“once you’re gone, you’re gone for good. (so please don’t go.)”
“once you’re gone, you’re gone for good. (so please don’t go.)”
foreign slippers, “don’t go.”
“something causing fear to fly”
prompt fill #4
And afterwards, everyone always asks: do you see the world any differently?
No, I tell them. No differently at all.
I go to the cemetery. I sit before every one of the stones and I press my forehead to the names and I whisper: I’m sorry.
I whisper: rest in peace.
I whisper: I will never forget you.
But that is a lie. You can see how it is a lie. You can see how I do not close my eyes when I pray, you can see how already I am forgetting the nuances of them, how even the imagined details have begun to fade. The man beside me: was he obese, or merely chubby? Was he balding or wearing a baseball cap? Did the family of three really have twins, or were they merely brothers? Were the seats gray or blue? Did I drink Coke or Pepsi?
They don’t seem like important details, no, not like how the man beside me is dead—obese or chubby, balding or cheering, he is dead, he is dead. This is a detail I do not forget. This is a detail I cannot get out of my head.
But his eyes—were they brown or blue? Was he wearing a tie? When I sat down, did he say hello, darlin’ or darlin’, hello?
Already I am forgetting. Already their faces, their tics, their habits, their neurosis are fading. I am left in a jungle with smooth, blank trees, left in a ring of oil with nothing but a match, left running up and down the aisles screaming God don’t you know you’re going to die?!
Please, I say, but I don’t know what I’m asking for.
By the time you read this, everyone will be dead. The woman speaking French in hushed tones into her Blackberry will be dead. The baby with its too-big head and drooling mouth will be dead. The large man with his stomach peeking out of his un-tucked shirt will be dead. The punk rock lesbian with the lip ring who scared me for reasons I cannot explain will be dead. The pilot, his voice kind but gravelly and hoarse—he, too, will be dead.
They will all be dead, their bodies burning amongst scorched grass and liquefied metal, their eyes and skulls too shriveled to see all that blue sky above them. The twin six-year olds pushing each other while their mother frantically tries to control them. The freshly shaved thirty-something gentleman with the pressed collar and the smooth, wicked grin. The bald man sleeping against the window. The couple holding hands, their fingers entwined. The teenager, tense, nervous, flying alone for the first time. The Hispanic man and his wife, bickering in the back in a language no one but them understands except the few obvious snippets: gracias, amor, puta.
They will all be dead.
And this, too: the can of soda the stewardess is holding, the one with lipstick on her teeth, that too will be gone, melted, seared into the burning seat fabric. The Sky Mall magazines and informational In Case Of Emergency packets, the little bits of paper and old gum wrapped stuffed into the seat pouch—all gone. Barely even ash.
These things will all be lost, they will all be swallowed by fire and by smoke.
But not me.
The clouds are going by so fast, a blur of white and gray and blue, and just for one single instant it’s easy to forget what’s happening around me, easy to block out the screams and the sound of the pilot over the intercom saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.
My oxygen mask isn’t working and I don’t know what to do with my hands.
Ten minutes after we take off I get hit in the head by a bouncy ball. There’s a burst of quiet giggles that are silenced the minute I turn around. The guilty twins are sitting on their hands, looking straight ahead, stone-faced, and their shamefaced mother breathes, “Oh, I’m sorry,” to me. She ducks her head. “Boys,” she whispers, meekly, “Say you’re sorry.”
They do, but they’re giggling so hard that what comes out sounds like why worry? I smile. “It’s okay,” I assure them. We’re in the air. New York in fifty minutes. Everything is better now, everything makes more sense when you are this far above the world.
I think: go higher. Let’s all just go higher.
One of the twins leans towards me. He has green eyes. His brother has blue. “It was me,” he confides, looking proud. “I hit you with the ball.”
“No,” his brother argues, shoving him out of the way. “It was me.”
“It was not,” the first twin cries, affronted, and shoves back.
The screaming doesn’t bother me. The desperate pleas of their mother doesn’t bother me. New York in fifty minutes.
It feels like being passed by a car on the highway. The ground is rushing towards us, the clouds are running away. The world is falling, not me.
A fleeting, laughable thought: my iPod. Did I do this?
The man in seat 17B is chubby, a little thin on top, and when I try to squeeze by he gives me a smile that carves dimples in both his cheeks. “Darlin’,” he drawls, and his teeth are startlingly white against his tan face, “hello.”
I smile back. Fleetingly. Too tired and stressed to bother responding. By the time I’ve shoved my carry-on beneath the seat in front of me he’s lost interest, perusing a Sky Mall magazine and grumbling about how it’s all written twice: once in English, once in Spanish. I think: so don’t read it in Spanish, what’s the big deal? But I don’t say anything. I put in my iPod. They always say to turn off your electronics, but what the hell sort of damage could an iPod do? It doesn’t even have a signal for radio.
I’m thinking about New York. I’m thinking about Boyce, Virginia. I switched to an earlier flight this morning so I could get back to NYU as soon as possible.
When the moment comes (and the moment must come) I close my eyes.
I don’t want to see.
I feel the rush of heat and bone-shattering pain of collision, and I hear a scream—two—are we all screaming together?—and the brush of a little body hurtling past, down the aisle, didn’t buckle his seatbelt I realize, seatback not in the full upright position—
I’m not ready, I didn’t have time, never enough but there it is the rush of heat—
I doze before I board the plane. I dream of clouds. Warm and white. Soft. Like a little blanket made of water and mist. It’s wonderful. When I wake I hand my ticket to the stewardess and she smiles at me. She has lipstick on her teeth. Later, she will bring me a soda.
“17C,” she reads off the ticket. “Straight down to the left. Have a nice flight.”
And afterwards, everyone always asks: will you ever fly again?
No, I tell them, but what I think is: it’s not the flying that scares me.
A Fine Frenzy, “Last of Days.” Prompt 4/12/11.
“I’ve been waiting for the longest time”
Prompt fill #3
riding bikes in a city at war
When he was twelve,
his brother stole him a bike from the neighbors. They painted it
a new color in the garage where no one could see
and twisted the handlebars so that it looked older, more used.
He rode it the next day with fear and power gnawing at his bones,
wanting the whole world to know what they’d done,
wanting to get away with it. He rode it up
and down the sidewalk,
holding his breath every time he pedaled passed the big red door
behind which the neighbors lived, carnivorous.
there’s a wisp of blue on the walls. he keeps his tally underneath it, smelling the sunshine and tasting the birdsong, one-two-three-four-five one-two-three-four-five one-two-three-four-five.
No one ever found out because
two days after his brother stole the bike, the neighbors exploded.
It was a swallow of fire and dust so big it rattled his bedroom while he slept
and burned the skin off the dog.
His dad put it down with the shotgun and a shovel.
They buried it in a pit by the park, under some trees.
there’s a lot of fives, now. at first he’d tried to keep them neat and ordered but the more tallies he makes the harder it is the fit them all beneath the blue. the more tallies he makes the less time he has. the more tallies he makes the more scared he is so he starts putting them in random spots, as if this will somehow keep the days from piling up and displacing time.
He stopped riding, after;
what had felt delicious and tangy before now felt dirty, like licking a callus.
His mother didn’t let him go further than the stop sign at the end of the road, anyway.
The bike sat discarded in the garage, secured with rope
and a lock he’d taken from his father’s toolbox—
this was before his father’s brains were smeared across the corner like brown lipstick.
Sometimes he went and sat cross-legged before it,
spinning the chain along his fingers and watching the pedals move.
Every few minutes the house would shake and the sirens outside would wail:
On Sundays it was quiet.
he’s had cellmates but they come and go. the one with the politician father turned left, but he was the only one. the others all went right, into the buzzer or the needle or the flash-pow. he’s been offered the chance to watch but he’s never taken it, for obvious reasons.
His brother spent four days in the hospital after catching
some shrapnel in the leg. He wouldn’t have even been at the now-ruined school
except that on Tuesdays the staff met during recess
so it was the best time to sell drugs.
The oldest students took turns, one at a time
“getting a drink from the fountain” where his brother would be waiting
with a small plastic bag and an outstretched hand. He overcharged outrageously
but drugs were so hard to come by that everyone paid
without complaint. Some nights his brother
lit up in the bathroom with the window open or
sniffed a few lines off the counter, playing his music loudly so that his parents left him alone because they thought he was masturbating. He never shared.
he doesn’t get the same anger that he used to. everything enraged him when he got here: the conditions, the injustice, the inability to do anything about anything. but he wouldn’t call himself resigned. maybe he is adjusted. sometimes this world makes more sense than any of the other ones he’s experienced. action; consequence. he’s never afraid of leaving his cell only to shake the hand of an unexpected reaper because the reaper is always expected here.
A few days after his mother lost her teeth to the knuckles of a man with medal-pins,they took the bike out again.
He learned to do wheelies while his brother sat on the brown grass and applauded.
He didn’t wear a helmet
because no one had a helmet they could steal except the bike store,
and everyone was spending their money on food so the bike store
had put up bars on the window and set the padlock. He hadn’t seen the neon
OPEN sign flashing in months.
Anyway, it didn’t matter; he didn’t fall. He taught himself
to pull the handlebars up and keep pedaling for a few feet and he learned
to stop by bouncing onto the front tire and letting the back tire whir itself out.
The wheels went
as they spun.
in the beginning, they had asked him a lot of questions, pulled out a lot of fingernails and sliced a lot of skin. now they don’t bother; now they leave him to rot. this would bother him if he’d ever had illusions of bravery. he never tells them anything simply because he doesn’t know anything, and what he knows he wouldn’t be able to describe: the warm summer sunshine behind clouds made of ash; white lines of cocaine blowing out of the window his brother left open when he went to take a piss; the radio downstairs humming along the floorboards, keeping time to constant sirens.
He thinks about that bike sometimes when the moon goes out.
The chain used to stutter
and catch, ruining the brakes.
He learned to use the handlebars to slow town, turning them
just slightly to increase the friction of the wheel against the road—
the first couple of times he scraped the skin off of his legs.
He can feel it
when he closes his eyes and presses his cheek against the wisp of blue and the carved tallies (one-two-three-four-five):
the hot, brakeless air scraping against his teeth and filling up his mouth until he swallowed it down and it lifted him up, up, up, like a dense balloon.
He lets go of the handlebars and falls upwards, looking down at the stop sign getting smaller, his brother getting smaller,
the bicycle tipped over in the street with its wheels spinning aimlessly in front
of where the red door used to be before it
burned up/burned down/burned up/burned down/burned up.
When the time comes, he goes right, like the rest of them.
“Won herself a pass to some far-off moon”
Prompt fill #2
It happens like this: in one moment, Alice Sweeney is getting hit by her nasty stepfather, in the next she is running, and in the last she sets eyes on the airfield down the road and doesn’t decide to stow away so much as she just … does it.
They find her three days later, so many light years from home that it’s not possible to turn back. She bites and scratches and fights but they drag her to the bridge, where she yells with tears in her eyes that she is not going back, okay, she is not she is not she is not. The Captain studies her from his chair, munching thoughtfully on an apple, and then asks, “How tall are you?”
Alice makes a face. “Four-eight.”
The Captain grins. “That’s all right. We’ll get you a box,” he says.
“And what is this?” First Officer Annette Klein asks when Captain Fritz drops Alice off at her quarters. “A midget? You brought me a midget? Is this some sort of weird German mating ritual, because I’ve told you a million times—”
“No, no,” the Captain interrupts hastily, covering Alice’s ears with his hands. “This is not a midget. This is an Alice.” He pauses, hands dropping to her shoulders. “Well. She is kind of a midget.”
“I’m not a midget,” Alice says.
“You’ve got definite midget-y qualities,” the Captain replies.
Alice folds her arms over her chest. “Like what?”
“You’re four-eight. I’m six-four.”
“Yeah, but you’re old. I’m only ten.”
“Age is no excuse,” he says, and then adds sullenly, “and I am not old.”
Alice takes a break from glaring at him to steal a glance at First Officer Klein. The woman’s jaw is slack and her eyes are darting back and forth between the Captain and Alice. It’s quiet for a beat, and then she splutters, “Wait—you mean she—this is a child? You brought me a child?”
The Captain’s ears go red at the tips. “It’s not like we kidnapped her or anything,” he defends, jutting out his chin. “So much as we … accidentally acquired her.”
“Well, sure. That happens sometimes during stop-offs on planets.”
“Not with children!”
The Captain’s hands tighten on Alice’s shoulders. When he speaks, it’s in a low, serious voice that’s somehow scary and comforting at the same time. “Look at her face, Annette,” he murmurs. “I’m not sending her back there.”
The First Officer looks at Alice for a long time, and then her expression softens. She slumps against her doorframe. “Oh, all right,” she sighs. “But the first planet we get to, we’re handing her over to someone who can take her, do you hear me?”
The Captain looks down at Alice and winks, and then snaps to attention and salutes. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” he barks cheerfully before pushing Alice into the First Officer’s quarters and bounding back to the bridge.
Alice folds her arms over her chest and squares her jaw. She and First Officer Klein size each other up silently. Then Alice asks, “You gonna put me in a dress?”
“No,” First Officer Klein says. “You gonna wet the bed?”
They shake hands.
This is what Alice learns on her first full day as a member of the U.S.S. Pilgrim:
1. The pilot, Officer Ghizlane Horton—”Ghiz to you, kid”—scribbles her name on the control panel every morning so that the cleaning crew have to come scrub the letters away every night.
“Listen up, midge,” Ghiz declares, meeting Alice’s eyes directly and not blinking. “You want to keep something around here, you best make sure everyone knows it’s yours. And these controls? Mine.” Then she leans in and whispers conspiratorially, “Plus, the cleaning lady is fine as hell. I’m two nights away from getting her number, just you wait.”
2. The tech director is named Steven Choppy, but he goes by Mitch-Mitch. No one remembers why, but everyone agrees it had something to do with a pineapple on the planet Zoosk.
3. The Captain introduces the head of medical services as The Doctor. When Amy asks, “Doctor who?” everybody laughs. The Doctor wears glasses that are too little for his face and has a habit of fingering piano pieces on the hard surfaces of the bridge. He doesn’t talk much; he nods at her once when they’re introduced and then shuffles away nervously.
“He finds conversation emotionally draining,” the Captain explains. “You get used to it.”
4. Alice is too short to work any of the steering or weapons controls, but she’s just the right height to crawl around in the belly of Mitch-Mitch’s super computer and rearrange the wires. That’s how she finds his secret stash of chocolate shoved underneath the lip of the counter.
He gives her two in exchange for silence.
Alice has trouble sleeping, scared of the total silence of space. On these nights she sneaks to the bridge and settles into the Captain’s chair with her blanket around her shoulders, looking out of the huge front window at the stars that never end.
The third time it happens, the Captain comes in and wordlessly takes her place on the chair and lifts her onto his lap.
“It’s too quiet,” Alice says by way of explanation. She misses birds and crickets and the breeze licking her window.
The Captain ruffles her hair and pulls her blanket tighter around her shoulders. He names all the stars in whispers, and she falls asleep to the gentle cadence of his voice.
“Don’t be such an asshat,” Ghiz growls at Mitch-Mitch, flicking her middle finger up at him. “I’m not going to steer into a meteor shower. What sort of dumbshit idea is that?”
“The dumbshit idea that is going to get us away from the scary exploding sun,” Mitch-Mitch fires back. “Will you just trust my shield for once in your damn life?”
“Behave, children,” the Captain says breezily, looking out of the window and studying his options. Alice is not very scared, because no one else seems to be, but she’s a little scared. She’s never seen an exploding sun before. She’s never seen an exploding anything before. “Mitch-Mitch. You’re sure the shield will hold?”
“Bet my life on it, sir.”
“Well, that’s good,” the Captain drawls dryly. He claps his hands together once. “All right then. Take it away, Ghiz.”
“This is a dumbshit idea,” Ghiz says again. “If we die before I get in Marisol’s pants I’m going to be so pissed.”
First Officer Klein is a pretty good roommate, as far as grown-ups go. She doesn’t ask Alice any annoying questions about her day or make her do homework or set a bedtime. Alice has to make her bed and brush her teeth and eat at least one type of vegetable at every meal and that’s it, which is a pretty fair break as far as Alice is concerned.
Sometimes after they turn out the light, they talk to one another in the dark. First Officer Klein never treats her like a kid; she talks to her about real stuff, answers her questions honestly and doesn’t hedge.
“So your parents,” she says one night, and Alice stiffens. “They weren’t very good to you, were they?”
“My Dad was,” Alice answers. “But he died.”
First Officer Klein is quiet for a long time. Just when Alice is starting to believe she’s fallen asleep, she says, “Mine weren’t very good to me, either.”
“Really. That’s why I joined the ‘Fleet.”
Alice snuggles down into her blankets. “Do you think anything you did could have made it better?” she asks, holding her breath.
First Officer Klein’s voice is steely when she answers. “Your parents are not your fault, Alice,” she promises, and Alice lets out a little sob before scrambling out of her bed and into First Officer Klein’s, nestling into the crook of her arm with her wet cheeks hidden in the folds of the blanket.
The Doctor doesn’t like talking, so Alice writes him notes and leaves them in his mailbox. At first he doesn’t respond, so she starts asking questions about medical stuff, like surgeries and broken bones and things like that, and he writes back. At first his notes are to the point, but after a while he starts answering her other questions, her not-doctor-y questions, and even asking back.
For her eleventh birthday he writes her a four-page letter and even comes to the party they throw in the bridge. He stands miserably in the corner the whole time, but he’s there, and he glows a bright pink when Alice kisses his cheek and whispers thanks.
They try to take her away on planet Guhlkrenbachtreig. Apparently someone told the ‘Fleet that the U.S.S. Pilgrim had a child onboard and regulation stated that she had to be left in the hands of the nearest social services.
Alice steals away while the bridge crew and the planet’s designated social worker yell at one another and hides in the engine room, where it’s too hot for the cameras to detect her body heat. She’s not going back, she’s not. She likes it here. She likes Ghiz and Mitch-Mitch and The Doctor and First Officer Klein and the Captain. She likes crawling around in the computers and sitting on the Captain’s lap while he names the stars. She likes talking in the dark with First Officer Klein. She likes learning swear words from Ghiz and stealing chocolate from Mitch-Mitch and writing notes to The Doctor.
She’s rubbing her arm angrily across her tearful eyes when she feels rather than sees the Captain slump down next to her.
“Well?” she mutters bitterly, “where are they? I don’t have any stuff, we can just leave right now.”
“Is that what you want, midge?” the Captain asks.
She shakes her head miserably, leaning against his side and letting him drag her onto his lap. “I wanna stay here with you,” she mumbles against his chest. “I wanna stay with everybody, I don’t wanna go.”
He pats her hair. “Hey,” he says gently. “C’mere. I have something for you.”
They stand, hands clasped, and walk back to the bridge; the crew is standing all in a huddle, faces blank.
It’s a goodbye party, Alice thinks, and feels tears stinging again.
But the social workers are nowhere to be seen, and the crew splits down in the middle. Alice stares, looking up at the Captain and then back down again. “Is that—what’s that?” she asks, hesitant, afraid to hope.
He grins down at her. “I got you a box,” he says.
The next morning, Alice borrows Ghiz’s permanent marker and goes around to each member of the bridge crew, solemnly inscribing her name on his or her wrist. Then First Officer Klein swipes the marker and writes on Alice: