Swedish Rock and Roll

Prompt: Infuse

headphones

Gordon Ping was angry.

He shaved with a hand razor, examining with disgust the crusty lines deepening around his mouth and eyes. He dressed carefully for work, re-ironing the pair of grey polyester trousers that he’d worn the day before. He wore a white polo shirt fresh out of the dryer, which smelled of lilacs. He disliked the smell of lilacs. His ex-wife left the box of dryer sheets and he was frugally using them up, and now the odor made him angry, too.

She said she didn’t like the way he looked anymore. She said his face and body told stories about his insides the way a house exterior says much about its occupants. Fuck her. He wasn’t a thatched cottage (far from it, as his hair was thinning too)— he was a man with man challenges and man problems. Maybe he didn’t spill his guts to this woman at every turn: that was down to her. She questioned his version of events, his opinions, his decisions to such an extent that it was no longer valuable to share with her. If he wanted nit-picking judgements he’d go talk to his boss.

Thomas Agent, rich asshole and micro-manager. All Gordon did was put on a cheap royal blue smock and push a cart of external mail and inter-office packages around the four floors of the company, but Agent personally conducted his three-month review and later, his annual review.

“Tell me, Gordon” — who said he could use his first name? Presumptuous asshole. “Tell me, what do you find the most challenging about your job?”

Nothing is fucking challenging about being a fucking mail boy at age 48 except the fucking people, like you. “I find many of the employees distracting. They start chatting and slow me down. It’s hard to compete my daily tasks.” Daily tasks. A helpful term he’d learned at his first review.

“And what do you see as a resolution to this problem?” Thomas Agent was a man who thought he was subtle but was as transparent as cling film. Still, he had no eyebrows, which threw Gordon off balance at times. They’d been permanently singed and traumatized into non-existence after his briefcase exploded. The authorities believed his tale of ignorance as to where the bomb came from, which seemed lazy and complacent. Anyway, he was actually lucky to be alive.

He was lucky, period. Gordon Ping had more education than this son of a bitch, but far less luck. Health problems: diabetes, lung cancer, and a host of allergies kept him off the upward ladder, and he found himself having to start over again and again. He was introverted and some mistook this for pride or disdain, which slowed his progress. Who wants to promote or work for an unlikeable man? Well, guess what? His introversion did develop into pride and disdain— why not? He was better, smarter than most of the delusional, self-seeking morons he lived and worked among. He learned to hide his disdain until it was simply no longer possible. Thus his wife telling him his face now betrayed him, and broadcast his bitter contempt instead of hiding it.

She was a hypocrite in her own right. Pretending to be feminist but refusing to help support him after the divorce. If he’d been the main breadwinner you can bet he would have had to pay alimony. But no, she could afford the lawyers and he was recovering from a collapsed lung— no contest.

So he found himself sitting faux-humbly before Thomas Agent as he sipped tea infused with ginseng, believing it to have life-enhancing properties, discussing the challenges of dropping packages clearly addressed with the recipient’s name and location to the correct cubicle.

“Well, Mr Agent,” said Gordon.

“Call me Tom, for heaven’s sake, Gordon.”

Gordon closed his eyes for two seconds. “What I see as a resolution to the challenges of my job, is: headphones.”

“Headphones?”

“Ms Cohen thinks I need to be alert and that headphones could cause mishap,” said Gordon. “I’ve asked several times.”

“Good,” said Thomas Agent. “I see where headphones could help you do your job more efficiently; thank you for the input. This could resolve the issue of complaints of slow mail delivery etc, that we’ve received about your work, Gordon.”

And so it was that Gordon Ping, 48, divorced, angry, disillusioned, got a pair of inexpensive Philips On-Ear Sound Isolating headphones, which while not high quality, did a superb job of allowing Gordon to ignore conversation, so he was able to push his little trolley among four identical floors and deliver his mail without having to communicate with humans, and instead listened to Swedish rock and roll.

It is hard to be angry when listening to Swedish rock and roll.

Mary Jones

Prompt: Reprieve

strawberry cheesecake

She had a great palate and was executive chef for a large hotel chain, until she was accused of murdering her father, mother, brother, three aunts, their two sons, and the girlfriend of one of the sons.

Now that her lawyer and best friend had overturned her conviction, she changed her name and moved to a larger community, getting a kitchen job in a new restaurant with a strange name. There were surviving family members who might not agree with her reprieve from hanging, so it seemed best to dissolve into an anonymous landscape, at least for a time.

Mary Jones. That was her new name. She liked it. She liked her job in the restaurant kitchen, doing prep and clean up and dog’s body work. She loved the zen of julienning carrots, peeling potatoes, removing pin bones from filleted fish, keeping work surfaces sparkling clean and ready. She liked her boss, Hugo, who treated her with a distant professionalism which she found very attractive.

It was a busy Friday night dinner service when someone in the restaurant died suddenly. There were screams and cries from the dining room that Mary was the first to hear. Perhaps she was attuned to the sounds of pain. She was one of the first on the scene, finding a woman on the floor beside one of the white linen covered tables, a young man, possibly her son, crouched over her and howling like an animal.

She felt her adrenaline surge. That part was natural, wasn’t it?

The woman was taken away on a stretcher in an ambulance, as if she could come back to life. Mary knew death when she saw it. In fact, there was something about that night that spoke of epiphany.

Mary had a taste for death. There was no point in denying it, or looking the other way, or pretending otherwise. While she would never admit to murdering her extended family, she was not averse to admitting to the thrill of death.

It was a dangerous taste, like a craving for fugu, the Japanese dish prepared with extreme care lest the violently deadly parts of the fish should touch human lips. Mary had a craving for life fugu.

So when Hugo asked her to package up some mushroom fettuccine for his wife, a cop who was ill and recovering at home, Mary thought a little dose of arsenic, that old-fashioned poison, might liven things up, especially since during her arrest and pretrial incarceration, the police had been rather unsympathetic, choosing to believe she was guilty and treating her as such, even before the evidence presented at her trial. Hugo’s wife might be a very nice person, but a cop was a cop.

Hugo’s wife was too ill to eat that night, apparently, but was the poisoned dish put in the refrigerator for future consumption? Would Hugo be tempted and lazy one night, and fall ill? Would his weakened wife finally feel hungry and suffer a relapse, possibly a fatal one?

Mary waited. Have you ever had a craving, maybe for fresh buttered popcorn, or a rare steak, or strawberry cheesecake, or a Bloody Caesar cocktail? And had to wait—but know that eventually, what you crave will be before you, and that the first taste, the first bite, will be a little piece of bliss?

Mary knew that feeling. She had a new life and a new taste. She waited.

Pink

Prompt: Pink

pink mobile

Cash and Virginia agreed about one thing: they wanted the nursery for Echo to be pink. They liked pink. Virginia liked it in her design and decor projects and Cash— well one of his favourite press photos was of himself a the Doral tournament with all the pros in a group photo, and Cash in a pink golf shirt looking masculine and caring. People magazine online published the pic.

Virginia supported pink ribbon causes, though she had her doubts. Breast cancer “awareness”— what was that? Were there people unaware of breast cancer? Where did the money go? As a professional model she accepted, all the same, stipends to appear and run mini marathons; she promoted the cause, for a fee, on her social media accounts. It all felt strange. How could she push the issues of the pink ribbon without succumbing to trendy and meaningless promotions that did nothing but further the images of the corporations who sponsored them?

Cash made several trips to China. He hated being away from baby Echo, but he needed to get serious about his business and the Chinese manufacturers of the prototype and possibly the contract for the mass production of the Dinex (name pending) chair. His dad was doubtful and disdainful, and he wasn’t completely sure where Virginia stood on the launch. But there was a young woman who worked for one of his contact firms, a girl with black hair as slick as a snail’s trail, who wore a pink spaghetti strap dress and looked at Cash the way Virginia had during the weeks of their early courtship.

There was a baby girl named Echo. She lay in her crib, on her back. surrounded by pink and black mobile abstracts, poking her hands and feet in the air as she learned how to move her limbs. She cared nothing about pink, and everything.

The Crisis

Prompt: Better

hospital monitor

The silence and darkness of this planet are almost unbearable. I’m sure I’m not the only one strangely homesick for the often intrusive 24-hour a day noises and lights of Earth. When I lived at Home some of my most memorable vacations were hikes in the deep woods, where the only sound was nature, and even nature turned the volume down overnight, and the only light was from a persistent moon. There was blackness and the silence of trees. Yet I longed for activity, lights, sounds.

Here on Beta Omega (no, we still haven’t agreed on a new name; we are so taken up with other duties of, well, colonizing a new planet) the 20-hour sun cycle grants us eight hours of sunlight and twelve hours of darkness. Ten in the evening is our midnight. The children are asleep well before midnight, and that accounts for a lot of the dark tranquility.

This imbalance, small as it may seem, has had a profound influence on me. And after the Crisis, the silence was as loud as an old SLS.

When she slept in for a few mornings, none of us were surprised. She has always been an active child, and trying to keep pace with her young half-brother (my son Radical) assured she was even more wildly busy during play times. And she is a growing child. Growing can be exhausting; we’ve all transversed growth spurts and strain on our organs and muscles. Angel, as perfect as she was, was no different.

When she collapsed, drained of color, it was not while playing Twistrun with Radical but while reading a book called The Blue Rabbit. Panicked and confused, I scooped her into my arms. Radical was using his quiet time to play a game on his tablet. I roughly grabbed his hand and rushed out of the library, stabbing the emergency button with my forehead on the way out.

Everyone, all of us, appeared in the corridors except for Rosa, who as first medical officer, made her way so swiftly to the lab that she awaited me as I carried Angel through the door, trailed by Radical and then the six others.

Rosa slammed on the quarantine doors. Only Radical and I were allowed to remain, since we’d already been exposed to whatever had felled our darling Angel.

Radical was strangely obedient, not moving from his chair when told to stay put. I helped Rosa as best I could— gently got Angel out of her play clothes and into the bed, held her while she was given the injection, and lifted limbs and hair while Rosa hooked the child up to a web of beeping and blinking monitors.

Then blood and tissue samples were taken. All the while Angel lay as if dead— pale, absolutely still, not even a fluttering of delicate eyelids. Naturally she looked tiny in the full-sized bed, dwarfed by billowing white pillows and sheets.

“What is it, Rosa?”

“I don’t know,” she said, starring at the station monitor. Results of tests cascaded down the screen. “Diagnosis is unclear, there is something like a measles virus apparent.”

“Which is impossible,” I said.

“Correct,” said Rosa. She conferred with Ed regarding the test results, sent him the data. He was a stymied as Rosa and the computer. She looked up from the computer. “You broke protocol. You shouldn’t have moved her.”

“I’m sorry, I panicked,” I said. Rosa turned to the monitor and frowned.

Radical was up and moving about the room. I went to him and led him back to the chairs. I gave him a pair of thin vinyl gloves to play with. He looked at them and then at me as if to say, “Really?”

What he did say was, “What about Angel?”

“Don’t know yet, honey,” I said. I crouched and gave him a hug. He smelled, inexplicably, like sage. He was as stiff and bony as ever— not the most huggable child I’d ever encountered, but he was mine. And Christopher’s. Christopher and Sara must be frantic. They would, I suspected, sacrifice anything to be here in this room with Angel, instead of me.

Rosa gave Radical and I both an injection; Radical didn’t cry. She jabbed herself, despite my offer.

Because of Angel’s high temperature, after a few hours Rosa and Ed decided to induce a coma, and so the child now had a precautionary oxygen mask over her nose and mouth as she lay there. I longed to hold her, console her, somehow send her a message of courage and hope, but she wouldn’t have heard me. She was in a personal battle that was as far from me and those who loved her as Earth was.

Radical went to her bedside, and kissed her upper arm near her elbow, since he couldn’t reach her forehead. “Don’t die, Angel,” he said. “I need you.”

It was a strange thing for a child to say, and I thought about it. I couldn’t sleep, anyway. I sat up with Angel overnight. The room was dimly lit, and the lights and graphs on the monitors streamed and blinked. There were humming noises, and separate, constant beeps. Radical was asleep on the cot, softly snoring as he often did.

I longed for the unbearable silence of an ordinary alien night.

Perfume

Prompt: Perfume

geese flying

The geese in the park are protected, so the grass and sidewalks are covered in goose shit pellets.

Sometimes they get aggressive.

Sometimes they talk in human voices.

Sometimes when I walk into my house, there is an odor, but only for one breath. A perfume that is gone once it enters my lungs. Someone was there before me, and left no other messages.

Sometimes, when I walk the bike path, the trees bend inward towards me.

The trees are silent; unable to speak except through their leanings and the musical rustle of their leaves.

Sometimes, I hear the geese flying overhead at twilight. They talk in human voices.

The sky turns dark without warning.

Rescue

Prompt: Zip

dog rescue nepal

“So, you’re the parents,” said Bob.

Envy tensed involuntarily. God, Bob, please don’t. We had a talk about your Radical Honesty. Please zip it this one time. Don’t tell my parents what I’ve said about them. Please please.

“Yes,” said Envy’s mother. “We are Envy’s biological parents.” Edwina Applegate was small and energetic, with grey-streaked smokey hair pulled back into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. She wore a very expensive red sheath, that hung upon her spare frame in a perfect, flattering drape. The “biological parents” remark was meant to be amusing. Actually, Envy did smother a tiny smile at her mother’s refusal to take the bait that Bob seemed to be offering, but on the other hand she felt the sting of her mother’s words too, because they implied what Envy knew to be true: that she was a disappointment to them. No one envied her beauty, and no one envied the wealth that her ex-husband had mostly squandered.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Bob said, honestly, taking her father’s outstretched hand and finding the grip rather overdone, as if Mr Applegate was making a point. He was a big man, his sturdy stoutness disguised by a loose, charcoal-covered sports jacket and an open shirt. He had a healthy crop of light brown hair, probably tinted since there was no grey at all.

While they enjoyed cocktails before dinner, Envy was careful to keep the topics of conversation neutral, knowing Bob’s honest opinion on the wet spring, the number of potholes in suburban and rural roads, and the dearth of fuel efficient cars outside of Europe would not cause offence to anyone.

“I take it Cash and Virginia and the baby aren’t joining us for dinner,” said Envy. She took a sip of her Bloody Mary, suddenly wishing it was bloodier (more alcoholic) and suppressed a sigh.

“Echo has colic,” said Edwina. “And you know your brother.”

“He’s becoming quite the doting mother,” said Darwin Applegate.

Bob’s honesty extended to his facial expressions. He looked surprised.

Envy said quickly, “There’s nothing wrong with Cash loving his baby daughter.”

“I bet you wish you’d had more time to spend with your kids, Mr Applegate,” said Bob. “You know, up-and-coming millionaire and all.”

This was met with an uncomprehending silence, until Envy coughed and said, “Bob trains dogs who rescue people from earthquakes.”

“Like when buildings collapse?” asked Edwina, an unwitting ally.

“Exactly like that,” said Envy.

“Do you personally supervise the excavations?” asked Darwin.

“No,” said Bob. “I just train the dogs.”

“Oh,” said Darwin.

They took their seats in the smaller family dining room. The table cloth was a white embroidered coffee-coloured sateen, with fresh-picked violets packed into three tiny vases set evenly spaced upon the table. They would wilt within a few hours.

A server brought in their dinner, platter by platter; each of them were casually passed around the table. Steak, roasted vegetables, truffled mushrooms.

Envy put her hand in her lap and glanced at her watch. Oh god. Seriously? We’ve only been her forty-five minutes? She looked around the table. No one was smiling. It could be worse, surely?

“This chimichurri is outstanding,” said Bob, making an effort.

“Thank you,” said Edwina. “Our cook, Connie, is from Peru.”

“Legally?” asked Bob.

Envy discreetly reached under the table, put her hand on Bob’s thigh, and squeezed. It was a warning and a plea. Bob took it as encouragement. He put his hand on hers and squeezed back.

“Just what do you mean by that, Bob?” asked Darwin, his voice disturbingly neutral in tone.

“Well I hear a lot of servants are in the country illegally, I mean it is commonplace. Probably all your friends do it too.”

“Connie was hired via a respectable agency,” said Edwina.

“Ah,” said Bob. “Good on you, then.” He lifted his wine glass in a toast, and emptied it in one gulp. He turned to Envy and smiled. His expression was, See? Not so bad after all, right?

Pretty bad, Envy’s eyes told him. She wasn’t sure if he got the message, because as the server was refilling his wine glass, Bob was staring at her mother. Then a quick glance at her father, and back to Edwina again. Woman past her prime. Rich old bigot who dyes his hair.

An odd kind of group telepathy seemed to occur. Edwina looked up and caught his Bob’s eye. Darwin looked at them both. No one looked at Envy. In a flash she knew what Bob was thinking. Don’t say it Don’t say it Don’t say it.

“I believe in family values,” said Darwin abruptly. He knew what this fucking young and ignorant man was thinking, oh yes he did.

“In my experience, family values people are the first ones to cheat on their, uh, spouses,” said Bob. He cut a roasted carrot into tiny pieces. “You know those bible thumper types, always being caught with their pants down.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Darwin. “We believe in Jesus Christ in this household, and the Church believes in the family above all else.”

“Catholic, right?” asked Bob.

“We are Catholic, yes,” said Envy. Jesus God, if you’re there, help!

“‘We’?” said Bob.

Oops. She hadn’t told Bob that she’d returned to the church after Marcos tried to kill her. Was that an important ommission?

She stood up. “We have to go,” she said.

“Sit down, Envy,” said her father.

“No, we really do. We have tickets,” Envy said. “Bob?”

“If they have tickets, Darwin…” her mother said, the colour starting to return to her face.

Bob stood up. Someone fetched their jackets. Bob didn’t speak again until he said, “It was sure interesting meeting you both,” as they shook hands in parting.

Her parents, not being honesty radicals, were silent.

Words

Prompt: Unravel

night sky evergreens

Folly hadn’t spoken since we visited her abandoned town, except to ask if we could sleep outdoors instead of in the big empty Best Western motel that was situated just outside of Chandler’s Folly. I admit, it was sometimes creepy to inhabit a completely empty place meant for hundreds of warm bodies, beds all made up and ready for customers, the neon sign “Vacancies” still automatically lit at night, an ice machine miraculously still full of ice, and what seemed like miles of empty, gaudily-carpeted hallways.

Life was a lot creepier for Plato and I, before Folly found us. Now there were three of us, which was so much better. Now I had someone who could talk back, though Folly often chose not to. Plato was a good listener, and a good dog, but his language skills were lacking.

When the world ended, poor Folly had wandered in the woods, completely alone, before she stumbled upon me and Plato. Talk about creepy. No wonder she couldn’t remember her real name. She couldn’t even drive, being only eleven. I got my driver’s license as soon as I turned sixteen. That was almost a year ago. My birthday was in two days. Maybe the three of us could celebrate somehow. Birthdays were big deals in my family with cake and the whole thing. I tried not to think about it. I set up the tents and got a small fire going. Folly liked to roast things on an open fire, even plain bread or peaches.

The motel was perched on the edge of the green belt and only a ten minute walk from the campsite. Folly turned up as I was cutting up some cooked chicken for Plato. She brought a box of macaroni and cheese and three Creamsicles for our dinner. Sometimes Plato ate better than we did.

So we sat around the fire after our mac and cheese and after me, Folly, and Plato had eaten our Creamsicles, and talked about birthdays. I wasn’t even bothered that talking to Folly was the same as talking to Plato, meaning I expected nothing in return, really, except I know Plato loved me and Folly was just a kid I didn’t know.

I asked her about her birthdays, just to be polite, and as usual Folly didn’t answer until about half an hour after I asked the question. I wondered if she ever had bouncy castles at her birthday parties; that seemed to be a thing parents did, rent these big inflatable things in red and pink and blue that kids could jump on. So a half an hour later she said, “Yes”, and then went into the tiny pup tent she liked. So much for that conversation. It was weird, but maybe her forced solitude got her comfortable being alone; anyway, I didn’t see much of her for a couple of days.

On the morning of my birthday, which was four days after Folly unravelled after being back at her home town, I awoke wondering if we should go back one more time. She really needed to find her house and her name and her history. It was painful to remember, sure, but without memories of my mom and dad and two sisters and our lives, I don’t know how I could have gone on. Folly maybe needed that too.

So she was grilling some breakfast toast over the fire and I suggested we go back to Chandler’s Folly again, now that we knew what to expect. I didn’t talk to her like she was a stupid kid, what was the point in that? She was the smartest person I knew, even if she was the only person I knew.

She actually spoke. She said, “Come with me?”

So I walked with her back to the Best Western motel and beyond, to what looked like a car dealership. I was curious about this. Maybe her father or mother had sold cars? What was the connection?

She led me to a monster of a motor home. Something called a Thor Venetian. Pasted on the door was a red bow, the kind you might find on a small, wrapped Christmas present.

I looked at Folly. She had her usual blank expression, except for a slight air of impatience. So we went inside.

Well it was like a fancy dollhouse, but cosy, you know? Lots of faux suede and tile in muted tones of beige and white, clean and new. I was interested in the driver’s cab, but she nudged me along until we were at the built-in dining area where, I swear, an iced, two layer birthday cake sat in the middle of the faux marble topped table.

There were unlit candles in the cake. The icing was chocolate.

“I made it,” said Folly. “Duncan Hines.”

“You are smart for a kid,” I told her.

“I’m not a kid,” she said.

This was one of the longest conversations we’d ever had.

But I wasn’t thinking about that at the moment. The cake was exactly like the boxed cakes my mother used to make for my birthday. Yes, stale and dry and delicious. The icing came from a package that didn’t even need refrigeration to stay fresh, but it tasted good anyway.

We ate the cake, and gave some to Plato. We washed it down with cold milk. We didn’t sing Happy Birthday or anything.

At the end of the day, as I sat by the fire trying to figure out if we should travel in my red Jag from now on, or in this mammoth motorhome, I realized that I myself had barely spoken since Folly had shown me the cake. She had said nothing more, and now snored in her pup tent.

The sky was again a canopy of stars, which seemed to get brighter every night, framed by spikes of tall spruce and cedar.

Sometimes, I realized, words had no meaning. No purpose. No use.