Short Story: Lucem Ex Tenebras

I was sitting at my desk arranging the desktop icons into the semblance of a middle finger when the chat window popped up. 
 
“Tony, are you there?”
 
I finished giving myself the finger and began to type: “Sorry, but this isn’t Tony.” and I was about to press enter when I read:
 
“I’m drowning in a sea of shit Tony, except I’m the sea. I could really use someone to talk to.”
 
It occurred to me that Tony might not be available to talk to whoever this person was. That is precisely what had happened to me, the day before, except her name was Michelle, and she’d gotten sick of how often I needed her help.
 
Besides there appeared to be no one else at any of their desks, anywhere on this floor.
 
I wrote: “Okay. What’s wrong?”
 
They said: “IT’S fucking stupid. I’m being stupid.”
 
“Whatever IT is, If IT bothers you, then it bothers you. And that’s okay.”
 
They didn’t type anything for awhile. 
 
Then they wrote: “On the subway someone’s phone went off. The ringtone was Don’t Stop Believing by journey and I wanted to cry because of it, but I didn’t want anyone to see so I picked up this newspaper and there was this stupid picture of a soldier upside down and he looked like an idiot so I started laughing but I was crying at the same time and then I realized I was holding the newspaper upside down and that everyone would know why I’d done it.”
 
I waited.
 
Typed “lol” then deleted it. 
 
They wrote “See, it’s fucking stupid.”
 
I typed “Why did the song make you cry?”
 
They wrote it all out. How their face had been scratched by the windshield of their car whilst they listened to what used to be their favorite song. How they had lost who they were and that reminded me qof how I’d lost Danielle, and how simple things that shouldn’t be, did. Like waking up. And breakfast,
 
Except Danielle was definitely still alive and waiting for me at home with the next episode of Game Of Thrones.
 
Later they wrote “Thank you I fucking needed that” so I thought it was time to type: “My name isn’t actually Tony you know. Though I am in tech support…” which is when I woke up from the dream, into an empty bed, on top of a duvet too large for one person because Danielle was still dead and I’d forgotten again. 
 
It took me sometime to get dressed and go to my real desk, out in the real world. It was somewhere around noon when I realized that I’d left my latest prescription at home. My supervisor let me go, told me to stay home, and I knew he meant well but why couldn’t he understand that I would come back the moment I took my pills and that the last thing I needed was to be at home. That auditing the accounts of a popcorn company was bliss in comparison. 
 
The pills didn’t seem to do anything except make day time TV somewhat more bearable. The romance, between an ancient concubine and some kind of half-man, half-bird creature was particularly enthralling, especially since I do not speak cantonese and so made up the words in my head. My stomach growled so I put some instant dimsum in the microwave and pressed some buttons. At some distance from the couch the microwave started beeping. I figured that now that it was cooked, that it would keep, for several hours if necessary. Later the washing machine started making noises. I remained on the sofa, listening with half-shut eyes to the nonsensical patter of another Chinese soap. 
 
Of course my phone had to go off right next to my head. An unknown number. I prepared to be polite. If it was all I going to do today, I was going to be polite to his poor, underpaid telemarketer.
 
“Hello.” I said, in my polite voice.
 
She said: “Hi there! I’m calling from tech support! Why so glum chum?”
 
“Excuse me?”
 
“What’s on you mind man! I heard you’re kind of down.”
 
“From who? Who is this?”
 
“Well, I got this memo, said you’re kind of down. Got it from the sysadmin. He assigned me to you I think. I’m not sure. But who cares, whatever, you sound like ass, you really do and for what it’s worth you shouldn’t bottle it all up. Let’s see here…Danielle…lovely name that. Come on man, tell me about her. I’m listening. You can tell me whatever you like.
 
I tried a few Well’s, some But’s and it’s just’s- she waited for me to finish one of my sentences but I failed to. I only breathed slower, and harder, till I was gasping.
 
She said “Danielle would want you to treat yourself well, I mean, that’s love right?”
 
“That’s…what the fuck…” And it just spilled out of me. In a babbling mess. I confessed about how I’d finally found someone that made me feel everything I’d ever dreamed of, right when I’d given up all hope, right when I was at my most overweight and tired, and then out of nowhere, just like that she’s gone and all the pills in the goddamn world weren’t enough. I told her how I hadn’t really been happy to begin with. How Danielle just accepted me and that was the definition of love.
 
The tech support lady said: “Self-acceptance counts too.”
 
And after that I poured the rest out. And after that I tried to thank her. “That was so much better than these pink pills I take.”
 
It turns out we took the same pills.
 
She had been swearing a lot. I asked: “Have you…ever been in a car accident?”
 
She said Yes.
 
“And do you have a friend, a good friend named Tony?”
 
She said What the fuck.
 
The line began to crackle. I remembered then, being transferred to tech support, the empty office, and a middle finger made out of desktop icons and: “LOOK, IF YOU’RE AT THE OFFICE TONIGHT, MEET ME AT THE PHOTOCOPY MACHINE!”
 
She managed to ask: “The pink one?”
 
“YES THE BRIGHT PINK ONE!!!!!” and the line went dead and I woke up opposite the TV and I made a mental, then a written note to bring all this up with my psychiatrist. Then I did my washing, ate the dimsum, and went back to work.
 
I was so excited that getting to sleep took ages.
 
It felt like I was about to go somewhere new. Meet someone new. It felt like my first date with Danielle and the debate I had about what flowers to buy. So I still thought I was awake even when I found myself at the bottom of a lift shaft, with only a ladder and the distant sounds whirring office machinery. I climbed and counted the floors, perpetually afraid I had lost track, that I was going to miss mine. It made me want to start all over again but my arms were tired and what if I wouldn’t be able to go back up? 
 
The silhouette of a head peeked out, far above me. “About time! I couldn’t find a single freakin’ photocopy machine anywhere. Its like the end of the world up in here.” 
 
At that point it became easier to climb, until I stood on the other side of the shaft from her, the gap in between too large to jump. “Jump it!” she said. 
 
“I’ll fall.” I replied.
 
She extended her hands and it occurred to me that if I ran really, really fast, then maybe I’d outrun gravity. So I did, and I was only a foot away from her when gravity caught up to grab me by my ankles, “OH HELL NO!” She yelled, then her hands clasping mine, pulling me up till we stood, face to scarred face. She kissed me and I didn’t ask why, or feel guilty at all despite the fact that she looked nothing like Danielle.
 
“I checked out the company directory, none of it makes any fucking sense, but I’ll tell you what- the sysadmin’s office is on the top floor. Come on, we’ll take the stairs.”
 
So we ran hand in hand up an interminable fire escape. Eventually we emerged into a white marbled lobby. At the end of it, large and imposing, were a set of double doors. One black, the other white, with a drop of the other color in each. Holding hands we shouldered both open together.
 
Inside the sysadmin dropped the dimsum he’d been eating. Then he tripped over a bundle of wires covered with what looked like unwashed clothes. He stuttered: “Who the…what the…you guys aren’t supposed to BE here! At the same time! Oh jeez, you’re even holdin’ hands.”
 
I gently disconnected from her.
 
The sysadmin sighed and circled us, humming and hawwing to himself. I said: “Excuse me, we would very much like to know how…”
 
“Shhhh.” He gently pressed one finger to his lips. “Shhhhhhhitttttt I see it now. Wow. You guys. The pills you both take. They messed with the system! Fucking PEOPLE!” His hands flew up, beseeching a red neon sign above him, composed of Chinese characters I did not understand. “Always messing around with the mind, like idiot children. Damn pills got side effects. Ought to put that on the label.”
 
“Look sir, is she real?”
 
She turned on me: “SAY WHAT? Fuck you, are YOU real?”
 
“YOU’RE BOTH FRICKIN REAL!” he said. “Look. Here’s the thing. There has been a teensy little screw up. You aren’t ever suppsoed to be together in the same place and time. The same place-time. That isn’t how it works,”
 
“How what works?” One of us said.
 
“The…buddy program. For broken people- not unlike yourselves. What happens is when one person is really low, like, down in the sewers low, then another person, quite like them, but- and this is crucial- not feeling the same way at that exact moment in time, contacts you, and you have a bit of a talk, to alleviate the symptoms of existence. Now you are both, if I may say so, HIGHLY QUALIFIED buddys in your own right. Seriously top notch traumas you’ve both sustained. But the algorithm’s screwed up, there shouldn’t be a recurring relationship. Not like this. There shouldn’t be anything tying you to together. Except for the goddamn pills your quack of a psychiatrist gave both of you. Same pills, same connection, and now you’re freakin HOLDING HANDS!”
 
He sighed again, said: “There is only one thing left to do now. Gotta reset the system.”
 
“Reset?”
 
“Yeah, turn it on and off. Works most of the time.”
 
“And then what, we just…”
 
“Wake up, and all of this is forgotten, and later on you help someone different instead.”
 
I asked him: “But wait, you mean, we go to the same doctor? We could see each other…outside of…work?” 
 
She asked him: “Hey dickhead, what if we don’t want to forget, did you ever consider that?”
 
The sysadmin paused, hands hovering over the console he had been typing at. “Sorry. Really am. But if I don’t do this you guys might end up perfectly happy, and then so much for balancing out the others. And you’ll know all about the backoffice. And you’ll start some frickin cult and invariably in a century or two it’ll all get fucked.”
 
I held her hand again. “What does it mean?” I asked.
 
I was pointing at the neon sign, which had changed from Chinese to latin. “Lucem ex tenebras; from darkness, light.” The sysadmin massaged the top of his forehead. “Even if I reset the system it won’t be over for you guys. You’re on your way up. The darkness, without it you wouldn’t understand each other. You wouldn’t care. Not as hard. Not as much. And for what it’s worth there are a lot of you guys out there, trust me.” He gestured to the stack of servers: “You’ll find someone else. Or you won’t. I don’t know. It’ll be like a dream- you’ll forget the details but you’ll remember the point.” He squatted and reached into a space between two servers.
 
She turned to me, her smile melding with the scar that traveled from her jaw to her forehead. “I’ll remember you.” She said.
 
And then he flipped the switch.
 
I woke up late on top of a duvet too large for one person. I was pretty sure I’d dreamt of Danielle. What little I had slipped out of my grasp, leaving only a few word that made no sense.
 
So I googled Lucem Ex Tenebras and went back to work.

Repost of short story: Castles and Dragons

(First time was a failed copy and paste. Repeated paragraphs then missed paragraphs. How frustrating. Reposted properly.)

We had deigned to let her play with us in spite of her penchants for screaming and despite the fact that she was too mentally immature to play properly and irregardless of the unspoken consensus that her manners were annoying because Edward had said we should be nice to her and “That it was a secret why.”

But It was Alexis that taught us the new game in the playground.

“I saw my brother playing it, it’s so cool. I’m not allowed yet but it’s called Skyrim. FUS RO DAAAHH!” He yelled, as loud as Miri ever screamed, and we all stumbled back at the force of it and stared. Alexis laughed in that wierd way of his and confessed: “I’m not allowed to play Skyrim so instead we’re playing Castles and Dragons.”

“Lame.” Ranjeev said. It was a common utterance of his.

Alexis ignored him, as he was considered cool like that and he started telling us our roles whilst the rules of the game developed in that organic way of children’s games. I was to be the thief, called Wallclimber, and I took no little amount of pride in my namesake, one which I thought very important because it meant I could rescue the princess by climbing the tower. Ranjeev was to be the wizard, and we didn’t really know what he could do except cast spells, and so we negotiated that Ranjeev could cast any spell that two out of the four of us knew- Miri did not count as she was female. Thus Ranjeev had the entire arsenal of the Harry Potter movies to draw from, as well as those derived from some obscure texts by a man named Pratchett.

Edward, quiet as always, was told he could be the cleric- a term that meant little to us budding atheists and less to Alexis, who had appropriated the term from another game played by his astoundingly cool brother, and thus it was spake that a cleric had the power to transform into any animal or vehicle. “Like a twansformer.” Miri added, and we all politely tried to ignore her.

Alexis was of course, as was his prerogative the game designer, the knight in shining armor. Miri was told to be the princess.

She did not approve of this. “NOOOOOOOOOooOOOOOOOOO WHYYYYYYYYY. NO WANNA BE THE PRINCESS NEVER EVER. NO.” She started to bawl, her stub nose dribbling, and little tears cleaning away small lines of the muck that perpetually clung to her pig-face. So I thought of her then.

Ranjeev and I decided that in lieu of a princess she made a fine dragon. Thus the two of us retreated to the swings to compose our plan for the assault on the dragon’s tower. As we made our way there we casually began to lay down obstacles in our path- arbitrary rules that leant the whole game savor. It was decided between Ranjeev and I that if the dragon otherwise known as Mira saw us, then we were turned immediately to stone. I asked Ranjeev if he had a spell to counter such a predicament and he gravely revealed to me that there was no cure for stoneing.

Thus stealth would be the order of the day.

It was also decided that we had gathered intelligence in advance that pointed to the location of the princess, who although icky, was heir to a kingdom composed almost entirely of summer holidays and would bequeath her demesne to any heroes bold enough to free her. She would be trapped at the top of the slide, also known as the Dragon’s Tower. Which is when Alexis returned to us. He had sprinted over, in other words, ridden on his noble steed to deliver both good and bad news.

The good news, which was really bad news at first, was that Miri was NOT the dragon. Alexis had folded during the cacophonous negotiations, which Mira had resorted to after her failed argument where she pleaded equality of gender- as at that barbaric age we never would have compromised against our staid prejudice that girls were icky and certainly not policemen- which is what Mira, the next member of our fellowship, had become. She was a dragon-cop.

“If she has a gun it’s unfair.” Remarked Ranjeev.

Alexis concurred, and we won a small consolation- denying her access to firearms which would have been in violation of the mileu. We filled Alexis in on our reconnaissance and he rode his steed away, over to Edward and Mira to spread the information. “WAIT UP MANNNN.” Yelled Ranjeev. I pointed out that he was not as fast as Edward’s black warhorse, to which Ranjeev thoughtfully said “Accio Firebolt!” and sped off after him. He returned later with a sullen expression and transmitted to me the afformentionted bad news. As Mira was no longer the dragon it was deduced that the dragon was not only a fire-breathing stone-turning flying lizard, but that it was also invisible. “Dontcha know an anti-invisible spell?” I inquired of my wizardly companion. He answered in the negative, and I wonder to this day exactly what if any spells he knew that were of any use in an actual crisis.

Thus we approached the dragons tower. There were only two ways in. The tower was situated on a high bluff that emerged out of the child-safe-padding around the slide. The main way was a stair case, trecherously high, and with a lava moat between the nearest padded island and it, as naturally, any non-padded surface was lava- we did not even have to say it out loud, it was as given as gravity. The secondary way up was the wall- a steep climb, but one I, The Wallclimber, was more than capable of making.
Ranjeev insisted that we should first try the stairs, even though I pointed out what a waste of my abilities it was. We pondered the long jump between our island to cross the lava moat. At which point Ranjeev said “Accio Floatness” and we floated merrily across. As we made our way up the stairs, Ranjeev taking point, I started to whisper to him “What we gonna do to the dragon when we find it? Fight it? Maybe we jus’ get the princess.” Ranjeev kept saying he did not know, he did know, he knew nothing- then halfway up the stairs he stopped. I waited for a moment, wondering if we had been spotted. “Ranjeev?” I whispered. He did not even shush me.

We stood like that for some seconds till I poked him. He did not move. “Ranjeev?” I started poking him quite a lot, particularly in the ribs, till through a feat of sheer will, or perhaps magic, Ranjeev defied his fate to mutter, with great difficulty, the reason we had stalled. “The dragon saw me and now I’m stone.” I did not know how to curse effectively at that tender age so I merely said “Doggy balls.” which elicited one final gasp from my striken companion. Shedding no tears- for we were made of the stuff of heroes, I began to ponder our fate. At last an ingenious plan emerged, which I told Ranjeev in case he was in there, somewhere. “Ranjeev I’m gonna hide behind you and use you as a shield.” Since he was stone he could no longer respond despite his utterances to the contrary.

I began to try to lift the wizard, but alas, he was a stony corpulent spell-slinger, quite overweight which probably explained his leanings towards the arcane as opposed to the physical. After getting red in the face repeatedly I gave up and decided to beat a hasty retreat before the dragon got me too. I backtracked to the base of the tower, saddened by the loss of my companion and our first defeat, yet also emboldened- afterall, an epic finale requires harrowing obstacles first. Even at that age this was obvious to me.

From out of the distance then came the others. I waited, ready to give them the sad news. They reached me, and I explained what had happened. Edward asked where Ranjeev had gone since he’d been turned to stone. Indeed the stairs were devoid of his chubby mass. “The dragon must have moved him.” Offered Alexis.

Edward pointed to our fat friend at the ice scream stall. At which point I felt it nessecary to emphasize, for the sake of the reality we had so painstakingly invested in that “I saw the dragon move him into the tower so he’s gone.” Edward withered under all our stares, including Mira’s, and we promptly forgot about the doppleganger licking his chocolate Magnum near the tennis courts.

We began to plan anew. Presently we surmised that the new plan was that Alexis would ride Edward who would become a jet, all the way up to the dragon and then Alexis would shout it to death. I assumed this would be similar to Mira’s inherant abilities. I asked what my place was in this grand scheme and was promptly informed that I had failed, and lost the party wizard to boot. Edward and Alexis went up. Mira tugged on my shirt. She informed me that their plan was unfortunately destined to fail as well. “Shouting never ever works.” She said with as much conviction as I had ever seen- far more seriously than Edward always was. Somewhat thrilled to know that the limelight was still upon me, even if I were saddled with a girl for a companion, I asked her whatever we were to do.

At which point she launched into a description of the dragon, one that has haunted me to this day.

Apparently it was bright red, with gleaming scales and darkly mirrored eyes. It made a sound as it swooped towards it’s prey, a terrible noise that Mira immitated. I pointed out that the noise sounded a lot like Edward’s jet engine and she did not deny it. The dragon did not merely breathe fire, which was too quick a death- it clawed and bit, and smacked with it’s tail. And it did so to the princess, as well as those that tried to reach her. The dragon told lies, terrible lies that everyone else believed, and it did use fire- usually on your arm (and Mira pointed to her own). She was almost in tears as she said all this, and this scared me terribly. The dragon was no longer a petty threat, waiting for it’s inevitable defeat at the hands of heroes arbitrarily noble and empowered.

It was a Dragon.

Enraptured by Mira’s ability to describe such things I asked her the question I’d been wanting to ask all the others, but felt far too ashamed to broach- though I thought, personally, that it was of paramount importance. At that age it was a ‘girl’s’ question, though later it would certainly become a ‘boy’s’ question.

I asked Mira what the princess looked like. This bought me a smile.

The princess was apparently blond-haired and blue-eyed, with long tresses that reached down to her hip. She was slender and liked to read books, and always soft-spoken. She only cried when she was certain no one could see, and she gave the best hugs. My heart ached at Mira’s passionate description.

I no longer craved glory. I wanted justice.

I asked her whatever we were to do against all that. Mira told me then, that there was a crossbow- a magic crossbow that she suspected would slay the beast. Once more I wanted a description, as she had a way with words far in excess of her age, and ironic considering her habit of nonsensically screaming at the top of her lungs. Perhaps she was so full of words they burst out of her.

The crossbow she described was unlike any crossbow I had learnt of later, though at the time, ignorant as I was, I took her words for granted and assumed all crossbows had short stub-nosed barrels, and revolving chambers for six rounds of ammunition. And that they came in a chest kept in caves underneath a murky sea upon which were the floating wrecks of ceramic ships. The chest was locked, naturally, but Mira held my hand and confided in me that she knew where the key was.

She had it. In her pocket.

It was real. She took it from out of her torn dress. It was small, like a postbox key, and a bit rusty but certainly real. After that it was over- I didn’t stand a chance, I believed her over the others, despite her being an icky girl. She had props for godsakes.

The battle cry of the knight came then, from the top of the tower. We could not tell if they were winning but we assumed that without the information we had, and without the seriousness with which we were taking this quest, that they were certainly doomed. Quickly we formulated yet another plan. Mira was to retrieve the crossbow and start up the stairs. I was to climb from the rear. I would distract the dragon with wierd faces whilst she plugged the wyrm with the crossbow. A sound plan. We separated and started.

Alone on that slide I began my ascent. I have never forgotten it.

Years later I would run a race in highschool, the finals of a national competition- a hundred meter dash. I had trained for so long for that one race- and I realized at the time that I had begun my training here, on the wall of the tower. As I lined up with the other sprinters and bent down to take my mark I remembered how the cold steel of that slide felt.

With the shouts of Alexis in the foreground I continued up, stealthy as can be, till finally I reached the top.

In the small enclosed tower Alexis swung wildly with his sword, shouting “FUS RO DA FUS RO DA!” Edward had transformed into a mouse, and sat meekly in the corner. The dragon’s back was to me, I thought, probably concentating on Alexis. A sinking feeling possessed me, Alexis never realized, and I felt honor bound to remind him “That it turns things to stone.” So Alexis froze. The inevitable, inviolable nature of the game had taken over. Alexis looked at me, hands plastered down his sides, and with his last ounce of will said “Killit”.

And appearing on the otherside there was Mira.

“BANG BANG!” She said. We gasped.

And her face crumpled into tears. “BANG BANG BANG BANG!” And she froze. Except for her trembling lip and the wet reflection of that invisible dragon in her eyes she was stone.

I found my courage, yelled: “MIRA! THROW IT AT ME.”

And she really did. With one final act she tossed me the crossbow, hurling it with all her little might.

And then she began to fall. The force of her throw had caused that equal and opposite reaction we were too young to know about. She slipped, tumbled back and for a moment hung in mid-air, not unlike in a cartoon. The drop was long, probably fifteen feet. It was a poorly designed playground, and the tower was certainly epic for it. Everything seemed to stop.

I don’t know why I did it, but I ignored the crossbow entirely, and the dragon, and threw myself after her. I caught her by the ankle as she fell backwards, and she banged her head solidly on the steel steps. She started to cry, and Edward helped me get her back up. There was a cut on her arm, and she had cracked her skull quite badly.

And all she kept saying was “WHY DIDN’T YOU SHOOT IT? WHY DIDN’T YOU KILL THE DRAGON? WHY?” She kept asking, over and over and over again. She was inconsolable.

Years later I put it down to her having hit her head, or an overactive imagination.

But even more years after that I learnt the truth, when Mira shared it with me, on our wedding night.

She told me how her mum had come to pick her up afterwards. How they went to the hospital and she got a few stitches, and how jealous she was of her mother there. She had stood in the mirror you see, as the nurses wiped the grime off her short brown hair and the snot from her blunt nose, commenting on how she looked like a boy, whilst a doctor spoke so sweetly to her mother, who years later even I would recognize was beautiful- an awkward discovery. Mira’s mom had golden hair and wore it long. She was incredibly kind and soft-spoken. I used to love going to Mira’s house when I was a teenager, and sitting in their small, makeshift library. The shelves filled with second-hand books painstakingly collected.

I would stare at a picture, completely incongruous, that hung from a wall, of a dark and melancholy forest. It was that picture, and a question about it, that prompted her confession after our weddng.

Mira told me that before, there was no picture there, as there had been no hole to cover up. She told me how after they got home that day with the dragon, how she was so happy, even though she had been hurt- she loved her mum dearly, and somehow she thought that she had really slayed a dragon. When she remembered that we hadn’t finished it she had started to shake and weep. Her mother consoled her, but she also understood the source of Mira’s anxiety.

Mira told me in tears, how she heard the car drive up- how it wasn’t the right day, and yet he came anyway. She told me how she stood in the kitchen window, watching the man with brown hair and a blunt nose she hated so much, walk out of his Farrari wearing his expensive sunglasses, and how he casually came up the drive. She told me how she heard him enter, after Mira’s mum, with a shaking hand, had closed the kitchen door, and told Mira to play. Play in the kitchen, with nothing but knives and soap to keep her company. Mira told me how he saw him take the iron, still hot, and make her mummy scream. Mira told me how she looked at the key, and how she went under the sink, and how she took out the crossbow.

Mira told me how she opened the door and slayed the dragon, leaving only a hole behind a painting that was yet to be hung.

I did not know what to say, so I told her how it was a long time ago, and he was long gone. And she reminded me how real dragons exist in our minds, and how those are not so easily slayed.

The Date (Part 5 of 5)

The first part can be found here.

5

The rainy season had begun.  Rain drops whipped the class room windows. Lights on during the day, and I had to speak louder over the oppressive thunder. The class had changed. It would be unfair to give myself full credit, though at times I indulged in the fantasy. In reality it was probably due to the wild impetus of adolescence, changing bodies and minds faster than this staid adult was used to.


Or maybe I had just gotten to know them better. The annoying attention seeking ones had developed nuances and insecurities- I no longer reduced them unfairly, now I felt sympathy, and I suppose, I do care. The quiet ones opened up more, or at least I marked their occasional voices with regard- the rarity of their contributions to class lent them all the more value. And though I tried not to admit it, Jean had fast become my favorite. It seems she was well liked by her other teachers too, especially her English teacher, Ellen. Ellen, who was a member of the old guard, having taught here for the last decade or so, spoke enthusiastically about Jean’s creative writing. That gave me an idea- for the fall of the Soviet Union I had each student write as if they were somehow linked to the fall of the Berlin wall. Once I told them they could be old soldiers, veterans of World War Two, most of the guys went for that. Jean wrote a great piece, about a widow on the eastern side, who had not seen her sons in years.

Disturbing how convincingly she wrote as a widow. It was a great piece. Since then I’ve slowly egged her on in the direction of both history and fiction writing. I once entertained another fantasy- a dedication to me years from now in some bestselling historical fiction novel. I chuckled at that, tried to find absolution by confessing the thought to Steph. She confided in me her own stories, as a young teacher, latching onto students, desperate to live vicariously through their possible successes. She also warned me. “Don’t get too attached. They all leave eventually- and you would be failing the next batch if you cared less.” It was good advice. 

I should have followed it.

A typhoon one day, in the middle of school, a bad one, the worst in years apparently. We had students taping windows, us trying to make it all seem like fun. As if they were fooled. No one allowed in the corridors during one horrendous hour, the corridors being outdoors. We settled for watching a video in class- Dr. Strangelove. Even at max volume it was hard to make out the dialogue, a shame. 

The window vibrated like a snare drum. All at once, during the video, a tremendous bang.

A bird, maybe, had shot through the glass. Shattered shards everywhere. Rain pouring through like an invasion. “Everyone, out the door! Come on now!” I yell. The kids flood the doorway. I notice Jean not in the crowd. Right at the back, under the rain, Jean with her hat (she wore this silly hat!) off, red horror all over her arm and face. Blood. No please. I run over, and panic some. She is covered in glass, had been sitting next to the window. I fish for my mobile and hate how long it takes to switch on. Whilst it loads I say, “Hello Jean, can you hear me?” First aid classes from training in my head, something about stopping the bleeding. “JEAN?” Her eyes are closed, maybe she hit her head. There is so much blood. It makes no sense. Like a sniper took her out. What a sick thought- hate myself for such a thought. I finally got the ambulance to come. A voice on the phone says: “Remain clam. Find some towels and stop the bleeding.” Stop the bleeding. I call out to the kids, and one of them, a quiet one comes in, flanked by others. “I need towels, hurry, cloth towels, ask a teacher.” He ran for it. 

Jean’s eyes are open, blinking. I had not realised. I try to level my voice off, must sound calm for Jean. Memories scream inside my head, and tears start to leak down my cheek. I smooth back her hair, just like I did years ago. “Jean, the ambulance is coming. Can you hear me? Please nod or blink or say something if you can hear me.” She blinks, and blinks, and her voice- so child-like now, it says “Yes, i can hear you sir.” Good. Jan couldn’t hear me before. At some point the school nurse is in here, and she’s asking me to move, but I make sure to stand where Jean can still see me. So I smile, I smile my ass off like everything in the world is brilliant. The rain soaks the carpet all around, the noise like we’re at war. I keep saying stupid things like “It’s going to be ok Jean.” things I learnt in movies where people seem to know what to do. Her eyes flutter shut, right before the ambulance comes. I think my heart is going to burst.

When the professionals arrive they seem too calm. I start shouting, telling them to hurry, that Jean is just a child- as if that would somehow make them pull out all the stops. Steph was there, telling me it’s ok, that she’s just cut up a bit. I let her drag me away, just outside the room. Whole class is there, waiting, they can see me, covered in blood, I don’t care. I should be telling them to do things, but I don’t care. This is life- they should see this. It is a good lesson. Steph says many things, mostly questions “Can you hear me?” She says, and she looks so worried. I feel so cold.

“Steph.” 

“Yes? Look, let’s put you…”

“Steph I need to go with her.”

“Mr. Cobb I think you need to sit…”

“I NEED TO GO WITH HER.” I tear myself away from Steph, get up. Jean is coming out in a stretcher. I follow. I dare someone to stop me. Steph doesn’t. For one moment I wonder if I’m going to have a job tomorrow. I make secret pacts with Gods and devils inside my head- my job for her, anything just let her be ok. 

They let me ride in the ambulance. They have all the tubes, and a mask on Jean’s mouth, but her eyes are open. I sit and smile at her like everything is brilliant. As we meander through the roads, siren blaring, my mind snaps back into shape. I realise it’s not so bad. She’s going to be ok. Not like before- she isn’t a complete mess. I hope I didn’t scare anyone. Jean’s arm is cut up, and her brow too, but the paramedics say she’s going to be ok, not much blood loss. Still, I stay. I feel like I’m in a transport, an APC in ‘Nam or something. I tell Jean, and I think she smiles. When the doors finally open it’s as if we’ve teleported. I recognise the hospital. The same one as before, with Jan. I try not to want to throw up. I keep myself at a distance- last time I got in the way a bit. I make sure Jean see’s me. I tell her that her parents are on the way, don’t worry.

Inside they take her into a room, and I have to wait outside it. Fucking Hell. The worst part is the wait. I sit, bent forward, hands on knees. My world becomes the marble tiles of the hospital floor. I think I can see my reflection in it. A dull, shadowy thing, outline visible, details obscured. My mind wanders backwards, against my will. I look up, and there, a painting, of some ludicrous pastoral scene- a fishing boat next to a simple cottage. The amount of green and open space is alien, a thing preserved only in the city parks. I try to focus on the real three-dimensional people instead, the broken people and their families- as if that would help. I am adding to the scene, I suddenly realise. To someone else I am the perfect vision of the desperately concerned- another piece of evidence to prop up some cliched conversation about why they hate hospitals. An extra in someone elses movies, an anecdote. Jean wrote in the third-person, about the widow, whom she called Anna. Austrian, her sons both fought in the Wehrmacht. She talks about her mixture of pride for her boys, the Wehrmacht having a long history, mixed with her discomfort and shame at the nazi war machine. A remarkable thing for a 15-year-old to write. Was I that insightful back then? I do not remember. History blots away the noble traditions of the Wehrmacht, and my teenage years.

Last time they did not let me ride in the ambulance. That haunted me. I know I would not have been able to help, but I doubt I would have gotten in the way. I would not have just been some bystander- silently I harangue the paramedics: I would have helped! Whatever you wanted, I would not have been paralysed by shock, I would have been a man on a mission, I would have helped! Instead I followed, in a taxi, covered in blood. In hindsight the cab driver, it was good of him not to protest. I probably bloodied his passenger seat. Then again was it good of him? Or was it just plain decent- am I expecting people to be selfish by default. Another useless train of thought. My eyes find the clock on the hospital wall. I do not know when this will end. 

I followed in the cab, and at the hospital I took too long to pay the cabbie. So I did not get to see where they took Jan. I went inside, and stuttered to the people there, till someone directed me, to sit. I sat outside the surgery room, or whatever the hell room it is they fix people in and I waited. I remember the blood was so sticky, and thought if I cleaned up, maybe that would be better. That that would help Jan recover. Ah, that’s it then, I remember now. I gripped my hands together and I clenched my eyes shut, and I prayed. Blood stuck hands I whispered, barely letting the words escape into sounds- I know I don’t believe in God but when this is all over maybe he’ll let me come and visit you. I prayed to Jan. I felt such relief after that. Then I waited, so sure, everything would be ok. Till her father came in, a bull of a man shouting clear across the corridor at me. I did not do anything to your daughter sir, I said. It felt like a lie. A large doctor held him back. I don’t know what he would have done to me.

The relief was dispelled by his honest anger. I was afraid again- I was utterly terrified. Then the nurse came out. I don’t remember what she looked like, just her voice, and when she hugged me her cheek was wet. “I’m so sorry.” she said. “She’s gone.” She said. 

I’m out of the chair, and searching for a doctor. I find one. “I’m the girl’s teacher- Jean, that’s her name, what happened to her?” He asks me to wait here, says he will be right back. Wait with the parents he says. The parents. They are here. I’ve never met them before. 

Jean’s father looks so close to my age it’s frightening. Either he looks too young or I’m too old. Her mother has jean’s look, her face and eyes. They are both terrified- a mirror image of my marble reflection. I go up to them and try to explain. 

“I’m so sorry.” I say. 

“It’s not your fault.” Her father says.

The doctor comes back, introduces a nurse. She explains everything. Jean needs some stitches, on her arms, and on her forehead. The hair will cover it up apparently. Just stitches. It’s no big deal. Nothing broken. No permenant damage. I want to cry. The parents go inside. I want to, but it’s fine- I know I’ll see Jean again. So I sit back down, and I start to cry.

A voice, soft, with a French edge says “Hey, why are you crying? The little girl is going to be ok! Promise!” I feel a fool. I look up, it is the nurse. She clasps her hands to her mouth, says “Its…you. I remember you.” I look up at the nurse, the same one who hugged me two years ago, who apologized on behalf of all of reality for Jan. “You have some really bad luck.” She says. Then she starts to apologise, aghast at what she just said. 

I’m dumbstruck. Then I laugh. For some reason she laughs too. I feel like an idiot. I wipe my hand across my eyes, before I realise about the blood stains. “Oh shit…I mean uh…sorry. Oh god!” I try to cover up my blood streaked face.

She’s laughing so hard people are starting to stare. She keeps trying to tell me it’s fine “I’ve seen WAY worse. Here I’ll show you where the tap is.” And we leave the corridor, surrounded by indignant stares, our macabre sketch not quite appropriate. At the nurses station I start to wash my face, and she hangs around. 

The water- It feels baptismal. Between splashes we chat. She doesn’t mention Jan, or the past. I suppose for her, she’s seen more than enough death and pain. After I’m clean we shake hands. 

I stare at her name tag, emblazoned across a distracting chest. “Sorry to bother you like this…Meet.”

She laughs some more. “MIE-EHT. Not meet! Oh my god, first you get blood all over me, then you get my name wrong.” She folds her arms, shakes her head in mock disappointment. I start laughing, we both start laughing. It’s fucking ridiculous. I don’t even know why we’re laughing.

When we stop I look her in the eyes. They are bright blue, and way too optimistic. I hold her gaze for just enough time, and then the words float up inside me, and gush out of my mouth:

“How about I make it up to you. Maybe we can grab some Ice-cream sometime?”


The Date (Part 4 of 5)

Part 1 can be found here.
4

Steph told me not to get too invested. “You can’t save them all.” She said, all mock heroics. Even though I laughed at the melodrama, her words pierced me. I wanted all the kids, even the ones that were obsessed with being cool, to learn. “Every teacher goes through a similar thing.” She told me. Well, at least their was Jean. She really had potential. At first she was shy, but now, her talents were finally beginning to show. She was one hell of a writer- essays and creative stuff, especially for a fifteen year old. I joked with her once, about her eventually becoming a historical fiction writer. The way her eyes lit up- yeah, that was my Robin Williams moment. 

Steph still occasionally flirted with me. I wanted to just stay friends, and I tried to tell her it was nothing against her, till she asked what it was indeed. It was after one particularly difficult class that I told her a bit about Jann. I kept it short, left out the details, till Steph put her hand on mine, and said “How about we talk about this over a drink?” She did not let up, ever. I suppose that works. We went out the next night. I kept telling myself it wasn’t a date. I didn’t want a date.

We went to a jazz bar. Inside I was all to aware of all the dark corners. Most of the light came from these blue strips along the walls, and it gave the whole place this surreal bend. Mirrors framed by dim red bulbs mixed with the strips, warped all the people inside. It reeked of secrets. In another life I never become a teacher, and drink too much in places like these. Steph seemed a bit embarrassed about it. We sat down and she confided in me after ordering. “This place has been around forever. I used to come here years ago.” 

“You grew up in the city?”

“Yes, I know I don’t seem like a local. And you? I just realised I don’t even know your background.”

“No. I moved here, started out somewhere…less crowded.” 

“That explains a lot.” she said.

“What does it explain?”

“Well, like how you’re so sensitive.” She put on her do-or-die smile.

I wilted a bit. She said “Hey, It’s a good thing. Chin up- I think it’s part of what makes you a good teacher.” 

Maybe. Our drinks arrived and we sipped them. The silence felt charged. Eventually Steph said “Your turn. I told you about me, now, tell me about her.” 

Of course she remembered. I tried to deflect the topic. Steph would not relent. I began to get upset. In one rash moment I said, my words edged, “why do you have to pry so much?” Guilt followed. I stuttered apologies at my outburst. She waved them away. “Please. I’ve heard much worse. You have a right to be a bit annoyed. Glad to see you have teeth. You seem so soft on the kids.” I glared at her. Why were we fighting?

She leaned forward, her eyes fierce, “Get angry. It’s ok to be angry. If I threw my drink in your face, for no good reason, you should get angry. Otherwise people will just piss all over you.” My heart was racing. 

“You don’t understand.” I said, uselessly, like a fucking cliché. 

“I understand that you’re too timid.” My mouth clamped shut. I should breathe. There is a roaring sound in my head. Steph’s eyes narrowed, took on airs of concern. I covered my head with my hands. The sound grew. “Sorry.” She said, all of a sudden, her voice high. I don’t want to feel like this. I gaze at the window. The roar is a passing engine, some lunatic in a sports car, careening around the city in his own private fantasy.

Eventually the noise fades. 

Steph follows my gaze. “Lunatics.” She said. 

I’m sitting at a table in a bar where people play Jazz music, across from a woman any sane man would consider beautiful. I have a great job that I like, and friends. The table is made of wood. I am no longer here. Steph is saying things, and I am nodding. Her hand touches mine. She is asking if I am ok. I am not ok. 

And all at once her touch breaks through, and the bar shatters, and tears stream down my face, pathetically. I say “Duck. We both had duck for dinner. With orange sauce. I remember now.” Steph is quiet. I continue to narrate.

“You know what we talked about? Jann asked me a question. She asked me if I had a problem with her being religious. I was disappointed, truth be told. Up till then we were perfectly compatible. The moment she asked me about religion, I began to doubt. This was the part I should lie. I should have told her, hey, no big deal, I believe in God too. Except I don’t. I think God is ridiculous. So after a bit I told her the truth. I remember the exact moment- i just wiped some sauce from my lips. I said to Jann, do you have a problem with me being an atheist? And you know what, she didn’t. That was when I knew, that I was uh…”

Steph’s nails dig into my wrist. “Go on.” She says.

“So. Yeah. So. We go outside, right, and I know it’s a cliché but the sunset is beautiful. We’re walking along the waterfront, you know that main road near the beach? I have my arm around her waist, and she leans into me, and she asks if we can go back to mine. I’m fucking happy you know. Yet, I was also, so arrogant. The atheist thing, I didn’t answer her. So anyway, we stop, and I tell her, Jann- I have a problem with religion. I couldn’t help myself, I just had to. And then her eyes, they clouded over a bit, she looked angry. Or maybe it was just my imagination- hard to tell you know. So uh. Yeah, she said, you know what she said, she said fuck I don’t remember what she said. It seemed kind of condescending. Like, If she was open-minded enough to not care that i was an atheist, that I should at least admit to the possibility that I was wrong, or didn’t know or something.”

I pause. I down my beer.

“Go on.” says Steph.

“I got mad. All self-righteous. It was quiet. I didn’t know if she still wanted to go back to my place. Then all of a sudden we’re about to cross the road, and there’s this yellow sports car, and it freaking zooms towards us. The sound right.”

I’m breathing. Heavily. A silken voice inside my head said says Finish It.

“And Jann steps out onto the road, a bit ahead of me, and….I pull her back. The car squeels, and brakes, and the guy inside curses us as he goes past, and I just lost it, you know? Fuck the whole God thing, he almost killed Jann, so I just ran after this guy, and he slowed down, and I’m yelling and cussing, and I’m just seeing red, and…”

Fucking forgive me.

“What?” Says Steph.

“Jann must have followed, to stop me. Maybe. I’ll never know. I heard a loud bang behind me. Like a door slamming. It was another car. Right into Jann.” I can’t see the table. The whole bar becomes the warped reflections inside those mirror.

I confessed, quickly, finally: “It was like an act of God.”

I breathe out. “She was…so…fucking…ruined. I was yelling, just yelling, and the ambulance came, and I went with her, and I held her bloody fucking hand, and at the hospital even then I thought she’s going to be ok, I’ll be with her no matter what, and then you know they don’t let you inside the room where they do things, so I waited.”

“The whole time I waited I kept thinking I should have said things to her, like i should have said I love you, and one more thing. I thought it up after she was inside.”

“What?” asked Steph.

“I wanted to say to her- Jann, I don’t believe in God, but maybe when this is all over, he’ll let me come and visit you.” And that’s so fucked up because I didn’t know she was dead. I mean, maybe I thought it after. I just don’t know. It’s hard to remember. So yeah. She died. She’s dead. The nurse told me. I remember the nurse cried. I don’t know if they do that all the time. But she cried. I like to think she knew, about me and Jann. One fucking date. Her dad, she came later, and he was so angry at me. He kept saying “What did you do? What did you do to her?” and now I guess it’s because you know, he was like me, grieving, but really, fuck- sometimes…never mind. So, yeah. I didn’t go to her funeral. I didn’t want to face everyone else in her life. And maybe, maybe I wanted to preserve what I thought we had. For one fucking day.

My face is dry. I wonder what anyone who watches us is thinking. Then I realise, with sudden clarity, that I don’t give the slightest damn. 

The Date (Part 3 of 5)

3

Everything I’ve trained for has prepared me for this moment.

I do a quick mental check before pushing open the door. I’m sure I’ve forgotten to do something. What was it? Just nerves. I push the door open, emerge into the chattering class. I tell myself to breathe. All that training has led up to this. Which is precisely the right way to think if I want to feel an immense amount of pressure. I close the door behind me. The noise subsides a little. I can’t let them smell my fear. 

I turn and survey my charges. Twenty pairs of fifteen year old eyes gaze back at me. At least they aren’t looking away, distracted. At least no one is bored, yet. I suppose I should start with my name. Then inside my jacket, which is draped across my chair, my phone starts up- playing the guitar riff at the beginning of Fortunate Son. I knew I forgot something. A chorus of laughter assaults my ears. I maintain the blank expression, despite the warmth- I must not show weakness. I saunter over to my chair, face hot. Reaching inside my jacket I take out the phone. It’s Tom. I hang up.

A boy with terrible acne says “No phones allowed in school.” His clansmen laugh. Perhaps I should dicipline them or something. Or something indeed. With my phone in hand, I ask the class, “Can anyone tell me what song that was?” These kids were three when The Matrix came out. Might not even have seen a phone with a cord before. Right in the back, a girl wearing thick, black-rimmed spectacles puts up her hand. I say to her “Yes- and what’s your name?”

“Jean.”

“Yes Jean?”

“The song, it’s Fortunate Son, by Creedence Clearwater Revival.” This one, has excellent parents, or whoever it was that implanted a bit of good taste in her.

“Most people just call them Creedence, but yes. Do you know what the song is about?”

No response. 

On the whiteboard I write “The Gulf of Tonkin Incident.” “It’s about the Vietnam War.” I say to the class. Then I spend the next hour showing the kids youtube videos of Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones. I explain the lyrics of each song, somewhat aware of how reductive I’m being. I’m do it partly to teach them about Vietnam, mostly because they need to listen to some real music. I keep trying to find a way to say something about autotuned pop songs, but it never happens. Next class then. Halfway through my phone buzzes. Message from Tom: <My seniors secreatry is fuken HAWT. Drinks later?> I ignore it. After class I text <ok>.

I’m not of a going out sort of person so I follow Tom’s directions to the right bar. Inside I realise I still haven’t gotten used to Tom’s haircut. If I didn’t know him any better I might have assumed he was a real, honest to goodness contributing citizen. After his first three beers he starts to pepper his speech liberally. “Dude!” he says. “You look good, man.” I eyee him above the lip of the glass bottle. Tom says, “So uh, I wanted you to meet someone.”

“She’s your seniors secretary you lunatic- do you want to lose your job?”

He smiles, looks wistful for a moment, shakes his head. “No, no, this ones for you my friend. She works with me, her name is Rachel. She’s hot man.” Ambushed.

I hold up my hands. An old feeling surfaces in my stomach, starts climbing towards my head. “No thanks Tom. I appreciate it really. Very grateful. But no thanks.” 

“Alright dude. Your loss. But like, you sure? Is it because of uh…Jann…”

“No.” I say, immediately, without even wondering about it. Anger waits right around the corner. He drops it, and the rest of the evening is awakward, hovering in a shadow. 

Later, at home, I search for the old picture frame. Panic when I can’t find it. After half an hour I excavate the thing from the bottom of a pile of takeaway brochures. I run my finger around the edges of the back of the frame. Eventually I turn it over. Her white dress strikes me. I let myself mutter out loud- beautiful. I like the way she’s shorter than me. Inside the picture we look like a unit. The sky in the background aches a deep blue. The frisbee poes out of my hand, in the corner, revealing half a skull. I tchh out loud. I didn’t remember that being in the frame. I should have cropped that out. 

For one moment I consider defacing the picture with a scissor, to edit out the skull. Instead I close my eyes and try to remember what flavor ice cream she had. I had chocolate chip, she had, raspberry? Lemon sorbet. Relief. I remember the rest of the date, in bits and pieces. I remember it very well. That certainty haunts me all the way to bed. In the morning the picture is on the floor, a quick examination revealing the frame isn’t cracked. Carefully I deposit it in another drawer. Close it.

In school I quickly develop a reputation amongst the kids as the rock n’ roll teacher. It felt good. What felt better was overhearing their tastes slowly change. They seemed to listen, as a whole, to less pop. For a glorious few weeks the whole year worshipped Pink Floyd. Everyday I couldn’t help but think back to when I was a kid. That felt like a taboo thing to do, as if getting too much perspective destroyed my role as overseer. I used to hate teachers. Funny how I now realise they were just as clueless and petty as I can be.

One day I thought I was busted, that my unorthodox methods were coming to an end when the head of the history department called me in. I spent a good while in the staff room psyching myself up, going for a Dead Poet’s Society state of mind. Remember not go get angry though- I do like this job.

Turned out to be something else entirely. Our head of department was what Tom would call “Hawt”. Stunning legs, low-cut tops, and this domineering approach to things that I admit I found vaguely compelling. In her office she joked about my classes, and then out of nowhere, asked me out. I was prepared for something else, and the whole angle threw me. I said “No thanks.” like she was offering me a coffee. Her voice and face might have gone a bit a rigid, as if she seemed hurt. 

I left the office feeling strangely guilty. At home I thought about her, Stephanie. I had her number, and decided to give her a call. Explained that I wasn’t quite looking for anything at the moment. I realised what I was getting at and quickly blurted out I’d like to just have a friend at the school- didn’t know any of the teachers that well. She said “call me Steph.” and we tried to be friends for awhile. 

The Date (Part 2 of 5)

 
2.

The tutoring center took me in, and for awhile, I didn’t dwell on the past. The pay wasn’t stellar but I could at least make rent. Had to sell some of my old stuff to pay back all the people I’d borrowed from, which left my apartment looking emptier than it had eight months ago. Jann crossed my mind less, I think. Though the picture still remained face down. I’d brush the dust off it’s back once a week. Then one day it all broke down.

That day the boss’s daughter, adorable, had waddled in with her Dad. I overheard their conversation, her, lilting, high-pitched, him- condescending, as he was with us. He was supposed to play Frisbee with her. That word, Frisbee, sent me back. I resisted remembering right up until I noticed how the boss ignored his daughter, taking calls instead. I witnessed the moment when the little girl stopped asking her Dad; when he levelled some anger at her. I watched her silently wait, her face slowly crumple from afar. As the little girl leaked silent tears I realised how much I hated this fucking job. Rage mixed with the word Frisbee, and I felt this urge to run. 

Striding into the boss’s office I tugged my ID off my neck and hurled it down in rage. Palms on his desk, teeth in his face I said, “Take your daughter. To the fucking park.” and left. Cleared out my desk whilst the shit head peered at me from around the corner of his office like a frightened cat. I gathered up my things carelessly, my mind filled with old memories. As they played, relentlessly, another part of me kept telling myself this was all just the final push, the last straw, nothing more or less. I tried to summon up as many excuses as I could for my actions. Holding plastic bags filled with the leavings from my desk, I walked all the way back to that park. I hadn’t been there for eight months, since the day I walked the wrong way. 

At the park I found the wide lawn. Threw down my bags on that grassy field. I let the smell take me back to that date with Jann. 

I remember feeling way too terrified about the fact that the mini-golf center had closed down. It was next on the list after ice cream. Of course I’d memorised the list, I’m not that stupid. I unthreaded my hand from hers and blabbered incoherently about mini-golf being silly anyway. In hindsight I must have been deathly afraid she would want to leave. Instead she silenced my fear by taking my hand again. “Never mind the golf, I have an idea.” and she took me to some vendor, and bought a red Frisbee with a skull on it. “Skulls fly faster.” she said, straight-faced. In the present I cover my face as I remember snorting like a pig at that. Then she dashed onto the lawn, spry as anything. 

We threw the Frisbee around. It felt like being a kid again. Perhaps that’s when I realised I liked kids. Between throws I watched children playing. It’s not so much innocence, as their honesty that I liked. I remember, I was so certain of things whilst the Frisbee traversed the space in-between us. A perfect day. Focus on the Frisbee, burst towards it, catch. Then release. Then know, on some level, that this was the whole point of life. Moments like these, like those- the rest is drudgery. Focus, track the Frisbee, catch. Aim, release. Watch how she laughed. Together we are free. I open my eyes. In the foreground of the memories of Jann a line from a play surfaces: “We give birth astride a grave.” 

I edit the memory so the sports car is there, waiting in the background, with that douchebag- no, that’s not fair- with that man, in his fucking sunglasses, with his fucking phone. I consciously imbue my past with a narrative. Then I leave it be, try to focus on the present. My dress shirt wet with grass stains. My bags sprawled around me. A family sits under a sheltering tree, on top of a pastel-checked picnic mat. They eat and smile. Unable to make out their faces I indulge in feeling resentful- as if the picture in front of me was something I was robbed of, even though it had just been one date. No one understood, no one can witness how much it hurts. Why am I doing this? I’ve avoided these thoughts, like a dark door inside my head- always I turned away. There is nothing wrong, despite what they say, with caring too much. 

So i lay back in the grass, and let it soak through to my back. I fall back into that day. Didn’t Jann say it true? She said, between breaths, as we lay next to each other, “It’s the little things.” I had nodded. 

We give birth astride a grave, or as Jann might say, life’s just too short. In the present I open my eyes and turn to the left. I gaze at the plastic bag filled with crap, crinkling softly in the breeze. The little things eh? I push myself up from the ground. Tutoring is bullshit. In my head I ask so softly, afraid that anyone who looked me in the eye could see the sentimental words- Jann, do you think I should become a teacher? 

No response. She was the one who believed in prayer and God. All I have is chaos. So I make one up. I think Jann would say “No regrets. The rest is pointless.” 

So I go home and google: becoming a teacher. 

Novelette/Novelina/Shortish Story: The Date (Part 1 of 5)

So I found a competition that did not prevent me from posting a story I recently finished. I’m entering it into a 10k words max competition, and since I don’t think I’m likely to win I may as well post it here so it gets some hawt readin’
For the next few days I’ll post a part a day. Thanks for reading all.
The Date (Part 1 of 5)

1

The phone is slick against my clammy palm. I rearrange it against my ear to keep it from slipping. Something Tom just said has jacked up my pulse. Triggered something bad. He asked, “How long did you know Jann for?” He prefaced the question with, “No offence man.” He shouldn’t have done that. If he hadn’t done that I might not have taken offence. His question has pried open a gate. A torrent of anger floods my system.
Tom says something else, I miss it. Then he says “Time heals all wounds, dude.” with the gravitas of a complete stoner.  My tongue forms words, lashes out with,
“The fuck are you, a fucking self-help book? I can’t help the fact that I fucking care. Life isn’t a goddamn Disney film!”

My careless words hit silence on the other side of the line. 

Ricochet back as guilt. I shouldn’t be so angry. Tom exhales, says other words. My anger is what ruined everything. Shame settles inside my stomach. Tom says “Dude, I understand you’re upset man, maybe you should take a walk you know? You like walks right?” Somewhere in the past Jann says,

“Yeah, I’ll see you at the park on Saturday.” Somewhere in the past I felt like a winner.

I even swore I wouldn’t get angry again, and now- lasted less than two months. “Dude?” Tom says. I’m no longer here. I’m just going through the motions. My room is an empty space. The phone is a plastic box, heavy and cold. From a distance I say “Yeah Tom.” Calm and placid like a robot free from emotions. “I’m going to go for a walk Tom.” I hang up before he can respond.

I get up from the chair, try to keep a distance from reality. I’m just director, of an actor, in a movie, about nothing important. Which is why I don’t really look at the turned down photo by my bedroom door. I grab my jacket that lies on top of unopened letters. Step around the mounting graveyard of styrofoam boxes that litter my floor. Touch the cold handle and leave my apartment.

Once out the door I feel a bit better. There’s a foundation of misery somewhere at the bottom of my head, but for the most part I’m a nice kind of empty. So I check my emails. Inside the lift I preen my inbox of all the job rejections. Fuck it- it’s a good thing. I deserve to suffer. Downstairs in the lobby, fists clenched, I tell myself to go right, towards the running track where I like to wander in pointless circles. Instead, once on the pavement my feet choose left. Towards the park. 

The gainfully employed flood against me in lunchtime numbers. It feels like I’m going back in time. I suppose I am. In a dull haze my flip-flops slap against the current. Eventually I cross the same road that led to the beginning fo that perfect date. I enter by the very same path, run my hand across the same steel railing. I trundle under and past ranks of trees till I reach the pond. There over the water I gaze at the space where the ice cream guy had been, two months ago, on a less cloudy day. I stand and stare and dive for memories.

Two months ago Jann stands with me as I gesture towards the ice-cream guy like a corny game show host. What did she say again? Close my eyes, concentrate. A silken says “Woooow, when you said let’s get ice-cream, you literally meant ice-cream!” Then she chortled in that unaffected way of hers. I remember my face getting warm, and then she touched my arm and said “Don’t be embarrassed, I love ice-cream!” And her dark eyes smiled, and I nearly dropped my cone. Why am I doing this to myself?

Gazing at my solitary reflection in the pond, I stop touching my own arm. Why do I care so much? Is it just trauma? Tom is right- we had so little time together, I shouldn’t care so damn much. What is wrong with me? Jann, though, she said something. She was different. I close my eyes, seal away my reflection. Picture the white dress she wore. What flavor did she have? I had mint chocolate chip. She had lemon sorbet. We started talking about my day, I unloaded it all on her, then apologised profusely. She didn’t care, somehow she reassured me, and then she said some things- they reverberate inside my head. Something about how everyone had a right to be bothered by the little things. Then she pointed to the other side of that coin. 

She said “No one has the right to belittle the things that make us sad, just like no can take away the things that we adore- no matter how inexplicable, it’s what makes us human. You can’t weigh the connection between two people, even if they just met. OH!” She had covered her mouth in embarrassment, as if to contain all her spontaneous wisdom. Her turn to redden. I remember laughing, and unfolding her hands. I kissed her in that one, insane moment. We had been dating for less than an hour.

I had almost forgotten she said all that. Now, the pond melds with my tears, which shake to a sudden peal of laughter, from me, throaty and cracked. I feel, I know, she knew how much we cared about each other, despite the brevity. It was real. 

The revelation escorts me home, emboldens me as I send out more job applications.