Posts Tagged ‘grief’

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Cast of Wonders 330: Dinovember – The Raptor Snatchers

Show Notes

Rachael had this to say: This story is part of a shared world project I did with several friends who happen to be fellow Escape Artists authors, although this is the only story in the project so far to reach publication. I’m always looking for new ways to peer pressure them into finishing their chapters of this project, so if you enjoy this one, please help me by shaming them with effusive praise on Twitter!

The Raptor Snatchers

by Rachael K. Jones

Dad said you can’t buy friends, but that’s not always true, because I bought my best friend Zilla with my 10th birthday money. She didn’t cost much because velociraptors were pests, which meant there were too many of them in Absence, and nobody liked them. Rooster’s Rescue was overflowing with raptors. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 327: Memories of Mirrored Worlds

Show Notes

Check out The Drabblecast Reborn!


Memories of Mirrored Worlds

by Barbara A. Barnett

At midnight on her ninth birthday, Alison Marie was crowned Queen of the Nightlands; she decreed that flowers should glow in the dark and that bats should dine with her at supper. At midnight on her tenth birthday, she was named Keeper of the Secret Word, which she whispered to her trusted steed, a giant frog who galloped through the moors. On her eleventh birthday, Alison Marie was worshipped as Goddess of the Sky. She spread her dragon wings each night and breathed the stars to life with fire. But at midnight on her twelfth birthday, Alison Marie became the daughter of a widowed man, and she made no more visits to her other lives. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 284: Staff Picks 2017 – Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

This week’s episode is hosted by associate editor Alexis Goble.


Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches

by Kate Baker

On the night my grandfather died, we all sat around his kitchen table and marveled at how he’d been able to raise six kids in such a tiny house. While creative with the cramped living space, one bathroom seemed to be enough despite the hustle to get to school and work in the mornings. Especially as children grew into teenagers and time preening before the mirror was at a premium.

There is chaos that comes with illness and death, yet despite piles of unopened mail and neglected dishes and floors, my eyes lingered on the subtle touches that made this house a home. Especially in this kitchen. A wooden hutch still held the “good” glass and dinnerware that my grandparents cherished and thought to protect. Pots and pans of every shape, size, and color hung from racks and peeked out from crowded cabinets. And despite a very thin layer of dust, the spice rack stood at the ready for whatever recipe came along.

(Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 283: Staff Picks 2017 – Single Parent

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

This week’s episode is hosted by audio producer Jeremy Carter.


Single Parent

By Sarah Gailey

The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.

Here’s what happened: Jack screamed in the middle of the night and I came running because I’m his dad and that’s what dads are for. He’s been doing that for a month — screaming like someone’s in his room murdering him with a screwdriver. And even though there’s never, not even once been anyone murdering him, I couldn’t just let him scream his little head off all night. If I didn’t come running, his mom would have risen from the grave just to come and slap me upside the head.

I know what you’re thinking, but the monster in the closet is not his mom. It is not my dead wife, come back to watch over him and protect him. This isn’t that kind of a story. It’s a fucking monster, okay? (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 281: Little Wonders 16 – Siblings in Space

Show Notes

The Little Wonders theme “Neversus” is by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Houston, Houston, Do You Read James Tiptree?

by Rachael K. Jones

After two hours of work, Daria got the space station’s recycler back online without Hugh there to help her. If he had just waited ten minutes while she tried resetting power. If he had let her double-check his gear before his spacewalk, like he was supposed to by all protocols.

If. If. If. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 280: Cateye Gleaming in the Dark


Cateye Gleaming In The Dark

by David M. Hoenig

Today…

James Riordan thinks that eighty four is a pretty fine number. It’s round, for one thing. It’s made up of what should be a lucky seven of dozens, for another. And he’s had time to get used to it, since it doesn’t look like he’s going to get around to eighty five.

The watery light of a cold February morning enters tentatively, as if unsure of its welcome. It rises slowly from the floor, up the starched white linens of his bed and creeps onto the homey red and blue quilt which insulates his thin frame. Even though he watched its hesitant approach the whole time, he seems surprised when it’s finally there, because he’s had to split his attention between it and breathing. The effort clearly tires him, because his eyes drift closed.

He wrestles his hand from under the sheets and up to his chest where he takes weak hold of a small leather bag which hangs on a thong from his neck. While he still has to strive for breath- oxygen supplemented by the twin-pronged, plastic life-giver across his upper lip- a smile settles across his achingly exhausted features.

He was not always so.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 257: Little Wonders 13 – Death

Show Notes

The Little Wonders theme “Neversus” is by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Chrysalis

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

The love of my life died on July third, 1983, at the respectable age of one hundred and nineteen. Oldest man on Earth, according to the good Doctor Hippen.

I can’t say his death came as a shock; when a man reaches that advanced an age, only the absolutely delusional would suggest he buy denture paste in bulk. Still, I hadn’t expected it to happen so suddenly.

We had just begun a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle (always the optimist, my Edgar). One moment, he was looking for a piece of the sky, and the next, he found a piece of his very own. How convenient that his death would coincide with Lasagna Sunday, the bane of his existence.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 255: Doors

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


Doors

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

It had been three months since I’d taken my brother anywhere. The last place we’d gone together was our mother’s funeral. Since then Zack had been difficult, more so than usual, refusing to put on his shoes, shushing me when I asked him to do his chores, even screaming and pounding his fists when it was time to drive him to the recycling facility where he sorted paper as part of a program for developmentally disabled adults.

But he had agreed to visit the county fair, though in the car on the way he had bruised his knuckles knocking on the window glass, an old habit Mom and I thought we’d broken him of.

At the fair, we walked down aisles of blue-and-white striped tents that sold fried Twinkies and Dr. Pepper, Texas turkey legs and popcorn balls. Zack demanded it all; the whole night he’d been signing the first letters of every food item we passed. I remembered why I’d put off an outing. Fun was exhausting, especially with a brother who wanted so much and didn’t understand that he couldn’t have it. Between school and the stack of bills at home, I could barely afford the fair tickets. The income from Zack’s job only paid enough to cover gas to get him to work and back.

The word “no” always sets Zack off, so I didn’t say it when he asked for giant sugar cookies and lemonade and funnel cake. Instead I walked in front of him, leading him through throngs of people, searching out booths with those magical words on display: complimentary, FREE. Thus far I’d found a magnet for a car rental agency, a blue balloon, a plastic water bottle which featured the portrait of a cartoon cowboy, four pens and a dozen flyers, all of which Zack would cherish as much as his photo collection.

In the background, the midway’s steel roller coasters quaked like giants. The musk of barn animals drifted from the livestock pens near the rodeo hall. These were two places I wouldn’t take him. If I did – as he begged me to, his non-signing hand pointed permanently toward them – we would never leave. I also avoided any booths which might remind me of what I could no longer accomplish, with Zack to take care of; the local travel agent’s booth was hardest to avoid, with its posters depicting far off places, monuments and museums I would never visit.

Instead I followed a series of arrowed signposts with a word nearly as good as FREE: $1 Tours, in bold orange marker. They guided us to a circular purple building which seemed to be a modified Starship 2000, a ride that Zack and I had ridden often as children, when I was just his sister and not his caretaker; the UFO-shaped structure contained about two dozen pads, each as tall as a person, which everyone would lie against. The conductor in the middle would fiddle with his levers, start the carnival music, and the ride would spin around his command station. The centrifugal force would push us up to the ceiling and pin us to the walls, pull our grins wide like grotesque masks. The tour building was the same eggplant purple, but the lighted sign that stretched across its roof proclaimed a different name: The Bender. A ramp led to a door which led inside. At the gate stood a woman all in black despite the atrocious heat, one of the handmade signs in her manicured grip. Sweat shone on her bare arms, and the curve of her long fingers folded around the sharp of the sign’s edges made my stomach flutter. Two more women in black leaned against the wall.

“What is this?” I asked, an excuse to hear her speak. Zack waved to the woman. He’d always been a bit of a ladies’ man.

“This is the Super Spectacular Space Bender,” she said. She had a strange accent, unlike any I had ever heard. “The main hub for this Multiverse, designed to take you through space and beyond!”

I smiled. My palms were sweating. It had been a while since I’d spoken to a beautiful girl. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Zack made his way to one of the other women and stuck out his hand. She shook it.

“Oh really?” I said. “How do you manage that?”

“Tours are only a dollar. Questions will be answered at the end, though we make no guarantee as to truths, or satisfactions, or even that the questions answered will be the questions you requested.”

In my wallet I had exactly five dollar bills. I handed her two – her fingers brushed mine as she took them – and called to Zack. When he wouldn’t come, the woman he’d shaken hands with took his arm. People were always doing that, helping. Sometimes they asked if I needed it first. Always, I wanted to say, I need more help than you can give. Zack followed the woman up the ramp and into the Super Spectacular Space Bender. I could think of nothing else to say, so I followed him.

Inside, the Bender was shaped like a giant donut, a thin hall stretched around what must have once been the circular control room in the middle, now closed off with a wall of its own. I only knew it was still there because of the single arched door to my right. The size of the hall was impossible. It seemed to stretch farther inward than the outside suggested, but I chalked the optical illusion up to the red-and-white striped circus tent wallpaper, which made me dizzy. The pads that lined the Starship 2000 were gone. Instead, rectangular steel doors obscured the wall to my left, no more than two feet between each, the door we’d come through lost in the repetition. The Bender smelled like sugar and sweaty children. I glanced down at the floor. It was transparent, though the only thing visible through it was the concrete platform on which The Bender stood. Kernels of popcorn had been smashed into the glass.

“Look up,” the woman who’d been holding the sign whispered into my ear, her breath hot. I did as she asked. The ceiling too was glass, and through it stars gleamed as if the light pollution of the fair didn’t exist.

“I know, right?” the woman said. She maneuvered her way to the front of the small crowd of five, my brother and I included, and began to shout. “Ladies and gents, welcome! I would like to entreat all of you to wander these halls. Please do look in the windows of any doors you find, for as you see there are many doors, and please feel free to speculate on the nature of what you see, though I can assure you, you will be wrong. But you must not open any door, no matter what you see inside. Many have been lost to the doors.” Her words echoed through the vast hallway.

I didn’t see Zack or the woman he had been talking to; they’d managed to slip away down the hall.

My sneakers squeaked against the glass floor as I searched for them. When I still could see only darkness ahead, no sign of my brother, I leaned over to peer through a round porthole window in one of the doors that should have led back outside. I couldn’t quite believe what was behind it. Men and women in suits stood around with cocktails in their hands. Off to the only corner of the room I could see, ravenous party guests surrounded a table of hors d’oeuvres.

But the room couldn’t exist. There wasn’t enough space for a large party room; there wasn’t space for any room.

“What the?” I said out loud. But before my question could be answered, I spotted Zack walking through the crowd behind the window, holding a plate of cakes. Damn it, I thought. That’s what I get for being distracted. I tried the knob. To my surprise, it turned. I entered the room and shut the door behind me.

I shuffled through the crowd. I thought I saw Zack’s shoulder, but when I touched it, the man who turned to face me wasn’t him. I darted about, searching, but he was nowhere to be found.

“Have you seen my brother?” I asked people. “Have you seen a guy with Down’s Syndrome? Doesn’t talk?”

One woman nodded, pointed. I followed her lead. The room was too big, and I didn’t understand how Zack could move so quickly; normally he was slow, always glancing back as he walked, double- then triple-checking, like a tic. A glitch in the Matrix, our father once called it, before he packed up and left one day, at mom’s request, promising to return once she had changed her mind. We were younger. His leaving didn’t mean I would be saddled with all the responsibility of a parent. We still had Mom back then.

For a moment, and I swear it was brief, I stopped. I didn’t want to find him. I thought about what the woman had said – lost through the doors – and it sounded like a way out. I could save all my money, see the world like I’d always planned.

But then I remembered my brother, how no one here would know his name. I kept on.

Finally I glimpsed what appeared to be the back of his dark mop of hair near the far wall. I hurried to him and placed my hand on his shoulder. As I did I realized it was too high to be Zack’s shoulder, and then the man turned.

It was our father.

Wrinkles bordered his eyes, and his hair was white and grey. We had never gotten to see him that way. The couple he’d been talking to went on talking, so he and I were left staring at one another. My father’s lips pursed tight. In his hand he held a glass of amber liquor.

“What are you doing here, Nikki?” he asked.

“Why are you here?” I said, stumbling over words.

He rolled his eyes. “That’s a stupid question if ever I heard one. I’m not allowed to have a party in my own apartment? Are you the party police now?”

“You’re not gone,” I said.

“Oh, for God’s sake. You really are your mother’s daughter. So dramatic.” He shrugged my hand off his shoulder. “Did you come to apologize?”

Suddenly I didn’t care why or how he was back, or what this life was behind the door. I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him tight. The liquor sloshed in the glass and wet a spot on my shirt, cold through the cotton.

“It’s been so long,” I said.

“Don’t cry. Please, don’t cry. You don’t have to say it,” he said.

“Zack!” I said. “Where is he?”

My father scowled. “In his room, I hope. I asked him to stay there. He was getting belligerent, upset at all these people, I suspect.”

“You did? But wasn’t he happy to see you?”

“For God’s sake. If you want to raise him, go right ahead.”

As if it had all been solved – all questions answered, all apologies for invented crimes assuaged – our father stormed into the crowd. I decided to seek out Zack. At least I could judge the situation by Zack’s reaction.

I went down the first hall I reached, trying each door I passed. The first was a bathroom, occupied. The second a closet. Zack’s was the third. I found him on the bed with his plate of cake beside him, though he wasn’t eating. Instead he peered down at the floor, shaking his head, one finger twisting in the air as if he were trying to point but couldn’t quite make the fingers work right. His common expression of anger.

“Hey buddy,” I said as I sat beside him. “How’s that cake?”

He didn’t look up right away, but when he did, I realized that the area around his eye was bruised black. Immediately my hands went to touch it, to make sure it was real, but he jerked away.

“Who did this to you?” I asked.

He grunted. He wouldn’t know how to answer; descriptions of people beyond girl and boy and hat were difficult for him.

“Did you see Dad?” I asked, hoping to calm him. As soon as Dad escaped my mouth, he was off, screaming, shrill and violent, as he slapped his hands against his thighs. At first I chalked this reaction up to Dad’s being back, which was confusing even for me.

Then I remembered that I’d passed beyond the door. The words had been right there, in that woman’s mouth. The main hub for this Multiverse, designed to take you through space and beyond! If that meant what I thought it could mean – I’d read about the multiverse once, freshman year, a time of mind-altering trips down strange ideas lane – then Zack and I might have gone through a door into a place where our father had never disappeared. Or maybe I was crazy. It could also be a dream, but one glance at Zack and his black eye told me it wasn’t. It was too real for that.

“Listen to me, Zack. Did Dad do that to you?” I asked. “Your eye?”

Zack stared at me, but he didn’t respond.

“Yes or no?” I said.

He shook his fist up and down: yes. A cold wave spread through my body.
I grabbed Zack’s hand and tried to pull him from the bed, but he was heavy and unwilling to follow me. “Be right back,” I told him. “I’m going to get help.”

To get him to move, I would need the help of a beautiful woman. I moved through the party, trying to avoid the eyes of guests whose unknown intentions now frightened me. I didn’t trust anyone here.

I ran, searching for the door. When I finally found it, I jerked it open and tumbled back into The Bender’s rank hall.

It was empty, and the circus tent wallpaper seemed to pulse in the light which flickered from elephant-shaped wall sconces. I hadn’t seen them earlier, but they were dust-covered and faded, as if they’d been there for years. I bent down to rest my hands on my knees. The floor no longer revealed the industrial platform it had before. Instead, black went on forever, dotted with stars. Dizziness forced me to press my hand onto the door, which was cool and slick beneath my palm. When I was once more able to stand, I looked again in the door’s window. Our father was clomping toward the hall, a taller, darker drink in his hand.


I ran the length of the hallway until I couldn’t breathe anymore. I wasn’t sure how far I’d come, but one of the many windows to my left showed me another place, a beach in winter, covered with snow. I peered into the window of the command center door, which seemed to have followed me as I ran; it was the same arched door I’d seen before, when I first entered the Bender. As I’d run, I could always see it to my right, in the corner of my eye. Through the window, the three women in black and a man in a purple fedora lounged in chairs shaped like high heels.

I opened the door. None of them stirred. Two of the women were touching heads, giggling. The third woman, the one from before, the whisperer, chewed her nails and peered at a black-rimmed flat-screen television – it even had the SAMSUNG logo below it – on the far wall above a huge wooden wheel like those you’d find on a ship. On the screen a mess of colored dots and arrows and blue lines like the streets on a GPS shifted and changed. I thought for a moment I saw the outline of a fox disappear off the screen. The man in the fedora was speaking too loudly for the size of the room: “Damn it all, the bloody foxbusters! Can you believe we made it out of there, all intact? Or mostly, anyway. Holy key limes, crewsters!”

“Excuse me,” I said. “I need your assistance. My brother went into one of the rooms, and he won’t come out. Please, it’s urgent. I need a woman.”

The man whistled. “I’ll say,” he said. “I would drink to that.”

The three women turned their heads. The one from earlier stood. “I remember you,” she said. “My name is Belinda. Your brother is fine. I led him to the midway myself. I suspected you may have gone through.”

“But I just saw him. He was at my father’s party. He had a black eye. I need to get him out of there.”

“Impossible!” said the man. “You can’t take him out with you.”

“Why not?”

“You’re here only because you haven’t chosen,” Belinda said. “Your reality. That brother is not yours for the taking.”

“We have a plan for people like you,” said the man.

“People like me? Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Captain, of course. And I’m telling you, I know you. You’re unhappy with the way things are, back at home. You’re exhausted. You wake up every day on the wrong side of the road and wish you had a choice in it all. I’m here to tell you that you do. You have four choices, in fact.”

“Why won’t anyone help me get my brother?” I said.

Belinda reached out and squeezed my hand. “Please,” she said. “I’ll explain everything.” She turned to the man. “Captain, don’t you have some piloting to do? I’m afraid we’re quite off course.”

Belinda led me from the room so we could speak without distracting Captain, she said. She asked me to sit with her on the glass floor. I did, though I tried my hardest not to glance down.

“Don’t you worry,” she said. “You get used to feeling like you’re falling all the time.”

This is what she told me then: The Bender was indeed the hub for the Multiverse. I was smart, she said, to figure that out, never mind that she had flat out told me; no one ever believed the words of a state fair vendor, though they were often more true than a scientist’s. Each outer door led to a new reality. The brother I’d seen wasn’t mine, not really. Rather he belonged to the Nikki in his own world, a Nikki whose father had not left when she was young.

Then she told me that I was here, in the Primalverse with them, because I had not chosen a future. I had seen a world behind a door, and it had raised a question. I was asking myself if one of these realities might hold a happier me. This was a question she said she could not answer. This was the reason I would be given a choice.

Three doors. I had gone through my first and found it wanting. I could go through two more, experience those realities, see if they held an ideal world. After the third, I would be forced to choose. Any of the three I’d visited, or my own, which waited frozen for me, though it would not wait forever. I had twenty-four hours, and that was all. Already I had used a quarter of that time.

I didn’t say to her what it was flashed through my head; would there be a world where my brother could take of himself, where he could speak? Or where our mother had not left me with a man-sized burden?

I set the timer on my watch.


I searched the windows for a scene that called to me. Vibrant landscapes, dull white rooms I passed on, until I came to a window which revealed my mother’s house as it had appeared that morning. Only here, the light shone through the living room as it no longer did. Rarely did we open the curtains anymore; it would be like a betrayal of our grief.

As soon as I felt the brown shag beneath my feet, I smelled the sugar scent of chocolate chip cookies just browned enough to take from the oven. Mom always burned them; she couldn’t smell them being done as I could. I rushed into the kitchen, slipped the potholders onto my hands, and pulled the sheet from the oven.

“Oh, I forgot about them again,” said my mother’s voice from the hall.

“Thanks, dear. I guess you came just in time.”

Mom wore her ratty blue robe, a staple in her dying days, but she seemed different in it now. Her face glowed with life. Her hair was combed and wet, her cheeks free of the pillow marks that had taken over like wrinkles when she’d been confined to bed for weeks at a time. Her skin was smooth, and when I hugged her, hard, it smelled of soap and powder.

She hugged me just as hard back – always she had understood that sometimes, without explanation, people just need to feel the pressure of love – but she whispered into my ear: “Is everything okay? You seem frazzled.”

“It’s just you, Mom. You’re here. You look so good.”

“Why, thank you.” Mom pulled back, held her arms out to her side. “I gussied up just for you.” I was aware of tears in my eyes. Mom noticed them too, pulled me back into the hug. “Nikki, what happened?”

“You’re okay,” I said. “I had a dream, that you were dead.”

“I’m fine. I’m going to live a long time yet. You don’t have to worry about me.” She kissed the top of my hair like she used to do when I was a little girl. “What we do have to worry about is these cookies sticking to the pan. You want to help me?”

I began slipping the spatula under the cookies and moving them to the cooling rack. “Is Zack still asleep?” I asked. The clock told me it was noon, but he’d been known to sleep all day if we let him.

“Who?” Mom picked up a cookie and blew on it.

“Very funny.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mom popped the cookie in her mouth, held her hand to my forehead.

“I’m fine.” I arranged three cookies on a plate. “I’m going to go wake him up.”

“Wake who up?”

“Zack, Mom. You know, your other child?”

“I don’t get the joke.”

That familiar wave of cold again. Without answering, I walked through the house to the hall, moved down it, checking doors as I went, light-headed. Deja fucking vu, I thought. All the rooms were the same, except for his. Where before his door had led to a dark den with a bed, a shelf of stuffed animals, a CD rack and a Djembe drum abandoned in the corner, now the room was filled with craft supplies: a sewing machine, several boxes of buttons, a few plastic containers full of beads and string. On the table by the far window a pair of pants dangled, empty of a body. Just like the room.

Mom appeared in the doorframe. “What’s going on with you?”

“I don’t have a brother?” I asked.

She shook her head, slowly.

“Sorry,” I said. “I must have dreamt that too. I’m tired. I’m just not feeling like myself is all.”

“You should lie down. I worry about you. Are you sleeping enough? You can’t let school stress you out, okay? You need an outlet. Do you have an outlet?”

My smile broke through. It was nice to have someone who worried. I’d forgotten how much it meant, how much I missed it.

“I do yoga,” I lied. “I’m fine. Stress is in line.”

I couldn’t lie down, not with Mom there, the scene so ordinary with the plate of cookies, her mug of cold coffee. I joined her at the table, closing my eyes as I slid into the seat. Every part of this I wanted to remember completely. We talked about school and romance, and I repeated every word she said in my head, hoping to commit them to memory. I told her I’d been so busy I didn’t have time for love. She said that was okay, that I would make time when I was ready, when I found the right man…or woman, she added. I didn’t say I doubted that was true, that there was no time to make, what with all my responsibilities. I could tell from the way her head tilted far to the side when she spoke to me that in this reality, I didn’t have responsibilities. She mentioned my father in a way that told me he had abandoned us here, too. I tried not to think of the father I’d met earlier.

Despite the warmth my mother radiated, our conversation felt hollow. I couldn’t tell her what I wanted to, couldn’t speak to her about grief, about Zack. I had to edit myself to keep from slipping Zack into the conversation, had to skirt around his existence. Without being able to confide everything in my mother, I felt as if I could confide nothing.

I couldn’t choose her at the expense of Zack.

I asked her for an old picture book I knew it would take a long time to find. Once she left the room, I went through the front door. There are some things you don’t want to have to do twice, and saying goodbye to a mother is one of them.


This time when I reentered The Bender, miniature stuffed animals were suspended from strings attached to the glass ceiling with duct tape. A llama brushed the top of my head as I ducked into the hall. They had been sewn from colored felt, deep reds and blues, beige, none of the usual flashy colors. I lifted my hand and let my fingers brush them: a lion, a bat, an earthworm. I held my breath and stared up at them until I could no longer see them as separate entities, just one colored blur above, blocking out the stars. I felt as if they were mine to see alone, and for a moment the choke in my throat from seeing my mother lessened.

From the control room, I heard music, what sounded like a synthesized polka. Also, voices. When I opened the door, the control room was different. Strips of silver hung from this ceiling and sparkled in the light of paper lanterns. The shoe-shaped chairs in which the crew had previously sat were now the shape of red lips, and I couldn’t see the crew, though I could hear them laughing.
As I crept further into the room, they came gradually into focus. Each of them wore a jumpsuit which matched the decorations so perfectly they had blended in. Captain came toward me, and as he did the colors of his clothes shifted with the objects he passed.

“Back so soon?” he said. “Still haven’t found your bread crumbs, then?”

“Not quite,” I said. “What’s the occasion?”

“For the party? What isn’t the occasion?” Here he leaned in so close I could feel his hot breath. Unlike Belinda’s, his churned my stomach. “I don’t know how you got here, you know. Usually people get stuck in the doors. Once they leave, they don’t ever come back. But you, Ms. Nikki, you found us here in the void. You must be a special kind of woman.”

“I’m not,” I said, backing away. “At least not in the way you would like.”

“If you say so,” he said. “Would you like a wink of wing juice? The bottle says toxic, but we think that just means enjoy in moderation!”

“No thanks,” I said. From the screen against the wall I heard a frantic beeping. A huge red dot was moving toward the smaller green, both of them traveling the length of a blue line. “Shouldn’t you be controlling the ship?”
“He doesn’t,” Belinda said, “control the ship.”

Captain mumbled his way back to one of the chairs.

“Why is he called Captain then?”

Belinda leaned in. “He likes to think he controls things. Really it’s us – me mostly – does the controlling.” She smiled. “He’s more like our entertainment. He likes you, though. We all do.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “Those other two haven’t really talked to me.”

Belinda shrugged.

“Those animals,” I said. “Who made them?”

“Do you like them?” She beamed. “I won them for you. I thought they might make you feel more at ease.”

“They did. Thank you.”

“Have you made your decision?”

“No,” I said. “I still have one door to go.”

She placed her hand on my shoulder. It seemed everyone was doing that these days. I’d forgotten how she had first made my stomach jump.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” she said. “Go.”


Choosing the third door was more difficult. No obvious choice presented itself, and so I rushed from door to door and pressed my hand against each, trying to let my skin decide. Most of them were cool, the same temperature as the hall, but then I came to one where the cold of the steel bit into my hand, startling in its variance from the others. I looked through the window and knew my choice had been made.

The other side of the door left me feeling immediately as if my choice had been wrong. I’d felt drawn from the window to its stark whiteness – how boring it seemed – as I used to be drawn to smaller Christmas presents, sure that they would hold the best treasure, as they so often did. But once the smell came at me – bleach and laundry detergent – I felt overwhelmed by the decision I would soon be forced to make. Still, I walked on.

I was in some sort of laundry facility. Washers thumped on one side of the room, dryers on the other. There were no people around. I found another door which led to a hallway that reeked of antiseptic. Down the hall, with closed doors to either side, I found a check-in desk like those at doctor’s offices. Behind the desk sat a woman. Her attention was occupied by a sheet of paper before her.

“Excuse me,” I said.

She looked up. Her eyes brightened. “Ms. Nikki,” she said. “We haven’t seen you in quite some time.”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’ve been busy.”

“I know,” she said. “How was the Czech Republic? I’ve seen some of your show.”

“My show?”

“You know, Zack’s very proud of you.” She leaned across the desk, as if she were going to tell me a secret. “Some of the nurses don’t think Zack understands very much, but I think he understands more than he lets on. He sees you on the TV sometimes, and he points, he laughs.” The television caught her eye, and she pointed upwards. “Speak of the devil,” she said.

On the TV, I stood before the backdrop of Prague’s Old Town Square, which was teeming with people and stalls selling colored eggs and beer in plastic cups. A logo in the corner read, TravelTimes with Nikki Nolan. The last name wasn’t mine; I was a Lyle, not a Nolan. Sure enough, as I held a fat soft pretzel up to the camera, a solid silver band glinted on my finger.

I wondered who she or he was, if she traveled with me. If I’d seen all of the world. What was it like out there, an almost infinite number of doors to choose from? Was I in love, with the world and with a someone and with the life I’d been able to live?

“Can I see my brother?” I asked.

“Of course,” said the woman. After I stood there a minute too long, she frowned. “Did you forget? Room 216,” she said.

I found 216, a wood and rough-grained door with a shiny gold knob. Inside Zack slept face down atop the blankets. I’d seen him sleep like that before, and it made me laugh. I said his name. His head jerked up. He looked older, much older than me, which he was – ten years older, in fact – but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I might be older too. To be out there seeing the world as I was, I must have already completed college.

I gawked at the mirror hung on the backside on his door. I looked the same. Of course, people with Down’s syndrome often age more quickly, but Zack had always seemed so youthful in our reality, like a child. Perhaps, I thought, looking around at his dull white room, he’d matured. Or the home was to blame. I’d read that homes could do that to a person, worsen a condition. Being in a strange place would certainly stress Zack out, make him less comfortable than our own home. He wouldn’t like the bare walls, the absence of faces he had known since childhood.

He didn’t smile when I said hello, but he had never done that. I rushed to his bedside and hugged him close.

“I’ve missed you.” I didn’t know if it meant anything to him, but I had to say it. “How have you been?”

Zack swung his legs over the side of the bed. His eyes were trying to close against the light, still lazy with sleep.

“How have you been, Zack? Good, bad, okay?” I held my thumb up, down, to the side.

He gave me a thumbs up.

“Good? You’ve been good?”

He held two fingers in the center of his palm.

“Hot dog? You want a hot dog? I’m sure we could arrange that.”

I held out my hand, and he took it. I asked him to lead me to the cafeteria, but he kept falling back, so I followed the signs and led him there instead. The cafeteria was located in a large room with a serving line at the front, where a handful of patients moseyed with trays in hand. Round orange tables were scattered across the black-and-white tile, few of them filled. Zack and I waited through the line, and though there were no hot dogs, there were hamburgers, which we both ordered plain with ketchup only. I always used to forget that he didn’t like vegetables on his sandwiches, but it seemed important that I remember, at least this once.

We sat at a table near the back and ate. He repeated the hot dog sign a couple of times, so I had to point at his burger, sweep my hand down in an L – later. Later was another one of the words Zack hated. He shook his head, uttered his guttural no!

“It’s okay, Zack. Be happy, okay?”

And it was true, it was okay. There I was, watching him eat his burger, and it had only been less than twenty-four hours – I glanced at my watch, twenty-two hours, in fact – but it felt like weeks. “How long have I left you here?” I asked, voice shaking.

He didn’t answer, and I didn’t want him to. I knew it had been a long time, regardless that I still looked the same age, and he so much older. But, despite the graying hair, he still had the same tics, the same contempt for words, the same demands for the same foods. It was me who was really different. It was the smallest of changes, but it was significant; I couldn’t live in a world where my life hadn’t included my brother, despite him being happy, despite my own apparent happiness. There had to be some way to see the world and take care of my brother, some way to make it work.

I kissed the top of his hair; it smelled of oil and eucalyptus shampoo, his favorite back at home, too. I couldn’t say I was sorry. That word too was forbidden. Instead I thought it, tried to make him know it from the way my eyes met his. He kept eating his fries.

I backed out of the cafeteria, and once hidden from his view I ran through the halls, back to the laundry room door, slipping on the white tile. I burst through the door back into The Bender.


Belinda was waiting in the hall. Her jumpsuit shone purple in the light. She looked at her watch as I emerged.

“Cutting it close,” she said. “Forty minutes left. Have you decided?”

I nodded.

“Well, hold it in a bit longer. I have a proposition for you.” She took my hand. Together we entered the control room through the arched door. Captain was in a corner of the room, which now displayed the same striped wallpaper as the hall. The other women weren’t around. Without music or Captain blaring, I could make out the intermittent whir of an engine in the walls.

“Does Captain do anything but goof off?”

“He makes a mad orange scone,” Belinda said. “And his party tricks are to die for. He does this thing with an apple and a mouse. Absolutely brilliant. Though it does take some doing to find a suitable rodent.”

She stopped before the screen, pointed upward. Her other hand, soft and sweaty, squeezed mine. I tilted my head, and a giant ball of blue-green pulsated before me, waves of light snaking like tentacles from its center. It was so beautiful my breath left me. I raised my hands to the top of my head.

“I want you,” she said, “to stay with us.”

I looked back to her. She too was beautiful, though I hadn’t really noticed just how beautiful. I had trained myself not to fully notice things like that – too little time to stop and consider faces, lips; hers were right there in front of me, as if she was daring me to notice them, full and pink, curved up at the ends in a mysterious smile. I kissed her because I could.

“Is that a yes?” she asked when we parted. “Wait, don’t answer.” She turned to the screen, keyed in some letters and numbers, hit the red button. “Look at this, first. A complete map of this place, the Primalverse. We can show you so much.”

On the screen new dots winked and rotated. Upon closer inspection, I saw that five of the dots were shaped like ships. They drifted about in the void.

“What are those other ships?” I asked.

“Other hubs, for other universes. Where you don’t exist, where you don’t have to worry at all about family. About any of it. The craziest stuff you’ve ever seen lurks behind the doors in those ships. I can take you there. We can travel them together. I’m due for a vacation, after all.”

“How many?”

“Hundreds. This map is just the edge.”

The desert was nothing compared to this. Belinda’s hand was still in mine, and her lips had left the taste of salt. It made me thirsty. The intersecting colors on the screen resembled a piece of modern art you might see in a famous gallery, obscure and inspiring. Just watching it made my mind race. There is a difference between imagining love from a ring on a finger and feeling it right in front of you, an arm’s reach away. But there was no way to tear myself in two, to be both the people I wanted to be. I shook my head, slowly at first, then faster.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think I can.”

“He’s safe,” Belinda said. “We can make him safe for you. But you can’t ever go back there. You can’t enter any of these doors again, not in this hub.”

“You want me to give up my home?”

“Trade your home, for hundreds of others.”

There was a woman’s hand in mine, the soft warmth of skin I hadn’t felt in two years now, ever since Mom got sick. What would it be like, I wondered, to have someone to hold onto?

I looked down at our clasped hands. The timer blinked on my wrist. Twenty minutes, it read. I felt my heart speed. What if I just stayed here, right until the end? Made my decision at the last minute? Waited until my heart was beating so fast I couldn’t stand it anymore?

But I couldn’t. I would regret even this hesitation. I let go of her hand. I glanced around the control room once more, but I didn’t look at the screen. I didn’t look at the floor or the ceiling. I looked at the dizzying walls, at the sleeping Captain. I didn’t look at Belinda.

As I turned, I felt her hand, for a moment, enter my pocket, like she was trying to hold me back. I jerked myself away and continued through the door. Walked down the hall. All the doors appeared the same, and for a panicked moment I wondered how I would be able to recognize it; there wasn’t time to peer through each and every window.

But then I felt it, the sweltering heat of Texas drifting through the air-conditioned building. I looked through the window at fairgoers paused, frozen, as they pushed toward promises of life-changing visions and best value makeovers. A woman stood before The Bender, brows pinched in confusion, her mouth open, as if she’d been speaking to the invisible space where, an instant before, Belinda had stood. I exited.

Down the ramp I ran, across the paths, kicking dirt up into my mouth, zigzagging through the immobile mob. The bright lights of the midway arched before me, until I stood beneath them. The timer on my watch told me I had five minutes to go. I didn’t want Zack to be without me any longer. I didn’t want to be without him.

I knew where he would have gone: the roller coaster.

The line was long, but I spotted him toward the back. I ducked under the queue rope and stood beside him. His hands straight down by his sides, the fanny pack he always wore loose around his waist, his bright green shoes tied tight. He was half-smiling. That would change once he realized I’d returned. He’d be even angrier when he realized he needed ten tickets to ride the coaster.

But right now, he was the brother he’d been when we were little and we played Uno together or camped in our backyard, pretending our parents were a distant memory. We didn’t have to pretend anymore, and it wasn’t like we’d thought it would be then, endless cookies and late nights.

When we get home, I thought, I’ll make you cookies.

I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. He would never let me do that. With two minutes left, I put my hands into my pocket, felt something there, and pulled out a sheet of bright red tickets. I recalled the weight of Belinda’s hand. I grinned.

I reached down and slipped the tickets into Zack’s open palm, closed his fist around them. Then I ducked back under the rope, looked him over one more time, and went around to the exit. There I would wait for him, to rouse, to ride, to go home.

Episode 254: A Complex Filament of Light by S. Qiouyi Lu


• Content Warning: Grief
• Narrated by S. Qiouyi Lu
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Anathema Magazine (April 2017)
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Show Notes

S. Qiouyi Lu is a writer, editor, and translator who has also narrated for PodCastle, GlitterShip, and Acacia Moon Productions. You can visit their website or follow them on Twitter.

 

 

 

 


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

 

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Episode 253: Single Parent by Sarah Gailey

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Single Parent

By Sarah Gailey

 

The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.

Here’s what happened: Jack screamed in the middle of the night and I came running because I’m his dad and that’s what dads are for. He’s been doing that for a month — screaming like someone’s in his room murdering him with a screwdriver. And even though there’s never, not even once been anyone murdering him, I couldn’t just let him scream his little head off all night. If I didn’t come running, his mom would have risen from the grave just to come and slap me upside the head.

I know what you’re thinking, but the monster in the closet is not his mom. It is not my dead wife, come back to watch over him and protect him. This isn’t that kind of a story. It’s a fucking monster, okay?

Anyway, he screamed like he’s screamed every night since we watched Denise go into the ground. I came running like I’ve come running every night since we threw dirt at her coffin, which seems like it’s supposed to be important and respectful but really just felt like throwing dirt at my wife’s corpse. He was sitting up in bed, sweating and crying and smelling like little-kid-piss and I remember thinking that this was the last straw — that tonight I would be Tough Dad and tell him I wasn’t going to put up with the screaming anymore.

I didn’t end up doing that, though. I’ve never been a tough guy. Denise was always the tough guy, but she’s being tough on Abraham up in heaven somewhere and I’m down here sitting on my kid’s wet bedsheets.

Anyway, I burst into his room and put my arms around him. I kissed his sweaty head and told him that everything would be okay. I asked which nightmare had woken him up this time. Usually they’re nightmares about his mom coming back, which breaks my heart to hear, but the therapist said I have to listen. So I braced myself, and tried to be ready to hear him talk about how Denise’s face is melting off in his subconscious.

Only this time, he shook his head. Not a nightmare. A monster.

I am a bad father because I was relieved. That’s how you know you’re a bad father: your kid is trembling and terrified and you breathe a sigh of relief because it’s only his worst fear and not yours.

The thing is, I thought I knew how to handle the monster situation. From experience. For six months or so before Denise died, Jack had this thing about a monster in his closet. The therapist said that he was processing her sickness through a proxy – that he couldn’t quite understand what was coming, that he couldn’t know what “terminal” meant, so his little-boy brain just decided “there’s scary shit on the way” and invented a monster that was always getting ready to eat him. That’s how I felt for the entire time she was dying. And sure enough, once she died, he stopped having the thing about the monster.

So I did what I had done every other time that Jack had woken up screaming about the monster: I checked the closet. That’s what you do, right? Your kid says “oh god there’s something scary” and you say “I’ll go look at it for you” and then you look, and there’s nothing there, and you tell the kid that nothing is there, and everyone goes back to bed.

Except that’s not what happened.

Look, there’s never been a monster in there before. I can deal with a lot of stuff. I’m a bedtime champion and a dang master at after-school-talks about feelings. I can re-shingle a roof and I’m even okay at plumbing, if the water’s shut off right. I can handle myself, is what I’m saying. But a monster? I had no game plan for there actually being a monster. My game plan was oriented towards getting the kid back to sleep. It’s a fifteen-minute plan at the most. The point is, who prepares for the eventuality that a six-year-old is right about something at two in the morning?

Not me, I guess.

So I told Jack-o I would look in the closet, and I did. I opened the closet door, and then I shut it again very quickly, because guess what? There was a monster in there.

You’ll want to know what the monster looked like. I was too busy clenching to retain details, but here was my general impression: teeth, claws, tentacles. I didn’t know that tentacles could have claws, but apparently the limits of my imagination do not encompass the fullness of God’s creation, so what do you want? Also, eyes — so many eyes, like a spider with a lot of little spiders on top of it. All of them were looking at me.

It was without a doubt the scariest thing I have ever seen in my ever-loving life, and I’ve seen a doctor’s face when he’s about to say the phrase “six months left”, so I know from scary.

I opened the closet door again. The monster made a noise like a percolating coffee maker. I shut the door.

And now I’m sitting in my son’s bed, not minding the piss smell so much, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell him that the monster in the closet is real.

 


 

It’s not fair to Jack, is the thing. It’s not fair that he already had to find out that moms can die and dads can’t stop it – now monsters? In his closet? And I can’t spin this as maybe it’s a nice monster because it’s a monster and monsters are by definition not nice, and something with that many eyes eats little boys. It’s just a fact.

He’s looking at me and his little pink lip is quivering and he’s shaking like he runs on batteries, but he’s setting his jaw like his mom used to. Christ. He’s being brave.

He rubs the back of his head, foofing out his duckling hair, and I realize that it’s a motion he’s learned from me. I do that all the time. I’m doing it right now.

“Well, buddy. What are we gonna do about that thing?”

He shrugs in that little-kid way. When a teenager shrugs, it means “I don’t give a crap, what do you know? Leave me alone, I’ll never get old, I’ll always like this kind of music.” When a little kid shrugs, it’s so honest — a little-kid shrug just means “I got no goddamn idea, pops.” I love the hell out of him when he shrugs at me.

“When did the monster come out?”

The kiddo looks at me like I’m an idiot. “When I let my feet stick out from under the covers.” Of course. His feet are well and fully tucked in now. I lift the corner of one of the blankets just an inch, and sure enough, the doorknob on the closet starts turning. I put the corner of the blanket back down fast and the door stays shut.

“Well, we can’t have it coming out of there.” He agrees with me, nodding gravely. “‘Cause kiddo, I don’t know how to tell you this, but… I’m, like, one hundred and ten percent certain that it’ll eat us.” He nods again, Duh, Dad. Kid already knows this stuff, I don’t need to tell him. He doesn’t look so scared anymore, and I realize that it’s because I’m here. His work is done — he called in the big guns, and now, the situation in the closet will be resolved by someone who knows what to do about situations in closets.

He thinks I can fix it. He thinks I can fix anything. Even after I couldn’t fix the one thing that mattered most, he still thinks I know all the answers.

We sit on the bed, talking over our options. We could nail the door shut, but then he wouldn’t be able to get any of his shoes or his pants, and he needs those for school on Monday and all. Plus the monster can probably dissolve nails with acid or something. From our combined understanding of monsters, it’s probably allergic to something dumb like mustard or broccoli or spider-man band-aids, but we don’t have time to experiment. I don’t have a gun, because I live in a house with a six-year-old. I’m proud to say that the idea of a gun doesn’t even occur to him until I mention it. What a guy.

We sit in his rocketship bed, trying to figure out what to do about the monster. He doesn’t want to kill it, because he’s six and he’s the best person in the world. I want more than anything to kill it, but I’m pretty aware of my own limitations and frankly, I don’t think I could take that thing on. I take Jack out for ice cream if there’s a spider in the kitchen, okay? Denise was always the one who dealt with those, and I never saw her take out a spider the size of my kid’s closet. This thing — it’s big. And it’s a monster. And did I tell you about the tentacles already?

After a long time spent discussing the merits of just burning the house down – and let me tell  you, spend an hour trying to explain fire insurance to a six-year-old and you’ll feel eager to face a monster – we notice that it’s getting light out. When it’s definitely morning – birds are chirping, sun is shining, the whole magilla – we decide to see if the monster is still there. Maybe it’s only there at night, you know?

My son lifts up a corner of the bedsheets.

Nothing happens.

He pushes the bedsheets down until they’re just covering his feet to the ankles.

Nothing happens.

He takes a deep breath, my brave boy, and whips his feet out from under the covers like the he’s fastest gun in the West winning a shootout. We watch the closet door, eyes wide, hearts pounding.

Nothing.

He looks at me and I look at him and we both know that one of us has to look in the closet. He whispers, “Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s nocturnal.”

I squint at him. “When did you learn ‘nocturnal’?”

He rolls his eyes and I realize that someday this kid is going to be a teenager, and I look at the closet door, hoping the monster will come out and eat us both before that happens.

“Okay. Okay, buddy, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna go shut yourself in Daddy’s bedroom, okay? You’re gonna lock the door-”

“I’m not supposed to lock the door.”

“I know, but just this once, you’re gonna lock the door and -”

“But I’m not supposed to lock the door because -”

I rest a hand on his head and deploy the Dad Stare, which is basically the only weapon in my arsenal. He’s polite enough to pretend it’s intimidating.

“You’re gonna lock the door. And then I’ll take a look and see if the monster is sleeping, and then we’ll figure out what to do, alright?”

He nods. His eyes are huge, but his jaw is still set in that Denise kind of way. I put my arms around him and I hug him, I hug my son so tight that I’m sure I’m hurting him, but he hugs me back anyway because he’s the best damned kid there ever was.

“If anything happens to me, you take my cell phone from my nightstand and you call Grandma Irene, okay?” His answer is muffled because I’m jamming his face into my chest. I pull back to let him breathe. His face looks like he has a lot of objections to this plan, but he just says “I love you, Dad,” and I don’t know if I can keep it together much longer so I push him out the door.

I sit on his rocket bed and listen to his little feet pad down the hallway. I hear him go into my bedroom with the one empty nightstand, and I hear him close the door, and God bless his six-year-old heart, I hear him turn the lock.

I don’t want to waste any time, because my son is probably terrified in there. He’s scared and alone, wondering if his dad is about to get eaten by a monster.

I have to open the closet door.

I can’t just sit here and wait – it’ll be the same thing in there no matter when I do it. I have to get up and walk across the room and open the door to my boy’s closet.

I wish Denise were here. I always wish she was here – that hasn’t stopped, not once since she died – but right now I really, really wish she was here, because she would be the one to look in the closet. She would get right up and march on over and yank the closet door open. She would grab the monster by one of those frilly things around its primary eyeballs and she’d drag it out to the front yard and make it feel ashamed of itself.

But I’m not Denise, and I’m just sitting on the rocket bed with my head in my hands because I can’t take on a monster. It’s too hard, and it’s not fair, and I don’t know how. I’m not her. Looking in the closet to confirm that there’s no monster is right in my wheelhouse, but dealing with the monster when it’s real — that’s Denise stuff.

Something tickles between my ears.

Denise stuff. This is a Denise job.

The tickle fades, but then returns again, brighter. Denise stuff. Denise stuff. Why does this feel so important?

And then I remember.

I was six. My ma came into my bedroom because I was screaming at the top of my lungs. She looked in my closet and then she said ‘oh no, no sir. This is Reggie Stuff,’ and then my pop came in and he looked in my closet, and then he sent me out of my own room. I remember I sat in my parent’s bedroom with my ma. We shut the door and put a chair in front of it and then she taught me how to play poker for a few hours.

Of course. Of course it was him.

I run down the hall to my bedroom. The door is shut – locked, of course, damn it, Jack locked it because I told him to. I’m about to pound on the door, about to yell for him to let me in, but then I think better of it. I tap on the door with the pad of my index finger.

“Hey buddy, can you let me in? It’s your dad.”

There’s a long pause, so long I almost tap again, before I he answers. I can barely hear him.

“How do I know you’re not the monster?”

Oh, Jesus, how do I answer that one?

“Kiddo, it’s really me. I… huh. How would you know if I was the monster?”

Another long pause. The sound of the lock clicking open. He eases the door open a crack, peeks out at me with one eyeball. I kneel down to look through the crack at him.

“Buddy, it’s me, I promise. But if you’re scared, you can just grab my phone from my nightstand and slide it through to me, okay? I have to make a really important phone call.”

The door shuts, locks again. Smart kid. A minute later, my phone slides under the door.

“Thanks, Jack-o. I promise I’m not mad at you for not letting me in, okay?”

No response. I tap on the door with with my pinky finger, soft as I can, wishing I could rest my hand on his fine blond hair; wishing I could give my frightened little boy a hug.

“I mean it. I’m not mad at you. You’re a smart guy, and you did the right thing. I love you.”

There’s a sniffle from the other side of the door. “I love you too, Dad.”

There’s a sniffle from my side of the door. I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my t-shirt, and head back to the bedroom before he can hear me crying, because what’s scarier to a six-year-old boy than hearing his dad cry?

I make the phone call, and after that, it’s only ten minutes or so before Grandma Irene arrives.

I’m not supposed to call her Grandma Irene – I’m supposed to call her Irene, or Mrs. Hart if she’s mad at me about something. But to Jack, she’s Grandma Irene, so it’s in my head now. You know how that goes. She’s the only grandparent the kid has, what with my ma and pop dead and Denise’s dad having run off way back when. Jack loves her.

“So, what’s the big emergency?”

I don’t know how to tell her, so I just point upstairs. We go into Jack’s room. Her eyes fall on the empty rocket bed.

“Where’s Jack? Is he alright?” Her face is white and she’s gripping my arm with such incredible strength that I know I was right to call her.

“Jack’s fine, Irene. He’s in my bedroom. I – I need your help.”

She’s searching my face, and just like that, she knows. Her head swivels until she’s looking at the closet door. She definitely knows. But she asks me anyway.

“Why did you call me?”

I clear my throat. I’m embarrassed. Wouldn’t you be? Calling Grandma to come help out? Admitting that since your wife died there are some things you just don’t know how to do? Some things you just aren’t ready to take on yet, because you can’t accept that she’s not there to help with them anymore?

“There’s a monster.”

“What? Speak up, I can’t hear you.”

I clear my throat again. I try to make eye contact with her but I can’t, so I settle on looking at her chin.

“There’s a monster. In the closet.”

She ducks her head to look in my eyes, and the way she does it is so Denise that I well up.

She nods. “What kind of monster?”

I am at a loss. What kind? How should I know?

“Uh, tentacles? Teeth, claws, eyes. Frilly things.” I wiggle my fingers around my temples like that’ll clear up the meaning of ‘frilly things.’

Irene looks at the closet, and it looks like she’s doing math in her head. She nods again.

“That’s Irene stuff, alright. Take Jack to the park and play catch. Don’t just look at me with your mouth open, Donovan, do as I say. Go to the park with him and play catch and then come back.” She calls me Donovan instead of Donny and that’s how I know she means business. And I want to take Jack to the park. But even this I can’t do on my own.

“…He won’t come out of my room. He wants me to prove that I’m not the monster, and I – I don’t really know how to do that.”

She stares at me for a long moment, then smiles. “He’s such a smart boy.”

She strides down the hall to my bedroom, raps on the door, and calls to Jack. “Jack, you come out of here right this instant. It’s Grandma Irene. I’m taking care of the monster; you and your father are going to go play catch in your pajamas.” She sounds so much like Denise that I want to curl up on the floor and bite my knees. Her tone is one hundred percent Irene, and I feel a pang of sympathy for what the monster is about to go through. Jack comes out of my bedroom. His eyes are all puffy. Grandma Irene gives him a quick hug and then pushes him towards me.

We go to the park and we play catch. Actually, we’ve never played catch before, so it’s kind of weird – us in our bare feet in the dewy grass, me teaching my kid how to throw a baseball. He’s good at it. I’m good at teaching him.

When we get home a few hours later, there are three big garbage bags piled up on the curbside for pickup. I set Jack up in the kitchen with a bagel and some peanut butter, then head upstairs. Irene’s jacket is draped across the fin of Jack’s rocketship bed, and the water is running in the hall bathroom. I knock on the door.

“Irene? Is everything okay?”

She cracks the door and peers out at me, exactly the way that Jack did when he wanted me to prove I wasn’t the monster.

“Everything is fine, Donovan. I’m taking a shower. Would you be a dear and throw this out for me?” She passes out what remains of her smart pantsuit – it is a wad of pastel shreds, held together by green ooze. “And would you loan me something to wear?”

I haven’t thrown out any of Denise’s clothes yet, and in her side of the dresser I find a set of her pajamas that look like they’ll fit Irene. I pull them out, run a thumb over the penguins on the pajama bottoms. They’re surfing. The penguins, not the pajama bottoms.

How do I do any of this without her? How do I do it alone?

But then, I’m not alone, I guess. I’ve got Irene. And I’ve got Jack. And I know that eventually, I’ll learn to do the Denise stuff. When I’m done looking at the empty places where she should be. When the fact that they’re empty stops being something I need to stare at in order to understand the contours of my loss.

I hear the water in the hall bathroom turn off, and I know Irene’ll be needing these surfing penguins in a minute. I crack the door open just enough to slide the pajamas through, then close it again as quietly as I can.

I walk downstairs, bracing myself for the peanut butter explosion that inevitably awaits me in the breakfast nook – but when I get down there, there’s no peanut butter explosion. My boy has pulled his chair up to the sink, and he’s standing on it so he can reach to wash his own plate. Getting soap everywhere, but still. He’s trying to pull his weight.

What a guy.

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Episode 246: Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches by Kate Baker

Show Notes

Theme music “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches

by Kate Baker

 

On the night my grandfather died, we all sat around his kitchen table and marveled at how he’d been able to raise six kids in such a tiny house. While creative with the cramped living space, one bathroom seemed to be enough despite the hustle to get to school and work in the mornings. Especially as children grew into teenagers and time preening before the mirror was at a premium.

There is chaos that comes with illness and death, yet despite piles of unopened mail and neglected dishes and floors, my eyes lingered on the subtle touches that made this house a home. Especially in this kitchen. A wooden hutch still held the “good” glass and dinnerware that my grandparents cherished and thought to protect. Pots and pans of every shape, size, and color hung from racks and peeked out from crowded cabinets. And despite a very thin layer of dust, the spice rack stood at the ready for whatever recipe came along.

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Episode 238: Artemis Rising 3 – The Absolute Temperature of Outer Space

Show Notes

Illustration by Mat Weller. Artemis Rising logo designed by Scott Pond.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


The Absolute Temperature of Outer Space

by Sandra M. Odell

Dwanda watches her dad bound across the lunar landscape and shivers inside her jacket.  The Moon lifts him higher than anyone on Earth could jump and sets him gently down again, a kangaroo in a space suit.  Sunlight flashes bright white across his helmet.  She chooses not to notice the ragged tear down the right side of his bulky suit, or the way she can see through him to the gray, airless expanse beyond.

The shuttleport crowd paces around the clear observation dome to make room for their excitement and boredom.  They talk softly amongst themselves or watch the swarm of service bots making a final safety check on the shuttle Io.  A few browse the souvenir stands for last minute gifts or keepsakes from their lunar vacation.

Her mom settles beside Dwanda on the couch.  “Brought you some cocoa.”

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