Sit with the Dead

“I don’t think she’s breathing!”

 

It had been the dining room before they had installed the hospice bed, had scurried in with the paraphernalia of a sick room, had hoisted a dying woman carefully but without ceremony onto the sheets and covered her in blankets. Little non-decisions taken by the family over a couple of days divided the awkward rectangular room, now a bedroom for dying on one end and on the other a den-like space for waiting. By the time I got there, the room held a couch, a piano bench, a dining chair. It held a bedside tray, a basket of ointments and drugs, an old woman stertorously breathing. Her mouth hung open and each breath exited with a wheeze, entered with a rattle, fought to keep the air coming in even as the rest of her body from glands to kidneys gave up the fight. My mother-in-law Nonnie, cocooned into a bed of leaving. Her daughter, my wife, curled into the couch opposite her younger sister and the eldest sister perched by the bed, holding her mother’s hand under the blankets, turned towards us and smiling. A black window hung above where a winter night gathered in.

I slumped on the bench, gazed up at my brother-in-law. He hovered there, nattered on about a ludicrously small motorcycle he had bought the day before. He showed me the owner’s manual on his smart phone. I struggled, feeling I would soon fall asleep, like I already slept. None of us had been getting any real rest.

We all laughed, quick in word, swapping warm glances. Some harmless story about growing up in that very house. Then my brother-in-law’s re-enactment of the motorcycle owner, immensely fat, riding the bike around the parking lot to make sure he delivered a working machine. A bike nearly invisible. A dying woman nearly invisible. The youngest daughter leapt up from the sofa. “I don’t think she’s breathing!”

 

Six days before, I had called my wife to tell her I thought it time for me to come out. Instead, before I got through my little speech, she asked me. She told me her mother would come home from the hospital that afternoon. She told me the three girls had stood around their mother’s bed, three days after hope had begun again when Nonnie came off the ventilator and didn’t die. Three days while the body’s chemistry ricocheted and the drugs fought each other. Three days while small ways of the body quit but no one knew yet. Those three days and then they told Non that nothing was left to be done. She lay so weak and half in a dream. Did she understand? Late in the night, Non’s eyes flared open, stared into the dimness. My wife took her hand. Hoarse because of the intubation, Non rasped, “I’m ready. Home.”

I hung up the phone. I finished the plumbing fix I had started – selfish thought, please don’t let the house flood while I’m gone – dumped the dog on a friend, drove the three hours to Albuquerque, caught the early flight next morning. All the way, I thought, Will I be squeamish? How bad will she look and will I be repulsed? How am I supposed to behave?

Dying remained problematic for me – I am agnostic by nature and anti-religious out of laziness. I had never been this close to the edge, never seen the organic container of someone I loved and respected shut down, and the consciousness disappear. I half-feared my sudden conversion to Christianity or a prattling to a god I didn’t know or believe in – after all, I would be surrounded by Christians. The commonest forms would be the easiest. When my grandfather died, my mother, ever pragmatic, had waited until I returned from a trip to tell me I had missed the funeral. “Work comes first.” When my grandmother died, I arrived in time to join the cortege to the funeral home. When my uncle died, I missed the cancer. I didn’t believe the waxen creature in the casket had ever been my favorite relative.

Would I be able to talk to death, be cheerful, help when needed?

 

Nonnie still grasped the world in that dining room the day of my arrival. Near to mute, she could only squeeze out small single-syllable words. Hot. Cold. No. Yes. Hurt. Love. She squeezed my hand. Tear-stung by sentiment, I thought a simple pressure from her hand said it all, said all those things I had filled the room with.

We propped her up, played Sinatra for her, medicated her with morphine and a drug to counteract the panic morphine gave her. We joined three at a time to roll her, settled her on the other hip, caused her such pain that her eyes snapped open with wild staring. The little moans and whines made me flinch and my throat choked shut with childish guilt. We dabbed her sores with ointment. The sheets blotched sticky pink in little patches. All of us feared we might rip open her dry, feather-thin skin. And the worst? To sit alone with her at night, my exhausted wife asleep by me. Not knowing what Non’s sudden restlessness could mean, listening to her breathing as it became without rhythm, catching, halting. The swelling in her limbs accounted for nothing; alarm only swept me when she choked on her own phlegm, too weak to clear her throat. Eyes open, such suffering.

We touched her constantly. I could do that. She would know we were there, maybe. The hearing is the last to go, so we murmured to her. I could do that. We held normal conversations among ourselves, swamped the room with our own distant realities in other towns, suppressed emotion. We felt it impossible to be focused on Non every minute, yet we frittered the only time left. I hated how common we were. Texting, reading, playing games on iPads. Working long-distance on lives held far away.

 

Anger among the children. One daughter, so matter-of-fact, felt the pull of home and life. Hurry banged around in her head, leaked out in dire prediction. Each sigh, or drug panic, or slowdown in urine output meant the end would come that night. Or the next night, or within hours. Others quiet, not judging. I didn’t think Non rushed towards the edge – I was angry.

I was wrong. At the end Non surprised all five of us who waited there, caught us out, left us bereft. “I don’t think she’s breathing!”

One daughter on the phone for hospice, to bring the nurse on call for the weekend. Another, unable to talk, texted her children to let them know the end had come. A third crumpled up in a living room chair and stared at the blue carpet as if it could suddenly exude a pattern, an explanation, a clue as to what to feel next. The brother-in-law on his mobile; he consoled his grown son who cried. Cried hard enough for his voice to be heard in the room past his father’s fat, cushioned ear. But his grandmother could not hear.

I told the eldest daughter – It’s all right, I’ll sit with her. Like blood and race, I fell back into the modes before Christianity, Scots and Irish ways. I sat alone with the body of Non, attended, honored the last breath. Medieval, like the dark of a croft, and I gave nothing modern at all.

 

This then is what I can do for you. I will sit here in this room that falls still while the rest of the house wakes up again. While adults handle the moment by pushing it away with action, action required, but not for us, for us two. It’s a sense of wonder I find; this is how death looks, at least this time.

Your hair, wisping back from your forehead, thinly tangled against the still-warm pillow, slightly moving as the furnace pushes air into the room. The flesh of your face drawn tight across the forehead and the temples, across your sharp nose. I see through to your bones. Your poor mouth hung open, gaping, but no longer wobbling from the struggle to breathe. Your skin, an off-white color like bleached leather, smooth as a child’s, drained of all the pink. You are the color of ivory, unsullied with a need to live, you are like a pale marble carving on top of a Renaissance tomb. You are the carving of what death is, before we push it back into mere pretty, into acceptable mockery of living.

This is what I can do for you, by your bed, holding your hand. I’ll stroke your head. I’ll say, It’s all right now, Non, it’s all right. Fly away, fly away, slide from your dream into flying away. We’re here, we’re still here. I will witness your going, I will mark this moment just before your body becomes the corpse, I will hold your hand for the while.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The Prague Revue.

Scott Archer Jones is currently living and working on his fifth novel in northern New Mexico, after stints in the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway, plus less exotic locations. He’s worked for a power company, grocers, a lumber yard, an energy company (for a very long time), and a winery. He is on the masthead at The Prague Revue.

Scott cuts all his own firewood, lives a mile from his nearest neighbor and writes grant applications for the community. He is the Treasurer of Shuter Library of Angel Fire, a private 501(c)(3), and desperately needs your money to keep the doors open.

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Radio

The radio is new, along with the seats
and tread of the tires. It vibrates songs
throughout the car, from melancholy rock
anthems to sprightly classical tunes. It doesn’t
know about being worn, about parts reluctant
to spray music anymore, or the sadness of news.
What it loves is to be the carrier of words,
instruments, or nothing. To be turned off
and look forward to being switched on again,
light reflecting time and title, electricity
marching through its system. What if there’s
a crash? The front caved in, broken, spinning
in the air? Even in the quiet that’s left,
the radio will exist in the last breaths it caught,
which elevate toward the clouds, then further up,
to those who should listen to pain and wonder.

Donald Illich has published work in LIT, The Iowa Review, Nimrod, and other publications. He is a writer-editor who lives in Rockville, Maryland.

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Ghost of Language

We buy ourselves on the open market.
Beat out other bidders, watch them
slink away into the double dark. Cry,
when we realize we’re whole, not torn apart.

We’ve seen other people crawling around
attempting to find what was left of them.
The arm hanging off a chandelier, a leg
being slowly digested by an alligator.

We’re now freed to form our poetry,
raise lines and sentences, harvest images
in the sun. On our pages we can plant
the best of our crops, let them witness

the beauty we believe we’re creating.
One day, though, the fields will dry out,
plants will wilt, leaves will drop off.
We will try to sell ourselves to anyone,

but they’ll leave it as haunted instead.
We will be the ghost in our own language.
The verbs and nouns scaring themselves,
the adjectives describing how we died.

Donald Illich has published work in LIT, The Iowa Review, Nimrod, and other publications. He is a writer-editor who lives in Rockville, Maryland.

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Homeless Man, Purdue University

He’s been there for years.
Everyone knows him.
We try not to look, but he’s there.
He’s the one unchanging feature of campus.
We ignore his, “Spare a quarter, miss?”

He doesn’t fault us for this,
and his eyes hold no accusation,
but when he looks at us we feel
as though the eyes of God are upon us
and we are naked in the Garden.

The next day he has a freshly delivered pizza.
He offers us some, and we decline.
We can’t look at him in our shame,
add a quarter to his pile,
and then hurry away.

We buy a sandwich out of guilt
and offer it to him.
It is to make ourselves feel better.
He smiles at us and says politely,
“No thank you. I’ve already eaten today.”

We notice him all the time now,
wonder what his story is,
what brought him into homelessness
and what keeps him there.
What is he trying to redeem?

But even as we look,
we never see.

Emily Jo Scalzo received a BA in Creative Writing from Purdue and an MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in fiction from Fresno State. She currently resides in Muncie, Indiana, and is an assistant professor at Ball State University.

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My Reason for College, 2003

In the early hours of the morning
I reluctantly exchange the warm comfort
of my bed for the frigid air of winter.
I trudge to class through a kaleidoscope of gray
shivering despite the warmth of my coat.
The wind cuts through the cloth like a knife
chilling me to the bone and yet still I go.
I slide on the ice on the way to class and
soon I will slide again to my next one.

I study because two weeks ago
I watched my drunken brother lectured by a cop—
drunk because it was New Year’s Eve,
drunk despite his underaged status.
Army boy, just out of boot camp
and headed, ultimately, for the brig
and for overseas to fight in a vendetta
for an incompetent President, unlikely to
ever survive the military to go on with life.

I study because last week
my best friend gave birth to a baby girl
with no husband and living with her parents
no job and no hope of getting one
dreams of being a doctor forever postponed
for the harsh reality of single parenthood
without relief from bills and responsibilities
and with no hope of a high-paying job
without a slip of paper bought with time and money.

I study because every weekend
my mother works overtime at her job
for a lawyer who hassles her constantly,
never making enough money to satisfy anyone
because the family eats it so fast.
A woman stuck in a dead-end career
because there is no other way to pay the bills—
working without time to do anything else
yet somehow never getting ahead.

I study because just a few days ago
a friend told me goodbye because he wanted to die.
A child with his entire life ahead of him,
wanting to die because the system is against him.
He travels down a dark path alone and forgotten
and few people care, too caught up in propaganda
spewed for the purpose of pacifying those who
have intelligence enough to see that the government
is destroying any future that this country might have.

I study because every second of every day
a child cries for lack of something she needs—
a little girl who will never have the opportunity to
study because she won’t live long enough,
or if she does she won’t care by that point.
Betrayed by those who are supposed to protect her,
living in poverty because of rich bureaucrats who
keep her there, afraid of her potential
all the while claiming to be helping her.

I study because someday
I will have no more opportunity to study
because it will no longer be allowed in
an effort to keep the masses ignorant so that
those in power will never fall out of it
and those relying on them will forever be
trapped in a complex unsolvable maze
toys to be played with for the politicians who
never see the human faces on the bills they pass.

Emily Jo Scalzo received a BA in Creative Writing from Purdue and an MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in fiction from Fresno State. She currently resides in Muncie, Indiana, and is an assistant professor at Ball State University.

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The Tulpa

For the hundredth time I start with the toes.

Her cute little toes with nails polished red. The ankle and the pale scar bisecting it. Her pretty feet, sprouting legs spindly like cigarettes.

A torso pops into existence, stretching up and out the legs. Beautiful round breasts.

Memory fragments sculpt her shoulders, her neck, her head. Curly hair blossoms from her scalp. Blue piercing eyes swirl into focus.

Assembled from memory shards in a collage of actions and facial expressions, Miriam’s smiling as she’s smiled a million times before. She caresses my cheek.

“Moment of truth,” she says, perfume wafting in her wake.

I say, “This time, please stay.”

“Can’t promise anything.”

I burn her shape and face and voice in my mind and open my eyes.

In the darkness my computer screen blinks stupidly. A dozen pop-ups fight for my attention, the leaves of my plastic ficus reflect their colors.

I look around, hopeful, not daring to move an inch.

“Miriam?”

No one replies.

I stand up, stretch my legs, toss my mat back in the closet. Slumping into the swiveling chair I press J on the keyboard, prompting a yellow pad to appear. Under today’s date I type, Creating a tulpa – unsuccessful.

The square of screen-light dances on walls, dims, then disappears as the computer powers down.

I rest my head on the desk.

I should give up. Drop everything and get on with my life and just – give – up. But banging my head on the desk I remember there’s method to my madness. I remember the pain and curiosity which made creating her tulpa the focus of my life these past few years. I remember it’s a bit late for second thoughts and giving up.

I get up, grab my mat and assume the lotus position again.

I’ll power through if I have to.

Through the nose I breathe in a visualized ball of relaxing white light which swirls round my belly, then I exhale that energy out the mouth.

Breathe in through the nose. Breathe out the mouth. Breathe in through the nose –

My gut freezes.

How’s that possible? A remnant, maybe?

Vanilla, and I haven’t even begun visualizing. It can’t possibly be –

Darting through the hallway after the scent, I end up at my apartment door.

Black globs swim in my vision, the door wobbles, the hallway tightens.

A pessimistic voice in my head suggests the perfume must belong to my new neighbor, a Mrs. something or other, but before I can convince myself of that, a knock comes.

I reach out, open the door.

Miriam’s standing there, smiling as she’s smiled a million times before.

*

She sits beside the kitchen table, sipping chamomile tea. I’m at the edge of my seat, poised to spring up to fetch anything she might need.

Bringing the cup to her lips, she says, “So, Herbie, how have you been?”

“Fine. Very busy.”

“Oh.” Her eyebrows go up. “With what?”

The tulpa guides advise not to broach the subject of creation immediately – rule number 4 – so I have a story prepared.

“Airplane modeling. Plastic airplanes I sell at fairs.”

“Show me.”

“They’re in my parents’ basement.” I make a sweeping gesture. “No room for much in this shoebox.”

China clangs as she replaces the cup on the saucer.

My foot dances, I put a hand on my knee, take a few deep breaths. Remember: rash actions could prove disastrous, the newborn tulpa should be approached carefully, with much respect for its –

“Why did you leave me?”

A flicker passes across her face, her expression closes up, becomes unreadable.

Stupid stupid stupid. Now you cocked it all up with your big fat mouth.

She says nothing.

*

“You followed the rules?” My screen flashes.

“I’m no amateur, Pat.”

His avatar – a pink pony – rolls its eyes. I’m in the private chatrooms of an online tulpa community. Patrice is my closest virtual buddy.

“You give it history?”

Her. It’s a girl.”

He laughs, covering his face with violet hooves. “Of course it is. So, what’s the story?”

Rule number 2 states you must imagine a believable history for how the tulpa ended up where he/she did. Richer history equals more substance for the thoughtform.

“Knocked on the wrong apartment door while visiting a friend who just moved in this building.”

“Oooh.” The pony cringes. “Smooth.”

I instruct my avatar – a caricature of an 80s glam rock star – to bow theatrically.

“Where is she now?”

“Napping in the living room.”

His avatar enlarges, fills up its chat square. “Keep your eyes on her, man.”

80s rock star nods.

“Well then. Congratulations are in order.” He grins.

My avatar pops the champagne and pours Pink Pony a glass. We toast to my success.

*

I take it slow, discussing casual topics, giving her space. We eat together, though obviously her plate remains untouched and I end up dumping half the food. Rule number 5 says avoid the outside (tulpas are harder to sustain among real people) so our meals are home-delivered fast food which I don’t mind throwing away anyway.

“Remember when we saw that godawful movie you thought was gonna be a surefire SF masterpiece?”

With my best robot voice I say, “Take my hand and forget about Mars.

She bursts out laughing. “The cheesiness was unbearable.”

“Excellent trailer though.” I shrug. “Must’ve jammed my camp-meter.”

She places her head in my lap. I stroke her hair gently, a pang of loneliness squeezing my chest.

“You really don’t remember?” I say.

Her body tenses up. I haven’t brought the subject up since that one blunder of mine.

She looks me square in the eyes. “No, Herbie. I don’t.”

I don’t understand why she’s so distressed. She wasn’t the one hurt by her decision to leave. Perhaps my own feelings have seeped into her personality and I should delineate our halves better, separate firmly where I end and she begins.

Straightening up, she says, “What do you remember about that day?”

I dredge up painful memories. “Only that I’ve never been hurt more.”

“Waking up to a goodbye note sucks, doesn’t it?” Tears stream down her face.

“What would you know about it?”

She’s red-faced, about to shout at me, but she composes herself, wipes the tears off with a sleeve.

“You’re right.” Her voice is hoarse and bitter. “I’m sorry.”

*

Tulpas are thoughtforms nested in our subconscious, and probing those murky depths is supposed to yield answers, provided you probe deep enough.

But now, we’re running in circles. She needs a comfort zone to open up and this isn’t it. We discuss our relationship when we can but avoid the subject of separation; she scares easily and I can’t let my sole successful creation dissolve back into nothingness due to impatience.

We used to be an outdoors couple, late afternoon strolls were our second favorite habit. Being stuck in an apartment for a whole week is just not our natural environment.

“Let’s take a walk,” I say. Rule number 5 be damned.

She tucks a stray hair behind her ear. “But I’m watching this.” The TV shows a black and white archeologist stepping out of a theater screen.

I stand, pull her up. “I’ll tell you how it ends.”

She mumbles a protest but I drag her to the hallway anyway.

“Put your shoes on.” I put on mine.

*

It feels weird not to talk to her outside but to imagine myself talking (I wouldn’t want people thinking I’m crazy, babbling away to thin air) but other than that everything is as it used to be. In fact, I’m enjoying her presence so much for a moment I forget why I brought her back in the first place.

“You can’t be serious.” She laughs. We’re holding hands, walking along a gravel path in the park. The sun’s breaking above the horizon, coloring scattered clouds in pink, just about to drop away.

There’s a wooden bench to the side. I nudge her playfully towards it, we sit down, she puts her legs over mine.

“No effin’ way, Herbie. I knew Marie as well as you did, perhaps better, and I say you’re a lying SOB.”

A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth. “I’m telling you. Two weeks after you left and she’s flirting with me.”

“That sly French bitch.”

We laugh, she edges closer, rests her head on my shoulder. It’s as if we’re slipping back into the mold made by our previous selves, the ones who really existed together, loved each other.

“She never stood a chance,” I say.

The sky’s a darker shade of blue now. Fireflies light up the trees. I count the green fluorescent specks, try to follow their pattern, lose myself in the bliss for a while.

But the serenity is cast aside by a sudden jolt of uneasiness passing through both our bodies. A blurry shape, kicking dirt, stops, turns towards us.

Miriam’s gaze strays to it. Her jaw drops. “Oh, no,” I hear her say.

“What?” I try following her gaze but can’t, my view’s blocked. “What?” Panic creeps into my voice. Miriam looks shocked, pale, as if staring at a ghost. She speaks to the blur, paying me no mind.

I squint and manage to make the shape out just before my vision darkens. A man stands next to me. He’s shaved, and leaner, but there’s no mistaking him.

It’s me.

*

“But I remember thinking you up.” I pace my living room. My living room? I don’t know what’s what anymore.

Miriam’s lips quiver. “Rule number 4.” A brief shrug and she sighs. “You know how it is.”

I bounce round the room like a ping pong ball.

“But why?” I’m crying now. “Why would you do that to someone? Why would you drag me through this hell?” Snot’s coming down my nose. I should be embarrassed but I don’t care, none of it is real. I’m not real.

I want to pull my hair out. Scream at the top of my lungs. Nothing matters. I can jump out a window, slit my wrists, and what? She’ll think me back to life if she wants to.

The irony of the situation is not lost on me, though it occurs to me she probably thought me up with this precise history so I’d swallow my predicament swiftly. For all I know, real-me has never even heard of the concept of tulpas.

“It’s shit. Absolute shit,” I scream in her face.

Calming me down so I’m capable of a normal conversation is a daunting task which takes a while.

At last she says, “I’m so sorry.” Her puffy, pitying eyes look right through me.

I sit down as far from her as possible, hug my knees, start rocking back and forth.

The past few days – my entire existence – flash before me. What does this mean? Should I accept that I’m a mere figment of someone’s imagination? Or perhaps I’d be better off dead, swept off her mind like a breadcrumb.

“What’ll happen now I know?” Terror grips my body, making me rock faster.

She stands from the sofa, hand outstretched as if to offer a caress but I crawl back from her, fixing her a don’t-you-even-dare stare.

“I’ll tell you why you exist. You get to decide what happens next.”

“Tell me.”

Talking, moving, keeps me busy, stops me from thinking about how in reality I lack even a proper mind to think with.

“You left me.”

My chest constricts – the pain I remember, memories of waking up next to an empty bed, the despair, none of that is mine. Things I remember as quintessentially me are fabrications. “You’re lying,” I manage to say.

“You know I’m not,” Miriam says, crouching next to me. This time I don’t flinch.

We sit in silence. After some time I say, “Why?”

She shrugs, puffing her cheeks. A cute gesture, making her look less like a mind-jailer and more like the person I once dated.

“I’m hoping you’ll help me answer that.”

*

I wake with a start from dreamless sleep. Sitting up, I kick off the sheets wrapped round my legs. Sleeping on the couch is uncomfortable but I’m too enraged to be in the same room with her yet too frightened to go to another apartment – an irrational fear that putting distance between us could somehow dematerialize me.

The person behind that door is me. Regardless of how I feel I’m just a mirage, a dream. These very thoughts originate from the brain cells in that room.

It’s 3 am. Objects around me are shadows, contours in the low light. I’m in desperate need of a distraction.

Gray snow appears on the computer screen. For a brief moment I wonder if electronics malfunction in my Borgesian nightmare but then ChatNet boots up.

“What a twist,” says Patrice, his pony a matured horse now, brass ornaments on the sides of its elongated head.

“You know?” Of course he knows. He is me and both of us are her.

Tilting his horse-head. “Good news travels fast.”

I don’t know what to say, don’t know why I’m even talking to him, can’t say what the hell I’m expecting from this charade of a conversation.

“Look,” he says. “Tulpas can become independent of the brain they share. Self-aware and free-willed. You know all this.”

“What if she’s made me real enough to do her bidding but not to possess free will? I could be reading lines off a script she’s written for all I know.”

A million thoughts race round my mind. My hands go numb and I rub my palms together as if to prove they exist.

The horse shakes its head. “You accept that set of beliefs and you lose automatically. It’s an existential dead end.”

His head zooms in until all I see is his eye.

“Consider yourself lucky Herbert – you were created inside another person’s mind, for a specific reason. People’s lives are meaningless but yours isn’t. People are lonely but you are as close to another person as possible.”

Turning his head he peers through the square with the other eye. “So stop whining and see this as the blessing it is.”

*

“Wake up. You won. I’ll help you with whatever.”

She groans. I shake her again.

“Uhmmm. What’s the time?” The bedside lamp comes on with a click. “Jesus, Herbert, it’s 5 am.”

“Couldn’t sleep.”

Squinting at me with one eye, she says, “What’s this about winning? No obligations, Herbert, I told you.”

“I thought this through. I’m OK.” Pat’s right. At the moment there’s nothing else I can do besides the puppet dance I was meant to perform.

She’s silent for a while, then says, “Go to bed.” A click and there’s darkness again. “We’ll talk in the morning.”

*

It takes several days to convince her I’m seriously okay with this. She believed me from the get-go I know, but there’s no avoiding the play-pretend tug of war, the win-win situation where she soothes her conscience all while fostering the illusion that I have a choice.

Under close scrutiny Patrice’s theory seems obvious – I’m a bowling ball rolling down a hill, a wind-up doll set on a traced out path. I can throw a fit and refuse to cooperate, or I can go through the predetermined motions head held high.

I choose the latter, because after all, even a set path is better than a dead end.

*

We’re bouncing memories off one another: she asks the questions and I do my best to fill his big, real shoes.

“You were running late from work. You called me from a bar.”

I take a bite off an apple. “Yup.” A rainy night, torrential downpour, I stopped at Frank’s Cafe, gave Miriam a call, had a few tequila shots, some beers, Mike paid the bill cause he got promoted.

I shrug, biting off another chunk of green delicious. “Can’t say for sure, Mimi, maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What I’m remembering could be your wildest guesses.”

“Try.”

Eyes closed, I force memories to come. Shots, beers, Frank’s Cafe, talking to Miriam on the phone, shots, beers, Frank’s Cafe, Mike paying the bill, talking to Miriam on the phone.

“Nothing,” I say. “Nothing comes.”

“Harder.”

Shots, beers, Frank’s Cafe, shots, beers, talking to Miriam on the phone, Mike paying the bill – a million memories flick through my mind like it’s some theater with a broken projector, faster and louder, but always the same snapshots, same angles. Flicking until film’s end. Until there’s no memories left and the screen’s a sad shade of beige.

“I can’t.” I stand up. “There’s nothing. I don’t have his eyes. All I can remember is what you remember, your presumptions and guesses.”

“You cheated that night.” Her eyes bulge out. “Admit it. You cheated that night and left me with her.”

“I. Don’t. Know.”

She won’t listen. She chases me out of the room and there’s no apple in my hands, no taste on my tongue or touch on my fingers.

*

“What happens if I fail?”

“You won’t.”

So we try. Again and again. But nothing comes, I can’t seem to reach any new insight.

Despite the lack of results she’s no surlier than usual, and most of our fruitless days peter out, leaving us in our separate rooms, avoiding one another.

Some days we don’t even speak, don’t try to remember.

*

A gleeful stupid smile on my stupid face, I run around the apartment, calling after her.

“Mimi, I remember something.”

I kick her bedroom door open, it flaps inside an empty room. I scour the rest of the apartment. Nobody’s home.

Struggling to keep the memory alive in my head, I lie on the living room couch. It was that night. Miriam was right. Moments before, a trite recollection caused a flood of memories, Frank’s bar, the beers, the tequila shots, talking to Miriam on the phone, a flash of red lipstick on my collar.

I wait. Ten. Fifteen minutes. Half an hour.

Finally, an hour and a half later she’s taking off her stilettos in the hallway.

“Mimi,” I say. “I remember.”

Her eyelids are droopy.

“Great.” She drops her bag to the floor and tiptoes to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.

“Mimi?” I knock gently.

Moments later I hear snoring.

*

Over an omelet I tell her about the memory.

“So,” I say, “you were right. What now?”

“Now?” She stares at empty air for a moment. “Nothing.” There’s a bit of olive on her teeth. “You do your thing.” She waves her fork in the air. “Analyze. Think about why that happened. What I did wrong.”

“Excuse me?” I almost choke on a piece of bread. “I cheated. That’s it. Found someone else. You did nothing wrong. I gave you what you wanted and now it’s time we move on.”

“Not enough.” Her tongue passes over her front teeth, taking that bit of stray olive with it.

“How is that not enough?”

“Because I want to change, stop myself from repeating past mistakes.”

“Bullshit. I don’t buy it.”

“That’s too bad,” she says, avoiding my eyes.

We finish the remainder of our breakfast in silence.

*

Tonight she’s out again. I’m banging away on the keyboard, talking to Patrice.

“I don’t know what she wants, Pat.” 80s rock star looks tired, hungover.

Patrice’s horse gazes through the chat-window wisely.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

My avatar sighs. “Not to me, man. You must be the clever, philosophical part of her brain.”

He says, “And you are definitely not her engines of deduction, no siree. You can’t even see a romance is developing under your very nose.”

“A romance?”

Realization hits me like a ton a bricks.

I pace the hallway, waiting for her to return.

*

“You’re still seeing him.” I poke her chest with each word.

“So?” She stumbles as she walks.

“I thought you wanted my help to get over him, like I thought I needed yours. But you were playing me to figure out how to get him back, weren’t you?”

“No.” She grimaces.

I groan.

She glares at me, arms akimbo. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, Herbert.”

“This is a big mistake. I know him better than you. I know things you’ve only picked up subconsciously. He’s an asshole.”

I try talking sense into her but she ignores me and goes to bed.

Behind her bedroom door I hear whistling, a song I know he really loves.

*

The three of us are having dinner. That is, if you consider her vomit-inducing culinary experiments food. Personally, I wouldn’t give this crap to a starving child.

They’re the epitome of cuteness now. The bastard’s grown stubble, because he knows she can’t resist that, and she’s wearing those pearl earrings he gave her for their second anniversary. Both of them are so goddamn transparent, it hurts.

“Oh my god,” she says, eyes closed. “It’s so delicious with both sauces. Here try.” She squeegees the sauce bowls with a twirl of pasta on her fork, brings it to his mouth.

Kerrist, I’m about to puke.

“Wow.” He chews the pasta. Here’s to hoping he chokes. “You’re the best,” he says.

I jab my fork and spoon at the spaghetti, mainly to make disrupting noise. It doesn’t bother them. Well, he can’t hear me, obviously, and she pretends not to. What a bitch.

“Gosh, I can’t believe we wasted the last three years.” He takes her hand in his. “I was lost without you.”

I roll my eyes so far back they’re just about to pop from the top of my head.

“Me too, Herbie. Me too.”

Good. They deserve each other.

*

A raindrop hits my forehead. Another makes a splat on my jacket sleeve. A third right in my eye. I stick my tongue out as the rain picks up and the pitter-patter of drops on gravel quickly turns into white noise.

Mountain tops peek out of the faraway mist, triangles in various shades of green.

I’m pining after something – but this can’t be it, can it? A place that doesn’t even exist.

A curtain of rain settles between me and everything else, and just then I realize how pathetic and clichéd I’m acting.

I get off the non-existing bench which holds no real memories and walk the path back home.

*

Despite my misgivings they stuck together. Right now they’re at the mall looking at furniture. I don’t know how long they’ll last this time, hell, it might even be the real thing. I don’t give a rat’s ass.

I did my best, I really did, but she’s unrelenting.

At first it hurt that she spoke to me less and less. I felt like a toy left in its box, a piece of clothing bought on impulse, worn once and never again.

But one day while they were rolling around in bed something snapped in me. It wasn’t a bad kind of snap, more like the sound of chains breaking, liberating. Saying she no longer needs me started feeling good.

So tomorrow I’m moving out, and I know exactly where.

It’s this place I’ve been dreaming of lately.

My hand’s turning a valve. Water slogs through a hose and a moment later sprays out of sprinklers across a sprawling backyard. There’s a beautiful brick house, with a porch and a swing. I walk up the porch steps, reach for the golden knob which reflects my puzzled expression.

The place is enormous on the inside. I go through the entire mansion, keep opening doors, checking room after room, but there’s no one there.

Relief spreads across my body, and I linger in the huge hallways, smiling until I wake up.

Damien Krsteski is a science fiction author from Skopje, Macedonia. His work has appeared in numerous publications, links to which can be found on his blog: http://monochromewish.blogspot.com.

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untitled

What was it you said

in the dark, silver-screen light
of the television set?
With the map of bedsheets spread

pinched and wrinkled.
Where we took winding roads
through linen mountain ranges.

When the white noise listened to us
weaving adventures in a
cotton atlas, slipping –

I’m sure you said something.

Something bold. Against the
pillowcase with its folded
borders. Over the mattress

where we were landmarks.
Under the wordless covers –

I’m sure you said something.

Benjamin Eaton is a Creative Writing MA student at the University of Chester, UK, whose poetry has previously been published in Pandora’s Box and Kind of a Hurricane Press. He dreams of retiring early on the proceeds of a Booker Prize-winning novel. He would also be content with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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