with an embarrassed smile.
“Damn you,” his father huffed.
I love you, too, Henry thought to himself and realized he actually meant it.
[Falling Leaf, by Rosh, 2009]
I knew a scarecrow once. He was not afraid of crows. Not at all; though they smelled poorly, and hacked away viciously, and infested him with lice and mites. He didn’t mind the violence. He overlooked their sundry ills. For you see they kept him company, as they were not afraid of him.
Within his daily gaze there stood a little puddle of a pond. In the summer it produced frogs in abundance as well as flies for them to eat. In the fall its few fish grew sluggish. By winter it was frozen through within an inch of its shallow bottom. I happen to know the scarecrow cared a great deal for these fish. He would number them around Hallow’s Eve and that number stayed with him through the slow drift of snow and creeping ice that called itself winter.
When the thaw came crawling cross the ground, waking tiny swishing tails to the challenge of a crisping water, the scarecrow’s number would often prove too much. He would let the old tally drift off with the fresh breath of spring. He knew the crows would soon return.
And there were always more crows than he could count.