Pacifier: A Short Story


photo by me

photo by me

After an hour of precarious switchbacks, Molly had tackled the Sandia Peak. She perched proudly, peering at Albuquerque through her mighty plastic sunglasses. This was her moment to breathe while Rick was in the bathroom.

This wasn’t unlike the stage where she used to dance in understated lilac costumes. Her skirt flew around her like the petals of a cactus flower. She raised her hands above her head in a perfect arc. She encompassed the whole city. En pointe on the top of the world, she encompassed passion itself. Thousands below were witness to the majesty of two strong legs and an uncorrupted zeal.

Rick, with the baby strapped to his chest, interrupted her. His hands dripped with lemony sanitizer. He dropped his feet against the pavement, letting his shins collapse like buildings in a demolition; his knees then toppled and jumped up as if taken by surprise. His signature gait. It must be exciting, she thought, to always be taken by surprise.

“Are you ready to start?” He looked up at last from his slippery hands. “I don’t think Serenity is going to give us much trouble. Should be a nice walk.” He tilted his chin towards the baby.

“I’m sure she won’t.”

“Are you excited?” Molly could practically hear the enthusiastic sweat glistening down his forehead. She hoisted her water bottle up from the ground and waltzed past her husband so she wouldn’t have to watch him bounce around. It seemed his heavy sandal flops reverberated across the entirety of the valley.

“Well,” he continued. “I’m excited. And I’m sure Serenity would be excited, too, if she could only say it. Hey!” He stopped bobbing. “Look at that!”

“What?”

“Look!”

Molly swiveled on the ball of her foot, the way she used to. The first time Rick came to one of her recitals, he nearly killed her bringing flowers. No one ever came to see her dance, but there he was, and with flowers. He was wearing these awful brown pants and a tacky blue shirt with the tag sticking up and was just about the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Thinking about it now, she almost leapt from the side of the mountain.

“Isn’t that something?” he asked. His front tooth was a bit crooked.

“Isn’t what something?”

“That.” He motioned vaguely towards the great expanse of beige.

“Everything is something.”

“I bet Serenity likes it.” The baby churned in her carrier as if in agreement. “She’s going to be a big dreamer someday.”

“I used to be a dreamer.”

“That’s why I liked you, you know. Always the dreamer.”

“But I stopped.”

“Maybe it’s hereditary. I see it in her eyes–oh.” He laid a well­-sanitized palm upon her gleaming sunscreened shoulder.

“Darling, I–“

“We all have to stop some day. Even you.” She was set sordid against the gravel, her jaw as unwavering as the heat.

“Let’s keep walking.” He didn’t give her time to respond.

Their shared room was juxtaposition. She woke up in suffocated pirouettes beside a man who could have easily been mistaken for an eccentric body pillow. He kept a covered glass of water on the nightstand. “For health,” he told her. Molly herself had a shoebox of ballet flats tucked under her while she slept. She never opened it. Rick carried any spiders he found to the window on a piece of printer paper. There were sixteen pairs of legs on the wall next to the space where Molly let her hand dangle at night.

“I still like you, though,” he said, causing her to stumble on a rock.

“What?”

“I still like you.” He glanced backwards. Molly made sure she was too busy realigning her braids to return eye contact. “I just didn’t want you to think–“ He looked ahead again. “I didn’t want you to think I didn’t still like you.”

“Why would I think that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well,” she said. “Okay.” If she kept looking at the ground, she wouldn’t stumble on another rock. Or on her words.

“Okay.” He embarrassed himself by continuing. “I have a question. It’s stupid, but, well, I don’t know.”

“What is it?”

“I was just wondering if you still–” Swiftly, the baby dealt Rick a mouthful of tiny, sharp fingers. As his lip flopped against his chin, glistening with saliva under the relentless New Mexico sun, the baby dropped its jaw to release a shock of laughter. Her pacifier, suspended for an instant by a gossamer thread of spittle, made a ceremony of tumbling over the ledge, whirling slowly in the air. Rick hugged the baby to his chest as if she might jump down after it.

And then she started screaming.

Rick, startled, bounced up and down, turning the entirety of his being into the rocking chair of his knees. “Shh, shh,” he murmured, twitching his eyes between the plunge of the pacifier and the squealing infant in his arms. “Shh.”

“Would you rather I took her?” Molly asked, toeing impatiently with perfect form. She became uncomfortable, suddenly, with the brief distance between the baby and the guardrail.

“No, I­­–” Decisive, he pinned the baby against him with both arms and sighed. “Don’t worry.”

“You’re going to suffocate her like that. Let me have her.”

“She’ll be fine.”

“Let her breathe!”

“I’ve done this before. It’s fine.”

“Please, let me have her.”

“When she stops crying.”

“Maybe she needs something!”

“She needs to stop crying.”

“Maybe she­­” Molly suspended her breath until it was as still as the unwavering sun over cloudless Albuquerque.

Serenity, subdued at least into quietude, sucked in a few puffs of her mother’s last exhale, her tiny lips caving in. “Do you need something?” She didn’t answer. Their noses were nearly touching.

“I’ve done this before,” Rick reminded Molly.

“I know.” The rocky path of the mountain was not the flawless wood floor of the room she used to practice in. These hiking boots had too much grip to function as flats; the sky, an endless, thin blue, was nothing like the mirrored walls in which she once saw herself exactly as she wanted to be.

“Do you still like me?”

“What?” Molly didn’t look away from her daughter. There was something in that little face, something imploring. Molly used to watch herself dance in that practice room, in the basement of the performing arts building, and here was her daughter, sprawled against Rick in some fanciful leap, looking eerily like the girl who once decorated every wall.

Her mother used to tell her to get a real job. “You’re married, honey. You’ll have a kid soon.” Those same words smacked her over and over, but it wasn’t the worst bit. And as she stared into the unending eyes of the person she had created, she encountered a memory as urgent as the New Mexico sun.

“I can’t help it,” he’d said. His breath was cold. The two of them were drinking water in their tiny apartment, squatting in hard chairs and trading gasps of late fall air. “I’m busy with work.”

“So am I,” she returned.

“That’s different.”

“Is it?”

“My work makes money.”

“So does mine. And it’s important to me.”

“Money is important.”

“Love,” she said. “Love is important.”

“We have to eat.”

“And?”

“And we can’t do that on love alone. That’s why I have to work. That’s why I have to miss your performances, Molly. It’s because we have to eat.”

“Okay,” she said. “We do have to eat. And I have to dance.” She huffed out a sigh. “You don’t get it.”

“You’re right,” he replied. “I don’t.” Molly remembered standing up and dumping her water into the sink. She didn’t remember much else after.

The Sandia Peak bustled around them in a conformity of brightly colored tourists.

“Do you still like me?” Rick repeated.

The pacifier hadn’t fallen too far down–maybe twenty yards, maybe forty. Maybe Molly could remember her grand jeté and fetch the thing for the sake of Serenity. The conifers loomed from the ridge far below, motionless in the nonplussed air, glinting rays of white light from their pines; beyond them, Albuqueruque glared, accompanied by the vast blank stare of the desert. It was a mess of vertigo. But so was Rick. Through her sunglasses, the drop didn’t seem too bad.

“Let her breathe.” Molly swerved her head gracefully, locking eyes with her husband. “Give her to me.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to hold her. I want to carry her.”

“I can do that.”

“So can I,” she answered. “Let me prove it.”

“Do you still like me? It’s okay if you don’t.”

“I like Serenity.” Molly reached her hand out to the baby, who beheld it with wonderment. She was a dreamer, that was for sure. “Right now,” she murmured. “That’s the best we can do.”

Advertisements

Watch: A Short Story


tumblr_lgf6j4za9V1qdddbzo1_500

“Your arms are so long, Eleanor.” His voice was crisp coming from his olive-­toned, uniformly stubbled perfection. His hair, soft even in the twenty­-four­-story updraft, stirred like the feathers of a confident bird. “I have to admit it, I envy you.”

He was right. If she lowered her shoulders far enough, her fingertips dropped past her knees. At her arm’s length, she would never have a chance to enjoy the splendor of well­-kempt hands ­­and, besides, she reasoned, the job would just ruin them anyway. There was no point in painting her nails, softening her palms, or picking the dirt away from her hang-nailed thumbs. Espionage required an atypically high concentration of steel ropes, metal hooks, quick snatches, and tight­ fitting gloves, all of which proved consistently disastrous to a daily manicure routine. So Eleanor carefully removed all biological material from her kits, burned them, and moved on with her life.

This was not a glamorous job. Unless, of course, you were Kruger. Kruger was perfect, and everyone knew it. Kruger could execute any knot just from a picture reference. Kruger could ride a horse. Kruger could ride two horses at once. Kruger was a master snake charmer, and he could tell how much neurotoxin to put into a person’s bloodstream by tasting only one drop of each. And he did it all with a naturally straight-­pearled smile.

Yet here he was, finding something to envy about Eleanor.

Their forms twisted in black practicality as they slithered upwards like two well-built spiders, indistinguishable from the cover of night. The only hint of their motion appeared in glossy reflections on the mirrored face of the building. Eleanor watched as Kruger’s impeccable twin in the one-way window set his jaw. Only for a moment did she wonder what was on the other side of this image, what sort of enigmas were contained within the building. Kruger, she thought, was a kind of enigma himself. She was glad, suddenly, that these windows revealed nothing more than what was on their surface.

The rope ended. Her hand grasped a ledge. “It must be great to have arms like that,” Kruger’s voice said. She turned to him, pulling dark goggles over her eyes. “Mine aren’t good for anything.” He looked away, tugging at the grapple hook to prove its security, and then slid through the laser­-cut circle in the glass.

After soundless tumbles–­­Kruger’s a closer emulation of the golden ratio­­–they found themselves in a room of piercing light and assorted shiny objects under glass cages. Four unadorned, right-angled walls, revealing nothing, encapsulated stainless steel pedestal after pedestal of these artifacts. After a quick scan, they proceeded, arms raised like the wings of two anxious bats.

“It has to be great to be you,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you must feel some sense of accomplishment.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“I didn’t try in training,” he said. “I didn’t put in a lick of effort. You worked and worked.”

“You didn’t have to put in effort,” Eleanor refuted. “You’re practically Jesus, if Jesus had been a spy. Spy Jesus.”

“Spy Jesus would have tried. I didn’t.”

His arms hovered above the object in question­­–a wrist watch, a ring of metal links. The red second hand, glistening in the whiteness of the room, shuddered and collapsed, neatly and rhythmically.  But the perfection of its design betrayed its nature. Somewhere, beneath the clicking hands, was a code. No one alive knew what it meant, but they all knew they had to have it.

“I didn’t try,” Kruger continued. “And that says something very bad about me.”

“You’re being ridiculous.” The stealthy leather of Eleanor’s gloves pushed up on the glass cage. “Or humble. Either way.”

“I’m being serious.”

“No, you’re not.” Suspending the glass a foot above its original resting place, her arms, long as they might have been, trembled slightly. “You can’t be.”

Kruger peeled off his gloves. In one deft motion, he exposed to her a row of perfect fingers, scrupulously cared for, with nails tucked into excellent beds. She was astounded.

“I’ve never had to try for anything,” he said. “So I never have. I don’t think my body knows what effort feels like.”

Eleanor glanced at him. His shapely lips were loosely collected in a frown. She couldn’t see his eyes through the insect ovals of his goggles, but his anxiety showed on his atypically creased forehead.

“We can talk about this in a minute,” she said. “Let’s get the watch now.”

“Okay,” he answered. “I’m sorry.” His features were completely soft, even childlike. She had to look down.

He removed from his utility belt a nondescript black sack and pulled from it several silicon fingerprints. One by one, he layered them over his newly exposed digits. He smiled, appearing to find refuge in applying this new persona. Then, agile, he slid the watch from its position beneath the glass box, examining it through the fake identity. He pried open the face of the watch with a silicon nail.

“Oh my God.”

Eleanor replaced the glass box smoothly, as if laying a cloth on a mahogany table, hearing it click only one. She then shuffled herself for a glimpse at what Kruger saw inside the watch. She imagined letters etched in a cryptic hand, coordinates to a place filled with glowing eyes. They’d have to go by boat–­­no, helicopter, and the flight over the ocean would be treacherous. Off to a remote island with neither signal nor backup. It was what her training had prepared her for.

The mottled assortment of gears and whirs that Kruger held in his falsely traceable hand was not what she’d expected. It didn’t look to be any kind of message at all. Its emptiness and its wordlessness conveyed to her some lack of ultimate purpose in the mission­­–a wasted night.

“Oh my God,” Kruger breathed again.

She leaned in closer. It still meant nothing to her. She liked it better when it was closed, clean, mysterious, its mess unknown to her. She wanted it to stay an enigma. She didn’t want to know that it couldn’t live up to her expectations.

“We need to get out of here.”

Red lights blinked on all around the room, undulating, accompanied by an orchestra of sirens. Warnings and alarms bounced from every right angle and dangerous object.

“Now,” he said.

They raced for the window. Eleanor’s feet pounded along the dark marble floor, shooting lightning bolt pain into her hips. A fire erupted in her chest and was immediately squelched by numbness. Her eyes struggled to escape the high pressure of her body. Arriving at the liberation of the window, she grasped the rope, prepared to head down, when she realized Kruger was not with her.

She darted her eyes to look for him. He was sprawled out across the floor, his heels in the air, looking like a grounded skydiver. The watch skittered towards her.

This, she thought, was some melodramatic game of air hockey. Kruger had not fallen over. Kruger was fine. This watch didn’t mean anything. This was not a secret mission. Those were not armed guards at the opposite door, churning their feet, weapons angry, ultraviolet with heat.

“Now!” he shouted. “Go! Now! And take the watch!”

She wrapped her gloved fingers around the watch. Pride began to kindle within her. But as soon as she looked up, seeing in his gaping mouth a flavorless defeatism, she knew all she could do was leave. The weight of the watch zipped her down the rope.

The City of Strangers: A Short Story


After Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightmantumblr_static_tumblr_mfgp461ixn1ryv6gdo1_500

In the city of Strangers, the wood panels between apartments hold their breath. There is never an opportunity for them to creak and sigh in tune with a jubilant footstep beneath that woolly coating of dust. The dust blockades the doors, but no one minds. They dwindle their days within their apartments.

Every apartment is unraveling. Scrupulously tucked books and VHS tapes fall from their shelves nightly; the neat corners of fuzzy baby blue carpets are turned up and stiff from last week’s––months’s? year’s?––red tomato sauce. When it comes time to sleep, the people lay their bodies, folded neatly, on cold and shapeless covers, their hips and shoulders square in hollow atriums, their heads falling aortas, their arms collapsed stretches of ventricle cycling the bloodstream of their hopes.

Flirtations, invariably unsuccessful, are conducted through peepholes. Friendships, where they exist, go unnamed and are conveyed exclusively through shared laundry lines or waves between windows. Everyone stargazes. Those smiles, millions of miles away, are safe companions, ever out of reach, accepting the shadows of their beauty and never lashing out. Everyone sings and no one knows it. Everyone has been hurt and no one knows how.

The layers of dust deepen and deepen until they bring the complexes to shambles. Crumbling piles of bricks swallow their residents. No one misses people they never knew.

In the city of Strangers, paper airplanes litter the streets. They are the frail imaginings of those who realized too late that they were falling apart. Upon their release at the window, the planes were imbued with no destination, no particular cheek upon which to lay their delicate lips. If you meander, on a lazy day, through the city of Strangers, you will find that every one of these contains, between its limp blue notebook lines, the faint pencil-scratched “I Love You,” and that this is your own tearful handwriting beneath your thumb––that you are leaning out your own window, your own elbows on the chipped-paint pane, staring at the street from a hundred floors in the sky.

Thermostat: A Short Story


I hate that thermostat the way I hate my cream-colored sweater. Like accomplices, they both stare back with a beige vagueness, each concealing a tumult–chips and wires, a burgundy undershirt–like snow on the lawn in December. I used to think these June chills, so generously supplied by the blue snowflake on the keypad, were magical, but now, as I confront this sea-foam wall the way a slab of marble would confront a treacherous old friend, I am tempted to press the red sun.

“Mama,” I call. “It’s cold in here.” The sound of my voice quivers through the permafrost tiles, as I can feel through the thick wool socks.

Her voice cracks through the icy wall of her bedroom: when it reaches me, it’s barely a spit of steam scratching the air beside my ear. “It feels fine to me,” the steam whispers. “Just leave it.”

Blustery, the sleeves of my sweater fall around the equator of my hands. My chapped lips are unsure of their duty for just a moment before they slip open–apparently, they, too, are tired of the cold.

“Can I go to Helena’s house, Mama?” I ask.

“You’ve already gone once this week.”

I teeter on the tile. “That was a month ago, Mama.”

“Was it?”

“She’s throwing a party today, and she’ll be mad if I don’t go.”

“Will there be boys?”

Before I know it, my lips are between my teeth. “Hot ones.” I imagine their breathing. I imagine feeling it. I haven’t felt a warm, living thing since Dad disappeared. The house used to crawl with them. My lips are upset; I’ve drawn blood.

“Will there be alcohol?”

“I don’t think so, Mama. But even if there were–” I thumb the stitching on my jeans. “It probably wouldn’t be cold enough to suit your tastes.”

The steam converts itself into a snarl of winter wind; trickling down the back of my neck it becomes a glacier sliding between poles, raising goosebump hilltops. “Get in here,” it says.

Dad used to make this walk. First, he would make a sandwich, then he would eat it, then he would make the walk. I know because I saw it, on those late nights when I would let my eyes glow from the other side of the counter, so far below his that he never suspected a thing–and because the carpet still bear the sighs of his weight, the flecks of dirt he kicked off his shoes, a coffee stain, another.

I am careful to pad softly here. This is haunted ground.

Mama, a sullen face her only visible human trait, has reinvented herself as a moth caterpillar. From within a cocoon of dying pale fleece, her sunken eyes drift absently to my ghost in the doorway.

“Don’t touch that thermostat.”

“Why does it matter, Mama?”

Her face remains unaffected. “It’s our anniversary.”

So does mine. “We’re not a morgue.”

Her head rolls back as if she had never seen me at all. “He’s not dead.”

“He’s good as dead.”

“Don’t say that!” she snaps, suddenly violent from somewhere beyond her weary eyes. As she falls back, her voice collapses into a murmur. “Don’t say that.” But it’s too late. The blanket, for all its ashy sadness, has slipped from her shoulder, revealing the crimson beneath. “You’re bleeding,” she says.

“I don’t understand,” I mutter. “Why is that thermostat so important to you?”

“You should clean it up,” she returned. “There’s some alcohol under the sink. And I can get you some new Chapstick when I go out tomorrow.”

“Why are you so intent on forcing Dad to stay alive?”

“Maybe I can get you a new sweater, too. I think that one is getting too dark, from all the washing.”

“It’s cold in here, Mama.”

“What was that?”

“I’m freezing.”

Slowly, Mama removes her hand from her cocoon, revealing to me the thready pallor of a woman draped in cold.

“So am I, baby.”