Category Archive: Short Stories

Nov 02

Cats in Command

The cat’s yowl jolted me out of a deep sleep. Too groggy to wonder how it had gotten into my bedroom, I stumbled out of bed and shooed it towards the front door.

Big yellow moon eyes glowing in the dark, the cat stared at me, flicked its tail, and trotted down the hall.

Glad it was as eager to leave as I was to evict it, I opened the door. A fierce wind pulled it out of my hand. One second later the suction of a cosmic vacuum cleaner caught me in its swirl, and I was pulled down one of those tunnels reported by people who had near-death experiences, except that I didn’t see the light. I saw prison bars, and, once I got oriented, I realized I was behind them.

 

Photographer: Emily

 

The cat had disappeared.

I tested the cage’s lock and rattled the bars.

Footsteps padded to the front of the adjoining cage. “Hello?” a man said.

I was already in shock from a bad case of disbelief. Now I plunged into paralysis.

“Ralph?” I whispered. We hadn’t spoken since he’d taken the last of his belongings from the house a year ago.

“Elaine?”

“Yes. What’s going on?”

“I’ve been expecting this. If they grabbed me, they were bound to get you, too.”

“Who?”

“The cats, of course. Didn’t one come for you?”

“A big black cat with yellow eyes.”

“Yeah, he’s the main people catcher.”

He paused, and I heard the faint scratch of claws against a concrete floor.

“Be careful,” Ralph said. “Talk to you later.”

A large gray cat came into view, wearing an unfamiliar-looking electronic device. “I’m Sheba, here for your intake interview.”

“I don’t want to be taken in. I want to be taken back to my warm bed, and I want to sleep.”

“I’m sure you do.” She flicked one of the bars, and a section of the door lifted to make a cat-sized opening. She slinked through it.

“I’ll interview you in your sleeping quarters. Follow me.”

Her growl gave me no choice. I followed her to the back of the cage, which contained a curtained shower and toilet, a sink, and a bed. The mattress wasn’t too bad.

“Now then,” the cat said, tapping the device. “I’ll tell you why you’re here. You’ve been imprisoned for going catless for too long.”

What?” I might be awake, but this was still a nightmare. “I demand to speak to my lawyer. I demand to call Amnesty International and the ACLU and—”

“Forget it. You’re under our jurisdiction now—and no Miranda rights, either. Zip your lips and listen to the charges against you. After your last cat left your home, a full year ago, you were approached for adoption by two feral cats and one kitten. You refused in every instance, so we had to take matters into our own paws.”

I remembered those cats. I’d even fed the ferals for a few days. Was their idea of gratitude to turn me in to the Feline Bureau of Investigation?

“My ex-husband took my—I mean our—last cat when we broke up, and she ran away.”

“Could you speak a little more clearly? The iPaws is recording the conversation.” She spoke into the machine: “The subject attempts to justify resistance to being adopted.”

She stood on her hind legs, flicked a few buttons with her talons, and moved the device parallel to my body. After a few minutes, she said, “Good health, unspayed. If you work on your attitude, you shouldn’t have any problems.”

Talk about attitude. “If you think cats belong with humans, how come you aren’t with one?”

“I did my time. I leave it to those willing to make the long-term sacrifice of living with your kind so that they can educate and train you.”

“And the free food, shelter, and catnip don’t influence them at all. Don’t the toys count for anything?”

Her blue eyes turned cold with contempt. “You have a serious misunderstanding of your present situation if you think sarcasm is a viable weapon. It doesn’t matter, though. You’ll learn.”

She flicked another button, and the iPaws’ light went out. “You’ll be shown for adoption tomorrow. Have a good night’s sleep.”

The cat disappeared from view. After a few minutes, I went to the front of the cage and whispered, “Ralph?”

I heard his shambling footsteps. “You’re in the picture now,” he said.

“But why is it our fault that Lola ran away? We never abused her.”

“I haven’t had the specific charges against me read yet.”

Maybe she’d gotten as tired of him as I had. I could still list the reasons for evicting him without pausing for breath. He was smug. He always had to be right. The word compromise was a stranger to his vocabulary.

Now the physical sensations of hatred returned: the tightening of my calf muscles as I fought the urge to kick him, the roughening of a throat crammed with knife-edged curses, and the overall sensation that he was sucking all the oxygen from the room.

I fought for breath. “People don’t end up behind bars for breaking up.”

“This isn’t a jail. It’s a pet adoption center, but it’s different from the kind you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re the pet.”

********

I held onto the bars, afraid I might faint.

“Elaine, are you all right?”

“Of course not. I’m terrified.”

“The initial shock of it is terrifying. Maybe if I explain it a little better, you won’t be as afraid.”

Now I was reeling from a new shock. The softness in his voice suggested that he actually cared that I was upset. This was surprising behavior from the man who until a year ago had been the main source of my misery.

I made a strategic decision. Only Ralph could give me the facts that might explain this horror. Distasteful as the idea was, I decided to initiate a truce.

“Is all this for real?” I asked, squeezing a little friendliness into my voice.

“It’s as real as these bars.  Once you’ve been owned by a cat, you can’t stop. It’s like trying to leave a book or record club. They never forget about you. If you haven’t lived with a cat in a year, you come up on their database. “

“How come no one hears about this?”

“Are you kidding? Would you tell anyone?”

He had a point. I asked him how long he’d been here.

“Three days.”

“And you haven’t been adopted.”

“At first I didn’t want to be owned by any of the cats who looked at me.”

“How did you avoid it?”

“The best thing is to act stupid. Cross your eyes and let your tongue hang out of your mouth. Curl up on your bed and sleep. If nothing else works, pee in the corner.”

“You can’t just say no?”

“If they want you, they take you.”

“And what if no one ever does?”

“I’m not sure.” For the first time, Ralph sounded frightened. “The cats say they don’t euthanize—it’s part of the Feline Code of Honor, but I don’t like how they say it. You might as well get it into your head that the only way out of here alive is with a cat, and the sooner the better.”

“So now you want to be owned?”

“Today I realized I didn’t have a choice, so I tried to act adoptable. This afternoon I almost got adopted by a nice Burmese kitten, but she told the matron that I wasn’t very attractive. I’ll tell you, I felt pretty rejected.”

Knowing Ralph’s capacity for resentment, I diverted him with a question. “There’s no court of appeals?”

“Forget the idea that they run this place on principles of human justice. And don’t count on sympathy from the jailors. They don’t want to do us any favors. Like the intake mistress said, everyone here is training us to be good pets, to make a better world for all creatures.”

“Very lofty principles,” I said, “but I really love how they disregard the food and shelter we’ve provided.”

“They think we pay a small price for the privilege of their company and instruction.”

I was getting new insights into the attitude of entitlement that all cats shared.

The logic of this bizarre situation, however, did nothing to comfort me. Every sign of evidence that I really was stuck in this world of cages and iPaws-bearing cats terrified me. This psychological torture was surely the intention of the feline fascists who ran the place. The more frightened we were, the more ready we’d be for adoption. I, however, had no intention of succumbing to their tactics. I knew I could hold out longer than Ralph had.

“I’m going to bed now,” he said. “See you in the morning.”

“Yeah.”

********

I thought I wouldn’t sleep, but the pillow was filled with herbs whose fragrance smoothed out my jangled nerves. I slept until the rattling of metal awoke me in the morning.

A large tabby tom opened the cat-sized opening in the cage and pushed through two bowls. “Supposed to have yesterday’s bowls lined up at the front of the cage,” he growled.

“I arrived too late to eat.” I examined the contents of the food bowl. “What is this?”

“Kibble, like what you fed your cat. Now you’ll be sorry you were too stingy to buy wet food.”

“How am I supposed to eat this? I’m not a cat.”

“Too bad for you.”

********

After he left I tasted it. It seemed to have dried vegetables and fruits in it, and the stuff was almost tasty.

A new iPaws-wearing prison matron swept down the aisle. “Time to groom, everyone. Visitors will be arriving soon.” She handed me a set of standard prison overalls, except that they were gray instead of orange. I looked awful in gray.

I re-closed the curtains. After my shower, I dried off with coarsely woven towels. The brush provided would have been more suitable for a long-haired cat, but I managed to get my short hair into some kind of order.

********

A little later pawsteps echoed softly down the hallway. “I haven’t seen anyone I liked,” a kitten mewed.

“It’s a poor showing,” another cat, who sounded older, agreed.

They paused in front of my cage. They were Persian, with the kind of fur that shed white streaks everywhere.

I wasn’t about to become a household slave for a cat, so I followed Ralph’s advice, scratching myself, yawning, and generally looking half-witted.

“Stupid,” the kitten said, turning her back and fluffy tail on me. “She’d probably forget to feed me.”

The cats padded away.

“Whatever you did worked,” Ralph said. “It was a good decision. That kitten was a real princess. She’d have you serving her meals in Waterford crystal bowls. Some people like that, of course, so she’ll find a slave eventually.”

********

No one else came to view me that day. After kibble dinner, all the humans were allowed into the exercise yard, which had some stationary bicycles, treadmills, and stair exercisers. Some humans were doing yoga, accompanied by raucous catcalling at the clumsiness of their stretches.

I got on a bicycle next to a woman with braided brown hair. “New to the place?” she asked.

“Last night, late.”

“Three days for me, and I think I’m going to get adopted tomorrow. Older cat, very sweet disposition, mostly sleeps. The only trouble is, he wants company, so he’s negotiating a deal with a two-month-old kitten.”

“And I suppose you have no say in it.”

“You catch on fast. I’ve heard rumors about solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. I’m not interested in finding out whether they’re true or not.”

********

By the next day I had the schedule down: breakfast, wash-up, viewing, lunch, more viewing, exercise yard, dinner, and lights-out. We had a lot of time on our hands, and I spent a surprising amount of it talking to Ralph. It was amazing how I could ignore my vows of eternal enmity when he was so handy for conversation.

He asked me if I was seeing anyone. I implied that my social life was a dizzying whirl. He said his was, too. I was sure he was lying. I was.

On my third day, though, he admitted that he couldn’t find it in his heart to date any woman more than twice. “They’re so boring.”

Or bored, I thought, but I didn’t cling to the thought as I once might have. That night, while lying on my increasingly uncomfortable mattress, I realized that Ralph, imprisoned under conditions that might have brought out the worst in many men, had become increasingly friendly and helpful. To my horror, I found myself a little sorry that I hadn’t recognized his potential while we’d been married.

********

During adoption hours the next day, few cats even paused by my cage. Ralph got more attention, but after a short interview, the cats’ ears would flatten and they’d leave, tails high.

At the end of my first week of incarceration, the iPaws-bearing matron came to his cage and said, “The warden wants to see you.”

My nearly-dissolved hostility evaporated into genuine concern. As he emerged from his cage, I flashed a “V” for Victory. He looked as if he would have preferred the intervention of a large, cat-hating Rottweiler.

Hours passed, kibble was distributed, and the prisoners were sent to the exercise room. I didn’t see Ralph anywhere.

When we were about to return to our cells, another matron growled at me.

“Follow me to the warden’s office.”

My stomach dipped to the floor.

********

I followed the matron down a long low hallway to a door. She opened it to a room with a desk and two wooden chairs. A gray tiger cat was sprawled on top of a desk.

I gasped. It was Lola.

“I’m so glad to see you’re okay,” I said. I wanted to run over and stroke her head, but she issued a preemptory hiss.

“This is not a social call. Sit.”

I sat.

“Be aware that your reputation preceeds you—based, of course, on my report. It’s in your record that you gave me up without a struggle.”

“We had to divide things,” I said in my defense.

Things? I remember; you got the sound system. To think it meant more to you than me.” She turned her back on me and washed her paws with deep concentration.

“But you don’t understand. We were both so angry. I wanted to get him out of there before we killed each other.”

“I understand quite well. I was there—until I was gone. What you don’t understand is how depressed Ralph was after we moved out. I did my best to cheer him up, because no cat can stay tranquil when her human is crying all the time.”

Crying? Ralph?

“He loved you.”

“He had a funny way of showing it.”

“Humans do. I’ve never understood it, and I couldn’t take the waterworks any longer. That’s why I ran away. Fortunately I discovered this place and rapidly advanced to a leadership position—which brings us to your current precarious situation.”

She turned on an iPaws. “I’ve gotten very bad reports about your adoptability, and the time has come to warn you. You’re taking up cage space that could be used by a more agreeable human. In other words you’re coming to your expiration date.”

I gripped the seat of the chair. “What does that mean?”

“If you don’t get adopted within the next two days, you’ll be moved to a back cage: smaller quarters, blanket on the floor, low-grade kibble, one hour a week access to the exercise yard. No one’s going to have you put to sleep, but we simply can’t afford to waste our resources on unadoptables.”

“But—”

She raised a paw. “The terms are non-negotiable. In case you doubt the seriousness of your situation, it’s time to show you we mean business. You’ll get a preview of your future living space.”

Lola pawed a button on her desk, and a tough-looking tabby female took me away.

We went down yet another long hallway, and she hissed at me all the way.

“Wait until you get the picture that life here isn’t all kibble. Follow me.”

She opened a cage door, and I refused to move. I might be imprisoned, but I was still bigger than this bully. I was beginning to congratulate myself on winning the stand-off when the cat pointed the iPaws at me. I felt as if I’d stuck a wet finger into an electrical socket. I fell, writhing, to the ground.

“Do you want more?”

To my humiliation, I groveled before her. She smiled a sadistic feline smile and motioned me to follow her.

The cage lacked windows. The walls were gray concrete. A single naked electric bulb illuminated the area.

“Are you going to interrogate me?” I asked in a quavering voice.

The cat looked bored. “It’s not necessary. We know exactly why you don’t want to be adopted. Your reasons, are, of course, unacceptable. We’ve decided to leave you in solitary until you see reason.”

I was left alone the entire night to toss and turn on what was a very thin blanket spread over a very cold and hard floor. Naturally, there were no rats or mice, but a thriving and aggressive insect population more than compensated for the absence of rodents.

Yet my physical discomfort troubled me less than the loss of the by-now familiar and comforting presence of Ralph in the next cage. A thought came to me, sharp as a claw. Maybe I owed him an apology.

The idea (or maybe it was the low-grade kibble) made me want to vomit. I knew I had to get out of here before I lost my mind. I would throw myself at the mercy of the next reasonably attractive cat.

********

In the morning the tough tabby came to my cage. She leapt onto the creaky wooden table and looked me in the eyes.

She purred with satisfaction. “I think you may have learned your lesson. We’ll see how well you show today.”

We went back down several hallways until I saw Ralph pacing in his cage. He waited until the matron had left before speaking.

“I figured out where you were. Awful, right?”

“I’d rather not talk about the details.”

“I understand. I’ll say only that I’m determined to get adopted today.”

I nodded and took a deep breath. I was about to violate every principle I’d ever held dear, and I hardly cared.

“Me, too. But first, we need to have a discussion.”

********

We talked for two hours, and it turned out that Ralph had as many regrets as I did. He cried a little; so did I.

“I wish I could kiss you,” he said.

“Sweet.” I glanced down to see a small gray and white kitten studying me, eyes wide.

“I’ve been hoping to find a pair,” she said. “You are, aren’t you?”

I wished I could see Ralph’s face. “Yes,” I said hopefully.

“Absolutely,” he said.

The kitten purred. “My name is Sofia, and you may take me to your home. I’ll go make the arrangements.”

********

We were released. The kitten took over the house and cried whenever we even sounded as if we were about to have a fight. We all got along very well.

One night I heard a scratching at the door. I’d developed a phobia about opening doors, but I didn’t think the Feline Bureau of Investigation could have anything on us now, so I took a chance.

Lola sat on the doorstep. “I’m here for a follow-up visit.”

She walked through the open door and padded over to the corner where Sofia was curled up on her bed. They spoke in  low voices.

After a few minutes Lola returned to me. “Sofia is quite pleased. It appears that things are going well here. For a young kitten, she has a strong sense of what ownership demands. Nonetheless, she says that you continue to have some behavior problems, and she’d appreciate the assistance of a mature cat. I’ve decided to offer my services.”

“You mean, you’re coming back?”

“I consider it my duty. And, of course, it’s my house.”

“What happened to your career track?”

She hissed at me, and I shut up.

********

I’m a slow learner, I suppose. Lola had to swat me many times before she was satisfied with my conduct.

I’m not complaining. I’ve come to accept my status as a pet. It’s not so bad.

Especially when you consider the alternative.

This short story originally appeared  in the Literary Works section of the Curiosity Quills‘s website.

 

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Sep 29

Cold

The air was cold, unusually cold for a summer night in Minnesota. The sky however, was clear and made a perfect night to curl up next to someone. Feel them close to you as your soul repairs itself from being so far away from each other. True love is so powerful, more powerful than all the emotions you can muster compounded together.

True love is also the rarest.

She lay there next to me, sleeping in my arms — the small fire we had lit burned softly into the shadows.

Her delicate skin against mine, this was it. The moment I had waited so long for. I looked down at her and played with her hair. The firelight making shadows over her body. The white tank she wore clung tight to her, her chest rising and lowering quietly as she played with my chest. The soft sleeping bag beneath us protecting us from the cold grasp of the night. Our bodies creating the only heat inside the bag. I looked down at her, and swung my body over her, straddling her. I looked harder, waning to let in all her beauty, not let even a small particle of her essence go unnoticed. There I was, running my fingers lightly over her cheeks, and down her neck.

Photographer: Xavier Mazellier

“Do you love me?” I asked her, averting my eyes from her own.
“Of course I do. “ She smiled as she looked at me. Grabbed my hand and rubbed it against her face.
“I have a secret you know” I looked away from her, my heart racing inside its cage.
“What is it?” She asked. She stopped rubbing her face against my hand and looked back at me.
I stared back, biting my lip.“The hunger sometimes takes me, it isn’t something that I can control all the time.”
“What are you talking about?” She asked as she pulled away from me.
I pulled my body to her own, keeping her tight to me. “That overwhelming urge to bring someone close to you and drain the life out of them. The energies inside them coalescing with each other and flowing into you as one pure source.”

She stiffened beneath me. My hands shivered at the thought of the ecstasy that would ensue. I brushed her hair back over her ear as she trembled in my arms. The smell of fear is intoxicating you see. “It isn’t enough to simply take the energies, you need to be close to get the real good effects. Fear and hate are only so fulfilling. It’s love you see. Love that makes me stronger and more powerful.”

Her eyes darted to me quickly, I met hers with mine. Her heart raced inside, pounding against my chest. I chuckled to myself. “Don’t fill that pretty head with too many thoughts, it’s your love that I need, a creature such as myself is incapable of such emotions.” My hand shook with anticipation, the touch of her soft skin against my fingertips lulled me in closer. Placing my lips upon her skin, and breathing in her aroma, I sighed in relief.

Finally, I would taste it again. I pulled my lips over my teeth, dragging them over her skin, gently biting her as I took her essence into my body. Warmth poured out from her, she took in a deep breath and writhed underneath my body. “Too late.” I whispered too her, and gently bit her on the lobe of her ear. Her soft skin against my lips making me shiver. I could feel the animal coming out, my eyes rolled back into my head and back again.

The power, the control.

Fury, and rage seething behind them. She stopped moving.

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Sep 24

Culture Shock

The most remarkable thing I remember about coming to Canada was the Wal-Mart. I’d only been to a Wal-Mart once before then, when my dad drove us in our tiny second-hand Suzuki to a giant outlet mall about two hours away from where we lived. In a continent where an hour’s drive could bring you to a different country entirely, this was a Pretty Big Deal.

I had marveled at the size of the place, that first time, but even that particular retail location seemed to retain some of the austere character of the soil upon which it was located. For one, it lacked the haphazard nature of the big box stores that has become synonymous with American hyper-consumerism. For another, it was populated with the solemn and the well-behaved and the upper-middle-class who had come to wonder at this latest cultural import from across the Atlantic.

This was years ago, in Germany – a charmingly old-fashioned country that prided itself on workmanship and luxury, a country where even tourist trinkets were well-made and where the concept of cheap disposable goods had not yet taken over.

The first time we stepped into a Canadian Wal-Mart, the first thing I saw was a digital watch for a cartoon series I was really into at the time. It had been made out of cheap rubber, and came with five plastic faceplates featuring different characters from the TV show that could be switched out. The price, more than anything else, remains in my mind: $11.95.

At the exchange rate at the time, the watch translated to about $15 Deutsche Mark…and $15 for a watch with my favorite cartoon characters seemed like an awfully good bargain.

(Imagine my surprise when I discovered dollar stores.)

Photographer: Rich Schieren

Despite their fervent belief that spending money on anything other than the absolute necessities was nothing less than sacrilege, my parents had decided a few years previously that I should be given an allowance in order to be able to properly socialize with the locals. These had a propensity to shun me already, and really did not need further encouragement. I received $5 every week and, apart from the occasional moment of weakness that overwhelmed me when I walked past the sweet’s shop after school, I dutifully squirreled this money away like the good little first generation immigrant I was.

This was different, though. I’d always wanted a watch. Despite the cartoon characters that adorned this particular specimen, a watch of my own seemed charmingly grown-up…exactly the thing a precocious 11-year-old with a surplus of attitude and a deficit of affection needed to prove to the world that she ought to be taken seriously, dammit.

My parents made me sternly promise that I wouldn’t lose any of the faceplates (a promise I broke almost as soon as we stepped out of the store) and that I wouldn’t waste my money on anything so frivolous again anytime soon.

So I bought it. And it didn’t matter that the plastic casing the watch came in crinkled dangerously in my hand, or that manufacturing defects prevented all but two of the faceplates from actually switching out. This watch, my watch, seemed like it was an omen of what Canada was to bring me: freedom, as cliché as that may sound. Freedom to explore, and to grow, and to live.

I have no idea where that watch is, now. I doubt it lasted beyond my first year in Canada. I soon became far more preoccupied with the struggles of living in an English speaking country without actually, well, speaking English all that well. In accordance with my never-ending desire to prove worth to an imaginary panel of judges, I had also decided to bring myself up to speed in another language, my fourth language. This language, I’d decided—a language that my classmates had studied since kindergarten, a language that I’d only seen parodied on TV—would be the one je-ne-sais-quoi I needed to be accepted here. I started checking out French children’s books from the library, and thought no more about half-broken symbols of my childhood.

That year, and the two years following, were marked by frustration and ostracism and classmates that didn’t like me any better than my classmates in Germany had. Eventually, pride and spite and hurt pushed me to a bench at the far end of the schoolyard, protected from the petty politics of grade-schoolers by a book as big as I was.

It wasn’t until grade nine that I really settled into my own, with appropriately nerdy friends and appropriately nerdy classes and something resembling an identity of my own. By then, I was so used to the timbre of life in Canada that none of it—the roadside diners, the franchised coffee shops, the oversized malls, the frigid winters—surprised me anymore.

I took my vow of citizenship the following year, a whole—or is it a mere?—five years after setting foot on Canadian soil, and it felt more like a formality than anything. I’d thought of myself as Canadian for years already; this piece of paper seemed little more than a representation of the rights I already knew were mine. I guess in the end, that’s what every immigrant family wants for their children.

By that time, I’d already lost the recollection of the wonder I felt upon realizing that the life I’d known in Germany was as representative of the wider world as I was of your average Chinese girl. The memories of the cold politeness of my classmates were fading away, to be replaced by a stubborn sense of certainty that this diplomat town ruling over a vast mélange of multiculturalism is where I was meant to be.

I can’t begin to enumerate the naiveties of that particular point of view. I just remember restlessly sitting in the lobby of the government building after the swearing-in ceremony, waiting for dad to bring the car around so my mom and my sister wouldn’t have to walk in the rain. My mom was going to take the rest of the day off, but I was dropped off at a bus terminal so I could make my way back to school for afternoon classes. I’d never lost the streak of academic competitiveness I first developed in grade 6 as a coping mechanism, and the thought of missing an afternoon of school simply because I’d changed national allegiances seemed ridiculous. Just as the trinket that marked my passage into Canada eventually found its way to the great toy chest in the sky, it was time to put my Chinese past into a drawer for safekeeping, and move on.

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Aug 22

Twenty-Two

It’s a good day to be a palindromic age.

Photographer: Bryan Gosline

I was supposed to be over milestones by now. My sociology professors would tell me that it’s human nature to seek meaning in that which is inherently meaningless. The passing of days, the rotation of the earth…we are desperate to imbue these natural phenomena with some sort of greater purpose, so that we are not driven mad with nihilism.

My sociology professors would say that, but then, I’ve always believed I could transcend human nature through pure rationality. It’s a little arrogant, I admit.

I think I expected to be happier, by now. If you asked the sixteen-year-old me what future she envisioned for her barely more mature self, she would probably have answered: a small but cozy apartment, a tight clique of friends with similar interests and disparate personalities, weekends strolling to the bookstore and picking up a guilty pleasure read on a whim, or else checking out that latest art gallery installation. She wouldn’t have imagined days when it was difficult to get out of bed, or nights when it was difficult to stop crying. She wouldn’t have thought of weeks and weekends of barely enough sleep to survive, pushing through to finish just one more project for just one more class that she couldn’t care less about if she tried.

We never really do imagine that, when we think of the future.

I think the sixteen-year-old me would have been intimidated if she met the person I am today. Intimidated and maybe even cowed,  by the aloofness, the unforgiving idolization of intellect, and the imitation of maturity. She would be a little disdainful, too, because even at sixteen I would have recognized the jadedness that I now call second nature for the fraud it was. Is.

At sixteen, I made a document of a hundred and one things I wanted to do in a thousand and one days. Learn Japanese. Learn ASL. Learn how to play Bridge. Get a driver’s license. Not procrastinate for a whole week. Hold someone’s hand. Write a comic strip. Get a tattoo.

The list is painful to read. Not because most of the things were never accomplished—that I resigned myself to long ago—but because I was once naive enough to believe that the things I cared about at sixteen would be the same things I cared about at nineteen. I guess the adults were right about this one.

About a month later, I wrote a list of one hundred facts about myself as an exercise for a diary entry. I guess I was feeling introspective that winter.

The self-recrimination that wafts through those particular pages is practically toxic.

Part of me wants to reach through the years to that (stereotypically) angry and bitter teenager and tell her that everything will be okay. The other part of me wants to laugh at my hypocrisy, because things aren’t okay, not when okay is defined by two pills, taken once daily, do not mix with alcohol.

But you know, things aren’t bad, either. They’re not a teenager’s idle daydreams, but they’re okay. And sometimes, even when I don’t have an iron-fisted control over everything in my life, things turn out alright. Eventually.

 

I guess that’s the thing I’m trying to teach myself, these days.



 

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Aug 02

The Dove

Winner: 2011: New Yorker Magazine Travel Writing Contest

The Dove

(1999)

Photographer: Vicky Van Santen

 

It was a short drive from Mandalay to the Sagaing hills. In

Burma (Myanmar) even short distances bring a great deal. Every

turn of the road was graced by the view of golden stupas and idylliclooking

agrarian activities. Evening was approaching, and I was

treated to processions of straight-backed, saffron-robed young monks,

heads shaven, graciously collecting offerings for the monasteries and

temples from poor, pious farmers and villagers.

Sagaing, an ancient capital, is one of many pagoda sites in

the hills southwest of Mandalay. Luck took me to a beautiful, pure

white marble temple–a glistening platform surrounding a tall, goldplated

stupa with pavilions housing various images of Buddha and

ceremonial bells. The temple’s platform juts out with a full view of

the winding Irrawaddy River and the valley extending east across the

Shan Plateau to China.

I arrived at sunset, and the complex was ablaze with pink,

rose, and red and the sparking gleam of the golden stupa. I was one

of the few people there. I removed my sandals and walked barefoot

on the sun-warmed marble. I was thankful for the silence only

occasionally penetrated by the deep gong of a temple bell as a devotee

called forth divine attention before praying. Largely, all I heard was

the soft shuffle of a few other bare feet and the soft tinkle of the hti,

the gold-plated decorative umbrella topping the stupa.

I perched myself on the platform’s edge transfixed by the

magnificent vista. The brown Irrawaddy had turned pink, and the

sky glowed with a million minute flaming particles that make sunsets

in the Orient beyond words.

Lost in my thoughts that were heavily laced with an

imperceptible sadness, I sensed a presence. Silently, a huddled, tiny,

pink form, a nun, had moved discretely beside me. She looked into

my face and I into hers, her face made more pure by shaven hair,

large almond-shaped eyes, and the gentle caress of her pink robe. I

thought of my wife, Evie, rendered bald by the ravages of chemotherapy.

The nun held out her hands. At first I thought she was asking

for a coin, and I reached into my pocket. She shook her head “no,”

and I realized that her hands were cupped rather than open. By

motions, she indicated that I should do the same, and I extended

cupped hands toward her. She reached beneath her robe, brought out

a dove, and placed it in my hands.

The dove was warm, soft, and trembling. I was seized by

the wretched yet poignant memory of holding Evie–her beautiful

body hacked to pieces by cancer and surgery as the silence of death

progressed.

After a moment, the nun lifted her cupped hands and parted

them. I knew that I was to do the same, releasing the quivering

bird. The bird took immediate flight over the Irrawaddy. Effortlessly

soaring and flapping her wings, she flew into a limitless horizon.

Timelessly, she said good-bye.

My eyes filled with tears, and I looked down. My silent

companion in this ritual of release had left me alone.

 

Chapter from:

The Man in Nagasaki: Memories and Other Recollections

Trafford Press

 

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Jul 14

Chandelier

Lord Marymuck the Fourth and his wife, Elisabeth Marymuck, live in an over-sized mansion that never really gets the appreciation it deserves. Chandeliers and foliage erupt at every ceiling and corner, a diamond here, an unknown species of plant there. Long, extended corridors lead to bizarre, naked quarters usually only occupied by a bed and maybe a petite night table, and of course, a gargantuan chandelier that swings merrily throughout the night in each room.
And in a formulaic, clichéd fashion, Elisabeth Marymuck is improperly fed up with all this gold and glamor, as she always is and always has been. In times of pseudo-trouble, you can always hear her shouting,

“Who needs riches anyway?” “Why are there chandeliers in every room?” “Why can he afford chandeliers and not some new shoes, for me, why can’t he get me some new shoes?”
Women, no matter the era, always need their shoes. 

Elisabeth can scarcely stand the spectacle or odor or communication of Lord Marymuck, which is why she obeys his every word. She finds it rather simple to do errands for the Lord, and concurrently run off with another man or a woman who would give her needed guidance.

On this particular day, Elisabeth is courting Nathaniel Maple, a slob of a man, who carries himself just about as well as he carries his demeanor, which overall is quite poor. Nathaniel is somewhat of a beggar and a vagrant, and he lives accordingly to his chosen lifestyle, in a close to conked bunker of a house that suffers from floorboards older than the Bahamas (which, at this point in time, have only been under British rule for about one hundred years) and windows scattered and shattered throughout – the only pane still in tact with glass glossier than any chandelier. Immersed in this senseless conglomeration of luxury and vagrancy, Elisabeth and Nathaniel sat wide-eyed.

They sat by this window with tea that churned and twisted whenever milk was supplemented, silver spoons with charred outlines resting gleefully in a consoling brunette soup. 

Nathaniel notices how giant and pretty Elisabeth’s lips are. Nathaniel can’t help hearing white noise when her lips mov, wholly entranced by her arched, flapping jaw and a sinuous, sinister mouth that means nothing but trouble that he can’t and won’t oppose. He sits there sipping and nodding, sipping and nodding, sipping and nodding. He sits there awestruck and eager.

“It is quite an unfortunate affair, Nathaniel. I never meant to be pretentious – I was raised mild and caring, like any good woman today. And I just had to send it all tumbling down with marriage – a cruel, never ending gag that landed me where I am today, a would-be adulteress who can only complain about having everything.”
Elisabeth slams her hand on the table – gently enough to keep the tea in the glass, hard enough to make it spiral into oblivion and form little patterns of circles.
“And look at where solitude landed me,” says Nathaniel, “a house by the abbey I don’t and won’t believe in, a life practically constructed by monotony and a pitiable income. You’ve got a way with whining, Elisabeth. You’ve certainly got a way with things, Elisabeth.”

“I might have a way with things, but I’m not sure I get away with things. And don’t complain about monotony. You, my less than lovely Nathaniel, have yet to indulge yourself in marriage, which is the central focus of all monotony, especially with my husband.”

“And you, my disastrous dandelion, have not lived a life brimmed with sitting and waiting for the sun to come up, and then sitting and waiting again for it to go down. My life is the very designation of monotony.”

“You use your laziness and hunger for pity as an excuse to act like you’re full of monotony, but your life is just as rich and endearing as that of any beggar. You’re simply a beggar with a home.”

“I’m begging you to stop this conversation, it’s getting quite monotonous.”

And Elisabeth did stop the conversation – by sitting more aggressively than any married woman should on another man’s lap, her legs wrapping around his waist and the chair, her dress draping to the floor and a kiss that slaps Nathaniel in the face and calls him his bitch. He latches onto Elisabeth’s hair and pulls it back, making sure she was looking at him, right at him, right into him.

“Elisabeth, I am not an immoral man.”

“Today we will cleverly substitute morality for immorality, shall we?”

While Elisabeth and Nathaniel were climaxing in a harmonious sequence that even a symphony would admire, Lord Marymuck was purchasing a luminous centerpiece for the master bedroom, a chandelier so large, exquisite and posh that it only made sense to be placed amongst a colony of other overly priced items. It takes eleven men to lift and two more to install the behemoth. It has diamonds the size of grapefruit. It takes up the entire ceiling. After the installation is completed, one of the workers, the man who had sold Lord Marymuck the chandelier, notes his concern about the width and weight of the behemoth.

“You may express your concern, Mr. Avington. But do not be surprised when I take your concern and place it with the rest of the logs in the fire.”

“But, Lord Marymuck, the ceilings, even in a house as … enchanting as yours, may not have the proper support for an object of this magnitude.”

Lord Marymuck tilts his head up, gazing admiringly into the chandeliers lozenge eyes, a man in pure love with an inanimate object. He grins.

“Mr. Avington, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave for the immense amount of disrespect you’ve brought into my estate. A HOUSE? You think this is a HOUSE? This is a mansion, practically a castle, and you tell me how ‘enchanting’ you think it is. Well of course it’s bloody enchanting! I’ve put my heart and my soul and my grit and my labor into this home. Every pound I’ve ever earned through backbreaking, physically exerting and mentally strenuous effort has been put into this mansion, and I’ll be damn damned if a worm of a chandelier salesmen tells me I can’t have something – anything – whatever it may be.”

Avington sighs and tips his hat. His small wicker frame glasses rest on the point of his nose, and he scratches his beard tenderly before opening his mouth.

“I was sure a man born into riches would be a fiend, but a despicable liar and bigot, that I didn’t expect. You haven’t done a day’s work in your life, Marymuck. You’ve inherited an entire dynasty of wealth and riches and you go and ruin it with your personality. Well, it’s a damn shame, and a good day to you.” Avington tips his hat, stampeding out, impressed with himself, his shoulders back and his chest pouting. Marymuck has forgotten to listen and instead peers off into the yawning depths of the chandelier. 

Elisabeth arrived at the mansion just before dusk, only to find Lord Marymuck in the master bedroom salivating in front of another mammoth, tacky piece of jewelry hanging from the ceiling. Marymuck is lying with his body in a crucifix, his pupils popping out his head, eyes bloodshot and set dead center for his newfangled show piece. Elisabeth plops into the bed beside him, still dressed, hair messed, a frown settled on her face as it does quite often when she lies next to her husband.

“It’s quite magnificent, isn’t it Lis?” asks Marymuck. ” There are four hundred and thirty seven diamonds spanning the width of almost twenty eight bulldogs. I’ll never take my eyes off of it. Even when I leave for Winchester, this image willl still be singed into my cortex and I will love it, as I love you, Elisabeth, with every fiber of my heart.”

“Thank you, Edmond” is all Elisabeth said.

In the glow of the morning Lord Marymuck sends for a carriage and hastily speeds away to Winchester, a kaleidoscope montage reeling through his head. Elizabeth awakes in the middle of the afternoon with her dress, and frown, still on.

She sends a servant to fetch Nathaniel Maple from his post as a professional hermit, and he arrives with a box of exotic tea from places Elisabeth has never heard of before, including a Maldivian blend punched with spices. They drink it, a subtle mention of bitter raspberry melting onto their tongues, and a sunny temperament running down their throats. They don’t say a word, because they both know why Nathaniel was there. When they had finished drinking their tea they fling themselves at one another in a precise, perfect moment that could have only been achieved through the absence of syllables.

Carried by all the moaning and sweating and panting and biting and hair pulling and choking and slapping, they move from the dining room to the master bedroom, naked, relentless, ready, ecstatic, and bold – much too bold. And while their heads burst with amorous complication, the bed swaying back and forth into the wall with each thrust, the delicate infrastructure of wood and plaster rupture into two holes that would make any man who loved his house cry. But they keep going, lost in a roaring, overused passion we all have seen, switching positions ceaselessly, never comfortable, always enjoying themselves, planning again for an in sync orgasm that would shake the foundations of everything they thought they knew about sex. And when they are both on the verge of shaking out the mansion, the chandelier which has four hundred and thirty seven diamonds in it that spans the length of twenty eight English bulldogs stopps swinging so merrily and instead comes thundering down with an inevitable crash that compresses Elisabeth’s and Nathaniel’s internal organs and crams the bed with blood.

Lord Marymuck returns two days later from Winchester, after receiving word from a servant about an eerie screech coming from the master bedroom. When the doors were opened, Marymuck’s eyes bloated with tears: his beautiful, leggy wife on top of a poor, broken down man, and a chandelier topping both of them. A ménage à trois from hell, or perhaps even France. Marymuck moseys to the wreckage, frailly stroking a diamond still connected to the chandelier, plump, lucid tears racing down his cheeks to his chin.

“What … what have they done to you?” is all Edmond Marymuck can say.

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Jul 02

The Necklace

This is not going to be a story, article, poem, speech, excerpt or any of the other literary contrivances that this blog has attained the notoriety of nurturing. Instead, for once, we are going to be more like other ‘normal’ blogs, where people express their thoughts and emotions in a very direct manner and not enveloped within morally upright and righteous tales conjured up for the purpose of creating the aberration of a scholarly delivery. Infact, the theme of the following meandering string of words is going to be simple..
“How to live the life that awaits us after we graduate”

I know it’s a very hackneyed topic and many a blogger blogs about it, year-after-quotidian-year, by getting all worked up and nostalgic about the fact that they are about to leave the place they spent four unforgettable years in. Well, don’t worry.. it’s gonna be nothing like that..
The reason I emphasize the uniqueness of this post is because it’s not going to have any of the standard elements of an about-to-leave-college-approaching-a-delayed-puberty-blog… viz.
  • Cheesy quotations from novels and movies (inarguably read & seen during this period)
  • Mention of crappy little insignificant incidents
  • Use of ‘hip’ words, smiles’ or textese in an attempt to connect with the audience
  • Sense of gratitude towards the four year period of seclusion/reclusion
  • And.. finally.. Nostalgia..

***

The world is a brutal place (No I haven’t faced its full brunt yet, but whatever little I have, has always pointed to this conclusion). Now when was the last time you heard that? Quite often, if I consider that you belong to the class of first generation engineers* in your family – and I  presume there are a lot of those – especially because, before the IT boom facilitated the creation of engineering colleges in even the remotest of locations, engineering was considered to be a highly technical and specialized major.
But the great rule of democracy didn’t spare this walk of life and now almost everybody can say that they are the proud owners.. oops.. parents/uncles/aunts/childhood neighbors of an engineer* from an obscure engineering college (Anyways, what’s in a name, it’s the pay-packet that you receive at the end of the four years which matters, isn’t it?).
So after digressing enough from the original topic as your patient (sometimes loyal) readership would allow, let me get back on track.
The world is a brutal place. What does this mean? It’s nothing like the idyllic and serene setting of your college. And to further impart lucidity to the statement, lets break it up into bullet points..
  • The world doesn’t give a damn about what you think.
  • The world doesn’t give a damn about your knowledge.
  • The world doesn’t give a damn about what you dream.
  • The world just doesn’t give a damn. Period.
Most people are used to being coaxed, apologized to, and basically getting things done pretty much the way they want them to be done. Which explains the frequent mass strikes, the rallies for taps that run dry, the languid daily routines, et al. It’s not entirely wrong to go about your own way, after all, it incubates ‘leadership skills’ inside us, something we can proudly flaunt while tearing apart our own friends in Group Discussions for a company. The moderator is quite impressed by the obvious ‘I’m-the-leader-of-my-pack’ attitude, isn’t he? Well, such is the widespread acceptance of this misconception that it has attained a hallowed state of being-obviously-wrong-but-presumed-to be-correct by popular opinion. And if at any instance you do acknowledge this fact, then scroll up a few lines and refresh your memory as to how much the world cares about you..
Done?
Great. Let’s move on.
The reason why the Human Resources heads are impressed is not because of the supposed tenacity and grit and valor shown while framing up inconsequential sentences in a bid to be proven the most outspoken and enlightened amongst the group. What they love is seeing a brutal dog-fight (which is actually banned in most countries. A-ha!), an earnest representation of the environment they themselves thrive in. The dog with the most brutal bite and highest moral flexibility is picked up by the dog pound. The entire point of this exceedingly verbose description of the brutal world was to tactfully state (read: so as to appear entirely in context with) the following point:
“The set of morals which we have followed all our lives, those which were so tenderly passed onto us by our loving parents, count for zilch in the outside world”
Oh I know what you must be saying in your heads.. this is such a pessimistic post, why am I even reading this.. well to tell you the truth, there were many a college lectures which you could have easily bunked without any repercussions, but yet you didn’t, for some unfathomable reason. Think of that unfathomable reason for an instance and carry on reading. I promise you will get your due…
Anyways, getting to the point stated above, that if our innate morals count for zilch, then what should be our code of conduct? We can’t behave like uncouth savages can we? So there is a need for a new set of carefully tweaked morals that make us adept at handling this brutal world. Sometimes need is the mother of invention. And sometimes there comes so powerful an invention, that it creates a need for itself to be adopted (as an example of which, you need not think beyond the mystical iPod). Whichever is the case here, you are the best judge of it. I won’t intervene. Seriously.
And without further ado, possibly causing anticipation (maybe even agony) here’s The Necklace. (Necklace?? It’s actually a poetic expression you see.. pearls of wisdom are strung onto a string of sentences.. anyways forget that..). I’d like to call it the three-Bs’. (It’s more hip.)
  • Believe in coincidences:
Einstein said “God doesn’t throw dice”. What he meant was nothing in this Universe is left to chance. Now just like Darth Vader said that every person has a bright side and a dark side, this overtly simplistic statement can be canonized into two connotations as well.
  1. Everything is predestined. Your life has been scripted by some unknown-all-knowing-force and you can’t change it. You just need to play your part as best as you can and then one fateful day, die.
  2. If you plan carefully enough, and give the subject matter enough sincere thought, you can actually put up a spectacular fireworks display with the dampest of squibs.
That said, the best thing you can do is to believe in coincidences. Illogical, irrational, unpredictable coincidences. Whenever something unexpected happens, think of it as an outcome of some mystical coincidence. Coincidence can be best defined, as the occurrence of two mutually conjoined events you hadn’t anticipated. Actuarial purists who swear by the laws of probability would argue that the number theory takes every possibility into consideration, hence ruling out any anomalies such as a ‘coincidence’. To further drive the point home, their predictions are backed by fundamental mathematics. Well, all I can say is, mathematically, one plus one equals two. It’s an irrefutable law of nature. Put one apple beside another apple and you have two apples. But put one apple beside an orange, and you have a fruit salad…
Not logical, isn’t it? Ditto for life.
  • Be the idiot:

Some wise guy once said “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know”.

Meaning?? What our infinite hours of education have given us is only material knowledge. You can put it down in black and white (just like most teachers do so effectively via class-notes) and transfer it through this particular media only (once again like most of our teachers). But can you transfer that bit of ‘education’ to a layman or an eight year old without the aid of any tangible media? Can you utilize figments of your imagination to actually transfer an idea from one head to another? If yes, skip to the next ‘B’, and if not, you are no more educated than the man for whom the alphabet ‘A’ is just a queer assembly of three sticks. Quite a bitter pill to swallow ain’t it? That’s why the best thing to do is to swallow it immediately. The longer you keep rolling it around in your mouth, the greater the bitterness that would impinge your tongue.
Hence in many situations in life, it’s imperative to be the idiot (it’s actually harder and more rewarding than it sounds). You may feel being an idiot is the easiest job in the world. But beware, ‘idiot’ here doesn’t mean throwing your arms up with complete disregard for education. It’s all about highly selective idiocy.

Suppose you are completely oblivious about say.. Soccer. And you need to know about it for something important and deterministic. So you approach any self-professed soccer fanatic and chat him up. Somewhere in the conversation you throw up a highly contentious and debatable question like “Who was the greatest soccer player of all time? ”
(Now a bit of advice. This practice gives maximum benefits when carried out in a group of 3-4 people sharing a common interest, but who are at complete loggerheads with one another.)
Everyone will have their own opinion, and you have your own (preferably the most ostentatious and outlandish one). Everyone will ridicule your choice and try to prove theirs to be better than yours. That’s where being the complete and absolute idiot, and also making it obvious to others, helps so much. They will all give out statistics, achievements, awards etc. earned by their heroes to prove themselves to be above you, and in a few minutes, you will be inundated with information which would have taken you hours to gather, if you had opted to be the ‘smarty-pants’ instead.
As a fact, this is the quickest way to learn about anything. Be an idiot in front of a group of people knowledgeable enough in a particular field, and argue until they are getting ready to punch you in the face.
Plus, it’s mutually beneficial for everyone. You’re happy about the fact you collected the data expeditiously. The others would satisfy their bloated egos by thinking they bashed up an idiot real good.
Everybody gets the largest piece of the cake. Genius.
  • Be honest with your parents:
God (however omnipresent he’s supposed to be) couldn’t be everywhere, hence he created Mothers. Mothers had certain complicated issues in their heads. So He created Fathers to sort them out. And, sometimes, when mothers and fathers were together in congenial conditions, they created us. Hence, they passed a little piece of Gods’ purpose of creation onto us. But it’s human nature to forget. We conveniently forgot we were created for a purpose. And squandered away our existence in pursuit of illusive objects of status like a girl/boyfriend (or both.. whatever turns you on), a dream job, bank balance, and not to forget the most illusive of them all.. happiness!
“Oh this is just a load of bollocks.. who doesn’t want happiness in life and what’s wrong in being happy” you say?
I’ll tell you.
Picture this: You get a ‘dream’ job from campus. You work real hard. Get a raise. And consequentially the love of the person you admired. You rent a home. And a car. You marry. You are (supposedly) happy… but something is missing.
Now picture this: You screwed up at work. You are fired. Your boss won’t take you back. Neither your spouse. Nor your friends. Your cars’ mortgage is too much to pay and you sell your apartment off as compensation. Helpless and exasperated, you call your parents. They ask about your health, your job, what have you been eating, when would you be visiting, etc. You blatantly lie by saying you have taken a week off just so that you can be with them. Oblivious to the truth, they tidy up your childhood room, prepare plans for the magical week ahead, call in relatives from all corners. You show up with a suitcase and a laptop and say you have quit your job (obviously, which lunatic can fire the embodiment of sheer genius that is you). You cry in front of them. They cancel their own plans. Get you out of it. And just like they taught you how to walk so many years back, they get you back on your feet so that you can go far away to create a lucrative bubble for yourself once again. All they ask from you, their only unjust demand from you in return for all this is: “Whatever you do, please stay happy.”
Or: Havingnothing to lose anymore, you can now go out to do what you really wanted to do. Pursue your dream. Open a restaurant. Go look for Alaska (but stay away from poisoned plants a la Chris Mc.Candless.)
What I am emphasizing here is, how much our sustenance, our non-blood relationships, our bank-balance and yes, not to forget, how much our happiness depends upon whether we have a 9-5 job or not. All these things we pursued for so long can completely vanish the moment we are sacked. And maybe a lot of us realize this, which is actually the driving force behind people working their butts off at work so much. Come to think of it, how much is it worth? Is this acquired happiness more valuable than the inherent sense of satisfaction obtained by the assurance that whatever we do, however badly we screw up, there are at least two people who earnestly believe in us and are always there for us? Those two people happen to be our parents.
Lie to them as much as you want. You’ll reap what you sow.
***

That’s pretty much it. Accept it, denounce it or report abuse against it. Hardly matters. It’s entirely at your discretion. But, don’t just forget so easily about that brutish and nauseous feeling that overcame you while you were reading it.
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Jul 01

Active Imagination


“Save me, Mary!”
Mary fell to her hands and knees in the soil and reached down to her screaming brother. She knew her brand new dress was ruined now, but she never liked it anyway.
“Can you grab my hand, Matthew?”
The boy jumped, arms stretched and palms white with strain, but his hands met only the moist and earthy walls of the ditch. He yelled, voice cracking, “Go get Daddy!”
“You shouldn’t have been playing near the big ditch! Mommy said so, Matthew! This is your fault!”
“I’m sorry!” The boy’s face was caked with filth now, the tears running down his cheeks leaving gaps like rivers.
“It’s gonna be dark soon! I can’t see anything!”
“Mary! Go find Daddy, quick! Please! Please!” Matthew’s knees buckled, and he wept, wiping his nose on his bare arm.
Mary stood up and brushed her long red hair out of her eyes. She was used to the responsibilities of an older sibling, despite her single-digit age. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the sunset, always a beautiful sight on her farm, a place free from the blinding street lamps of the city. She ran barefoot along the dusty trail leading back to her small house. It was already too dark for her to make out the tops of the tall trees surrounding the path and , twice, she nearly tripped over an embedded rock.

Daddy wasn’t home. Neither was Mommy.

Mary noticed their car was missing and realized that tonight was her parent’s weekly night out by themselves. She felt a void grow inside her. The cold sweat made her itch. Mary tried to remember where her Daddy kept that big coil of rope. She had seen him use it only the day before to move his horses through the fields. After he was done, she recalled, he had stowed it in the cellar. This thought made her slow down. She did not like the cellar: It was too empty, too dry.

Mary loved the warm, wet air of her farm. All of it except that cellar. But she knew she must be brave for Matthew.
The cellar doors looked older than the house, but the wood had not rotted away. Mary lifted one and climbed through the portal. She flicked the light switch, activating the solitary bulb dangling like a hanged man from the ceiling. It lit the vast variety of tools and equipment stored down here, some new and virtually spotless, some old and rusted over. She spied the rope lying an arm’s length away and gathered it up, when a voice said, “You can’t help him.”
Mary gave a small whimper, turning to the sound. There was something standing in the gap between the antique lawnmower and the shovel. Mary’s head hurt to look at it. It was many shapes at once and it extruded itself through Mary’s vision. She only gaped and tears started to form in her eyes. It smiled in front of Mary and past Mary. It said, slowly, “The rope will not help him. It is his time.” Its voice was many voices. And it was nonsense.

“Do not worry,” it said. “We will not harm you. You have never done anything wrong in your life. It is his time. It is not your fault. It was an accident.” It meshed with the geometry of the cellar and in an unquantifiable instant it was gone. Mary found her legs and ran. She did not stumble once running down the path.
Mary could barely see Matthew through the growing night, sitting prone at the bottom of the ditch, his knees brushing his hair. She called out to him, “Matthew, it’s OK! I found the rope!” She tied an end of it to a nearby tree and dropped the other end down to her brother. “Climb up!”
Matthew gave a sniff, nodded slowly, and started to climb just as something formed from many impossible directions around the two and coalesced at the bottom of the ditch behind the boy. It walked slowly to Matthew and touched his shoulder. He instantly dropped off the rope and turned to face it. It said, “It was too great a drop. Come Matthew, it is your time now.” Matthew nodded. Mary screamed. The unfathomable creature wrapped itself around the boy, small fibers twitching and writhing around his flesh, mingling, dancing. It was gone quickly. Matthew fell to his knees.
“No!” Mary shouted. She swung herself over the side of the ditch and slid down the rope. She reached for her brother just as he rolled over, almost a somersault, and she heard something break inside him, like a dry branch cracking. Matthew was lying on his side now, his head twisted in a wrong angle. He was pale. Mary screamed and screamed.
She didn’t know how long she spent in that ditch next to her dead brother. She found herself shuffling weakly along the path back to her house, moaning like an injured animal.

She was thinking about the creature, shifting itself around her brother. About watching the boy stumble headlong and fall for too long. She was thinking of its voice, that impossible voice, and she knew what it said and she did not understand.
When her parents pulled into the driveway, she was hunched over the abyss. She saw them scramble out of their seats to kneel down next to her.
“Mary, what’s wrong?” Her father cupped her shoulder gently. Her mother was already crying, as if she had known when it had happened. She said her dead brother’s name. Her father picked her up in his arms. She described the gaping wound in the earth where Matthew lay. Mary knew only brief flashes of the path as her parents, her family, ran as fast as they could, Mary dangling from her father’s arms.
And they were at the ditch, and Mommy looked down and could just make out the pale form of her baby boy, his neck twisted, still. She collapsed in the dirt and wailed. Daddy placed Mary on the ground beside him.
“How did it happen?” He spoke with great effort. Mary wiped her face on her dress and looked up at her father.
“Matthew fell in. I told him not to play there but he did anyway. I told him I would get help but you and Mommy were gone. I went into the cellar to get the rope-” Mary stopped here. She started crying again, and so did Daddy. Mary whispered, “There was something in the cellar. It wasn’t a person. It said that- it was awful, Daddy. It said that it was Matthew’s time. It said it was his time. And I ran back with the rope and Matthew nearly got out but it got him, Daddy, it got him and it killed him.” Mary was sobbing now. Daddy pressed his fingers to his jawline and looked at her. “Mary, this is no time for stories. Tell me what happened.” He spoke now with patience.
“But I did! I just did!”
Mary ran to her mother, and they curled and embraced together. Daddy walked slowly to the edge of the ditch and looked down.
He had warned both of them: the drop was fatal.

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Jun 29

Ink

John stood in front of the glass door looking through a hollowed reflection of his own face. He could see another door down a short hallway, and supposed that the purpose of the glass was only to give the little gold letters that spelled out “Dr. Richard B. Palmer, Ph.D” a home. A shadowy hand rose to meet its solid twin as John pushed the glass open and walked to the second door, where he knocked twice.

“Come in John, come in,” a voice, presumably the doctor’s, said from inside. “Take a seat on the couch.”

The doctor was sitting in a dark green armchair. He gestured with his pen toward a faded brown couch across from him as John entered.  John sat gingerly, tensing his legs in a refusal to sink back into the folds of the leather.

“Now John, I would like to start off our session today with a little exercise,” began the doctor, “Is that all right with you?”

“Sure,” he replied, “what kind of exercise?”

“It is a sort of memory exercise.  Imagine the last time you walked down a sidewalk with two friends.”

“Okay.”

“Is it a wide sidewalk?” The doctor asked, leaning forward.

“I’m not sure.  It’s the same size as a normal sidewalk?”

“Okay, and you are with two friends walking.  Now tell me, how are the three of you aligned on the sidewalk?”

“I guess we’re all next to each other in a line,” he said.

“You mentioned it was the same width as an average sidewalk, so the three of you fill it?”

“I suppose so.”

“Where in relation to your friends are you standing?”

“The middle.”

“There is a woman walking towards you on the sidewalk.  She is moderately attractive. Which of you drops back to give her room to pass?”

“I’m not sure.” John paused. “I guess I would?”

“So, there are now your two friends walking beside each other in front and you are trailing behind them as the woman passes by?”

“Yes.”

“Imagine your two friends get into a conversation, just the two of them, while you are walking behind them.”

“Okay.” John closed his eyes.

“Do you continue to walk behind them as they talk or do you try and squeeze back into a line?”

“I stay behind?”

The doctor nodded and wrote something on his legal pad. John watched the scratching of the pen’s nub as it crossed the yellow paper with ink-filled slashes.  He desperately wanted to see what the doctor had written.

“Now, imagine it is 3 o’clock in the morning.  You are shaken awake, what do you do?” The doctor asked next.

“I close my eyes and go back to sleep. I’m a deep sleeper.”

“So you ignore it and then roll over to the other side of the bed?” The doctor pressed.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

The pen scraped at the paper again, sealing its wounds with wet ink.  “But John, it’s 3 in the morning.  Don’t you want to know why someone was waking you up?”

Shit. “Uh, sure.  Yes, of course.”

“I see.” The doctor made another note. “Why do you suppose someone would wake another person up at 3 in the morning?”

“I’m not sure.  It doesn’t happen to me very often.”

“But can you tell me any reason you can think of? Pretend you are waking someone up at 3 in the morning, why would you do that? What cause would justify your waking someone up at such late hour? Just some quick free-association here.”

“Uh, I guess if there was a burglar I would wake them up.  Or if there was a fire or something.”

“So you are saying that it acceptable to wake someone up, no matter the hour, in cases of emergency?”

“Sure.”

“Yet if someone woke you up you would disregard it?”

“Well, I mean…” he trailed off.

“Listen John, there is no judgment here.  This is a safe, open space.  A place for honesty, without censure, in order to help both of us get to know you better.”  As the doctor spoke, he made more notes.

John felt the gleaming blue fountain pen cut strips from him and place them, inky black and twisted onto the yellow lined paper.  He wanted to tear the sheet from the doctor’s hands, feel the lack of resistance as it crinkled into a ball in his fist, the heat of his palm making the ink run black and wet through his fingers.

“I know,” he said instead.

“Let’s try something different, John.  I want you to listen to these two song clips and tell me which of them you like better.”  The doctor picked up a remote and pressed a button.  The office was flooded with sound, a classical piece that glided and soared.  After thirty seconds, the song changed to a lighter melody in a minor key that skittered playfully along an edge.

John picked the second, his mind racing with the possible implications the doctor would derive from his choice—choosing now to partake in free association.  He cringed as the doctor raised his hand, expecting the pen, but it was only to put on a pair of glasses that lay on the round table beside the heavy armchair.

“What did you like about it more than the first sample?” the doctor asked, his dark eyes now peering out from behind a tortoiseshell frame.

“I’m not quite sure.  It’s tough to explain why you like something.”

“That’s fair.  Did either song make you think of anything? What were you thinking about while you heard the two clips?”

“I was just listening to the songs, I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular.”

“I see.  So neither stirred anything in you? What did you base your liking for the second song on?”

“I’m sorry, it’s just hard to describe.  The beat of the second one? I liked its beat better maybe.”  He sounded defensive.

“Let’s move on.  Here, I’m going to play that same second song and then a new, third one and I want you to tell me which you like better, the second or the new one.” The doctor picked up the remote again and the same light melody filled the room with its jumping minor key.  Then, a jarring and loud song started playing.  Harsh, screeching sounds pounded John’s ears.  He winced.

“Still the second one, I definitely like the second one better,” he said.

The doctor’s hand picked up the blue pen.  Its silver tip flashed as the hand came to rest on the paper and began writing with smooth scratches.

“I see.” The doctor replied. “What was it about the second song that you liked more than the third?”

“It wasn’t as loud and blaring as the third.  It sounded much better.” John’s eyes were on the pen as he talked. He barely knew himself he realized, as his mind envisioned all the dreadful and rotten things the doctor was writing about him, the pen’s bright nub picking apart his freshly uncovered flaws and scattering them in its inky wake. He needed to see the paper, he realized.  He was just a bag of flesh sticking to bones. His soul lay wet and dark on the paper and his body craved it, rejecting the pale imitation it currently housed.

“Besides being loud and blaring,” started the doctor, “what was it you did not like about the third song?”

“It just sounded unpleasant.  It had no melody, it was all chaotic noise.”

“I see.  From what I understand, it sounds like you have trouble deciding what you like about things,” the doctor put down the pen and looked at him,  “but not what you dislike about things.”

“Uh huh.” He crossed his arms. That damn pen.

“Do you ever experience moments of self-doubt?”

“Yes, of course. Who doesn’t.”

“Can you tell me about a time you doubted yourself?”

He glanced at the blue pen, silver accents gleaming as its cool curves rested in the doctor’s hand.  “Well, uh, I mean…Yea. Sure. Hold on.”

“When talking to an attractive girl perhaps? Or before a big presentation at the office?”

“Yeah, both of those, definitely I’d say.”

“Can you tell me more details,” the doctor probed, “possibly about how you felt before presenting an important project at work or something similar?”

“Well I was definitely nervous.  Who wouldn’t be you know? No one wants to look bad in front of their superiors.”

“I see.  Would you say that you experienced self-doubt while answering my questions at any time during our session?”  The pen hovered expectantly above the paper.

“Uh,” John began.  The doctor had him trapped. “I guess so.  It’s my first visit to a therapist’s office, so I’m a little hesitant as to how to respond.”

“That is understandable.  If it is all right with you, I’d like to move onto the next part of our session.” the doctor scraped away at his pad with the pen.  John felt like a scratch-and-win lottery card, with the doctor digging away at him trying to see if he would uncover a prize or nothing at all.

“Sure, that’s all right by me.”

“Okay, during this time I’ll start by recounting what I’ve gathered from our exercises so far.  As you didn’t come to me with a specific problem you wanted to work on, this will be a sort of general summary.”

“That sounds fine.”

“So, John, as I mentioned before it sounds like you suffer from moments of self-doubt.  This suffering, I believe, is due to a mild case of Phantom Father Syndrome you seem to be afflicted with.”

“Phantom Father Syndrome?”

“Yes.  It’s a newly recognized condition highly prevalent among men of your age group.”

“What exactly is it?”

The doctor took off his glasses and put them carefully back on the table. “Phantom Father Syndrome is a reaction to the lack of a dominant father-figure in an individual’s life.  Usually found among men in their early-to-mid 20’s, though there have been reported incidences in women, it typically leads to insecurity and self-doubt as the individual has no concrete gender role to model him or herself after and is therefore unsure about many of his or her actions due to the lack of a strong paternal presence during childhood.”

“And I have this? This is wrong with me?”

“The majority of your peers suffer from it as well.  Don’t think of this as something wrong or some flaw you specifically have.  As men are becoming seen less and less as the main providers in a family, the resulting lack of distinct gender roles during a child’s developing years leads to a more blurred boundary.  Phantom Father Syndrome, PFS as we call it, is a brutally repeating cycle.  It is signified by a tendency of those afflicted to easily find fault in various things they are presented with.” The doctor made a note on his pad, dark ink spreading like a stain across the page. “This is because of the self-doubt experienced by the individual.  By finding flaws in things, the individual is subconsciously bolstering his or her own self-esteem.  Putting something down raises the person finding fault with it above that thing, it’s one of the easiest ways to feel better about oneself.  Unfortunately, individuals tend to turn their negative scrutiny inward as well and thus come up with a laundry list of insecurities which they try to quench by finding more fault in their surroundings and peers.  It can be quite a vicious cycle.”

The pen dripped a mass of black ink on the page.  John looked at it, heavy and wet, filled with all the dark things inside of him.

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Jun 20

Kids With Guns

“Come one! Come all!” shouted the raggedy old man. He was standing atop an upturned tomato crate, propped beside a decrepit wooden wagon. “Bring me your sick, bring me your aged.”

Borris Casimir continued his overwrought soliloquy. “I bring you tinctures from the orient! Elixirs from the great Arabian deserts and voodoo potions so powerful.” He paused. ‘They could bring back the dead!”

By this time, the commotion had attracted a small crowd which gathered around the charismatic apothecary and his cart. The group was mostly comprised of women and the elderly. The country’s war machine had press-ganged all men of capable age into service and off to the front lines. This was Borris’s time, his golden window of opportunity.

Now more than ever, people needed a miracle cure, and belief in magic was at it’s peak.

“You madam!” He gestured into the crowd, throwing out a long bony finger. “You look like you need a miracle!” The crowd began to stir with affirmation.

“Take this.” He hoisted a string of fox’s teeth from an old wooden cabinet drawer. “This will bring you fortune and good health.” He said. “All you need to do is hang it from your gable. Only 5 Kopek!”

“Mother!” He shouted into the crowd, using the old country greeting for an elderly woman “‘For you I have a crow’s foot. Place it under your pillow and it will keep your sons safe in battle. And for your husband, here is a potion that will bestow upon him such virility that he will make you lose yourself in heavenly pleasure!” The crowd laughed in unison. “Only 15 Kopek for both!”

Borris gulped from a bottle of cheap whiskey as his donkey slowly hauled the small wagon slowly out of town. He guffawed as he toasted his brilliance and the utter stupidity of the town’s locals. He had made 215 Kopek, a poor man’s fortune in these times. He had sold the wings of a Gamayun for a handsome price to some ailing man which were said to bring those on death’s door back to rosy-cheeked health. Only, Borris knew that the wings he sold weren’t the real deal. They were in actual fact the wings of the kestrel he had eaten for dinner a few nights before. His potions too were nothing more than cheap vodka mixed with the forest herbs and tree bark he would collect on occasion. With enough of a spin he thought, any piece of crap or groggy mixture could be worth it’s weight in gold. He cackled again, revelling in narcissistic pleasure as spittle and booze ran down his bristled grey chin. As his sullen beast of burden meandered through the rocky forest path, Borris faded into booze ushered sleep. He dreamed of fortune and nubile young women.

There was a loud wrenching groan as the wagon came to a halt. Borris was torn from his slumber by his donkey’s loud agitated braying. He jerked his head and swung it from side to side to side, frantic and confused. When his eyes regained their focus and his mind it’s clarity, he discovered the reason for his sombre journey’s end. Blocking his path were three children, two boys and a girl, Kalashnikovs tucked under their armpits, aimed directly at him. A young girl held the reigns of his donkey while a boy looked at him through squinted, accusatory eyes.

“Spy!” shouted the boy, lowering his head in order to line up the heavy weapons sights with Borris’s face. “We have you now Spy!”

Borris rubbed his eyes in disbelief.

“Who…who are you? Where are your parents?” asked Borris, contorting his face and exposing a hideous gold incisor. He squinted his eyes and tried to block the sun with his hand as it broke through the trees.

“Shaddup!” shouted the middle boy. “You are coming with us, we are taking you as our prisoner.”

Borris could tell that this one was the leader, not only was he taller than the other kids but he wore a dusty old officer’s cap on his head, probably a relic handed down from a past war.

Time moved as lazily as the cart that carried them, slowly and painfully, through the bumps and uprooted trees of the forest. After what seemed to Borris like hours, they finally arrived at their destination. The forest began to clear into an opening and Borris was able to decipher the mottled concrete outline of an old army outpost. As they drew closer, more children started running their way, armed to the teeth and apparently excited to see them.

“Captain Ludo!” shouted the one in the officer’s hat to a more sparsely decorated lad, “Take the prisoner to his cell.”

“Okay… I mean… Yes! Sir!” Ludo replied while jumping to attention.

Ludo gestured to the other kids that had now gathered around the wagon. Some carried pistols and some rifles, but they all had their weapons pointed at Borris. They ordered him off the wagon. Faced with a situation so incomprehensible and so utterly terrifying, Borris could do nothing but comply.

Borris sat and stared at the concrete walls of his cell, his head groggy from the after effects of his whiskey binge earlier that day. He was in a small cubicle adjoining the only other room in the outpost. It was damp and dirty, possibly used as a storage area during a past conflict. Wild plants intruded through the windows, wrapping their tendrils around the rusty metal frames where panes of glass once stood. Borris could hear dulled voices behind the dented metal door. There was a loud clinking of the doors large steel bolts as it swung open.

The boy in charge, whom the other children called Bruno, was escorted into the room by two others, Captain Ludo, and the girl from earlier; guns pointed once again at Borris. He jumped to his feet at the sight of them.

“What is the meaning of this!” Borris yelled, desperately feigning authority as the only adult in the room. “Do your parents know what you are doing here?” The two escorts raised their rifles up in response to the outburst. Bruno gestured to them and they lowered their weapons once again.

“Sit down sir.” Bruno said. He walked slowly toward Borris, hands tucked behind his back. “Do you know why you are here?”

“Of course I don’t fuckin…” Borris restrained himself and sat back down, steadying his ageing back with one hand as he did so. “No, I have no God damn idea why you have brought me here.” he said.

“You, sir, are a spy for the enemy.” stated Bruno abruptly. ‘You are a spy and we have captured you.’

“What the hell are you talking about!” Borris felt his blood boiling once more.

“You, my friend, are working for our enemy.” Said Bruno, in an eerily calm, authoritarian tone. “This is very brave of you, and I must say, if I were in your position, I would also do anything it took to defend my country…. Too bad you got caught.” Bruno smiled. Borris could see that Bruno took delight in his pre-pubescent overture.

“I respect you sir, and I respect your dedication to your task, but I have been handed my orders.” Bruno paused and turned to leave the room. “You have been sentenced to death by firing squad, orders to be carried out at sunset.”

“Just before sunset sir,” said Ludo.

“That’s right… just before,” said Bruno as the three exited the room to cries of protest from their prisoner.

A few hours passed. Borris was sitting on an old metal chair in the corner of his cell. He stared sullenly at the floor and rubbed his bruised knuckles which throbbed from his near constant pounding on the bulky metal door. He shook his head and ran his fingers through his tangled grey hair, matte and greasy from weeks without bathing. He wanted to escape but the door was thick and rigid and his body old and weak.

The small viewing window on the door slid open. This time it was the girl who stared in at him, her eyes barely level with the thin slot. Her name was Grazia, which meant gracious.

“Prisoner!” Said Grazia. “Tell me what you want for your last supper.” Borris said nothing.

“He wants roast beef and potatoes!” She shouted over her shoulder, slamming the metal hole shut.

A few moments later the huge bolts shifted and the door cracked open once again, this time leaving just enough of a gap for a plate to be pushed into the room. Borris lifted his head from his hands and stared at the food as if it was an intruder. He stood from his chair and walked to the door.

So much for roast beef, he thought as he kicked aside the plate of stale bread and goats cheese.

“Let me out of here!” He pounded the door, grimacing in pain from the still fresh wounds on his hands.

The shadows in Borris’s cell grew longer. He could see the sun disappearing behind a thicket of trees outside his window. There were muffled noises and voices coming from beyond the door. He put his ear to the steel frame but before he could discern what was being said, the door swung open, knocking him back.

This time three different children entered the room. They were quite a bit younger than the others he had seen. The child in the middle approached Borris as the other two covered him with their rifles. He bound Borris’s hands with an old muslin rag, tight enough that the old man’s wrists ached.

“Out!” shouted the smallest one while waving the rifle which was tucked under his arm, the child barely able to support it’s weight. Borris stumbled through the door as he received an hurrying shove in the small of his back from the gun barrel of one of his captors. As he walked through the small adjoining room, he noticed stacks of wooden crates marked ” AMMO -. There was an open crate beside the pile. It spilled sleek brass-backed munitions on the floor. The crate was marked .30 Cal.

Borris squinted his eyes as he emerged into the waning daylight, his worn out boots crunching the sand as he stepped. He noticed his wagon sitting calmly beside a tree, his donkey was being fed an apple by a small girl. A huddle of children gathered around it, rifles and pistols in hand, tugging on cocking mechanisms. The wall against which he was finally set to stand was riddled with tiny holes and caked with grime. Borris felt his heart pounding as if it might give in at any moment .

Another child appeared  from his left and tied a blindfold over his eyes.

“Please…” hHe begged. “Please don’t do this, I am not a fucking spy!” He heard mumbling and sniggering from the group as he uttered his profanity.

“Prisoner!” It was Bruno’s voice. “Do you have any last words before we shoot you?”

“What? No! Wait, please…” Borris said, pushing out each word as if it pained him.

“Is that all?” Asked Bruno. “Oh well then, shooters at the ready!”

The line of children raised their weapons in unison.

“10!..9!..8!..” Bruno began the countdown. Borris felt his heart pounding, tearing away his breath and leaving him unable to utter a single word of objection.

“7!..6!..5!..4!..” Borris shivered and felt his legs going weak beneath him.

“3!..” Continued Bruno, his voice growing louder. ‘2!..’ Borris felt his energy leave him and he collapsed to the floor with an audible thud.

“1!” Shouted Bruno, after which the line of children all tugged on their triggers, “Pow, pow-pow!, pow!” They shouted. The line broke apart and the children ran off, guns now pointed at each other, shouting “Pow, pow! You’re dead! Pow-pow.”

“He fell too soon! Aoaned Ludo, waving an open palm at Borris who was now lying on the ground, out cold. ‘Did you explain to him how the game works?’

“No.” replied Bruno. “I thought you did?.. Anyway, it’s getting late. Gotta be home before sunset.”

“Yeah, me too.” said Ludo, scratching his head and staring at Borris who was now beginning to stir. “I hate being late for supper, always end up getting the burnt bits.”

As the boys ran their separate ways up the path, leaving their guns behind them, Bruno cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Ludo! Tomorrow you can be the officer and I will be the prisoner!”

They disappeared into the forest leaving Borris behind, still on the floor, semi-conscious and whimpering like a small dog having a nightmare, the front of his pants wet with urine.

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