What Alice Would Say

“Do you want to go see your mommy today?” I ask.

Madi squints her eyes up real tight like she does when she’s figuring something out. “I don’t know. It’s not very fun there.”

Madi and I are both sitting on the couch. She has her copy of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom splayed out across her legs. I loosen my tie.

“It’s been a few days, Madi. I know it can be sad, but we should go see her. ”

I scoot over closer to her. I think I’m supposed to put my arm around her or something. I pat her shoulder instead. I don’t know how to do this, to comfort someone, but it’s a start.

My sister Alice was always the jovial one. She would light up when she saw me, especially after I got back from a long business trip or hadn’t visited in a while. She made people feel special just for being alive.

“Is there anything you’d like to tell mommy?”

Madi pulls her legs up close to her body, and the book slides down to the floor, bending the pages.

Alice would know what to say here.

“How does it make you feel when we go see her, Madi?”

Madi shrugs.

“Does it make you feel sad?”

A moment passes. She gives a subtle nod.

I swallow, wishing I had something to say. “Godfather” had been a celebratory term four years ago when Alice asked me. According to the doctor, it would not be long until “godfather” became just…

Father.

It doesn’t feel right to say it. It won’t for a long time.

“I feel sad too,” I said. “You know, it’s okay to feel sad.”

Madi leans into me, and I put my arm around her.

Despite the pain, I think this feels right.



Author’s note:

I wrote this tiny story in a half hour during a meeting of the creative writing club that I co-lead with another teacher at my school. We gave the kids a prompt, and we both decided to write stories for it as well. Here was the prompt:

Put a character in a situation entirely new to the character, e.g., college, a new school, a new job, a new city/country. Let the character improvise a new identity, as most of us do when we enter a new world. This exercise should be about the new situation but how the character adjusts herself and her mind to the new situation.

As my wife Carol and I have started the adoption process, I think I may have been subconsciously processing the idea of suddenly going from “not-a-parent” to “parent” and how strange the associated emotions might be. I think I have a lot of the insecurities that the uncle/godfather in this story has, and I’ll have to face those when the time comes.

Never Go to Bed Angry

I wrote this for the NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge the same weekend I was finishing “Haunted Mansions Are Never Wheelchair Accessible.” I almost gave up on this story because I wasn’t feeling the prompts (ghost story / walking trail / contact solution) and because of the Crippling Self-Doubt Monster, the terrifying, real-life antagonist in many writers’ lives. But I’m glad I did. Enjoy, and remember to never go to bed angry!

Never Go to Bed Angry

Before they got married, Jen told Connor that they should never go to bed angry with each other. Connor saw a lot of wisdom in the idea, so for twelve years, he shared every problem, insecurity, and hurt with her. As he wrapped his arm around her waist each night in bed and kissed her cheek, he fell asleep with no trace of anger in his heart.

Until tonight, when the nothingness of sleep finally swept away his anger and pain…

***

Connor hiked in silence next to his wife through the cool shade of the towering northern California redwoods, which usually calmed him. The green canopy two hundred meters above made him feel like a kid in a blanket fort, hiding from the world and whatever evil lurked outside its walls.

Jen moved her hand over toward Connor’s, and he pulled away, averting his eyes as Jen lowered her hand back down. Even after her affair, he felt strange not taking her hand as they hiked.

Jen cocked her head to the side with a sad smile that he used to find irresistibly cute. “You know,” she said, “before we came here this time, I thought this place would feel just sort of normal. We’ve been here so many times. But it still reminds me of how big God is, how through every terrible thing we go through, he still remains faith—”

“Stop it, Jen.” He looked at her and held up a hand. “Just stop it.”

***

They sat on a massive, fallen branch and ate their packed lunches in silence. Connor found it hard to ignore her as tears slid down her cheek. He wanted to hold her, but he couldn’t shake the thought of another man holding her instead.

Jen pulled a tiny bottle of eye drops from her pack and held it above her reddened eyes.  Her hand shook as a drop missed. She was terrible at this and always had Connor do it for her when her frequent allergies came.

“Damn!”

She missed her eye again and threw the bottle into the dirt. Connor stood, grabbed the bottle, and brought it over to her. “Here, just let me—”

“No, it’s fine. Forget it. I don’t need them.”

Something rustled behind them, and they both looked up to see a deer walking toward them.

“How does it not see us?” Jen whispered.

Connor held up a finger to his lips as the deer cocked its head and opened its mouth. Connor thought it looked happy, like it was…smiling at them…

The deer shuddered, an unnatural spasm, and ran off, disappearing behind the trees.

Jen frowned. “The hell was that?”

Connor shook his head and ignored the chill running through his body. There was something off about this part of the forest. He had sensed it ever since Jen’s silent offer to hold his hand earlier. He looked down and realized his arm was around her, pulling her tight.

He let go.

“Let’s head back to the car.”

***

Getting back to the main trail proved harder than he’d thought. Jen hated seeing tourists when they hiked, so they made a point to escape into less-traveled areas whenever possible.

“I’m sure it’s this way,” Jen said. “Just trust me.”

Connor resisted making a comment about how trusting her hadn’t worked well for him recently.

“I guess this trip was a stupid idea,” she said, adjusting her pack on her shoulders.

“It was just a deer, Jen. Not a huge deal.”

“No, not that. Just, this trip in general. Thinking this could bring us back to before. Do you remember our first trip here?”

Connor stared at the forest floor. Of course he did.

Jen continued. “That was my first time, you know.”

“First time? We’d been married for over a month.”

“Well, it was my first time doing it in a national park.”

Connor actually laughed out loud at that. “You’re ridiculous.”

“And my first time seeing you run through a forest with your pants down, tripping every five steps!”

“Christ, Jen. But I mean what were the odds of a ranger passing close enough to hear us in a forest this size?”

They were both smiling when they heard the thud of something dropping to the ground up ahead, followed by an agonizing, inhuman moan.

Connor ran toward the sound.

“What are you doing?” Jen called to him.

“Just stay here!”

As he ran, he could make out something on the ground between the vertical brown columns of the forest. A body of some sort, brown and heaving…

The deer seemed to look at him even in its dying state. Blood drained from deep gashes on both sides of its neck, like something had strangled the poor beast with sharp, claw-like fingers. Hope left the creature’s eyes, and Connor couldn’t help but empathize with it. He knew the feeling of having your foundation suddenly stripped away, the sensation of falling, choking…

He stumbled back.

“Connor!”

Connor turned at the sound of Jen’s voice, but she was obscured by a pale, ghostly figure standing next to him. He didn’t know what the man even looked like, but he recognized him all the same.

Connor pressed a finger up against its chest. “Get the hell away from me, you bastard.”

It grabbed his hand, ripping off ribbons of flesh as he pulled away.

“Jen! Run!”

Connor scrambled backward, collapsing against a fallen redwood. The figure glided toward him, baring its smiling teeth.

“Jen, can you hear me!?”

He’d spent the twelve best years of his life following this advice: Never go to bed angry. He couldn’t end his life mad at her, despite how much her betrayal gripped his neck, choked him at night when he couldn’t sleep, flooded his dreams with the nightmare of her having sex with another man, with nightmares of these attacks in the woods. He had to let this go.

“Just know I still love you!”

The ghost’s hand reached out…

“We would have made it through this!”

Skeletal fingers wrapped tight around his throat…

“I forgive you, Jen! I’m not angry any—”

The Stories Lost in Flame

A score of people wandered the smoldering ruins, treaded carefully over scorched and splintered wood, searched for any words that remained. They wore their brown robes hiked up short over their ankles, their feet shod with sturdy-soled boots instead of sandals. They wore their faces long and solemn.

The apprentice stooped amidst a pile of ashes and picked up a small stack of paper lined with careful script. The edges were dark and curled, irregular like the shoreline of an island.

“The person who did this deserves to…I would make them suffer…I would…”

Her hands shook. She held the paper tight despite the embered edges of the paper forming tiny blisters on her fingers. A thin streak of ash appeared across her cheek as she wiped tears away. She breathed in the acrid fumes from the library ruins, searching for hints of something sweeter in the air.

Master Dienum towered over her nearby, his posture straight and his face empty as he worked his mouth in that way that old men do. He lowered his hood, revealing wisps of gray hair encircling his bald pate. The bags under his eyes failed to move as he squinted down at the apprentice.

“Give a frail, old master a hand now,” he said, holding out an arm.

“Of course,” she said, then hastily blew on the edges of the papers to cool them before placing them down into her satchel. She stood, took his arm, and lead him carefully over the debris. The old man, although always strangely distant as if his mind dwelled in another world, had been a role model for her. He had curated for the sprawling library for longer than her parents had even been alive. Now, this ashen mess was all that was left of his life’s work. She half expected him to go now as well, like a story she had read of an elderly woman passing away just weeks after her husband’s death.

Another story…

Dust…

Lost forever…

They hobbled along toward the north wing, where people were saying the fire had started. Master Dienum looked out across the landscape, flanked by stone pillars and huge sections of charred wall.

“The coward deserves to die,” the apprentice said through gritted teeth. “Master, what would you do to the wretch who did this?”

“I haven’t thought about it, really,” he said, sighing. “Do you know what first came to my mind when I heard reports of the fire?”

The apprentice considered how the old man could have reacted upon hearing of his life’s work consumed by flames. She shook her head. “Sisyphus, maybe? The futility of our work on this earth?”

“Goodness, no, nothing that philosophical. I thought, ‘Hmm. Now, I can spend more time growing my strawberries.’”

The apprentice opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“Every spring, I plant a few.” He waved his free hand and gave a helpless laugh. “Every year, the damned things wither and die, barely producing a crop. Just a few tiny fruits.”

“Master, I don’t understand…”

“I still have a book about gardening at my house. One of a few survivors of the fire. It didn’t make a difference though. Still can’t keep a strawberry alive.”

“I am sorry, I don’t follow your metaphor, Master.”

“Bah! No metaphor. Don’t look for meaning where there is none. It’s not a lesson.” He gestured north toward the origin of the fire. His head and arm shook, showing his age and fraying nerves. “I’ve seen a lot of men die bitter and alone. Miserable, pitiable old things. I have too few days left to waste them that way. Too few days to see this place rebuilt.”

They walked in silence. A beam a few dozen feet away shifted and crashed to the ground, interrupting the subdued murmurs and sniffling of the other librarians and apprentices.

The destruction in the north wing was utter and devastating. The apprentice couldn’t imagine a single volume surviving. She breathed in the smoky air, trying again to smell the…

The smell of honey.

Her jaw clenched. Had she smelled it? Or just tricked herself into thinking she had?

She scanned the debris. Ash. Charred wood. No sign of the expensive beeswax candle her mother had given her. She swayed, unsteady. Of course there was nothing left of it. It was a candle. Why had she brought a candle here?

To think that she was capable of such stupidity. Of such destruction…

“Master Dienum, I have to tell you—”

“I have my answer,” he said.

“What?”

“To your question. If I knew who burnt this place down, what I would do to the person responsible.”

The apprentice braced herself. She wanted to hear his wrath, the controlled, profound righteous judgment of a gentle man, to witness his anger, to hear spoken aloud what she deserved.

His face grew serious.

“I would sentence him to a life of hard labor. Toiling on endlessessly for the rest of his days.”

There it was. Underwhelming, but justice nonetheless.

“I would have him rebuild and take precautions to never let such a tragedy happen again. Have him journey wide and far to acquire new and old accounts. Find new stories, new encyclopaedia, new references and histories. Write his own stories. There is power in the words printed on these pages, power in the sharing of knowledge. Humanity needs this place.”

He looked at her, a fire burning in his ancient eyes.

“Of course, I expect we will never know who caused this. But, if this person were here, that would be my judgement.”

***

The apprentice rested her quill in the inkwell and read back through her account of her last interaction with the old curator.

“It’s so short,” she whispered to herself. A story measured in hundreds of words, not hundreds of thousands of volumes.

But it was a start.

The beginning of a new story to replace what had been lost.