Casualties

“Lives have been lost, Mr. Richards. It’s an inevitable casualty of the war on terror.”

The jet pinwheels across the deck of the carrier, a twirling flame of destruction. Men cry in agony. Lives are snuffed out like so many candles. Is it better to die in a fireball or of hypothermia in fifty-degree water?

“Naturally, there will be an inquiry into the safety of the aircraft itself. The design. The engineering. The, uh, fuel. You understand what I’m saying. Our firm has been retained to provide the best possible legal defense for NorCom Industries. We expect your full attention to this matter.”

One after another, standing jets ignite on the deck as burning drops of fuel rain down. More green blue flames shoot into the violet sky like fireworks. Metal twists and groans as if the heat is a knife cutting the ship in two. Men leap overboard, their bodies ablaze. The ship is melting.

“The Navy is calling this the worst peacetime disaster at sea ever recorded, but I believe we can turn this situation around.”

Debris litters the surface of the ocean. Waves rise and fall. Black slime covers the water like a shadow.

“Let’s get to work then.”

There are no survivors.

The Mouse

“I think we have mice,” Kayla said. She rolled over on the sofa and placed her ear against the wall, sure that she had just heard the scuffling of feet. Nothing. She looked back at Matt who slouched in the red chair, his feet on the coffee table, his eyes half closed.

Did you hear me? I think we have mice?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s the neighbors upstairs. I’m sure they’d fumigate.”

He held up the remote and began to switch through the channels until Kayla said, “Pick something.”

“Huh? Nothing on really.” He left it on the Military Channel where there was a program on World War II and fell asleep. Kayla listened for the scratching, but it remained quiet. Almost as if the mice knew she was listening for them.

They’d been lucky to get this place. It was a decent size two-bedroom, and they split the twenty-four hundred dollar rent. The drawback was that it was a basement apartment—garden apartment, the owner called it—though it only had small half windows in the front of the living room and in the back at the kitchen. Because the house sat in the middle of the block there were no windows in the bedrooms.

“Cells,” Kayla called them, though Matt didn’t seem to care. He seemed to enjoy holing up in his dark little bedroom and tapping away on his computer.

“You’re like a mole,” Kayla would tell him. He was a little with his longish nose and thick round wire rimmed glasses. He was a psych student of independent means. Quiet, easy-going, he kept to himself most of the time, but that was fine by Kayla. She had her own friends.

“You’re too picky. This place is perfect for you. You can walk to work.”

He was right. It was a fifteen-minute walk to her office at Dupont Circle, and yet there were those noises. Not all the time, but enough. Except Matt didn’t hear them. Whenever he came into the room, they stopped.

Kayla decided to buy an electronic mouse trap. It was the most humane thing. She would bait it with peanut butter and let it do its work. The directions said it could hold up to six mice at a time.

She set it up behind the couch and waited. A week went by. Then two. The trap remained empty, but the scratching continued. At night when she was lying in bed, she’d hear the scritch scratching on the wall, the scrabble of little feet, and she’d toss and turn until morning. She couldn’t eat. She’d imagine mice running through the cupboards prying into their supplies, leaving a trail of little brown turds behind. Stepping into the shower with its dark curtain terrified her so she bathed less and less often. Her hair became a chaotic nest of tangles around her thin, white face. She was too tired to do laundry.

Kayla would find herself drifting off at work. During a presentation by the president of her company, she began to snore. She was fired that afternoon.

Kayla dragged herself home and threw herself on her bed. She no longer cared about the scratching. She just wanted to sleep.

When she woke, all was dark and still. She didn’t hear a sound except her own breathing.

“Feeling better?” Matt said.

“I am a little.”

Kayla started to stand, but Matt grasped her arm and pulled her down. “No, I’m afraid you won’t be leaving yet. This is the second part of the experiment. I call it sensory deprivation. Don’t worry. It’s not total, and I won’t let you starve or dehydrate. Maggie was very resilient. I expect you will be too. Who knows? You make even make it to Stage Three.”

Kayla could feel hear her heart throbbing. “Stage Three?”

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Matt said as he wrapped duct tape around her hands. He slapped a final piece across her mouth. “The record is four months. Let’s just see how you do.”

My Bad Nature

My Daddy always said I was born with a bad nature. Mama said I had a mean streak. If I do, well, tomatoes come from the same pack of seeds. They always did like to pretend they were fancy people. They sure did love the big house with all its fancy velvet furniture and gold plated bathroom fixtures. I never did understand why you needed a gold-plated handle on your crapper, but nobody ever asked my opinion.

After Russell was born everyone sort of forgot about me, like I was some kind of mongrel dog you could keep in a broke down kennel. They sent me to school, but I wasn’t much for studies. I remember my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Pinkwater telling Mama how she ought to consider special school for me.

Dummy school was what she meant. Sure enough, the next year the next year they packed me off in a special green bus to a school with all the “special” kids. Special my ass. They were slow as snails. Some of them smelled like snails too. I got kicked out after a year for trying to burn the place down.

After that Mama tried tutors for a while, then she just gave up. She had Russell. He was her sweet boy, her golden haired angel. It killed her when Russell drowned in the lake. He was five. How was I supposed to know he couldn’t swim? Poor Mama just couldn’t stand losing Russell; she swallowed a whole mess of pills one afternoon and never woke up.

Daddy blamed me, of course, but I wasn’t even in the house. I don’t know how she got hold of those horse tranquilizers. I guess she really wanted to escape.

Of course afterward Daddy and I had some real good rows. His face used to get so red! He used to chase me out into the field. Who knew he had a bad heart? The day he dropped dead in the potato patch, it came as a real surprise to me.

Of course, then Uncle Ford and Aunt Latice and cousin Myra came to live with me until I was of age. Aunt Latice always pretended to be so sugary sweet, but I could tell she was plotting. She would walk around the house with her tape measure and say, “Don’t you think we should spruce things up a bit?”

I didn’t like that idea. Not one bit.

She and Uncle Ford were always meeting with her brother who she insisted I call Uncle Clay. He was some kind of lawyer, and I’d hear them in the green parlor. The formal parlor where all the fancy green velvet couches were covered with crocheted doilies on the arms and portraits of all the family stared down at you. Even Mama and Papa.

One Sunday I heard them in there, the four of them, and I snuck down the stairs. When I heard Myra laugh and say my name, I felt the anger boil up. This was my house. She could go to hell.

I went to the hall closet. It was time.

I snuck back to the parlor, threw open the door and blew them away with my Grandpa’s 12 Gauge. Then I dragged the bodies to Uncle Clay’s car and drove them to the quarry.

It took a while to clean up the blood, but I managed. Now the house looks all spic and span, as Mama used to say.

A woman from Child Services dropped by a week ago to talk to me, and I said Uncle Ford took Aunt Latice and Myra on a trip with Uncle Clay. She said they shouldn’t have left me on my own. I said I’d be eighteen in two weeks.

I guess it’s okay though, because it’s been two weeks, and I’m still here.

Because

Because she said no, I find myself adrift. I am wanderer in a strange land where all life’s vivid colors have turned to shades of grey.

I still hold all of those dreams in my memory, my castles in the air, forever lost. They linger, mirage-like just beyond my window.

But I lie in the cool dark, her words a burning tattoo on my heart. “We cannot be. We are too different. I am promised to another.”

She swept away in a whisper of jasmine and bergamot, and I cursed the hatred that fractures acceptance.

“We are too different.”

And yet we are not. Does she lie on her bed and think of me? In the deepest night does she call out my name?

When morning comes, I’ll move on once again, but tonight I’ll dream. I’ll hold her in my arms again and pray to never wake.

Everyone Gone

It took three days to travel up the rain-swollen river. Suhan piloted the boat.

“Doctor go to big house. Very much sick,” he would say over and over like a mantra.

Each day the sun beat down without mercy, and I would feel my skin blistering as the sweat soaked through my clothes. I listened to the brown water pushing the boat onwards, the birds cackling in the lifeless trees, and drank sparingly from my bottled water.

On the second day towards evening, the boat collided with something, and Suhan called out in terror. It was a bloated body. Suhan began to rock and pray.

On the third morning as we drew close to the plantation the river was choked with bodies, and a plume of gray smoke rose into the sky. The great house was burning.

“Everyone gone,” Suhan said, his eyes like black tunnels. “Everyone free.”

Despite the heat, I began to shiver.

The Berry Picker

When summer comes, I help my family by picking berries. It’s outside work, so I make a game of it. I scramble through the rows of ripe strawberries and pluck the fat red fruit quick as I can. I don’t mind picking, though my arms get sore after a few hours, and I wish I had shoes. But at least I have decent clothes and a hat.

Mr. Bigalowe says I’m the fastest worker he’s got. Sometimes Mrs. Bigalowe watches from the porch. She always smiles at me and asks how I’m doing, and I say, “Quite well, thank you, Ma’am,” just like Mama taught me. She offers me lemonade, and it’s cool and tart and sweet all at the same time. I don’t gulp it though. I always thank her. She smiles, and says we’re friends. Though if we were real friends, I guess she’d let me come inside instead of standing on the porch.

On the last day of berry season, Mrs. Bigalowe calls me over. She says she hopes I’ll come visit and gives me a heart-shaped strawberry tart with a golden crust. It looks like something from a storybook.

“Don’t forget to visit,” she says.

I nod and thank her. On the way home I sell the tart for five whole cents.

 

Changes

We smile at each other across the table, and I think of you as you were, when we made so many reckless promises. Before the dreams fell and shattered, the words hurled in anger, the lies told to cover more lies.

Memories can be sweet summer days. But they can also swirl around you like smoke obscuring what you don’t want to see and cut you like so many tiny shards of glass.

You have never understood that each cut leaves a tiny scar. Now we sit at opposite ends of the table, not touching, bound yet unbound. Frightened to let go, and exhausted by reality.

You sit back in your chair and sigh. “Are you happy?” You don’t wait for me to answer. You run a hand through your hair. It’s still thick and wavy. I’ve always thought it was your best feature. “It’s time for a change,” you say.