This is a draft of a short story written for one of my Creative Writing workshops. I’m working on a collection along these lines, and thought I’d share an excerpt here. It’s a bit experimental, so it may be kind of weird!
They sit by the lake, as they do every night, and nurse cups of fast-cooling tea. She is good with words but only when they are used for the unraveling of her own execution. He is adamant about sugar in his tea; a half-teaspoon is enough for clear nights such as this. Above, the moon hangs round and heavy. It is the sort of night for quiet reflection or portents—a haphazard squint at the stars. Don’t be surprised if the stars explode one by one. They are wont to do as they like.
He insists; she demurs. A translucent fish with silver fins streaming like ribbons surfaces. Finding nothing of interest, it becomes absorbed back into the lake, which has difficulty falling asleep, and often simply pretends until something exciting occurs.
He insists again. “Okay!” she says, putting her cup down. He continues to sip his. Tonight his tea was prepared with a steep of broken nails. No sugar. His silence about the matter confirms her worst suspicions.
A little girl finds herself lost in a magical forest. She circles for hours amidst restless trees, who misinterpret her movements for a desire to dance. They pass her around from brethren to brethren and shake their leaves in laughter. Exhausted and afraid, the girl collapses onto the ground and weeps.
Drawn to the sound, a kind woodsman spies her and makes to approach with promises of aid, but the trees wrap him tightly in their roots and hide him deep beneath the ground.
The little girl picks up a crumpled leaf and wipes her face with it, and starts at the cries of dismay coming from within. She unfolds the leaf once, twice, thrice. An uncountable time later the leaf stretches before her like a meadow. On her final unfolding she pulls the leaf aside to reveal a bustling city full of miniature people.
“Oh, thank goodness!” she cries. “Good people, can you help me get home?”
“Where are your manners?” the miniature people cry back. “Didn’t you ever learn to mind your own business? Quick, close us up again. It is cold and we cannot stand the stick of your tears!”
The little girl falls silent. She lifts her foot — slam! Stomp! The soles of her best Sunday shoes thicken with blood and debris and clumps of miniature people matter. She might, at the end of her massacre, find herself beyond the leaf and safely out of the wood. Or she might find herself more lost than before.
Our house is haunted by a specter who only exists in foggy glass. I see him first thing in the morning when I’m on the toilet peeing. No sooner are my pants down than his form begins to coalesce in the little round window on the door.
“Pervert!” I spit out, but that’s not the worst of it. He’s there when I shower, drifting back and forth across the door, his face pressed up against the glass when I’m good and soapy. The cheek of it! Yet when I lunge at him, nearly killing myself in the process, he dissipates in a silver steam. At least there’s no foggy glass in the bedroom. Bet he’d really like to see what goes on in there!
Peter doesn’t believe me about the specter. “I wish you’d be more quiet in the morning,” is all he says. Peter blocks out his time in 15-minute increments. It helps with his productivity – or productivi-Pete, as he calls it, as he’s the one who has to work. I used to have four increments with him at night but lately I have had zero. We fall asleep in a bedroom blacked out by thick curtains.
I awake when it’s the darkest of the dark and crawl to the bathroom. “Specter?” I whisper. “Are you there?” I pull my pants down, sit and wait.
No answer. The cold bites extra much. In the apartment across the bathroom, a woman lights a candle with a newspaper. In the room next over, someone confirms in a loving murmur: milk and two sugars, thank you.
“How could he?”
“How are you?”
They look at her with stained-glass expressions, checkered with fury and dismay and pity. She smiles back.
“I’m perfectly all right! See?”
She grips the base of her skull and pulls forward, unrolling her external skin as she goes. She steps out of the pile and kicks her former self aside. “Ta-dah! Like new again.”
They exchange glances. Some solutions are more satisfactory than others. “You can’t just do that.”
Rip, kick. “Yes I can!”
“Don’t be a bitch, Emma.”
Rip, kick. “Water under the bridge!”
They pinch her hard enough to bruise, and she’s sobbing when they’re done. Rip, kick. Rip, kick.
One wants to go further but she’s stopped by the other. Curiosity is a lottery that tempts many and rewards few, so they say. Instead they silently scoop up the discards and take them home.
“We can steam-press them and hang them up for later,” one whispers, a peacemaking effort.
The other is overcome with disapproval. She is remembering a peach she ate the other day, perfect except for a bit of rot on one end. This she had relished with a sprinkle of salt.
Or maybe, I amend, peering deep into the foggy glass, maybe I am the specter.
She, now finished, sips her cold tea. He peers down at his empty cup. He is weary for some reason, but he cannot explain himself: she is usually better with words. On that note, whose fault is it, really?
On the other side of the lake an earthquake disrupts evening television, to general confusion. The shuttering of TV screens one by one reminds him to put water in the kettle before bed. It is late. His bones ache with a phantom urge, an echo from somewhere unbidden.
She draws her attention to the moon. It is time to settle the balance of the hours wiled away. Enraged, she bats the moon out of the sky, and it splashes into a startled lake, softly bobbing. The translucent fish returns and swallows it up. Light fills the bursting fish to the tips of his scales, his pretty silver fins, till he glows unbearably.
She regrets what she has done. She dives, and fins flash coyly in her palms before flittering out of grasp. She follows the light further into the darkness, falling so deep she might as well be floating upwards, her hands outstretched for a star.
Featured image via eyvindwolf