Another Kind of Heaven

Prompt: Passenger

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When he opened his eyes, the first thing he noticed was the smell. He smelled clean grass, and the pungent bark of trees, and he smelled the river. Yes, the scent of smooth rocks bathed by flowing water, the wet soil and sand of the river bank, and the roots of trees and the floating leaves and fish and frogs.

He coughed, and wiped something black from his lips, and remembered what he now did not smell: smoke, ash, gunpowder, blood, shit, fear, and decay.

Across from him, Sam sat awkwardly leaning up against a tree trunk, staring at his hands. Turning his hands over and examining the palms, and then the backs again, his fingernails lined in black like kohl on a whore. He was filthy, bloody, and thin.

“What happened, Sam?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “Where are we?”

Sam looked up. “I don’t know, Peter,” he said.

Wherever they were, Peter suspected Sam had got him there. He had a good idea of where they might be. Where they came from was hell. What could this be, but heaven?

“Can you hear the birds?” asked Sam.

Peter shook his head. The last thing he remembered was the thudding sound of artillery as he crested the ridge, bayonet in hand. Perhaps a shell had hit its mark. Perhaps he was blown to bits.

“Are there birds?”

“Yes, finches, meadowlarks,” said Sam. “There was a fat robin.”

“I can’t hear them.”

“Can you hear the river?”

“No, is it nearby? I can smell it.”

They were in a small copse of birch and poplar and pine, in a wide meadow of tall grass flanked by a forest, beyond which were hills, then mountains, then mountains dusted with snow.

His left calf was wrapped in strips of bloodied cotton sheeting. He wondered why he felt no pain. He did, suddenly, feel hungry.

Sam said, “I’ll get some water, and find something to eat, in a moment.” Then his head slowly nodded and his chin fell to his chest, his mouth partly open, snoring quietly. Both of them were intimate with exhaustion, and falling asleep instantly the minute it was quiet and safe was a survival strategy.

Peter was exhausted, but he wasn’t sleepy. He turned his head and felt the rough bark against his cheek. He pulled a handful of grass and weeds and brought it to his nose, inhaling deeply. He coughed again. He stared at Sam. He looked up at a cloudless sky.

Sam had brought him to this place, this heaven. Sam was a good man. The gates of heaven would be open to Sam.

Peter was a murderer, a thief, and a liar. How is it he was allowed to sit in the cool shade, breathing, alive?

He tried to get up, but collapsed against the tree again. He watched Sam, for an hour, or maybe two, until his own eyelids fluttered shut, and he was in another kind of heaven, the heaven of dreamless sleep.


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The Perfect Way

Prompt: Quicken

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“Only you make my heart quicken,” said Kenneth, sitting on the edge of the bed. He had loosened his tie, and his shirt, a size too big in an attempt minimize his weight gain, bunched around his abdomen. He was pale and white.

They were in the Presidential Suite at the Four Season’s Hotel. Outside the windows, city lights twinkled and dimmed. Lydia was seated in a dove grey, faux suede sectional couch, long legs crossed. She was, as usual, fresh, fragrant, and immaculately groomed.

“Thank you, Kenny,” said Lydia. “Will we be in bed tonight, or simply talking as we did last time?”

“In bed, Lydia,” said Kenneth. He went to the bar and poured them both a vodka, brilliantly clear over brilliantly clear, crystal, half-melted ice cubes. “You know my story. I’m in danger.”

“I do,” she said. She stood and walked to where Kenneth sat on the crisp linen bedspread. She stroked his thinning hair. “How is Magda?”

“She’s good, the kids are good,” he said. “Everything is good.” He then spoke quietly and precisely, as if he’d prepared a speech. “If you leave quietly later on, so much the better.”

“I understand,” said Lydia. “But I’m not sure.”

“I can’t think of a better way.”

“For you.”

“Yes, for me, but I am also sparing Magda,” said Kenneth.

Lydia raised her eyebrows as if to say, Now?, and Kenneth had the perception to blush. It had been a difficult six months. The salacious scandal, the humiliating reveals, the financial losses, the intense stress, the devastating health problems, and the loss of face and reputation, all while clinging to the deadening belief that enough lies would temper the pain.

They made athletic love in the king size, pristine white-sheeted bed. If the dead have memories, then Lydia provided lots of those. He left in the perfect way that only those who choose can know. His heart quickened, and he died.

The Chicken Coop History

Prompt: Border

Hen

Sophie’s mother was the one who called Andrew. He was at his grandfather Bernard’s house, helping him put in a new screen door at the back. Bernard’s place was closer to Sophie’s house than Andrew’s, and the bus ride only took fifteen minutes. Andrew fidgeted and looked out the window, wondering if it would rain.

She was sitting at an old picnic table in the back yard, near the chicken coop. The chickens were fussing and scrubbing around in the dirt and yellow grass, possibly sensing a storm ahead. Andrew brought out a worn leather jacket that her mother had handed him. The heavy, grey clouds cast the day in deep shadow, and a chill wind was gusting. He approached Sophie and put the jacket around her shoulders. He felt her shiver.

Sophie was watching the chickens. “They were free range at first,” Sophie said to him as he sat beside her. “They roamed all over the yard, because that’s the way my grandparents raised chickens in the old country, on the farm.” Her mother found it unsanitary, and there were complaints from the neighbours, and from the Chevron station that it bordered, so Sophie’s father and grandfather built a wire enclosure.

The enclosure wasn’t really sufficient to contain them, as it turned out, since Sophie was such a devoted chicken caretaker (it was her daily chore to feed them and sometimes to collect eggs), and spent so much time with them, that a couple of the chickens would flutter out of the coop and follow her to the house. She had to take them back again and again. And chickens were disappearing.

“They said it was foxes, or coyotes, or something,” Sophie said. “But I think I finally clued in to what the source for grandma’s braised chicken stew was.” Andrew listened.

She went on a hunger strike, which everyone seemed to laugh at, but she was a stubborn child, and her grandmother eventually took her side. She said they didn’t need the chicken meat, there was lots of chicken at the Safeway, it was good chicken. But there was nothing like fresh eggs, so Sophie’s chickens got a reprieve.

They put a wire “roof” over the chicken yard, to prevent the chickens following Sophie, and protect them from alleged foxes and coyotes. The whole thing looked ticky-tack, Andrew thought, with different gauges of wire fencing used, sometimes held together with twist ties, and an unpainted, two story coop that leaned sharply to the south. But Sophie gazed on it with great fondness, as if it was a glimmering fish pond surrounded by flowers and waterfalls, instead of a rather chaotic, dusty compound that smelled strongly of barnyard.

“That one there,” said Sophie, pointing to one white chicken who looked exactly like the others, “That one is called Creamy. Not the greatest name, right? My grandma named her, when I begged. She had never named an animal before. She had no idea, and her English was never any good anyway.”

She leaned into Andrew’s shoulder. She became silent, and Andrew put his arm around her. He didn’t look at her face, because he was afraid it would make him cry. He didn’t want to cry just now.

“I’m sorry about your grandmother,” he said. He felt Sophie nod her head, still silent, and he started to cry anyway.

The Enforcer

Prompt: Confused

vintage robot

The aliens sent down a thing called the “Enforcer”; metallic silver, impenetrable, vaguely man-shaped but smooth and rounded, this huge robotic creature’s fingers shot bullets out, like ten little machine guns, and simply mowed down anything within vision. There was fear and panic, though some people felt there was no point in resisting, and walked directly into the line of fire.

Other people fled the city and ran up the hill. People on the hill didn’t believe their stories about this alien “Enforcer” and laughed, even though they could see fires and smoke from their vantage point on the hill. There was no convincing them.

Meanwhile there were people in the city who chose to Stay. These people did not hide or offer resistance— they just Stayed.

I wonder: did the aliens have many of these Enforcers, dropped down into many cities? Or was one Enforcer tasked with wiping out the human race, very slowly and over time? Would the one Enforcer seek out every hiding place, every bunker, every place on the planet, on land or sea or in the air? Perhaps the aliens were very patient?

Would an atom bomb or other extreme weapon eliminate the Enforcer? There seemed to be no organized response to this invasion. Perhaps those people not within killing range of the Enforcer simply and universally did not believe such a thing existed, including law enforcement, military, and government. I wonder?

Dreams can be so confusing.

You and the King of Siam

Prompt: Worst Case Scenario
Of all the awful possibilities, what’s the worst possible thing that could happen to you today? Now, what about the best?

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Just because I’m gonna talk about death doesn’t mean you have to be afraid. These are words and words can’t hurt you. The thing is, I’m wondering if dying is always the worst case scenario.

Did you know that doctors, when surveyed, said their death of choice would not be a heart attack, or car accident, or anything quick and accidental? They chose cancer. Cancer! Why? Because cancer takes time, and that time can be used to be with loved ones, say the things you always meant to say, to ponder your life, and to put your affairs in order. They meant no disrespect to those people and their family members who struggle in great anguish with a terrible disease. Doctors have fantasies too, and I guess their cancer death fantasy involves drifting away peacefully and painlessly. The point is, that death itself is not fearsome. The manner of death, however, is.

So I am with the doctors in one respect. I fear death as much as anyone— we are wired to fear death— but what I truly dread is twofold: dying by accident, and dying in pain. The first is a truly foolish and unproductive fear, as most are, since there is nothing I can do about an accident. Accidents are unpredictable. They are accidents. Maybe I should be prepared to poof at any second. That is, burn my diaries, clear my hard drive, tidy the bathroom, wear clean new undies at all time. Would that help, I wonder?

Those TV and film scenes where a woman is captured, tortured, sexually assaulted, and horribly murdered represent the worst case scenario. (Why are there so many of those fucking plot lines, so lovingly detailed? Why are such atrocities perpetrated in times of war? It is upsetting, but I digress.) As a very young woman I did live in some degree of fear— those kinds of stories are very hard to dismiss— and now I live in less fear of such an end. Having seen death, been with the dying, my fears have shifted a little. But I won’t word it in that way. This post is grim enough as it is.

So, my goal, not my fear, is to die “awarely”, voluntarily, without pain, and with dignity. Dying is not the worst case scenario. I won’t say it is natural so beautiful, or the start of a new “adventure” (sorry that I just did), but anyway that it is inevitable. It is universal. It is what I share with a child soldier in Burundi, my grandmother, the chef of that three Michelin star restaurant, the man without shoes, the teenager locked in their room, the King of Thailand, and you.

I wish you a good life, and an even better death.