Short Story: Barn Burning

I see a barn burning. Every time I’m alone with my thoughts this picture of a flame engulfed barn seeps into my mind. Each time the flames are in mid roar, whipping at the air, coiling back like a snake and striking whatever is near it like the patch of grass surrounded by dirt at the foot of the barn or like the leaves on the tree which had grown towards the barn as if it had some kind of gravitational pull, the tree trunk wasn’t on fire but it would be soon enough, down to the roots. I find myself out of breath as if I am there in person. My lungs taxed from breathing in the heat embedded air. I could almost cough from the ever-widening ball of smoke.

Then, I’ll remember I’ve got to do something or the phone would ring or someone will call my name and the image would vanish, like a snap of a finger, that quick. Sometimes I think that I can smell smoke but that’s just my mind playing tricks.

I work as an editor at a furniture magazine. Sounds exciting? No, I didn’t think so, but it pays the bills so I can’t complain. Each day I get a few articles about the different types of couches (I couldn’t believe how many unique pieces of couches there are because before I started  working here, all I knew about was that one long piece on which I often fell asleep on at night and also a love seat just because I read about it in a book one time) or I’ll edit articles about some new trend in home interior decorating, which if you pay attention is just the same out of style trend coming back, it just skips a generation or two and then becomes “new” again. All I really do with my time is delete a couple sentences, reword some here and there, fix a few spelling mistakes and perhaps add a sentence at the end of a paragraph to help it flow into the next one. Pretty simple stuff. So, now you can understand why I think about that burning barn so much.

I do all my work at the downtown office. It’s good because I read once that familiarity and routine are two things you need to get your creative juices flowing. The same time, at the same place, concentrating on the same thing is supposed to help you connect with the muses if you believe in such things. It’s these muses writers often credit their ideas to. How wonderful. I can sometimes feel the muses as I edit these articles but then again, I think about how I can sometimes smell smoke on my clothes after I’ve thought about the barn burning.

Once I’m finished editing I go to this bookstore nearby to do my own writing. I read once that new settings, new experiences can jog up the story inside of you. There I set camp by the window and watch the living screen in front of me unfold with all its moving parts with its different characters and the changing scenery and noises. Each second is unique. Even inside the bookstore is pleasant for the barista rings the little bell when the coffee order is ready and it reminds me of Nabokov’s Lo-Li-Ta because its three actions as well, the bell-the name of the customer in a cherry voice-the thank you reply trying to match the cheerfulness of the barista.  The murmurs of people, the footsteps clicking, the pages swishing, even the scratching legs of the chairs don’t bother me, its all part of the play, the music, the charm of the place.

The most charming of all is the girl that works there. Shoulder length black hair with a hint of brown, always flashing a smile when you walk in and asking if she can help you.

“Just looking around,” is my usual retort for I like to browse the new releases, perhaps grab a couple and read a chapter or two before starting on my edits.

One day, as I was editing, she came up to me and asked if I was a writer.

“Kind of,” I replied, “trying to be one but right now I edit writers.”

At that, her face broke into her usual smile and she sat down beside me, without invitation but I didn’t mind.

“I’ve been thinking about writing something too,” she said.

“Have you written a story before?”

“Not yet,” she shook her head and her shoulder-length hair fluttered side to side, gently like a curtain does covering an open window as the calm wind blows outside.

“What are you interested in writing about?”

“I don’t know, just about life or maybe about working at a bookstore, I don’t know, I just feel this desire to write something.”

“Well, that’s a good place to start.”

“How long have you been writing for?” She asked.

“Editing for about three years or so and I’ve been trying to get a story together for about four…or, gosh, maybe five, time flies you know when you get busy. One day I’ll figure it out.”

“You know, thinking about it, I actually do have something specific in mind.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, you see for the past month or two, around the time I got this itch to write, I’ve been thinking about this scenario a lot because it keeps popping in my head and I don’t know where it’s coming from but it feels important, you know, like it won’t go away until I do something about it.”

“What is it that your seeing?”

“A burning barn,” she said, “I just feel like I need to get it out of me, you know. Do you ever feel that way?”

 

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Short Story: The Man Who Read Everything

Important people walked around the hall with champagne glasses in their hands while their diamond watches reflected the chandelier light in all direction. A permanent smile was slapped across their faces. These men and woman gathered each year in order to expand their network but in reality, it was a celebration of riches. This was the time to show off their hard-earned suits and dresses, leather boots that clicked each time they made contact with the marble floor and cufflinks that were worth an average man’s salary and jewels that would put to shame the Kings and Queens of old. Here was the ideal situation for Abraham Hart.

‘What do you do sir?’ a tall man asked him. He had slicked back hair and one hand was in his front pocket while the other massaged the bottom of the wine glass. Just by the smell of him, Abraham knew he was some lawyer who had made a fortune before the age of thirty.

‘I am a doctor of life, sir,’ Abraham replied. The man was looking around for a higher class person to talk to because Abraham was the only man dressed in a plain black shirt, black trousers, and running sneakers. It was embarrassing to the man to be seen with Abraham but the peculiar answer caught his interest.

‘Interesting also an interesting choice of dress.’ He was not sure yet if Abraham was plain crazy or if he was to be tonight’s entertainment. A jester to make them laugh like in the forgotten times.

‘Nothing interesting about it,’ Abraham replied, ‘it’s what I wear everyday because by wearing the same pairs of clothes each and every day it allows me to save three minutes  from my decision making capability which, like a man of your capacity can calculate pretty quickly means that in a years time I shall have saved one thousand and ninety-five minutes of decision-making time, one thousand and ninety-five minutes which I can spend on more important and more responsible things.’

The lawyer raised an eyebrow and the side of his mouth twitched up for a smirk. He extended his hand and introduced himself, ‘I am Douglas Hanson, I own the Hanson firm’ he said.

Abraham shook his hand and said it was his pleasure.

‘And you are?’ he asked as if he were speaking to a child, still confused whether or not the man was really all there in the head or not.

‘Oh, you do not know me?’ Abraham replied with an air of shock as he looked around as if Mr. Hanson was the crazy one.

‘I am afraid I do not, although you look familiar.’ Abraham knew it was a lie. The two of them had never met but the simple fact that he had made himself important had caused the lawyer some discomfort. The power shifted and Abraham acknowledged it.

‘You must have heard about my experiment?’ It was a good sign to see the lawyer take his other hand out of his pocket and to see his fingers fidget with the bottom of his suit jacket.

‘I’m afraid not, sir.’

‘Well for the last twenty-one years I locked my self in a room and consumed the knowledge of the world in order to find the meaning of life.’ His long hair that reached down to the mid of his back and his gray beard that settle on top of his chest were taken as signs of a man who would do something like that, a man who would dedicate his life to learning and without questioning the lawyer put down his drink and cupped Abraham’s hand with both of his, shaking with excitement.

‘Of course, sir, of course, now I remember. I feel such a fool for not knowing right away.’ By now a few of the others nearby had stopped their conversation and were listening.

‘Your experiment was truly remarkable, I could not believe it when I first heard about it but here you are in the flesh. A living proof.’

‘Believing everything one hears is a poor quality in life so I must congratulate you sir for having some doubt about my work,’ the lawyer beamed as Abraham praised him for something he had not done.

‘Tell me one thing, sir, how did you even think of such an experiment?’ One of the bystanders asked. More people had joined in on their conversation. In the distance music lightly played and people who had not heard of what was going on kept on drinking and networking.

‘My parents passed away when I was young, leaving me in the care of an orphanage,’ people gave sympathizing nods and looks, ‘so my childhood was filled with unstable changes and constant hardship, the whole while I fell in love with books and in them I found my sanctuary and in them I found my quest so when it was discovered that my uncle left me his fortunes in his will, I at the age of twenty-one decided to venture on in my quest to find the meaning, a quest as of a month ago I have completed. In fact,’ he looked around at the perfect faces of his audience with a smile under his bushy beard, ‘this is my first social gathering in twenty-one years,’ a few applauded while more people stopped doing what they were and joined at the edge of the ever-widening circle of admirers.

‘Well, what’s the answer then? ’ someone asked in the back and all eyes stared at Abraham waiting for him to speak.

Abraham continued smiling and he spread his arms wide, ‘what’s the hurry, my friends, if there is one thing being alone in a single room teaches you, it is patience. And another is the sweet climactic release after a long build-up, if you know what I mean, my quest took me twenty-one years, twenty-one years of build-up until finally, I saw the light so please, humor me and ask not what I learned right away for that knowledge shall come in time but first ask how I remained sane all those years, is that not a better question? Would you acknowledge the answer if it came out of a madman’s mouth? Is it not better to question first before believing?’

The silent crowd broke into different pockets of buzzing, each pocket discussing what the old man had said. Abraham looked on, studying the curious faces closely until finally, someone said, ‘how did you stay sane, sir?’

‘Who said I am sane? HA!’ he cackled looking around at the richly attired folks with expressionless faces for they were used to getting quick and straightforward answers but now, he made them wait to earn his wisdom. Abraham ran his fingers through his beard and cleared his throat.

‘Isolation is said to be the worse punishment a human being can go through,’ he continued, ‘for physical pain comes and goes and we as evolved humans can adapt to receive pain and even adapt to physical pain but when it comes to metal struggle and torture tools that dig into a man’s psyche well then things get interesting, my friends, but there is always a solution.’

‘Dr. Frankl summed it up the best, if you have hope and if you have the will and a clear goal in mind, us humans can do anything. Dr. Frankl survived the terrible Nazi occupation and their camps because he had a mission and so did I, mine was to figure out the meaning of life and that excitement of actually moving towards that goal kept me going the first year of isolation. In that year I read the history of our world, everything from how our planet and universe came to be to how first societies began, when the first societal conflicts arose, the effects the Greek and Roman’s had on the future generations, the impact of the Golden Horde to the greatest scientific inventions that changed how we live and think to the last great world war’s. Everything that has ever been written on our human history,’ he pointed at his head, ‘is in here.’ He cracked a smile once more at the astonished looks he saw.

‘So my sanity survived the first year and the second and the third for my goal was clear and I moved towards it each day and that’s all I cared for. And in those years I learned how lucky we truly are and how there is no difference between the poorest man in the world and the richest in terms of intelligence, the only real difference is in their natural habitat, the richest was born on a higher rung and was exposed the tools that would allow him or her to climb while the poorest was born at the bottom rung and was never taught how to climb. This showed me that the meaning of life cannot be ones riches for it is all subjective.’ More people were listening now and his claim that riches do not matter in the grand scheme of things had them whispering angrily to one another for the goal of riches had been their ultimate end for as long as they could remember. But none of them spoke up and disagreed instead the whispering and buzzing of the crowd quieted down to hear more from the old man.

‘But the fourth year of my isolation tested my will like nothing before. My eyes had grown tired of reading and my mind begged for rest and my body hoped for the comforting touch of a fellow man or woman. I do not exaggerate when I say that I clawed at the door which was locked from the outside, I peeled away the brown paint until the wood underneath poked out and I further attacked it. I do not know what took a hold of me but I had become a savage. My hair tangled and messy reached to my lower back, my nails grew and gathered dirt, even a tooth fell out,’ he opened wide to show a missing tooth in the back of his mouth, ‘I could not tell you why all of this happened. Perhaps it was reading our violent history where since the beginning of time we have killed one another and as time has gone on one thing that became certain was our efficient and effective kill rates and now, even though we live in a time where the crime rates is lowest and the quality of life at the highest, our ability to kill a fellow man has never been better. Perhaps at the time, I believed the meaning of life is to simply die for that is a singular thread that weaves throughout our human existence. And that thought must have depressed me to the point that I wanted to get out of the room and run towards an incoming bullet and end our miserable existence.’ The air in the room thinned and the music stopped for even the band players wanted to hear the old man, their saxophones and flutes and violins hung uselessly from their hands. The somber room waited eagerly for Abrahams next words and he chose them purposely.

He clapped his hands the sound of which vibrated around the room and startled some of the listeners and he cracked his smile again and said, ‘that’s when I discovered the joy of philosophy and my hunt for the ultimate meaning kept going, not believing my previous conclusion for it could not be true, I just knew it could not.’

The tensed up faces of people who for a second believed the meaning of life was to die, relaxed, relieved that there was some other point to this existence. A few even clapped for they dreaded the former notion so much.

‘How do we know all of this really happened and that you are not lying?’ someone in the back spoke up and it was a valid question in Abraham’s mind but before he could defend himself, the lawyer spoke up.

‘This is the world-famous Dr. Hart you are talking about, haven’t you read his research?’ said the man who had not known who Abraham was twenty minutes ago but the embarrassment of not knowing Abraham and his research shut down the fellow dissenter and he did not retaliate further.

‘Please go on, sir.’ Mr. Hanson said bowing his head slightly.

‘Here is where my isolation ended for these philosophers were with me, it was as if I was back in school just a little kid looking up to my teachers as they opened my mind and put in information that changed my life. I truly felt like I was sitting cross-legged on the floor while Plato or Montaigne or Hume sat on my chair and taught me a lesson or two. That joy of learning was the happiest I had been in my life. it was incredible and it is something I wish all my fellow men and woman to enjoy.’ Nodding heads met his words, all of them most likely making mental notes to find their philosophical teachers.

‘With these great minds I had discussions of free will, of societal norms, of religion and science and the need of us humans to create self-boundaries and self-rule, a code of a sort to allow us to reach our full potential, or like Seneca said to find four or five people we wish to be like, aspire to be like and when the time comes for decisions or you find yourself at a crossroad think and ask yourself what those individuals would have done at this point, how would they have handled this problem, this situation. It was wonderful discussing with them the materialistic life we now so enjoy and the disconnect with our self, our self that is so emphasized in the eastern philosophy which has been drowned by our need for desires. Our life should be about balances like Aristotle believed, do nothing in excess for it just hurts the soul and we should always be a student like Socrates preached I know nothing, that was the motto I lived by at the time and opened my mind up for further suggestions and once I reached the end of the philosophical spectrum, five years had passed and I discovered the true meaning of life.’ Abraham made them wait a moment longer as the crowd visibly leaned closer not to miss the answer. ‘Meaning is to find what makes you happy and just do that everyday not worrying about being the richest or being the smartest or being the strongest, worry about being the happiest.’

Before the crowd could discuss this revelation and revelation it was for these people had not once cared to find happiness but instead spent their lives in a vanity race, Abraham continued.

‘For me, my true happiness laid in reading and even though I had come to the ends of my goal, I stayed in isolation for I was surrounded by what made me happy, books.’

He stopped and took a sip of water. People talked amongst themselves discussing what made them really happy but most of them replied with ‘I don’t know.’

Abraham continued, ‘the next two years I devoted to reading everything from the classics and the giants of literature to the newest released detective novels and my personal drug of choice, fantasy. There I no longer lived in my room and in a way it was cheating that I was allowed to read fiction for I spent time in middle earth, I traveled from Paris to Spain to see bullfighting, then I bore witness to the creation of a magical village that spanned four generations, I went and lived on different planets not just Earth and so a glimpse of our future and then I came back just in time to hitchhike across America and sailed down the Congo River and countless other adventures. I considered myself a well-traveled man having not left my room for about twelve years now.’ The crowd smiled and laughed with the old man who remembered the happiest of his days.

‘But for some odd reason, something kept poking me, something hidden down in my stomach kept me awake at night and no matter how much I read or wrote, that feeling that there was something missing in my life was still there, a constant reminder that I had fallen in a trap of my own illusion so I did not have to suffer more in my quest, a divergent path from my true goal and one day I snapped.’

‘My sanity, which I had kept strong for the past twelve years finally came crumbling down and at the moment when I was the happiest I began to cry, more like weep, and started tearing apart all my books and writings and notes,’ he waved his hands wildly around and the people closest to him took a step back worried that they would in the way of his anger, ‘which I had so methodically gathered in the past twelve years, all gone, pieces of random paper littered my room and each step more paper crumpled under my weight,’ he stepped on imaginary paper lifting his knee to his chest and stomping the marble floor so that the sound echoed in the quiet ball room and the on lookers looked at one another with confused glances thinking the man was truly insane, ‘and I almost broke away from my quest, penning a letter to my servant who brought me food and books each day to let me out that I cannot bear the burden of my mission that no man could carry the weight of it on his weak shoulders but my servant knew me better then I knew myself and he refused to let me out. He is the reason that I stand before you all for if I had been let free I am sure my grief at my failure would have led me to the nearest cliff and I would have jumped to end my misery,’ he jumped where he stood with a smile on his face but none of the others were smiling at the sight of him falling down to his demise, but like an addict, that feeling of missing something came to an end when I found something to plug up that hole. In my case in my rage to tear up all of my books and curse my servants name as I did so I stumbled up a box of books labeled religion,’ he instantly calmed his animated motions and his arms hung down his sides, ‘and the sight of those words calmed my nerves and I took a deep breath hoping that this was the final test.’

‘Here I was confronted with some deeper issues, issues of what is good and what is evil. In my philosophical phase, these issues had risen but I had subconsciously steered away from them because I did not feel I was mentally capable of discussing them and perhaps my reading of literature was a distraction from this big picture but now all of that was over and I was faced with the questions that now I know I had purposely avoided.’

‘By learning and discussing the teachings of Gods from different walks of life it gave me a different, a unique kind of perspective on my previous conclusion of the meaning of life. I started to believe that life cannot just be about self-happiness. It is a great feeling that of being happy and that is a good life but now I believed more than ever that one should give up part of their happiness in order to make the world better and one way to make the world a better place is through love. I cannot tell you how many times I converted to a different religion believing my quest has led me to this faith or the other but in the end I found that the best faith is the one you make for yourself, in other words, I began to follow a religion I created a religion that I constructed through all that I had read and learned in my years of isolation and it was wonderful. In my religion, it was the utmost importance to love, to be happy and to leave our world one percent better than we first got here. I lived by this for a few years, molding the laws and rules to my liking and what I thought would be the best way to accomplish my goal. And now I look upon your faces and I know that you do not believe me, that you think I lie to you all that the meaning of life is to create your own world that best helps our current one and I would say to this,’ he paused and the room held its breath for a moment, ‘is true. All of this was bullshit, excuse my language, but it was for these idealistic notions rarely come true in the real world and so after seven years of faith-based living, I gave it all up and I gave up reading for good.’

The room buzzed louder than ever. Their whisperings were more out of annoyance than anything else. The moon had risen to the top long ago and by now the old man had been speaking for two hours but Abraham did not care, he continued to study them as he combed his beard with his fingers until finally, one person spoke up and said, ‘what is the meaning already, stop philosophizing and just tell us already.’

They had learned nothing so far, not an ounce of patience from a man who had patiently sat in one room for twenty-one years trying to follow his quest. 

‘We are almost at the end my friend. You all with your riches must mean that you are smart intelligent people, right? Well if so then you shall know that nineteen years have passed since I first began to tell you my story, a story you asked for, which means only two more years are left, friend, so if you please, I will tell you what happened in those two years first.’

He did not wait for their approval and continued speaking after a quick breath.

‘When I gave up reading I picked up the pen, my head hurt from all the things I crammed into it and slowly all the information packed into my mind flowed down to my neck and then into shoulder and down my veins of my forearms and my hands and into the black and blue ink of my pen and I wrote everything. I swear, I have written the greatest of novels in that time and I have comprised the greatest of encyclopedias of all fields, for such was the baggage that I carried. As I wrote the more I knew I was heading towards the end when finally one month ago from this day I reached the conclusion of my quest and I simply informed my servant who agreed I had accomplished my mission and let me out and here I am, gentlemen and gentlewomen, a man who spent twenty-one years in a room, following an experiment that nearly killed my sanity but in the end rewarded me with the ultimate truth.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘Simply, it is to see and if not get a dog, then you shall see.’

At this the room exploded in a round of angry discussion and amidst the rumbling, the old man slipped quietly away but not before hearing people ask one another “what is it that we are supposed to see” or “see what” or “how would I know if I have seen it?” and some even asked what kind of dog.

Abraham did not waste any time, he left the rich dinner party that was full of confused and angry people. He drove to his house and the light coming out of his bedroom told him that his wife was awake. He peeled off his wig and placed the long gray hair on the head of the staircase as he climbed the steps.

‘Yes….how many?….okay I’ll make the appointment.’ He heard his wives voice say through the cracked bedroom door.

When she saw him, she pulled the telephone away from her ear and held her hand over the bottom part so whoever was on the other side could not hear, ‘you won’t believe it Abe but I keep getting calls for adoptions. I swear at least twenty of my puppies will have a new home by tomorrow.’

Abraham merely smiled and stretched his back so that it cracked.

‘All that standing up really takes a toll on the body,’ he muttered.

His wife hung up the phone after confirming the person’s appointment.

‘By the way,’ she said as Abraham climbed into the bed with her having changed his clothes, ‘how did your research go?’

‘Oh wonderful dear, another success in the field of human naivety.’ 

His wife got another phone call. Abraham fell asleep to the image of his smiling wife and the cheery tone of her voice.

Short Story: A Hero’s Welcome [Older]

“I need to talk to God,” I said to the woman.

“What’s that dear?”

“I have to talk to someone. Make a confession,”

“There’s a chapel down the road. The old Priest comes in here every now and then trying to save our souls as he says,” she laughed, “never leaves until we save his first,”

“Is he coming in today?”

“Who knows. Maybe,” The palm of her hands made circles on the mid of my back. Soft hands for what she was. The hands moved up my back and caressed my neck.

“I hope he comes. I need to confess,”

“Confess to me, dear,” she kissed me on the forehead.

“Okay.”

I don’t know how I got there, naked in a tube with a strange woman running her fingers through my hair, telling me it’s all right, that I can call her mother, like I had proposed such a thing to her and she had a soap in her hand and was rubbing it on my chest, each time she swiped down and made contact with the water, some of it splashed up towards my neck. The light in the bathroom was faint as if they didn’t want you to see the picture clearly, maybe if you saw yourself, saw her, you’d think twice and the guilt would make you leave. 

I had to try and remember how I got there which meant I had to look back in my past which meant Barry was waiting for me. His face filled with blood, his eyes straining against his sockets threatening to pop out any moment, saliva coming out of his mouth, clawing the dirt, trying to come at me.

No that was not today. Today was my day. They said they wanted to welcome home the hero so they threw a party for me at the community hall and invited everyone I knew and most people there were people I didn’t know. Mother and father were there, I knew them but they didn’t know me anymore. I remember shaking my father’s hand and thinking how weak he had gotten in the past two years. It was like two decades had gone by since I saw that very same hand waving goodbye at the station. Mother was a crying mess and I remember father had to tell her to stop crying on my uniform. I told her it all right, just as the woman told me it’s all right. What’s the difference between me saying it and her saying it? We both probably didn’t mean it. It was just a thing you said.

Before all of that, I remember being alone in the taxi cab that had picked me up from that station and I told the man to stop by a store. The man working knew me but I didn’t know him. He shook my hand and said it’s all on the house. I took him up on the offer but wanted to crack him over the head with the whiskey when he called me a hero.

The driver and I almost finished that whole bottle before we got to the community center. Before I saw mother and father I saw my sister. She was waiting outside the hall, the snow was falling on her as she blew out a mix of cigarette smoke and the mist from her own breath. She tried to hide the cigarette from me when she saw me get out of the car. She was with her new husband, Stephen, who was an old friend of mine who was probably an acquaintance now that it had been two decades or two years or two minutes since I had seen him.

“You’re late mister,” my little sister, Mary, said and she started to cry on my chest, a little higher to where my mother would soon be crying for Mary had grown in the time I was away.

She went inside to tell mother and father that I was here. I was standing outside in the snow with Stephen who was telling me that he and some of the guys were planning on going out tonight and that I was coming with them and he made a joke about how he wouldn’t take a no for an answer.

“You gonna finish that?” I asked him. He had a drink in his hand which I threw back in a second and wiped my mouth with the sleeve of my uniform before heading through the doors.

“Come right in here General,” the woman said, “and take off your boots.” I took them off and then the socks. The bathroom tiles were cold and the tap squealed as the rush of water drained into the white tub.

She insisted on undressing me. First taking off my coat and hanging it over the bathroom door. She proceeded to untie my tie and unbutton my buttoned shirt. Both went over the coat and I wanted to tell her that’s not how the uniform is meant to be put away but the soft touch of her lips made me forget everything I was thinking. She twirled her finger around the crisscrossed pattern of the shrapnel scar left on my arm and she asked if it hurt when I got it and I nodded.

“Hurt like hell,” I said.

She got on her knees and began tugging on my belt and I told her I could do the rest but she batted my hand away.

“Not every day do you get to service a hero,” she said smiling and for a moment her red lips reminded me of Jessica Owens and I asked her if she was Jessica for the days’ liquor had clouded my mind worse than it normally was. She said she can be whoever I liked.

Did I tell you about Jessica? She was at the party and she wore a tight dress that showed her figure and she had bright red lipstick on. I knew the moment I saw her that she would be mine. I don’t mean it in an arrogant way it was just that this party was for me and everyone was calling me a hero and I even had some patches stitched into my uniform which I could make out to be anything I wanted cause none of them knew anything about it or anything about me. My mother had even brought my medal which the army had sent home. Of course, she was going to be mine. I don’t mind remembering her as long as Barry doesn’t come. Her memories are all good, her plump breasts in my hands, her wet lips, her tongue and my tongue, the sound of the jazz music coming from the hall as the two of us were lost within each other in her car. But doesn’t every good thing come to an end? If I remember such a thing then it must mean it didn’t end well so I guess I take back what I said earlier about how I don’t mind remembering her. If only she could have kept her hands on my face or on my neck but she knew I was hers the moment she saw me and it was probably in an arrogant manner. When she tried to get me, really get me, I wasn’t there, it wouldn’t work, it hadn’t worked for a while, and I tried telling her it wasn’t her fault and that I was just too drunk but I could tell by her look that I had let her slip by and that she no longer had me, that she knew me better then anyone knew me at that time.

“I never slept with a hero before,” the woman was saying, “the closest I ever got was this one man who said he saved his nephew from a fire but I don’t believe him.”

“I’m not a hero,”

“Of course you are dear.”

“No. No. No.”

“Don’t be so stubborn,” She felt his scar on his back this time, “proof right here. Here too,” she touched my arm.

“I’m just a coward.”

“You’re friends told me that you’re a general or something,”

“Captain,”

“Well, would they make a coward a captain?”

“They did.”

“Here sit up straight so I can wash you’re back.”

They were there too. Sitting by themselves in the corner of the room as if they had been set there on purpose so people didn’t accidentally see them and have to remember their pain. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them and I had to go say something.

Barry’s father stood up to embrace me and I felt his care in that hug and if I wasn’t so shameless I would have broken down and started to cry but I kept my illusion going for a bit longer.

“What are you planning on doing now?” He asked as I joined them making sure they couldn’t look me in my eyes cause I heard they can’t lie.

“I haven’t thought much about it, sir.”

“I hope you’re still reading,” Mr. Andrews had once been my English teacher in another lifetime.

“I’m afraid I have fallen behind. But I’ll do so now.”

“That’s understandable. You always had the eye for a good sentence.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Barry wanted to be a fireman.” Mrs. Andrews said softly.

“Yes dear, he did,” Mr. Andrews gently patted her hand. Was that love?

“He would have been a good one too,” she said, “you know he was given a medal for his service.” 

“I know ma’am.”

“Was he a good soldier?”

“Come on dear. Don’t ask such things,”

“I just…wanted to know…”

Mr. Andrews took a deep breath and asked me how the roads were coming here and I told them they were fine.

“Is it still snowing?” 

“Yes, sir.”

“Maybe we should leave before the roads get any worse,” Mrs. Andrews said.

“Would you mind walking us out to our car? I imagine those stairs are awfully slippery and Martha with her hip…”

“It’s not a problem,” I stood up, without looking at Mrs. Andrews he helped her to her feet and the old woman clutched to my right arm as we walked together.

“You know we always liked you, son.” Mr. Andrews said. “Barry did too.”

I didn’t think there was a worse insult than being called a hero but now I heard it. What’s worse than being called a son?

“When we heard that you were coming back we were so happy. Tell him, dear. We were happy weren’t we?”

“Very happy,” Mr. Andrews said.

I helped Mrs. Andrews down the steps and over the sidewalk and the wet parking lot floor to their black Volvo.

“We are your family too okay? Don’t forget that,” Mr. Andrews said through the open window of his driver’s seat. “I will make you a reading list.”

“Yes, sir.”

I think it was just minutes after that I was groping Jessica Owens.

This woman was asking me if I wanted to go to bed now.

“You remember Barry?” I asked her.

“Of course dear,” she played along.

“I saw him die,”

“Well, that doesn’t make you a coward.”

“I saw him die because I was too cowardly to die myself. I took his, no I stole his mask I had to please believe me I had to. The gas was coming and he was going to die anyway. He had been hit in the stomach and in the leg and maybe the shoulder too. He was going to die anyway but why should I die too? Please understand. We needed the masks and Barry had one. He was going to die anyway. Why should I die too? I took his. He begged, I begged, he begged for his life and I begged for my own and he was hurt, bleeding badly. I took the mask from him and he crawled towards me and I crawled away from him and he clawed at my boot and I kicked him away. I should have shot him but I am a coward. He was going to die anyway he was bleeding worse now. He scratched open his throat and I see it, at night I see it again I see it ever since. Make him go away.”

The water was cold and the woman had left long ago. I was alone. My knees were by my chest and my arms wrapped around it a babe lost and scared looking for his mother waiting for her to return.

I got out of the bath and dried himself. I got dressed and left the money on the dressing table for the woman was asleep in the bed. Snow fell on the brim of my officer’s hat and on my uniform. The church bells rang. That’s when I came here to confess to you but you aren’t here. No one is. Just me and Barry. What I wish for is that whiskey bottle that I left in the taxicab for the driver that way I could be alone.

Short Story: Familiar Breakfast

It was dark out but the boy was awake. Eyes closed, he listened to the familiar sound. It reminded him of a beating heart, his own whenever he was in trouble, the pulse-quickening, thumping louder, clouding his senses with each beat, what started out as quiet and peaceful, rhythmically natural, changed, guilt-ridden, the sound was full of anger. Anger that seemed to have been there for years and was now being let out, savage, it came out uncontrollable. The familiar sound was outside his room. He turned to his side, turning his back to the door and to the sound, burying his ear deeper into the soft pillow which cocooned around him and he lifted the blanket, engulfing himself underneath, covering his other ear. The low moan of the familiar sound seeped through the door, through the cracks which allowed for the hallway light to crawl in, the sound came up from the floorboards, it stood beside him, yanking at his blanket, moving him aside so it can lay beside him and put an arm over him, the old familiar.

The boy curled his knees up to his chest, one hand still holding the blanket, pulling it tighter over his head, his other hand tucked underneath his hip, the nails digging into his skin, the pain used as a distraction but ultimately another failure like all the things he did. The familiar sound was oddly comforting because it was always there, reliable and true, never late for class, unlike him, always prepared, unlike him, always working, unlike him. The odd days, when the sound was not there, he would still think about it, the sound was in him, in his thoughts, the rhythmic pattern imprinted in his mind, the tune playing like his mother’s jewelry box which when opened always played a simple piano beat and just like that, each time his mind opened to those thoughts, the familiar sound would play, accompanying him in the dark.

Today, his mind didn’t need to recollect the awful, the sound was present on its own, it had come to serve. It was here to remind him of how poorly he had done in school. His mother had seen his report card. She didn’t speak to him much after that. He heard her tell his father and he didn’t speak to him either. No sweets today, no ice cream today, early to bed, lights off and for punishment, he had to hear the familiar sound much sooner than normal, much louder than normal but it was his fault, like normal.

The sound that was caused by him. He cradled himself underneath the blanket. He had noticed that each time he did something wrong the sound would be louder that night. Heavier too, playing longer, encore after encore for some time what sounded like clapping accompanied the sound. The lies he told his mother and father added to the sound, each time he told them he had studied for the test or that he was studying for it, or when asked, he said that he did well, it was easy, simple, not difficult at all, each lie building the sound, giving it strength, as wind does with engulfing fire. Those lies only made the familiar sound worse. If only he had done what he should have done, then the sound might have gone away. Drown the familiar. He turned his face, pressing it deeper into the pillow, hearing the heavy footsteps outside his room, thundering like the night it rains heavily, the distracting rain was comforting, when the drops tapped on his window then the familiar sound was harder to hear because he could imagine that there was someone there tapping on his window to take him away, fly away to somewhere magical, like the stories he read but then the skies would stop crying and the sound would still be there, familiar as ever before.

The familiar sound often started suddenly, a flash of lighting in dark clouds, it’s after image lasting much longer, however, but as suddenly it started, sometimes it stopped with a flash too or a loud crash. The boy carefully peeked his head out from the blanket, trying not to make any noise, thinking that if he did he might break the spell that had silenced the familiar sound. He uncurled his legs, stretching them till they reached the very edge of his mattress, his mother had said that they need to get a new mattress for him soon, her big boy was becoming a man, she had told him playing with his hair the way he hated it but she did it anyway. The sound was still absent after a few minutes but he had to make sure. Sometimes he had felt that the sound was gone but when he concentrated hard, he could hear the whispers. He had always wondered why the sound dimmed, barely audible as if it were self-conscious all of a sudden.

He left his bed, barefoot, the soft carpet masking his steps and yet he walked on his tippy toes, slowly, until he reached his door. He pressed his ear into the wooden face of the door and listened.

Nothing. No sound at all except that of his own breathing and pacing rhythm of his heart which had failed to understand that there was no soun—he heard it then, his heart had known before him, the familiar sound was there, just out of reach, but there, watching him and as if by him realizing the sound was there, it all of a sudden magnified, growing in size, the sound came rushing at him.

It drove him back in his bed, covering himself with his blanket, little child, he laid there, the sound speaking to him but he tried to think of how he could fix his wrongs. It wasn’t the first time he thought this, each time he heard the sound, at some point in the night his thoughts settled to fixing his mistakes and each time he promised himself that he’ll do better and make the right changes so mother and father could see and the sound could go away but each time he would fail in his promises just as he had failed in his classes. This time he didn’t want to make more false promises to himself. Instead, he got out of his bed again, went to the desk by the window where his books were. He picked up the history text and brought it back to his bed. The familiar sound kept the bed warm. He began to read it using the light from his bedside lamp. At first he read a page or two quickly and he felt the familiar sound quiet down but as he continued reading, the words came slowly, often passing through his mind without stopping, he had to double back, reread the passages, his eyes closing and opening, each time closing for longer and opening for shorter time and each time the familiar sound grew.

He told himself that tomorrow he’ll spend the day studying. He’ll take the books downstairs and read them in front of his mother and father so they could see that he was changing and they need not be angry anymore.

The next morning he went downstairs to the kitchen. The boy noticed the familiar scene. It was the kind he might have read about or seen at a school play. Everyone playing a role. The same scene followed the familiar sound every time and it tried to trick him into believing that the sound never existed. But he had heard it too many times to forget. His father sat by the window, his face shielded by the newspaper, his cup of coffee steaming beside him. His mother was busy making eggs for him. One might think it to be a perfect little family. He sat down on the kitchen table, his feet almost touching the floor now. His father asked him if he wanted to go to the park later. Mother hummed, her back to him, leaning one way on her hip, tapping her foot, the familiar sound of her humming could not replace the other familiarity. He sat with his head bowed a little, staring at the kitchen table, unable to look up to meet his mother and father’s eyes. Too ashamed to lock eyes with them but fathers eyes were covered too and mother’s as well. He remembered then that he had forgotten to bring the books down. 

Short Story: Remeber To Run

I run a lot. A younger me would never have believed I would be a runner one day. It’s funny how things work out. When I was younger in P.E. class we had to run around the soccer field every Monday morning. I hated those Mondays because I hated the cold but even more, I hated to run. Ten steps into the run my lungs would start to burn and with each breath I would feel a sharp pain in my chest and with each step my mind would tell me how awful this was and that I should simply stop running. I would think that I was breathing too loudly and the kids around me will look at me like I was weird. I also thought that my strides were too short and I looked awkward running and the girl I liked would see me or I would think that if I stopped everyone will know I’m a loser, so it’s best I kept going. Those were simple days when nothing really mattered.

But now, a quick lap around a field doesn’t seem enough. I could go round and round till my legs begin to shake and still, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. It’s not until I am mindless that I find running to be worth it. Although that can take a long time and some days I never reach that point where there is a void in my thinking. Those days I feel like a P.O.W. my mind acting like a prison and my thoughts as torture devices, depriving me of rest. Those are tough runs but I know I’ll have another shot at escaping next morning and that keeps me sane.

A younger me would have never believed that I would kill a man one day either. Of course that me didn’t know anything about the world or how it worked. He was too busy thinking about if Jemmy had seen him looking at her in class or if he’d get that red bicycle he wanted for his birthday so he can show off to his friends. He had just seen war on movie screens and in his mind. The younger me loved killing in his mind. That me always imagined himself as a soldier, as he played with his toys, and when the toys fought, in his mind he was fighting too, he killed and the toy soldiers fell down, easy and bloodless death but real death was never that pretty. Those were fun times, especially when my brothers and I played together. If only that younger self knew that one day his hands would know the grip of a real gun, the familiarity of the handles, the understanding of the trigger, the sight of men falling as their consciousness leaves them, the sound of men crying as they claw at the dirt trying to stay alive, trying to stop their dreams from leaving them, that younger me wouldn’t know anything of that and he will never know. That younger me still lives a peaceful life, playing with his toys.

I am a runner now. I wake up early, before the sun most of the time. I make sure not to disturb my wife as I get changed into my running clothes that I had laid out the previous day. A pair of black shorts that I had worn for years now which my wife got for me for my birthday when we first started dating. She had got me a shirt to go with it but that had been used and discarded by now, yet, the shirt I did wear looked years old. Along with that, I had my socks, my gloves, my cap and my cd player with the cd already inside it. I changed quickly and went downstairs to the lobby where my running shoes were waiting for me at the front door.

Most days I put them on without a thought and then I was gone. Somedays I stared at the shoes thinking why I am not in my bed with my wife, hearing her snore peacefully as the warmth took me back to some dream that I once had. Those days are rare but they do come and every time they come I stare at my shoes, distracting my thought by forcing myself to remember how long ago I had bought these particular pair of shoes. I would even imagine myself walking into the running store and purchasing them and I would recall how snug they felt the first day I wore them for a run. I had worn these particular pairs of shoes for sixty-two days and the threading had started to come undone in the front and the shoelace was beginning to lose its tightness. The ones I had previous to this pair had lasted me eighty-two days before the sole of the shoes broke. Sometimes these little tricks is all you need to overcome that initial weakness, tricks to occupy the mind, after which, I put on those shoes and leave my house.

I know the exact day when I became a runner. I had come home from work and my wife sat me down. I knew it was something serious by the way she spoke to me. She usually spoke in a soft and quiet manner, something the doctors had told her to do but that time, she could not hide the anxiousness which she was feeling, she wasn’t able to cover up the possible effect her words could have on me. She told me my mother had passed away. A letter came in that morning while I was away and it said that she had died peacefully in her sleep and the funeral will be held in three days time. I thought how could they decide when to bury my mother?

My wife was pregnant at the time and she could not travel so I went alone. She kept on asking me how I was feeling and I found that to be odd. My mother had just passed away and I felt nothing, nothing good, nothing bad and the more my wife brought it, the worse I felt about my nothingness.

At the time I used to go running every now and then, whenever I felt like it, which was not often. The doctors had told me that strenuous exercise might trigger bad memories. So that was a comfortable excuse to stay in my bed or on my couch. But, for some reason, I brought along a pair of running shoes when I went to go see my mother. They were old, just a random pair that I had bought from the store one day, I couldn’t even recall how old they were.

Mother spent her last few years living in a home with her friends and others like her. My wife and I had tried to accommodate her with us but it was difficult when you took into consideration her condition. She had never been the same since my brothers passed away. After that, she would often look at me and call me by my brother’s name. First my older brother and then my younger brother and then a blend of both of them and finally she’ll remember who I was. She’d smile and say how much I looked like them and how I reminded her of them. At the time father was around and he could take care of mother but then he passed too and his name got added to the mix of names. Soon she started to forget more things than just my name. One time we found her walking down the side of the road near our home, still in her morning robe and slippers. She said she was just going to go see my brother off at his school. It was after that we decided to put her in a home where she could get proper care.

I took a bus which left the city at midnight. My wife came to see me off. I figured it’d be easy to just sleep the night and wake up in a different town but that wasn’t the case. The cool air that leaked in from the windows kept me awake. It was as if a fan was blowing cold wind right above my head. Instead, I tried to remember the last time I went to go see her and nothing came to my mind. I remembered riding the bus down another time but I couldn’t remember meeting my mother or talking to her. I remembered the small field outside of the home where the rose petals were and I could see the gardener watering the plants in his green overalls but I couldn’t see her there, nor hear her, I couldn’t even remember her.

There was a man waiting for me at the bus stop. He worked at the home and he tried to carry my one small suitcase for me but I told him I could manage and I placed it in the trunk of his old Volvo. The brown leather seats were cracked and the air conditioning didn’t work. We rolled down the windows. The man offered his condolences and that was kind of him. He asked me if my brothers were coming too. I couldn’t blame my mother for wishing they were still here. I just shook my head and told the man that they won’t be able to join us.

At the home, they settled me into a nice room. I could tell it had been cleaned that morning. The bedsheets were perfectly laid out and the pillows arranged in order, I felt as if I would be doing a disservice by sleeping here, by ruining their constructed image. A man came up and ushered me down to the hall where my mother was. Everyone was dressed in white, those were the mourning colors here, not black but white because they believed death to be pure, a part of a process, something one shouldn’t be sad about. For them, death was cleanliness and order because it completed one’s life, without death life would be incomplete, a singular wrinkle on a bedsheet that is otherwise perfect, that single wrinkle drawing everyone’s attention to the incompletion of the task, or something like that I guess. I suppose that is the attitude you have to have when all your residents are waiting for completion.

My mother lay on a white bed at one end of the room. White cloth covered the floor and the metal chairs, there was a narrow path in between the set of chairs so one could walk directly up to my mother. Few people sat on the chairs silently and I thought that to be odd. Couple of the women sat at the front row, crying without making a sound. I took a seat at the back and watched the side of my mothers face. The bed bent due to her weight in a manner that I could only see the tip of her nose and her forehead which was partially covered with her greying hair. I figured her hair would be greying, my own was but for some reason, I felt as if that was wrong. She shouldn’t be this old. I was but she should be younger like she was when she was waving us goodbye at the train station.

One of the women from the front turned around and saw me. She was old too. She came and sat down beside me.

“You look just like your mother.” She said.

I just smiled.

“I’m sorry for you and your family. She really was a great woman, always making us laugh. You can see how loved she was with all these people here. Not everyone gets the same attention.”

“That’s nice.”

“Would you like to go see her?” She asked.

“No, thank you.”

My answer seemed to surprise her.

“In a little bit,” I added.

She pretended to understand, “okay, take your time honey.”

She went and joined the other women at the front.

I waited for a while and a few more people drifted in, all wearing white. They said their condolences to me, some asked where my wife was and I told that she couldn’t travel, many asked where my brothers were and I told them they couldn’t travel either. After some time I decided to go for a run. People didn’t notice me leave and I went to my room and put on my shoes. The home was a gated lot but the watchman at the gate let me out for I didn’t look like I belonged there just yet.

The run was simple and easy. I kept the pace light, there was no need to rush, I had nowhere to be and the path was simple as well. Flat and straight with the occasional little dip or small incline, nothing that I couldn’t handle. It took me a little while to get my legs loosened up and once they were loose I felt my strides lengthen and my lungs stopped to burn and rather, they took pleasure in inhaling the cold fresh air. I tried to think of nothing when I was running but I didn’t know how to do that at the time. I didn’t know how to get to the edge of the cliff and carefully run alongside it and wait for the perfect moment to step off and fall into the void. Now I had a better hold at getting to the void. The void was emptiness, it was without thought and without feelings. It was just alive and it took pain to get there.

At the time, I was just trying to be thoughtless. Whenever a thought came to my head I let it pass through like one of the cars on the road that seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. There were no lights or stop signs for thoughts in my mind, it was an open highway for them to keep on going. It was the void that I was trying to reach but at the time I didn’t know that. Now, when I run I don’t think of anything and with it, I don’t remember anything either.

Like Bean, I don’t remember him either. Bean, that boy who I fought with, who was still a boy. His life already completed. He would tell me stories about his mother all the time. He would tell me how she had him young, too young and how she didn’t know anything about raising kids and she would slap him when he did something wrong and then she would give him sweets to make up for it. Bean would tell me how his mother shouldn’t have been a mother yet, she couldn’t handle the responsibility, she was a kid herself. Just like us, he would add. Bean would tell me how his mother was his best friend. How the two of them would tell each other everything. They would watch movies together, they would go on walks together, she would do his homework for him, he would do the dishes for her and the two of them were one. Bean talked about his mother until he was killed. Then, I remembered his mother. I remembered his mother when I saw my own. When I saw my own mother, I saw Bean’s mother and when I saw Bean’s mother, I remembered Bean and with it I remembered that look of surprise he had on his face when his life was completed. What I remembered afterward doesn’t let me dream anymore.

I kept running that day. Easy, comfortable pace and soon all I thought about was the sky or the tree that I passed by or the crack on the pavement.