Archive

Strange Gods

Wilbur was heading down Main street until he saw Mrs Asher poke her head out of the grocery store. It was late enough for the sun to have already set, but not so late that the moon had risen. Wilbur pressed himself into the shallow alcove of the post office, a mere fifty paces from where Mrs Asher now stood.

Seeing a deserted street, she opened the doors proper, carefully ensuring that the door wouldn’t squeak. The only thing that Wilbur knew about Jody Asher was this: she was the wife of John Asher, the owner of the grocery store, and she was much younger than her husband. Everyone had done the math; she was the same age as his eldest daughter from his first marriage.

From the reflection of the glass opposite, Wilbur could see a teenage boy casually follow her through the doors. He fussed with the zipper on his jeans and, from the way he ignored Mrs Asher’s frantic hand-waving, not in any hurry. Fifteen years before, Jody Frank, who worked at the checkout counter for seven dollars fifteen an hour, graduated high-school on a Friday and married the following day. Wilbur was a year old when this happened, but it had passed into the living memory of town folk law. Fifteen years of hushed whispers and rumours, one of which appeared to be true. Continue reading Strange Gods

Advertisements

Check The Cupboard

These days, movie studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars on productions to scare people. But why? All they need to do is have a reality TV crew follow me around for a day and observe my life.

It wouldn’t matter which day. They’re all the same. They blend into each other.

7:00 am – Get woken up by a harsh nurse with anger management issues, who administers a rough sponge bath after removing my overnight diaper.

8:00 am – Breakfast in the dining room, exchanging mumbled greetings with the other residents as we shovel grey gruel into our mouths with plastic spoons.

9:00 am – Medication. TV. Maybe a stroll outside if my hips are up to the task and the weather is between 16C and 21C.

10:00 am – Morning tea. Lukewarm tea or coffee. Soft, stale cake. All served by a hungover volunteer who’d rather be in a crack den than serving me food as penance for a drunk-driving charge.

11:00 am – Lunch. More mushy food. More greetings exchanged with other dead-eyed residents.

12:00 noon – Board games. Jigsaw puzzles. TV… hopefully the antenna is working. All interspersed with nurses wiping dribble from my various orifices.

2:00 pm – Afternoon tea. Leftovers from morning tea, served by a different volunteer. This one is a little perkier. Maybe the morning girl finally achieved her life-long ambition of dying from a heroin overdose.

4:00 pm – Dinner. More sloppy foods, easy to swallow. When I was young, I used to make fun of seniors having dinner so early. Now, I relish it. I especially love the jelly.

5:00 pm – Medication. I like the blue ones. TV. Daydream about my glory days. Imagine my son cares for me.

8:00 pm – Re-read one of the three worn books on my bookshelf. Sneak a cheeky piece of shortbread, stashed away from last year’s Christmas present. Or was it my birthday present?

8:45 pm – Nurse moans-a-lot wraps me in an adult diaper for bed.

8:55 pm – Check the cupboard.

9:00 pm – Go to bed.

There are some exceptions to this routine. Sometimes, rarely, my son will check me out for the day so I can spend some time with his family. They don’t feel like my family, however. They’re strangers. I see them so rarely, I can’t even remember their names.

I realise these outings are an obligation for him. I’ve tried to tell him not to bother. They normally occur on my birthday, or at Christmas.  Normally he’ll pick me up on my birthday, or a day or two before Christmas (not on Christmas Day, mind you… I’d be too much of a burden to have around on the actual day). He’ll take me to his home, introduce me to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, give me a box of shortbread, then take me back to the residential facility. Hopefully, not too late for dinner.

The repetitiveness of this mind-numbing routine is a form of slow death. Sometimes I envy the residents with Alzheimers. Sometimes I’d love to forget. I see the light in the eyes of the other residents slowly fade over time. The same must be happening to me.

Today, however, is different. Everything changed today.

8:55 pm – Check the cupboard.

“Hello,” Death said, his voice gentle and soothing. “Would you like to come with me now?”

“Yes,” I replied, relief flooding my voice. “Yes, I most definitely would.”

Water

“The aliens crash landed on the roof!”

“And then?”

“The people inside ran away!”

“And then?”

“An angry zebra chased them!”

“And then?”

Willow swished her stick through the campfire flames. Her marshmallow — the blackened, goopy mess impaled at the end of her stick — represented all her hopes and dreams for this evening. Campfire, outdoors, marshmallows, and horror stories.

Billy was a self-professed master story teller hellbent on telling a story which lurched from cliche to potboiler. As far as Willow could understand, his saga started with ghosts and space-alien zebras. It was every terrible story mashed together in a blender.

Willow watched her molten marshmallow ooze into the flame. It was the most terrifying thing about this evening. She could already imagine the breathless horror that would be today’s diary entry. Dear Diary, my marshmallow fell into the fire! And then? I went hungry! And then?

A soft crackle marked her marshmallow’s fiery death.

“All the zebras were zombies!” said Billy.

“And then?” asked Bobby. Bobby was his older brother’s personal cheer squad. He took every opportunity to applaud his brother’s achievements, no matter how trivial.

“They were all gored to death. The End,” proclaimed Willow. She avoided eye contact with Billy, lest he take it as an invitation to start something new. She could almost hear the grinding of his thoughts. I can’t wait to hear about the face-eating sludge. Looking around the campfire, she asked, “Who’s next?”

The other children stared into the fire. They didn’t speak. They didn’t move. The chorus of blank expressions was a sign they’d withdrawn from this world. This was the true horror story: an evening without wifi.

“I. Have. Story. To. Tell,” said the boy.

Willow knew everything about everybody. She knew their likes and dislikes and what they had for breakfast. The girl sitting opposite was Olivia Ava Abagail Green. Many years ago Noah Jacobs had dared Olivia to eat a live frog. Later that same day, under the glare of the afternoon sun, Olivia had swallowed the frog and earned herself the fantastic sum of five dollars. Noah would later go to excel in sports and have a painfully obvious crush on his vice-captain, never learning the frog had been swapped for a chocolate one. Willow knew all of this. It was her superpower.

Yet she didn’t know him.

“Who are you?” asked Willow.

The boy was about her age and had a strange expression which she couldn’t read. Her eyes gravitated to the gigantic nose jutting out from the centre of his face. A voice rang in her head.It’s a honker, her Father would have said.

“Forest. Black,” said the boy.

With no other words forthcoming, Willow assumed it was his name. Forest had a nose which towered over his face like a mountain to a village. His eyes and mouth fought for any room left over. He stood beyond the ring of rocks which marked the border of the campsite. The moon passed behind some dark clouds leaving the fire to cast flickering shadows. Willow looked up from his nose to see Forest Black staring at her.

“What are you doing here?” asked Willow.

“Passing. By.”

His voice cracked as he hovered over each word. He looked like he was about to say something else but then changed his mind. He tried a smile. It didn’t look natural either.

His teeth poked out from behind pale lips. His canines were fatter and longer than they should have been. Willow squinted at them until Forest covered his mouth with a hand.

“Invite. Me. In.” It wasn’t a question but a statement.

Willow turned her head to see the family cabin only a few hundred paces away. Inside were her parents doing whatever parents do, sleeping probably.

There were no houses or freeways beyond the cabin. Nothing but three hours of open countryside until you hit the city where everyone lived. It was why she’d wanted this place. An evening of campfire and scary stories wouldn’t be the same under the harsh city lights.

“Do you need an invitation?”

“Yes.”

Willow was the only one talking. A dozen blank faces stared into the fire. At the very least, Billy should be asking an annoying question. He always asked annoying questions. That was his superpower. Yet they weren’t doing much of anything. It was as though they had gone to sleep with their eyes open. Willow looked back to see Forest had dropped both hands to his side, his lips pressed together. It was only then she realised he was blind.

“And you’re passing by?” Willow had tried to push the skepticism from her voice. Tried and failed.It’s a honker. Her Father’s voice rang in her mind like a song that wouldn’t quit.

“Thirsty,” said Forest. He made motions with his hand like he was drinking from an imaginary glass. His hands jerked uncertainly. Willow studied Forest’s lily white eyes. Maybe he’s everything he says he is? Who doesn’t love a walk in the woods at night? Blind people, that’s who.

Willow snapped out of her thoughts. Her friends were further away than they should have been. Forest cleared his throat in a dry cough. Maybe he was thirsty? It’s a honker. She was standing now. When did that happen?

Two concentric circles of rocks formed the campfire. Flat stones formed the inner circle with smaller stones, pebbles really, marking the outer ring. Her friends sat on the inner rocks burning marshmallows, with Forest standing on the other side of the outer rocks.

Willow had been sitting at the campfire when Forest had first spoken. I have a tale to tell. She was burning marshmallows and praying for a quick end to the story. Now she stood half-way between the inner and outer rings. Had I not been paying attention? Maybe I had gone to get some water?

Thirsty people drink water. Forest stood only a few steps away. He didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, except waiting. She was close enough to see thin red lines mark the fleshy whites of his eyes.

“Hungry.”

“Marshmallows? There’s plenty to go around.”

Willow turned to get some food and then she was right in front of him. No time had passed. She hadn’t walked over to him or, at least, didn’t remember doing so. She had turned to get the marshmallows from the bag beside Billy and then she was here.

A droplet of moisture sprung from the corner of Forest’s mouth. Willow was close enough to see past his upper and lower lips. His canine teeth were so much larger than they should have been. They were huge like his nose.

“My God you have a big nose!”

“Huh?”

“There’s a giant wedge of cheese with nostrils on your face! You could fit an entire hand up there!”

Willow willed her hand to cap her mouth. It was instinct. Young ladies don’t say mean things. It was her Mother’s voice this time. It’s a honker, plain as the nose on his face. Wicked tongues do the devil’s work.

Her wilful hands remained by her side. Some part of her mind wanted to smother the words from tumbling out, yet she couldn’t. Stop talking. This time it was a different voice. Hungry, be silent.

Jokes elbowed their way out. It came from her gut, a place which tightened when she entered a dark room or walked down an unfamiliar street. It came with an emotion. Something she had never experienced before. Self-preservation.

Forest opened his jaws and exposed two rows of crooked teeth. Aside from the canines, the first row was pearly white human teeth. His inner row tightened the noose around her gut. Haphazard jagged teeth tapered to fine points in a way which made Willow think of broken glass.

“Hungry—“

“—When you stop to smell the flowers, do they flee in terror?” shouted Willow. She let the words flow, no longer listening to the inner voices.

Forest shook his head as he stepped back into the darkness. The moon took the moment to peek out from behind its hiding spot. There was nothing but the cabin and the unending countryside with the city lights twinkling in the distance.

“… there was face-eating sludge…” said Bobby.

She had been right about the sludge. After a final check, Willow returned to her seat at the campfire. She had stared into the darkness and the darkness had turned away.

“I have a tale to tell,” said Willow.

“Better than face-eating sludge?” asked Bobby.

“It’s all about a vampire… with a huge nose.”

Water Wings

I can’t pinpoint the moment I realised our daughter was different, but I know exactly when I accepted her difference as fact. This moment right here, right now. There were signs along the way – some subtle, others not-so-much – which offered hints, slowly preparing my husband and I for this beautiful reality. Despite these glimpses, we were still woefully unprepared for the truth.

Since neither of us has a womb, we chose to adopt rather than use a surrogate. Why create a life when there are so many languishing in orphanages, for want of a loving home? With love and patience, we knew we could overcome any challenge offered by an unknown heritage and gene pool. And since the hypocrisy of the church had infected our government, we were forced to adopt overseas. That’s how we ended up in Thailand.

As my husband and I wandered through the cribs of the orphanage, I heard Sebastian’s heart break as clearly as I felt my own. I gripped Seb’s hand tightly, borrowing his strength so I could endure the onslaught of misery and despair. So many tears, so many pleading faces, so many sad stories. All these children, ranging from newborns to toddlers, knew they faced lives of hardship and we were a potential escape. I wanted to choose all of them. Then we saw her; the calm amongst the storm.

She was beautiful. She was tiny. She radiated cleanliness and tranquility, despite her filthy sheets and nappy, despite the loud misery which surrounded her. She had beautiful Thai features with luminous skin, a knowing expression, and smiling eyes. Her eyes, however, were a piercing blue. We asked about her background, unable to take our eyes off her.

“We think she’s six weeks old,” we were told. “She was discovered by a fisherman last week, floating in a bed of seaweed just offshore.” The orphanage administrator pointed out to sea as Seb and I exchanged surprised looks. No gut-wrenching backstory with this child. Her story was almost a fairy tale. “We’ve been calling her Ariel but you can change her name if you adopt her, obviously.”

And adopt her, we did. She kept the name Ariel; it just felt right. My family loved her immediately, as did everyone who met her. Everyone except my dear mother-in-law.

“What an ugly baby,” the racist old crone screeched. “Does it have Down’s Syndrome? You know, everyone always said I was beautiful, even as a baby.”

“Do you know how lucky you are?” My mother frequently asked this question. “Ariel never cries. You cried relentlessly when you were a baby.”

Seb and I knew exactly how lucky we were. Not only did Ariel never cry, she also took the bottle without any difficulty and slept through the night, every night. “Easy babies become difficult teenagers,” Seb said frequently, preparing us for a wilful child later on in life.

As the weeks became months and the months turned into years, we just accepted the ease of Ariel’s childhood. At first, we suspected she may be challenged on a developmental level. She showed no interest in learning to crawl or walk, never made any noises trying to emulate our speech. She just lay there, her intense blue eyes absorbing everything.

“What would you like for breakfast?” I asked Ariel one morning as I slid her into the high chair.

“Apple puree, please Daddy James.”

The response, so clear and flawless, stunned me. I looked around, certain my mother was playing a joke on me somewhere.

“Would you like it warmed up?” I asked, watching Ariel intently.

“Yes please.” Her lips matched the sounds. She was speaking, fluently. She noticed my surprise. “Is everything OK?”

I just nodded and prepared our breakfast. Seb was stunned into momentary silence when he returned home from work that evening.

“What a joy!” he eventually exclaimed. “I guess she just didn’t want to say anything until she had it right.”

Unfortunately Ariel’s leap into language wasn’t welcomed by everyone. Seb’s mother, who was never going to win grandmother of the year, stopped visiting completely because of her punishing schedule of ‘painting lessons and tennis’.

My mother expressed her unease and scaled back her visits, as well. “It’s not normal,” she said, on more than one occasion.

We became a close knit family, a self-contained unit which never needed anybody else. Our daughter was special and didn’t deserve to be shunned. So we made sure we never needed a babysitter, never scared another person with Ariel’s mastery of the language at such a young age. She didn’t have the emotional skills to understand the negative, fearful reactions.

Then one evening, as Seb arrived home from work and closed the door, Ariel leapt to her feet and ran over to give him a hug. “Hello Daddy Seb” she said, giggling her delightful laugh. He swung her around, delighted with the greeting. Seb and I exchanged surprised looks over Ariel’s shoulder.

“No baby steps for her, obviously.” Seb had just kissed Ariel goodnight and joined me for a glass of wine on the back porch. “No crawling, no unsteady steps.”

“Hopefully, by the time she starts school, she won’t be so advanced for her age.” We clinked glasses and snuggled against the chill of the autumn air.

Eventually, when Ariel was at an age appropriate for her to be talking and running as she did, we started introducing her to other people. She spent a few hours at daycare most days, and then kindergarten. She went to birthday parties and had play dates. The uncommon bursts of her early development no longer mattered; she was an ordinary girl, now. Then I had the bright idea of teaching her how to swim.

She’d aways loved bath time. She’d splash and giggle. She loved showers and sitting in the blow-up kiddy pool. So off we went to the indoor council pool.

At first, Ariel made no effort. She didn’t try to kick, didn’t splash her arms. She just lay in my arms, lolling about like a stuffed toy. I had assumed that eventually, she would just kick off and swim like an olympic medal winner. However, after three visits to the pool, I realised she wasn’t going to have another leap in development. So I bought some water wings for our next swimming lesson.

And that brings us to now, the moment I finally accepted our daughter’s difference. She is Different, with a capital D. We’ve just entered the water for our fourth swimming lesson.

“Let’s get these water wings on,” I said, reaching for the little plastic inflatable tubes.

“I don’t need those, Daddy James,” Ariel giggled. She wriggled from my grip and showed me her hands. I gasped; I couldn’t help myself. Her fingers had webbing between them, growing thicker and stronger before my eyes. Then I noticed her legs. They fused together and formed a tail, her feet becoming fins. Blue scales spread over her tail, reflecting light on the roof of the pool complex.

Ariel flicked her tail and swam on her own. She giggled as she swam circles around me, relishing her freedom of movement in the water. She was completely unaware of the gasps and screams her transformation had provoked in the people around. She only had eyes for me. She only wanted her Daddy’s approval.

“Way to go, Ariel!” I applauded, so proud of my little girl. “Wait until Daddy Seb sees this!”

37-4

The One Day War

People would have called it The One Day War, had there been anyone left. Conflicts and wars peppered the history books but then, without anyone knowing why, people stopped killing each other. That time didn’t have a name, but it should have. Humanity turned its attention to solving all the other impossible problems: ending hunger, comfort and safety for all. People were happy for a time, and then the world went back to normal. Maybe the ending was always fated, maybe not. With humanity’s needs met, people turned inwards. They dug right down into the depths of their collective soul and uncovered a button long since buried. Some human quirk. A button marked destruction.

On the day of the One Day War, bombs fell in their tens of thousands as military trumpets blared in time to gunshots. It began at dawn and lasted until the last human died, a short fifteen hours later. An Angel and Demon came to Earth the following day.

Continue reading 37-4

Liar Liar Pants On Fire

GG woke with a start, and her first sensation was heat. Intense, broiling heat. Panic flared as she struggled for breath, afraid to open her eyes.

“Sshhh, just relax.” The voice was soothing, pleasant. “Take your time, there’s no rush. We have an eternity.”

GG fought to control her breathing as she slowly opened her eyes. Standing before her was a demon; an actual demon with horns, red skin, and yellow eyes. She gasped, then swallowed back her hysteria.

“That’s better,” the demon said. “My name is Davrett. We’re going to play a game.” Continue reading Liar Liar Pants On Fire