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The Curse

18 Apr

Streetlight

 

Homeless, the woman tours the cities of the world from dusk to dawn, striding down the sidewalks from one street lamp’s circle of light to the next, like stepping stones. She shimmers in the glow and every person she passes sees her differently, according to their own state of mind. But in between the blobs of light on the ground, in the dark spaces, she really changes. She is lemurs and antique cars, happiness and the sound of the wind, the color burgundy and that guy you knew in fifth grade. She slams across the universe and slides sideways into the fairy realm, drifts into the ocean and out again. Then she is back in the street light, shimmering, having taken care of the business of that shadow. It has happened this way as long as she can remember, but her memory skips with the blackness in between the light, so she may be wrong. She may have been someone different, before.

The bum sees her from a block away. His name is Reynold, and he most assuredly was someone different before, as all people are sometimes, but especially those who have nothing else to lose. He has only a bag left, a black plastic bag full of things that he finds and sorts, then eats, sells, or keeps. The bag is only ever half full. Everything else he owns, he wears.

Reynold sees the woman as a pretty girl, like one he knew when he was that different person. She looks almost exactly like that girl, just slightly off in the mouth and hair texture, different enough not to be her but close enough to irk him. He puts down his bag as she moves nearer to him and spits phlegm at her black polished heels, hitting the front of her right foot with a wet smack. The woman keeps walking.

“I curse you, creature,” he whispers vehemently. “I curse you to be like I am.”

At that, the woman stops, her left foot incorporeal in the shadows and the rest of her shimmering in the street light. She freezes stock still, then shivers, then shakes, her whole body twisting and contorting in every direction at once, a pinwheel of arms and head and torso. Then, just as suddenly, she stops. She is no longer shimmering and the foot in the shadows is firm and real. Her unearthly quality is gone and she is nothing but a woman, almost but not quite someone Reynold used to know.

She turns her head to him and smiles. “You unmade me. Thank you,” she says, stepping towards him. Reynold cringes back, but before he can move, the woman presses her lips to his filthy forehead. He stares into her eyes as she draws back slightly to look at him. “You unmade me and now I’m like you. I could do a lot before, but now I can do what you do.” Her voice is soft and full of wonder. Reynold sneers, curling his unshaven lip up from his yellow teeth and taking a deep breath, preparing to scream at her, to shove her, maybe to piss on her, anything to get her away from him, but she speaks again.

“I curse you, creature,” she whispers. “I curse you to be like I was.”

Reynold suddenly can’t breathe, and even though somehow he knows he doesn’t need to anymore, it still panics him. The world shifts, drawing in close then expanding in a flash of brilliant light. He can’t see and can’t hear, not with his eyes or ears, but he can sense everything, all at once. He tastes a grape in the mouth of a boy in India; he hears the thoughts of a beetle in Michigan; he feels the pain and pleasure of every love affair that’s ever happened; he knows the answers to every question on every test ever given or that ever will be given. The entirety of existence opens up to him and he steps forward instinctively, into the light of the street lamp.

It stops. The world slows down, his ears and eyes return, and he can breathe. But the darkness beyond the circle of light calls to him and he knows he has things to do, changes to make, ideas to follow. He turns to the woman.

“You made me, but now what do I do?” he asks, he face shimmering.

“Now,” she says, smiling, “you walk.”

Reynold looks at the next street lamp, the dim blob of light on the sidewalk down the block. He aims for it and steps forward into the shadow, his body melding and shaping, flickering and bending, until he emerges into the glow again. He looks ahead to the next light, but he already knows that looking ahead will not work for long. There’s too much to experience, too much to do, in the shadows. He can’t pause to think. He has to just keep moving. After a moment’s hesitation, he starts forward again. His form varying, indistinct in the darkness and solid in the light, he walks down the street and disappears around the corner.

The woman watches him until he’s gone. Then she picks up his plastic bag and heads down the dim alley, muttering quietly to herself and wondering who she is now.

END

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Unnamed Monkey Tale

5 Apr

The following is part of a series of stories I refer to as my Wonder Tales. They usually involve a younger protagonist, a strange situation, and (I hope) some humor. I wrote this one using the same prompts Patrick used for his Dr. Zero & Mr. X: Codename Monkey story. 

 

One night, while Milo Zephyr was watching a nature show about aardvarks, he turned to his mother on the couch and asked, “Mom, can I get a dog?”

His mother shook her head. “No.”

“Why not?” Milo asked.

“Because they sniff you in embarrassing places.”

“How about a cat?”

His mother wrinkled her nose. “No.”

“Why not?” Milo asked again.

“Have you ever smelled a cat fart? They’re horrible.”

“OK, what about a goldfish?”

His mother shuddered. “No.”

“Why not?” Milo asked, without much hope.

“Because they freak me out, with their bug eyes and breathing underwater and such.”

Milo decided to try one more time.

“Can I have a monkey?”

His mother, who worked for NASA and was the smartest person Milo had ever known, looked at him for a long moment and then simply said, “We’ll see.”

Two weeks later, Milo had all but forgotten about wanting a pet. It was his tenth birthday and all his friends came over for a huge party. They played the Bite My Arm game, knocked down the sneaker-shaped piñata filled with sock-shaped candy, and ate the entire bottom half of his layer cake. But after everyone left, Milo’s mother sat him down at the kitchen table and gave him one more large box, wrapped in comic pages from the newspaper.

Milo opened the present slowly and carefully. Inside, underneath the bubble wrap, was a silver monkey statue. Milo put it on the table so he could see it better and his mother reached out to press a switch in the back of the statue, pushing it up and to the right. The monkey suddenly came to life, cried out in a yowl that sounded a little like gears grinding, and scampered up to Milo’s shoulder, where it sat with its long metal tail wrapped around Milo’s neck.

“Now, there is only one rule for this machine monkey,” his mother said, her face stern. “You must not switch him on unless I’m home. Ever.”

“But why not?” Milo asked, laughing because the monkey was digging in his hair for nits.

“Because machine monkeys are still wild animals and can be dangerous,” his mother said, but she was smiling as she said, chuckling at the monkey as it did a little dance on top of Milo’s head, and Milo barely heard her.

The next day, Milo’s mother had to go to work, even though it was a Sunday. Milo watched cartoons, played with the new toys his friends had given him, and danced to really loud music in his pajamas, but by the early afternoon, he was bored. The machine monkey sat on the kitchen table, where he had left it the night before when he’d gone to bed. It seemed to call to him every time he walked by, screeching in its metallic voice in his head. Finally, he gave in. He pressed the switch on the back, pushing it up and to the right.

The machine monkey shook itself, then blinked at him with its artificially beady eyes. It crawled onto his shoulder and Milo took it into the living room. He sat down on the couch and the monkey capered down the cushions, landing ungracefully in a heap beside him. Milo laughed and reached out to put it back on his shoulder, but the monkey was already moving again. Before he knew it, it was on the floor. Then it was across the room. Then it was on top of his mother’s bookcases.

“Come back here!” Milo called out, but the monkey ignored him. It had discovered his mother’s aloe vera plant on the top shelf, and with a vibrating squeal, it dug both metal paws into the dirt and started flinging it around the room.

“Stop that!” Milo yelled, but the monkey wasn’t listening. It slid down the shelf and raced into the bathroom. Milo heard the water turn on and he went after it. The monkey was in the tub, splashing ice cold water all over the small room.

“No! Bad machine monkey!” Milo said, but the monkey was already slipping between his legs into the hallway. Milo turned the water off and ran after it.

In the kitchen, the monkey made a bee line for the stove. Milo came in just as it lit the hand towel on fire and tossed it on the tile floor. Milo stepped forward and stamped it out quickly. Then he lunged for the monkey.

“Stop! I mean it!” The monkey paid no attention, climbing up on top of the cabinets and chittering at Milo. It sounded like a computer laughing, a strange monotone “ha ha ha ha.” Milo reached for the phone.

“Mom? I…you told me not to, but-“

“What? Who is this? I’m in the wind tunnel. I can’t hear-“ The phone roared like a lion and then went dead. Milo hung up, wondering what he should do now. Suddenly, an idea came to him.

“Stay.” He pointed at the machine monkey as he walked backwards out of the kitchen. As soon as the monkey was out of sight, he turned and ran down the hall to his mom’s home laboratory. He was back in the kitchen in a matter of seconds, carrying the long prosthetic arm his mom had built for the space shuttle the year before. It was as long as Milo was tall, with a lever on one end to work the clamp at the other. This was only a working model, of course; the real arm was bigger than a bus. Milo hefted the arm in his arms and started towards the monkey.

“Hold still, machine monkey. I won’t hurt you, I promise…” Milo said as he inched forward, but the monkey didn’t seem to believe him. It glared at him angrily with its artificially beady eyes. It pushed the clamp away with its silver paws. And finally, just when Milo was starting to think this whole plan wasn’t going to work, it screeched like a stripped brake and dove off the cabinets, heading towards the front door.

“Gotcha!” Milo said as the clamp closed on the machine monkey’s waist.

When his mom came home that night, Milo followed her into the laundry room. He had put the prosthetic arm on top of the washing machine, weighing down the lever end with a giant dictionary to counterbalance the monkey, which dangled out in mid air, still in the clamp.

“I tried to turn it off, but the switch is broken or something,” Milo said apologetically. His mom shook her head and stepped towards the monkey. It writhed in the clamp, making angry slurred metallic noises, as if its battery were wearing down.

“Large Mauve Underpants!” his mother said clearly and forcefully, and the monkey went limp. His mother turned to look at Milo reproachfully. He smiled and shrugged.

“Sorry.”

“Uh huh.”

They left the monkey dangling in the laundry room and went into the living room. His mom turned on the TV and sat down on the couch with a sigh. Milo sat down next to her. A nature show was playing, something about the extinct Dodo bird.

After a moment, Milo said, “Mom, can I get a dog now?”

“No.”

Milo was quiet for another moment, then asked, “How about a cat?”

“No.”

When the commercial came on a few minutes later, Milo tried one more time. “What about a goldfish?”

His mother, who also freelanced for the CIA and was still the smartest person Milo had ever known, looked at him for a long moment and then simply said, “We’ll see.”

END

 

In case you’re wondering, the prompts were: monkey, fire starter, machine, prosthetic, artificial.