Self-Preservation

The day is crimson. It drips from eves, winds around necks, and stains the hands of everyone that I brush past on the street. Only children turn to look at me before they are jerked away by parents who know my touch too well to acknowledge it anymore.

Cheerful yellow weeds dot the yard as I make my way up the drive; one small sign that things under this roof are not as they should be. Her parents left the door opened for me when they left hours ago, seeking empty words from people who could never begin to imagine the grief that they’re pretending not to feel.

It’s hard to stay grounded in this house anymore. I grip the banister hard as I climb the stairs. I slip through the crack of her bedroom door and realize that we are not alone. You sit at the foot of the bed, watching her. You were unexpected, but I’m not overly concerned; I’ve never pretended omniscience. I make myself as small as possible on her pillow. As long as you are here, I am content just to watch.

She stands in front of the mirror, hesitant hands smoothing over white silk that will capture her final moments well. She is midnight hair and violet eyes; radiance personified. You are chin on knees and arms wrapped around legs; undeserved nerves and well-deserved guilt.

She sees my reflection behind hers in the mirror. I nod. Her mouth thins.

She calls you over to her and you oblige, knowing that you are the last friendly face that she will ever see. She takes a dark wooden box from the vanity and relieves it of a pearl hair comb. She pushes hair back from your face and slides it in, cupping her hands under your chin.

You struggle for words. You know that this is important; a culmination of everything that the two of you have been and never will be.

“I won’t help them,” you say.

Her hands turn to iron.

“No.”

They slide down to your shoulders.

“You have to.”

They squeeze tight.

“Do you hear me?”

She shakes you so hard that her final gift to you tumbles to the floor. She lets go, neither guilty nor confused nor crazed.

“You have to.”

You nod and bend. She takes the comb and replaces it, hand to hair and lips to forehead.

You will miss her, but you can’t do anything about that now.

You drink her in for the last time, but she is already gone. So you leave, too.

Now it’s just she and I, and she knows that I’m here.

She has spent nights on her knees, clutching me tight as she sobbed for someone, anyone, to save her. And when that didn’t happen, she started the screaming and destruction. None of it mattered. Whatever she did, the silence stayed.

That was then.

This is now.

“It’s not you that did this,” she says as I slither off of the bed and face her. “I’m not afraid anymore. For me.”

I cock my head.

“Keep her safe.”

And then she is gone too, striding through her house and out into the street without a backward glance. She gave me up a long time ago, and her life soon after. Today is little more than a means to an end.

I glance out the window at the crimson streamers dripping from the rooftops. The houses bleed with her.

People are already lining the streets when I catch up. Hundreds of eyes follow her as she walks slowly, confidently down the street that she has known since she was a child. She meets no one’s eyes, draws on no strength but her own because it is the only kind left.

A faint whistle is all of the notice before she is struck from behind by a stone the size of a tennis ball. And then they are coming from everywhere, heaved by her schoolmates and teachers, the woman who cuts her hair and the man that has served her ice-cream every  Saturday afternoon since she was five.

I am looking for one particular face. I find you on the fringes of the crowd, staring blankly at the scene before you. This thing, this ritual that you have observed blindly since you were old enough to  choose your own stone is different now. You have never before understood so deeply the meaning of the word superstition, and for the first time you wonder if you have been lied to, if all of the loved ones who told you that this was not murder, this was necessity, had ever had to stand where you are standing now; if the body filling the white dress slowly being stained red ever really meant anything to them.

And then I am beside you. I put my hand on your shoulder. You look up as I press a smooth, flat stone into your palm. I have a promise to keep.

You decide.

She is on the ground now, all of the stones discarded but for the one in your hand. You pull me with you to her side, where she stares unseeing at the sky and twitches as the last signs of her life bloom across her dress. You bend, kiss her on the forehead. Her blood stains your lips as you raise the rock above your head and put an end to a life that was finished long ago.

I gather her up in my arms and rock her gently even though she can’t feel me anymore. By the time she stills every eye is on you.

I stretch out my hand.

You turn away.

You know better than anyone how little I can really do for you.

Salmonella

I found her sitting cross-legged on top of the kitchen counter, eating raw cookie dough like it was going out of style.

“And I thought that I was the insomniac in this relationship.”

She laughed like she always did when I said things that weren’t that funny, loudly and hoarsely with a hint of a snort. The first time that I heard it I thought that it was the most honest laugh that I had ever heard.

“You used to be,” she said, holding the unwrapped half of the tube out to me like a peace offering. I pinched off a bigger portion than was called for at three in the morning and positioned myself as close to her as I possibly could.

“So why wasn’t I invited to this one-woman shindig?” I asked around a mouthful of what my mother always claimed was a case of salmonella poisoning waiting to happen. Coincidentally, I heard the most honest laugh that I had ever heard for the first time and ate raw cookie dough for the first time on the very same day. I was hooked on both within the minute.

“Well, for one, you’re not a woman,” she pointed out.

“Noted.”

“And also, because I didn’t want you to think that the reason that I’m about to get really fat is because I’ve taken up sleep eating.”

My chewing slowed to a crawl and I swallowed at the same second that I realized what she was trying to tell me.

“You’re not–?”

“Ready to be a mom? I guess we’ll see.”

She laughed again as I immediately crouched down in front of her, lifting her shirt up from around her stomach and pressing my mouth against it.

“Whoever you are, whatever you’re going to be. Daddy loves you. And don’t you ever forget it.”

And then I pressed my ear against her bellybutton to listen for a heart that hadn’t even started beating yet, for all that I knew.

“Come here, you.”

She pulled my face back up to hers to give me a kiss that tasted like cookie dough, and I reflected that if I did somehow end up with salmonella poisoning, I wouldn’t care. It would be worth it.

Food For Thought

His fingers flitted over the keys so fast that I could barely keep up with them, striking chords so beautiful and melodious that they made my heart ache.

“How did he get so good?”

My sister, the keeper of all knowledge, smiled the small smile that meant that whatever piece of knowledge that she was about to dredge up was known to only a select few that were discerning enough to care.

“Do you remember when we had that big storm about five years ago?”

“Yea,” I answered. It was that storm, the one that the weathermen and women always hoped wouldn’t be outdone by whatever nasty-looking red swirls were coming our way. “It knocked our power out for a week.”

“Well, apparently, Mr. Kole took to playing around with his daughter’s piano to pass the time while they fixed everything,” she said, “And when they came around to make sure that his power was working properly, he said that it didn’t matter because he wouldn’t be needing anything but the lights anymore.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not.”

“That’s crazy, though.”

There was no way, in this day and age, that anyone could go without electricity for five years.

Could they?

“You call it crazy,” my sister said with a shrug, “But I’m sure that he prefers to think of himself as dedicated.”

I closed my eyes as the final notes of the piece resonated through the auditorium. My sister stood, the rest of the auditorium stood, and I stayed seated. Mr. Kole’s music was still reverberating through my skin, sinking into my bones. The best, most genuine praise that I could give him now was my quiet reverence.

And maybe, just maybe, I could borrow a little bit of his dedication.

They Never Said That He Was An Egg

“He’s done it again.”

I pretended to ignore the young man in uniform as I continued to devour my dinner much slower than was necessary. He had been promoted just a few weeks ago, and it was entertaining to watch his desire to be the first one to respond to any calls to duty battle with his desire to be in my good graces.

“Who’s done what?”

I could almost hear the lieutenant’s eyes rolling. “Who do you think?”

I muttered a curse into my drink as I took a swig. “Do we have to report?”

“We’re king’s men, aren’t we?”

And any other day I would have been proud of that fact, but as it was I would have been fine with any other occupation.

“Horses, too?” I asked, sliding my drink back across the table and standing to belt my sheathed sword around my waist. At least I was in full uniform this time; last time this whole mess had started, I had been off-duty for three hours.

“Of course.”

Luckily, by the time that the lieutenant and I got there, the other soldiers had already managed to collect all of the tiny porcelain shards from around the inside of the castle wall. Now all that there was for us to do was join the ranks of mounted soldiers wondering why no one had ever told them about this part of our job description as we watched the castle physician’s nimble fingers breathe life into the lifeless.

The tiny prince watched anxiously as his best friend was slowly but surely glued back together, and every once in a while he would turn to see that my comrades and I were giving the fallen hero the respect and attention that he deserved. We weren’t, of course, but he was too young to tell boredom from reverence.

Then, finally, the physician held up the porcelain soldier for all of us to see.

“Good as new,” he lied.

“Humpty Dumpty!” the little prince exclaimed, ignoring the new cracks that marred the porcelain as he hugged the doll to his chest.

“Now, sweetheart,” said the queen, who had come to witness all of this for lack of anything better to do. “What have I told you about bringing him up on the castle walls?”

“Don’t do it,” the prince said absentmindedly as his nurse picked him up and scurried after the queen, who was already making her way through our ranks and back into the safety of the castle.

We were dismissed shortly after, and as soon the lieutenant thought that I was out of earshot I could hear him taking bets on how long it would be before Humpty Dumpty “fell” again.

Escape

“Why is the president of the United States in our front yard?”

There was no dramatic shatter as the plate that my mother was drying fell from her trembling fingers. Instead, she kept a hold on it so tight that I could see the veins straining against the skin of her fingers.

My brother was hallucinating again.

“I’ll take care of him,” I told my mom, gently taking the plate from her hands and adding it to the pile of clean dishes on the counter. She looked at me, then at her empty hands, then mechanically picked up the next piece of flatware from the sink and started to scrub it with enough force to take the paint off.

“Joey,” I said, crouching down so that I was at eye-level with him, “Do you remember when we talked about how to tell what was true from what was not true?”

He nodded emphatically, but didn’t take his eyes from whatever he thought he saw outside the window. He lifted on small hand and pressed a finger against the glass.

“That man is true, sissy.”

I turned my head in the direction of his finger and felt my heart leap into my throat.

“Mom!”

It wasn’t the President of the United States. The President of the United States had never inspired this much fear into anyone. It just so happened that the President was the only person that my little brother had ever seen wearing a suit.

The man was standing in the middle of our front lawn, staring at our house as if it was his one true purpose in life. Something small and black was clasped in his left hand. It was his proof of authority; in it was the sliver of plastic that gave him the right to do anything that he wanted to anyone that he wanted, so long as it was in the name of his current mission.

And now his current mission had something to do with my family.

“Take your brother into the back and lock the door.”

My mother’s voice was firm and calm, but her face had drained of all color. She pressed her hands against the skirt of the dress that I always joked made her look like Susie Homemaker. Her eyes flicked around the room faster than I had ever seen anyone’s move, and with a jolt I remembered that my mother had once been as far from being Susie Homemaker as a woman could be.

“Sarah, go.”

I did as I was told, steering Joey as calmly as I could towards the bedroom that we shared. I closed the door, locked it, and propped a chair up against it before the doorbell rang.

“Joey, stay here.”

He nodded and wandered over to the corner of the room where he kept his Hot Wheels. My brother might have been young, but he knew enough to stay away from the windows when mom went into her not-mom mode.

As quietly as I could, I slipped through the bathroom that joined our room to mom’s, locking the doors behind me. I threw open her closet and relieved the gargantuan gun safe of the handgun that she refused to tell me how she came by but taught me how to use, anyway. I relieved her best pair of heels of the bullets that she had nestled in the toes, and with the quick, precise steps that she had drilled into me ever since I was old enough to understand the magnitude of what holding a weapon meant, I loaded the gun.

I pressed my ear to the door of the bedroom just in time to hear a shout and a thunk. I took that as my cue to move.

“Where is your brother?”

I was so relieved to find that it was my mother asking the questions that I didn’t even question the blood-stained bowling trophy in her hand or the unconscious behemoth sprawled across out floor.

“In our room,” I said, lowering the gun so that it was aimed at the leg of the suited man. He didn’t look like he would be moving anytime soon, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

“He’s dead,” mom said shortly, taking the gun from me, “But there might be more of them coming. Get your brother and get packed. We’re leaving.”

“What do they want?” I asked, my mind already making a detailed list of the necessities one might need to take along while running from the government.

“I don’t know,” mom said, setting the blowing trophy down and running her hand across her forehead, leaving a scarlet stain, “And I hope that we never have to find out.”

Rusty Spoon

“Sometimes I want to gut you with a rusty spoon, but then I reflect how that would be a waste of a rusty spoon,” he said from behind the morning’s paper. He had to force the words around his most likely illegal cigar to make completely sure that they hit their target. 

The girl didn’t even flinch. She hadn’t in years; not when he threw words or firsts or various inanimate objects. Biting her tongue had become second-nature.

And so had counting.

Three. Just three now. 

Three days until her eighteenth birthday. Three days until, unbeknownst to her father, she received the inheritance that he never intended her to have.  

She wondered if he would get a kick out of the fact that his own demise was going to be inspired by his own myriad of colorful suggestions. It was a pittance, really, the extra five grand that her new associate required to spice up his usual methods of operation. 

Fortunately for her father, though, even a contract killer felt that rusty spoons were too gruesome a mode of dispatchment. 

Pity. 

Lullaby

I am in love with his words. I want to hold them to my chest and let them sing me to sleep even though lullabies were never really my thing.

They’re not mine. They belong to some nameless girl on some nameless street with bluer eyes and blonder hair; the picture of perfection. I only borrow them from time to time.

But that’s okay. Loving a person takes time. Loving words takes an instant.

So all that I need is a little bit of time to play pretend; to slip into the shoes of a girl that I’ll probably never meet and fall finally, blissfully asleep.