Thursday, December 29, 2011

Prompt #48: Yep, that's my neighborhood.

            The road between Neighborhoods is long and empty. Few people leave their designated communities and the only buildings are the rest stops halfway between districts. But my job requires me to travel it.
            The road between Neighborhoods is lonely and boring. Radio does not work well out here. My eyes bounce around and land on a lone figure walking in the dead grass. The man’s back is hunched and his clothes are worn as if he is Neighborless. But my sanity requires me to offer him a ride.
            My foot eases off the gas and my hand rolls down the window as I pull up next to him. He continues walking, not even glancing my way.
            “Excuse me?” I call, leaning over the center console into the passenger side.
            He looks up now and pushes his hat back on his head, revealing his eyes. “Yes?” His voice is soft and draws out the word on the “e.”
            “Would you like a ride? It’s a long walk.”
            He finally stops and I stop the car next to him, waiting for his response. His words are slow coming. “To which Neighborhood,” he starts, looks across the brown plains, continues, “are you headed?”
            My mouth opens and spills. “I’m one of the Counselors of the Evaluation for the Camaraderie Neighborhood. That’s where I’m headed now.”
            He steps up to the car and stares over it for a second before bending down into the window. “That’s in the middle of the line,” his eyes bounce around, taking in the car’s interior, “isn’t it?”
            “Yes, sir, it is.”
            He straightens then his face appears in the window again. “I guess that’ll get me about there.”
            I smile, unlock the doors. He pulls on the handle just enough to crack the door before gripping the edge with his fingers and pulling it the rest of the way open. He lowers himself into the leather seat daintily, as if scared it might hurt him. I wait until he is settled before putting my foot back on the clutch.
            I sneak peeks at my companion out of the corner of my eye, but he stays in the same position, back rigid, face long, and eyes straight out the window. This is not going quite the way I’d hoped. I clear my throat. “So, exactly which Neighborhood are you headed to?”
            About there. The line up started flashing through my mind. Demiurgic. Astute. Eremite. Camaraderie. Fastidious. Nonpartisan. And Frenetic. I cross the last one off. No possible way he comes from there. Once you’re in, they never let you out.
            Silence hangs heavy, dripping down into my ears. Makes me want to shake my head to dislodge it. I prompt him. “Nonpartisan?”
            The word brings a smile to his lips and a spark to his eye. “I suppose, in a way,” and his lips draw back from his teeth, “yes.”
            My eyebrows scrunch down and my eyes stay on the road. His words buzz around my head, bouncing off the walls of my skull, as I try to discern their meaning. The man offers no explanation but instead turns in his seat, curls up against the door, and goes to sleep.
            We pass the sign that announces the Eremite Neighborhood just ahead. It looks just as alone as I feel. And then the turnoff is there. I pause, checking for an unlikely car. A black blob rises in the distance, Eremite’s exterior walls, but it is the only thing I see. I move on.
            “Fifty miles to go,” I mutter.
            A soft chuckle fills the space inside the car. I glance over quickly at my companion but he has not moved. Rubbing a hand over my eyes, I repeat, “Fifty miles to go.”
            The purr of the motor is quiet, soothing. The road does not change, straight mile after straight mile of black disappearing under my tires. My hands do not move. My feet do not move. My eyelids, however, start to droop, falling toward my lower lashes. They take my head with them. It bumps against the steering wheel.
            And suddenly the road becomes a lot bumpier as the car swerves over into the grass. I jerk, twist the wheel to right the vehicle. My passenger sits up, one hand pushing against the window, the other grasping the edge of his seat. “What the hell?”
            I take a deep breath, spot the rest stop up ahead. “I need to stop.”
            I twist the steering wheel carefully, turning into the lot. It takes three tries, backing in and out of the parking space, until I am centered in between the yellow lines. I get out of the car, close the door carefully. Heat seeps through my pores and I rush inside. The filters instantly make it easier to breathe.
            The light in the solitary bathroom is dingy, dirt caked on its fixture. It, and the dust that covers everything else, distorts my reflection as I stand at the sink. I turn the blue faucet and, with a rattle, water pores into the sink. I cup my hands, splash my face. My eyes go wide, shocked awake.
            A paper towel dries my face and I head back to the car, taking a long breath before I step outside. Gravel crunches and skids under my feet before I get to smooth concrete. My footsteps are extra loud in the endless quiet.
            I open the door to the car, get in, shut the door. I drum my fingers against the steering wheel. “You’re going to have to talk to me. To keep me from falling asleep.”
            His mouth twists up. “How about if I pinch you if you start dozing?”
            I laugh as I pull us back on the road. “I guess that could work. Long as you promise not to bruise.”
            The weird smile comes back to his face. “Promise.”
            I begin counting down the miles as we drive. Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.
            “So, when you said you were a Nonpartisan ‘in a way,’ what did you mean? Were your parents Nonpartisan?” I ask, check off mile fifteen.
            “No talking,” he leans his head against the window, “just pinching, remember?”
            “Ah, yes.”
            Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. I squint to catch sight of the Camaraderie sign. Ten. Nine. Of course it’s not even a speck on my windshield. Eight.
            It is suddenly darker. I glance up, confused. A grey cloud has passed over the sun. “I think maybe you should pinch me.”
            My companion laughs. His laugh starts out deep but progresses until it is high. “Don’t worry,” he leans forward, “you’re not seeing things.”
            Five. Four. He’s right. From what I’ve seen in pictures, it’s too thin to be a storm cloud. “I wonder what it is.” Something tickles the back of my mind, some word.
            Three. Smoke. Smoke. But smoke means, “Fire.”
            My foot presses down harder on the gas. Two. The sign is coming up. I see that it hangs crooked from its post as we fly by. One.
            I swerve around the turn, not pausing. The walls of the Camaraderie compound loom over us, growing taller by the second. A sight that should be familiar, but is nothing I’ve ever seen. The walls are red. The walls move. The walls are on fire.
            We shoot right through the open gates. I slam on the brakes and scramble out of the car. My body shakes and I cough from the smoke, but I can’t move. I hear a car door shut, somehow, over the screaming. He comes around, stands next to me.
            “You wanted to know what I meant when I said I’m a Nonpartisan ‘in a way.” He says it as a statement but I nod.
            “Well, in a way I am a Nonpartisan. And in a way I am a Fastidious. And now,” he moves and there is something cold, sharp, pressed against my throat. “in a way I am a Camaraderie.” He laughs in my ear, that whole range of laughs. “But really, to answer your very first question, I am a Frenetic. Couldn’t you tell?”
            The sharp cold thing presses harder against my neck. I’m sure it will do more than bruise. Frenetic. Insane. I close my eyes.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Prompt #47: As soon as I saw you, I knew today was going to suck.

            Billy B. Bye was bragging to his friends about how they weren’t going to come for him when they came for him. The men stood at the mouth of the alleyway, their white suits spotless and meticulously creased. Billy’s friends melted away faster than ketchup can stain a shirt.
            “William Bartholomew Bye,” the just bigger of the two men boomed, “you have been reported as Unclean.”
            Billy pulled on his sleeves, stretching the cloth until it overlapped his hands. He cleared his throat. “For what?”
            The just smaller of the two men pulled open the white messenger bag that hung from his shoulder and extracted a tiny computer. Its black shell contrasted sharply with everything around it. The man held it in one hand and typed with the other, the backlight outlining his facial features. He read what was on the screen in a monotone. “Your body, possessions, and/or dwelling were not properly sanitized.”
            Billy tried to cut him off. “But—”
            “Third offense.” The man continued without even hesitating. His eyes came up from the screen to meet Billy’s. There was no emotion behind them, no pity, no pleasure. He was a blank canvas.
            Billy’s left foot slid back millimeter by millimeter. A muscle in his right thigh twitched. Pins and needles poked up and down both legs. But he paused. Running got you instantly killed. He’d seen it a time or two, enough to know that he didn’t want to die that way. His eyes snapped onto the shorter man. He didn’t want to live that way either.
            A cold metal band snapped around his wrist, ending any thought of escape. The larger man held the other end of the short chain tightly in his fist. His bulging muscles gave no doubt that the chain would be in his grasp until he chose to release it. He tugged on it, using it like a marionette string, jerking Billy’s arm.
            The small man led the procession, the second man not close behind, pulling Billy along like a dog on a leash. The boy was surprised he could even walk. Fear shook every bone in his body, making his teeth clank together. His tongue came very close to being bitten several times.
            His captor yanked on his shackle. “Silence.”
            Billy bit down hard, pressing his teeth together to make them stop. He concentrated on it, the pressure his jaw created, the slight movement of his teeth against each other, and slowly the shaking stopped.
            The man’s next command was, “Cease.”
            They stood at the edge of a small platform, twin rails running across the ground in front of them. The buzz of electricity hovered in Billy’s ears. It was unusually loud, not another sound to compete with, not even a breeze.
            Then the buzz was knocked from his ears. An amped up version of someone blowing their nose crashed against his eardrums. And the train was coming to a halt in front of them, forming an endless grey wall. The short man stepped forward and placed his hand against the smooth metal. A soft light outlined his fingers and a door appeared in the side of the train.
            The large man dragged him inside and the other shut the door behind them. Hard benches with no cushions lined the interior walls.
            Billy took a seat close to the door, keeping his back straight, trying not to wrinkle his shirt. His guard sat next to him, close enough that they touched. He stared straight ahead, right over the second man who sat across from them. Billy glanced from where their arms met to the man’s face. The sick thought that he didn’t have to worry about his shirt being wrinkled anymore crossed his mind.
            It was so surreal. Sitting in a train as empty as a room where someone had spilled punch, touching someone, not having to worry about his appearance. He thought he might be in shock. Numbness started to creep up his legs.
            The train stopped and the small man stood to open the door. Billy rose without waiting to be told and was jerked back into his seat.
            “Only do what you are ordered,” the big man said without looking at him.
            Billy nodded.
            “Stand now.”
            Billy did.
            His legs carried him after the two men despite the fact that he could no longer feel them. The numbness crept up passed his legs and his stomach started to grow cold. The cold seeped away the sick feeling that had been resting there, curled up like a hibernating snake.
            The train was gone as soon as both of his feet hit the platform, leaving him with the two strangers, miles of too-bright fake grass, and a precisely square building bigger than any he had ever seen. Billy stared at it as he stepped off the platform onto a concrete path that led up to the mansion’s only opening. No windows broke up the endless white walls.
            When they reached the front door, Billy searched for a knob. There wasn’t one. Only the crack that proved the rectangular metal piece hid an entrance
            The shorter man pulled out his computer and a black cord. A compartment opened on the side of the computer and he attached the cord to it. Another compartment slid into view when he touched the door. The other end of the cable fit in the slot perfectly. The man typed something into his computer and the door shot up into the wall.
            A tendril of fear wound around Billy’s chest, squeezed, and then it fell away, dead, as the numbness continued up his body. He left it behind as he followed the taller man inside, the littler one shutting the door after them.
            The front hall offered a million different ways to go, including a grand staircase straight across from them. Their shoes clicked against the floor as Billy was taken to the double doors set in the left wall. They rose almost to the ceiling, whitewashed wood. The large man opened them, shoved him inside, finally letting go of the chain, and slammed the door.
            Billy turned on his heel to face the curved table across the room, behind which eight people in white smocks sat. He swallowed, though he didn’t know if it went all the way down. The numbness had reached his breast bone.
            “William Bartholomew Bye,” a woman, her hair bleached, spoke, “you have been brought here as Unclean, a third offender.”
            Billy licked his lips. They stared. He swore some of their eyes held pity.
            “You know what this means?”
            He didn’t know what to do.
            “You must be Cleansed. Sanitized. Wiped completely Clean.”
            “Please.” He didn’t know how he got the word out. Cold tickled his chin.
            The woman sighed. “It cannot be helped. Another outbreak would kill all of us.”
            “One more chance. Please. I’m only fifteen.”
            She smoothed her hands across her smock. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. The process has already begun.” She pointed.
            Billy glanced down at his wrist, the metal band still surrounding it. And he couldn’t even bring himself to care. The numbness covered him completely.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

We Can Do Great Things Together

My paternal grandmother recently took my sister and me to see Happy Feet Two. While the first movie taught us to accept ourselves for who we are, the moral of the second story was more along of the lines of great things are accomplished when we work together. It resonated with me strongly.

I love the diversity of people. Love those little things, and big things, that make people who they are. They amaze me. It's one of the reasons I enjoy writing so much. And such, I have never understood why people fight, whether on a large or small scale, because of these differences. The way I see it, we're all people, all human.

In Happy Feet Two, two species of penguin, a puffin, a herd of elephant seals, and a swarm of krill come together to save the Emperor penguins from starvation. And they're all a whole lot different from each other than we are. Of course, they all didn't just spring at the chance of helping one another (in the case of the krill, they didn't even know they were helping), but they got there. To me that symbolizes that there is still hope for us.

So, whether you're straight, gay, bi, white, black, red, yellow, brilliant or not so, disabled, shy, sarcastic, outgoing, weird, or somewhere in between, embrace who you are and who your neighbor is and help make this world a better place (and go watch Happy Feet Two).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Prompt #46: If she could have done it all again, she might have chosen not to trust the talking animals. Such things are rarely trustworthy.

            When I was little, they called them imaginary friends. When I grew older, those friends gained the ever-so-lovely title of schizophrenia. Funny how things change with age.
            Of course, if I had known talking about them would get me thrown in here, I would have kept my mouth shut. Personally, I think my mother should have taught me better. Instead, I had to learn myself. And learn I did.
            Which is why, when the nurse comes to give me my medication, I don’t say a thing about the yellow leopard sitting on my bed post. She stares at the nurse with her solid black eyes, her tail twitching back and forth, as the attendant places the pill in my palm. She presses it into my skin with a smile, showing me how happy I should be that I’m here. That I’m “getting better.”
            I give her what she wants—a smile in return. Her muscles relax a tad, but she’s still waiting. I press the capsule past my lips, keep it there, pretend to swallow. I’ve been here so long they don’t bother checking my mouth anymore.
            “Wait,” says the leopard, loud and clear.
            I stare at the far wall, the pill buried under my tongue, as the nurse sets my breakfast tray on the bedside table. I don’t bother looking at her, looking for a sign that she heard. I have long given up on getting a reaction from any of this asylum’s personnel. All of humanity is deaf.
            The nurse leaves, closes the door behind her. The leopard and I both wait for the click that tells us we’re alone. As soon as it comes, I spit the tablet into my hand. The leopard steps onto the bed, walks up to rest on my pillow. She watches vigilantly as I lean over, extract the compact case from under my mattress.
            It pops open and its mirror reflects the eight little pills that rest inside. I add the ninth, shake the case just a bit. The oblong shapes roll and knock into each other reminding me of bumper cars.
            “Soon,” the leopard purrs. “Soon you will be free.”
            I shove the compact case back under the mattress. It won’t be needed until later. They will tell me when.
            My breakfast tray is still sitting on the nightstand. I consider eating it, not hungry, but if I don’t, it’s a demerit.
            A purple-grey mouse pops out from behind the mini milk carton, his eyes stuck fast to the buttered bread. “Are you going to eat that?”
            What the hell? I’ve found my own way out of here. Demerits don’t mean anything anymore. I shake my head and he jumps on it.
            I roll back over, curl up on my side. Wait for recreation hour, then lunch hour when they’ll give me the second pill of the day, then exercise hour. My last hour in this place.
            I drift in and out of sleep. Voices, movement, color are everywhere. They are everywhere. Talking to me. Touching me. Sleeping against me. I breathe them in, letting their comfort fill me. I love them.
            The snap of the door unlocking jerks me out of sleep for sure. They all disappear, hiding. They are still close, however. I can feel them, just on the edge of there.
            My bare feet slip down to the ground. Shoes are only permitted when we go outside. People try to hide stuff in them. The carpet is soft against my skin as I walk across my eight by eight room, out the door, and down the hallway, an orderly trailing me.
            He is not my only companion. A fish so bright blue it hurts to look at swims along the wall beside me. “They’ll never guess.”
            I smile to myself, humming softly as I push through the double glass doors into the recreation room. The tune stays in my head as I interact with the real psychos, for once not having to pretend everything is hunky-dory. My lips stretch extra wide every time I glimpse one of them peeking out from behind someone or something, their colors so bright they make everything else look faded.
            My happiness is so great, I even thank the orderly who escorts me back to my room. He looks surprised, but says, “You’re welcome,” with a little grin.
            I dive into my lunch when they bring it. The mouse watches enviously and I throw him a bit of cheese from my sandwich. It makes him content enough.
            And then all there is to do is wait. I sit cross-legged on the carpet, staring at the door. The compact case is shoved down the front of my pants and I finger the bump every few seconds in between glances at the clock. A silver beetle is running around its face squeaking, “Go faster. Go faster.”
            Finally, the sound of the lock comes and an orderly appears in the doorway. I scramble to my feet and the case shifts against my skin, reminding me small movements are best. The orderly gives me a wary look before gesturing for me to go in front of her. I obey with gusto.
            The leopard weaves between my feet as I follow the hallway to the outside. I take great precautions not to step on her. A chant of, “Soon, soon,” floats around me.
            I have to wait for the orderly to unlock the door with a loud thud before I can step outside. Warm sunlight falls in waves across my skin like the softest blanket. I pause to soak it in, close my eyes to the fifteen feet high fences surrounding me.
            “Hurry,” the leopard growls.
            I stride over to the corner, where the rack of basketballs sits. None of the orderlies—guards—stationed around the enclosure are near. With my right hand I reach for one of the balls. With my left I pull out the case. My neck itches to turn, to see if anyone is watching. It’s an itch I cannot scratch. I cannot look in any way suspicious.
            I drop the ball, dribble it, act like I’m testing it. I let it slip away, roll until it hits the chain link fence. My thumb is steady over the case’s button as I run to retrieve it. I crouch down and the pills are in my mouth and the case back in my pants within nanoseconds. The week’s worth of medication slides down my throat as I pick up the ball and walk up to one of the six basketball goals.
            They watch me shoot hoop after hoop, going from getting every one through the basket, to getting every three, to getting none. Their colors blend together, forming a rainbow. Their voices mingle into one. “Soon. Soon.”
            My heart pounds loud in my ears. It gets louder and louder until I can’t hear them anymore. I can’t see them either. Everything is a blur. I don’t have the strength to lift my arms and throw the ball, but I have to. Wait, why do I have to?
            Why do I have to do anything? Why do I have to stand? I don’t. So I sink to the ground, let the hard concrete cushion me. The orange ball bounces away, the thump it makes as it hits the ground twice as loud as usual. Why do I have to listen? I don’t. And suddenly it is bone chilling quiet. Even the sound of my heart has dropped away. It takes too much energy to keep it running, too much energy to keep anything running. It hurts to breathe. So why do I have to? I don’t.
            Before I close my eyes to my last view of this place, I see the leopard. She sits on my chest. She says something that I can’t hear and licks my forehead. Then she is gone.
            And so am I.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Prompt #45: _______ is an abomination.

            The scientist looked up at his assistant, wide eyed. “I have found it.”
            “Found what, doctor?” the assistant asked, surfacing from his book.
            “What?” the scientist scoffed. “Only what we have been searching for for the past several days. Take a look.”
            He picked up the heavy book, one hand on the spine and the other holding the page down so it could be read. His assistant came round the table and read over his shoulder. “Ah. Eternal youth.”
            The doctor shook his head. “Nothing as unlawful as that. There are consequences of going against nature so thoroughly. Have I taught you nothing?”
            Squinting at the finely detailed pictures, the apprentice peered at the hand written page once more. He nodded. “The perfect body.”
            “That’s right, lad. That’s right.” The scientist set the book on a stand. It rose out of the notes and journals and research books like a castle, regal and impressive. He ran the tips of his fingers over the page and a smile crossed his lips, a smile that a father might grace on a child. His hand dropped to his side. “Find me a quill, paper.”
            The assistant jumped and began rummaging through the huge pile for a scrap empty of ink, hoping to find a buried quill along the way. He emerged minutes later, white pieces poking up through his hair, and held out the needed utensils.
            The older man took them carefully. He smoothed the parchment and pulled the glasses hanging around his neck up to his eyes. He extracted an inkwell from his robes, dipped the quill in it, and started scratching away. The boy stood awkwardly, not knowing if he was still needed or if he could go back to the fantasy land hidden between the covers of his manuscript.
            “Here, here.” The doctor waved him forward and pressed the list into his hand. “Go and find these things.”
            As he surveyed the cramped writing, the assistant mentally checked off each item. His eyes paused on the last one and he frowned, reading it multiple times. Each time it told him the same thing. He folded the paper and put it into his breast pocket.
            “What are you waiting for?” The scientist blustered, waving his hands. “Make haste.”
            The assistant turned and burst out the door into the claustrophobic alley. The sun hung low behind the opposite building like a too-ripe orange. Garbage and debris cast shadows around his feet and against the walls, hiding any rats or beggars. A glass bottle burst beneath his boot as he hurried out onto the main road.
            People were in short supply, most preparing for bed, the rest waiting for a deeper dark. He drew his coat closer around him as he slipped around a corner into another alley. His fist came up against the second door from the street. Footsteps and locks clicking out of place preceded its opening.
            A petite girl ushered him in, then closed the door, locking it back, before wrapping her arms around his middle. “Barty. It’s been forever since I’ve seen you.”
            “Hey, Clare. Afraid this visit is for business only,” he informed her, smiling.
            She twisted away, but snatched up his hand, pulling him after her. They pushed through a curtain. He blinked at the light that suddenly flooded his pupils. Her fingers slid along his as she moved away, the tips of them catching. “So what are you looking for today?”
            Barty drew the note from his pocket, unfolded it, and handed it over. She moved around the room, taking various jars and boxes off the shelves and setting them on a counter, mouthing each word as she read it. A small mountain of containers was the end result.
            Clare stepped behind the counter, pulling up various tools from hidden cubbies. Some were used to open the jars and boxes, others to measure out the various powders and liquids that made their homes inside. She transferred all of this into a box divvied up into multiple compartments. “I’ve got almost everything here. Afraid you’re going to have to go elsewhere for this Abominable at the bottom. I’ve never heard of it before.”
            He sighed and took the box from her, tucking it beneath his arm. “Then I’ll never find it.”
            She guided him down the hallway, once more holding his hand in hers. “Don’t be so pessimistic.” She opened the door and pushed him back out into the cold. “I’ll add this to your tab,” she called after him.
            He waved at her and she went back into her shop. He stood frozen when he reached the main street, gazing at the mountain that rose beyond the village, trying to figure out where he would find Abominable.

            The scientist threw open the door for him before he could even knock a second time. “What took you so long, boy?”
            Barty stepped inside and immediately crouched down beside the fireplace. His body shivered with cold and it was a few shaky seconds before he could get his gloves off. His teeth chattered. “H-hard to f-find some things.”
            “Ah well, you’ve got everything now. We can begin.” He held his hand out expectantly.
            His assistant drew the herbalist’s box from under his coat, set it not-so-softly in his palm.
            The scientist turned it over in his hands. “Is this all?”
            “Out-t-t in the h-hall.”
            Barty scooted closer to the fire, blew hot air on his fingers. Blood rushed to his face as heat thawed out his veins. A drop of water slid down his neck, a side effect of frozen sweat.
            The scientist’s scream jerked him to his feet. Barty grabbed a poker from its stand, but the yell was one of anger not fright.
            “What is this?” The doctor stormed back inside, a dark shadow slouching in the doorway behind him.
            Barty frowned, placing the poker back in its place. “You asked for Abominable.”
            “No, you fool. I asked for an abomination.”
            “Technically speaking, sir,” the shadow spoke up. “I am.” The self-proclaimed abomination stepped into the light, his massive body and long white hair taking up all the space. His face was the only place not covered by fur. The skin was black. He appeared as a polar bear in humanoid form.
            “And you are willing to sacrifice yourself to this cause?” The scientist huffed.
            “No,” the creature said. “I have simply come to give warning.”
            “Which is what?”
            The abomination looked at the book, still in its place of honor. “I once coveted what the boy has told me you seek. And this is the punishment which the Earth bestowed upon me for my ungratefulness.” He met the man’s eyes. “The perfect body is merely a matter of opinion, my fine doctor. But I think you and I both agree that this is not it.”
            The scientist stared up at the giant, then he looked over at the cauldron that hung over the fire, waiting. He strode across the room, pushing Barty out of his way. He promptly overturned the cauldron. Its contents evaporated on the spot.