This was originally posted on Alana Chapman’s website as part of her summer shorts series. Check her site out here, and follow her on Twitter @AlanaofOz
The arrows on the floor have taken on the texture of the linoleum. They look like shadows made of light. When I peer inside the coat room, they animate around me. They beckon like fingers leading to a pie in a cartoon.
“Not this way,” The arrows say.
Yes, this way. I press on. Here in the dark, the coat room is unattended. I roll my eyes. Everything goes green. The coat racks present themselves in shades of lime. Pixels line their sleeves. Staircases line their shoulders. I feel the pockets for lumps, discard scarves, and gloves to the floor. I gag when I get a palm full of tissues, still wet with snot.
It’s all worth it, when my hand strikes pay dirt, a business card with a picture of a manuscript with fluttering pages on one side, and a QR code on the other. I hold the QR code up to my eyes. I scan the boxes from left to right. I hear a ding. The eureka sound effect that accompanies light bulbs.
(Download the instrumental version of the song here.)
This was originally posted on lorenkleinman.com a source of much inspiration. This whole piece is the product of a conversation we had on Twitter. You should definitely follow her at @LorenKleinman
“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” –William Faulkner
What are Darlings?
When Faulkner says, “Darlings” he’s talking about the poetry that wanders into our novels. He’s talking about the colorful descriptions in our black and white detective stories. The hyperboles that get lost inside our stark realism. The esoteric language that finds its way into modern thrillers.
Music can be a writer’s best friend. A stopgap for the noise pollution around us. A check against the gridlock orchestra laying on their horns, against the food court percussion section scraping the food out of their instruments, against the mouth breathing choir in line at the DMV. Music provides a way to tune out all that chatter and turn up your internal monologue. It adds tone to discord, order to abstraction.
When I write spooky stories, I prefer songs that draw out the tension, rather than rush to the crescendo. I need my conductor to move with a slow and steady hand. To lure my mind into the cellar, to tug me down a long narrow corridor of nightmares.
I prefer atmospheric soundscapes to orchestral scores. I prefer rain and thunder to a bombastic brass sections. I prefer synthesizers to string sections, programmed beats to kettle drums. I prefer beats because they repeat. They keep my mindset consistent. They give my words a rhythm. Continue reading Soundtrack for Writing→
Writers are always told to read more. Read enough good stories and one might rub off on you. Don’t worry about taking notes. Don’t worry about deconstructing the text. Just read for pleasure and your subconscious will absorb everything in the background. The meaning will be found for you. Take your imagination for a walk and your subconscious will count the steps.
Let the story pass by. Read it on autopilot. Don’t worry about following the plot. The twists will present themselves in due time. You’ll recognize the land marks and feel brilliant once you arrive at your destination.
If writing is the act of sending telepathic messages, then reading is the act of receiving. You have to listen to the language before you can speak it. You have to discover someone else’s voice before you can find your own. You have to turn your internal monologue down and let another’s take over. Continue reading Don’t Just Read More, Watch More→
The rain came down in needles, then nails, then bullets. Droplets rose as others fell. The water churned with frothy green foam, the color of grass.
The storm drains were clogged with placemats and Styrofoam doggy bags. The parking lot had become a pool. Waves crashed against the cars. They splashed over the fenders, leaving leaves, like flyers, in the windshield wipers.
The owners of the vehicles in the shallow end might have been able to hydroplane their way out, to slip down the water slide of the highway, to glide to their destinations, so long as they were heading south. As for the rest of us, we’d need boat motors.
“We’re rained in.” I stated the obvious from my place between the blinds.
The front door swung open. The entryway filled up fast, setting the papers and travel maps afloat. The next door creaked against the water’s weight.
The welcome bell let out a piercing ring.
The door yawned open. A tidal wave brought the mat inside, followed by cigarette butts, and the stink of a dozen dead worms. The water ran over the checkered tiles. My pals had to lift their backpacks up into the booth.
The diner was flooded in an instant.
I splashed through the puddle until I found myself wading through it. My skinny jeans felt skinnier as I drudged on. I was up to my knees by the time I’d made it to the threshold. My thighs took the brunt of the second wave. The smell made me feel like I’d fallen into a toilet.
The diner was at one of the lowest points in the valley. Now all the sewage was converging on us.
My pockets were too small for my phone, which meant it was gargling water through its headphone jack.
“God damn it.” I said, damning Poseidon specifically, even if rainwater was outside of his jurisdiction. Poseidon responded by tilting the rain sideways, to pelt me in the face. My bangs trickled down my forehead and into my eyes.
Outside, the sign wobbled, a drunk in the wind. It bowed its head. Letters flew off it. They sliced through trees like throwing stars.
Leaves rained down from the roof, followed by the shingles, then the gutters. The gutters rolled across the sidewalk and into the maelstrom. They floated away.
Across the street, the cliff side eroded before my eyes. Fountains shot out of the gravel. It would be Swiss cheese by the end of the night, if it was anything at all.
A branch fell out of the sky and onto a big rig. It crushed the windshield and planted its roots into the hood.
I reached for the door. The handle swung away. I tried to press on but my pumps didn’t give me much traction.
Lightning struck a tree on the cliff above, reducing it to splinters. The pieces flew up into the air like confetti. Then they swirled around. I knew the makings of a funnel cloud when I saw one.
The grey mass grew quick. It looked like it was sucking down the moon. It moved over the cliff and descended into the valley.
I grabbed the door handle, clutching it if only to keep my footing. Another wave of rose to my waist, and I really liked that belt. I pushed the door, but it pushed back.
“Should we help her?” Caitlin said from the comfort of the booth.
Sam’s combat boots splashed into the water. His keys jangled from his wallet chain.
There was a digital click from the booth behind me. Jake must have been taking snapshots.
Sam said, “Dude, Teresa’s got this.”
It occurred to me that it was Jake who got up, and Sam who sat there taking photos. I’d reversed their roles in my head. When something’s in your blind spot, you only see what you want to.
I fished my pumps out of the water and cast them aside. The balls of my feet weren’t getting the job done. I had to put my heels into it. I grit my teeth. I pushed all my weight against the door. My tongue pressed the metal retainer between my lower mandible canines. I had to make every inch count. My biceps pulsed from the resistance. Downward facing dog had nothing on this.
The door gave. I shut it and flipped the padlock. Debris bumped against the glass. The entryway took on an aquarium quality. I caught my breath as a school of bottles floated by.
Applause echoed through the diner.
I spun around to give my mates a bow. “Did anyone see where my shoes went?”
Their phones flashed at me.
Caitlin turned hers sideways to align her shot. “The water ballerina in her natural habitat, so elegant, so graceful.”
I drudged toward the booth. “I need to see those before you post them.”
Sam set his phone on the table, “You’ll have plenty of time. I’m getting dick for reception down here.”
Jake slid back into the booth, “You get dick for everything.”
Sam shrugged his broad shoulders, “I’m easy to shop for.”
The diner’s lone waitress emerged from the janitor’s closet with a mop in hand. When she saw the extent of the flooding, she dropped it in. Then she fished a pack of cigarettes from her apron and lit one up. There was no one around to enforce the smoking ban. We were waterlogged. As far as we were concerned, this waitress was the law.
Jake said, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em kids.” Then he lit one up.
We followed suit. Sam shook the creamers out of the bowl, revealing the ashtray it was always meant to be.
Sam lit a match, drove it into his thick lips, and puckered until his cigarette was lit. He exhaled out the side of his mouth, putting the flame out with the smoke. His cherry crackled as he sucked it in. Smoke shot out his nostrils. He said, “I take it we’re not gonna see those caves we came all this way for?”
I made a so-so gesture, “Not unless we’re snorkeling.”
Jake stood up on his seat. He held his phone toward the ceiling. “If one of us can get a signal, we can still find a spot to do some urban exploration.”
Caitlin adjusted her thick-rimmed vanity glasses, “We’d have to be someplace urban to do that.”
Jake raised his phone too high to see the bars. “Whatever, ‘rural exploration’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
Sam pointed his cigarette to the entryway. “We could go analog.”
I shook my head, “No can do. All the tourist maps were lost in the flood.”
Caitlin tugged Jake by the suspenders that hung from his waist. He fell back into the booth, a dog on a choke chain.
Jake found a pair of straw wrappers on the table. He folded one over the other until he had himself a paper spring. Then he unwrapped his silverware. We smoked in silence as he twisted his napkin into a stem. Then he wrapped it around the top of his thumb to create a flower. I was relieved when he left it on his side of the table.
Jake reached for my silverware, “So I take it we’re trapped here then?”
“Looks like.” Sam nodded; too cool to draw attention to the smoke ring he had blown.
Jake unrolled the napkin from my silverware and smoothed it out in front of him. He glanced up, “You know, there are so many Twilight Zone episodes that start out with a group of people trapped in diner just like this.”
Caitlin adjust her flat lenses, “You mean that show with Forrest Whitaker?”
Jake shot her an angry eyebrow, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” He folded a corner of the napkin to form a triangle, then he tore away the rectangle beneath it. Jake shook his head, “You know, we’re going to run out of cigarettes, right?”
Everyone exchanged looks. The situation had gotten serious.
The waitress wrapped her nails against the table. Every vein showed through her skin. Her hair was tumbleweed that had settled on her head, a thinning bun dyed fire engine red.
Crow’s feet cut jowls through her cheeks. Skin dangled beneath her chin, like a turkey’s wattle. Her nose was crooked and white whiskers marked her muzzle.
She was a cautionary tale, a warning for anyone who stayed in this town too long.
Her cigarette peaked out her mouth, red with lipstick. “You kids want anything other than coffee tonight?”
We turned as a unit to exhale in her face.
She squinted as the smoke rippled through her hair. Then she exhaled right back at us. “Well, all right then.”
The waitress splashed away, with the water soaking into the panty hose at her ankles. She climbed a stool and sat cross-legged on the bar. She fished the pack from her apron, and lit a fresh cigarette with the butt of the last one.
I followed suit. One smoker’s bad habits have a way of justifying another’s. Triggers are contagious. It’s kind of like yawning. One person does it and those of us with an empathetic eye do it too. I wasn’t addicted. I was emotionally in tune with our waitress’s feelings.
Sam ran his hand down his five o’clock shadow, “What was her name again?”
I shrugged, “The hell if I know.”
Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. It rattled the windows. Jake bent the neck of his origami swan. Sam shuddered. The cherry broke off his cigarette and rolled across the table. Caitlin raised her glass to stomp it out. Sam grinned. He gave her that big dimpled smile of his, flashing both rows of teeth. Oh how it reminded me of Ewan McGregor.
Caitlin returned the smile in kind. They held eye contact until she blushed and looked away. She found me staring. I shifted my gaze.
Thunder struck. It kicked up the bass like a subwoofer in the sky. I fell out of the booth and into the water. It soaked through my tank top and half of my bra. Now I was lopsided.
I scrambled to find my footing, only to fall back to the floor. My bare feet didn’t give me much in the way of traction. I braced myself, expecting to feel a hand on my shoulder, a good strong grip to help me find my balance. It never came.
I turned to find Caitlin lighting Sam’s cigarette.
Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed, and Caitlin’s spark was the only light left in the room.
I fished my phone out of my pocket, only to find it wouldn’t turn on. Water dripped out of the charging port. There was a back-up in a cloud somewhere, but this cloud, the one bearing down on us, just took my phone out.
My friends held their screens up high.
Jake saw me there, wallowing. “Whoa, do you want a hand?
I did, just not his.
Jake squint, “What?”
I wrenched myself up, pressing my phone into the tile, drowning it even further. “What, what?”
Jake’s eyes shift back and forth as he tried to process something. He leaned forward, “I thought you said something.”
I said, “Okay,” drawing out the ‘Y’ with an upward inflection. It was Jake’s turn to feel awkward. I’d done my time for the evening.
The table dimmed before me. Sam and Caitlin had shifted their phones to light each other’s faces.
“Are you all right?” Sam asked her, oblivious to the hot mess sitting right beside him.
Caitlin’s head was frozen in the middle of a nod. Her eyes never strayed from contact.
You know when you choose not to recognize a pattern until it becomes a whole?
“No, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” Jake said to no one in particular.
I glanced up to find he was talking to me. I pointed to my mouth, “Were my lips moving?”
Jake shook his head. He tongued his molars like he was trying to get a popcorn kernel out. He looked over his shoulder. He shined his phone into the empty booth behind us. Then he stood back up on the seat. He shined his light on the ceiling. “Do you think the speakers for the jukebox are on a different circuit than the lights?”
Sam chuckled, “You think the circuit flipped at the same time the lighting struck? That’s a hell of a coincidence. No dude, the line is down.”
Jake scanned the bar with his phone, the waitress sat frozen like a cat in the dark. The truckers were scattered throughout the booths. They whispered. Then Jake cast his light on me.
He tilt his ear up to the speakers, “I wouldn’t rule out the circuit, just yet. I know I heard something.”
I lift my glass to my lips, “Let’s see if I can throw my voice while I drink this water.”
Jake shook his head as he sat back down, “It did sound like you. It was little raspier and a lot more confident.”
Sam shift his gaze from Caitlin, “You think it could’ve been the wind?”
Jake looked to the entryway, bolted and buried under water. He gave that a nervous laugh, “What wind?”
Caitlin smirked with confusion in her eyes, “What did this voice say? Did it tell you to do anything we should know about? You’re not about to flash us, are you?”
Jake gave that a diagonal nod, neither confirming nor denying.
Caitlin rested her hands on the table, a blackjack dealer who’s laid out all her cards. Sam mirrored her from across the booth. He raised an eyebrow toward Jake, still listening for that phantom jukebox. Caitlin sneered back. They were already speaking in code.
Jake slid back into the booth, “It said something about pattern recognition.”
Sam’s interest peaked, “So the voice is talking about complex cognitive stimuli? Do you think it’s a podcast, maybe a lecture on neurobiology?”
Sam couldn’t resist the urge to pile on the jargon. He whipped out his knowledge of pop psychology whenever he could. I’m surprised he didn’t name drop Malcolm Gladwell while he was at it.
Jake peered over my shoulder, “There it is again.”
Something has wiped the grin off of Sam’s face. He nodded, “I heard it that time. It faded in and out really quickly, but I heard it.”
I looked around the room. Some of the truckers took the outage as their cue to fall asleep at their tables. This sort of thing was old hat to them. Others leered at us. They knew we were up past our bedtime.
Their eyes hid beneath the shadow of their brows. I couldn’t tell if they were lonely or hungry.
Apart from Caitlin, our waitress, and myself, there wasn’t another woman in the room.
I said, “Do you think the voice might have come from one of their cell phones?”
Sam shrugged. Anything was possible.
Caitlin leaned forward, closing the gap between Sam and herself. She whispered, “It said something about Malcolm Gladwell. Did you hear it?”
Sam nodded. He believed her all right. I imagined this would be the first of many agreements between them.
Jake shot up, “‘The first of many agreements between them.’ Did you hear that?”
It felt like a foot had walked on my grave, then dropped a cigarette, and stomped the cherry out. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was driving Jake battier than usual. Worse still, it was driving Sam and Caitlin into each other’s arms.
That’s when I heard it too. A voice, much like my own said, “Into each other’s arms.”
I went white.
Thunder struck. A branch slammed against the window. The blinds shot up revealing a dozen spider web cracks in the glass. The window held, but it was clear that the branch’s trajectory was directed right at us.
I shook myself out of thought, “We should switch booths.”
Jake stepped out into the water. He nodded, “Yeah, reality is broken in this one.”
Jake had no idea how right he was. He froze in place. The water settled around his ankles. He turned to me. I was about to ask what it was but he shushed me. He cupped his hand over his ear, signaling the group to shut up and listen. He motioned for everyone to sit back down. I pointed toward the window, toward the branch that had nearly crushed us. He shook his head and motioned for us to sit.
Jake drudged through the water on his way to the bar. He looked over his shoulder to make sure that we were following the plot. He lift himself up onto a stool, then stepped onto the counter top. Spinning around to face us, he unbuckled his belt and pulled it through the notches, slowly.
The waitress smoked her cigarette, oblivious.
Sam whispered, “I think he’s going to go the full Monty.”
Caitlin and I turned to shush him. We turned back to find Jake had indeed dropped trou. His boxer-briefs had red stripes and a jolly roger printed on the thigh. The lines made his bulge all the more obvious. He paced the bar with his pants at his ankles. Of course, his gaze was fixed on me the entire time.
Jake froze. He looked up at the ceiling, or through the ceiling, up toward God. He pulled his pants back up, “You all heard it say, ‘He paced the bar with his pants at his ankles. His gaze was fixed on me the entire time.’ You heard that right?”
We nodded. We had.
Jake sat on the bar, his fly hung open. He bit his thumb and scanned the room, to hide the fact that he was zipping his pants. Jake said, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think we’re being narrated.”
Caitlin held her phone to the ceiling, scanning the edges with her light. “You think this might be some kind of reality show?”
Sam raised his phone to join in the hunt for the hidden camera. He said, “It could be like that show on Sci-Fi where they trick people into thinking they’re seeing something paranormal?”
Jake shook his head, “That show got cancelled.” He put his hand behind his back. I had no idea what he was up to. When his hand came back out he was holding two fingers up, then he spun them around to give me the two-finger salute.
“Then he spun them around to give me the two-finger salute.” Jake repeated. He pointed to me, “If it was third person omniscient. The voice might have seen the number I held behind my back. It didn’t. That’s because Teresa is narrating, from the future. That voice we all hear, that’s what she’s going to sound like after a few decades of smoking.”
Jake had gone from putting out a cigarette on my grave to moonwalking across it.
“Moonwalking across it.” Jake repeated, “What does that even mean?”
I held my hands up. I wasn’t dropping any weapons. Jake didn’t have any trained on me, but it felt like the right thing to do.
I said, “I have no idea what’s going on here, but I want it to stop.” But it wouldn’t stop.
Jake bit his lip, tried to shake the taste out of his mouth. He shook his finger at me. He said, “There, you just changed tenses. You said that you want it to stop. Then you said it wouldn’t stop.”
I raised my hands higher, “I just said that I wanted it to stop.”
Jake kicked off the counter and leapt into the water. His Carhartts would rest extra heavy on his waist tonight. He might actually need those suspenders. Jake raised a contemplative finger, “You said you want it to stop, in the present tense. Then your voice said, that it wouldn’t stop. What does that tell you?”
Sam put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “That she doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Jake reeled his finger around an imaginary fishing line, “But, but…”
Caitlin put her hand on my other shoulder, “The version of her that’s narrating does.”
Jake snapped his fingers, “She’s foreshadowing.”
It only took me a moment to catch up. My head was thick, but I caught on quick. “You know, I heard that.” I said to myself in the future.
The blinds shuddered. The wind spread the webbing through the glass. The window creaked. It bent inward. The shards were reaching out for us. Soon the window would burst and the storm would be inside the room.
I observed this with a cautious wait and see attitude, but something about hearing my concerns aloud gave me a certainty that they would come true.
I stepped out of the booth and into the water. It had gotten much colder as the night progressed. I shivered. My teeth chattered. The room went silent. Everyone was listening for the sound of my teeth.
I turned to find Caitlin shining her phone in my face. She was gratified to see that my description was accurate.
Caitlin shined her phone under her chin, “You don’t know that I’m gratified. I might just be concerned for your wellbeing. Did you ever think of that?”
I pointed to her phone with my index finger, then behind me with my thumb. She didn’t get the gesture, until she heard it narrated.
She lit my way down the aisle. I felt for coat hooks until I came to a booth in the far back. It was no storm cellar, but it would have to do.
I signaled for Caitlin to follow. She didn’t see the gesture, but she came once she heard it narrated. Either she really needed those glasses or she was an auditory learner. Sam followed close behind her. He slid into the same side of the booth, resuming his assigned seat. He looked to it, having heard it described, then grimaced at me.
I slid into the booth. “What if, this narration of mine isn’t the problem? What if it’s the solution to some greater problem? Did anyone bother to think of that?”
Jake tried to follow the ripples we left. There was a leak in the ceiling. Rain drops trickled in front of him. Our trail was wiped clean. He tried to listen for us, but all he heard was the sound of the Narrator narrating his attempt to listen.
Jake called out, “So your voice over is gonna tell us whether we should find shelter, or seek higher ground, right?
I called back, “Maybe. Maybe it’s telling us to hold tight.”
Sam tapped my head like it was a broken hard drive, “Maybe we can trick it into foreshadowing something useful.”
Little did he know, that with that gesture, I lost much of the affection I’d been holding out for him. His cool exterior was frozen through. There was an iceberg where his shoulder ought to be. If the narration was here to save any of us, he was the least of my priorities. If the room was about to flood, Sam better know how to swim, because I wasn’t dragging his ass out of the water. If he got struck by lightning, someone else better know CPR, because I wasn’t going anywhere near those lips. If Sam were impaled by falling debris, I’d be the first to say, “He’s done for.”
I covered my mouth, though I hadn’t spoken.
Caitlin scowled behind her flat lenses. Her mouth hung open like a nutcracker. She shut it the moment she heard it described like that.
Jake took his time sliding into the booth. He looked to Sam, to Caitlin, then to me. He tried to gage our reactions to the Narrator’s off the cuff remarks. There was no way he could do this without drawing attention to himself. He nodded at the Narrator’s observation.
Jake said, “You know if you close your eyes, it might just stop.”
I did. Caitlin sighed. Not a sigh of relief, but of annoyance. Sam joined in. They’d gone from mirroring, to echoing one another. Soon they’d be on the same cycle.
Jake slapped the table, “Okay, never mind. That’s not going to work.”
I opened my eyes. Sam showed me the shaved side of his head. He stared at the paneling. He didn’t want me describing his impossibly turquoise eyes, the way they seemed to glow in the dark. He didn’t want me noting his jet black pompadour, or his perfectly even sideburns, with the specs of silver already coming in. The last thing he needed was for someone to describe his lips, how they seemed to stay moist, even when they were chapped.
He raised his hand to cover his face, but it was no use. I had committed it to memory. Still, he couldn’t have me reading his expression, sussing out meaning, and bending it to suit my narrative. The more he resist the more he lived into the Narrator’s portrayal. He was a boy in a man costume, one that fit less and less as the night wore on.
Whoever Sam really was, he was not the man I’d fantasized about spending the rest of–
“Shut up!” I cried, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
Sam winced. He scooted in until his hip hit the paneling. I touched his forearm. He shook it free.
He showed me his teeth. There were no dimples in this expression, just creases in his nose that I’d never seen before. He rolled his eyes at the Narrator’s description. Then he shook his head when it said he rolled his eyes. He scratched his nails into the table, looked up, and checked an imaginary watch, waiting for the Narrator to give him a moment to think.
Sam took a deep breath, exhaled, “Teresa, we’re hearing this because you thought, or will think, to write it down. So whatever excuse you’re about to give, you clearly don’t mean it.”
I gave one anyway. I said, “Sam, you’ve known me for a while, enough to know that whatever resentment I feel tonight will pass. The Narrator is being recklessly cruel for dramatic effect. That’s all. Conflict is the heart of drama. It’s stirring things up to keep the plot moving, but me right here, right now,” I pointed to the ceiling, “I don’t mean any of this shit.”
It was a bold faced lie, and they all knew it, or at least they did once they heard this narration say it aloud.
“God damn it!” Jake slammed his palms against the table. The silverware shook. He balled his fingers into fists, “The Narrator just acknowledged what it is and what it’s doing, in the past and the present tense. Soon it won’t even need to talk to us. It’ll just feed back onto itself.”
The thought had occurred to me. Then I heard myself acknowledge that it had. Then I heard myself acknowledge that it had acknowledged that it had. Then–
Jake leaned over the table to grab me by the shoulders. He shook me. “Stop thinking!” The boy spat when he spoke. He wiped his mouth upon hearing that he did. He shift his eyes back and forth from the ceiling to me, “If you don’t stop this, I swear to God, I’m going to throw you through the forth wall myself.”
Something in Jake’s tone confirmed my first impression of him. I could always spot the confrontational ones. The ones who would corner you and say, “What are you thinking? What do you mean by that? When are you going to know how you feel?”
I knew some girls who’d had classes with Jake. They said he was funny, mostly harmless, but deep down I knew that he was attracted to me. That he would try to bury it only to have it flair up from time to time.
He knew the chemistry wasn’t there, but lauded on the compliments all the same, hoping he might find the right formula. I took them, if only to let those awkward moments pass, but I never returned them. That would have been an invitation. Ours was a one-way relationship. Jake had all this love and I had no place to put it. He stockpiled it until it turned to resentment.
Now he was sitting on a powder keg that could go off at any–
“Shut up!” Jake and I shouted in unison.
It figures the keg had to go off on the last night I saw him alive. Behind every self declared ‘nice-guy’ was an asshole waiting to shit on everything.
Jake shot up, “Wait, what?” He stepped out of the booth, made the sign of the cross with his fingers and backed into the water.
I put my hands back up, “I didn’t mean to call you an asshole.”
Jake’s hands strangled an invisible neck. “I’m a tad bit more concerned about the part where you know how I’m going to die?”
Shaking my head, I put my hand over my heart, “I don’t. Future tense me seems to have an inkling.” I tilt my head to the ceiling, “Care to give us some clarity on that, oh vague one?”
The Narrator wasn’t there to serve us. As far as it was concerned all this had happened already. It was no help at all.
“No shit?” I said to the Narrator.
I snatched Sam’s silverware roll and chucked it at the ceiling. It hit the fan and burst open. The utensils rained down on Jake. He stumbled back, terrified by the glint of a butter knife.
I ran my hand down my face, “Why did you say, ‘I said?’ We all know that I’m the one who’s talking, or are we not your target demo here?”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Goosebumps ran down my forearms. You know when you realize the truth of a statement halfway through saying it.
Wind blew through my hair. The kitchen door creaked open. The restrooms unlatched. I looked to the window. By now, it was nothing but a wall of shards, but it was still there. I looked to the entryway. The water had risen, but the padlock held firm.
A breeze blew through my bangs. I turned, not toward an emergency exit, but to the darkest corner of the diner. There were walls there when we walked in. It felt like they had collapsed, like the room had decompressed. The storm hadn’t pierced our fortress, but something else had.
There was movement in the water. Not in the water itself, but in its surface. I leaned out of the booth to look at my reflection. The silhouette mirrored my movements. My head neared the water, but those weren’t my eyes staring back at me.
They were yours.
You squint as if you were rereading a sentence, as if you were having your own private epiphany. Maybe you were just mirroring my eyes. With enough empathy, even yawns are contagious.
A match sparked behind me. I blinked and you were gone. I sensed your eyes, but I couldn’t see you anymore.
Sam lit another cigarette, exhaled from his mouth, and inhaled through his nostrils. He was about to recirculate that smoke when he realized everyone was watching him do it. He shift the smoke out the side of his mouth and blew it into my face. I could still see that stained yellow smile with my eyes closed. With his pack a day habit, I couldn’t help but wonder what his tongue tasted like.
Then I realized he’d never give me the chance to find out.
Oh, how I had hoped that thought would pass by unmarked. It didn’t, and I couldn’t help but blush. The group’s attention shifted back to me. I had turned beat red.
Sam exchanged dirty looks with Caitlin.
Jake held his phone to my face, “You know, that wasn’t a hyperbole, you’re actually turning red.”
Tears swelled in my eyes. “I’m aware of that thank you.” I tried to sneak a sniffle, but the Narrator called me out. I flat out snorted. I figured in for penny in for a pound right? Whatever it took to distract Jake from his imminent death.
Jake backed further away from the booth. He shook his phone at me, “You’re a witch. You know that? A full on broomstick riding, purple monkey taming, witch.”
He was afraid, so I let his tirade go unmarked, mostly unmarked. If he only knew how close the grim reaper really was.
Sam elbowed the back of the booth. He cupped his hands over his mouth, “Quit foreshadowing, and just put out already.”
Put out already? There was a phrase I didn’t think was even in Sam’s vocabulary. He struck me as the type of guy that always walked a path that led straight to sex. Never figured he’d say something like that when he got stuck at a toll booth. With my heart-shaped glasses broken, I was starting to see him for the sleaze ball he really was.
I nodded to the ceiling. We were finally seeing eye to eye.
Caitlin set her vanity glasses on the table. She crossed her arms, “Put out’ is a really poor choice of words.” The girl wasn’t the ditz my damaged ego wanted her to be.
Caitlin gave the Narrator’s observation a sideways nod. It had paid her a backhanded compliment, but a compliment all the same.
Jake slapped his palm to his forehead. Then he looked up, “It’s called a ‘face palm’ you condescending bitch.”
I couldn’t fault Jake his anger, given his imminent execution.
“Well, that’s nice.” Jake put his hands on his waist in a power stance that didn’t suit him. Then he dropped them, hoping no one would notice. He said, “Just tell me how I’m going to die already.”
I sighed, “I don’t think it works that way. We can receive messages, but I don’t think we can send them back.”
Jake bit his lip. “You just have to remember to tell me from the future.”
I wanted to, but somehow I knew that wouldn’t work. The story had already cashed in all of its exposition explaining itself to us, to you. It couldn’t afford to give away anymore. The events would have to play out on their own.
Jake threw his hands up, “Really?” He kicked the water, “You know, if this was my story I’d tell it very differently.” He pointed his finger. “I’d say Teresa chose to be single, just to mock her suitors with her own loneliness. She used the halves of her broken heart to smash everyone else’s to bits. She didn’t need to know that we had our own needs, because we were just guests at her pity party.”
Jake waved his arms. He spun around and knocked the register over. It dragged the receipt printer down with it. Power cords straightened across the countertop. The till splashed into the water. The monitor and the printer dangled over the side. Then the power strip leapt up onto the counter and everything went for a dip.
Our waitress didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. The crossword section lay out in front of her. She chewed on a pen as she mouthed something from the question key, oblivious to the narration and us.
Jake kicked water up at me. He looked like he wanted to–
“Show don’t tell!” Jake shouted at the ceiling. Then he pointed to the truckers asleep in the dark. “If this was my story I’d use everybody in the room. We haven’t heard all that much from those highway hillbillies. They ought to have something to say about all this.”
They were sound asleep. Whatever refuge he sought in them had only made them drowsy. There was only the Narrator and his fate.
Jake’s shoulders sunk. He exhaled. He knelt down into the water, closed his eyes in a silent prayer. He was acting out the seven stages of grief and was coming up on the last one.
Jake winced at the ceiling, “That might be a good line, but I’m not accepting shit,” He looked to me, “and neither should you.”
Jake chuckled to himself, rubbed his eyes and sniffled. He said, “If this was my story and you were the one on death’s door, I’d have told you how much you mattered to me. When I first met you, I just wanted to get into your pants. That much was true. When that didn’t happen, I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t. Something told me that my life would be better with you in it, that, expectations aside, I’d be better for having known you.”
There was no use holding the tears back. The Narrator would just tattle on me anyway.
Jake sighed. He’d said his piece. Now he was making peace with it. He smirked, “When you’re the version of yourself that’s narrating this shit. Tell her to give me a fucking break.”
As far as last words went, that was as good as Jake was going to do.
I shot up and shouted, “Get up on the counter. Right now!”
Jake sprung to his feet, drudged through the water and scurried up onto a stool. Sam and Caitlin jumped up onto the booth.
The exit signs buzzed to life, then the lights flickered back on. Sparks shot from the power strip on the counter. The monitor for the register lit up. There was a flash of lightning beneath the water. It continued to strobe as an electric current ran through the room.
“Will you look at that.” The waitress glanced up from her crossword.
The truckers convulsed in their seats as the water shocked their ankles.
Jake rolled up onto the counter, “The hell?”
I yelled, “Kick the power strip!”
Jake kicked the plug for the printer free, but only bent the one for the monitor.
The truckers went stiff as every muscle in their bodies tensed up. Their arms straightened and their knees locked. They stood.
Jake gave the strip another good thwack and the second plug ripped free.
The truckers fell forward. They face planted into their hash browns. Smoke rose off their beards. They were out, but they were breathing.
Jake fell flat on the countertop. He let out a long breath. The ceiling fan spun back to life. There was a pop over the speakers. It was followed by the opening piano melody for Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
Jake cackled at the jukebox, “A little on the nose, don’t you think?”
He dug into his pocket fishing out a pack of American Spirits. When he flipped it open a brown sludge spilled out. He tossed it over the side. A hand set a cigarette in his mouth. He looked up to find the waitress with her lighter at the ready.
She winked, “Your coffee’s on me tonight, Hun.” Then she pointed our way, “Not theirs’ though. I didn’t much care for how your friend there described me.” She leered in my direction, “What did you call me: cautionary tale, a warning for anyone who stayed in this town too long? Words sting dear. They really do.”
Jake raised his eyebrow, “So you could hear all that?”
The waitress shrugged as she lit herself a cigarette for herself.
Jake cocked his head to the side, “And it didn’t faze you at all?”
The waitress waved the smoke out of her eyes, “Listen dear, when you’ve lived in Pilgrim Valley this long nothing like that phases you.”
“No shit?” Jake sat up. His feet dangled over the counter. He looked to the ceiling then to me, “What happened to our omniscient friend?”
I looked around, knowing there was nothing to see. I said, “I think she skulked off when her prediction didn’t come true. It was her turn to feel embarrassed.”
Jake ashed into the floodwater, “I can’t say that I’ll miss her. No offense.”
I shook my head, “None taken.”
Caitlin slid her phone back into her pocket. She tapped me on the shoulder, “How did you know?”
I nodded to the register submerged under water, “Jake was right. It wasn’t the storm that downed the power. It was the circuit breaker. Looks like one of our trucker friends thought to flip it back on.”
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. I turned to see him in the light. His face wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as I had remembered. His eyes weren’t as blue. His dimples weren’t as deep. His jaw wasn’t as square, his cheeks weren’t as gaunt, and his lips weren’t nearly as soft. He was just a boy with his haircut like Elvis. That was all.
Sam smirked, it looked less like a cocksure grin than a facial tick, “Listen, I’m not sure what happened just now, but it wasn’t your fault. What I’m trying to say is, I know you didn’t mean any that nasty shit she said about me. That was just drama for drama’s sake, like you said.”
I bit my cheek, “Actually, I’m pretty sure I meant every word of it.”
Sam gave me a puzzled look. He’d extended an olive branch and I lit it on fire. I had a hunch this wouldn’t be the last time he’d gave me that look. My thoughts were back in my head again, and there was a lot about them he would never get.
Jake laughed to himself.
I turned around, “What’s so funny?”
Jake waved his cigarette through the air, “You’re still gonna have to write all this shit down. You’re still going to have to trick me into thinking that I’m going to die.”
He scanned his brow, “Or that I was going to die, I’m not sure what the right tense is. Anyway, the point is you have to tell the story, exactly like she did, or else you in the past won’t see the power cords in the water.”
Caitlin put her glasses back on. “So we figured out the why, but I’m still foggy about the how.”
Jake gave that an open palm shrug, “What do you mean how? I thought we’d already established it was witches.”
It occurred to me that the how was in the diner with us, watching me ring my shirt out. The lights hadn’t scared it away. It hovered over us like a camera on a dolly. My friends couldn’t hear the Narrator anymore, but it could. You could. You still can. You heard the Narrator before we ever did. You saw us in the diner and you relayed its messages. My messages.
Jake was right. Not about the witches, but about what I had to do. Situations like this didn’t resolve themselves on their own. The Narrator couldn’t just speak up when the time was right. You wouldn’t let her. She had to trick us. She had to air my dirty laundry to get my attention, to get your attention too. She had to plant herself into the narrative, or else her intervention would sound contrived.
Deus ex machina’s don’t just come out of the sky. Someone has to put them there.
My job was to get her words into your imagination, to borrow your mind to tell our story, to save my friend. I’m sorry if that makes you feel used, but it was for a good cause. Just think, there’s a reality where you’re a hero.
You can even see it, when the light hits the water just right.
No one tells the emperor
That he’s standing there naked
That he had too much to drink
That he ought to go to bed
Tiptoe past the elephant
With your eyes on the floor
It’s gotten pretty bad
But you can take a little more Continue reading The Emperor is Naked (Song Lyric)→
The room is dark. The air is thick with a musky scent. The aroma is intoxicating. Not like a fine wine is intoxicating, like chloroform is intoxicating. The fragrance is familiar, but it’s the purest version I’ve ever smelt. It starts sweet, rises to a head, and finishes spicy.
I’d swear I was lying in a fresh meadow, if it wasn’t for the chair rocking beneath me, or the door creaking open on its rusty hinge.
My eyes water through the lids. It’s a struggle to keep them squeezed shut. The odor fills me with each breath. My mind slips. I’m dizzy with pungent petals. The smell clogs my nostrils with sugar, fills my mouth with cinnamon, and pours pepper down my throat.
I’d swear I was buried in a bed of roses, if it wasn’t for the twist ties digging into my wrists, and the footfalls echoing around me.
Have you ever swam out to save someone only to be dragged down with them? Ever stage an intervention, only to be cast as part of their addiction? Ever try to make yourself feel better by nursing someone else back to health? Did it make you sicker in the process?
Have you ever tried to help someone only to become part of their problem? Have you ever become the problem?
This audio blog is about writing through the noise pollution. It’s about turning up the volume in your head to drown everything else out. It’s about keeping track of your ideas through an earthquake.
Once you’re finished listening you can read the second part here:
When friends on Twitter post photos of mountain-scapes and forest trails, I get scenery envy. I want to unroll a blanket and write beneath their sky. I want to be able to stand up and pace around with my ideas, to take my thoughts for a walk. Continue reading Writing Space (Audio Blog)→