STITCH AND TIME

I remember the precise color of the ink as the receptionist’s pen’s cartridge ran dry halfway along the guest sign-in sheet. It was a dusky purple, the sort of thing you’d ooh and ah at while sitting next to someone special and looking up at the stars.

Looked down at my signature. How my jittery heartbeat fucked it up. And I heard her there beside me as a little boy–take your time, not so sloppy. You’ll have to do it again.

There were other things that came to mind besides dusky hues and phonics clues. There was the last time we met face to face, with all the years and muddled feelings intervening. The mud on my shoes as I walked up the drive and left guilty prints behind. As I scraped my heels on the sidewalk’s edge just as I would before coming in for dinner as a kid. And the door swung open and she was there parading a sling on her arm even though there was no injury, her hair a tattered mess and the boxes stacked four-high behind her, ready for the next eviction.

“Hello.”

Like a door-to-door salesman. Like a solicitor. Like a man conducting a business transaction and nothing more. And she played along just fine, knew her part very well. Only the watery eyes gave it away as she handed my birth certificate over. Yes, she gave me what I asked for. And then she gave me something else, too. A blurry old polaroid of a blanket-swaddled newborn me staring up at her with unknowing eyes. I took the polaroid and marched back past my muddy footprints.

There were the loopy letters of my signature again, only half-completed. The rest was only hinted at, only implied by an ambiguous dusky purple.

“She’ll see you now. Right this way, sir.”

The receptionist led me down halls kept alive on fluorescent life support, heels click clacking on tile kept to an unreal sheen. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. A gait that implied marching someone to a place against their will. A teacher leading me to the principal’s office. She abruptly stopped at one of the rooms, opened the door, and led me in.

“Mrs. Collins. Your son Jay is here to see you.”

Something wearing an effigy of my mother’s face looked up at me from its thick bed sheet swaddling. Its hollow eyes scanned me, determined I was no threat, and went back to staring intently at the forget-me-not pattern stitched on the quilt that held the swaddling together.

“If you need anything I’ll be just down the hall.”

A professional smile, and then she was out the door and click clacking back to her desk, leaving me alone with the thing that was not quite my mother.

Surveyed the room. No windows. White walls. Same tile kept to an unreal sheen. Bed. One table. One chair. I pulled the chair out and cringed as its legs squeaked against the tile. Took a seat across from the thing that looked like my mother, with enough distance between us to allow for an easy escape should it become necessary.

The flower pattern was deemed intensely interesting, and so she stared in silence. Gave me a chance to pass over the eyes that bore only a passing resemblance to my mother’s piercing blues. This blue was dull, almost gray. The hair. Gray in spots, patchy in others, with handful-sized tufts gone and now revealing scabby scalp beneath. Her skin. Made of wax paper and stretched over a harsh frame. Sockets and joints and tendons and sinew all showing through.

I coughed. Tried to sound natural but couldn’t. The thing wearing my mother’s face looked up, determined I was still not a threat, and went back to appreciating myosotis frozen in stitch and time.

“Do you know who I am?”

Those eyes came back to me, bugged out of their dark sockets. I tried to smile a friendly smile, but it came out more like baring teeth. She did the same. Monkey see, monkey do. Went back to admiring her quilt.

“I’m Jay. I’m your son.”

She let out a breath that might’ve been a distant relative of a sigh. Genus unknown, but it had all the hallmarks of one. Looked me over, smiled her monkey see monkey do smile without a prompt this time, and began fiddling with the stitching that held the flowers on the quilt.

“I’ve come to…”

What?

“To…”

She brought the quilt to her face. Tried to smell the flowers.

“I don’t know why I’ve come here. Okay? I don’t know why. I guess I thought that things could all just magically fix themselves like they do in the movies. That I’d walk in here, and you’d be just as terrible as you always were, and we’d fight, and maybe you’d come around. No, I’m sure you’d come around. And I’d get in a few good ones and really let you have it, and you’d know why I left for good. You’d know and you’d understand and maybe you’d let it go. Maybe you’d ask for forgiveness. And maybe I’d grant it.”

She tried pulling off two-dimensional flowers, but the stitching started to unravel instead.

“But you’re gone. You can’t even hear me. I don’t know why I’m still even talking. Maybe for old time’s sake. Maybe to make up for all the times you wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise. Who knows. But I just needed to see you, I guess. And I needed to give you this.”

Produced the old polaroid from my jacket’s inside pocket. Set it down at her side, next to the frayed forget-me-nots.

“I don’t need it anymore. You can have it.”

Got up from my chair. Didn’t cringe as wood scraped tile this time. Looked at my mom lying peacefully in bed. Almost tranquil.

“Goodbye, Mom.”

Opened the door. Shoes on tile. Click. Clack. Click. Clack.

“Goodbye, Jay.”

Close.

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COL AND CASE

KC was seven years old when he first realized that all grownups are a little broken inside. He was seven, and scared, and in the sewage-shit-stink of his then-flooded basement, with a couple of garbage bags hauled over his legs and duct-taped for the journey as his seventeen-year-old brother Colin stood at the basement door, peering down into the muddy black and cheering him on in his own way.

“See it yet?”

KC brought his hand shakily up, aimed the faulty beam of his flashlight in front, then to both sides. Behind and back up the stairs, temporarily blinding Colin.

“It’s gross down here, Col. Can I just come back up?”

“You rather be grossed out and have a fan, or clean and die of heat stroke?”

KC aimed his beam down near his bagged feet, where he could see newly submerged wrecks scattered in the fetid water–diecast cars, cap guns, video games. In time they’d be covered in seaweed and barnacles, select destinations for the most intrepid miniature divers. But for now they were lying in wait, all of them clamoring for the chance to puncture the plastic film that separated KC’s feet from hundreds of gallons of raw sewage. He looked back up at the top of the stairs where his older brother still stood.

“How about have a fan and be clean?”

“Can’t have your shit-covered cake and eat it too. Sorry, kid.”

KC wheeled around the room, sent up ripples in the knee-deep water as he did.

“But maybe… maybe Mom’ll be back soon. Back with a fan.”

“Sure. And she’ll bake us cookies and tell us what wonderful little boys we are and pinky promise this is the last time she goes over to her boyfriend’s while we’re stuck here in the shit.”

“But she said she was just getting more gas for the generator.”

“And the last time she ‘got more gas for the generator’ she was gone the whole weekend.”

“But…”

“And the time before that she was ‘running a few errands’ for a week. And the time before that she was ‘taking the car for a wash’ even though it was pouring outside, and the time before that–”

“Col, can you just come down here and help? It’s hot and I can’t see nothing and your flashlight’s better.”

Colin made his own makeshift duct-taped bag boots and waded down into the water that was already gathering a film at the top and frothing up like some unspeakable mug of root beer. KC was right–Colin’s flashlight was way better.

“Never send a boy to do a man’s job, huh?”

“You’re not eighteen yet, Col. You’re still a boy too.”

“Shut up, Case.”

“Shuttin’ up now, boss.”

After their shared song and dance was over, they glided quietly through the murky pool, flashlight beams constantly adjusting and searching, each step carefully calculated. Old, hoarded newspapers floated in the spots where stacks weren’t deep enough to remain rooted to the basement floor, the soggy headlines now shouting out to no one in particular.

“Wouldn’t be as hard to find without all of Mona’s crap stacked all over down here.”

“You mean Mom?”

“Mona. Mom. Whatever. You still looking?”

KC aimed his beam blindly this way and that, hoping that he looked busy. His ruse worked for a while, until:

“Either look for real or go back upstairs. But don’t expect to get any of the fan once I find it.”

KC’s beam took on a much more natural path then, and lucky for KC Colin couldn’t quite make out the little-brother-pout he was sporting on account of low visibility.

“Col?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re not gonna be dorning, right?”

“Dorming, you mean?”

“Yeah, dorming.”

A nearly imperceptible sigh.

“No.”

A smattering of flies were gathering near the water’s filmy surface, attracted by the smell but dismayed by the lack of places to land.

“But you should dorm when you go to college. Find some school on the other side of the country. Don’t even tell Mona where. Study your ass off. Get scholarships. Trust me, kid.”

Colin made as if he was pushing aside a stack of floating family photos to check for the fan behind their now-waterlogged TV, but he was really just keeping himself busy as he waited for KC’s response.

“Col?”

“Yeah?”

“You wouldn’t ever say you were just going to get gas for the generator and then leave forever, right? You wouldn’t do that?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.”

The two of them marched on through the muck with hands held up and out of splashing range. Traversed the minefield of toys with absolute caution.

“Col?”

“Yeah?”

“Mom’s not coming back this time, is she?”

Nothing but the muffled splash of bagged feet maneuvering awkwardly. Flashlight beams criss-crossing in the dark.

“Col?”

“I don’t know, Case. All right? I don’t know. And I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, but right now we need to find this fan. We can talk about it later, and be scared later, ’cause I’m scared too, Case. I’m scared too.”

“Col?”

“Case, for God’s sake, I–”

“Col, I found the fan.”

A very audible sigh this time.

“Oh.”

“I grabbed it off the cabinet, but then you started talking about being scared and I dropped it a little in the water and it got a little wet and I’m sorry, Col. Don’t be mad at me, please.”

Colin turned his beam toward KC, who was now proffering a dinky little fan as if it were a sacred relic. Colin was careful to keep the beam at KC’s chest so as not to blind him. Looked in his eyes.

“I’m not mad, Case. It’s fine. Great. You did a great job.”

Colin waved KC on to lead the way back upstairs, which he gladly did, the fan held aloft like some putrid trophy.

“Col?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you, Col.”

“I love you too, Case.”

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AGORA

His days followed a pattern crafted specifically around his highest priority in life: avoiding the presence of other people.

Only went outside at asscrack-of-dawn o’clock, and only then for just long enough to put out the trash or bring in the paper. Invested in a grocery delivery service, and instructed them to leave his bags at the doorstep. Successfully convinced his boss that he could fulfill the duties of his IT job from the comfort (both introverted and otherwise) of his own home.

His life was a neat collage of patterns, a cozy assemblage of oft-repeated tasks. For him, his idea of adventure was leaving the house for his weekly library raid. (Because even to an agoraphobe like him, that vast store of old volumes was worth braving the outside world.)

Even then, his attack was scheduled to the second: arrive at 5 on a Wednesday (when the library was usually at its emptiest), give the librarian on duty a perfunctory nod when prompted, make a beeline for fiction, scan for other patrons through the gaps in bookshelves and adjust his route accordingly, then take his place at His Table, the one conveniently tucked away from all the rest and usually left empty due to its proximity to the bathroom.

And everything would’ve continued going just exactly According to Plan (as it always had), if it weren’t for that meddling lady. He’d say Lady with a capital L and mean it, and here’s why:

  • Had enough books in her hands to present a serious toppling risk.
  • Among the volumes were dog-eared copies of Dostoyevsky, DFW, some Murakami (his absolute favorites).
  • Social interaction was likewise the last thing she had in mind, or so he could tell from her own practiced route through the stacks.

He could actually feel his cheeks run hot as she took a seat at a similarly abandoned table, this one with a keen view of the trees and the birds that populated them outside. Felt the trickle of sweat at his palms, too, as she alternately thumbed through Infinite Jest and sketched the neighborhood’s denizens in a pad she’d brought with her.

And so it was these physical sensations (psychosomatic or not) that kept him fused to his table’s chair when she’d eventually seen and read and sketched enough, when she’d gotten up and left before he could muster up agora-defying courage to talk to her.

*   *   *

It’s kind of hard to call in sick from home, but he did so, and stayed out for as many days as it’d take to mourn the loss his anxiety had dealt him. Shut up the blinds and refused to answer the door, wouldn’t even return calls or emails.

It was after the fifth day of this that the Why finally hit him. The Why Am I Doing This and the Why Am I Like This that are on the tip of the tongue of those on the verge of breakthrough. But he shrugged off the Why for a while and went back to his books.

They say that most people would rather submit to electric shock than sit alone in a room with themselves and the thoughts their brains contain, and right then oh boy, yes brother, you better believe that was him. But there was something else about this fear that was tempting. Chalk it up to the knowledge that without facing this fear he’d have literally zero chance of seeing her again, that’s fine. But the important thing is that he did face it.

Took the bus into work on a whim. Forced his face into some semblance of a smile despite the bubbling fear inside him and struck up a convo with the tiny and hunched old man waiting at the bus stop with him. Within a half hour had relived the man’s entire tour of duty in the Ardennes, knew all there was to know about his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, and had actually brought the sweet old man to happy tears just by listening to musty old stories that were dying to be let out.

Rode the agoraphilic wave and chatted with the bus driver for a while, too. Broke down the grizzled guy’s practiced detachment with his earnest enthusiasm, till the driver was laughing at jokes that weren’t even any good.

His newfound superpower followed him into the workplace, where just by the looks on coworkers’ faces you could tell the prevailing question was, “Is this really the same guy?” Told his boss he was back in the office to stay before the day was through.

*   *   *

Back to the stacks. That familiar amniotic place that threatened to lull our MC back to his agoraphobic past. The table near the bathroom practically screaming his name, the fiction section freshly sorted. And there was her. At her same table, sketching once again. And there was heat in his face, and sweat on his hands, and he thought briefly of making his escape before the other side of his brain could intervene.

But he didn’t. Wouldn’t. Instead, he found his feet walking in her direction, his body following dutifully along like a child’s finger on the page of a good story. To her table. To the chair across from her. He took a seat. Breathed. And although his own pulse felt like it was choking him, his voice came out calm; clear; confident:

“Hi.”

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THE WORD NERD

So here’s a kid–eleven and going on precocious, glasses on his nose so thick coke bottles wouldn’t even do them justice, a dusty old Dostoyevsky in his hands as he sits in a comfy library chair and downloads the text to his brain.

But let’s get you acquainted. For starters, kid can read. Routinely fells the sort of dense history book you’d need a machete to hack through before lunch. Does shit like assign himself book reviews (which he then critiques and grades as if he were a teacher). Actually has his local librarian on speed dial.

But in time, like any copiously fed addiction, kid’s word tolerance reached a breaking point. It wasn’t enough that he devoured books as he was apt to do to food (which being an overweight and nerdy little boy, you can just imagine the crowds of schoolmates clamoring to be his friends). No, he needed to craft them, too. Had to feel the Zen-like focus that accompanied moments of writerly Flow, experience the bitter frustration of The Block, too.

And so he set his Dostoyevsky down beside his composition book, the puny thing’s TV-static-looking cover trying its damndest to fight against the pull of old Fyodor’s work. And on any other day it would lose the battle. But this day was different. This day, our kid was determined.

Kid was very clearly of the Dump Shit Out First, Sift Through the Rubble Later variety, or at least his ridiculously-quickly-filled comp book attested to that fact. Could almost see smoke billowing out from his carpaloid hand, feel the heat coming off of the page and his brain both as he let the Hand Cramp to End All Hand Cramps subside.

The days (and notebooks) that followed passed in an absolute flurry, our little dude making dutiful pilgrimage to his library Mecca each and every day and engaging in what was quickly revealing itself to be the often masochistic practice of making shit up in story form.

Still took crap from those in his class whose IQ values were comparable with their shoe sizes. Heard them riff on the usual, easy subjects: his weight, the fact that he couldn’t deftly kick balls that needed to be kicked or throw balls that needed to be thrown. But he let it all slide off now that he had his stories. His words.

Librarian set him up with a desk all his own, even took to bringing over a brand-spanking-new OED and pocket thesaurus. Things were going well.

Very well, that is, until the little shits caught on to what our dude was doing during his free time away from the clutches of a well-rounded public school education.

Led daring raids into his literary stronghold and shot volleys of whispered insults whenever the librarian wasn’t in earshot. Played keep away with his books of reference and shot spitballs into his hair at precisely the moment he’d seem to be on a roll.

But for all their efforts at sabotage, they only strengthened our kid’s resolve. Even helped him with a problem his writing had suffered with: a lack of active characters. Now that the Douche Brigade had begun their attacks, dude had no problem dreaming up characters who fought their oppressors with a vengeance. Good luck translating that into real life action, though.

The tormenting went on (and intensified, as prepubescent struggles tend to do), until our budding literary star couldn’t get diddly done for all the interference he had to put up with. But he took it all with the sort of (im)patience that comes with putting up with a lot of crap for a long time.

He put up with it, that is, until they stole his comp books.

There grew in our bookish hero a bubbling rage the likes of which our shoe-size-IQed tormentors clearly didn’t see coming. A rage that’d normally be ineffectual in the hands of Dude, but now came out in the sort of outburst that’d make old Fyodor proud.

Channeled every strong character he’d previously conjured, let the Brigade have it and socked the Ringleader (the one who’d stolen his books, naturally) right in the mouth.

The books hit the floor, as did the collective jaws of the assembled crew. There passed a moment where the Ringleader massaged his jaw and his ego both, sizing up our dude in the process. Waiting. Watching. But something in the kid’s crazy, determined eyes scared him off. Cloaked behind the vague threat of a future retaliatory attack, the Ringleader made his leave with the rest of the Brigade.

And so our chubby little bookworm gathered his stack of comp books and laid them next to his Dostoyevsky, the stacked TV static covers now looming over that dusty old volume even if they were a little dog-eared and worse for wear.

Sat down at his desk and gathered his writing instruments as the magnitude of what he’d done finally caught up with him.

Was about to get started again when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye–or rather, someone. The librarian gave him a quick, conspiratorial wink–blink and you’d miss it–and then let him get back to work.

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HONEY DRIPS

Milky nebulae glitter past in their swooping hues, the spirals first this way, then that as the thickly booted feet tip and sway, and yes even angle themselves slightly toward the sun.

The stars shine down their light in spots and waves, the eyes’ retinae scanning and attaching themselves to targets and responding deftly to stimuli.

The body the eyes are attached to is living and breathing for the moment, chest expelling carbon and drawing in depleted oxygen in gasps and starts.

The body has a brain within, and nerves sent twisting and snaking through subterranean channels calibrated for a clime without turning and twisting nebulae, with starshine far removed from thought and view.

The body belongs to a person who is here. They have been here for some time and will continue beyond time. This is why.

Distant galaxies come in as impressionistic swirls and whirls, little tableaux dipped from the tip of a cosmic brush out there in The Grand Nothing.

And the seconds drip like honey from a spoon, until each one can be tasted individually and studied; picked apart and analyzed for an indeterminate amount of time.

The stimuli still rush on as the last breath comes in, hardly oxygenated and stale and tasting bitter on the tongue.

A billion miles back there’s a home; a rock with trees set on it and the starshine far removed. There’s oxygenation and little cosmic swirls set only in the minds of those down below.

The thickly booted feet fall and make purchase with nothing; no down makes claim and up won’t have them either. It’s nothing but ink to spill across the page of it all, a couple scribbles of a nib to set it all in motion.

And the stories from before the booted figure’s life come back in staggered steps, racial memory a download that’s set to expire as soon as life does. The stories of beings sent from beyond the sky, from the place that the figure now floats through in amniotic hues of blue and black.

The honey solidifies in solid chunks and refuses to fall from the spoon; the Gape up ahead is pitch.

A yawning chasm set in the fabric of it all, a whirling drain pulling in thought and time. An irresistible force set from before anything was, an ethereal dream spinning wide and far and carrying in all it finds.

It occurs to the booted figure that it will die, that a cessation of being is just beyond the lip of the hole, waiting to catch the honey drips on a great and unseen tongue.

Milky nebulae glitter past in their swooping hues, the spirals first this way, then that as the thickly booted feet tip and sway, and yes even angle themselves slightly toward the sun.

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