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There is a rather cliched phrase that states that some people live double lives. I have always found that to be an intensely misleading statement and I guess you can call it a bit of a pet peeve of mine. No one leads "double lives", they just lead fucking lives. That those lives are more complex that the singular one-track existence of lesser creatures shouldn't be a matter of duplicity, but of common sense. No one is exactly who they seem to be.

Julio is one of those who they would later say lived a double life, but it is no more true for him than anyone else. The difference in this case is that there are two of him, rather than one.

Perhaps it was a development caused by his utter mediocrity. Everything from his mind to his personality to his face was completely average. Even his name is forgettable, and elicits annoying references to schoolyards and outdated musical classics.

It was in this space of utter pointlessness that I was born. I started out as a craving for something more and I grew and grew. I fed on his ambitions and I gave him some much-needed confidence, even if that certainly was false. I rebuilt him into a character and I led him to seek those little bits of comfort to soothe away the pains of his life.

I guess you could call me an addiction – or that is what the doctors called me the first time he landed himself in the hospital with an overdose and a dozen track marks – but I have a name. I am Julio. I am more Julio than he is, and I have set him on every path of life he stepped on since the moment I began to seduce his will.

What makes it so delicious is that over time he began to act on his own and I would just push him along. A little nudge here and there, an assurance or a craving. But he came up with all of the main ideas himself.

Today is another example of my influence, but with one minor shift in the routine: he has really fucked up this time.

I had been watching them fighting through the window of his mind, looking through his eyes. He was shaky and desperate, needing a hit and needing it bad. It was the first stirring of a withdrawal that I think he and I both knew he couldn't survive. Or at least that he didn't want to try.

Alvarro was more sympathetic than most of the dealers that slung the hard stuff. Maybe that had to do with the fact that he and Julio have been friends for so long, or guilt because he was the one who shot him up for the first time. Whatever it was, he seemed to have a blind spot when it came to his buddy.

More than once he had given hits – or even hooked him up for days at a time – on the promise that he would get him the money. In the beginning Julio was good for it and always managed to get him the cash. But that was before I really moved in and put my mark on the place. Lately, he wasn't good for much more than stealing and pissing himself.

I had always wondered what straw would break the camel's back, and it turned out that it was the monkey on Julio's. Not only had he stolen a number of items from Alvarro's prima a few days before to pawn, but he had taken that money to his friend for his usual juice.

Well, this little act of treachery and audacity appeared to be too much for the put-upon dealer to take. The fight had been intense and every second fought sparked tempers to hotter and hotter flames. By the time it had become physical I had honestly expected that Julio would be killed. Not that that meant much to me...I had been leading him to his death for years, and it seemed just as fitting that the reason be homicide as by one of his numerous overdoses.

But now, looking out through Julio's manic gaze at the bloody knife in his hand and his long-time friend gurgling wetly on the ground before him, I have to admit that I am surprised. I have always had quite a grip on the young man but I never would have expected him capable of murder.

Of course, you might say that he hasn't murdered yet; Alvarro is still breathing, albeit not very well, and his waxen face is horrified but alert. Yet, I am positive that Julio will not risk taking the responsibility by calling an ambulance and – yes, there he goes! He is tearing the place apart now, looking for the drugs and whatever money he can find.

He keeps glancing back; the poor man looks absolutely agonized. It is no wonder... Alvarro's breathing is getting even more labored and he is making some horrible sounds. He is moving but just barely. He doesn't seem to have much strength left in him.

Yes, that's right, Julio, keep searching. Ah, and so you found it! Good boy. Never mind him, he is already gone; the life is leaving his eyes. He should never have confronted you in the first place; he should have just given you what you wanted. After all, you have done much for him in the past and you would have paid him back.

Now, just relax and do what you need to. Nothing can bring him back now and you wouldn't want his death to be for nothing, would you? There you are, tie the tubing tight... don't let your shaking hands ruin your chance. The needle is pressing in now, doesn't it feel good? Doesn't it feel right?

That's better. There is nothing left to do but get out of there. Put on his coat, that's right; hide the blood. Don't forget the drugs, you will need them later. Trust me.
Written for the :iconscreamprompts: Prompt #15. The prompt itself is listed below. The title, for those of you not a fan of music from then 60's and 70's, refers to a song by Simon & Garfunkle.

The prompt
"... I had been watching them argue through the window..."

How this prompt can be used
It can:

start off the piece
be in the middle somewhere
be near the end
be IMPLIED but not said (show, don't tell, yadda yadda yadda)

Non-negotiable rules
Must be in first person
should have internal tension on the part of the watcher
be between 500 and 1000 words
better blow my mind with a small word count like that
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The Substitution Paradigm

Ramu came up to our table. Glaring at me, he said, “You either order something or get out.”
I glanced away from the threat, and turned to Raghav. A single drop of sweat was running down his brow. Ramu saw that too and identifying his prey, he sprung.

Swinging around, he faced Raghav, “Order something or get out.”

Then Ramu just stood there. It was not as if we had rehearsed it before hand, but he knew. He knew that my co-occupants generally folded in the first round. Only the stout made it to second level, but they too buckled under Ramu’s relentless gaze.

I always had a policy of not spending on other people’s problems. My purse was already slimmer than the waist of a size zero model. So, I simply sat there, watching the lion circling his prey.

A few seconds later, the prey went down. “Two coffees”, Raghav said, wiping away the sweat with a handkerchief.

Ramu turned his head back, gave me a leering smile, and went back behind the counter. One of these days he would meet hi—

Raghav snapped his fingers in front my face, “Adi, focus!”

“I am all ears, bhai, all ears.” I muttered mentally giving Ramu a left-upper cut.

Raghav began once more, “Like I said, I met this girl online and …”

I waved him off, not again, “Let me summarize. You met this wonderful girl online and you two exchanged pleasantries. While chatting, you managed to exchange numbers too and at the same time you agreed to stay in touch with each other. For six months you talked on the phone with each other.” I mentally ticked off the points. “And now she is coming to Mumbai. But you two never exchanged photos. She wants to meet you and you are scared witless. Am I correct?”

Raghav nodded, his toady eyes peering at me through prescription glasses. No wonder he was scared to meet her. If I were him, I would be scared to see myself in the mirror, let alone meet a girl. A small beetle crawled near my foot. My my, it bore a strong resemblance to Ravi —

Ramu slammed two cups on the table in his trademark style. Ignoring him, I picked up a chipped cup, and sat back into the wooden chair.

Nonchalantly, I took a sip, “What is it you want me to do?”

“You have to meet her, Adi. Find out if she is really interested in me.”

I coughed wholeheartedly. “You want me to meet her? Why me, yaar?”

“You are the only true friend I have got, Adi. Please? Pleeease?”

Elongated pleases had always made me melt. Why, one day, in fourth standard I had given up my chocolates just because a girl—

“Pleeeeeeeeeeeease?”

Now this was a done deal. Two pleases! I had done more for less! I nodded with full enthusiasm.  A burning sensation told me I had forgotten about the cup of coffee in my hand, but I kept on nodding.  Two pleases!

With a wave, Raghav took out a twenty rupee note and put it on his table. Beaming, he squeezed out of the door.

Across the store, Ramu coughed. I ignored him. He coughed again. Again, I ignored him. He coughed again.

“What?!” I turned around.

“Nothing, I just have a cold, that’s all.” Ramu grinned manically as I returned to my free coffee.

A couple of unacknowledged coughs later, Ramu called out from behind the counter, “You going tomorrow to meet her?”

I turned around, “Why do you care?”

“Nahi, I was just wondering about the fare to the meeting place. Too bad you forgot to take it from him.” Ramu let out a booming laugh.

I raced the Ravi-beetle to the door.

The next evening, I sat in the Marine Drive, in front of the Indian Airways building. Raghav had told me that she would meet me here, and that she would be wearing a black skirt. I was wearing a white tee-shirt as instructed. Raghav had also mentioned something about a red rose, but roses cost money, and I never spend money on other people’s problems.

Half an hour and three slaps later, I was still sitting all alone with no signs of Reshma. I was in half a mind to get out of there, when a voice spoke up behind me, “Raghav?”
I turned around to see the most beautiful lady in the whole wide world.

It was as if an angel had dropped down from the heavens. She seemed to glow in the setting sun, her white skin sparkling. Her beautiful brown eyes stirred up a long lost sensation in my heart. She wore a white blouse and a black skirt. Reshma!

I managed to stammer, “Re.. Resh.. Reshma?”

She smiled, her shiny black hair shimmering in the dimming light. My heart hadn’t skipped so many beats ever since the last India-Pakistan match.

“Who else?” She answered, her voice running over me like a breath of fresh air.

She slid her hand into mine and for a while we silently stood there, watching the sunset. Then as if on a cue we started to stroll. All that time, she kept on chattering away. As for me, it was enough to hear her magical voice though at times I would nod now and then to show her that I was listening. Two hours passed by like a beautiful song on a loop. Pausing at a flower shop, I bought her a red rose. An hour later, both of us reluctantly said goodbye at the Churchgate station.

When I reached the coffee shop, I found Raghav waiting for me, sitting on the door step.

“So?”

“So what?” I replied as I wrestled the door open.

“How was she?”

“She didn’t turn up.” I lied as I squeezed in.

“She didn’t? You sure you waited for her?” said Raghav as he also tried to squeeze inside.

“Er.. yeah I did. But she never turned up. Sorry, yaar.” Entering the shop, I shook my head solemnly.

“She said she would. Why didn’t she?!” Raghav cried out, loud enough to wake up Ramu who was dozing in a corner.

Two chipped coffees later, I managed to convince Raghav that his lady love had not turned up at all. He left an unhappy man, but I had other things on my mind.

The next day again I stood at the same place as before, waiting for the love of my life to turn up.

“Raghav?!”

I looked back to see a strange woman staring at me.

A shout went behind me, “Adi!” I turned around to see Raghav huffing towards me.

“Raghav!” Another shout went up behind me. I turned to see Reshma running towards me.

“Reshma?”  I called out.

I turned to find that Raghav had come up to me, “Adi.”

Behind me, the strange woman was now speaking, “Raghav?” I turned to face her.
Reshma also drew up beside me. I turned around, my head now giddy with all this turning, “Reshma?”

The strange woman also turned back, “Smita?”

“Raghav?”

“Reshma?”

“Smita?”

“Adi?”

“Adi?!”


“Smita?!”

“Reshma?!”

“Raghav?!”

“Adi.”

“Smita.”

“Raghav.”

“Reshma.”

I put up my hand. “Enough! From left to right, Raghav, Adi, Reshma, Smita.”

Raghav shook his head, “No no. From left to right, Raghav, Reshma, Smita, Adi.”

Reshma cut him out, “What? No! From right to left, Reshma, Raghav, Adi, Smita.”

The strange woman was now shaking her head, “From left to right, Reshma, Adi, Raghav, Smita.”

Perplexed, I called out in general, “Reshma?”

The strange woman put up her hand, “Reshma.”

I turned to the old Reshma, who wore a sheepish grin, “Smita.”

I pointed to Raghav and said, “Raghav.” Pointing towards myself, I said, “Adi.”

I looked at Reshma-who-was-now-Smita, “Why this charade?”

“Well,” the strange-woman-who-was–now-Reshma answered, “I asked her to test the waters for me.”

Raghav jumped up excitedly, his glasses bouncing on his nose, “Why me too! I asked Adi to do the same!”

They both looked at each other for a while before Raghav caught her hand and they both walked away.

After they had gone out of earshot, I looked at Smita and asked, “So what now?”

Later that day, Ramu met his match at the store.
Glossary:

    1Bhai: Brother. Mostly used as a colloquial term amongst friends.
    2Yaar: Friend
    3Nahi: No




Constructive Feedback Requested!

Q. Did you find the story funny?
Q. Did you understand all of it?
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EDIT: Woohoo! First ever DD for Literature! Third overall! Yay!

Thanks to :iconneurotype: for featuring it and :iconunseenpoet: and :icondonboscoe: for suggesting it!
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The mist obediently hovers within the binding circle, coming once more and tamely to my call.  How raucous it was when first I summoned it!  How loudly it roared its name to the ceiling—how silent were the heavens that night.  But now it is silent when it arrives, as silent as the heavens when I call, for I have bade it so.  With it comes the sulfurous reek of its home and its own pets—a pair of tiny bat-winged imps no larger than my hand—and a deepening of the shadows in my basement conjury.

The fool has cast his spells of summoning again, and never were more clichéd words uttered than in this room.  He thinks I am silent because he ordered me to be; I am silent because I know that were I to speak, I would reveal the true depth of his idiocy.  And that simply would not do.  Not now that I've invested so much time into making this little room homely.  My "little" pets—if the stupid scholar knew their true shapes, he would die of fright—are seeking out more hiding spots, from which to pursue the mission I have given them.  Sadly, I cannot hide all of their shapes through the bindings the heavens bestowed on me; the shadows in the basement belong to my pets.

Now the creature begins to speak—nay, to sing!—in its horrible, throaty voice and offer me all the gifts of hell in exchange for one tiny fragment of my soul.  I almost agreed the first time—almost, but I remembered the writings of my disappeared master, who told me never to agree to the first deal.  Demons are cunning creatures, he warned, and their best deal always comes when they have been cowed sufficiently.  My dear master, I have succeeded where you have not!  I shall master this demon Aakhav, and through him receive my immortal due!

Trot out the old infinite wealth for a bit of soul gig—does that ever work?  I would hope it doesn't.  Good, now he's rejected it and thinks himself oh so clever for seeing through the oldest trick in the book.  The fact that it's even in a book should tell him something, but no.  His master was at least passably clever, and figured out what I was up to before I could enact it.  Killed him and fed him to my hounds.  He wasn't worth any sort of eternal punishment.  This one isn't worth any punishment at all.  Once he comes down the next time—probably in three days' time during the height of the lunar eclipse, because that supposedly affects the power of his nonsense syllables—he'll punish himself more than adequately at the reveal of his own stupidity.

My own preparations have been made, though I am careful to never say as much, lest the demon thwart me.  The mist stirs oddly, as though hearing some infernal call.  But it cannot answer, for my circle holds it fast.  I can almost see eyes within its mist, blinking at me.  Eyes, and then teeth.  But it doesn't dare to threaten me, not when I hold its true name.  I have but to speak the name of Aakhav'nalish, and it will bow and scrape to my every whim.  We'll see who's laughing then.

I can't suppress a yawn.  No, really, I can't.  I stopped listening to his inane ramblings four "summons" ago.  He should be shutting up soon, thankfully.  I could really use a trip to the loo.  My most recent pets have already discretely hidden themselves behind those suits of armor near the staircase, and more importantly, within reflection of the mirror at the nearest landing.  He'll just "reinforce" the "wards" he thinks he's embedded just on the edge of the landing.  Honestly, this one is just the worst catch I've ever landed, not even worth mentioning.  People used to be able to use real magic, you know?  Yes, yes, the expected drama and recoil to the supposed first half of my true name.  Like I would actually tell him that.  His master was smart enough to look it up instead of simply "commanding it" from me.  Honestly.

It will obey my commands tomorrow night, when I shall summon it before the King and all his fine ladies.  We'll cause quite a stir there, and fear of the demon shall cause the King and his councilmen to give me my rightful position as the chief scholar.  Every book I have read says that in the olden days, it was a mark of passage to have a properly controlled demon.  A mark of passage and a requirement of advancement to the highest levels of scholarly nobility.  But for now, I need to bind its essence to my prepared demon bottle.  I won't have the time for a proper ritual tomorrow night, since there won't be a single unwatched corner, and I need silence to perform it.  Opening the bottle with it bound will call it just as well, providing I bind it correctly.  It's a finicky spell that I've spent weeks researching.

Stupid little scholar, I can hear your thoughts.  You know that they abandoned that practice for a reason, don't you?  Of course you don't, and you also don't know that they now train certain mundanes to sniff out actual binds, of which you have exactly zero.  Good work on the bottle, though you missed out on the one ingredient that would make it actually work rather than requiring me to play along, as usual.  Overdramatic resistance as I slide most of what I am permitted to reveal into the bottle—which, of course, is exactly what he doesn't want.  But I leave an illusion of the mist that represents me behind, so that he suspects nothing.

Tomorrow night will be the best of my life.

It certainly will.
Demon 1
Scholar 0

I think we can all see how this one ends.

EDIT: ...did I seriously just get a DD on this after a week of it being up? Wow. Thanks guys.
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The book still sings to me, and that's when I pull it from under my bed and stroke the cover. But I never open it, because I know what happens if I do it wrong. It's still blank; but only of ink. I know the secret, you see. It's how I understand the songs, and know the melodies it echoes up to me, through time. There are impressions hidden in the pages- spilled mead and raucous laughter, summer sunshine and frost on dead leaves. The last time I tried feeling them from start to finish, I passed out from the sheer weight of knowledge, and it left my brain scrambled for ages.

I found out things about my past and my family's past. I have Irish on my dad's side of the family, stretching back generations. I'd have said I was surprised when I found out, but that would have been a lie.

People say I've changed since last spring. My face is thinner, my eyes are brighter, I've been "brought out of myself." What they don't know is that I've actually met myself. I've taken to wearing rich, deep colours. Once, I bought a red velvet dress with gold trim, and when I put it on and twirled in front of my mum, she said I looked like a Celtic princess. I didn't say "That was the idea", but I thought it, secretly, in my head. And smiled.

                                            ****

So my past caught up with me. I have the other girl's memories in my head, but the irritating thing is that I can feel them without knowing what they are. I catch them in dreams, little snippets of image and scent and noise. There were Romans, once, and fire. Not like the campfires I've learnt how to build, but a huge, roaring wall of flame, like the ones in Australia. I woke up coughing and sweating.

There was a group of boys in another, four of them, and they all had the strange shimmer-flicker of werelight green to their irises as well. That was the dream I cried for when I woke up, because they were so close, and gone so soon. I was happy when I was with them.

There are other things, besides the dreaming. Things I couldn't do before are autonomic now. I categorise scents and sounds into little boxes, without even having to think about it, notice little stains and tears in clothing, and in-discrepancies in movements. Whenever someone comes near me, I orientate myself as if for a fight. Apart from these rather worrying developments, I've had a sudden urge to get exercise. This is most certainly not normal for a 21st century teenager; or, actually, suddenly being able to run several miles cross-country, for example, is not normal, and nor is the yen I have for the woods.

But I go with it, because if I didn't, then I would never be happy again.

Four months later, I decided to go boy hunting.

                                              ****

I was professional about it, like the other me. I chose a place in the book, slid my thumbs inside first, took a deep breath and flipped it open.

Fur, shadows, arrow, black, claw, moon, grey, breeze, night time, running, hunting, deer, leap, jaws, snap.  

Close. So close.

I opened it again, a little further on. This time the flood of impressions was slower. Crackling fire, a hand, a man's hand, throwing another log on and sending copper sparks dancing in the air, cold stars above and a blanket round my shoulders, low voices heard through tired ears, the taste of chill and the feel of a sword by my side. I concentrated, and the image swam into focus. It was lying on the ground, half covered by a fold of material, but I could see the hilt. Bronze coloured and patterned with tiny flowers, and definitely, irrefutably, mine. I guided my once-eyes forcibly up across the fire, pushing against the tide of time.

Green eyes, under winged, dark brows in a pale skinned face, and dark hair lapping at his temples. Elbow rested casually on his knee, with the elastic elegance born of fighting and living wild. I couldn't keep this up much longer, so I looked round the circle, drinking them in. White blonde hair and deep blue eyes, brown hair and aquiline profile, black hair and loud laugh. I know you. I know all of you.

And then I had to jerk my head out of the book, and press tissues beneath my nose to absorb the blood.

                                             ****

I took things further, too far. I wasn't even certain that they existed, but, oh, how I prayed they did! If I dreamt of them, if they're in the book, then surely they exist? They must do, because if they didn't, I didn't know what I'd do.

I managed to conceal most of my nosebleeds in the girl's toilets, hiding in a cubicle until the bleeding stopped. I was a fool in form one day, though. I had the book on the desk, half-hidden by my bag and my sleeve, when a gout of blood gushed from my nose and over the pages. Within seconds, the desk was dripping.

The school had me rushed to hospital, where I was put through a whole Weakest Link quiz about whether I had ever broken my nose, hit my head, taken drugs. I decided that telling them I'd been sending my mind through time was probably not the right thing to do.

                                             ****

I laid off the search for the next few months, and they put the bleeding down to school stress. It's amazing how that covers everything from schizophrenia in a really extreme case, to theft. There were still bloodstains on the page, but thankfully they barely obscured the impressions. It was probably just as well I stopped for a bit, because, to be honest, I had no idea how to find the boys, even if they did exist.

During the Easter holidays, I went to the National Heritage Park. It's just outside the town, about ten miles down the road, so I started early and took my own sweet time. About a third of the way there, it started drizzling, but since that would probably amplify the impressions, I didn't mind.

Once you climb over the stile by the side of the road, you can walk over low hills until you come to a flat-ish area, which drops away on the right to a path some fifty feet below, covered in brown gravel. The cliff itself is clay, with ferns sprouting from it at random intervals. The day I was up there, the drizzle had put water-pearls on the wide grass blades, and made the heather dripping and dank. The ferns were glorious, though, emerald green and glossy from the water.

The cliff begins to climb, and there's a line of trees that stretch across the crest of the hill, making a screen. Behind the screen, if you're brave enough, there's a low wall of stones and mortar. It's actually the remains of an old fort, and in the summer, kids play soldiers there, and tell ghost stories in the evenings.

It was empty that day, and the whole park was lonely under sullen clouds. In one corner there's a half circle where the wall is a little higher, and that's where there was a tower once. I settled myself on the sand there, and rested the book, still shut, on my knees. I tapped my fingers on the leather for no obvious reason, and then flipped it open.

Immediately, the impressions hit me between the eyes. I dimly felt my head flop back and rest on the stone behind me, watching the images before me. It moved quickly, but jerkily, like old videos fast forwarded.

Trees sprang up and rotted, stars wheeled, sun and moon chased each other across the sky for what felt like forever. And then, with heart-attack suddenness, normal play resumed.

There was a town, built of wattle and daub and dry stone walls. Stone rose up around me, re-building the hall. There were spears and shields hung on iron hooks, and wooden tables and benches. People in Saxon clothing passed before me, lean, bristly dogs tussling before a roaring fire. There were trampled reeds beneath my feet. This was impressions on a major scale.

I stood up, and moved like a ghost through the fort, the book open in my hands. It took me out of the vast wooden doors, and down the mud street. No one paid me any attention, but I hadn't expected them to. There were woods on the far side of the village, and the hut closest to them had a scrap of fluttering, woven cloth across the doorway. It seemed brighter and more solid than any of the other buildings, and I walked to it as though in a dream. Which, technically, I was.

I pushed the cloth aside with one arm and stood there, trying to see in the gloom. There was furniture against the walls, and an empty fireplace in the centre.

There were also four pairs of eyes, watching me. That threw me any way, but then I saw the green glow building in them and I froze. They shifted a little, and I wasn't sure if it was to see me better, or to spring. The one closest to me on the left had sharp features and silken brown hair. His friend opposite was white blonde, and his hand was slowly moving towards a dagger by his feet. The third, black haired, spoke in ancient Gaelic, but I understood the meaning, if not the words.

"A faerie, maybe? Shall we kill it?"

"I'm not a faerie." The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. They barely reacted to that, but the last one leant forwards so his elbows were on his knees.

"I know."

I shivered as his voice echoed in my ears, and then I realised he'd spoken English. His voice was familiar, and evoked a memory of leather and lime, and sea salt.

He stood up, and strode towards me, stopping just before the edge of the fireplace. His eyes were green like summer, and his hair was loam brown. There was a tiny frown on his eyebrows, which I suspected reflected mine. He was staring at me as though he'd seen me before but wasn't sure where. His eyes drifted downwards, to my hands, and when he saw the book, he started and looked back up my face.

A name swam into my head, along with the sensation of sunshine on my skin, and wet leaves, and laughter, and learning how to fight, and I blurted it out. "Robin!"

He swayed, and then the pages of the book begin to blow in a non-existent breeze, and our surroundings changed. The walls fell away and became stone pillars, and he was wearing a Roman toga, then chain mail, then old fashioned, Victorian clothes. I took a trembling step forwards, saw his mouth open in a shout I couldn't hear, and then I was tumbling, the book snapped shut and I was falling past a clay slope, ferns whipping at my skin.

                                            ****

When I opened my eyes, I was looking at the white-and-institutional-blue ceiling. There was the sound of hospital bustle coming from miles away, and the much closer sound of breathing, not mine,

I turned my head, and the book was lying on the bedside table, alongside my bag and one, long stemmed fern leaf, still fresh.

I looked round, into eyes the colour of sunshine through leaves.

"Hello, princess."
By popular demand :)

I'm not sure i like this style, since i think it's quite different to my normal, but it's good to stretch yourself, i suppose. i realise that in the first one, it might have seemed like the narrator was a boy, which i put down to the different style.

hope you like.
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-

It was Sunday night when Geo climbed into my room from the fire escape. I was painting my toenails and listening to the sounds of the city: police sirens, pulsating bass, the kids in my tenement running guitar riffs back and forth with the street musicians on the sidewalk. That was the year I turned sixteen and took a two-month vow of silence to honor the death of autumn. A premature snow had robbed the season of its delicate warmth and color, forcing the maples to weep their leaves into the gutters. All that rainwater, all that decay. How could anyone create when October was dying outside their windows? Pete and Jake practiced acoustic that entire month. The rest of us were too fragile to play in suicide weather, when the right chords might move us to open our veins.

Geo sat down next to me, examining my bottle of red lacquer. "'To Eros is Human,'" he read, and rolled his eyes. "I'll keep that in mind."

I offered him my shoebox of nail polish. He selected a purple the color of opium poppies. I uncapped a pen and wrote on his arm as he painted tiny swastikas on his nails:

Why aren't you at the Church?

The gay club down the street. Its clientele was stylishly flamboyant, all checkered newsboy caps and French cigarettes and silk suit jackets with pinstriped lapels. Geo's kind of place. That was where he met Roger That, his current boyfriend, and Inga, a strange Russian waif whose arms were stained copper with henna. She'd recently bleached all the color out of her waist-length hair, which was wiry from years of electroshock therapy. Geo loved braiding that hair, feeling the strands crackle between his fingers. Inga never let anyone else touch her. "Earth element absorbs lightning," she said. "Geo means 'of the ground.'"

Geo was born Charles George DeWing. We'd called him Charlie until he heard his name in street-context; Heroin Charlie, Charlie who'd pay anything to kiss Sweet Lady H. It sounded ugly on the lips of his dealers. Now he introduced himself as Geo and shot up as Charlie, so he could feel clean at least half of the time. I wanted to ask him if it really worked that way, achieving transcendence by severing his egos. Amputation of the psyche sounded like it destroyed a lot more than it repaired.

Geo read my question and shrugged at me. "It's a stay-at-home night. Sometimes, you know, it just feels good to sit still."

Outside, Pete picked out a wobbly, caterwauling solo on his twelve-string, immortalizing himself in hundred harried echoes. Pete was the best guitarist in the neighborhood. Geo and I had known him since we were children, before we had Kate on bass, Jake on backup guitar, and Kyle Smile singing like a huge light in a dark room. Our collective sound was like a puzzle piece snapping into place. Unaccompanied, Pete's music was adept and lonely, fading up into the sky like an unfettered spirit.

Geo stopped painting his nails and looked at my vanity case. "Do you have any concealer?"

I checked my drawers. My mom worked the cosmetics counter at the corner drug store, and she brought home different colors every time the season changed. I still had all my autumn bronzers and dark orange blushes, too vibrant for the ivory of Geo's complexion. He was a winter. I found an oval compact full of chalk-colored Pancake and tossed it to him.

"Thanks," he said. He fished out the sponge, licked it, and began patting the makeup onto his face. He paused when he saw me staring. "I've got oral herpes," he explained. "The doily dykes were making fun of me. Gem kept kicking. Got a Morse code of stiletto prints on my ass. It says 'ow, fucking ow.'"

My eyesight was poor and I didn't wear glasses. In bohemia, it was usually better to be blind. I leaned close until I could see the bumps on his lips and chin, swollen constellations that no one would ever name. I picked up an eyeliner pencil and drew a large question mark on his arm.

He powdered it away, layering the false skin over the smooth slopes of his cheeks, under his jaw. He was prettier than me. He had lazy junkie eyes, heavily lidded with mascara and fatigue, a heart-shaped mouth that always trembled a little before he lied. No one in suburbia would put him in a glass cage for display, but he was urban-beautiful, rough around the edges. He carried enough baggage to stay real.

"I did it because some guy offered me a couple of joints," he said finally, lowering the compact. "How's that for you? He looked like a leper, and I still wanted to try it. I thought it would make me feel real."

"Geo," I said, before I thought to stop myself. Both of us blinked at the sound of my voice. Before Kyle Smile, Geo had been our lead vocalist, and I'd been backup. We'd learned to harmonize, to speak with the same inflections. Now even my own voice was startling. That meant Geo was eons away from me, from all of us, trying to find some quiet planet to explode on. A breathing time bomb. After all, he'd always talked like a ticking clock.

He picked a white stick of eyeliner from my vanity and traced the curve of his upper lip without a mirror. I didn't understand how he could know himself by heart without having any idea who he really was.

"I wish I could be you," he said. "I want to be able to keep my words inside of me. But everything I feel seems so uncontainable. Like if I don't get it out, it's going to crush me."

I was thankful he didn't expect an answer. In all my sorrow, I knew nothing of creatures who could put their mouths on someone's blisters, nurse their disease to feel human. I'd grounded myself well below the tightrope of self-destruction. There was no view here and the air wasn't as clear, but I didn't have to constantly fight for balance. That was something. It had to be something.

"Male," he said, and for a moment, I thought of licking stamps. Then he added, "It makes things different," and I knew, oh, the type that's harder to address.

A car alarm went off outside. Geo sat up right away and checked himself in the mirror again, smiled his slow smile, the family-portrait pose borne into his bones.

"Ready to face the world again," he said. He paused at the window, seeing all this in my eyes. "You understand it," he added, soft. "Wish I weren't so transparent."

I watched him leave the way he arrived, scaling the fire escape, watched as he touched the pavement and melted into the crowd. People parted for him; his presence was that colossal. And I thought, Diamonds are transparent. You didn't need to be opaque to be precious. Diamonds, so like everything else in the mess of our world, falling through the cracks of some unforgiving space, becoming lost. But strong enough to control their own mortality. They could only be destroyed by themselves.

-

Geo committed suicide last March, leaving his legacy in black eyeliner on the bathroom mirror. As befitted a bohemian of his caliber, he went gracefully, but not without making one final stand: perched on the balcony of his tenement, he performed an epic soliloquy about the evils of nuclear warfare and carbohydrates. All sensitive cities resonate with doomed voices, and ours is no different, echoing with the songs and prayers and furies of a thousand faceless casualties. I hear Geo best in the early morning, when no one else is awake to eavesdrop.

There are few relics from our childhood, the shared history that gathers dust in the unknowable corners of our hearts. Our only photograph is severed into a jigsaw puzzle Jake made in shop class, unable to resist the delicious symbolism of self-reassembly.

Sometimes, when I'm alone, I open the box and pour the pale yellow pieces onto my countertop. I seek out the soft piece that bears the logo on Kyle Smile's shirt, building outwards from his heart, where everything began and ended. Peter snaps together cleanly, crisp and easy to complete, and I am next, auspiciously intact. Jake's black jacket blends in with the shadows. Kate is missing a piece. And then there's Geo. Geo's standing at the far end of the picture, smiling and barely there, comprised mostly of the sharp edges that Jake forgot to round off.

This is how my friends are now: I build them piece by piece, one fragment at a time, a smile, a wrist, a shoulder. Whole or not, we existed in the same slot of time, flawed, serrated, human in our incompletion. It's beautiful because I know it was never really like this. We were never so simple or easy to put together.

-
Partner piece to Why Peter is not a poet. Can you tell I wrote them in the same week? There's a disconnect between them now that I think I like, but it's been a while, so I'm only pleased to see these in the way of greeting an old friend. Though I suppose it's better that my words are friends instead of enemies now. Have made a few of those in my writing career, too. Haven't we all?

Cheers.

Edit: Thank you very, very much to ^neurotype for the Daily Deviation! I feel so honored and so inspired. Thanks for making my year.
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today, they're all talking about the fires.
the people on TV, the voices on the radio,
the mouths that open and whisper
and softly touch tongues.  even the sky is

revealing black plumes of smoke,
flaunting shameless and seductive curves.
the rain's been too dry and the lightning
isn't wet enough, panic is
rising out of control in this
burning city.  that's

not all;
we have a crisis on
our hands- the balloons are
running out of air and even

the experts don't really know why,
and on top of those sinking rubber toys

my soul is losing moisture
faster than the crackling grass under the duress of flame.
i'm starting to see the subtle luscious contours
of fumes,
surrounding me.

i might not exactly be news-worthy
but if i catch, then
the forest might too.


i'm considered a reasonable loss, however.
they heard it might storm tomorrow. and everybody knows
that means they'll be safe-
because they all talk about it.




it almost stormed-
the sky spat and then
thought better of it, we
aren't worth the little bit of sultry
liquid clinging to

his mouth.  (were i the sky
i would give you every strand of saliva i had;
press it into your tongue and cheeks,
leave traces against your hot skin.)

the birds are dying because of spite, choking
on ink smothered air as they
seek escape.  we're still determining
the root cause but birds don't know about things
like arsony, because they just aren't like us.

similar, but not the same.  they don't light
matches to gasoline with red lips
and smile as they burn each other down,
like you and i
will.


breathe, won't you
dear?  don't gasp in my hands,
don't choke,
don't choke,
please,
don't leave me here
like this.




now, proud headlines read- our firefighters are
confident that they
are breaking through.
the death blow is coming and the flames
will starve.

i think they are looking
in the wrong places.
the fire hides, but i see the smoke of her
growing passions, stretching out

and grasping at the edges of her hands, climbing
like a climax that leaves you gasping,
oh,

the gentle dip between her breasts
is in the man that desperately
grabs the five dollars
from my hand like a snake
with cinder coal fingers.

(and i don't know if his burning greed for
my change is calories or
booze or drugs or a roof.)  the smoulder of her open lips is
in the sweating, middle aged man
walking determinately

across the ash black street and hoping
it burns an inch off his round gut,
eventually.  a glimpse of her parted thighs slips like smoke
behind the nice looking

young man
walking down the street,
with the bag over his shoulder putting wrinkles in his
suit.


this feverish city
is still being burned.
NOTICE: there has been much editing.

are they good changes?
------------------------------------------

oh my... you are a strange little poem.

please please please give me feedback for this one!

did i do a good job piecing the parts together? does it flow, act as a single piece? are the fiction and reality working together? what do you think of this compared to my other works? is the imagery ok still? (i take pride in my imagery, i'd like it to still be considered good.) anything else you'd like to add?

i'm trying to move my poetry a bit. trying to add more hard lines and realism to my more fantastic imagery. (its not like i use fantasy... its just a bit more whimsical normally.) what do you think? its still my style, just... incorporating some more real life, i think. concrete, not just emotion. but did i add enough of the non-fiction into it?

its been an interesting project to write. (proudeyes did help me design the idea without knowing it... since her poetry has been evolving so beautifully recently :] )

hm. i think i need to work on what i do with my words.

---------
feedback, comments, and critiques are super wecome and appreciated :]
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“I want to be interred after I die,” Mr. Peters said. He made that clear to his family while he was still lucid, before old age and illness rendered him unintelligible. Seventy wasn’t that old, but he recognized the symptoms that were creeping up on his ailing body – the aches, the fatigue, the feeling of helplessness and despair. Despite his daughter’s attempts to assuage his concerns, he sensed his own mortality.

The worst part about dying, Mr. Peters thought, was what happened afterwards. Even since he was a small boy, he had been afraid of fire. He could never forget the scorching heat of the orange flames searing his skin, the dark billowing smoke entering his nostrils. The time that his house burned down, the fire almost took him with it. How ironic then, to escape the fire only to be fed into it after death.

So one day, he sat his son and daughter down after dinner. “I want to be buried whole,” he said, emphasizing the “whole”. “I do not want to be cremated. After I die, put my body in a coffin and lower it into the ground. As simple as that.”

His daughter Lucy gasped. “Don’t talk about that,” she said, flustered. “It’s unlucky.”

Mr. Peters waved her away with his hand. “Everybody dies sooner or later. I’m letting you know now so you can start preparing. No cremation. Understood?”

Lucy and his son John nodded their heads.

“Good,” Mr. Peters said. He stood up from his chair and made for the door. Suddenly, there was a stabbing pain in his chest. He groped for the back of his chair blindly, but failed, and collapsed onto the floor.

Within hours, Mr. Peters was dead.

 

If Mr. Peters was right about the inevitability of death, he was wrong about the simplicity of a burial. In the seventy years he had lived, more people had died and were buried while the land mass had stayed the same.

This was something Lucy Peters Green understood. It was with trepidation that she dialed the numbers of the cemeteries in the city, and her fear was realized when the caretakers told her that all the cemetery plots were full.

“You’re outdated, ma’am,” the caretakers told her. “No one buries their dead anymore. Everyone does cremation.”

Lucy hung up. She then proceeded to call the cemeteries outside the city. They were all but full too, with only a few plots available. Lucy bought a plot with her meager earnings despite its exorbitant price. A simple service was held, and the coffin that held the body of Mr. Peters was lowered into the ground and covered with soil. A tombstone was erected, and before she left, Lucy placed a wreath of yellow carnations on his grave. They were his favorite flowers.

                                                                        *

Who knew that it would be more expensive to die as time went on? But it makes sense, if you think about it.

                                                                        *

“Bury me…” the old man mumbled in his delirium. “…in the ground…I’m burning…”

His wife, his children, his grandchildren and two nurses scurried about him, applying cold compresses, squeezing his hand. To no avail. There was nothing they could do to bring old Mr. Scott out of his delirium.

“What to do…what to do,” muttered old Mrs. Scott as she squeezed her husband’s hand. “He wants to be buried, but that’s not possible…”

“Mom, we’ll have to cremate him. That’s the only option,” their son replied. “There is no more space. No one has been buried for years.”

Just then, the old man’s eyes popped open. His family gasped and all leaned towards the bed, anxious and eager at the same time.

“When I die…” the old man whispered in a moment of lucidity, “bury me in the ground, where I’ll be safe from the flames. Bury me whole…do not burn me…leave me in peace…” With that, Mr. Scott again fell into his delirium.

His wife and son looked at each other. “He has spoken,” she whispered.

“But burial is illegal,” the son protested.

Old Mrs. Scott shook her head. “You can’t deny a dying man’s last wish, especially if he’s your father. Charlie…”

Charlie Scott sighed. “Yes, Mom. We’ll figure something out.” He glanced at the body of his father ruefully. Seeing the gaunt face, outline of the bones stretching his paper-thin skin, the beads of sweat trickling down the face of the man he loved so dearly, Charlie knew that something had to be done.

 

 The caretaker led Charlie through rows and rows of graves, pausing here and there to assess their potential. Finally, he came to a stop in front of a sandstone marker. It was full of scratches, but Charlie managed to discern the name. Jonathan Peters, 1950–2020.

2020, Charlie thought, that was the year his father was born.

“No one visits this grave because the man has no living descendants,” the caretaker said.

Charlie paused to examine the spot. Weeds poked out from the soil, and a rotten stench wafted towards him from somewhere nearby. But it was the best he could do.

“Alright,” he said, and handed the caretaker the check. “You get the other half of the payment after this deal is completed.”

The caretaker nodded. A date and time was arranged.

After the caretaker went off, Charlie stood at the spot for a while longer. It was sad, he thought, how money could only buy this dilapidated plot in a cemetery in the middle of nowhere. He shook his head. If he were richer…

                                                                        *

The caretaker felt exhilaration and guilt at the same time. Exhilaration, because in his hand he held a check that contained more money than he had earned in a lifetime. Yet, he could not gaze at the coffin of Mr. Peters without a sense of pity. Poor man, he thought. It was too bad his children died without having children of their own. In this day and age, it was essential to have someone to guard the grave.

As he stood there wondering what to do, he suddenly hit upon a solution. With his newly earned money, he had Mr. Peters’ body cremated and scattered the ashes in the river. It was only the right way to pay respect to the body, he thought, satisfied with himself.

With his conscience clear, he bought a car, a brand new Ferrari, and drove it home to show his family. 

A story written for my school's literary magazine, with the prompt "underground".

critique: For some reason, sta.sh is not letting me add the link here, so I've put the link to my critique in the comments!

1. What are the themes that you feel are expressed in this story?
2. Does the story make sense? Do you get a sense of irony?
3. Does the story flow from one perspective to the other?
4. How is the characterization?
5. What do you think of the title?
6. Overall impressions? Any other comments?
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I don't know when we first went underground. I don't even know if it was one mass exodus, a swarm of mankind trickling through the earth's crust so vehement we carved our own caverns by the force of trampling feet, or whether it was a gradual process, perhaps even a repetitive one, a family here, a neighborhood there. For all I know, the echo of the damp subterranean machine has always reverberated off the cave walls, created long past by the Angels, who think of our well-being even while they shake their heads helplessly at our flaws.

They say that those who remained on the surface were raptured away in a great flash of light, like a million suns converted into raw energy all at once. While it was rumored once that the flash was our doing, our own horrid creation, we all know better now. It was the Maker who brought it forth from the void and cast it onto the earth's crust, as though shot from an immense sling, taking only those who were brave enough to trust in Him. We, who live in the ground, regret our decision. We have become dust once more, as though we had never been anything different. We did not trust in what we could have been.

I say "we," though certainly it was all so long ago I could not possibly have made the choice myself. We must bear the guilt, though. It is the only hope the Underworld has: that perhaps someday our penitence will merit a place Above.

Couldn't we go to the surface of our own volition, though?

(I asked this of my mother when she shared the story for the first time, the full story of our people.)

We tried, she told me finally. We tried back when the Underworld was new and we had not yet grown accustomed to its sulfurous belch, its alternate lands of hot and cold, jagged and soapstone smooth. And we were punished severely for our premature attempts to storm Above; explorers came back with seared skin, or, if they were fortunate, bald and pale, their blood depleted, their stomachs writhing with nausea. All of them died.

My mother also told me that there were other people in this world before the flash came. People who were darker than us, some with straight black hair and different eyelids, others of a tawny hue. Some, with skin the color of ours, even had red hair (red, can you imagine? like the color of a rusty faucet!), or eyes the green of aging copper.

We have none of that, only white. White skin, like the white of the eyeless fish, and luminous eyes, and white, white hair that yellows with age. We have purified ourselves, Mother says, through our darkness, and become more like the Angels. Surely we have, though she cannot be certain, for she has never seen one. Not yet, anyway.

Mother is Her Majesty the Queen, though I can call her whenever I like, since there's really no one to hear. No one but Father, and technically he's the one who's supposed to be in charge, but he caught an illness of some kind a few years back, and his skin's begun to grow excessively like the gnarled roots of a fairy-book tree. The sort of tree you might see a donkey-headed man leaning against, being courted by Titania. I asked Mother if there were donkey-headed men once, and she said, "Sure, probably. Lord knows we have enough strange things down here."

There is so much that I simply do not know. The mutables, the broken-down borgs of the outskirts, why our family became The Family and took the Cataracted Chair for ourselves (not uncontested, but the family against us has been erased from the annals, as has much of our old history) – all these things remain a mystery. Mother suggests that it's more interesting that way. We can make up stories about the beginning of the end, and they can all be true.

The mutables, really, are almost all that's left of our people. They're pale too, but their eyes bulge more and they don't always have the right number of bits. Their appearance can be disconcerting, frightening even, but they're really quite harmless for the most part - without them, who would perform the menial labors of the Underworld, the waste collection, tending the ultraviolet greenhouses, cleaning and repairs?

I suppose that's what the borgs were for originally. Mother said they were once humans who suffered grave injuries and were resurrected through mechanical means, but they became too fond of their contrivances (and others grew jealous) until even the rural crust lands where The Family once lived became rife with them. And as they spread, becoming less and less human, they also lost their status as citizens and were denigrated and cast to the lowest rungs of society. But their makers died long ago, and the signals that once controlled them have stopped, so all the borgs of the Underworld have either fallen into disrepair naturally or been beaten there by our fear. For we musn't let them take us.

Now and then I pass a lone borg head dribbling out its condensation by the lakes, living still with the ferocity of an ungodly thing that cannot properly die. A borg soul, I know, can never go Above, no matter the penitence undertaken in the lands beneath. Limbo is for the borgs. Even the mutables fare better.

A borg head spoke to me once, on the subterranean plains. It inhaled a fistful of post-rapture water (unclean, unsafe) through the slit holes of its severed neck and used the burbling sound of liquid through its throat to tell me of how mankind has fallen, how it remembered a time when we were not nearly so afraid. And then it asked me to set fire to its manufactured brain so that the consciousness might melt away, for it had lived too long and wanted to die.

I ran away and never told Mother of it, nor did I return to that particular plain.

I venture elsewhere, however. There is no end to the darkness, always another crevice to descend, another spire to climb. I have wandered the expanse of nothing for years and found only the mutables and borgs, the blind fish and the luminescent star-nosed moles. They are the only stars I have ever seen.

*       *       *

I have noticed, upon my past several excursions out, an unfamiliar patch of darkness in the dark. It is hued like the shadows, and yet it moves, which is most perplexing, for the creatures of this Underworld are almost iridescent in their pallid flesh. I thought perhaps it was a whole-formed borg, one that had escaped the great tearing down, but it did not move with the proper speed or spider-jerks that I had seen from the individual parts in operation. A mutable, then? But no, they move like crippled beasts and never even bother to look furtive these days. What good would it do? There’s scarce anyone to see them but me and Mother.

This shadow, though, might very well be a person I have missed, a living being with a soul just like us that can go Above when he or she dreams. The darkness could simply be a coat, a full-body suit of some kind – a tarp? Has it lived here alone for too long, and sunk to insanity, dressed only in discarded scraps? I want it to be so. The lunatics in my books are always the most interesting.

I want it to be Miss Havisham in widow’s weeds right now.

But perhaps I don’t.

Not because I am frightened of it being Miss Havisham – what could she do to me anyway? – but because it could be someone more like me, with a sane mind and a youthful body. I have never met someone quite like me before, and the prospect of it is immensely exciting.

Also, maybe it is an Angel.

*       *       *

When the lights go out, I dream of something I don't even know, with someone I don't know either, and we are not Above, but still Below.

*       *       *

I see the thing and the thing sees me, and it is a young man.

I fell into the waters of the oily lake when I was surprised, and I was surprised because I had drawn close to the shadow in the darkness and seen it look at me with eyes not luminous but more akin in shade to the cave's walls, the cogs of the subterranean machine. Only the borgs have eyes that color, and yet they were not borg eyes. The motion was human. The blink . . .

Then falling. I do not know how to swim, no one does anymore; those who swam in the early days emerged from the waters marred, alive but ruined. Their children became mutables, while they themselves merely fell ill, went blind, grew bald. We do not swim.

The eyes, though, came for me and were suddenly next to me in the midst of my death. I had resigned myself to stillness, for that is all I could do. There was no point in struggling with the inevitable. I might finally have gone Above, which is the desire of all here, so why worry?

But the shadow saved me, and stands now, dripping and panting and unearthly.

As an Angel, he is not what I expected. My mother told me the Angels come in the refined form of man, bleached of all color and giving off a light of their own, for they were those who braved Hell for us and what is darker than that? If we, though our vigil in the non-light, had gone so pale, surely the Angels would be a thousand times paler.

But this man is dark – slate eyes, bronze skin. He is also exceptionally tall, in the manner of the old humans, whose heights I have seen extolled in books as being six feet or sometimes even taller. It is like looking at a giant or up a hill; I must cast my neck fully back just to see his face, and I am a girl all-grown.

I am not sure if his face is beautiful or not. It is so different from ours – the chin more prominent, the nose straight and downturned, the cheekbones severe. But it seems likely that he is an Angel. My mother might have been wrong about the purification; perhaps those who suffered rapture burned darker in the flames, rather than being bleached by the depths. They may never even have died at all and are simply flesh and blood rendered immortal, not the vitrified souls left from the rendering of their skin to ash.

Perhaps the body is still good and worthy of preservation.

The dark man looks at me and smiles, his teeth quite white against the plum of his lips, and when I smile back at him he looks even more delighted. He pulls a small blue pad out of his coat and scratches something onto it with what looks to be a grease pencil, but probably isn't.

"Bonlachiwa," he says.

I frown involuntarily. The man laughs.

"Nín hǎo?" he half-asks.

I shake my head at him and wonder what he's trying to convey.

"Hello?"

"Oh!" I blush and almost forget the very language I do know. "Hello!"

"Twenty-first century English!" the man exclaims, commencing a small dance of some kind. "Brilliant! I hardly ever get to practicate this one."

"Practice?"

"Yes! Peachy!" He bites his plum lip and bends nearer. "That's not an offensive one, is it?"

"No, not at all, but . . ." My heart rate reaches a level at which I fear he can see the heart screaming red through my nearly translucent chest, my pale grey clothing. I am dust, and he is flesh. He was what the Maker made, and I am only the original compound, nothing in and of itself.

"Who are you?" I ask, as he pauses to jot more notes down on his pad.

"Me? I are, am, a scienceperson." He licks his teeth nervously. "And a historical linguist. I know dialects from the last four thousand years." He raises his hands in a peaceable gesture. "I would like it if I could see your systems. Er, city. Governance?"

I stare, speechless.

"Have you got one, then?"

"We have the old kingship, of course."

The man's eyes widen with a certain strange delight, even as his lip curls into something I suppose might be called distaste. "A monanarchy? That's . . . holla."

He's a confusing sort of Angel.

*       *       *

I take him to Mother, who looks disgruntled at having been interrupted from her perpetual nap. In the absence of anything to do, she's taken to pricking her finger with a batch of drowsing serum and dozing through the day like a lean Sleeping Beauty.

(I wonder if the Angel thinks she's beautiful. She looks so unlike him that perhaps she and the rest of us – me – are all disgusting to him. I can't say why, but the possibility of that causes my nerves to vibrate and numb slightly all up and down my arms.)

Mother sends me out of the chamber, so I cannot hear what they are talking about. I amuse myself playing tiddlywinks with a cache of borgian knucklebones.

*       *       *

It takes a dozen candles-lives, or so it feels, before the Angel leaves Mother. He looks at me slyly, adjusting his trousers a bit in the middle. There's a wet patch darkening through the fabric, and for some reason it makes me thoroughly uncomfortable.

"I did not believe that anypersons called it the Ozarks these days," he says speculatively.

"But isn't that what it is?" I ask him. Perhaps coyly, but I've never had cause before to experiment with what that means, so I can't be certain.

"They were. But now they're . . . I suppose you could interpret it as 'Cavernous Freelands' up-top, yes."

We walk the perimeter of the palace complex together, my hand brushing against carbonate walls hewn from the belly of the earth and machines I've never found, even though I've looked. I think the mutables may have torn them apart in ages past to construct shelters from the cave-cold, or perhaps the borgs dismantled them in better times for replacement portions. A gasket heart. A cog-spoke elbow. A carburetor lung.

These are the frailties of my people.

The Angel, however, seems almost convulsively displeased with them. He twitches his foot away when a stray mutable youngling crosses his path. While it is true that I would never associate directly with the dregs, they are the only citizens I have ever known. I may run from their death cries, but I will not explicitly kick their scrabbling claws aside.

"So you really don't know the people up-top?" says the man after a pause, hands in his pockets, casual.

"There are people up-top?" I inquire, and I must sound like a veritable idiot because the Angels laughs like he's shaking the water off a pair of invisible wings.

"Yes, you! Up-top they've been forever! There was that time, with the bomb, but we emerged. Spent the prescribed span beneath, then safe again. And, you know, the medicine was just at the beginning of better then, too."

I stop a moment and sit among the stones, watching the drip of a stalactite as it carves a calm, calcified crater in the foyer. "And so," I finally say, "they weren't gone after all?"

"Gone?" the man puzzles out. "The people? No." He shakes his head and sits down with me.

"You're not an Angel, are you?" I ask.

His hands surrounding my tiny fingers, he says, "No."

He puts his face too close to mine. "Angels are not real."

I can smell foreign edibles on his damp breath, condensing on my cold, transparent cheeks. (Can he see my cheekbones through the flesh? Can he tell how close my heart is to rupturing with love or terror, I do not know which?)

His lips are so close to mine that my tongue can feel the heat of his throat. And how should I respond? Do I dare to eat a peach? Should I clack his teeth against my own?

But the tightness of his palms around mine makes me writhe with horror to be free, and I burst from his grasp like a berserking borg unchained. "What did Mother say?" I cry. "What passed in that room? What did you do?"

I flee behind a column in a rush of white and gray, a little subterranean moth. If only my eyes did not reflect the light so well, but I must stay within sight of the man to learn anything. Something is not right, I fear.

"Did they let you know nothing here?" he gasps at me. "That you could go up again whenever? Have you never been touched?"

"Never."

He paces in circles and kicks at a cybernetic hand crawling the floor alone. "What a strange world, this," he muses.

I only crouch behind my stone in answer.

"Up-top, no tyranny. Equal all, without a king or queen. How can you live with this?"

My eyes are so wide I'm sure he can see my foveas pulse.

"You beautiful creatures," he snorts disdainfully. "We are free up-top. We do what we like. No disease, no restraint. All science."

"For whom?"

"For us."

"I am not 'us,' am I?"

He stills himself a bit at that, rubbing a long-fingered hand across his lightly stubbled chin.

"No," he says.

I run. Through the pillars of dead earth and gates, quickly into the outgrounds of the palace complex. At first I don't know where I'm going, but then I have it, and my feet scarcely disturb a pebble as I flutter to the crevasse.

You might not see such a crevasse in the dark, even with eyes as luminous and large as mine. Sometimes you have to sense it, as though you had feelers on the sides of your head, caressing the air. You could slip through such a thing as easily as a pinhead Angel could slip through the eye of a needle and into the Above.

Or Below.

He has followed. I assumed he would, for his legs are a good third longer than mine at least, his muscles more robust. We reach the crevasse at nearly the same time, and he reaches out a lanky arm, catching hold of my sleeve and wrapping it around his fingers in a death-grasp.

A proper death-grasp.

I spin as he comes at me, unbalancing him so that his shoes skid on the water-smoothed surface. His mouth upends into a last look of startled ferocity before he flies off the edge entirely, my wispy little sleeve ripping at his wrist. He hangs suspended a moment, frozen with cave-cold and shock.

Then down he goes.

I do not wait, but turn instead upon my heel and go back home.

*       *       *

I am not sure that Mother will ever wake up. I do not think she wants to. She drools upon her pillow with a constant expression of hate and responds to nothing. I feed her with a cloth dipped in nutritional fluid.

Father is little more than a tree among the stalagmites. No Titania comes to rest at his hideous side.

Which means, I suppose, that I am queen now. Queen of these realms beneath, these frigid places where no one feels and everyone dies.

But I have my books, my mutables, myself.

I walk upon the subterranean plains, barren woman on a barren plot, until I come upon that head that spoke to me so long ago. There is unfinished business I must attend to.

I set the borg head aflame and finally let it die.

Its parting words are, "Thank you."
An inexcusably late entry to ThornyEnglishRose's Royal Families Short Story Contest. At first I hated it, and then I loved it, and then I didn't know what to do with it, and now that's it's done I'm actually kind of proud of it.

Nothing I do ever ends happily ever after.

The title is a reference to one of my favorite sonnets by Milton, which he wrote after he went blind:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.
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My morning oats taste particularly bland this morning. I look outside the clouded windows and see the city across every inch of my vision. Buildings of all shapes and sizes are formed from copper, brass, and iron. At all times of the day, the city's Gears are churning.

The Gears are the machines that run the city, the country, possibly even the entire world. Metals are formed together to form them, robotic men designed to replace our government. Their voices boom over the industrial noises of the factories and drown seem to drown out all individual conversations. We're free, I suppose, but they all say that there was once a time when freedom was all we had.

Across the street, I see Thayoden. He's a boy who works in the aircraft factory, constructing engines and attaching steering wheels and dials to bi-planes. I met him in Industry class when we were both eleven years old. Ever since then, we've grown apart, but I still see him and think of how much I miss being with him. But we're different people than we were as children. Seven years can totally transform a person.

His charcoal gray tunic flutters in the breeze, constricted only by an iron belt. I suspect his pantaloons were once his father's that he was given after his father's death. Most of all, I search for his eyes. The deepest green forests are shaded by his shaggy blond curls and a face bearing the dust and sweat of the industries.

In some recess of my mind, I wonder if I could be with him. The Gears frown upon young love, proclaiming it leads to sadness, anger, and the destruction of an entire generation, yet those of us young enough to feel it always act on their wishes anyways.

I walk over to the mirror and ponder at my reflection. I need not work today, for the Gears have deemed my industry, lumber, should only have to work five days of the week. My nightgown flutters around my wrists and ankles, even as the morning approaches noon.  It was a silky peach, but after three years of wear the color has faded into a dusty rose. My mother says it compliments my fair skin and shocking dark hair. Brown eyes gaze back at me amidst a few light freckles that tell of hours spent under the sun. My fingers have been mangled and torn from years of handling wood and branches. Torn lace stockings adorn my legs, and to any outsider would make me seem tough and quarrelsome, but my soft and rounded lips tell another story.

My name is Raelin. I'm an industry worker in the city of Bellamorr. I'm going to tell you my story. But I can't promise that every word is true. By the time you read this, the Gears may have already taken me away.
-
It began to rain on a dark and dreary Thursday. Or perhaps it was Friday...well, the date doesn't really matter. I was lacing up my worn leather boots in preparation for a day of work at the lumber mill. Grabbing my tattered raincoat, I bolted out the door, nearly forgetting to lock it behind me. I was going to be late, and the rain was sure to further my delay.

The streets were slick with dew, water running into the gutters, children splashing it around on the sidewalks. Even carriages glided right over the wet asphalt. No plants were around to reap the rewards of the spring storm - no, the Gears didn't like us having plants. Yet something grew with every morning rain that came to Bellamorr - perhaps the spirit of hope in the people, the liveliness of their hearts that seemed so often forgotten.

As I pondered what exactly the rain really meant, I failed to notice a dip in the sidewalk. The toe of my boot caught it, and for a second I was falling, searching with my other foot for another hold on the sidewalk when a coarse hand caught my waist.

And another grabbed my shoulder.

Looking up, I saw the familiar face of a boy who I had once known very well. I recalled his name almost instantly. Thayoden. His name was as unforgettable as his eyes, the deep green of the grassy earth I once danced on.

"Are you alright?" he asked of me.

There was a particular tinge to the way he spoke that brought me to another time and place. Another era. Another life.

"I'm fine...thank you. For helping me," I replied.

He helped me get back on my feet and for a moment I wondered if he remembered me from all those years past.

"Raelin...is that you?"

It seemed he did.

I nodded in response.

"It's nice to see you again. How've you been since industry school?"

Six years had gone since the last time we spoke. Yet he was just as enchanting, perhaps even more so, then he had been in our younger days.

"I'm doing great. Fabulous, really. I got put into lumber. And you?" A stutter threatened to break apart my speech. He was just so magnificent.

"Aircraft. I adore it,"

Thayoden then seemed to realize that he was still holding me. He released his grasp on me, and a sudden chill came over me where his hands had been just a moment before.

I looked around us at the eyes of our neighbors, all of which seemed to drift toward us amidst the crowded square.

"Well it was lovely to cross paths, Thayoden. I hope to see you again sometime,"

"Yes. Soon."

He started to wander away from me, backwards. As if he couldn't stop looking at me.

I turned and began my trek towards the mill, smiling all the way there.
_

That evening, when I had returned home, Thayoden was on my mind still. In my eyes, he was perfect. Even a well-learned man with spektacles would see him no differently than I did. Yet I also knew about the inner scars he kept hidden. The truth as to why his father had died.

His father was one of what I know to be called "The Tappers". Arrogant men and women who believe they have some sort of right to control us, rather than Gears, who dig and create in underground safe houses some master plan to reclaim the government. They Tap the system. Thayoden's father was one of their leaders, and he was caught trying to Tap one of the resting Gears. He may have been tortured, brutally sacrificed, or simply murdered with a bullet to the head. It remains a mystery, and most of Bellamorr, myself included, would prefer to keep it that way.

I saw in his eyes that his father's past made him question his own fate. As I slowly spooned my porridge into my mouth, I pieced together a certain truth inside me. His doubts were what I adored the most about him. His fatal flaw.

Finding myself unable to finish eating, I put my almost full bowl into the chipped and rusted sink, not even bothering to rinse it. Instead, I sat down at the table with a piece of parchment, some ink, and a quill. The night was drawing in quickly: birds' songs quieting to a whisper, the warm pink of the sunset dimming to violet, even my mother's hushed breathing across the hall seemed to disappear entirely.

My hands were shaking as I dipped the quill into the dark ink. What could I say to him? How could I say it? Did feelings like these even exist anymore?

At the very worst, should the letter turn out horribly, I could just throw it away without sending it in the first place.

I pressed my palm to the parchment, closed my eyes, and began to write without seeing.

Thayoden,

His name. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was going to tell him. His name, written by my own hand, all of it was real.

I know not how to tell you this in any eloquent or mature manner. Today, when you caught me in the street before I fell, something stirred inside me. An emotion, a certain string of raw feeling, I suppose. There seems to be no better way to explain it than to just tell you.

There was a pregnant pause in the air before I continued.

I remember you from Industry class.

I remember your beautiful, bold green eyes.

I love your eyes.


I hardly dared to write the final line.

I love you.

-

Before I had the chance to regret my rash decision, I signed my name at the bottom of the letter, sealed it with rusty red wax, and pushed it down the Syllinder.

Syllinders were, of course, the gold and glass tubes right next to the garbage chute that delivered notes between families of the neighborhood. Typically, they were business reports or ranting monologues about the cuts in wages, rather than notes between the youth declaring their love.

Of course, I failed to remember how the Gears inspected the letters before passing them on to the desired address. There was not even a fraction of a chance that my note would get passed on to him. Young love was frowned upon. Young love led to adultery, violence, deceit, perhaps even war, if the cause were great enough. It didn't matter if he didn't return my affection; the fact that I alone had such stirrings was cause enough for the Gears to involve themselves.

-

I tossed beneath my sheets for days after sending the letter. Fears of the Gears coming for me overrode my dreams and kept me awake until it was nearly done. Finally, after two weeks, my stomach began to settle, and I could drift off to sleep for an hour or two.

We were out of bread rations. Frustrated, I stormed out the door and headed for the marketplace. People across the square waved and said hello, but I was in no state to speak to anyone.

"Raelin!"

A distinct voice called behind me. I'd have known it anywhere. My feet stopped in their tracks. Slowly, I turned.

Thayoden.

The corners of his mouth curved into a smile.

He knew.

At that moment, I didn't care who was watching. The Gears, the industrial workers, my mother, anyone could've been there and it wouldn't have mattered.

I broke into a run towards him. He opened his arms and locked me inside them, clutching me so tightly I could hardly breathe and yet I didn't want for him to let go.

His arms loosened just slightly, and our eyes locked together.

"I love you, too," he whispered.

And then our lips touched.

-

We hid from the Gears for weeks. Every night we had picnics together in secret, or took walks beneath the streetlights at midnight, or kissed inside completed airplanes after all the other workers had gone home.

He was in love. I was, too. We were going to get married to each other. Everything was planned by midwinter: how we would ask for permission to marry, where we would live, even the names of all our children.

Then the midwinter storm came, hitting harder with ice and snow than it had in many years. Thayoden was captured by the Gears, and a frozen air settled in to take his place.

-

Now its springtime again. Thayoden has been released from his capture for little over a month, but we don't speak anymore. I watch him cross the street in his father's pantaloons and remember the warmth of his being that kept me from freezing only a few months before.

The entire city gathered together to witness his release. No one else has left the Gears' torture alive, and Thayoden was lucky. I was brought forth as well, forced to endure humiliation in front of all of Bellamorr.

The Gears' voices boomed above all of ours, commanding us to listen and follow their rule. Thayoden and I had disobeyed. But rather than be sentenced to death, we remained alive, according to the Gears, to show the rest of the city just a segment of the consequences they would face if they broke the law.

Tears still sting my eyes as I recall every second of that day. How they made me remove his tunic and display his back to the entire city: bloodied and gashed from whips. How the Gears corrected my thoughts and stated that a wild airplane propeller had torn up his back instead. How Thayoden was forced to douse my hands in oil and light them ablaze until all my clothes burned away and my skin started to crisp. How they finally put out the fire, and we both cried. Most of all, I remember embracing him and holding him close for the last time. I was burned, he was blistered, and both of us were broken. It hurt, but it needed to be done.

Nearly a season has gone by since then, and we are both beginning to recover. We are both out of work, still glared upon whenever we walk the crowded streets, and forbidden to be with one another.

I love him still.

The fire that danced over my skin was doused long ago. But the fire inside me still sparks in the silence.

The fire that burns for Thayoden.
Hey guys SO sorry for not posting anything in over a month! Been busy, uninspired, insert any other excuse here :)

This weekend I just really wanted to write a short story and this is what came out! Hope you guys like it! Oh, and if you can help me name it, that would be fantastic! I'll even give you credit for the name because I have absolutely no clue what to call this :P

And yes, this is my first attempt at steampunk. No hate, if you please! XD
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