Monthly Archives: May 2017

Another Night in Paradise

Their key slid to the left of the lock, leading to Nick fumbling both with his wife, flung bridal-style over his arms, and the knob. The door gave too easily and the pair nearly fell into the darkened room. Bonnie slid, laughing, down and around his side like she was descending a firefighter’s pole.

“Welcome to paradise,” Nick said sarcastically.

“Hey, at least it’s got a door,” Bonnie said, kicking the scrunched floor-rug with her sandals. “And…a view?”

The porthole that sat just below a decorative coconut-fibre mat was nearly opaque with smeared grease and scratches. Bonnie stepped closer to peer through the muddied glass and yelped, jumping back. Moisture pooled at her feet, seeping from a point roughly at waist-height. “Nick, it’s wet.”

Nick nodded. “Health hazard. Hello, first class.” He peered around the cabin. “None of the outlets are at floor level, though. They’ll probably just send someone to seal it, move us and throw us coupons for the buffet.”

‘Oh, Nick.” The statement had no follow up. Bonnie hung listlessly to her husband’s side as he hung a waterproof coat on the cabin door’s hook. The hook immediately came away, startling laughter from the both of them.

“Remind me,” Nick said, “didn’t we say no more cruises, ever, after the last time?”

Bonnie clicked her tongue. “We also said no pizza after Atkins and no more road trips to your brother’s.”

“Yeah, but last time should have been the capper. Remember that disaster?”

“I try not to,” she said blithely, picking up the coat and hanging it on a drawer knob, “anyway, you don’t know. It could be fun.”

 

The upper deck smelled faintly of feces and spoiled food. Posted signs warned guests about consuming water directly from the boat’s taps and reminded that bottled water was available plentifully and for a modest price in any of the restaurants. Nick wadded up a gum wrapper and flung it at a sign, which unstuck from the wall and slid awkwardly to the ground. Nick grunted and shook his head, using his free arm to gather Bonnie to his side.

“Come on, vacations are supposed to be relaxing.” Bonnie was pushing the last of her stray hairs underneath the bathing cap she insisted on wearing to protect her dye job. “So relax.”

“Sure.” Nick leaned casually on a railing and his hand came away sticky. Bonnie laughed.

“”What gets me is how new this place looks. What possessed me to book a cruise on an untested ship? Nothing ever goes right in a new tourist trap.”

“So? I bet the first people into Disney World don’t regret it.” Bonnie paced to the edge of the non-slip tile surrounding the deck pool, shedding her towel like a cape. “Coming in?”

Nick shook his head. “Stinks too much like chlorine. I’ll sit this one out.” He scooped up her towel and went to claim an empty chaise lounge.

Bonnie set off into the pool to prove him wrong. The chlorine did sting her eyes a bit, no, a lot. Four minutes into her swim, she spotted a lone turd floating past.

“Too cold?” Nick asked airily, towel already out. Bonnie dried herself hastily, trying not to retch.

“Remind me to bring more hand sanitizer to the next cruise.”

“I don’t think there will be a next cruise.”

Someone’s boisterous child ran past, kicking over Nick’s thermal coffee cup and splattering their feet with milky coffee. The couple exchanged looks.

 

It seemed like every other light installed in the ship’s hallways was set to permanent flicker. Nick could feel a headache welling up deep in his skull. Bonnie’s attempt to purchase painkiller from the drug store only turned up a bland generic which did not dent the pain. As they strolled past yet another out-of-order elevator, Nick squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

“What even is the point,” he said, “why do we do this? We’ve turned all our control over to this company, all our money, and for what? So we can be in a bubble everywhere we go? Why can’t we just travel like normal people?”

“So we can take part in the class-action suit,” Bonnie joked without conviction. Her corns were beginning to throb.

“But that’s the thing, people never win those. The companies settle out of court, nothing changes. We’re under marine law out here, they could kill us and we wouldn’t have any recourse.”

Bonnie stopped. “Don’t say that. Don’t joke about that.”

“I’m not joking, I’m—” Nick stopped to rub his eyes against the strobing onslaught of an overhead bulb. “God. Can we just go back to our room?”

Maintenance had been by and left a placard on their door, apologizing for not having the proper tools to fix the problem until the next port. Management left another, smaller, finer-print card apologizing for the inability to move them as the ship was booked full and invited them to partake in the complimentary fruit basket left for them.

Nick threw it at the wall. Kiwis and pluots, fruits that they were both allergic to, rained down on the wet floor. The cabin smelled like mold.

 

“First thing when we get to port,” Nick said, struggling on with his shirt in the damp air of the cabin, “first thing we’re doing is catching a plane back. This is ridiculous.”

Bonnie was squinting through the porthole, hands paused in the act of knotting her sarong. “Are you sure we didn’t port last night?”

“Yeah. Why?” Nick looked over at her.

“I just…remember waking and the boat was very still for a few hours in the middle of the night last night.” Bonnie looked over at the full-length mirror hanging beside the bed, petting her collarbone.

“That’s crazy. Why make port in the middle of the night, when no one’s awake?”

Bonnie looked into his eyes, just looked and looked. The question hung in the air between them.

They made their way up to the third deck, where the fire show was supposed to be taking place. Nick sucked air over his teeth when he saw the line. He put a hand on Bonnie’s arm. She huddled over and assumed a look of martyrdom.

“Sorry folks,” Nick called to the queue as they walked past, “MS flare up. I just need to get her sat down.”

They scored a table right up near the stage. Ten minutes passed as the other guests filed in. Twenty minutes. Nick sipped water out of a glass covered with fingerprints. It tasted how the air smelled. Half an hour. Finally a cruise employee came out and apologized for the cancellation of the show, passing out vouchers for the buffet. Nick shot an ‘I-told-you-so’ look to his wife.

The pool was crowded with unruly children. Bonnie watched one launch a snot rocket directly into the water and decided against entering. Nick spotted the blue stripe of an island vanishing into the boat’s wake and hunted down a docking schedule. Yes, they had made port in the middle of the night. The attendant who provided the chart promised to inform him of any future stops, scribbling their surname and cabin number in an illegible hand.

The couple killed a few hours wandering hand in hand, marveling at the various cracks in the cruise’s facade of pefection. Doors stuck. Surfaces were unsanitary. The mixed odor of everything unpleasant had only gotten stronger since the first day. They decided to brave the buffet, splitting their menu to sweeten the odds. Nick went with the chicken tandoori, reasoning that it would have been scorched to a temperature reasonable enough that would kill any hitchhiking E.coli. Bonnie stuck with fruit and the vegetables no one took, heaping her plate with raw broccoli and cauliflower.

As it happened, Nick lost the draw. He spent the rest of the night alternately hunched over or sitting on the toilet, which stopped flushing after the third visit. The card on their cabin door apologized yet again for the lack of repair, but they had attempted to stem the leak and broken the light in their efforts. The door stuck when they went to bed down, Bonnie’s hand slipping and cracking her customized vacation nail tips right through the palm trees.

Stomach subsiding into grumbles, Nick lay beside his wife in total darkness.

“…I mean,” Bonnie said, “if this is all this bad, imagine what the lifeboat are like.”

Nick sat up. Bonnie had put her finger on something that had been bothering him, niggling at the back of his head like a spawning migraine.

“You remember the last cruise,” he said slowly, “remember how we said we’d never go on another one…”

Bonnie laughed in the dark. “Yup. I said ‘if we ever get out of here—’”

“—‘if we ever survive,’” Nick interjected.

Bonnie was silent.

“They were calling us out to the lifeboats. We were listing to port and they were evacuating,” Nick said, worrying the memory like a splinter.

Bonnie gasped. “And we said I had muscular dystrophy, got us on one of the early boats. I remember. The sea was so choppy, there was this old woman wailing every time we went over a wave. Why would we book another cruise after that?”

Nick said grimly, “we wouldn’t.”

The air in the cabin was thick and wet.

“Why doesn’t anything work here?” Nick turned to her, unable though he was to actually look at his wife. “Not a single thing has gone right for us, why is that?”

“Nick,” Bonnie said in a hushed, urgent tone. She sat up and grasped his lapels. “I remember the lifeboat. I remember the water was so cold, we fell off but we kept getting back on. When did they rescue us, Nick? Why don’t I remember being rescued?

There was the groan of thousands of pounds of steel being overtaxed. The cabin, and the couple in it, tilted to one side.

“Nick,” Bonnie said, “Nick. Nick!

 

The door kicked open, and the couple behind it nearly fell into the room.

“Welcome to paradise.”

“Hey, at least it’s got a door. And…a view?” A yelp. “Nick, it’s wet.”

“Health hazard. Hello, first class…”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

The Echo Pipe

The echo pipe stuck straight out of solid bedrock. 3 ¾ inches of rusted iron, it was Hawley’s biggest mystery. Mrs. Strickland’s spontaneous combustion and the meteor shower that made the town smell like spent matches lagged behind in the dust. Those were one-time things. The pipe was ongoing.

The bit of road that curved before it went into a tunnel leading out of town, that was where you found the echo pipe. On the hottest day, you could still feel a cool underground breeze wafting out of the mouth of the pipe. That’s how folk knew it was real, not just a bit of leftover sewer pipe stuck in the mountain by some joker. Maybe once the pipe had been capped, or maybe it continued into the ground and that section had broken off, but now the end was a jagged mess. The legend went, if you put your ear (carefully, those shards were sharp) to the hole, you could hear an echo back before you even said anything.

Hawley kids have been using the pipe as entertainment for decades. It’s a telephone, planchette, almanac, and confessional all in one. Early days, the pipe would only give an echo out after you said something into it. Nowadays, all one has to do is wait and something will come out. Girls will have listening parties, collapsing into giggles the second they hear a man’s voice. Boys will ascribe terrible crimes to the sounds they hear, labeling every conversation as some sort of code. Once in awhile some loner will pretend the echoes coming from that rusted hole are part of a conversation being held with them and only them. They usually give it up after the strain of belief becomes too much, usually two-three days camping out by the pipe. It was one of these loners that was the unwitting instigator of the end, boy by the name of Ethan Madden.

As he described it to the rest of the town, Ethan’s experience went like this: he set up a camping chair by the pipe, intending hours of listening. He caught faint snatches of conversation. Nothing important, some couple arguing about who was to take a mysterious “her” up to the city. There was a flat silence for all of six seconds, and then the scream.

The scream was so loud that Notch Evans, the man with the house closest to the road, could hear it. Ethan swears he’s still deaf in the ear that was facing the pipe. The scream went on for hours. 3 hours 25 minutes to be exact. In the wake of such a noise, the silence seemed to ring. The whole town camped around that thing, even 93-year-old Mrs. Van der Waals struggled up the hill. All eyes trained on that pipe, waiting for the next sound.

What came next was a cacophony, decipherable to no one. Occasionally there were snatches of quiet, leaving orphan phrases to be interpreted. A man called Mark shouted for Melissa to bring the kids. Ten-year-old Mark Drisson blushed and looked at the ground, not at Melissa Eckhart. Men called to each other to patch the hole where Notch’s place stood with parts of the roof. Notch drained of all color. On and on it went like that. Some terrible catastrophe was befalling the town, one they could only partially discern. Was it a flood? Earthquake? On they listened, eager for any information that might help avoid the end.

At 2:14 pm on June 6th, amidst the roar of a crowd in turmoil, the pipe went silent. And silent it has remained ever since.

Leave a comment

Filed under microfiction

Islands

“Take deep, calm breaths. Push your self down into a knot, gather its ends until it is a uniform sphere.”

Sturgess complied. In his mind’s eye a lens developed and grew with an ease borne from months practice. Like the people occupying the folding chairs all around him in the E street Protestant church basement, Sturgess was creating a peace. An oasis of cool thought in the roaring inferno of his reality.

Purefoy paced the aisles, adjusting limbs and closing eyes when necessary. Sturgess snuck a look through lashes, closing his lids swiftly as the other man turned around.

Purefoy paced to the front of the room. Standing beside a chalkboard written with a set of phrases designed to loosen the psyche, he called on random people throughout the room. He snapped his fingers and spoke a name, needing no more instruction than that.

“Linsky?”

“Atoll in the south pacific. Coconuts and fig trees. Lagoon big enough to swim in. Maybe a blonde or two.”

“Ito?”

“Tiny city. Buildings on buildings on buildings. Enough room for me and everyone I know.”

“Roberts?”

“Big enough for a house, no more. Brick walls, gabled roofs. A flock of geese in residence.”

“Sturgess?”

Sturgess replied naturally, having weighed and measured his words long before being called on.

“A tree,” he said, “that fills the whole island. No treehouses, branches big as the arms of Gaia to cradle me every night. The birds for company.”

There was more, so very much more. Sturgess had created hummock grass, berry canes, a shore of glass shards that had been turned smooth by the tide. His mind’s eye moved like a documentarian’s camera through his inner landscape. His island had progressed so much that he was comparing soil PH when Purefoy called an end to the session.

Purefoy cocked a single foot up on a folding chair and rested an elbow on it.

“You are closer with every waking breath,” he told the group, “solidifying your longing into something tangible. It isn’t enough to want. You’ve got to need. You’ve got to split yourself wide open and go diving.” Purefoy smiled. “Continue the exercises over this next week. Peace, my friends.”

The group (officially dubbed the “Mindfulness Meditation Hour” on the church schedule board) scattered at his dismissal. They bumped shoulders, made niceties at one another, but remained isolate even when speaking. They were islands, all of them to the last. Sturgess preferred it that way. If it was up to him, it would remain so up until the next meeting. Like a dragonfly skimming a pond.

But the contradiction jarred his shoulder roughly as he walked home through the capitol park.

“Croft,” Sturgess said icily.

Croft latched onto his upper arm, grip unpleasantly moist. “Sturgess.”

“I have no wish to justify myself to you, Croft.” Sturgess attempted to walk forward, but the smaller man’s grip was surprisingly strong.

“Still following that old fraud, then?” Croft laughed humorlessly, making his throat wattles jiggle. “I can’t help but feel sorry for you. I’ve made my own path, Jeffrey. You might join me?”

Sturgess twisted his arm out of the other man’s grasp. “I’ve heard everything you’ve had to say, Croft, don’t repeat yourself ad nauseum. Purefoy may not have spoken for everyone in group, but he spoke for me.”

Croft colored indignantly, trotting to keep up with the pace Sturgess set. “You have not, to your embarrassment, heard everything I have to say. I won’t take back what I said to him. You’re all dreaming your potential away. I’ve struck oil, Sturgess. I’ve found it.”

And Sturgess could have very well kept on walking, leaving Croft and his delusions there beside a donated bench and the drinking fountain…but for the inflection in that last word.

“Am I supposed to know what this it is?” Sturgess said lightly.

Croft took a step forward. His collar had come undone and sweat shined his cheeks. “The mirror, Sturgess. I’ve found it.”

 

Sturgess looked at his reflection in the silvered glass. Streaks of tarnish distorted his image, making it seem like he stood in the midst of a web. The looking-glass had a bronze frame embellished with a greek meander, stopping only at a flat plaque that sat at the bottom of its oval shape.

Orbis Tertius, Sturgess read.

“You don’t know what I had to do to lay hands on this.” Croft sloshed down another whiskey, ice clinking in the glass. “I spread my web thinly across near the entire globe. The problem with out-of-place artifacts is that oftentimes they conveniently resemble an errant bit of cultural detritus. An amphora in the Yucatan. A shipman’s nail entombed with a mummy. The charlatan who sold this to me said it was part of a noble Roman family’s collection. Ha! The pittance I paid for it should be punishment enough for his ignorance.”

“So you’ve bought a mirror,” Sturgess said slowly.

“Not just any mirror. The mirror. The seeing-glass. That which allows man to view what he wishes.”

“You realize the mirror our founder spoke of was a metaphor?”

“No, it wasn’t.” Croft waddled up impatiently. “Only short-sighted philistines like Purefoy would think it so. This mirror sat in the lounge of the Club Jaune, Crowley himself had many a glass of absinthe beneath it and was never the wiser.”

“And the founder?”

“Oh he knew. Not much, but he knew. He was gazing into it when he first thought of his meditation scheme. You remember?”

Of course he did. Sturgess had committed the passage to memory: on settling myself upon a lake of dream-silver, I see my self reflected in the glass and a diminishing series of my dream-selves.

Orbis tertius. Sturgess traced the engraving with his finger.

“So this is the mirror he described. What’s the significance?”

Croft smiled. It was the question he’d been baiting Sturgess into.

“Forget your islands,” he said, “imagine a world. An entire planet of thought. A dream so strong it drowns out all else. Look.

Sturgess looked. And was held captive.

The mirror was no longer a mirror but blank glass, and it moved much the way his mind’s eye did over his own mental garden. Rising up from a lavender sea, Sturgess was confronted by a city of packed earth. The residents dressed in shockingly blue robes, save for a select few men who roamed the streets in red loincloths and golden body paint The view shifted to an Islamamorphic country, whose residents wore not taqiyah but a spiraling headdress that seemed to mimic organic structures that coiled high above their heads. Again, a shift in vision. A species of aquatic horses gamboled by the shoal as preteen boys made a game of leaping off the rocks onto their backs. A temple built to honor a four-tusked elephant made entirely out of a porous yellow stone. A city that hung from a cliffside like a swallow’s nest. A lone shepherd who looked over a field of buffalo so massive it swallowed an entire plain.

Sturgess started when Croft shoved a tumbler of icewater into his hand. He gulped it greedily. Fifteen minutes had elapsed  while he’d been swimming in the well of the mirror.

“You see what I mean by limited? Purefoy keeps you tethered because he knows the power of pure thought. But I—” Croft tapped his breastbone with a finger, “—have slipped that tether.”

Sturgess forced himself to think, to breathe, to be calm. Again and again, his gaze wandered back to the mirror. How wicked! What was the saying; copulation and mirrors are abominable, for they multiply and disseminate the universe? Sturgess could feel himself thinning in the presence of the mirror, and simultaneously felt a longing to be thinned.

Croft had a longing too. Sturgess had seen it from the first, his pathological need to be considered, deferred to.

“And what?” he said as drily as he could, hands trembling, “you’ve made your own island. A bigger island, to be sure, for isn’t every planet an island in the vacuum?”

Croft’s color rose again. He jabbed his finger sharp as knife at Sturgess, emphasizing each beat of his speech. “I haven’t just thought up an island, Sturgess. I’ve willed it. And mine is the will that supercedes all else.”

Sturgess felt his stomach fall away. “You mean…”

“I will make it real, rather, I will make it real to all beside me. It will start with the artifacts. Zippering into history, we will rediscover a long tradition of a sister planet running back to antiquity. Languages will alter, etymology will skew towards the new-old world. Soon we will have guests, residents of my world here on gold-stamped passports. Tell me, do you think it too forward to refer to this world as Croft?”

Sturgess made himself a blank, a human mirror that cast only Croft’s reflection.

“And tell me,” he said carefully, “would there…perhaps be room for a continent…or an island, not to be greedy…called Sturgess?”

Croft smiled. They were finally speaking the same language.

“That’s why I’ve brought you here,” he said eagerly, setting his tumbler down. “I have some papers you need to see.”

How terrible that the thinker of the century was easily vulnerable to the old cliche of a bookend to the temple. Sturgess winced at the meaty sound of the hit, pausing between strikes. He stopped when Croft ceased movement.

The mirror sat on the wall, blank eye echoing the whole ordeal. The right thing would be to smash it. That it existed at all was a deep perversion of some natural order.

Sturgess found the cold surface with his fingertips. The mirror demurely faded into a seascape, a blank blue canvas. As he watched, a dot on the horizon grew in detail as his vision loomed nearer. He could see branches, a beach, and a multitude of birds.

One island. Why be greedy?

Sturgess smiled.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction