An unsurprising failure

I recently picked up a copy of Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit. I’m sure you’ve read about (or likely read) multiple times since it’s release, and it has really put into perspective how little of it I have. This isn’t a point of shame for me, as it’s something that I’ve known for a while now, but with things like writing 30 stories in 30 days, I don’t think myself gritty enough to keep up with such an arbitrary deadline set for such an arbitrary reason. I’ve been writing, sure, but it’s hard to stay motivated to complete such a task when, ultimately, it wasn’t something I was ever even really interested in doing. More than anything I was just trying to come up with a reason to keep writing beyond writing itself. Focus will now go back to completing this fucking novel that I’ve really had no real success with, though I’m determined to finish. In the meantime. Here’s a poem I wrote 12 sleepless hours into a 14 hr flight:

 

 

Strapped up

Each step along the aisle whips me upright,
sensory alarm wringing in early mornings past, reminder of loss, of absence.

“absence of what, exactly?” he might ask when I tell him the story in
the small alleyway between the two churches which, really, are the same church,
buzzed out on the edge of Pidgeon Park, or wandering, ghostlikes, around the Waverly
on a cold winter afternoon.

An absence of her! Dummy.
What else could it be? What other scent can waft through this world,
twist time around itself, make seconds make love to hours, and birth emptiness in its wake?

“So many.” He responds.

“The smell of baking cookies reminds me of my dad, drunk, yelling at the television about some radical political dick suck intern while my mom hangs around the kitchen pretending not to notice.

“The smell of summer, thick in the humidity so sorely missed and despised in the winter and summer respectively, reminding old men of walking through heaps of snow and punishing heat in the winter and summer respectively.”

But where the hell are you gonna find the smell
of baking cookies on an airplane? Dummy.

Perfume, man.

The bottle, man.

That little waft of Ferragamo like a direct line to memories of
fuck on the couch in spring to rainfall on the thinly woven insect screen just outside the window, stuck slightly ajar,
of fuck after interrupting a very important session of euchre with some old friends from college around to drink whiskeys and reminisce on collegiate explorations of Bacchanalia.

She!

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30 stories, 30 days Entry #8: July 11th 2017

Photoshoot

Ellery left on the third of August in 2015, her backpack over her shoulders, new runners over old socks, and her passport in hand. There was nothing picturesque about the way she left, nothing one might expect to see in the movies. There was no last look over the shoulder, or flick of the hair, or wave that might have cemented itself in my memory. Just a simple hug, a light kiss on the cheek, and she was gone.

It’s easy to lose track of friends once they leave. The internet helps us stay connected, but it’s merely a tool; without regular maintenance, the connection degrades on its own. We sent short texts here and there, called whenever the opportunity arose, but ultimately, after a year, we lost track of each other. She was in Berlin, I was still in Seoul, and other than the random Instagram update, I had no reason to believe I would ever see her again.

Then came the winter.

It doesn’t snow much in Seoul during the winter months. It gets cold, bitingly so, and the wind can put a chill through your bones, but snowfall comes few and far between. So, when the first snowfall of the year arrived in early January, I loaded up my DSLR and footed it to the sequoia-lined path at World Cup Park. The walk over from my small apartment near Hapjeong station was pleasant, as should have been expected. Seoul feels much calmer whenever it snows. Luckily, I’d gotten up early enough to leave fresh prints along the sidewalk, a small joy I took for granted back when I was back home.

I always enjoy walking through World Cup Park. It’s a nice escape from the hustle of the city. They say that New York never sleeps, and my experiences with New York have proven that true, but Seoul never stops working. There’s always something to do in New York, there’s always work to do in Seoul. There’s always something more important to get done, except for when I’m here. This man-made eco-zone born on top of what was once a trash dump is where I can be at ease.

Seoul is more futuresque than picturesque, but today that couldn’t be more false. The ground crunches with every footfall, the cold air chills my lungs, but the snow lays dormant. White. For a while, I’m the only one on the path. Nobody in front, nobody behind, and only the sounds of distant birds calling through the trees interrupted my solitude. I took pictures of everything, of nothing, adjusting the white balance, shutter speed, ISO, playing with my options on the fly in hopes that something would turn out perfect.

When I’m out shooting, I try not to check the pictures I take until I’ve finished. My professor in college always told me it’s good practice, it saves time, and even the mistakes can turn out interesting. So, after feeling satisfied with my output, I hit the play button on my camera and started scrolling through my work.

A few of them were a little too overexposed for my liking, but I seemed to hit my stride after the first fifteen or so. There were great shots of the park, solemnly resting under a flat blanket of white. The tree path, their branches covered in snow, thinly frosted tendrils breaking away from the bark, I found to be very beautiful. Having taken similar shots the previous year, I zipped past those. At the end of the run, were the pictures I took of a small wooden bridge, also adorned by the snow.

As I scrolled through the shots with speed, hoping to head home soon and start cooking breakfast, I passed a particular photo that made me backtrack. Amidst the uniformly white scroll was one picture that was only white towards the outsides, one which was dark all through the middle. With the glare of the sun, I could barely make out anything beyond the silhouette, so I continued scrolling. Again and again it appeared, but with each appearance it grew smaller until the circle grew a neck, a body, legs.

I looked around, but for all the time I’d spent on this trip, I’d been the only person around. I took another shot directly in front of me and quickly checked the viewer. No figure. Then another. Nothing. I took several pictures, facing random directions each time, but it appeared as if the figure was gone.

I turned back down the path, picked up speed, and left the park at what was nearly a sprint. I got back home in half the time it took me to get to the park, helped by the still empty sidewalks, and threw my sd card into the computer. Once I’d downloaded the questionable photos, I opened them in photo-shop and started playing around. Contrast, shadows, colours, sliding them back and forth until finally, a face. It was a girl. It was her. It was Ellery.

I picked up my phone and scrolled through the list, found her name and dialled. A Korean woman picked up and was very confused by my questions. Who is Ellery? she asked, as should have been expected. I had never actually got Elle’s Berlin number. I opened Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and all other forms of social media through which I might be able to contact her, but all of my searches came up empty. Many people have been going offline in recent months, and unfortunately it Ellery appeared to have followed suit.

In a last-ditch effort, I tried to call the other friends she’d had while she was here, but I hadn’t connected with them in just as long and they couldn’t help me either.

I printed the pictures and put them on my fridge, and now she watches me whenever I’m around. I have no idea what happened that day, or why, or even how, but one day I’ll get in touch with her, and hopefully she’ll be able to figure it out.

30 stories, 30 days, Entry #7: July 3rd 2017

Sea-side Cafe

I never used to go to cafés. I never thought I would like them. My sister was the big coffee drinker in the family, she could actually tell the difference between Tim Hortons and a hand-dripped coffee made from dark-roasted beans grown in Guatemala, or wherever it is they grow good coffee beans. Whether it’s the caffeine, the bitterness, or some intangible quality that kept me away, coffee has only ever been something to drink on dates to make myself seem normal, or a flavour element in one of those cocktails my girls and I would pound back in high-school. Tea wasn’t an attractive option, either. My parents’ green tea, sent monthly from family back in Korea, had put me off it for years. It’s odd, then, that I find myself so regularly in the shop at the end of the boardwalk of our small tourist town.

In spite of my general disinterest in café fare, I’ve always regarded the atmosphere with a certain romance. One of my students once told me that her dream was to meet some indie rock foreigner in a small café up in Seoul, strike up a conversation, get along swimmingly, then marry and leave this country forever. As a mentor, I told her not to expect a man to save her, or to expect marriage to save her, or to expect anything to save her at all. Deep down, in the most honest place in my heart, I understood her desire. There is something ethereal about sitting alone in a café with a cup of coffee and a book, something publicly intimate, a declaration of one’s own independence: this is my coffee, my book, my choice to be alone on my time. If there were another person as open-hearted as I in the opposite corner sipping a coffee on his own time, reading his own book, willing to connect, I would welcome such a person into my life. These fantasies, however, are best left as that.

The sea is rarely calm this time of year, and earlier today the news reported an oncoming typhoon. I open the window and listen to the rain as it splashes against the waves. In that old Thomas Wyatt poem, about the lover and the ship tossed in perilous storm, the man, a personification of reason, reports his distress at the overly emotional state of his lover. It’s his duty, he says, to steer their relationship from rock to rock in search of calm, but is buffeted by his lover’s ignorance, disdain, and tears. This woman, whom I assume he loves, sounds like a real pain in the ass. But what if Wyatt has it all wrong? What if he’s painted his ship in such an immaculate light that anything that may chip the paint job sets him into a frenzy. What if the lover, himself, is the problem, is the one so full of ignorance and forced sighs, so ready to tear the sail apace? Does the lover deserve compassion from the woman he claims to love but cannot see? The rain hits heavier against the sea and I’m torn away from that pathetic lover, torn from the maelstrom of his perpetually distressed heart, torn away from the woman he loves not beyond the words that fall so elegantly from his serpent tongue.

My thoughts turn towards the Andromeda, whose life was sacrificed by her father to the sea-monster Cetus in return for respite from the monster’s attacks. A woman sacrificed for a man’s kingdom. A classic damsel in distress, bartered from one man to a serpent, and saved by another man. What was her role in this ordeal? To be used by her father? To be saved by Perseus? It was, of course, her mother’s fault that she had to be traded, for she was the one who threw her vanity to the wind and struck the ego of the sea gods. She was the one who, so proud of her daughter’s beauty, made the mistake of calling her more beautiful than the daughters of men more powerful than her. It was entirely reasonable to punish such vanity with death and chaos. It was entirely necessary for a man to save her from the monster. Such a long standing tradition we have as women, causing suffering to men, forcing their hand, and paying the price for our womanhood only until a man can come and save us from ourselves. What are we as women but an eternal burden to men? No. This is a foolish tradition writ into our world by foolish men. Such men were no less emotional than the women they wrote to be as such. How could they be yet still write them?

Is it wrong to feel this way? Is it hypocritical to criticize these men who have written women as emotional beings only to guide my perception by the very emotions they condemn? I find no answers in the rain. I find no answers in this coffee, which I stir quietly in this dimly lit coffee shop in hopes that something somewhere will give me some answers. But such an occurrence would not happen here. No. Here, there is no lover, no perilous storm, no sea-monster, no king, no princess, no hero, no ship, no romance. Right now, there is only rain.

30 stories, 30 days, Entry #6: July 1, 2017

Bars

 

“Your opus a collection of those flows that I can’t cope with//

Even if you ate the coke, you couldn’t create dope shit.

The crowd went nuts; my boys, standing behind me on the edge of the crowd, turned around and pumped their arms in support; the host, Batz, did a spit take for the camera; even MZA’s hypeman choked on his drink. I let the beat ride, looked around as the crowd cheered, hollered, and chirped. Moments like these never seem real once I’ve left the stage. The lines were temporary, but in my heart, this success will be eternal.

MZA, feeling the blow, readjusted his hat. It was one of his moves that, to the casual viewer, may seem as a sign of weakness, but, having cyphered with this man for years, told me that something heavy was coming. Even the crowd quieted down, many making note of the minor costume adjustment.

“I’m the dough, make the money, make the cake, you’re a crouton//

two eyes screwed, look like Mulan//

You see me goin down to a chink? You’re a dreamer//

I’mma nuke your crew like we did…”

I don’t even need to finish that bar, because you already know what he said. The crowd, so recently jumping in joy for my rhymes, turned on me immediately. MZA had taken my verse and made it old. I had to flip this somehow. The crowd quieted down and I jumped on it.

“Mulan is Chinese, Hiroshima was Japan,//

I’m a dreamer? You probably slept through Geography class.”

Good bars are good, but flips are even better. A solid flip can absolutely devastate your opponent, turning the past verse to rubble while showcasing your own quick wit. This bar, while less impactful than I’d hoped, elicited a couple oohs and aahs, but nothing compared to what came next.

“We studied at the same schools, both got the same degree//

Fuck geography, all you yellow rappers look the same to me.”

And with that, I lost the battle. Batz waved his hands to cut the beat and the battle was over. Above me the neon lights flashed in all caps: BODIED. Just like last time, I wanted to throw a tantrum. I can spit whatever bars I want, or be as clever as possible, but none of that matters when all my opponent has to do is make a joke about my skin colour. My boys were pissed, and although I appreciated it, I made my best effort to calm them down.

MZA caught up with me after the battle and handed me a beer and a half-smoked joint.

“Good shit, B,” he said, holding the smoke in his lungs as tightly as possible. “I thought you had me with that dope shit line.”

“Yeah man, but you won fair and square,” I said, taking a hit and suppressing my bitterness.

“Yeah, I know, but don’t get salty about the Asian shit. You could make fun of my shit as much as you want. Still don’t know why you never do it.”

“I don’t know. I just feel like it’s insensitive to a whole race of people by making fun of shit they can’t control.”

“You get no points for honour in this shit, fam. The AACP aint gon’ knock your door down for calling me black, either.” I passed the joint back to him.

He was right, of course. In the circle, everything is fair game. You play to the crowd, and if the crowd likes race jokes, you throw out race jokes.

“What would you have said if you weren’t so fuckin up tight about this shit?” He said.

“I got no bars for that.”

“Ideas then. Fuck that holier than thou attitude and make fun of my blackness. What is some shit that you could’ve said?”

“I don’t know. Give me an idea.”

“Fine, you could’ve said some shit about me being blacker than the berry,”

“seedy as a cherry.”

“Ye, some shit like that. What else?”

“I don’t know, that shit is easy, though. Maybe something like, your family was slaves for a living, now you’re a slave to a pigeon.”

“My girl would be pissed about that. Not bad doe.”

“I’d prolly say that you’re darker than under the bed.”

He laughed. I’m happy he laughed. I’m not comfortable with these kinds of jokes.

“That’s way better. Look, you right. Race jokes are easy. Race bars are easy. People don’t know you like I do, so I just made fun of that weak-shit. Nobody knows shit about things I could’ve did you dirty on, but everybody can see that you’re Asian. Why climb to the top of the tree if there’s an apple right in front of you?”

“You know that’s superficial as fuck though.”

“Ye, but it’s not about whether something’s deep or superficial, it’s about whether or not you can get the crowd on your team. Slave jokes aren’t funny, b. Making a crowd of two hundred drunk people laugh at slavery is hard, and that’s out job. To be affecting in an entertaining way.”

“I know, but I want to do that through bars. I want the rhythm and rhyme to back up the cleverness and shit.”

“This isn’t fucking lit class, doe. This is battle rap. Let me stress, two-hundred drunk people. Nobody’s out here analyzing your rhyme schemes and shit. Nobody wants Chaucer, they just want the most basic level of entertainment you can provide.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

“Do it. You finna stick around for the rest of the battles?”

“Nah, catch me later though. My sister said there’s a jam out in Chinatown.”

“Ait, lemme know if it’s lit.”

30 stories, 30 days. Entry #5: June 27, 2017.

Cargo

The cannons!

 

I watched my friends die as the pirates opened fire at the ship’s hull, the sound of metal melting, ripping, collapsing upon itself. I watched through a small window in the airlock-door as these honourable men were dismembered, torn to shreds, and sucked into the vacuum of space. I could see the looks of horror on their faces, these hardened soldiers turned children in the face of death, and though I couldn’t hear their screams, I felt them in the very core of my being. There is nothing more terrifying than death. I would murder my own kin to escape it.

 

“All ensigns, gear up and head to the air-lock bays. Cavalry, to your posts! This is not a drill! I repeat! This is not a drill!”

 

The announcement had been blaring for what felt like an eternity. Had I followed orders, I, too, would be amongst the chunks of human meat floating, forever lost to the universe. Fragments of my body, frozen in their entirety, would float freely among the cosmos, no heat to turn my tissue to dust. I would be infinite, forever dead, no rebirth as organic tissue, no ashes to be strewn, no body to be buried.

 

This was supposed to be a simple extraction. In and out, they said, then a short escort to the jump-gate, then a straight shot to some R&R back with Kima Colony. Of all military actions underway, this was supposed to be the surest bet. What we’re escorting is not information disseminated down the ranks, but such missions had grown routine, and there was no reason to think otherwise.

 

Another explosion in front of me, another pot shot lights the up room and pushes me back from the door. I hit the floor in a heap. Immediately, I feel numbness in my knee that is sure to bruise, but it quickly snaps out of my trance. There is surviving to be done, and it’s clear that this is not the place to do it.

 

The hallways are full, like ants filing into their hill, ready to be lit up simultaneously with a single match. I duck back around the bunks, grab my Mod, and jetted down the nearest empty hallway. With everyone heading for the barracks and the docking bay, the way to the escape pods was empty. Still, it would be prudent to remove my shoes. The hollow clanking of each step would quickly give away my position to anyone in the quadrant.

 

Other than the padded shuffling of my feet, I hear nothing as I fly down the corridors. In spite of having lived on this ship for almost three earth-years, it would be very easy to get lost in the refugee sector. There never has been any reason to be down here, and I’m not even sure that anybody has wandered out here since we started the mission. It’s a surprise, then, that as I near what should be the escape pods I hear a hushed, but urgent conversation. From what I can tell, as I creep closer, they aren’t speaking common. In fact, it’s difficult to discern if they’re speaking or not. There is no break, which one would expect, at the ends of words, sentences, paragraphs. Whether this is a conversation or an individual talking, I do not know.

The closer I get to the pods, the louder I can hear them. The sound vibrates, it fills the air, wraps around my head like a blanket. I collapse, hard to the floor like a brick. My blood feels like cement. I’m not moving, but the sound gets louder, louder, louder still, until it’s the only thing I know. My brain, my body, they vibrate along with the sound, become a part of the wavelength, and I float. I float, and I flood. I flood the hallways, back from where I came, and I wrap around the other ensigns, and they float. We flood the docking bay, hold tight to the pilots and they float.

 

Soon, the cannons stop, the pirates come for us, but we aren’t there. Just bodies. They strip our ship, and we watch. They burn our bodies, and we watch. They load their cargo, they leave, and we watch. Why tread, when we can just float?

30 stories, 30 days. Changing the title because I fell behind: Entry #4, June 25th

The dog

Black tail, four long and thing legs, gold coat, and horrible breath, that was how I described him. We got him from the pound in 2006, back when we thought stability meant sharing a bed and enjoying the same movie genres. The decision was quick, easier than picking a restaurant, but not as difficult as finding a parking spot once we got there. With little knowledge of how to take care of ourselves, we jumped at the idea of taking care of another living thing. Looking back, I think the decision had less to do with giving a needy dog a home, and more to do with making ours feel more like one. His friends were busy getting married, mine were having kids, and to cope with our inadequacy, we got a dog.

We named him Jetson, after the 60’s cartoon that foresaw a future with flying cars and no black people. He liked it because he came up with it. I liked it because I couldn’t think of a better name. Neither of us was very particular about it. It wasn’t about Jet, anyways.

His time in our home started as does every new pet from the pound. He sniffed everything, urinated in a few places along the wall, and found a place he could feel comfortable before quietly laying his head down to sleep. We pet him when he would let us, and tried to understand when he got too protective of his food, or his bed, or of anything he thought of as his. We loved him, or at least we loved the novelty of him, and we took care of him because of it.

I tend to think of that time as our peak. We were both distracted by responsibility, enough to feel like everything was fine, preoccupied enough to cope with any issue that arose for the sake of keeping our dog calm. Jet seemed happy, too, to have a home. It was stressful time, but we held onto the notion that it would one day pay off.

This lasted for a few months. We would train him, walk him, feed him, love him. He would play, and eat, and shit, and sleep as all dogs do. There was nothing strange about any of it. But when we took trip up to a friend’s cottage the Kawarthas, things started to unravel. To blame it on myself, or on Mark, would be unfair. We’d been looking after Jet rather diligently up until that point. Beyond that, we were on a sparsely populated island in the edge of Crystal lake, the closest neighbour was over a ten minute drive away, and the forest was thick enough that we never expected Jet to venture too far into it. So, with him by our side all night, we drank, told stories, fished, and fell asleep on the dock, too trunk to be bothered by the swarms of mosquitos biting at every exposed piece of skin they could find.

It was still very early when we awoke, the sun still barely risen over the still tops of the forest. I called out to jet, as had become habit over our time with him. Back home, he would be waiting nearby, ready to answer my morning summon with a lick to my fingers as I hung them over the side of the bed. Today: nothing. I called him again, listened close for the patter of his feet on the wooden walk-way behind me, but still nothing. I pushed Mark’s arm off my chest and sat up as he rolled to the other side of his sleeping bag. Craning my neck, stiff from a night spent with neither a pillow nor a mattress, I looked around. Our dog was nowhere to be found.

Once we’d woken everyone up, Mark, our friends, and I began searching for our missing dog. It was frantic, disorganized, but expansive. Our friends called the neighbours, we searched the woods for hours, and as a last resort, we laid a trail of his toys along the road back to the house. By nightfall we’d given up hope, and when we couldn’t find him the next day, Mark and I decided it would be best to just head home and come back after work the following Friday.

We packed up all of our belongings, left a few things we would need the next week, and hopped into the cab of Mark’s truck. We sat as usual, myself in the passenger seat and Mark behind the wheel, but it was impossible not to feel the space where Jet would sit, to my left and Mark’s right, where we could both touch him, and stroke him, and nurture him together. To close the void, I slid over, but Mark asked that I keep towards the door to keep lookout, just in case Jet was somewhere on the side of the road.

We drove for two and a half hours, back to our studio apartment in the heart of Toronto, and found no sign of him. Mark told me to hold out, to hope that we’d get a call from one of the neighbours saying that they found him sniffing around their garbage can, or at the very worst that they found his mauled corpse somewhere nearby. It would be better to know that he was taken and killed by a bear, than to think he wandered back to the main road and got hit as a result of our own negligence. Still, I hoped he would come back. Mark seemed less worried, and less distracted by Jet’s absence. Maybe he didn’t know how to show it, or maybe he just never cared as much about Jet as I did, I didn’t know. But as the week went on, he seemed to have completely forgotten Jet had ever existed. Our relationship grew strained. By Friday, he had decided that it would be pointless to go back up to the cottage to look for Jet. He was right, though I had to find that out on my own.

Jet, who so united us from the moment we’d adopted him, was now becoming a rift in our relationship. His absence bothered me wholly, but what bothered me more was Mark’s seeming lack of care about it. I soon decided not to bring it up anymore, to cut our losses and simply let Jet’s disappearance be a lesson to us both. Maybe it was time to let it go. If we couldn’t even take care of a dog, how could we expect to take care of each other, a baby, a lifetime together?

This was all I thought about until two months later, when I’d just arrived home from work and had poured myself a glass of bourbon before I heard a light scratching from my door. Though he’d only been ours for a few months, I knew the sound of Jet’s scratches by heart. I knew their cadence, the way that they would dig into the thick wooden door when he could hear us walking up the staircase. I jumped up from my seat, threw open the latch, and swung the door open as fast as I could. There he was! Dirty, weather-beaten, but alive. I hugged him as tightly as I could, picked him up, and carried him to the bathtub. After washing the dirt out of his fur, drying him, and filling his food bowl, I ran straight to the phone to call Mark.

The phone rang a few times before hitting the dial tone. I hung up and called again, but I was met with the dead ring. It was odd for him not to pick up, but not entirely inexplicable. He may have been working late, or he may have left his phone somewhere difficult to reach from the drivers seat. I sat back and relaxed, anticipating his return, imagining the look on his face when he found out our dog had returned. Only thing is, he never came home that night. He didn’t come home for days. I reported him missing, called the neighbours to keep an eye out, but nothing seemed to work. His workplace said he’d left at the normal time; there was video footage of him leaving the parking garage, and then nothing.

I did all I could to find him, but it was all for naught. The police arrived at my door a week after he’d disappeared, asked me to identify a body they’d found in a sunken car by the Scarborough Bluffs, and showed me a picture of Mark. They said they’d retrieved the black box dash-cam from his truck and could confirm it wasn’t a suicide. Rather, Mark had swerved off the road and into the water after a dog ran into the street. Once the car stated taking water, his seatbelt failed to detach, and he drowned in the cabin without ever having had a chance to escape. I asked them to describe the dog. They told me it had a black tail, four thin and long legs, and a gold coat.

 

 

[Meta]

This is one of those ones that I’ll have to revisit. I’ve run out of time to finish this story, and although I wish I could say I had a good ending planned, I didn’t.

30 Story Challenge, Entry #3: June 23, 2017

Final Sale

“You know, years ago I would have a button to press or a lever to pull: fireworks for the buyer. Hidden cabinets here, slots for each piece there, a little showmanship never hurt. Now I have a keyboard, just like everyone else. Convenient, I suppose.”

“I suppose.”

“So, Mr. Monday, what can I get you?”

“Beretta 8000. One bullet.”

“A rare change. Is this business or pleasure?”

“Neither.”

“Silencer?”

“No need.”

“Clean up?”

“Local authorities.”

He surveyed me, understood me, and put it through.

“It’s ready by the door.”

I turned to leave.

“And, Mr. Monday, discretion would be appreciated.”

30 Story Challenge, Entry #2: Thursday 22, 2017

Honesty

In the bottom of a rusty paint can she found a cigarette butt. It was stamped crimson around the edges, a colour not her own. It wasn’t its existence that bothered her, she’d known he’d been seeing other women; what bothered her was that she’d found it, so casually, so carelessly left by her husband. She no longer pretended it was there by chance, tossed in the tin by some faceless pedestrian. Long ago, even if that were the case, he would’ve tossed it.

 

[Meta] I know these have been a pretty weak couple of entries, but having been away from the blog and the shorts for so long, I’m looking to pace myself. For the first week I’m trying to keep it under 100 words, just small vignettes that will hopefully grow more diverse as time goes on.

30 Story Challenge. Time to do this again. Entry #1: June 22, 2017

Disconnected.

I’d always hid them. Those atom bombs that chose not death but life in our eyes when connected, romanticized notions of the future present in every movement. Marriage, no, but passionate throes and nights long spent on phones when our bodies couldn’t touch, touching through pornographic whispers muffled under sheets, digital tongue lightly rolling her clitoris, orgasms under the same moon but different roofs. I could hear her shiver as she came. I could feel the shame creeping up my sheets when I did, too, long after we’d said goodbye, staring out at a city decimated.

Updated: The Fence

I wrote this story a few years ago and recently edited it for submission. It isn’t hard to see why it isn’t a winner, but I like it all the same. Here it is for your enjoyment.

The Fence

To explain how I came to be in this bleak institute, wrapped in a Posey jacket and carted from padded room to padded room by waspish old women, might demonstrate that I, in fact, belong here. Surely, some form of punishment was justified, however I question whether this was the correct course of action. No matter, I have no qualms with spending the rest of my days here. I’m rather content with this room and I’m sure this is a more comfortable stay than near those petty criminals in the penitentiary. The doctors, overworked as they may be, seem genuinely interested in my wellbeing. After the initial cocktail of anti-depressants failed to cure me of what the psychologists labeled dysthymia, the good doctor decided to put me on what I can only assume to be a powerful opiate. It was a good change. This magic morning pill has given me an effective means by which to rummage through my mind, content in my isolation, while the man in the cell next to me screams apoplexy for days on end. If he is, in fact, stricken with such impairment, I don’t suppose he’ll find relief before death. Our home has no support for things of that nature. Our home has no support for much of anything. Not that I’ve ever craved it, even in those quiet moments when I begin to question the validity of my actions, even when my mind leads me to that dark time before I killed my brother.

I have no regrets, but I must make it known that I loved my brother. He was my companion, one who many never be replaced. It is unfortunate that this will be the only record of what was truly a wonderful life.

He was the smartest man I’d ever known. I have no doubt in my mind that, had he put in the necessary effort and written even a sliver of his curiosities on a napkin, he may have been considered a necessary intellectual of our generation. It was a shame, then, that in all of his forty years he received little more than a snide glance from the academic community. In our youth he was recognized for his brilliance, but as he shed tutors and professors like old matted fur, he developed a reputation as a cynical misanthrope. What brilliance appeared on paper seemed a far cry from the strange shut-in of a boy they had brought to their campus. By the time he’d reached his early twenties, he’d grown disenchanted with academia altogether. He had become his label, and seemed happy to do it. Physically, he was always fit to play the part. His face was always locked in a scowl, even in our youngest years; it was the only thing our father ever gave him. His fists hung like heavy clubs on the ends of his wrists and, if one had not known him well, his speech could easily have been mistaken for indistinct grunts. I, however, often found myself in awe of his abilities. He had married when we were younger but that was, at best, a failed experiment. They slept in different beds, were never intimate, and entertained only the lightest of conversations. Still, she never left him and he never asked her to leave. For what reason I do not know, but it appeared as if women were the only worldly things of which he was never very curious. In all other pursuits he was relentless. Whenever he encountered a subject of which he had no knowledge, he would spare no time gathering and reading all prior investigations into the topic. If unsatisfied with his findings, he would conduct his own research into the matter (as was within his means, of course. We were never very wealthy.). Write a paper, I would tell him, submit something to someone of importance! Contribute something to the world! You have so much to give! But in stubbornness he etched his findings on the inside of his skull and shuttered the windows from anyone but his only brother.

His murder, and the trial that followed, were never concerned with my innocence in the matter. I was the one, who alerted the authorities, who confessed without any external incentive, who handed them the knife stained with his blood and my fingerprints, who stood alone above his coffin on the day of his burial. What spared me a lifetime in the penitentiary and brought me instead to this life of chemically induced aloofness, was my explanation. This I will recount for you, not as any form of justification, I have already been judged, but as a way of memorializing a discovery that should not be forgotten once I have also passed on.

My defense, in the simplest terms:

We found a gateway to death. It drove my brother mad.

I understand the reasons for my punishment. For most people, death is simple: people die and are dead. It is for this reason that no soul prior had accessed the gate; those craving death have proven content with tucking themselves under the cuff of her wing and melting into her feathers. We, too, had considered it, but my brother, ever rational, questioned if we would like it. I felt foolish, for I would never drive my car down a one-way street with a dead-end. I thought it a simple jest when, one night, after a few glasses of wine, he suggested we find a way to experiment with the infinite sleep. I have always enjoyed his intoxicated symphonies; it was not irregular for him to ramble in A Minor. By the next week I had gone back to work without giving it a second thought, and a month later I had forgotten that we had ever even spoken on the topic. What a surprise it was when he appeared at the door of my room, hair disheveled, eyes frenzied, muttering slightly as he let himself in. I thought him mad for a moment, but once I peered into those brilliant pomegranate irises I could see that he had scrawled something new around the windows to his skull. No, not scrawled, carved; carved into his cornea so that no matter which direction he looked, or whatever he looked at, all he could see was the vision he had so meticulously drawn out for us. For, as I should have expected, in the time since we’d last spoken he had researched, mapped, and used whatever magic lay within that graffiti-slashed skull of his to pinpoint what he came to call the fence. By the next year, I found myself clambering through an imperforate dungeon, hoping with all hope that I had not misplaced my trust.

The oxygen was thin in the caves, each breath more debilitating than it’s worth. Had my brother not been there, determinately, slowly, but confidently pushing on, I might have been content with drifting into the infinite opaque. What a relief it was when, after sliding naked through ancient formations of igneous rock, we came upon the fence; relief, because my brother’s work was not wasted; relief because we were finally at our destination; relief because, if I so desired, I could drift off and rest for the rest of time.

I am not a fool to think that anyone, much less a jury, would believe these claims. I was never the gifted one, and like most other people, I’d always regarded supernatural claims with healthy skepticism. Even as we stood at the foot of the picketed gate, I found myself doubting the legitimacy of my brother’s claims. Perhaps we had merely happened upon the site of an old hobble. Perhaps, after years of erosion, some formerly habitable land had been buried in the flatness of the Canadian Shield. This, of course, was a ridiculous idea, and it is for this reason that I do not fault anyone for thinking me mad, but once they themselves pass on they will see that I was not lying. They will see that I had no need to. Wooden and dead-bolted, we unlatched the fence and entered death together. As we entered, I left one foot in the world of the living, like the string of a yo-yo wrapped around a child’s finger waiting for a return.

There was no tangible transition as we crossed: no twisting of reality as we slid into the nether. One moment I was I was grasping my brother’s wrist as we stepped into the dark, the next we were a horse dancing across the ethereal plane, one consciousness uncontrolled. We were wisps, pulsating across eternity, absorbing, being absorbed by dark matter, by all matter. We could not see, nor feel in any physical sense, but we were there, always a part of something. We were nowhere, everywhere. We were devoid of the familiar senses and better off for of it.

As we flew, new memories trickled into our consciousness; conversations in voices I’d never heard with people I’d never met; they became clearer for every moment we lingered in the house of death. I was a young woman on a platform leaning over the edge in search of a train that was thirty minutes past due. I was a man on that train, contemplating the work of Miklos Jancso, his preference towards long takes and minimal editing, watching as the Hungarian puszta whipped passed by. I was Tchaikovsky on the premier of his sixth symphony, crying at the final morendo, bittersweet with the knowledge that this was my final performance. I was a boy, asking his mother about God in a language I never learned but understood entirely, and then crying when she answered because I couldn’t, or he couldn’t, rationalize death as anything other than infinite black. Do not fear, boy, I wanted to say to him, for now we are together and it is safe. I was my brother, watching myself weep as my mother’s coffin lowered into the ground all those years ago. I felt what he felt. He felt what I felt. It was exhilarating. We, who were always so isolated, always kept apart in some way from our peers, now joined infinitely with those of whom we so craved to be a part. What euphoria to be a part of everything, to be one with everything, to know and be known without posture. I wanted to stay forever. Soon, however, I felt my brother rearing, resisting what we’d found in that world. I would lurch forward, he would pull back. I would jut left and he would spin me around, tug me back. Soon, I could no longer feel my brother. I could only feel myself. Without warning, I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. My head came back to me, my hands and feet, my lungs, which felt stiff as a I gasped. Gravity slammed me back into the cave and my body seemed ill prepared. I buckled under my own weight, encumbered again with life.

We woke up side by side in the cave, chilly from the sweat that had accumulated on our wrinkled skin. My brother was gaunt, motionless but for the rise and fall of his chest as his body remembered how to breathe. We lay on that floor for some time, heartbeats syncopated. I did not resist when he rose, and moved quickly when he motioned to leave. We crawled out of the cave, and returned to escarpment from which we entered, dressed in the waning sunlight, and then marched back to the car we’d left in a ditch on the side of the road. I wanted to return but it was clear my brother had no intention to, so just as he had led me there, I led him out.

We did not speak on the experience on our return trip; we did not mention it to his wife, nor to each other in the days that followed. We were there together. I didn’t need to speak on what I felt, for he felt it to. My brother, however, barely spoke at all. When he did, his words were hollow, fragmented. He soon found himself out of work. Within the month he’d confined himself to his room.  Moira was the only one allowed to see him, only to deliver food, which he seldom ate, and cigarettes, which he smoked voraciously. He locked the door from inside, and despite my attempts at persuasion he refused to let me in. I could not understand why, after all we had been through, he would choose to return a recluse. After all, it was he, not I, who forced his way back into the light. For the short time, we were united, consciousness combined in its purest form, I thought we were happy. Now, he refused to see me.

As time passed, he grew even further into himself. He carved a 1 x 1/2 ft rectangle in the base of the door, one meter off the ground, and installed a latch to allow him control over the access point. He boarded up the windows, his only light borne of a collection of wax candles placed haphazardly around the room. At night I could hear him pacing the perimeter, stopping to scribble on the walls, then start again; if I was lucky, the night would grow quiet enough to hear his utterances, to listen to the scratches and picture the letters he’d carve into the wood.

One night, once my fingers had grown tired of punching thoughts through ribbon, I found myself shaking rather uncontrollably. I’d gone to the cabinet to fetch a bottle of scotch but found it much too difficult to pour it into a glass. I had been worried for my brother. Moira had informed me the previous evening that he had, of late, been returning his meals. The tray would enter and, after a few minutes, return on the ledge untouched, not a mint leaf out of place. In the early morning she’d heard a commotion in the room, but frustrated as she must have been by his behaviour, she left for her shopping soon after. It occurred to me that I had heard nothing from him for the entire day. Odd as he had been acting, I did not know him to remain motionless for more than a few hours at a time.  I worried, as most would, for the health of my kin, so I climbed the stairs to check on him. Ten raps on the door rewarded no response. My concern grew with each one. I called to him but, again, received no reply. It was not unusual for my brother to shutter himself from the world at a time of crisis, but his heightened desire for solitude and refusal of even the most basic sustenance had me concerned for his life. I returned to my office, retrieved a hammer, and cracked my way through the latch. The door landed flat with a thud. I could not see him at first, but as I stepped through the porthole he spoke to me.

“We are nothing, brother,” he said. The light from the hallway lit only a small part of the room, and he’d disabled the light-switch long before. Still, from his voice I could tell he was on the far side of the room, near the bed. “We die, and then we are dead.”

“What nonsense.” I said, at once relieved by his wakefulness but irritated by his having ignored my calls. “Could you not feel it? Were you numb to the euphoria? We die and we are one, as we must have been before!”

“Euphoria, brother? No. Too many voices, too much of everything.”

“Were you not the one who told me that everything is the universe and in death we merely return home? At mother’s funeral, no less!”

“Nonsense,” he said. “We die and we are dead. This life is but a ride. When it ends we will depart. We resolve to nothing.”

“For all of your genius, you are truly a fool to believe that, especially after such a union as we were permitted to join. There is beauty in homogeny-”

“But for how long, brother? I know the unity of which you speak, but how long were we there? A few minutes? An hour? A day? Even within such a short time we began to lose ourselves. I tried to call to you brother, to make you hear me, to make you understand what I wanted to stop. It was nearly pointless, like yelling over the roars of a crowded stadium in hopes that the one person who needs to hear it will. How long until we disappear? How long until the only thing left of what we once were is a memory upon which we stumble only once in an eternity?”

“Does this not excite you? Each person has but one life, much as a mosquito, a dog, a cell or its gametes have one life, but in death we are united. We have thousands, millions of lives, each life a vast well of memory.”

“A gamete dies and another one forms a zygote and it turns into a boy who lives and dies just the same. Regardless of the gamete, life continues without it. We were them, both the boy and the zygote, and we did not know them. They did not know us. Soon, we would not know ourselves. What kind of life is that? There is only one life: the one that we are living right now. When it is gone, there is nothing.”

“Then why must you waste it, hobbled up in this dark room? Do you desire to waste that life which you cling to so dearly?”

“It is not a measure of life experience, brother. How many men and women did you see who had wasted their time in search for experience? No, I care only to experience life in its most basic form; to feel the blood as it pumps through my veins; to feel my heart as it slows to a murmur; my breath as it dries in my throat and disappears in my lungs; my body clamp shut upon itself; this is the only thing left. The pain of life is life itself.”

“Your misanthropy I have endured for decades, and I’ve loved you in spite of it. Your nihilism, however, I cannot accept until you convince me otherwise.”

“Allow me some exposition, then.

“If our town were to die spontaneously, if you and I, our neighbours and c0-workers, Moira and the man who delivers our mail, were to die simultaneously, the world may never notice. If others do implore into our deaths, it would only be with regard to their own self-preservation. In time they will forget about us and live their lives and die. Life will continue. Man and woman will continue under assumption that their lives have intrinsic value.”

“And what will you suppose to do, wrapped up in this attic? Your life may have no value to you, but it has value to me.”

“And with selfishness you will force me to endure the world in all of the meaningless ways we were already averse to before we took our trip?”

“No, brother, I cannot force that. But with selfishness, I will help you reach your conclusion. If it is pain that you seek, I can help you with that. What difference would it make, to suffer and allow your body to whither away, or to experience the pain whole, sharp? I can help you with the latter, brother, and you can rest well. I’m sure whatever small pockets of the world hear of your death, they will be disgusted, though only for a few moments. When I am locked up, or even killed, they will feel safe from me and forget you, and when they think about how little such mutilation actually affects their life, they will understand your message. This can be your opus, brother.”

“Then let it be.”

My brother lay still and did not so much as flinch as I brought the knife to his skin. With each incision I felt his muscles tighten and release. He nearly let out a wail as I pushed my knife into his femur, but quickly swallowed it down. He never once asked me to stop. I didn’t stop until I heard that quiet, high pitched wheezing of the throat as he released his final breath.

In its own way, the slow, meticulous journey by which I shepherded him to death was even greater than our sojourn beyond the fence. We were together in life, in the most dolorous circumstance that may never be executed once we’ve passed on. What thoughts he had as I brought the final stroke to his aorta I do not know, but in time I will.

When I reached the stand, the prosecuting attorney asked me to recant the story of my brother’s death. I told him as I have told you, death drove my brother mad. Neither he, nor the jury, would accept my story as fact. For them, one dies and they are dead.

Now, despite my unfortunate confinement to this white room, built of metal-studded gypsum board and cotton-stuffed insulation, my opiate-induced euphoria provides an acceptable, albeit sterile, simulation of death. This is the life I will bring with me past the fence; the flirting, entrance into, and return from death, and the peace I’ve found in such a dire circumstance. It is with this understanding that I continue the rest of my life. I have no remorse for my actions, for one day I too will die and my brother will know well the life I’ve lived.