Cliche Horror (creative nonfiction)

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He must have seen me in the crowd after the hockey game, but by being fixated on the players that were making their exits and signing autographs for kids, I hadn’t noticed him. Distracted, I missed anyone taking a special interest in me. Being alone, I certainly didn’t do anything to draw attention to myself. Completely amused by a group of grown men geeking out like teenaged girls, giggling and bouncing around while taking turns getting their pictures taken with the visiting team captain, I wasn’t on guard.

I left the arena late. I was that lone woman walking toward her car in an empty parking garage that sent a chill up my spine. Looking over my shoulder, my steps echoed against the concrete. Nothing was there, except the fluorescent lights overhead. Only a few steps to the sanctuary of my car, parked near the elevators, I quicken my pace. But, if horror flicks have proven anything over the years, it’s that the inside of a car provides only the illusion of safety. Once inside, just to quiet my inner paranoia, I glanced into the backseat. All clear. My relief brought with it a sigh and, then, a nervous giggle. Since when was I so high strung? I chalked it up to my imagination. That was a classic bad horror movie mistake. So, I started the car and drove up the spiral center ramp of the arena garage and washed it all out of my mind in seconds. Another misstep.

Ten seconds later, two levels up, and just inside my peripheral vision, I saw the figure of a guy coming toward me. White t-shirt. Red shorts. I had plenty of time to make it by him. The fact that he was out there registered, but I didn’t really focus on it. But, then he sped up. He practically jumped out in front of my car. I slammed on my brakes. He threw his hands onto the hood and the crash sent a jolt straight to the core of my bones. Our eyes met. I knew I hadn’t hit him, but just barely. The look on his face was blank, but I got the feeling he wanted to talk.

He looked like he recognized me. He looked down at me and started to make his way from the front of my car to the driver’s side window, holding my gaze.  With his motive unknown, in the few precious moments I had left before he reached my door, my mind went into fight or flight overdrive. But, something different about this encounter stood out. I wanted to roll down the window and ask him if he was alright. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But what about the bad horror movies?

Now, face-to-face with possibly a deranged, kamikaze stranger in a deserted parking garage, I felt trapped.

I held his gaze, watching for the second his body stepped past the hood of my car. The moment he did, I gunned the throttle. The car whisked by him and up the next concrete ramp. I clipped his wrist with my driver’s side mirror. As I reached the top of the ramp, I glanced into my rear-view mirror expecting him to be gone because everything about this was creepy. To my surprise, he was standing at the bottom of the ramp with his hands thrown up into the air. I stopped, again. I still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Yet, I couldn’t risk an open confrontation and drove off. I wasn’t about to die in some sort of awful parking garage horror flick cliché. Perhaps, I overreacted. If it hadn’t been his intention to frighten me, he realized a moment too late. It all went wrong. I escaped and no one followed me out of the garage.

I can’t remember the face of the man who jumped out in front of me that night. But, driving home, I thought that, perhaps, the man was actually a stranded fan. Chances are his car battery just needed a jump. Under the examination of that possibility, I suddenly felt ridiculous for my hysterical reaction.

But, then, again, maybe that was the set-up. Cliché horror movie murder averted.

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Herbie (flash fiction) by Jenn Whittaker

wolf-spider-1509051_1920The wolf spider, perhaps better known as the barn spider, terrorized my youth. Growing up my father insisted that these disguising tarantula-like, hairy beasts were a household contributor. They ate bugs that didn’t die despite the pest man’s best efforts. My father always kept one inside and named it Herbie. I don’t know if he actually went to the barn to collect Herbie, but I find that hard to believe since the barn had been long overgrown with weeds and ivy since the divorce. I think, more likely, that the spider just popped up one day and he felt the need to give it meaning. However, he did corral it into his room for safe-keeping.

I found out about Herbie shortly after I killed him with a broom in the living room. My father was distraught. This is when my father shared his knowledge of wolf spiders being bug filters, regardless of their tendency to jump. I quivered at the thought of one catapulting itself onto my forehead as we squared-off, it deceptively still, me with broom in hand, deceptively still. I told my father to keep Herbie in his room. The consequences of noncompliance being certain death at the blue handled broom we kept in the pantry. Mother would have never allowed this…Herbie, not the broom.

With each death, my father’s face went red as he shared his disgust…with the killing, not with Herbie. But no matter how many of the endless killings occurred, my father kept his conviction of Herbie’s necessity. There were eight Herbies before my father did give up his collection thanks to me. He gave up on the marriage, the barn, my murderous path, and finally, Herbie itself.

Long after I’d moved away I encountered yet another wolf spider. I did not name it Herbie. I did not keep it in my room. I killed it. In my victory came resolution. I let go far easier than my father.

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High Culture (flash fiction)

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It’s a Klimt. I think that’s how it’s spelled. It’s called “The Kiss”. In fourth grade, I was on a field trip with my class to the art museum. The curator said it is known as the most romantic painting in history. That seemed like a stretch to me, even then. But when I was twenty-four, a guy was selling art out of the trunk of his car. I figured it fell off a truck some time back. Eighty dollars. That was the charge for a framed print of the painting that I’d long forgotten, but upon sight, the memory of the curator’s comments came rushing back to me. Sixty, I said and we agreed. I’ve had it ever since, rescuing it from the trunk or being bought by a less cultured individual. It has moved with me all over the country. I’ve never lost it, which is commendable, if you only knew me.

I’ve stared at that print of a painting endless hours, studying the woman whose feet are wrapped in vines, soft and supple all over, with round spheres dancing upon her gold dress as she embraces her lover, full of geometric squares that build his black and golden coat. He turns his head down and away to kiss her creamy cheek, as his hand cups her chin and turns it upward towards his kiss, her eyes closed. They are wrapped together in a golden light on the green grass strewn with a tiny field flowers.

I’ve never understood their romance.

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Night March (fiction)

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I don’t know who started the nightly march, but the idea seemed to be working. We all walked back because there wasn’t enough room for adults. We remained in our huts, taking our chances, after escorting the children to town. If the children didn’t go, the rebels had more reason to attack the village at night. Then, they’d steal the little ones in the darkness to man the rebel army. Too young and traumatized to know to run, they were led away compliant. Why didn’t they scream, the little ones? They’d start to cry, but get beaten for it. Instead of crying more, their tears dried up.

We marched the children every night for hours to a town that had a building with a gate that locked. They had lights, too. The wrought iron didn’t seem like much of a deterrent to me. Weren’t they just gathering all the little ones into a farm ripe for the picking? It was hard, the march back, leaving the little ones behind. In the black jungle with the mothers, no one talked.

The rebels had machetes and guns. We had them, too. I also had my M4 with an adjustable butt-stock to accommodate my short arms. So, we marched.

I didn’t speak whatever language I heard them use, but they didn’t speak our language either. I know the look of tired terror and grief on any face. We understood all the same. A woman with no French pointed to the man, angry that he was with us. She had no trust for him. I motioned a little circle around us with my hand, pointed to him and, then, my heart. I pointed at him, again, hit my gun and, then pointed into the forest. She understood, but kept beside me, never fully assured. No one spoke English, except for the Aussie man.

I knew it was about more than just the children. A mother would come, with the children she still possessed, to the camp when the husband abandoned her for shaming him. The gang rapes weren’t enough to conquer these women. Broken they came, but not conquered. They must be the strongest women on the planet.

The scars were the worst. They were torn inside and out. I wasn’t the doctor, but stood guard as she examined them. She spoke French, too. New women arrived daily. Rebels used sticks on them, others penetrated them, and, still, others liked to use the barrel of their handguns. Sometimes they fired. Even some of those women lived. You’d tell me it wasn’t possible and to come home, but I stayed.

Once during the day after the return march, the children played with a soccer ball a little low on air. I had to go behind the hut and out into the bush to vomit. The sight was unbearable and the truth that they’d be alone without us, like they’d been in their villages when the rebels came for them, was a heavy burden. Sometimes, I just couldn’t keep the food down. I rested on my knees next to the putrid puddle and cried, trying not to wail for them, for all the inhumanity because no one greater came. They had no resources to encourage international armies to land on foreign soil, nothing to plunder for themselves. The civil war raged for years before I got there. I usually get paid for jobs, but this was pro bono. I’d collect myself and return to camp or not. That’s when the Aussie stood guard.

I’d take my days to the jungle. I waded through the lush vastness crouched down waiting for a shot. The homemade silencer worked well enough after the manufacturer one broke. They were always close-by, sitting, waiting for the March to begin. They’d try to break it up and run-off with the little ones that they could grab. You remember the woods, the draws, the spurs, the hills, your knuckles. In these parts, the birds stopped chirping. They’d be close then. It wasn’t me. The birds knew me.

In the neck. That’s the spot. Painful, silencing, and efficient enough. They always stood then, gasping. The others’ heads popped up. Easy enough. One, two, three, four, like whack- a-mole. You remember that, surely. I’d empty the magazine every time. They’d retreat, but they wouldn’t know which way to go. I had spares. You remember when they taught us that: attention to detail, back-ups for the back-up. But I’d be solo there on the daily hunt. The Aussie’s excursions alternated with my own. He remembered. But I always found them first. I could smell them; it was in their blood, their crimes. It was a stench different from my own. That’s when I bathed with water, so they couldn’t smell me. I’d stay downwind that week. Remember that?

I was more effective than the Aussie.

“Watch for the broken sticks or flattened leaves,” I’d tell him.

“From their inexperience in the arts,” he knew.

“Makes for easy pickings, but they spread out’,” in case he didn’t know.

“All lookouts,” he’d say.

They watched.

One at a time. That’s how it was. The deeper I’d go, the closer I’d get to the commander of that band. He’d never return. My scope still worked fine. I’d save him for last. Remember, no prisoners. No mercy, they taught me that. I boiled from the inside out. The sun was no match for me. Land nav. I was the best back then. Couldn’t run worth a damn, but I never got left behind, never got us lost. But, I didn’t need to run. I didn’t perch, either. Too obvious. They aren’t’ deer and their meat is worthless. There wasn’t any deer anyway, just chimps and birds. They perched and I protected them, too, making the rebels starve. I’d leave them to rot. Theirs would come to gather them when the stench found them. That way I’d find them, too. Too easy, but slow. They had only numbers on us, few skilled. They’d been the little ones once, but lost and assimilated now. Rebels, every one.

No blood on my hands. I’d return with some rabbits for stew. Everyone was excited. The ladies smiled and the children more. I don’t know how. Dinner was by the fire. They’d dance, those that could. The others clapped. I’d sit and clap, too, before the march. My knees were fine. Finer was the hunt.

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Day Labor (creative nonfiction)

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A friend suggested that I go down to the job pool, which pays daily, even if only minimum wage. I arrive at a rundown warehouse on the wrong side of town at about 4:30 this morning where the black of night still prevails because of burnt out street lights and potholes. The large structure reflects the gray in these days. It bustles with activity. You would never know it’s this early in the morning. I have to register along with my fellow laborers looking for work today at a wooden counter which appears taller than necessary. The man behind the counter has a bald head and also appears taller than usual. I wouldn’t usually notice except I don’t have to look down at him, which is the norm for someone our height. His voice booms over the intercom as he calls out the names of the individuals who registered before I arrived. I fill out the application and take a seat.

Work comes in and the workers shuffle their way out. Have I come too late? Yet, the room still crawls with new arrivals entering through the thick, shabby, metal door. The news, which I find too peppy for mornings, bounces in the background on a TV that hangs in a rusty cage. Wooden and metal chairs riddle the vast space inside the dim, dingy warehouse. I sit watching the news. I’m a first-timer here and it took all the humility I could muster to show up. The longer I sit and wait the more my humility simply turns into pure humiliation.

I once thought, I am better than this. I am better than people who have to find work this way. I am not anymore. I have no one to blame but myself for where I am. As I try to reclaim some small scope of dignity the tall, bald man calls out my name. I am one of the lucky ones because I got on a job today.

Six of us are called to the same job site, but not everybody has a car. Fortunately, I do. Unfortunately, that makes me the designated driver. I pack the rest of my new crew into my red, beat-up car. We head off to the subdivision to work new construction. I feel the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots in this particular moment of life. Of my five passengers, by far the most vocal is a woman by the name of Gina in the front seat. She’s a heavyset black woman with braided hair and full of bubbly personality. I can’t help but wonder where that bubbly personality comes from this day. I resist the urge to ask her how she keeps herself together. Perhaps joy fills her life. Perhaps she finds satisfaction in her daily work. Perhaps the morning news isn’t too peppy for her. She doesn’t even bother hitting on me. This is one of the worst days of my life and I have one of the happiest people I’ve ever met sitting next to me giving me directions to the job site. This day feels long already.

Upon arrival we receive our instructions from the foreman running the subdivision construction site. He issues us each a wheelbarrow, broom and shovel. They represent the tools of my trade now. If I stay with it, I might get to trade in my broom for a hammer. Being on a skilled crew pays more, but I don’t know a thing about carpentry.

I just want to keep my head down and stay silent. I don’t want to share the normal niceties that accompany polite conversation with the individuals I’ve just met. I don’t want to be rude, but some days it takes all the energy I have just to remain focused on the task in front of me. Some days it takes all I have just to remain sane. Worlds away I reminisce on the life that could have been mine. It evaporated into the aether, permanently. The best I can hope for is a short-term memory of that life, that life that must’ve been only a dream. How I wish I could go back to sleep. How I wish I could be satisfied going back to sleep and never waking up. I’m not many steps away from that kind of sleep. It’s all I can do to hold onto this waking reality, this new reality that I find myself within today. What have I done to myself? These futile thoughts certainly won’t get any of my work finished so I lay them to rest in the back of my mind, locked far and deep away so that I can live this day without the overwhelming desire to kill myself off.

The sun cannot penetrate the gray of my day. Finished homes are for the upper-class built with only the finest materials for multiple stories. Plastic sheets still cover the newly installed imported tile kitchen floors and marble counter-tops. Each bedroom has a private seating bay window, walk-in closet and bathroom. Cedar floors throughout make it smell of fresh spice. Working within this neighborhood I see all that I have never attained for myself, comfort being the most apparent. Coming off a nervous breakdown isn’t the most comforting of experiences. Today I want to keep my head down, shovel debris and sweep the unfinished floors. I don’t want to talk to anybody, but Gina is quite the chatterbox. When I speak I fear all my shame will fall out in between my teeth, my tongue incapable of preventing it.

The hardened concrete sends out echoes from under the broom bristles in a disagreeing, repetitive, scratching noise. Plywood, electrical wiring, exposed framing and insulation speckle the subdivision. Sweeping up the debris after the new construction can be a daunting task. This dust is the gray, fine remnants of drywall that manage to escape my best attempts to rally it. I make pass after pass and still I am unsatisfied. Then, Gina gently informs me to slow down and ease up on the perfectionism. After all, if we get all of our work done today then there will be no reason for the foreman to request our crew tomorrow. I didn’t know he could do that. She has a point and I don’t argue.

As we take a break in the back corner of an unfinished home to smoke a cigarette and waste some time Gina gathers all the crew together and reiterates the importance of our work pace. “We all got selected in the order we showed up today. But now that we’re here, the crew chief can request us specifically for tomorrow so we won’t have to wait in the pool again. This job, if we time it right, could take all week.”

And so it did.

I never thought I’d find myself malingering here today, but I have to eat. Pride can empty any stomach. I’ve starved before and have no intention of trying it again. I imagine the feeling remains the same. The agony of it stays with me to this day.

Am I so different from Gina? I fear I may become her; I’ve never been a masculine man. I don’t want her experience. I don’t want this minimum wage life cleaning up before the privileged move into their new gated community. I must have too much pride, still, and this my penance realized.

Gina is quick to share her amusement about the Mexicans working. She calls them ‘scatterbugs’. Whenever immigration service shows up to the site they disappear like magicians. Gina so amuses herself that she can’t keep her chuckles concealed. She tells stories about watching grown men dive into bushes or into the back of flatbed pickup trucks to cover themselves with tarps and two by fours. Others just run. And while I smile along as she tells her stories I can’t help but relate to them on some level.

These are everyday men and women who are just trying to feed their families. Their goal here today is no different than mine. If my family appears on the job site I might find myself in some obscure nook trying to prevent discovery. I know this shame is not justified. I know that I should be proud of the fact that I take care of my responsibilities and feed myself. I can’t see the shame in that, yet I can’t help but feel the shame in that. At least I’m not running from immigration services, too. I wonder if the stock broker moving in next month feels the same way? After all, all this work is for him. We eat today because he decided to buy a sparkling new home. That’s opportunity cost and that’s capitalism. That’s the system. It’s as simple as that.

I tried and the system ate me up. Now look at me. Stupid enough to try again. It takes more than hunger to make it in this life. While others strive, some skate on by. It’s a bullshit system rigged for the rich, yet dumbed downed so the “educated” can waste their energies pursuing their pop culture civil agendas. They don’t see the prize is a dollar sign, not a protest sign. The honest workers carry the burdens of the rich floating heads because they fall for it. Does that make it their fault? I was an economist and I’d rather push this broom than try to weasel through any more of their secret funckin’ handshakes. The blackmarket isn’t any better. My fingers don’t bend in enough intricate designs to get my beat in for gang money either. One hand greases the other and I’m sick of the sludge. I’d rather breathe in this gray dust. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother with that anymore since I cannot catch mesothelioma. Pity. I would go that way. I’m not picky. I fantasize about cement trucks with their rolling bellies running me down at high speeds. That would do it.

Upon returning to the warehouse we receive our checks. I am, again, designated to take the majority of our crew to the check cashing establishment literally across a set of railroad tracks. It’s not too far from where the job pool headquarters is located. Even in this microcosm almost everyone gets their cut. No one chips in for gas.

Gina has taken a liking to me and tells everyone in the car to look out for me. Sometimes people are robbed as they exit the building with their cash. It’s emasculating, but I haven’t the energy left for a fight anyhow. I have my reservations about trusting her intentions, but what choice do I have? I am in the same boat as my new found day labor buddies. But they did keep an eye out for me, the only white boy in sight without tracks or tats to cover them. Once we all have our cash, two of my passengers say their goodbyes and head across the street to the liquor store. Gina offers to hook me up with some weed to take her home. I have a feeling the quality will be less than I’m accustomed to, but we smoke a pinner on the way and I drop her off at her place. My body slumps in the worn driver’s seat on the ride back to my trailer. I had it all and then I lost it. I lost my mind. I lost my friends. I lost hope and hate the word.

All I know for sure is that I can’t show up for another week of day labor. I think there’s only one true solution to my problems: I have to join the Army. I’m half crazy but they won’t even notice at the recruiting station. There are two wars on and they need another warm body for now. People are coming home every day in body bags or wooden coffins covered by American flags, still concealed from the lenses of an inquiring press corps. I cannot bring myself to kill this body, but I can certainly live just long enough to earn my plywood and flag. At least there is a ring of Honor in that. I tried to join the day after dropping Gina off.

I thought I would show up and then ship out. To my dismay, it’s quite the process. There’s aptitude testing, medical testing and fitness testing. I had to choose a job. I could have been an officer with my advanced degree, but that would leave me insulated. What is the most likely job to get me killed? The answer is easy. I am a male and want to be at the frontline. I join the infantry and after basic training I get assigned to a special operations unit. I ship out in May.

I don’t expect anyone will ever understand. I am too ashamed to work at the day labor pool. Who do I think I am? I am too cowardly to end my life on my own so I decide to attempt suicide by enemy fire. I am no hero. I can’t even call myself a mercenary. I am completely selfish. I don’t believe in anything.

I guess all I can hope for is a rouge grenade to pounce upon. Otherwise, I will stick it out. As twisted as my reasons are for joining the Army, the structure actually brings me some unexpected peace. Not the most inspiring story I realize, but the longer I stay in the Army the more I realize that stable and balanced are rare characteristics, particularly among Soldiers. After all, we’re trained killers or willing, able, locked and loaded.

Maybe it’s best to just keep the truth to myself. I’ve never claimed to be a patriot. This realization is my most striking, yet not the most grotesque. Unlike day labor, I finally made it onto a skilled crew.

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Dream Walker (creative nonfiction)

boy-447701_640As I nestled within my white, four-post bed it was just like any other night in the Florida winter. Non-natives always underestimate our winters. They don’t realize that the high humidity at forty degrees can cut through the thickest layers of clothes straight to the marrow of your bones. My mom gave me a plush, heated blanket, which I turned to the highest setting. My room was a mishmash of construction projects gone by. The carpet was a knotted, burnt orange, no doubt the original carpet from the 1970s built home. The carpet had long been replaced by another that was deep blue throughout the rest of the house, expect the bedrooms. Each, including mine, kept their rusty orange matted naps from years of wear with a well defined dividing line clearly cut out at the door jam.

Half-heartedly, my parents attempted to make my room more feminine by adding frosty pink wallpaper covered with minuscule white dots. Water damage from a brutal hurricane season warped the end wall, the largest wall of my room by far. They nailed up thin wood paneling of a sky blue and gray faux marbling on that wall alone to hide the brown, dried water stains that seemed to bleed from atop the ceiling. The clash of colors and design was epic.

I always slept with my simple white ceiling fan on. It had two speeds: off and ready-for-take-off. It kept the room as cold as a walk-in freezer. I sometimes stayed awake at night trying to see my breathe while looking up at that fan. Its rapid gyration brought with it both a soothing whoosh of white noise from the jet stream of downward air, while simultaneously creating the ever-present risk that it may come crashing down on me at full speed, as it wobbled too and fro in its hectic pace, chopping me to even smaller child-sized bits. Every night before I drifted off to sleep I wondered if that would be the night.

I clutched the stuffed monkey my grandparents gave me while my brother was in the hospital recovering from yet another surgery on his legs and hips. I was too young to understand why he always received so many presents when it wasn’t his birthday or Christmas. My monkey was a consolation prize that I held firmly by the neck every night. I snuggled under my pile of blankets and pulled them over my entire body, warm and cozy, protected from the cold on the other side, except for my nose and forehead. I had to breathe. I wrapped the comforter tight and fell into a sleep that must have been a close cousin to death.

I’ve always been a hard sleeper never stirring for fire alarms, gun shots or sonic booms. I occasionally slept in my brother’s room on his top bunk, but, somehow, always woke up the next morning on the floor feeling as rested as ever. The fall never woke me. My father finally felt the need to nail a long two-by-four to the top bunk as a makeshift railing to keep me firmly in place. Since learning to speak I’ve also chatted the night away in gibberish, more often than not. My family was rather used to the occasional stray call from my room at night regarding the elephants caught in the strawberry patch, of which I had neither.

Before this night I may have mumbled some, randomly kicked at my sheets and turned clockwise in my bed, but I always stayed in bed. However, this night, whether from the cold exterior of my room or from the sauna created under my covers by the new electric blanket, this night I got out of bed in hysteria.

I ran towards the hall leading to my parents’ room at the other end of the house, but stopped immediately short, right at the door jam. I just couldn’t make the transition from my rustic orange carpeting to the brilliant blue of the hallway that seemed to ebb and flow like an ocean before my feet. My perspective slowly narrowed so that the kitchen in the middle of the house looked like a mirage miles away from me.

“Buddy!” I shouted through my brother’s open door, which was adjacent to mine.

“Buddy!” His name is not Buddy; it’s Richard after my father, but I call him Buddy to this day, a privilege he allows only family members and our remaining childhood friends. Finally, Buddy appeared in his doorway and stopped at the door frame, which he held onto for balance. He’d learned to walk four times now. It would require another two times before his surgeries were complete.

“What?” he replied sleepy and annoyed.

“Go get Dad!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.

“What is it?” My sudden alarm brought his senses out of the night.

“Look!” I screamed pointing down at the newish blue hallway carpet.

“What?” He looked in the direction I was pointing confused.

“I can’t…” I began to say as I lifted one foot and kept it in the air, hovering at the door jam. I jerked my foot back to my side.

“What is it?” Buddy asked examining the hallway with more intent.

“Don’t you see? Go get Dad!”

“You go get Dad,” he retorted in a more probing fashion than an antagonistic one.

“I can’t!” I shouted looking down the daunting hallway in front of me as the walls collapsed and reconfigured as if at once breathing while daring me to try to make a run for it.

It was at this point that my older brother, smarter than I ever gave him credit, realized that I wasn’t fully awake, a favorite time of his. He held countless conversations with me in the night through our wall while he was in body casts up to his chest that were entirely lost to me the next day. Sometimes I wonder what he confided in me while I was sleeping.

We went back and forth as my brother tried to coax me out of my room and into the hallway. I tried sliding my feet slowly, but that didn’t work. I jumped in circles, jogging in place at the junction of that dividing line of carpeting. I tried getting a running start, but always lost my courage. He managed to get me to hang my body over the hallway carpeting like a maiden carved into the front of an ancient ship, but I couldn’t command my feet forward. He almost persuaded me to jump, except that I realized I would then be completely engulfed by blue and there was no way I was doing that.

“Nothing there,” he laughed, holding onto his door frame more from laughter than for balance.

“Nothing there, again,” he continued with each of my failed attempts to rally myself to this seemingly insurmountable task. I wasn’t stepping foot on that carpet. His laughter brought him sliding down the door frame as his body no longer had the strength or will to hold itself up any longer.

His laughter horrified me as ferociously as the hallway with its mishmash of mismatched carpet preventing me from moving my body pass the break in color continuity. Our exchanges went on in an alternating chorus of shrills and laughter until my brother collapsed to the floor holding his tummy full of giggles no longer willing to try to stand back up.

Finally, my father, surely poked awake by my mother from all the commotion, came barreling from their room toward our end of the house. Before he left the safe confines of the kitchen linoleum I held my palms out screaming, “Stop!” He did right where the linoleum met the blue carpeting. I watched his feet intently protesting loudly anytime they neared the threshold of the hallway. If my father tried to start down the hallway I would shout, “Nooooo,” so emphatically it would stop him in his tracks every time until he was marooned on that linoleum island. I felt that it was my daughterly duty to save him from taking that one, last, unseen step off a formidable cliff face into the churning blue abyss below.

“Buddy, what did you do to your sister?” my dad barked as debacles such as this were usually his fault anyway. My brother couldn’t breathe in any orderly fashion to present his defense, still writhing on the floor, face red and contorted from his attempts to stifle his laughter now directed at my father for complying with my demands in the first place.

“Look!” I began again.

“Look at what?” my father’s head and body bobbed and weaved, turning in all directions as if dodging a killer bee. This only made my brother burst out again, though he finally managed to get the words out:

“Dad! She’s still asleep!”

“What,” my father exclaimed. “Are you serious? This is not funny, young lady!”

“Yes…it…is,” was all my brother could muster in-between gasps for air.

In that moment my father realized that as sure as I was standing there, screaming at him with eyes wide open I was, in fact, asleep.

Being cut from the same cloth as my brother, the entire “conversation” began again, yet this time it included the curiosity of my father. He walked straight to us down the hallway leaving me dismayed by his escaped from the confines of the island kitchen. His bravery awed me silent. Determined to find a rational explanation for my agitation he started with logic. He asked me arithmetic questions, which I answered correctly. He asked what day it was, but that one stumped me. It was then that a mischievous smirk started across his face finally acknowledging my brother out of the corner of his eye as the master detective.

This time, as a team, my brother and father tried to convince me out of my rusty room. My father offered to carry me back and forth down the hallway to prove that I was imagining things, but my eyes and mind never met his. I was far too consumed by the pastel flower vines growing out of the wallpaper on either side of him. He sat down Indian-style next to my brother, now resting his back against the door frame. I got down on my hands and knees to examine the carpeting closer convinced they were both floating there just waiting for me to plunge head first into nonexistence. They stared at me. I stared at the magic they somehow possessed.

They would be satisfied if even a single toe touched the deep blue carpeting of the hallway; but none would be satisfied that night. I no longer had any reason to go down the hallway as my father had somehow made it safely to me. Finally, after all their efforts of reasoning and mutual enjoyment, my father sent my brother back into his room, both now laughing at their utter defeat. He simply turned to me and said, “Honey, go back to bed. And for God’s sake, turn off that blanket. You’re fried.”

And so I did.

I don’t remember the trip back to bed and it’s likely my father turned off the blanket himself, but I woke the next morning to the bright sunshine and ever-present whirl of my ceiling fan. As I walked toward the kitchen, pass my brother’s room, he jumped out at me with an, “Ah ha!” I looked at him like he’d lost his mind and kept walking without thought or consequence of carpeting, linoleum and wallpaper. He must have been waiting there all morning for that moment. His laughter after I passed could have echoed around the world.

I never slept with an electric blanket again. I can only wonder in the thirty years that have passed, living alone for most of them, how many door jams in the mishmash of life I’ve stood at, toes halted at the dividing line, in false fear or hallucination.

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Homesick: A Geographical Whirlwind (fiction)

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I’m happy to be back. After a two-year return to my birth state some of the things I disliked most are now the most comforting, familiar. I don’t even mind the thickness of the humidity in the air. This place is teaming with life, from the neighborhood cats to the wasp that occasionally gets trapped on the screen porch. I don’t even mind the bugs so much. There is a plethora. Except for the cockroaches. I never missed those.

I made it to D.C. where to my great disappointment it was just as humid as Florida. I still knew no relief. I hadn’t traveled anywhere else. D.C. was more conservative than I imagined in my liberal leaning mind, though there was that one time when they put up fences all around town for the G-8 summit. This was before the permanent barricades installed after 9/11. I felt naked in a tank top. The attire of the vast majority were full suits, ladies too. I only went to one so-called protest where people sat on the lawn of the National Mall smoking pot. The first time anyone asked me if I had been to the mall, I thought it an odd question because who has never been to a shopping mall? But that’s what the locals call it, The Mall. Just like locals call it the National Airport, not Reagan. It has several metro stops. The first time I rode in a metro I stuck my hand in the doors as they were closing, thinking they operated like the elevators I’ve always known. But the doors did not open back up, trapping my arm. Passengers pried the doors back open so I could jump on before the underground bullet took off. It frightened me, then, but I eventually found myself nodding off on long metro rides soothed by the sway of the cars. I walk too slow for this city.

From my stay in the Arizona desert, the still, yet crisp air gave me sweet relief from the humidity of my life and silken hair-days. Tumbleweeds, thick with thorns, collect against fencing barren of any spectacular pop of color. Bestowed upon me is an appreciation for the floral hues of Florida. I didn’t even know tumbleweeds really existed. I thought they were simply made up for movies. My whole life I lived under this misconception. I don’t know why. No one ever told me they didn’t exist. And grass! How green the Florida grass grows and how fast. I never felt the true meaning of the word “lush” until I returned home after seeing some of the world.

Arizona is where hands dry out and skin painfully cracks. I have never used so much moisturizer. The static electricity is unavoidable in winter. I was always shocking my poor, sweet kitty cats. And they sometimes shocked back, all accidental by everything involved, except the static. I enjoyed the convenience and security of carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.

The occasional snow in the southwest is made more confusing because the standard road procedure to lay down small pebbles for traction, not salt to melt the snow away, causing pebbles to spit up from the road. I had to get my whole windshield replaced each year I was there. Where Nor’easters are common they have the practical sense to use salt. That’s on the other side of the country.

The ticks up north are unbearable in their numbers. Entire neighborhoods are being hazed in masses with the most poisonous insecticides, yet it cannot keep them in check. Misquotes, while always troublesome and annoying, are easily deterred by screening.

In the northwest, it just isn’t available. They just don’t do it. They have bugs, too, though the high altitudes and cooler temperatures keep the population limited. I just can’t believe everyone doesn’t see the benefit of screening. In Florida, it can’t be lived without.

I never thought I’d hear myself say that I’m happy to be back. No state tax. It was all I could do to get out of here at the age of twenty-four. It took much longer than expected.

The Midwest is pleasant in the springtime. I visited once before spending five months in Missouri, which many affectionately call Misery. Humid still, but worse with the mixture of unrelenting heat without a sea breeze in summertime. The sweat pooled in the heels of my boots.

Chicago, oh, Chicago! I stayed at The Drake, like Princess Diana, though I’m sure in a different suite. I was working as a cocktail waitress in a dive bar next to a pizza place in a strip mall when the news of her violent death came over every station on the TV sets. But that wasn’t in Chicago. The Drake was and the Blackhawks define Chicago, now a dynasty close to royalty. The Europeans have their royals, South and Latin Americans and many in the far East have their dictators or religious heads of states. In the U.S. we have athletes worshipped just the same, if not more.

I missed Little China in a brush with New York, but not in Portland. The statuesque entrance was less colorful than the Little China in D.C.

Then off abroad to Germany. It’s cleanliness admirable. Every view was of the picturesque Bavarian southern country-side with fields of flowers in bloom to be used in the production of diesel fuels. It’s the Alabama of Germany. The odors from the sugar beet factory offset the pleasantry, and, then, even further, by the abrupt smell of manure in the planting season. The spargel really is worth it.

The Netherlands, land of tulips and channels, with outdoor cafes in the center of town and a striking width for bicycle lanes, is only improved upon by the ease of public transportation, even if pick-pocketing is a nuisance for foreign travelers. The shots at the bar of the brilliant turquoise “Liquid Cocaine” (in translation) almost overtakes the hash and mushroom experience. But the Van Gogh Museum is not to be missed. A canned jigsaw puzzle of a famous work, though I cannot now recall which, still waits to be pieced together. It holds a place of honor on my bookshelf as a memento from the trip. I am inspired to re-visit the Salvador Dali Museum in nearby St. Petersburg. That’s St. Petersburg in Florida, not Russia.

On the bookshelf, too, sits the piggy bank resembling an Alice-In-Wonderland-like bunny bought in a thrift store. It contains various versions and forms of European currency – the euro, the kuna – oops, I forgot about the Canadian penny (that is generally accepted by most stores in the United States). I wonder if this is more a reflection of the common physical characteristics of our pennies than on the value placed upon the economic stability of our northern neighbors.

The kuna hails from Croatia whose coastline is made of colossal granite mountain ranges and canyons with cliffs that drop right off into the Adriatic Sea. The Grand Canyon is less impressive.

Slovenia is small and poor.

The architecture of Vienna will take your breath away at every turn. The shopping District is like no other. Its magnitude like no other. My addiction to Swarovski starts here, though fine crystal is also made elsewhere, but this is the crème-de-la-crème. Their jewelry dazzles and sparkles.

I skipped France because I wasn’t with a man I loved, which I believe is necessary when visiting Paris for the first time.

On the Charles Bridge in the Czech Republic, Prague is like Vienna, but dirtier, sexier. It has an astronomical clock tower in the center of the town square. I have my portrait done by a chalk artist. It all feels so Bohemian in the moment. His rendition is not of my liking, but I pay for it anyway. Do I really look like that? Now, I’m someone with a portrait of myself. How pretentious of me, but it, too, is a cherished souvenir. This one stays turned around facing the wall in the back of my closet.

Over the year since I’ve been back I’ve lounged on the deserted, sandy beaches of the Space Coast with the Atlantic Ocean crashing at my feet. This is my favorite spot. One day, I’ll return as I ended up in Key West this time around. Four square miles is too small for such a great number to live and visit. I never partied on Duval Street as I don’t drink and once spent New Year’s Even down there when I was a teenager. I don’t expect it could get any better. I miss the saltwater taffy, but now trade relations could open up with Cuba a mere 90 miles offshore.

San Diego brings temperate weather and personalities. A coastal cousin, in the least, full of Navy ships.

Now I’m at the University of Tampa campus, a pristine oasis with prime channel-side real estate. Silver, spun minarets reflect the shining sun. I now feel the word “nestled” when thinking about the buzzing city of Tampa one block over. I hope to be well-written one day and that my works can be used as examples for Spartans to come. The Spartans in Tampa, not in Greece.

I haven’t made it by there yet, but fancy the cuisine.

Home again, domestic. I had to move away to appreciate it. Now I’m back, but not for good.  Anywhere I go in the world I can look back and Florida is home. I wish I had a stone globe in my study, containing a hollowed-out space for a spirits compartment. Haphazardly, I’d slowly spin the cold stone and just wonder where this story of mine is going to end up next. I wonder about the screen porches, humidity, the exchange rate, the bug population, the cultural heritage, is it landlocked? I wonder.

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