Monday, September 23, 2013

Three Short Stories: Alice in La-La-Land, The Changeling, The Head and the Body

Alice in La-La-Land
(or, The Space Between Raindrops)
by Jean Woest

She walks-- unseen-- in the dry space between raindrops in a city of black umbrellas. She wears her red bow in the morning and steps in puddles on purpose. She hums as she turns in the middle of the crowd, her fingers reaching to embrace those outstretched hands that none will offer and all need to reach out and ache to touch. She smiles and forms dimples, deep scars of her smiles, and dances and spins without the touch of water on her face. She walks-- unseen-- in the bone places where the dry wind whistles along brittle white bark.
“Hey! Watch it!”
She walks-- unseen through the rows of cars humming in quiet unison, a hymn of the asphalt snakes that coil at the heart of the city.
“Hey, hey you, there. With the bow. What do you think you’re doing? You could have been killed!”
She walks-- unseen-- and stops as his fingers wrap around her arm. She sees them, thin and white with small black hairs on the knuckles like the wisps of fog on the river in the morning.
“Are you even listening? You need to watch where you’re going!”
She walks-- unseen-- tethered by the hand and the arm hidden in the shirt and blazer with the mustard stain on the sleeve. She is a ship, berthed and beating with the fierce desire to escape the docks and sail through the salient air of the park.
“Hey, are you okay? Is something wrong?”
She waits-- feels cold-- and looks around her at the rising fingers of skyscrapers that scrape the skies bare of clouds and leave long red gashes in the heaven’s thin skin, where their blood oozes down the side and coats windows in ruby colored glass film.
“No, no, no!”
“You’re not okay? What’s the matter? Do you need me to call someone for you?”
She runs-- unseen-- and seen-- the eyes in the windows watch her as she careens against a group of school children corralled back by the quick handed teachers with their wide eyed scorn. And she sees the eyes of those children drink her soul in slowly, dissipating her core and fizzing her brain through her pores.
“Hey, do you need a doctor? If you wait here, I can call someone.”
She stops-- untouched and unseen-- hugs her arms to block the sudden winter breath across the backs of her arms like the icecube he used to push into the cuts in her skin. She clenches her teeth and sits down hard on the dead grass and mud.
“Stop it.”
“Stop what? Do you need me to stop someone? Is someone hurting you?”
She looks-- past the eyes try to climb through her windows and nest in her soul-- and past still, tracing the dance steps of satellites and astronauts she’s only visited in her sleep. A hand is on her forehead and she pushed it away, so as not to block her view.
“You’re burning up. Do you need water? Or is it something else?”
She feels-- unseen-- the rough grooves of the fingertips are sandpaper to her face and clench her chin. Makes her bring her face closer and she shuts the curtains of her eyes as tightly as she can and holds her breath and counts to three and clicks her heels and says in her mind ‘there’s no place like me, there’s no place like me’.
“It’s drugs isn’t it? Isn’t it.”
She lolls-- sideways aways away-- and goes as a worm to the rot of the ground as her arms are taken from her and held up to the light, the transparent scales checked for the diamond marks of previous pinpricks that they won’t find there anyway.
“That’s the problem with you kids these days. It’s probably something new. Rotting your brain out for a quick fix and an easy high.”
She pushes-- feeling so close to being once more unseen-- and screams the names of every person on the forty-second page of the phonebook, backwards in Ancient Babylonian to the tune of Yankee Doodle while her fingers move on their own accord.
“Hey! Let go! Let go!”
She feels-- there is a warm breath behind the eyes-- and digs in deeper.
“Let go! Ah! My eyes!”
She digs-- now seen-- she finds the thread at the root of the tree and begins to pull the spool back around her thumb and forefinger.
“You crazy fucking bitch!”
She laughs-- now she is the one who can see-- the blood boils back off the buildings and the skies swallow once again the things they ejaculated on the world. And the tops of the buildings round out to riverstone smooth edges and a happy disposition.
She walks-- unseen-- through the space between the raindrops in the grey city of black umbrellas. She sings-- unheard-- and laughs until she coughs up blood by the bucket. She cries-- unloved-- and licks the bottom of park benches to feel closer to children. She tied her red bow about her head  with now red stained fingers-- again and around her neck-- once, twice, four, five-- and a nice snug pull. Pull more. Till the heads roll off and their tea party can start again.


The Changeling
by Jean Woest
How many nights had Conner called me from his bedroom about the monster under his bed? This is why we told Sherri not to let him stay up late and watch Doctor Who. But everytime my wife and I went out on a date, like clockwork, the babysitter would collect her money and we'd be the ones stuck with a frightened eight year old.
        I made my way down the hallway to Conner's bedroom. I was on the landing outside his door when the muffled 'Daddee" sounded from dim, blue lit room. The night light coated the walls the dull shimmer of an aquarium.
        "Hey bud."
        There was no answer, only a whimper from the bundle on the bed, the Buzz Lightyear blankets moving together tighter.
        "Conner, it's daddy."
        I sat down, trying not to sit on finger or a foot as I slowly pulled the covers back.
        Conner's frightened eyes were staring back at me. I placed a hand on his buzz cut hair and ran it back and forth a few times, the way I would when we'd watch cartoons on Saturday mornings. The way I knew calmed him down every time he'd scuff his knees riding his bike.
        "Hey, come on bud. You just had a bad dream, is all."
        He looked up at me, on the verge of tears, and shook his head quickly, "Not a dream."
        I sighed.
        "There's someone under my bed, daddy."
        I sighed again.
        "Conner, there's nothing under your bed."
        His face lowered a few inches further under the blankets.
        "Fine. If I check will you go back to sleep, bud?"
        He nodded.
        I sighed and slowly lowered myself to the floor, making a show of pulling back the skirting around the base of the bed. I took the flashlight down from beside his bed and clicked it on. His eyes grew wide with fright and he had his entire nose covered by the blankets now.
        I lowered my head and shone the beam beneath the bed.
        Conner was under the bed, holding onto his favorite teddy bear, staring over the head with frightened eyes. I fell backward, the beam rolling over a scattered field of abandoned toys.
        "Daddy." The Conner under the bed whispered, "There's someone in my bed."
        I looked up.
        "Daddy, did you see it?"
        I looked down again.
        "Daddy, he's down there."
        I was trying to calm my breathing, trying to calm my pounding brain as I looked back and forth from the Conner on the bed and the Conner under the bed. Which was my real son?
        "Hey, bud." I found myself saying before I realized what I was doing, "Come here."
        I reached out and pulled out the Conner under the bed. He clung to my arm with his whole, small pajama clad body. As soon as I pulled him up, the Conner on the bed lurched back, pulling the sheets and comforter with him.
        "Daddy, it's him!"
        "Why does he look like me, daddy!"
        I looked from my son in my arms to my son in his bed. I didn't know what was going on. Chocolate milk. That always fixes everything. I needed to think. I needed time. I slowly shifted the Conner in my arm over onto my hip, where he was still latching on, and reached over to the Conner in the bed with my other hand.
        His eyes darted to the Conner in my arms, then back to my face. I smiled and nodded to try and reassure him. He slowly slid forward, apprehensive like a wild animal, before making a lung for my free hand and gripping it and the flannel leg of my pajamas like a life preserver.
        And so, I and my two sons went downstairs for chocolate milk.
        I flicked on the kitchen light and deposited the Conner in my arms on one side of the table and led the Conner holding my hand to the facing chair. I had hoped in the kitchen light, or maybe facing each other I could tell which was the real Conner. But no such luck. They were both identical. More identical than identical twins.
        "Okay." I took a breath and turned to face the refrigerator, my heart racing. "Chocolate milk."
        I opened the fridge, and the normalcy of it was grounding. I pulled out the milk as if I were only going to make chocolate milk for one son. But as soon as the door closed, I saw the two faces watching me in the silver reflection of the door. I moved to the cupboard, took out three glasses. I turned slightly to watch them.
        The Conner on the Left, who had been the Conner on top of the bed was slowly sinking lower in his chair, watching the Conner on the Right. The other Conner, who had been under the bed, had pulled his knees up and was holding his kneecaps with his small hands, his eyes darting back and forth between me and the Conner on the Left.
        I pulled out the chocolate syrup from above the refrigerator. The bottle was nearly empty, so I looked at the two boys and shrugged apologetically.
        "Looks like I have to get some from the pantry." I don't know why, but I backed out of the kitchen to go to the hallway where the pantry was kept. "Be right back."
        I had a moment to freak out. Okay, this was happening. I had two sons, or at least, a son and an identical copy of my son sitting across from each other. Holy shit. Holy shit! Stuff like this don't actually happen. I fumbled with the pantry door and clicked on the light. I had to try and see if there was a difference between them.
        I had just grabbed hold of the chocolate when Conner (I don't know which one) yelled from the kitchen.
        I bolted and ran in, only to find the one Conner on the ground, wiggling his toes while the other Conner was examining the wiggling digits closely.
        "See, I can wiggle my big toe without moving the others."
        "Hey, you moved the middle one."
        "No, I didn't."
        "Yes, you did too!"
        "Conner." I said.
        "Yes, daddy." The way they simultaneously intoned the answer made my skin crawl and sent goosebumps up my arms.
        "Come on boys, let's get you some chocolate milk." I guided them back to the table, all hope of distinguishing them now gone.
        I set the three glasses down on the table and retrieved three spoons. I drizzled chocolate into my glass, but when I went for one of the glasses I had the Conner to my left say.
        "I know how!"
        I handed him the syrup and he started to pour the chocolate in with gusto.
        "Alright, easy there." I took the syrup back, "Gotta leave some room for the milk."
        I handed the chocolate syrup to the other Conner. He looked apprehensively from the Conner on my left to me before taking the syrup bottle.
        "You're supposed to do it like this."
        He proceeded to try and swirl the syrup around the edges of the glass, as I had done when pouring mine, and some of it even made it into the glass. I smiled and gently took the bottle from him.
        "Alright, next." I looked down at the boys.
        "Milk!" They both intoned again, the Conner on my right standing on his chair seat.
        "Alright, bottoms on the chairs please."
        The Conner on my left hopped down from his chair, "I can get the milk."
        "I wanna get it!" The Conner on my right jumped down and ran after the first Conner.
        "Hold on you two." I stood up and made it to the kitchen counter just in time to catch hold of the side of the milk as they struggled together to get it down.
        "No fair, he pushed me!"
        "I did not! I was here first!"
        "Alright, you can each pour your own milk." I led to two back to the table, once again losing track of which Conner was which.
        "Me first!"
        "But I got the milk first!"
        "Did not!"
        "Hey." I had an idea. "Let's play a guessing game to see who get's the milk first."
        "I don't wanna play a game."
        I held up a finger.
        "First question. What is your favorite cartoon?"
        "Captain Lava and the Mouse Brigade." They both intoned.
        "I said it first."
        I held the milk up before another fight could break out. "Okay, good answer. Um, what did you tell me this morning you want for Christmas?"
        "A Triple Action Morphing Water Blaster Gun."
        Again at the same time.
        "But actually. I changed my mind." Spoke the Conner on the left.
        "I changed my mind too!" Said the Conner on the right.
        "I want a volcano building set!" The Conner on the left spoke with glee. "One that goes up and up, and then you push the petal and the lava comes out and the houses all catch on fire and the trees too!"
        The Conner on my right yelled, "Hey! That was what I wanted! No fair!"
        "Alright. How about I just pour the milk." And before there was any argument the milk was in the glasses.
        I stirred my milk, slowly going clockwise. The boys both watched me and started to turn theirs the same way. I slowed and changed direction the other way. They both changed direction as well. Then Conner on the right started to pick up speed, and Conner on the left quickly doubled his speed to pass Conner on the right. Soon chocolate milk was flying over the rims of the glasses.
        "Wow, there." I held up my spoon and then rang it against the side of the glass, making a bell like sound. "There we go, perfect."
        They each pulled their spoons out and tapped the side of their glasses. The one on the right licked his spoon and said, "Perfect!"
        The Conner on the left though tapped his spoon dully a few times and made an exaggerated face, "Oh, no. Mine's not working."
        "You have to hold it like this." Conner on the right held his spoon by the back of the handle then rang out against the glass. "See."
        "Like this?" Conner on the left moved his hand down and the glass sang this time.
        "That's because, do you know." Conner on the right had to swallow before he could keep talking, "When you hit a glass. It makes vibrations. And they make the sound in the air go in waves. But it only works if you hold the back of the spoon, not the front."
        Conner on the left was slowly and methodically licking the chocolate that had been on the outside of his glass and was now all over his hands, off his fingers slowly as he thought about what the Conner on the right had said.
        "I learned that at school." The Conner on the right said proudly.
        "I did too. Miss Vale read it in the science book yesterday." The Conner on the left smacked his lips around the back of his palm.
        "Miss Vale is nice." The Conner on the right kicked his legs and examined his knees before pulling his leg up, "You see this scratch? I got it from falling down the back of the slide."
        The Conner on the left pulled his leg up and revealed a matching scratch, "I fell too. I went like this. And then like this. Boom!"
        He moved his hand perpendicular and then parallel to the table.
        "Alright boys, drink up." I took my glass in one hand downed a bit of the chocolate milk. It was too sweet for my taste.
        The Conner on the left was holding his glass with two hands and gulping loudly and for effect.  
        "Slow down there, buddy. You'll give yourself a stomach ache."
        The Conner on the right kept his glass on the table but tilted it back. I saw the tablecloth start sliding and the approaching mess.
        "Oh, easy pal." I supported the glass until he had drunk enough and he could get a grip on the sticky outside.
        I looked from boy to boy. The one on the left gave a loud burp which was met with a round of giggles from both. The one on the right, also burped and soon the two were burping and belching and giggling until they were red in the face. They were identical. And yet not. But there was no way, no one clear and distinct way I could tell which one was the real Conner.
        I put the three glasses into the sink, along with the tree spoons. I put the chocolate syrup back into the side cupboard and the milk back in the refrigerator. When I came back to the table, the Conner on the left was slouched back in his chair, breathing heavily with his mouth open, while the Conner on the right had his cheek pressed against the table, cradled in the crook of his small arm.
        I gently lifted one to each of my arms. They were both getting so big, soon I wouldn't be able to carry either of them to bed anymore. I turned the kitchen light off as I made my way up the stairs to their bedroom. As I lay both down in the bed and covered them with the Buzz Lightyear comforter, I realized even if I could tell which one was the real Conner, I would not be able to give the other Conner up or send him away. There was only one thing I could do.
        Back in my own bed, I slid between the cool covers, looking for the warmth of my wife's body. I snaked an arm around her waist, pressing her silk nightshirt close to my chest.
        "Just a nightmare?" She half mumbled to the darkness, "I keep telling Sherri but she never listens."
        "Honey." I said after a pause, "Do you want another one?"
        "Another what." She said after a moment.
        "Another kid. Another Conner."
        There was a dry, mirthless laugh from next to me as she rolled over and whispered against the side of my shoulder, "Sure, if you wanna carry the baby for nine months this time."
        "I think I just carried him up the stairs actually."
        There was a pause and then another snort, "You are so weird sometimes."
        "Yeah, I guess I am." I whispered back, "Just don't freak out in the morning."
        "Okay." She sighed sarcastically, "But only as long as you'll check for monster under my bed tonight."

The Head and the Body
by Jean Woest

I live inside my head and inside the head of the old woman that lives on the corner of Elliot Street and Walker Road. Walker Road is very busy early in the mornings and the old woman wakes up with the susurrus of traffic. I only ever see her face when I look in the mirror. I pinch her saggy cheeks and the flap of skin that hangs from under her chin, like some odd reminder of a turtle. This is how I know I live inside her head because sometimes she is in the mirror looking back, as surprised as when I look at her.
        We go for walks sometimes. She casts sidelong glances at my freckles, and I wonder if she wonders what it would be like to wake up looking out of my head instead. If she'd see my chest of fluffy auburn hair, and the mound of my morning desire beyond it. Would she run through my veins as I have passed through hers, meet my enzymes and dance with my hormones and breathe in the sweet smell of my blood. She wonders all these things and I know she wonders these things because as she wonders these things I am inside her mind and I feel the heavy echoes of her thoughts pounding into me like waves on a drowning swimmer.
        I have never spoken to her while inside her head. I do not know if it would even work. Or how. But somehow I feel I ought not to. That there is some sense of decency that says I may peer into her mind's grey folds but I am not to touch those silver currents of thoughts that flash like lightning in the sky.
        I am only ever fully myself insider her mind.
        One day, I talked to myself inside of her outside of myself, while looking at myself in her eyes looking into me. We found a lot in common, and many things we could agree about. We avoided politics and religion, though, so there is that.
        I have watched from her mind while she has gone about her day. I've watched from her eyes as she folded laundry and made love to herself. I have watched through her eyes as she climbed a tree, in a fit of childhood's green shoots remembering themselves. Mostly I do not mean to go into her head. Mostly I mean to go about my business only to find the scenery has changed and so have I.
        There was only one time I needed to be inside her head. That I tried so hard to be in her mind and see out of her eyes. She recalled the day we first moved into the apartment. She recalled meeting my family for the first time. And she recalled the way that I had looked at her when I saw her take the knife and slash a smile across my mother's stomach, her pale hand gripping to keep her intestines from spilling out of the abdominal sack.
        She knows that it was wrong. That she must not do such things to friends. But she also does not regret it. Because there is so many things she wants to do but doesn't. That really, she says to me in those silver veined thoughts that wrap like anacondas around my groin, she deserves to have her fun at least sometimes.
        I live inside her head and expect it to be colder. But I find it to be much to my liking. I find it to be warmly familiar to my other mind in my other body. But I have started to spend more and more times walking the wide avenues of her imagination, and have seen things no other person will see. No, not even if you were to cut her eyeballs out and hold them up to the light and look at the colors that come through the murky, misty, milky miasma inside, you still would only catch a spark of the lightning bolts she holds.
        Sometimes I come to my senses, which is to say, she kicks me out. And I find myself sitting in a rocking chair in my apartment, smelling of dead flesh and knowing I have not moved or eaten in days. And I tell myself there is no way that I can live inside two heads at the same time. There is no way that I can experience life through two bodies. And the smell of my decay tells me I am right. I can only live inside one head and with one body. And the shudder that then runs through my system comes from knowing that I have already chosen which head and which body I want for mine.


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