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Prometheus

May 14, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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There was nothing about the old library on the corner of South and Second Street to stamp it as anything out of the ordinary, save for its size. The library was so enormous that it was possible (and not infrequent) for visitors to become lost in itfor hours at a time. With so many shelves to roam through however, the patrons seldom minded an occasional misdirection.
Unmolested, readers borrowed books, returned them, stole them, and guiltily replaced them with a regularity of a well-constructed clock. Every bookcase in this nameless library was an amiable companion to this cycle. Every bookcase but one. Most readers overlooked it because it was the smallest bookcase in The Library, housing only five shelves just wide enough for five books apiece.
The first five books were fairly well-worn, clearly having been devoured by some multitude of avid readers. The five on the second shelf were significantly less worn. The third shelf had gathered a respectable layer of dust, as though the books on it had been read but rarely. The last two shelves had never been touched at all.
It was here that the Librarian presided, never speaking a word or blinking an eye unless a reader came to ask for a book from this case.
Fame of these guarded books spread as fame always does; in whispers behind closed doors, mutters buried in coffee mugs at chic cafés, drawled through the fog of post coital cigarettes. The tales in the books were marvelous! Singular! Masterworks that could be found nowhere else in the world. The last ten books remained untouched.
nowhere else in the world. The last ten books remained untouched.
Those brave enough to go after them came in droves, offering up jewels, checks, tax exemptions, even Swiss bank account numbers in vain; no bribes would change the Librarian’s counteroffer. When bribery failed, they came with legal threats, city ordinance slips, guns, gas cans and matches. The Librarian’s answer remained unchanged: “One year per book.”
In sheer desperation most acquiesced in the end. Quite a number of them offered up five, and a brave handful volunteered for ten. Only three individuals ever opted up for fifteen, reaching with trembling hands for the first of the three shelves they had earned.
In mingled fear and triumph they would read while the Librarian sat like a monstrous frog, digesting silently.
One day a woman came into the library, wasted no time scouting the larger shelves or safer classics, and strode instead straight to the little bookcase. The Librarian eyed her with dim interest; she carried neither a gun nor a checkbook.
Business was business, however, so it simply grunted: “One year per book.”
The woman scanned the shelves, moving her lips as she silently counted twenty-five books.
“One year per book?” she repeated doubtfully.
The Librarian blinked. It was unused to being asked to repeat itself.
“From which direction?” The woman pressed. At the look of vague puzzlement she got in response, she clarified, “Are you taking the years that I have already lived, or the years I have yet to live?”
The Librarian had not truly considered the point before, but after a moment of deep thought (and oh how the poor thing had to strain its limited vocabulary!) it managed to proudly sound out, “Un-lived years.”
The woman frowned and chewed her lip as she scanned the shelves again. “Can I offer up one rather than the other?”
The Librarian’s head was beginning to ache a little, but dutifully it pulled up The Old Rules from its memory and answered at last with a vaguely surprised: “Yes.”
The woman did not hesitate. “I will offer up twenty-five of the years I have already lived in payment after I have read the last word of the last book.”
The Librarian once more dragged out the Rules from the dusty archives of its memory, and finding post-payments to be permissible, heaved its massive body out of the way of the shelf. Lips faintly trembling, the woman pulled down the first book.
For twenty-five days the woman sat nearly as motionless as the Librarian itself, moving only to turn the pages of the precious books or to fetch the next in the series. Tome after tome she devoured eagerly, finding that the vibrant contents nourished her body as well as her mind. Knowledge grew like fire behind her eyes.
The Librarian settled comfortably into its cushion of flesh. Along the slow singular thoughts that made up its brain, it began to wonder if lived years tasted differently than the unlived. Perhaps they would be more flavorful and satisfying.
At last, on the twenty-fifth day, the woman closed the last book with an abrupt snap and stood up to face the Librarian. Even the Librarian could not bring itself to look directly at her, so brilliantly did the light burn inside her. Into endless unrepeated colors and patterns it fractured like a kaleidoscope. Thus burning the woman approached the Librarian.
The Librarian was almost eager as it grasped the woman’s shoulders. Slowly it lowered its great toothless maw to bear on hers and began to draw the years out. First one year, and then another and another until her college years, boyfriends, hiking trips and birthdays blurred together into one great rush of scent and taste and color into The Librarian’s gulping mouth.
The Librarian’s stomach roared in triumph. The lived years were as full flavored as a well-aged wine. Greedily, it sucked them down.
The woman flinched under the onslaught as great ragged chunks of her life disappeared in bite-shaped rips, leaving only the books behind. The Librarian continued to draw, satisfied for the first time in its long life as the twenty-first of the twenty-five years was digested.
The flood of color became brighter, more flavorful. Eagerly, the Librarian latched on tighter to the limp woman, gorging itself until it swelled up like a great snake. Then all the color ceased midway through the last year. Color and sound was replaced by dimness, muted measured beats swallowed into a great pinky-wet blackness. At last the flood stopped, and the woman vanished beneath The Librarian’s meaty hands.
All the years she had lived stripped away, the girl kicked happily back in her mother’s belly. Her head swum with such wonderful stories, companions in the waiting darkness. When she was birthed a few short months later the doctor remarked that he had never seen a newborn with such brilliant eyes. She nursed greedily and grew quickly.
Her primary school teachers reported that she showed signs of creative genius. The praise of her teachers was disturbingly intermingled with disciplinary notes for the frequent theft of other student’s lunches. Hunger grumbled like a half-wakened bear in her belly when she lay in bed at night. Her mother remarked that she had never seen such a good child at the dinner table – she never wasted a single bite.
She began to write down the books in between lessons during her freshman year of high school. She was touted as an internationally celebrated author before she was thirty, beloved for her twenty-five book series. And if any eccentric elderlies recognized the first few books in the series, they never let on.
In the old library at the corner of South and Second Street, the Librarian began to feel the first stirrings of alarm. In the months since the wide publication of the new books, the few brave souls who came for the guarded books only read a few pages before returning the books in disgust.
Apparently the word must have spread. Within a matter of weeks, the years that had flowed to the Librarian slowed to a trickle. Then they stopped completely.
As the Librarian sat alone in its little corner, unease gave way to fear. A great emptiness yawned within its belly. When the hunger had grown to true desperation, the Librarian heaved itself to its feet with a wordless grunt and dragged its massive form to the bookshelf. One by one, it seized the books and stuffed them into its drooling maw.
When the bookcase was empty, the Librarian sat down again, staring stupidly at the blank shelves. The defiled books sat like sodden ashes in its belly. It whimpered once, clutching its belly. Starvation swept like a desert wind through its body. It shuddered once and then never moved again.
The newly famed writer was suffering in her own right. She hired on three full-time chefs; hunger never stopped twisting in her belly even as her flesh began to mound up like risen bread dough. A great black crevasse widened by the day in her belly.
Even as her stomach emptied, her mind swelled with desperate understanding of the possibilities of the world. Strange thoughts that she barely understood bled through the levels of her consciousness until they clawed at her sanity. Hunger and truth and wisdom and fear battled like crazed beasts inside of her until the fabric of her mind stretched to the breaking point.
One day, as her pregnant mind swelled like an overripe grapefruit, one last idea of self-preservation surfaced; her very last. She retreated into her private study, sat down at the typewriter her parents had given her to celebrate her first book, and began to hammer away. On and on she went, emptying all the terrible beauty in her head into their pages until there was nothing but idiot white peace at last.
Twenty five manuscripts lay innocently on the table. She contacted a professional book-binder with mechanical pleasantry. She used childlike, single syllables to explain her request. He came and bound the new books in simple leather covers, numbered one through twenty five. Only once out of sheer curiosity did he crack one of the books open.
Between the power of the words he found there and the weight of the writer’s hungry gaze on him, he firmly shut the book again. When he finished binding the last book, he dutifully carted them and the writer to the massive library on the corner of South and Second Street.
Together they trundled the precious books to the smallest shelves in the library. The writer easily kicked aside the withered husk of the old Librarian, which crumbled into dust at the first blow. She settled herself down beside the shelf.
She would never be hungry again, she knew now. When the visitors realized that there were new books to be read, she knew just what to do, and she was happy. With the first new readers, she proudly offered them a new trade:
“Two years per book.”

Credit: MJ

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Propane

May 12, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Thump.

The girl jerked awake. She glanced at the window, afraid of what she would see, yet it revealed nothing but the dark night. They’re back, she thought anxiously. A week ago, the girl awoke to find that somebody had spray painted loops and scribbles of blue and red on their garage door. Mom thought it was a rival gang at first, maybe trying to intimidate the girl’s brother’s clan, but the girl wasn’t so sure. She’d never seen gang graffiti like this; usually it was only one color, and they’d write out just a letter and a number, like the “X4” she’d seen in a bathroom stall at school. If they used a lot of colors, it was to paint a nickname in cool, bubbly letters, like the ones under the bridge on her walk home. This looked nothing like that graffiti.

She had thought it was silly at the time, but the next morning as Mom was leaving for work, she noticed something lying across the top of the driveway. It was a long, wooden board with nails poking through it, sharp side up. It was a good thing Mom noticed, because it would have popped all of her tires for sure.

The girl was anxious about it, though nothing bad had happened. The events were strange, more than anything, but Mom said she’d ask her boyfriend to stay over the next night to keep them safe. That made the girl feel a little better, but something happened that night, too. The girl thought all those globs of white on his shiny BMW were just bird poop. It looked like a whole flock of giant birds had unloaded their intestinal burdens right on his car on purpose, and since the girl didn’t like him much, it made her laugh. Mom’s boyfriend got mad and cursed a lot, though, because the globs turned out to be paint remover. He’d have to get the whole car repainted.

Somehow, targeting a full-grown man like that made the girl more frightened than anything else. It didn’t feel like teenage pranksters anymore, nor gang rivalry.

At the present, she was worried she wouldn’t be able to hear anything even if someone was right outside the door, because her heart was pounding so hard in her ears. She strained to listen for another sound anyway and –

Thump. Thump.

Her eyes darted to the source of the noise and realized it was coming from her brother’s bedroom, which shared a wall with the living room. They’re probably doing it, she cringed in discomfort. Her brother and his girlfriend were supposed to be watching her. She didn’t really need a babysitter, but Mom’s boyfriend didn’t want to come over anymore. Mom had night classes and wouldn’t let the girl stay here alone, since someone kept messing with the house.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The girl turned up the volume on the TV to drown them out. She’d fallen asleep watching Nickelodeon, but now an old show in black and white was on. She considered just going to bed, but her room was upstairs and the staircase was dark. The laughing and talking from the sitcom was comforting. She would just fall asleep on the couch, and Mom would put her in bed when she got home.

By the time the episode ended, the thumping from her brother’s room was long gone. Now, he was playing his rap tapes, and even though she liked the music – and she’d even steal his Walkman when he was out of the house and listen to them – the deep, shuddering bass penetrated her heart at night and set her on edge. It would be less overwhelming if she went upstairs, so she resigned herself to brave the darkness and try to fall asleep in her bed.

As she rose from the couch to turn off the television, she thought she glimpsed a flash of light from outside. She froze. A car? Their house was set against a hill, so the living room windows looked out on mostly sky and treetops, not roads or sidewalks. It couldn’t be a car. Lightning? But there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky all day… Just as she had convinced herself she had imagined it, the girl saw the light again. It was a flashlight. Someone was walking through the yard below their back deck, and the beam from their lamp flicked up through the trees as the figure stepped over larger logs and stumps.

She could see the man by the dim light coming from the window at which she stood – and it was definitely a man, with a big, broad back and long legs stomping through the brush – edging closer and closer to the shed by their propane tank. When he stopped and set down the pack he was carrying, the girl jumped back and turned, running to her brother’s room. She glanced at the splintered hole that he had kicked in the door and for a moment reconsidered, but someone was outside their house and she didn’t know what else to do.

The girl knocked. Waited. Knocked again. Knocked louder, and finally she heard footsteps coming toward the closed door. Her brother threw it open, and a smelly wall of smoke hit her face. It wasn’t like his room usually smelled – that weirdly sweet smell, like a skunk but not bad. This was more like when Mom cleaned the oven. Or like a litter box. Or both at the same time.

“What do you want?”

“There’s someone outside.”

“Shit! Mom’s home?”

“No, it’s not Mom. I think it’s like last time…” The girl started to cry. Her brother was being stupid. His eyes were red, and his girlfriend was just lying there in his bed, doing nothing, when there was someone outside their house! She wished Mom were home.

“Someone’s outside?”

“Yes! That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” The girl sobbed.

Her brother pulled on his red-and-black plaid jacket and clumsily pushed her aside. He strode to the living room window, the one looking out down the hill, and the girl followed. She could see the man down there, crouched over his pack, like he was trying to hide, as he pulled something out of his pack. Something long and shiny. It was a handsaw.

The girl pressed her face to the glass to see better.

“Hey! I see you, motherfucker! I’m gonna call the fucking cops!” Her brother shouted, his barely post-pubescent voice cracking on the last word.

The man leapt up and dropped the saw. Before the girl’s brother could shout anything else, the man was sprinting up the hill to Begonia Road, running at an angle to get away from their house. The girl’s brother turned on his heel and burst out the front door. Just as the girl was starting to worry that her brother had found the man and the man might hurt him, her brother came back in the door, sweaty, pale and out of breath.

“He’s gone.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think he’ll come back?”

“I don’t fucking know, alright? Just go to bed.”

The girl went upstairs to her room, but she couldn’t sleep. She sat on her bed until she saw the headlights in her window that announced Mom’s return, then crept to the landing outside her room and listened to her brother tell Mom what had happened.

“Jesus,” Mom sighed when she’d heard the story. “Thank God you guys are ok.”

“Yeah.”

“Who do you think…?”

“Don’t look at me like that, Mom, it wasn’t because of me.”

“I didn’t say it was, Joseph. I just don’t know who else could be doing this, or why. What if it’s some punks trying to scare you?”

“He wasn’t trying to scare us, he was trying to blow up the house!”

“The house wouldn’t have blown up. It would have caused a leak, that’s all. Cost us a fortune to have it fixed and the tank refilled. Maybe the spark from the blade would have started a fire, but it wouldn’t have blown us up. I’ll check it out tomorrow.”

“Maybe he didn’t know that. He was trying to blow us up.”

They went quiet. The girl tiptoed to her bed and crawled under the covers so that when Mom came in and checked on her, she would have thought the girl was deeply asleep. But she didn’t sleep at all that night.

Mom said the tank was probably fine the next morning, but she could smell the propane and had called a professional to come and make sure there wasn’t a leak. It was Saturday, so Mom made French toast for the girl and Joseph. Joseph’s girlfriend was still sleeping.

The phone rang. Mom lifted it from its mount on the wall and said, “Hello?” Her face went cold. The girl’s dad must be on the other line.

He asked how she was, the girl guessed, because Mom said “fine”, but she said it in the high-pitched voice that betrayed her words. Mom never lied except when she said “fine,” and always in that tone.

The girl’s dad wanted to come over and borrow some tools from the shed. Mom didn’t say anything about last night, or the other nights. The girl knew Mom was afraid that he would use the information in court to make her seem like an unfit mother. He did that when the girl got lice from school, and said that Mom’s home wasn’t clean enough. Mom’s house was always clean.

The girl’s dad arrived in his big, white Chevy truck soon after they finished breakfast, and he walked into the house like he lived there. He swooped the girl up onto his big, broad shoulders, and the girl wrinkled her nose at the odd smell on his thick jean jacket that had mingled with its usual scent of sawdust and cigarettes. Mom gave him a cup of coffee, black. He talked about the garage door, said it was gang-related for sure, and he shot Joseph a nasty look.

“I don’t think so, Mike. I haven’t seen any graffiti like that before.”

“Well, I have. And I think you know what to do about it,” Mike said, looking accusingly at Joseph again. Joseph got up and went to his room.

“Yeah, I do,” said Mom. “We repaint.”

Mike offered to help and said he’d be back tomorrow with a roller and a bucket of paint, but now he had to leave, so he went out the door and hiked down the trail to the shed.

The girl went outside when he was back up at his truck to say goodbye. He was lifting a pack into the passenger seat, and she saw something shiny sticking through the open zipper.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“A saw. I’m helping someone with a project today.”

“You don’t have one of those?”

“I did. I must have left it here the last time I visited.”

They locked eyes for a moment, and the girl tried not to let her thoughts show on her face. She wasn’t sure what she thought, anyway… She felt like she did when she was taking a test at school and she knew the answer to a question, but just couldn’t pull it up in her memory. Her dad broke his gaze first, smirked and climbed up into the truck. He didn’t look at her again, as he turned his truck around in the driveway and chugged up to Begonia Road, but that smell from his jacket lingered on the girl’s pajamas. The distinct smell of propane.

Credit: Holly Radmacher

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The Monster in the Pantry

May 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I have found many times in my life that strange occurrences are a staple in human culture. Ghostly apparitions, UFOs, Bigfoot, and others are all prominent in our lives, one way or another. You may not think of them all that often, but eventually there is a story in the news, or a tidbit of information from a friend or a passerby that makes you recall such oddities. At some point or another, no matter how many times you forget about the subject, you will think of it again. I had forgotten all about the monster living in my mom’s pantry for several years. I had forgotten all about it, that is, until now.

I was only ten years old when I had first been told about the monster. It was a normal evening at my house – my mom and I awaited my father’s arrival and I helped her cook dinner. I look back on these memories fondly as I enjoyed my mother’s company and was delighted whenever my father came home each night. I had a picture-perfect childhood, save one peculiarity. Whatever resided in the pantry would reveal itself, if only audibly, that very night.

I was cutting vegetables up for my mom’s famous beef and barley soup when I heard a scratching at the pantry door. I jumped and nearly cut off one of my fingers in the process. My mom looked over at the pantry and then looked at me with a concerned smile. I looked to her for an answer, seeing as I had no private theories on the matter. We had just come from the pantry and shut the door. There was nothing in there at the time, and nothing could have made its way in after. Rats maybe? No, no. The noise was far too loud to be such a small animal. My thoughts were put to rest when my mom spoke.

“There it goes again, scratching at the pantry door.”

“What is ‘it’, mom?” I asked, still confused.

“I can’t be certain, sweetie, but it’s been here ever since we moved in. Sometimes it scratches at the door, other times it knocks food off of the shelves. Some nights it doesn’t make a sound at all.”

I was bewildered and scared at the same time. My mother noticed this.

“It’s nothing to be scared of, honey.”

“Is it…a monster?” Though my mother’s words were comforting, I could not be certain that they were true.

“No, of course not.”

Just then, the scratching started up again. I jumped for a second time. My mother then walked over to the pantry door. I was scared for her life.

“Here. Look…”

She opened the door as the scratching continued. Just as the door became ajar, the noise ceased.

“See, sweetie. It’s just as scared of you as you are of it. There is nothing to be frightened of.”

No matter what she said, my ten year old heart couldn’t help but race. I was afraid and couldn’t help it. For years, I continued to help my mother cook, but I never once set foot back in that pantry. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was convinced that the thing living in there was a monster. The fear was kept alive by the occasional sounds of whatever was in there. I would try to ignore it, but sometimes I would have to leave the kitchen. Eventually, the noises stopped all together.

It has now been many years since then, and both of my parents have passed away. My mother died of a heart attack and my father died just weeks later of lung cancer (He always did have a bad habit of smoking, even in the house). It was expected, as I had been in and out of hospitals for many months, visiting the two of them. In their wills, I was left the house, as I was their only child.

It took me quite a while to come to terms with their deaths, especially living in the house that we had spent so much time together in. Although difficult, I did eventually accept the situation, and it became a whole lot easier to cope. The house itself no longer reminded me of their deaths, but instead reminded me of little memories here and there that would put a small smile on my face. Sometimes I would walk into the living room and see my dad sitting on his chair, smoking a cigarette, and watching TV. I would sometimes still see my mom cooking in the kitchen and getting ready for dinner. These were the little things that kept me going each day. I actually enjoyed living in that house again…until one day.

I had just gotten home from work when it happened. I sat down on my dad’s chair and flipped on the TV to unwind. A thought then crossed my mind – aside from the tobacco, I had actually become my father. Thinking of that actually made me smile. This is when I heard an all too familiar, scratching noise coming from the pantry door in the kitchen. My smile quickly vanished.

I jumped up and walked out to the kitchen to investigate. The scratching continued and became louder. I looked at the pantry door, hoping an answer would jump out at me, but also hoping that whatever was in there wouldn’t do the same. Of course, neither of these things happened, forcing me to actually open the door. I hesitantly did so as the scratching went on.

Much to my anticipation, the noises ceased and I found nothing behind the door but empty shelves and an old broom. This is exactly what happened when my mom opened the door years ago. She, however, had the shelves fully stocked. I think I subliminally stayed away from the pantry, having been so scared of it as a child. My food remained in the cabinets and fridge, with absolutely nothing in the pantry itself.

I was no longer a frightened child, but the return of the scratching noises was still unsettling, not to mention bothersome. I didn’t hear it for years before this, but now it happened everyday, like clockwork. As soon as I got home from work, there was scratching. Sometimes I would even wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of it. It would not stop until I opened the pantry door. Then of course the noise would cease, and I would find nothing behind the door. This routine continued for almost a year, but one night something changed.

I was lying in bed, trying to sleep when the scratching sound started up once more. I groaned in anger, not wishing to leave the comfort of my bed for anything, much less that damned noise. Because of this, I did not get up right away to open the pantry door. I just laid there, as tired as ever. After a few minutes, something odd happened. The sound of scratching had stopped. Now don’t get me wrong, this was great. I didn’t want to leave my bed anyhow, but the noise had never done this before. I was curious as to why.

I got up out of bed and ventured down to the kitchen, on the hunt for answers. What I saw alarmed me. The pantry door…it was wide open. This could not be, I had shut it earlier that night when I got home from work, the first time I heard the noise that day. I quickly turned the pantry light on to reveal absolutely nothing. For the first time since I was a child, I was frightened of the “monster” living in the pantry. Whatever it actually was, I think it had escaped.

I scoured the house in fear for almost an hour, looking for whatever it was that had gotten loose. I was scared – actually scared. After going through every last room in the house, I took a deep breath and collected my thoughts. What was I doing? This was ridiculous. I was on the hunt for something imaginary. Sure, there was scratching on the door every night, but maybe it was a large rat, or a raccoon. Maybe I actually did leave the door open the last time I heard the noise. Who knows? I managed to calm myself down as I made my way back to the kitchen to close the pantry door. That’s when I noticed something that I had not seen previously. There were deep scratch marks on the inside of the door. Those were never there before. Even as a child my mom had checked for any markings in the wood and there were none. What was happening here?

I backed up into the living room in awe, keeping my eyes on the pantry door and its mysterious scratch marks. I rubbed my eyes a few times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. I even pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Surely enough, it was all too real and I had no explanation for it. After a few more seconds of private confusion, I watched as a figure ran into the pantry at high speed and the door shut behind it. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t make out what the figure was, but I ran over to the pantry and opened the door to find out.

With my heart racing, I opened the door and turned the light on. Once again, I found nothing. I quickly shut off the light, shut the door, and piled a bunch of stuff in front of it, including my dad’s chair. I ran up to my bed, and hid under my covers as if I were a kid again, scared shitless of the monster living in my mom’s pantry. My late night adventure had come to an end.

After the adrenaline and fear tapered off, I was able to get some sleep. I woke up and pretended that nothing had happened the night previous. I just did what I usually did; put my clothes on, brushed my teeth, ate some breakfast, and headed off to work. I tried to keep the pantry and its resident as far from my thoughts as possible.

Throughout the day, I found it hard to focus. I could barely function properly, let alone get any work done. My boss noticed this and asked me if I wanted to leave early and get some rest. I almost shouted the word “no” at him, begging him to let me stay. I wanted to be nowhere near my house. Luckily, he obliged.

Even though I was able to stay at work, I had to clock out eventually. Despite my tiredness, the day went by too quickly, and I found myself home once again. I dreaded it. Even the memories of my parents could not help me now. I wanted nothing to do with this cursed house anymore. Despite my inner outburst, I still opened the front door and walked in.

I was greeted with the sound of scratching, but this time it was louder than it had ever been before. The scratching quickly turned into a thunderous banging at the pantry door. The things I had piled in front of it were actually moving a bit. Whatever it was that was in there really wanted to get out this time.

I was as scared as I had been the night before, but I was also sick of the ordeal. I was being pushed beyond my means and I needed it all to stop. I walked over to the pantry and removed the items I had piled in front of it. The banging continued. I took a moment to mentally prepare myself. After a few seconds, I swung the door open.

There, sitting behind the door, was a dog. It just sat there and looked up at me in confusion. I looked at it in the same manner. How could this be? After giving me a once over, the dog walked over to me and nuzzled up against my leg. Naturally, I reached down and pet it, just like I would a normal dog – but this dog was not normal. After a few minutes of getting to know each other, the dog walked back into the pantry and vanished before my very eyes. It… it was a ghost.

My fear was no longer existent. I would come home to the sound of scratching at the pantry door and I would smile. I now opened the door not to see nothing behind it, but instead to let my new friend out. He would walk around the house and explore like a normal dog, and he would even sit down and watch television with me from time to time. Whenever someone came over, however, he would vanish. He seemed to be the shy type. The house was pretty old and had quite a few owners before my parents, so I assumed this little guy was the ghost of a dog that previously lived here. I guess he just couldn’t let go of the place. Neither could I; especially now.

After a few weeks of playing and bonding with the dog, I realized that I had nothing to call him. I walked over to him and began petting him on the neck. That was his favorite spot. I thought about it for a moment and then came up with the perfect name.

“I will call you… Monster.”

Credit: Christopher Maxim

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Protocol

May 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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"Protocol" – Short Film from Lorenz Troebinger on Vimeo.

Protocol follows a man caught in a vast, intricate bureaucratic system, an analogue AI, in which humans are nothing more than circuits and sliderules executing orders. However, what happens if someone makes a mistake in such a system?

Starring:
Patrick Derieg
Christopher Hütmannsberger
Alexander Reinberg
Manuel Lutz
Christian Tröbinger

Written & directed by Lorenz Troebinger

Credit: Lorenz Troebinger

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Eustace

May 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I was always terrified of doctors above all else, so by the time I finally steeled myself enough to go, the cancer had metastasized in both breasts. I sat numbly in Dr. Kerden’s office, as she droned on about my options. She never berated me for my stupidity. She didn’t have to; her bewilderment and restrained contempt bled through the sympathetic tones she spoke about chemotherapy in.

The bottom line was suffocatingly simple: if the treatments and surgeries were successful (Dr. Kerden could not have stressed the “if” more if she had scrawled it in lipstick on the desk)my chance of surviving more than five years was about twenty two percent.

I was only twenty four and all my plans – marriage to my fiance,future children, a full-fledged career in travel photography – had just been yanked from my feet and placed on a high shelf I had a seventy-eight percent chance of never reaching.

Oddly, out of all those bricks that had just crashed down on my head, the one that broke the dam and spilled my tears was the realization that even if -if!- I survived, married Ben, had children, I would never breast feed them. There was no chance of saving my breasts at that point. To this day, I’ve never figured out why that was what hit me hardest.

Normally I would have argued every inch of a medical procedure. Not this time. I signed papers numbly, barely glancing at the black print that swam in and out of focus. Waivers. Insurance proof. Next of kin. Emergency contacts.

I don’t even remember going home and packing my bag for the hospital that night. I must have talked to Ben, I know, because he was in that sterile room late into the night before the nurses finally kicked him out.

Dr. Kerden, as it turned out, was my polar opposite when it came to medical procrastination; chemo started within the next few days. Let me tell you right now, the chemo patients you see on tv shows and movies don’t tell half the story of the suffering you really go through.

When I looked in the mirror after the first treatment, I saw the most exhausted woman I’d ever seen looking back at me. By the third treatment, she looked more dead than alive. Yellowing skin, hollowed eyes, thin, cracked lips in spite of all the clinical chapstick the nurses gave me. Ben used to tease me for my “baby face” (because he was too sweet to straight up admit that my round face was a tad bit pudgy) and now that face was lined, the round cheeks sunken in. I looked forty.

I would feel dead if I wasn’t hobbling to the bathroom every day, the retching of my stomach gleefully proclaiming: “Yes! Yes we are alive! Ain’t it just fucking grand?!”

Four months. I caved and had Ben bring his electric razor. I was past crying at that point, watching shreds of black hair, once so soft and shiny, fall into a hospital trashcan. Ben hadn’t reached that point just yet, I noticed as he quietly sniffled. He would, I knew.

That night, after Ben had been kicked out by the night nurse, I gave up trying to sleep, and snatched my current forget-I’m-dying-of-cancer book off my bedside table. I had been limping through the book only a few minutes when it dawned on me that I wasn’t alone in my hospital room anymore; a small man in a patchwork coat and a battered top hat was sitting in Ben’s vacated chair.

I stared at him stupidly above the edge of the book, instinctively hiding my young-old face as much as I could. He smiled encouragingly and offered a little wave. His hair was all hidden beneath that oversized hat, but his curly beard was a very bright ginger.

“Um, visiting hours are over,” I offered after a moment.

His smile widened into a grin and he doffed his hat in acknowledgment. “True enough, lass, but visiting hours are only for visitors.”

I blinked in surprise. For his small frame – he didn’t look much bigger than my thirteen-year-old nephew – his voice was surprisingly deep.

“Can I help you with something?” I fumbled for the remote with the nurse call button. “Are you looking for someone? The nurse should help…”

He stilled me with a dismissive wave and a laugh. “Oh no need for that, lass. I was looking for you, as it happened.”

I squinted at him, less alarmed by his potential stalking than the fact that he seemed to be flickering in and out like a candle flame – now solid, now faint as a ghost. Relief washed over me as I finally figured it out.

“I’m hallucinating,” I explained out loud. “The pain killers are kicking in, and I’m hallucinating a homeless leprechaun in my room.”

The walls shook with his laughter, as he kicked his feet in glee. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes.

“If I had known you would be this delightful, I probably would have come to you a lot sooner.”

Had I been in any normal, non-drugged state of mind, I would have summoned the nurse then and there. Instead I unconsciously loosened my grip dropped the remote on the floor.

“Who are you?” I finally thought to ask. “What do you want from me? I don’t have a lot of money to spare at the moment….”

He flapped his hand in good-natured dismissal again.

“I don’t want anything from you, Anna. If anything I’m here for your benefit. I’ve brought you a gift of sorts.”

The short bark of laughter that escaped me was nothing like the frequent belly laughs I had had four months ago.

“What? You’re going to cure my cancer?”

He raised an eyebrow silently. Abruptly, my laughter dried up and I felt my cynical smile slide off my face. All of my family’s sworn to be true tales about demons and spirits came crashing down around me at once.

“You’re the devil and you want my soul,” I accused him.

He sniffed as though offended. “I’m Eustace, not a demon,” he countered, “and YOU summoned ME. I’m just here to give you what you want.”

Eustace? “I didn’t summon you.”

He sighed. “You read the fifth word of the third paragraph on the twenty-sixth page of ‘Prince Caspian’ at exactly forty-five seconds past one o’clock in the morning on April the fourteenth. You summoned me.”

I gaped at him. “What the hell kind of ritual is that??”

He winked. “The kind I change about every five minutes or so. Makes the odds of someone actually calling me to them microcosmic.”

I paused. “You don’t want people to summon you? Why?”

He chuckled. “By now with all of your social media, all of you humans should have learned a long time ago – the biggest pricks are the ones who come seeking you out. The best people you ever meet will fall into your life by accident.”

I raised my hands in a warding off gesture. “Look, if I summoned you, I seriously did not mean to. I don’t want three wishes, or wealth or any of that crap. I don’t want to give up my soul or my first-born or whatever it is you trade in. Please go away.”

He peered at me earnestly, actually clasping his little hands together like one of Dickens’ orphans. “I told you, Anna, I don’t want your soul. There is no trade to be made; beating the odds enough to summon me seals the bargain. You have earned my luck, and I’m afraid it is yours whether you want it or not.”

“Your…luck?”

He nodded seriously and hopped up out of the chair. Standing, he would barely have come up to where my breasts had once been. He crossed over to my bedside and took my shock-limp hand in his own.

I realized with a start that behind his roguish grin and humor, his eyes were incredibly lonely. His hands held mine with deference, even gentleness.

“Yes, Anna. From this day onward, you will have my luck – however high the odds are stacked, you will always beat them.”

“And what do I have to give up in return?” The words fell nearly inaudibly from my trembling lips.

He smiled almost sadly. “A few minutes spent talking to a lonely old spirit that no one has summoned in a long, long time.”

I had no words left. There we were, a dying woman and an impossible spirit in the ICU at Mercy Hospital. Almost unconsciously, I felt myself squeeze his hand. I swear, a look of naked startlement flitted across his face.

Then the cheery, careless grin was back on his face and the moment was over. He patted my hand distantly and stepped back.

“One word of warning I must offer,” he said. “You humans rely on luck much less than you really know. This gift will change your life, and you must be prepared to change with it.”

He straightened his coat, doffed his hat, and winked out of my room.

The shrill beeping of my empty IV bag woke me up the next morning. I groaned. I felt like I had been hit with a truck; another unfortunate side effect of coming down off the painkiller cushion between you and the chemo.

The morning nurse came in swiftly and shut off the beeping and busied herself replacing the bag. I glanced at the clock. It was five-thirty, and time for my morning blood draw to see if I was dying any faster today than yesterday.

I pushed my encounter with Eustace to the back of my brain until a week later. I was spooning up the last of my jello cup when my current Doctor came in.

He smiled at me automatically over his clipboard as he flipped through the pages.

“Good morning, Miss Hall. How are you feeling today?”

I didn’t respond. He wasn’t offended. We both knew how I was doing. Suddenly he stopped flipping, gave the clipboard a hard look, and then, wonder of wonders, actually raised his eyes and looked me in the face.

“You’re in remission.”

“What?”

He shook himself, recovering from his slip. “According to your recent blood work and biopsy, the spread of the cancerous cells has stopped. It also appears that the existent cells seem to be dying at an increasing rate.”

I could feel my lips trembling. “The cancer is dying? So I … I beat it?”

He offered me a sympathetic smile. “It’s a little early to tell, Miss Hall. We are definitely going to be monitoring this closely, but things are looking up.”

As it turned out, things were more than looking up; I went home two weeks later. I would still be getting regular scheduled blood work, of course, and a whole score of other tests to make sure that my cancer was actually gone. There was a fair chance that in the next few years the cancer could reoccur.

You might be thinking that I’d be drinking champagne, eating all the food I couldn’t have at the hospital, and having celebratory I’m-not-dead sex with Ben for days. Honestly, all I really wanted was a Tim Horton’s ham and swiss sandwich, and then to sleep in my own bed, in my own apartment for as long as possible.

Ben swung us by Tim’s on the way home. Turned out they were having a mini-event; we were the thousandth customers that day, so our meal was half off, with extra donuts thrown in with no charge.

Eating that vanilla creme, chocolate-iced donut after four months of peach jello was barely short of orgasmic. I think I actually moaned as I ate it, melting chocolate smeared on my cheek.

We managed to beat every rush-hour clog and hit every green light on the way home. Ben punched the air in triumph as we pulled into the driveway. That asshole in 2B who always took my parking spot wasn’t there yet.

Ben parked the car, ran around the front, and opened my door for me. I was still a bit wobbly on my feet, so he offered his arm like a true gentleman. Leaning heavily on him, I stepped into our apartment for the first time in almost five months.

The next few weeks blurred by. I hadn’t expended all my medical leave at Harnon’s Travel agency, but they still allowed me to come back to work a bit early. My hands fairly itched to hold my camera again.

Out of respect for the in-town doctors visits that I would still need for at least another month, my boss kindly set me on largely local assignments.

My photos and article on Alden Park, the local arboretum, actually generated enough interest to bring in a fair handful of tourists. No one marked it as their sole destination, of course, but a fair number of people nonetheless vacationing higher in the mountains read my article and thought it worth a detour to check it out.

As it happened, one of the tourists was the head editor of an internationally famous travel magazine. I found this out when I came in to work and he was sitting in my dinky cubicle, my complete portfolio already picked up from my office manager.

He seemed a little off-put by my appearance: my hair had only just started growing back, and the lines remained etched on my face, even though I had begun to gain some weight back. Nonetheless, he greeted me warmly and shook my hand, shifting my portfolio under his arm.

“Miss Hall? I’m George Mann, Editor in Chief at World Travels.”

I froze. World Travels was a legitimate, big time magazine. “Of course, Mr. Mann. What can I do for you today?”

Turned out he had taken an interest in my photos – he felt that lately most of the photographers working for World Travels were overlooking what he called the “smaller gems” (read anything nature heavy) choosing to focus on growing high-scale restaurants and developing up-town regions in various cities.

To cut a long story short, within ten days of getting back to work, I was offered a position that could legitimately spark off a career as a photographer. What are the odds?

I would have been an idiot not to have started connecting the dots at this point. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Eustace had not been a painkiller hallucination after all.

Still, I have always tried to take a logical, sensible approach to every mystery I’ve ever encountered, so I came up with an experiment that would make or break my theory.

I played the lottery. Not the small-prize scratch cards. I mean the BIG one, the multi-million dollar jackpot. Ben and I watched, slack-jawed, later that week when the powerball numbers were announced, watching as one by one, they matched up with my ticket.

Of course I never mentioned Eustace to Ben. It was enough that I knew he’d been real.

The next five years passed by like a dream. Despite the high risk I was at for a recurrence of cancer, it never struck. My hair grew back in it’s original color, without so much of a sprinkling of the expected gray. Ben and I were married and immediately found our dream house, paid for with a chunk of the lottery money. I privately blessed Eustace, at least at first.

I was on my lunch break, deciding to mix business with pleasure and cover a new soul-food style restaurant downtown. The barbeque ribs were spicy, balanced with just the right amount of sweetness. I took a large bite, and immediately felt a glass-shattering pain in my mouth.

One emergency trip to the dentist later revealed that as an unfortunate side effect of both the chemo and some of the drugs I had been on for cancer treatment years earlier, all of my teeth were slightly more brittle than they had been before.

I had shattered a back molar down to the root. Fortunately, the dentist peering at my outraged tooth informed me that it was actually one of my wisdom teeth, and not a true molar. That was the good news.

The worse news was that given the damage dealt, an extraction was the only real option on the table. I hate dental procedures worse than standard medical.

The doctor prescribed a penicillin derived antibiotic for after the extraction. The extraction itself actually went alright; it was after I had been taking the pills for two days that a quick ER trip revealed that I had apparently developed an allergy to all drugs in the penicillin family.

One full-body rash and a antibiotic switch later, I was back to work. Mr. Mann had become a pretty big fan of my work, and was giving me regular assignments now. The assignment folder on my desk today was for a piece on a section of the Appalachian trail and the small town in Vermont it opened up in. Full expense for air travel paid of course.

Since Ben was mainly freelance writing at this time, and could work anywhere he had access to wifi, I convinced him to come with me. We could try some maple candy and do a little hiking ourselves.

The odds of a plane crashing are actually pretty small, as are the odds of surviving it. When the plane went down over Pennsylvania, I survived. Ben didn’t.

When I stood at the foot of his coffin during his burial, I held an umbrella against the rain. I got struck by lightning. Twice. The photographs I took of the scars it left down my left arm and leg, alongside the entire story of how they came to be there fully cemented my career as a respected photographic journalist.

Looking at how my life has fallen in and out of pieces since Eustace stepped into it, I can’t hate him. I can’t say he cheated me, because I never gave him anything. I can’t say he lied to me, because he never once promised that the luck would be good.

There will always be odds stacked, but sometimes they are naturally stacked against you. Sometimes they are stacked in your favor. Eustace never promised I would only win; he just promised I would always manage to beat the odds. I can only say that he’s right on that count.

So I learned to stagger the odds against myself now and then. Now when it’s raining, I wear as much metal jewelry as I can decently fit on my body. When I go swimming, I only do it after a full meal. I do all of my jogging through dark alleyway late at night with my headphones cranked all the way up. If I have to be somewhere in a hurry, I stall for as long as possible and go through the highest traffic areas I can. I even under-cook all of my meat and fish just a little bit.

So far I’ve never been mugged, my health has been fairly steady, my career is wonderful, and I have enough money for a very comfortable life. On the other hand, my bed is empty every morning. Ben’s cologne never seems to wash out of his pillow. I still have the list of the names we wanted to give our children.

I can’t even really talk to a therapist about this because of how crazy it all sounds. Although I do suspect that given my luck, I would end up with the one doctor who happens to hold an un-confessed belief in the supernatural. I can’t even talk to a priest to bless away Eustace’s gift because I know deep down he told the truth when he said he was no demon.

Like it or not, the gift will be mine forever. And as Eustace advised, I’ve learned to cope with it. I don’t take high-reward risks anymore, learning to take pleasure in the small things. No fewer than fourteen times I have managed to catch perfect pictures of mother deer milking their fawns in wildflower fields. I can always find some small gem in the grimiest second hand stores.

As much as I miss Ben, I can’t be truly lonely either. I think the true gift Eustace gave me was this; since I met him, I have encountered some of the wildest, freest, and brightest minded people in the most unlikely places. They are the best people I’ve ever met, and they all found me by accident.

If there is one thing I still can take control of here, it is this; the odds are split even fifty-fifty on whether I will live a happy life.

What can I say? When all other odds are stacked, life has a funny way of evening out.

Credit: MJ

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White Sale

May 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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On June 8, 2010, I turned 14. Two days later, my mom tripped over a pair of my tennis shoes and died. She was carrying laundry down to our washer in the basement when it happened. She broke her neck. Her name was Meredith and she was only 45. Her and my dad would have been married for 23 years that August.

After my mom died, it was just dad and me. I am an only child. When I was younger, my dad use to joke that I was such a miserable baby he and mom decided not to have any more kids, but mom always said I was the her greatest accomplishment. I was named Mary after my mom.

I was in the middle of taking final exams at school when mom died. The school gave me a pass on taking the rest of my finals that year. Dad took the next two weeks off from his third shift delivery job, and we spend the time planning mom’s funeral and trying to figure out what to do next. Everything had changed.

At the end of the two weeks, dad had to go back to work. I knew he felt guilty leaving me alone at night, but I also think he was relieved. The house was so quiet now. His first night back to work was also the first night I started sleeping with my t.v. on.

I had always been a good sleeper, even as a baby, but that first night alone in the house, I was wide awake. I kept thinking about my mom and the accident. Every time I closed my eyes I could picture her lying there, dead on our basement floor, sheets and towels scattered around her body. I kept thinking about those stupid tennis shoes. The ones that shouldn’t have been on the steps.

At first I tried watching cop shows to help me fall asleep, but shows like CSI and Law and Order hit too close to home. Next I tried putting on “The History Channel”, but I got so interested in the programs that I stayed up all night watching them. The news was too depressing, I hated sports, and cooking shows made me hungry. And then I stumbled across it. The perfect put-you-to-sleep show. HSN, or Home Shopping Network.

I knew what HSN was; I think my mom may have even bought from them once or twice. It was never anything I would have chosen to watch. But that night, alone in the house with just my thoughts, I decided to give it a go. To my surprise, I found the overly excited sales ladies comforting. They were the exact opposite of my mom, with piled on make-up, perfectly coifed hair and way too much personality. The drone of their sale pitch became white noise, and before I knew it, I could sleep.

As the weeks went on, I developed a bedtime ritual. Dad would leave for his job by 10:00, I would take a long, relaxing bath, read in bed for an hour or two, and when the lights went out, the t.v. came on.

I kept the station on HSN, and I watched it with the volume turned low; just loud enough to hear the strangely soothing voice of the 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m host.

“Welcome everyone to this amazing hour of shopping here on the Home Shopping Network. I’m your host for the next few hours, Cynthia -Cindy- Myers and I’m so glad you could join us. We have some great deals coming up and our first one will be a flex-pay…”

I was usually sound asleep before the first item was sold out.

“Hurry hurry hurry all you shoppers. If you want to get in on this deal, you MUST act now. This one won’t last.”

By the beginning of July, I was starting to feel a little like my old self. I still missed my mom, and I was still lonely at night, but Cynthia -Cindy- Myers had become like a surrogate to me. I looked forward to her visits each night and drifting off to sleep to the sound of her voice. I thought I was adjusting. I was wrong.

It was during the big “White Sale” that Cynthia Myers stopped talking to her audience of shoppers, and started talking directly to me.

It had been a rough day for me, and by the time I got upstairs to bed, I was too tired to even read a chapter of my latest teen novel. I must have been asleep for only a few minutes when I was awaken by the sound of someone calling my name.

“Hey Mary. Wake up. You’re not going to want to miss this one.”

I opened my eyes, confused. Did the t.v. wake me up?

“This is the one you have been waiting for Mary. Home Shopping Network’s famous White Sale. 300 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets in white, cream, beige, and for the first time, desert sand.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I sat up in bed and stared at the t.v. in amazement. There on the screen, looking right at me, talking directly to me, was HSN’s Queen of the Late night. Only this time, Cynthia Myers looked…off. Her normally perfect hair was sticking straight out from her head in electric shock fashion. Her eye makeup was smudged under both eyes, and one false eyelash was dangling from her lid like a sleeping spider. When she smiled, her perfect teeth now appeared discolored and grey.

As I watched, blood began to drip from Cindy’s nose and splash onto the once pristine sheet in her hand. This pissed her off.

“Oh great” she said, holding the sheet up to the camera. “Look what you made me do Mary. Look what you made me do.”

She was getting herself worked up. Her eyes looked wild.

“You couldn’t just call in could you Mary. You couldn’t just call in and help me make a sale could you. You owe me Mary. This is all your fault. You and those Goddam sneakers.”

Cindy then took the once white sheet and began to twist it around her neck. Once, twice, smearing the drop of blood in the process.

“What are you going to do now Mary? What now?” She screamed from the t.v. “Pick up your phone. There’s still time to get in on this deal.”

With that, Cynthia Myers pulled the ends of the sheet tight across her throat, and with a resounding “snap” proceeded to break her own neck.

I might have screamed then. I really don’t know. But the next thing I remember I was standing in the hallway outside my bedroom door. My heart was slamming and I couldn’t catch my breath. My muscles felt tight and I was ready to run. Instead I stood stock still and listened. And waited. And when nothing happened I dared to look back into my bedroom, and at the t.v.

The twisted image of Cynthia Myers breaking her own neck was replaced with the pleasing face of Samantha Greene, host of the 4 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. sunrise show. The “White Sale” was over, and we had moved on to herbal remedies and supplements. Needless to say, I didn’t go back to sleep that night.

I decided not to mention my crazy dream to my dad the next day. He was dealing with his own issues, and his guilt at having to leave me alone at night. I had also convinced myself that this dream, this nightmare, really wasn’t as messed up as I had first imagined. You can make yourself believe anything if you really want to.

The next day I replayed that dream over and over in my head, and when it was night again, I couldn’t bring myself to try and sleep. Even though I was exhausted, I decided to stay up and watch t.v. on the living room couch. I put on a rerun of some campy show from the 80’s, and I was asleep before the first commercial break.

This time, it wasn’t the voice of Cynthia Myers calling my name that woke me up, but the distinct “click, click, click” of channels being changed on my t.v. screen. In my groggy state, I only caught a glimpse of different shows as they flicked across the screen. Then, the clicking stopped. Cynthia Myers was looking up at me from behind a table heavy with costume jewelry and semi-precious gems. She smiled at me, and this time I noticed she was missing her two front teeth. When she spoke, her voice came out in a whistle.

“Hi Sweetie. Welcome back to this hour of exciting sales.” She lisped, air escaping from between her teeth. “Stick around kiddo, you just may learn something.”

Then she gave me an exaggerated wink and a thumbs up sign that she quickly twisted around into a one finger salute.

I pushed my hands against my eyes. Hard. I tried to blink her away. She was still there. Only now, her broken smile was once again perfect and whole, and impossibly white. She spoke to the camera and to her “viewers at home”.

“You don’t want to miss this next half hour” Cynthia smiled. “We have something really big coming up so stay tuned.”

I abruptly turned off the t.v.

I picked up my cell phone and hit speed dial for my dad. If I was going crazy, he would probably want to know. Plus, I was scared shit-less. I wasn’t worried about protecting my dad anymore, I wanted someone to protect me. My dad answered on the second ring and he sounded worried. He always sounded worried when my mom or I called him in the middle of the night. He said he always thought something bad must have happened. My mind had been racing a mile a minute about what I wanted to tell him, but once I heard his voice, all I could manage to say was “hi dad”.

I don’t know why I didn’t tell him about my freaky dreams or visions or whatever they were. But I felt 10 times better just talking to him. I told him I couldn’t sleep and that I was thinking about mom. He told me that he thought about her all the time too. He said there wasn’t much else to do when you were on the road except think. He sounded so sad. We talked the rest of the night, and into morning. And when his trip was over, I talked him home.

We sat at the breakfast table together and I made us scrambled eggs and toast. It was one of the only things I knew how to make. We ate our breakfast, cleaned up the kitchen, and then we both went to his room and fell asleep.

When I woke up 12 hours later I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I felt like I could see things more clearly. It was then that I decided to face my fears head on.

That night, at 10:00, every light in the living-room blazing, I called Cynthia -Cindy- Myers.

The phone number for HSN was blazing across the front of my screen in bright white digits. I picked up my cell phone and dialed the toll-free number and waited for an answer.

“Hello, and thank you for calling the Home Shopping Network. We’re so glad you decided to shop with us today. How can we help you?”

This recorded message was followed by a number of options.

“Please press 1 if you would like to make a purchases.”
“Please press 2 if you would like to make a payment.”
“Please press 3 if you have a question regarding shipping or delivery.”
“Please press 4 if you would like the opportunity to speak on air with one of our Home Shopping Network Hosts.”
“Press 5…..”

I didn’t need to listen any further. I pressed option 4 and waited.

In just a few minutes, a voiced answered the phone.

“Thank you for calling Home Shopping Network. This is Lisa.”

After answering some pre-screening questions about why I wanted to talk to Cindy Myers on-air (I lied) they put my call in the queue and told me I would be “live” in about 15 minutes.

My hands were so sweaty that I thought I might drop my phone. My heart was pounding and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to speak when it was my turn. After waiting about 20 minutes I started to question what the hell I was doing. This was nuts. Just as I was about to hang up the phone I head a click and then:

“Hi, this is Cynthia Myers thank you so much for calling into the show tonight. What is your name?”

I drew a blank. I couldn’t remember my own name.

“Hello….your on the air with Cynthia Myers. Can you hear me?”

“Mary” I squeaked out. “My name is Mary”.

“Hi there Mary, so nice to talk to you tonight. Where are you calling from?” Cynthia asked. Her voice was so soothing, she put me at ease.

“I’m calling from Binghamton, New York” I said. “Thank you so much for taking my call.”

Cynthia went on to ask me about my experience with the current product she was selling, and asked me to tell the viewers why I loved it so much.

“Actually Ms. Myers” I began. “I don’t really use this product. I’m calling you because my mom died last month and I have been watching your show at night” I said. “I wanted to thank you for keeping me company and making me feel less alone”. I could feel my voice catching in my throat and I was afraid I would start crying. I watched Cynthia’s reaction to what I had just said on my screen. Her face softened and she smiled gently.

“Well bless your heart” Cynthia said, placing a hand over her chest. “That is one of the sweetest things I have ever hear in my 6 years on the air. I’m so glad that I could help dear”.

I took a deep breath and continued. “Ms. Myers, the last few nights something weird happened when I watched your show”.

Cynthia’s face filled the screen, a quizzical look playing across her features.

I gathered my courage and continued: “I was wondering if you experienced anything weird too.”

I didn’t expect what happened next.

Cynthia’s once pleasant features twisted up in an ugly snarl and she glared at me through the t.v. screen. “Mary, I really don’t think this is the time or place to be discussing this do you?” She said. Her voice stern and no-nonsense.

My breath caught in my throat. I didn’t know what to say. I could feel my hands sweating. “What?” I stammered.

“That’s it, I’m done with this shit.” Cynthia raged at the camera. She plucked something off the collar of her floral dress and threw it to the ground. I heard a crackle sound and realized it was her wireless microphone.

Cynthia moved around to the front of the display table, her face inches from the camera. She brought her finger up to her now red face and I could swear I saw smoke coming from her mouth. “I’m coming over there Mary. We are going to settle this once and for all. Face to face”.

Then she was out of frame, and the camera showed the empty sound stage for just a moment before a black screen went up with the words “We are experiencing technical difficulties….please stand by.”

It was at that moment my doorbell starting to ring.

I jumped up off the sofa, phone still clutched in my hand. I looked wildy around the room, as if it could give me some clue as to what I should do next. The ringing at the door grew incessant and then it was replaced with hard knocking, and then pounding. The door shook. It felt like the whole house was shaking. I felt something warm and wet trailing down the leg of my pajamas, and realized for the first time in 11 years, I had peed my pants. I started crying.

“Please, go away.” I whispered. “Please.”

And just like that, the pounding stopped.

I must have stood in the middle of my livingroom for 15 minutes. Legs shaking, my heart thudding in my chest. I looked down at my cell phone, clutched tightly in my hand, and realized the call had been disconnected. The smiling face of my mom stared back at me from my screen saver. I sat down on the floor and began to cry even harder.

Finally, in what could have been a few minutes, or a few hours, I dragged myself to my feet and walked over to the front door. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. Like I was watching myself lift my hand to the doorknob and unbolt the lock. I gripped the handle and it felt cold and slick in my hand. I turned the knob and opened the door. I stepped outside into the cool, pre-dawn air and took a deep breath. There on the stoop sat a package with “Home Shopping Network” printed on the side. The computer generated label was address to me.

I looked around, the street was deserted.

I picked up the package and carried it inside the house. I closed the door behind me but I didn’t bother locking it again. I took the box into the kitchen and got out a pair of scissors. Taking a deep breath, I cut the tape securing the lid of the box. I suddenly felt calm. I lifted the lid.

That was a little over 2 years ago. Not long after what I now refer to as “that night” my dad took a new job in a different part of the state and we moved from our house into a gated apartment complex complete with a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a cute 11th grade neighbor.

Overall, my life has been pretty good. I still miss my mom, but I can think about her now and smile. I have made lots of friends, and I joined the tennis team at my new school. I keep myself busy and I don’t dwell on the past.

I love my new room, and dad let me decorate it any way I wanted. The walls are pink with white trim, and I have movie posters and pictures of musical groups hanging everywhere. But my favorite decoration is the gift I got that night, packaged up in a Home Shopping Network box.

Inside the box was a new pair of white tennis shoes together with a Home Shopping Network “Receipt for Payment”.

Under the section for purchases, written in my mom’s delicate script, it read:

“The tennis shoes were never on the stairs Mary. They were on the basement floor, right where you left them, the whole time.”

The receipt is in a frame on my desk, and those new tennis shoes, just my size, are sitting on a shelf over my bed. Two years later, and I can still detect the faintest hint of her perfume on them.

I never figured out what really happened “that night” and I really don’t care. Maybe the whole ordeal was just a series of dreams from the mind of a guilt ridden teenaged girl. But maybe not.

A week after “that night”, I watched the Home Shopping Network for what would be the last time. They had a new host for the 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. slot. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her saying the old host had moved on to “bigger and better endeavors”. I turned off the t.v., and went to bed.

Credit: Tracy Allen

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