Unfulfilled

As I was walking along the beach one cool spring morning, I stumbled upon an old bottle sticking out of the sand. The glass, once clear, looked cloudy with a sickly green tint to it. I picked it up, curious as I am about strange artifacts. There was something inside, obscured by the grimy exterior. I pried the cork off the bottle and dropped it in surprise as smoke issued forth from it.

As I backed away from the billowing smoke, it formed itself into a vaguely human form.

“I am the genie of the bottle!” the smoke announced in a booming voice. “What is your wish?”

I didn’t respond right away. Several seconds went by as I blinked and tried to convince myself this was just a hallucination. But the smoke genie persisted. I thought I could detect a little impatience in the way it billowed.

“A genie..” I managed at last, masterfully stating the obvious. “So…uhh..does that mean I get three wishes?”

I scratched at my scruffy beard, still trying to determine if what I was looking at was real.

The genie looked taken aback. “Three? Wherever did you get that idea?”

I shrugged. “That’s how it always is in stories.”

“This is no child’s tale,” the genie bellowed indignantly. “You only get one wish. That is all I can grant you. Now, what is your wish?”

Again, I didn’t respond right away. Only one wish to get whatever I wanted? That was tricky. What did I want? A better job would always be nice. Maybe just a ton of money without the job. A girlfriend. Maybe a wife? No, that’d be weird without the girlfriend part first. Peace on Earth? To be honest, that’s a bit broad, and would that really help me? Not to sound selfish, but it was my wish, after all. I hated having to think about big decisions like that. They always made me nervous, which just made me stressed. Any moment now, the panic attacks would start, and…wait, I knew just what I wanted.

“Happiness,” I said.

” Very well then. And what would make you happy?”

I blinked. “Well…I don’t know. Shouldn’t you know?”

The genie shook its smoky head. “I grant wishes. I don’t create them. If you know what can give you happiness, I can produce it for you. But I cannot predict what makes you happy.”

That was disappointing. What made me happy? There were all sorts of little things. Books and adventure films and good conversations. Chocolate chip cookies and dogs and the laughter of loved ones. But was that ‘happiness’? I didn’t know. I had no idea. What could make me truly, eternally happy was a mystery, as obscure and hard to define as the smoky spectre that floated in front of me.

I amended my wish and set the genie free. It was surprised. As it granted my wish, the smoke took on a more definite shape. An old man stood in front of me now, his face heavily lined, several eons of life etched onto it. The lines deepened as he broke into a smile. He thanked me for freeing him and walked away. He stopped for a few moments to admire the scenery around him, the pale sand strewn on the beach, the waves lazily approaching the shore before retreating. With a contented sigh, he kept walking until he disappeared into the horizon.

After a few moments, I resumed walking as well, feeling as empty as the bottle that lay half buried in the sand.

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The Golden Hood

After an unplanned hiatus, I’ve decided to chug along with the last few posts of Writing 101, although the course is now in the archives of WordPress history. I’ve combined two consecutive prompts here. One asked us to tell a story through a series of vignettes, while the other tasked us with telling a story that took place over the course of a single day. Here’s my take on both.

 

It was a morning like any other in the city. Traffic was backed up, trains were running behind schedule and pedestrians littered the streets. People were staring at phones and newspapers, keeping up with events all around the world while paying little attention to the world that was all around them. The explosion took everyone by surprise. A derelict building had caught fire. Emergency workers pulled several bodies out of the building. Alongside, police recovered the charred remains of a white robe with a golden hood.


Karen had woken up before her alarm. She always did. She had a full morning to work through, preparing lunch for the kids and making sure breakfast was on the table before everyone headed out. Once the school bus left, she had a little time to herself. Still dressed in her fluffy night gown, Karen poured herself a cup of coffee and plopped down on the couch to watch some TV.

She flicked through channels idly, passed by the news, and went back again. There was a report about an explosion earlier in the morning in the hospital district. There were a few fatalities. Latest reports indicated that the victims were dead prior to the explosion. Evidence seemed to suggest this was another act perpetrated by the terrorist organization known as the Order of the Golden Hood.

Karen flicked over to a soap opera and went to pour herself some more coffee.


It was just another boring afternoon at the office for Mike Teller. The morning had been full of meetings that only succeeded in wasting everyone’s time, and he was trying to make his way through the post-lunch slump so he could go home and laze around on the couch. He wondered what Karen was making for dinner. His manager dropped by with some real work for him to do, completely ruining his plan to just zone out for the rest of the day.

Sighing, Mike flipped through the project notes that had been handed to him. It was going to be a long afternoon. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Alvin, one of the junior associates who had just joined the company a few weeks ago. Mike casually strolled over to Alvin’s desk and chatted him up. After sufficiently flattering the young man’s ego, Mike handed him the folder with the air of passing on a great responsibility. Go-getter that he was, Alvin got to work on the report right away, while Mike walked back to his desk, ready for two hours of no productivity whatsoever

As Alvin was looking over the folder, a small piece of paper fell out. He picked it up, thinking it was some extraneous note that somebody forgot to staple. Instead, he found a short message, written very neatly in gold ink:

In the name of the Golden Hood

The office was evacuated early that afternoon. The official story was that it was a safety precaution because of a gas leak. But whispers went around that the Order of the Golden Hood had struck yet again, with some sort of nerve gas. Mike decided to go to a nearby bar and get some afternoon drinking in. He hadn’t seen Alvin during the evacuation, and wouldn’t find out about his death until seeing it on the news later.


At about 5:30, Karen heard the front door open. Mike walked in, a little unsteady on his feet. She asked him how his day was, as she always did. He told her what happened. She expressed the appropriate amount of surprise and then went to put dinner on the table. Ever since the Golden Hood’s attacks had intensified, these sorts of conversation were quite routine around the city. The kids were in their rooms, doing their homework; most likely, they were doing anything but that.

Mike and Karen settled themselves on the couch, plates balanced on their laps. The news was on, talking about several more attacks perpetrated by the Order of the Golden Hood. The city was slowly going to pieces, and there was no way to stop it. There was no information on any of the Order’s members, or even how many there were. Even the Order’s objective remained a mystery. It seemed to exist only to spread chaos.

After dinner, Mike and Karen sat around for a bit making small talk, and then buried themselves in their computers.At 10:30 sharp, it was lights out.


Midnight. When the whole city should have been asleep, but many parts were still wide awake, and would be until the early hours.

Karen got out of bed quietly, making sure not to wake Mike. She stripped off her pajamas and opened the middle drawer of her dresser. It was where she kept old clothes that she didn’t wear as often anymore, but buried under the messy pile of disused clothing was something she wore quite often. It was a pristine white robe, neatly folded. Underneath it was a gold hood.

She put on the robe and pulled the hood over her head, almost reverently. It was a good night for chaos.

Nocturnal Pursuits

Today’s assignment was an image prompt. Write a post based on an image. Once again, the good folks at WordPress provided a few images to get the ideas pumping. This one spoke to me, though I was inspired by looking at the thumbnail and started writing from there. The full image is blurrier than I’d thought, which doesn’t quite fit in with the perspective I was going for, but it still fits with the general theme of a city at night.

Neon lights illuminated the night sky, advertising hotels, restaurants and products that few people would actually buy. Cars crowded the streets, streetbound fireflies flitting back and forth. The downtown area of the city was like a carnival after sundown, full of enticing sights and sounds, some of which were only illusions, promising much and delivering nothing. Lydia sighed as she looked out the window. A carnival. And she couldn’t go on any of the rides. Not yet.

She was the lone occupant of a sprawling 22nd floor office. There was a job to be done. Lydia worked late often. In fact, working late was pretty much all she did. She opened another file on the computer and scanned its contents, only half focused on the task. Her eyes drifted toward the skyline. She would love to be standing on a balcony, or a rooftop even, soaking in the night air, letting the moonlight wash over her.

After a few more searches, she found the files she was looking for. They were in a folder labeled ‘Vacation Slideshows’. Of course nobody would look there. She started the download process and turned her attention to the city again. Its twinkling lights, brighter than the stars above them, beckoned to her. The city wanted her. It would have her soon enough. She remembered nights spent looking at the stars, back when the city was so far away and exotic.It had been her dream to live there one day, to be among the glitz and the glamor, an angel with a neon halo. She was living the dream now, in a way. But not quite like she imagined.

The download was complete. Lydia took the flash drive out and pocketed it. She turned off the light on her desk, equally relieved and disappointed that building security hadn’t come by to check the floor. It made things easier for her, of course, but she did enjoy a challenge. She snuck out of the office, making sure the lights were all turned off, walked down the hallway and took the service elevator up to the roof.

It felt good to step out into the night air. Lydia walked to the edge and gazed at the urban panorama spread out before her. She closed her eyes and listened to the city’s constantly thrumming heart. She considered her situation for a moment. Her employers only needed the information before trading began in the morning, and she wouldn’t really get paid till then anyway. That gave her plenty of time to revel in the night. Maybe she’d find another place to rob. For fun, this time.

Neighborhood

A lizard crawls along the sidewalk  It isn’t in a hurry to get wherever it’s going.

Afternoons in the summer are always quiet. Everyone’s too full from lunch and it’s too hot outside to do anything. This year, a lot of the kids in the neighborhood aren’t around either. The Dorsey girls are at camp, Eric and Libby are at their grandma’s for two weeks, and Willie’s in summer school. Poor Willie. He could never catch a break.

I’d gone over to Eli Fletcher’s house in the morning. We played some games and swam in his pool. Then he had to go for a doctor’s appointment so I came back and decided to hang out on the porch. Sometimes it’s fun to sit in one place and watch the world move around.

Our next door neighbors, the Gundersons, are both at work. They’re a nice married couple, probably in their 50’s, but they don’t have any kids. I think that’s kinda strange but Mom says it’s not so unusual nowadays. The lizard slithers into their yard, heading for Mrs. Gunderson’s vegetable garden. She’s not gonna be happy about that when she gets home.

Mr. Tanner walks past reading something, a list of some sort. He’s wearing a hat and a long coat, in spite of the weather, silver rimmed glasses perched on the tip of his nose. His forehead’s all crinkly, which means he’s thinking hard about something.

Kathy Harmon’s out walking her two dogs, one beagle who kinda looks like Snoopy and a shaggy terrier of some sort. They’re both wagging their tails as they sniff everything in sight. Kathy’s our regular babysitter, though I don’t like to call her that anymore. She’s just a girl that watches over me when my parents are out. She smiles at me with perfect white teeth, chestnut hair framing her face, and waves. I wave back, getting a funny feeling in my stomach.

Mrs. Pauley’s over in her garden, pulling out weeds. She lives across the street from us, pretty much always has. Mom says the Pauleys were some of the first people to move into this neighborhood, and the only ones that never left. It’s just been Mr. and Mrs. Pauley here for as long as I can remember, but I heard they have six sons who’re all grown up and living with their own families. Mrs. Pauley also has a sister named Mabel who visits sometimes. She always hands out ugly sweaters to people when she’s here. I got a vomit-green one last Christmas. She’s a weird lady.

Mrs. Pauley’s nice. She’s smiling whenever I see her. Her eyes are very blue, and look like they see right through you, but they’re always twinkling. Or they used to, anyway. I remember she used to be very chatty. Often, she’d have long conversations with my mom or ask me about school.

Mr. Pauley was nice too, and sometimes came over to help my dad with yard work or to play ball. But he died three months ago and then Mrs. Pauley got quieter. The funeral was nice. It feels weird to say that, but it’s true. Everyone was there. The Gundersons, the Allens, even Eric and Libby’s grandma had come up to pay her respects. There was a lot of crying and a lot of big speeches about what a great guy Mr. Pauley was. I kinda miss him.

Things haven’t been too good for Mrs. Pauley lately. I heard Mom and Dad talking about it the other day. She doesn’t have any money now. Her kids are busy with their lives and don’t speak to her as much. Only one of them showed up to Mr. Pauley’s funeral. I think they could still send her some money though. But they didn’t. She couldn’t pay rent this month. It’s weird. I always thought people who lived in houses owned them. But turns out you can rent them, just like apartments. That’s what Mr. and Mrs. Pauley did. Mom and Dad said she’d probably going to be evicted soon. I don’t know what that means, but it doesn’t sound good.

A car pulls into the driveway. I look at the license plate: GRH 1517. Adding 5 and 1 makes 6 and 1 more makes 7. I like it when the numbers on license plates add up like that. A fat man in a dark blue suit gets out of the car. It’s Mr. Finnick, Mrs. Pauley’s landlord. He takes a deep breath and his shoulders droop a little. He looks tired. Mrs. Pauley looks upset.

Two more people in dark suits get out of the car. As one of the men adjusts his jacket, I see something glinting. A badge pinned to his belt. The police? Looks like Mrs. Pauley’s in trouble. Mr. Finnick starts talking. I can’t really hear what he’s saying, but he’s speaking in the kind of voice my mom used when I was younger and she wanted me to eat some broccoli. The two police officers stand around, arms crossed.

Mr. Finnick pulls out some papers and shows them to Mrs. Pauley. I can see the tears running down her cheeks. She shakes her head, sobbing. Mr. Finnick is speaking a bit louder now, saying something about regret and necessary actions. Mrs. Pauley shakes her head again and yells, “I’m not going anywhere!”

I almost fall off the porch. It’s the first time I’ve heard her yell.

Some of the neighbors come out of their houses to watch. Mr. Finnick looks around and lowers his voice again. I can feel the sweat running down my back, but it’s not cause of the heat. Things are going to get bad.

Kathy’s dogs start barking. Mrs. Pauley’s still yelling and crying, her face bright red. Mr. Finnick’s trying to stay calm, but his voice is rising too. More people gather. The officers look tense.

The neighbors start asking questions, demanding to know what’s going on. The officers try to keep them back, but there’s not much they can do. It’s not against the law to help your neighbor. At least I hope not. There’s a lot more shouting now, voices trying to speak over each other. My heart’s pounding its way through my shirt.

A few people, like Mr. Allen and Mr. Holson, stand in front of Mrs. Pauley, shielding her. They pay no attention to the officers, who are telling them to stay out of it. Mr. Finnick’s done talking now and stands with his fists clenched. Everything goes quiet. Even Kathy’s dogs aren’t barking anymore. Only Mrs. Pauley’s soft sobbing fills the air.

Another car pulls up near Mrs. Pauley’s house and a man with sandy blond hair gets out. He hasn’t shaved in a few days and looks a bit scraggly. It’s Mrs. Pauley’s son, the one who was at the funeral. He marches over to his mother and talks to her in a tone that’s so calm it’s almost spooky. The two of them have a long discussion. I wish I could hear what they’re saying. Everyone else stands there in silence, waiting.

Mrs. Pauley gets agitated again. From what I can tell, it looks like Mr. Pauley Jr. wants her to move out of the house. I think he wants her to live with him. But she refuses. She’s not going to leave. Finally, the officers step in and tell her she has to go. Mrs. Pauley looks really scared.

My dad comes home from work just then. He asks one of our other neighbors about what’s happening, and walks over to Mrs. Pauley’s yard as soon as he finds out. He asks the officers to wait a few minutes and takes some of the neighbors aside to discuss something. A little while later, they all nod and go up to Mr; Finnick, saying that they’ll all pitch in to pay Mrs. Pauley’s rent. They’ll figure out something more permanent later. After even more talking, everyone agrees. Mr. Finnick and the officers leave. Mr. Pauley Jr. stands around awkwardly, then says bye and leaves too.

Mrs. Pauley stays in the exact same spot in front of her door, still crying. But there’s something different. It’s not a sad kind of crying. All the neighbors gather around and comfort her. It’s pretty amazing.

The Pauleys have been in this neighborhood for years. They built their family here. But I guess a family isn’t just the people that live in your house or that share your name. Anyone that cares about you, that shares your happiness and sadness, that laughs with you at your jokes and cries during your tragedies, is your family. This whole neighborhood is Mrs. Pauley’s family.

The next day, Mrs. Pauley smiles when she sees me. It’s the first time in months that I’ve seen a smile on her face. She calls me over and gives me a hug. Now, I’ve kinda grown out of my hugging phase, and I get squirmy when people hug me. But I don’t struggle when she does, and I hug her back. I’m glad she’s still here.

Yikes!

So it just occurred to me that I’ve been neglecting Tales of Unusual Strangeness a bit. Nothing posted in almost two weeks?

Oops.

I’ve just put up another story:  https://unusualstrangeness.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/apocalypse/

Now I just need to stick to a regular posting schedule.

Let’s see how that works out.

Unusual Strangeness

At long last, after many months of dragging my feet, I’ve finally published my first short story on Tales of Unusual Strangeness. You can check it out here:

https://unusualstrangeness.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/out-with-the-old/

I’m trying to keep the worlds of fiction and non-fiction separate, so this will be the space for general ramblings on life, and Unusual Strangeness will be my story blog.

Go ahead and give it a read and tell me what you think! If that blog’s a bit too much on the unusual side for your tastes, well, you’re always welcome here.

Out of the Abyss

He walked through the darkness. He could see nothing around him. What was this place? He had no idea if he was in a basement or surrounded by a moonless night. The ground beneath him felt solid, but he couldn’t tell what kind of surface it was. Just where was he? How did he get here?

“Worthless.”

He froze, feeling his stomach drop. He knew that voice. Soft. Low. Cold. It was a voice he’d heard so many times, that he had tried to push away. He had pushed it away.

“You’re absolutely worthless.”

The sound came from everywhere, the air itself speaking to him. He took a step back, feeling his heartbeat increase.

The space in front of him lightened, barely. A dark shadow stood silhouetted against the gray surroundings. He could not see its eyes, but he know they were watching him, full of loathing.

“Please,” he whispered. “I don’t want to do this. Not now.”

“You don’t want? You think that choice is yours?”

It emitted a laugh that carried no joy, that seemed to pierce the air and stab into his very bones.

“If you were capable of making such choices, would I even be here?”

Its voice oozed scorn, and though its face was hidden in shadow, he knew it was smiling at him. Not being able to see that smile was the only small relief he had.

“You never were very good at standing up for yourself, were you? But then, you were never really good at anything.”

He winced at the dismissive tone of its voice.

“No, not that’s not true.”

“Oh?” it inquired. “And what have you done with your life so far? What have you really accomplished? Your peers have made a name for themselves. They’ve pushed forward with their careers and their families. They’re surrounded by friends wherever they go. And you?” It chuckled and gestured with one formless arm. “You’re here. With me. It’s the only place you’ll ever belong.”

He could feel himself shaking. He wanted to say that it wasn’t true, that he deserved better. Instead, he stood staring at his feet.

“You had so much potential,” it continued. “And you never missed an opportunity to waste it. You failed to be a good son a good brother, a good friend. Your time was instead spent digging trenches of failure, each deeper than the last.”

It was enjoying this. It always did.

“You could have graduated at the top of your class, but you chose to stay comfortably in the middle. You could have blazed trails in the professional world, but you languished in unemployment when your family could have used your help.”

“That wasn’t my fault!” He yelled louder than he’d intended to, unable to tolerate that final barb. “You know it isn’t! I tried my best, but nobody was hiring!”

“People hire those who have something to give the world, those who have value,” it retorted without a second’s hesitation. “Why should anyone hire you? What value do you bring?”

He had no answer.

“None. You have no value at all. And that is why nobody will love you either. Are you really ‘single and loving it’, as you claim to the world, or are you just a lonely man unable to find love as time passes him by? Who would love you? And why?”

His eyes were burning from the futile attempt at holding back tears. It was right. He was unlovable. Worthless.

It bore down on him, enveloping him in darkness. “Why would anyone ever love you?”

The words echoed all around him. He shut his eyes and clamped his hands over his ears, but could still hear the hateful voice taunting him.

“What could anyone possibly see in a failure like you?!”

“Hope.”

It stopped. “What?”

“He still has hope.”

As he opened his eyes, he saw a dazzling white light. No, that wasn’t it. It was a woman, wearing a dress that seemed to be made of light. She had long golden hair that flowed around her like liquid fire, adding to the brightness in the gloom. Most brilliant of all were her eyes, twin pools of rich amber on which emerald flecks danced.

“He’s made some poor choices and he’s seen troubled times, but that needn’t be his end. Everyone deserves another chance.”

“There have been enough chances already. He’s wasted them all.”

“Then maybe he needs a little help.”

“Why? What would be the point? History will just repeat itself again and he’ll end up back here. It’s better for him to stay.”

It reached out to him with long, smoke-like fingers.

“No.” Her voice was firm, determined. “I won’t let him slip into this abyss. There is goodness in him, in his heart. He just needs someone to guide him on the right path.”

“This is his path!”

She strode toward him and it shrank away, blending into the shadows. She put a hand on his face, immediately flooding him with a warmth that he had never before known. He looked into her eyes, transfixed.

“Let’s go,” she said, stroking his cheek. “You don’t have to stay here anymore. There is hope. There’s always hope.”

He nodded. She motioned to a doorway, made out of the same brilliant light emanating from her, and he followed her to it.

“NO!” it cried, struggling to escape its dark boundaries. “You can’t take him! He belongs here! This is the only place he’ll ever belong!”

She looked at it pityingly, then kept walking. It cried out again, its voice hoarse and ragged.

He turned back to look at it one last time. He saw nothing but darkness.

She took him by the hand and smiled at him, a smile filled with the radiance of a thousand suns. “It’s alright. I’ll make sure you never find yourself here again.”

He could feel himself tearing up once more. He nodded and followed her through the doorway, into the light.

*****

He took a deep breath, looking around the house. It was a fine house, one that he shared with his loving wife. He was living a dream, and sometimes he thought that was all it was. He was afraid sometimes that he would open his eyes and find it all gone, replaced by the cave of despair that he had trapped himself in for so long.

“Honey, are you almost ready? We’ll be late.”

The sound of his wife’s voice brought him back into reality. He smiled. This was real.

“I’ll be down in just a second, babe.”

He took his keys from on top of the dresser and paused for a second to look at the picture sitting there. It was from his wedding. He and his bride both looked so happy, on the verge of starting a wonderful new life together. He was sharply dressed in an elegant black tuxedo and she stood next to him in a dress of dazzling white, her golden hair pulled back into a loose bun, her eyes twinkling with joy.

And such beautiful eyes they were, twin pools of rich amber in which emerald flecks danced.