Praise Poem Eleven

July 7, 2009

Hello! long time, no write, I know, I know, but I have been writing, more or less! I started writing Praise-Poems to God every night because, frankly, God deserves more than my praise, so I should at least give Him that. That said, below is the eleventh praise-poem I wrote, and one that I njoid in particular.

Eleven:
Praise the Lord!
Praise Him for He knows not the hour of sleep
like a joyful child
never wanting his play to stop
or me to stop playing with him
in His world
He made for me to play!
So I praise Him,
sleepless and smiling!

The Boxer

May 4, 2009

Sorry I suck so much at writing regularly, my audience, but rest assured that I am still more or less writing things! Even if that’s largely in my head… But anyway, I digress, and what follows is a story that started with my philosophy professor, who I mistakenly thought was diabetic. I thought up the perfect nickname for him, and eventually wrote a story about that imaginary person I thought my prof could be. enjoi:

The Boxer

Born a diabetic, a cruel life was made easy by medicine for Derek. Easy is a relative term, for not even a hundred years before his birth, he would not have been expected to live past fourteen.

It was in highschool that Derek learned about the development of medicinal insulin, that miracle tool, and it struck a strange chord, reverberating for the rest of his life. Somehow, every birthday after his fourteenth, he was reminded of how precious and fragile his life really was, how unlikely it was and how much he had to lose. He wondered what use he would have been a century ago, and what use he was now, blowing out his birthday candles and wishing in the dark.

Four years of insulin later, and moving to a larger city for college, Derek started taking courses in boxing. No doubt that a part of his motivation was the insistence of his parents for his safety, but there was something else in Derek’s choice to take up boxing. “Why boxing? Why not Judo or Karate or Jujitsu? Why something so… old?” his friends asked. Like so many aspects of his life, however, the answer was beyond him.

It would be a long time until he discovered for what exactly he took up boxing.

Finding a trainer was difficult, because for some reason the men would stop listening to him and start acting like he was contagious once he said he was diabetic, leading him out the door without actually touching him. Then there was Forrester. He gave a laugh like a stalling car and asked Derek if he’d like to be nicknamed “Aspartame” when he went pro. After signing papers, setting schedules, and shaking hands, Forrester said he’d “turn those hands into surgical hammers.” Derek liked that.

A year of training and insulin later, and that was mostly true about his hands. Forrester was trying to convince Derek to have a real match, “make something with your mitts,” as he put it.

The conversations turned into arguments, and the arguments found their way into the sparring ring, where Forrester kept Derek dancing in circles. This went on for months until Forrester managed to corner Derek with one question: “Is school hard for you?”

In context, that question had more heft to it.

School was never hard for Derek, not even his college courses. He had chosen the accounting program to make sure he had employment before graduation, and he had paced himself in his studies to reach that point comfortably. His life itself had not been challenging; seventy years ago it would have been a struggle, but that’s just not the case any more.

This minor revelation stirred the thought of life a century ago once more, of how he would already be dead had he not been born in the latter half of the century. This didn’t so much occur to Derek in words as it did a breath, a pause in his life in which he noticed how little moved.

That was enough for the two to set a date for Derek’s first match, the first fight of his life.

The night of the match, Forrester left Derek alone in his dressing room.

Maybe it wasn’t a good idea leaving him alone like that. Derek kept himself from thinking as much as possible, kept his life from flashing before his eyes. He was hoping that his fists and his feet would remember what to do because, frankly, his head had no idea.

Sitting on the table, his hands taped and gloved, and a thick, dusty breeze around him, Derek wondered how he would win his fight. It wasn’t that he had no idea how to box; he knew, in theory, how to. He knows jabs, hooks, uppercuts, glancing blows and dancing feet; knows when he should, in theory, apply all those techniques. But a man doesn’t know himself, what he’s capable of and what he does when it’s just himself and his hands, until he’s been in a real fight. In fact, you’re just a boy until your first fight. At least, that’s how Forrester put it before he left Derek alone.

As if the world were wrapped the very tape that protected his knuckles, the whole of the room was mute. Even his slow, practiced breathing didn’t reach his ears. Sweat would cake them later that night, blood would too. There wouldn’t be any crowds screaming or cheering after his fight; just a few tired old ex-boxers ready to go home.

In the coming fight, Derek will be tested for the first time in his life. His head will be sore, as will his fists. And he won’t win. At the end, though, Derek will know what kind of boxer, what kind of man he is.

The walk down to the ring was quiet and cold. There were no cheering fans or rhythmic, beating feet. It was his own soft boots pressing against concrete that carried him forward, and that was a strange, comforting experience for Derek.

He knew then that, in the end, it’s his own feet and his own hands that bring him to the fight, and it’s the very same tools that will bring him out. That fact would stay with him for the rest of his life, every fight he faces, in the ring and out.

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Indianapolis at Dawn

April 29, 2009

I am reminded of a family road trip to Florida when i was in fourth grade. We stopped for the night in Indianapolis and left at dawn. I can’s remember anything about the city other than the door of the hotel, the look of our car in the pale warmth of the Indianapolis skyline, and the subtly southern presence of Waffle Houses.

From Maker to Rubble

April 1, 2009

From Maker to Rubble:

World War Two, Normandy, a platoon ran down an unnamed street shattered by gunfire. One man, Private Whoever, stopped for a moment and noticed a violin. His stop was only mental; his feet were conditioned to keep running regardless of what his eyes told him.
If that weren’t the case, if his eyes had rested on the instrument, the soldier would have thought about that violin’s story. He would have wondered how on earth it could have ended up there, pristine among the rubble of France.
Whose was it? How much did it cost, and how did its owner afford it? How many hands were on that violin, from maker to rubble?
But the man had miles to go before he’d dream, and lives to end.

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Well, I’ve been kinda busy lately, I guess that’s my excuse for not posting anything new in like four weeks or so. That and I was hoping everybody would just appreciate the longer story so much that they wouldn’t bug me for new stuff… Anyway, here’s a shortish piece about hikers losing their way, enjoi:

Hikers

The map was a tangle of lines. Red, black, and blue sewn into the countryside, a shade of white with lesions of green for the national parks and state forests. That’s where the hikers were looking. Together they had gotten lost and together they tried to divine their place in the universe among a bracken of roads in fading light.

“There aren’t any trails on this map; it’s useless,” Jack said, standing up like an evolving turtle with his tent, water, and sleeping bag belted to his back. “Let’s just keep walking north ’till we hit a road.”

A knife the size of a lawnmower blade hung sheathed from his pack. It beat against his homemade drum, hanging there from a rope made out of a garbage bag.

He stood with the setting sun to his left, staring through miles of trees toward what he assumed would be a road. Down on the cooling dirt, Ben folded up the map, carefully placed it in its water-tight bag and put the bag into his pack, then put the pack onto his shoulders; everything has its place and every place has its thing.

Ben looked along the trail they stood on, smelled the iron in the soil. “I don’t know, Jack; we’re on a trail, just not sure which one. Suppose it would have been a good idea to bring a park map.” A last evening breeze stirred the treetops, but didn’t quite make it to the two campers.

“Well we can go north.”

“This trail has to lead somewhere. Just ignoring that it has to lead somewhere is, well, just unreasonable.”

Without thinking, Jack replied, “Following a trail just because it’s a trail is unreasonable. The first trails were made by footsteps, and I’m stepping my foots north, so feel free to follow their trail, if it makes you feel any better.”

“’The first trails’? Are you serious?” Jack walked forward, hacking at angles of limbs was his only response. “Jack, you’re getting creepier and creepier as the sun sets.”

The two hikers trudged on in the fading light. Their packs blending into the gray nature around them, the two men could sense the light fading with every step on a root, vine or rock on their makeshift trail.

When they hit a steep downhill slope, Ben slowed his descent by grabbing at young saplings with both his arms, bending them down with him until he found a new tree to hamper his fall. Jack just ran, shouting back at Ben, “You’re all set up, just let gravity do the rest!” as he disappeared in the fading forest.

After a few minutes of climbing downhill, bending trees along the way, Ben reached the bottom of the slope: a ravine, with Jack on the other side.

What remained of the sun lit straight down the ravine, maybe three, five feet wide and thirty-plus deep. Sharp things at the bottom. “I jumped across, Ben, you should be able to make it, too.” Jack stood at the edge of the ravine, drinking water from a canteen and watching the fading light in Ben’s eyes.

“Without my fifty-pound pack, yeah, I suppose I could if I had wings.”

“All you need is the fear that gives men wings. Or you could try throwing your pack to me.”

“I could try, but it won’t make it all the way, not without getting you off balance and possibly dragging you down with it.”

“Possibly. I know one way to find out.”

“I’ll jump. I don’t want to have to drag your corpse back in the night. That or lead the search party back here.”

Ben backed up a few feet, digging his boots into the dirt. They still smelled like new shoes, but Ben’s sweat was starting to overpower that scent.

“You’ll really have to run if you want to make it.”

“I know.”

“Just focus on the ‘up’ part of the jumping.”

“I know.”

“Let momentum do its thing; worry about gravity.”

“I know.”

“Don’t over-think this.”

“Too late,” Ben said, sprinting as well as he could with a backpack on. He flung himself forward with ever muscle, tearing at nearby tree limbs for extra momentum. Ben stuttered at the last possible moment, taking a few dozen extra steps at the edge of the ravine, dust and stones scattering as he saw deep into the earthly gash. Because of his backpack, he couldn’t turn around, so he jumped as well as he could. Although his fear of heights gave him a burst of energy, Ben had only the illusion of flight; for a moment he felt his backpack carrying him forward for once: pots, pans, food for five days, water and a medical kit were all he had for wings, and it was almost enough.

Ben’s boot landed an inch or less beneath his target; he had no footing to land on, and as such, he fell. In the darkening forest, neither man had a voice to match the horrible event taking place; both were reduced to slapping pillars of meat reaching for a hand to hold.

The forest itself was breathless for this moment, and in this moment, Ben could only think of his death, thirty feet beneath him, and Jack could not think, but grabbed his friend’s arm and a fortunate tree, saving life by limb.

“Don’t let go.”

“Drop your pack.”

“There’s too much in it, I can’t just drop it.”

“That’s why you should drop it.”

A jut of rock suddenly appeared beneath Ben’s boot, giving a toe-hold or less. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to save his life and his pack. Limb by limb, Ben crawled his way up to the level grass at Jack’s feet.

Though each man let go, their hands were still claws of ragged flesh.

The only sound among the trees was each man’s relieved breath. Jack stared at Ben, lying on the dirt, and looked for an answer as to why he would hang on to all that weight. He didn’t look long, however, as he gave Ben a soft kick and said, “Come one, we’ve got to get going. We’re losing light.”

Slowly, Ben stood up, first on his knees and then on his feet, with sweat turning the soil on his face into mud.

The men hiked on into the dusk, Jack leading the way with a fury of hacks into the brush. He stopped at a cliff side, facing north. The sun was gone, now, and only a gentle fade of blue remained across the western edge of the sky. From their vantage point they could see all the countryside ahead of them. No roads.

“Is this what we’re going to walk through tonight, Jack?”

“Give me the map,” Jack said, his eyes piercing what remained of the horizon. The only part of his body that moved was his shaking heart.

Ben dropped his pack and spread the map out on the dirt. Jack looked it over with his hands, feeling out the national park with sweaty fingerprints. Ben was squinting over the countryside, so he didn’t see Jack’s arms, rubber with rage, crush the map and throw it over the cliff until he heard him mutter “It’s no good, none of this, it’s all useless, we can’t use any of it.”

When Ben asked “Why did you throw my map?” Jack had already flung Ben’s backpack down the cliff side as well. Then he threw his own pack after it.

“What the hell, Jack? We need that stuff!”

“No, no we don’t. What we need is to cover country. Fast. Or else we get lost and won’t find our way out of this park. Now let’s go.” Jack started jogging east and Ben followed him through the brush and down the hillside and into the valleys hidden from all light and sight.

Jack had no bearings, saw neither moon nor north star.

“Jack, are you sure it’s a good idea to stay in these valleys? We’ve lost our way.”

They stopped. “Rescue parties always look in the valleys, ignoring the higher trails because lost people tend to take those routes because they’re easier.”

“Rescue parties? Seriously? Nobody is looking for us!” Ben’s shout didn’t echo, didn’t go anywhere past Jack’s ears in the overgrown forest. “Nobody.”

Ben heard Jack drop to the forest floor, the darkest part of the bottom of the shadowed silhouette of an unlit valley on a moonless night.

“Why don’t we just try and find a clearing to rest for dawn, Jack? Wait out the night and get our heads back.” Jack’s breath pulsed the trees with an erratic rhythm. “Come on.”

Jack followed Ben and neither man spoke on their way. No words were said when they settled on a dirt clearing for the night. They soundlessly collected tinder and limbs for a fire, and the faithless scrape of Ben’s lighter was primordial in that night.

The meager flame they created gave no heat and very little light. They could not see past each other’s eyes, and in those eyes they both saw all there was ever to be seen.

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Together the two hikers had gotten lost, and they would find their way out of the woods together, somehow, in the coming day. They would carve their own path through bracken, and they would carry fire in their pockets until they reached civilization. This is the route of all mankind, lost in the woods without a map.

So, I just gave up trying to force the old way this story was published up here, and cut it up into fourths, posted it in reverse, and hopefully made it more easily read. I’ve been working on this piece as far back as a year ago, and this is the latest, and hopefully final, rendition of Israel’s adventure. Man, though, I really made a character I cared about! Hopefully you all will feel the same about him!

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No Wind but for His Wake

All Israel remembers of life in the city is the coffee shop. He doesn’t remember parents or siblings. He doesn’t remember wind on his face or the sun behind branches.

He remembers espressos and Shakespeare, and the varying coarseness of both. He remembers his friends coming by nightly to discuss smooth lattes over ragged sonnets. He remembers everything from the last night of that recycled portion of his life; his last cyclical closing shift of his coffee-shop existence. His job, his life was slowly building up steam and pressure.

Every morning Israel woke up, he left his building, wearing his apron. He took a left past the diner, a right past the hydroponics lab, a left past the power plant, and took a short-cut through the community amphitheater to get to work on time. This, reversed, is the way he took home, every night. The shop was the hub of the city, as if everybody had to come by at least once a day, and Israel was its sole caretaker.

This city was a sleepy one, so there wasn’t much of a need to keep a coffee shop open late. Every night, six days a week, Israel would close up shop with his friends keeping him company.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Daniel was one of two people Israel called friends, “fagot. You’re the gay one, you play Rosalind.” They all knew each other for the longest time, with no way of knowing for just how long.

“Oh, right, that just makes perfect sense.” Rawley was always up for a good fight.

“What? It does! You take dick like a woman, ergo you can give lines like one. Better than me, anyway.” Where he puts his penis is what mattered most to Daniel.

“Oh, please. Dan, you’re twenty-five and I doubt you even touched a woman, and you probably wouldn’t recognize a woman if you saw one,” Rawley replied. “’Oh shame! Where is thy blush’ you closet case!” friendship mingled as deep as their blood, the trio could have talked about anything, but discussions never left the realm of coffee and Shakespeare, birthing insult-wars nightly.

Backed onto his heels, Daniel said, “Hey, hey, ‘all days are nights till I see’ the right girl,” through a self-defeating grin, holding his hands up in mock defense.

“Yo, Iz, get over here!” Rawley dragged Israel away from polishing the counter top to mirror-quality and into the discussion. “Dan’s never gonna find this perfect girl, you know why?”

“Why’s that, Rawley; why won’t he get his fair maiden of lore?” Israel said, looking away from…what?…behind his reflection in the counter. When the guys argue, Israel is reduced to a spectator or a prop.

Lightning-quick responses were commonplace: “Because women don’t come with cocks, that’s why!”

“Touché.” they didn’t even laugh, it was so commonplace. “There’s that left hook I was waiting for.”

That was the most genuine friendship Israel would ever know in the city. The kind shared only by intimate comrades at abandoned hours of the night, together for lack of better options. Daniel called for the hanging of Rawley, the moldy rogue that he was, and Rawley pointed out his mis-quote.

Through his reflections in the windows, Israel saw the last customer of the day come in. He wiped himself clear of the worship of Shakespeare for the anonymous company of a stranger.

Israel always tried to be friendly to a customer, no matter what. “Hiya, sorry about the wait, how are you doing tonight?” he asked the man as he rushed up to the register.

“Coffee. Black,” was the man’s only response, as he loosed his coin purse.

Israel grabbed a sterile cup and poured the coffee. He turned around and, although Israel wanted to give the man his drink, he couldn’t. Israel froze in his non-slip soles, almost spilling the drink all over them both when he looked at his customer for the first time.

The face looking back at Israel with all the patience of a caffeine addict was identical to his in every way. A few years older, maybe, but the very “me” he sees in the mirror every morning.

This man, whom Israel has never seen before nor would ever see again, was staring him down like only a clean mirror could while waiting for his coffee fix. For that glimpse of a moment during which Israel glanced into his double’s eyes, he felt both violated and predatory at the same time, as if he were invading himself.

Not knowing what to do, staring a his twin, Israel jerked his knees and gave the man the cup of coffee and told him it’s hot; be careful.

Watching the stranger/twin walk out the door, Israel recognized his own cowlick in the other’s hair. At once he wanted both to ask if he knew how to get rid of it, and to cut it off and push him out the door, thief of his identity that he was.

The man was gone, though, blind to their shared existence. To Israel, the experience was like seeing a stranger wearing the same outfit as himself, only unsettling to the soul.

The shop empty of customers now, and Israel in no condition to manage it anyway, he shuffled back to his friends, who were still snickering. About him this time.

“What the hell was that? Love at first sight?”

“A long-lost relative?”

“An old friend from school?”

“No, wait, I got it! He was your one true love!”

“Oh, ‘the course of true love never did run smooth.’”

“’All days are nights till I see thee.’”

“What is that, like, the only quote you know?”

Whenever they got like this, it would be difficult to tell the two apart; their cackles melded into one grind. Israel let the boys have their fun for a while, studying his hands and taking their playful prods. Then he said, his aqueous eyes studying his fingerprints, “Funny. But you can’t tell me you didn’t just see that.”

“See what, man? You, staring deeply into a stranger’s eyes? You’re such a hopeless closet case, too. I swear.”

Despite his friends’ clear desire to not take him seriously, Israel tried to explain: “He looked exactly like me.”

Their laughter settled down to a rolling boil, “What? What do you mean? He was wearing the same outfit, or something?”

“No, he obviously wasn’t wearing an apron. He had the same voice I have. The same hair–even the same cowlick. Everything the same as me.” Then Israel added, afraid to look at his two friends and find himself there, “when I looked into his eyes, I found more of the same. Just he didn’t, didn’t see that himself.”

The friends sat there in their booth, still-lifes in the harsh fluorescent lights. With a high-gloss gaze painted forwards, they didn’t even look like real people; just plastic dolls with sweat glands to make them convincing.

The plot thickens in part two! Read on, oh reader, read on!

The story continues…

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Feeling their dead eyes on his goosebumps, Israel said, “Don’t look at me like that, like I’m sick, like there’s something wrong with me.”

“Well how do you expect us to react to this? Healthy people don’t exactly see copies of themselves running around.”

“Unless I’m his copy.” But Israel wasn’t willing prod that demon just yet. “When you looked at him, what did you see, if not me?”

“Well, he was just a normal person, Iz: brown hair, brown eyes, average height. No hideous scars, nothing worth a second look. Just any other guy.”

“Just another person? That’s what you saw?” Israel’s delusion was creeping in through his ears.

“Honest,” his friends said. “Look, if you really are seeing things, maybe you should go to the doctor.”

Israel had never gone to the doctor before in his life. He had only heard through word of mouth that it was generally a good idea, an all-purpose kind of solution. “the doctor…Have you ever gone?”

“No, no I haven’t, but that’s your only option here, Iz. Either make an appointment or live sick. I heard it’s a good idea to go if anything goes wrong, anything at all, so I’m sure the doctor is used to weird cases like you, ya freak.”

“Look, just go to the doctor, okay? He’ll probably just talk to you for an hour and send you home for a good night’s rest. ‘Our little life is rounded on sleep’ after all. I mean, it’ll help us sleep better in the very least.”

The city had been asleep for hours by the time Israel could smell the glass-cleaner scent on home. All the way there he avoided the eyes of any strangers or friends he may cross paths with, afraid to see himself there instead. He went home the same way he left by, avoiding taking strange alleyways without ends. While he walked that path every day of his life, this time he glanced down the empty, narrow roads. He only stopped at the first one he crossed paths with, right behind the coffee shop. Though he could see nothing but darkness down there, it was as though the night were hiding from his sight something thick and breathing. It worried Israel that the city would hide something from him.

The rest of the way home, Israel leapfrogged from one streetlight to another, traversing the void with a shaking gait. The amber divided the city into segments of dim light or of dark, both unbreachable.

On the edge of his bed in his no-window bedroom/living-room/dining-room/kitchenette-area of his efficiency apartment, Israel’s phone spun a tune as he dialed the doctor.

Israel hoped to get an answering machine asking him to call back during normal business hours, that way he could at least tell his friends he tried. Somebody answered, though, with a drenched and sloppy “Hello?” pouring through the receiver.

That could have been just any person answering the phone, it could even be the wrong number, “Is this the doctor’s office?”

“What? Oh, yes, yes. Can I help you my son? Or, how may I help you, since nobody calls me without a problem. ‘Would you like an appointment?’ would be the best way to say it, I suppose.”

“Yes, an appointment. Can I have one for tomorrow? If you have any openings.”

“I’m open all day, son, just come in the front door. I don’t lock it.” Then he added, “Please don’t tell people that.”

“Okay, I won’t,” Israel said. “I’ll come by around eleven, then?”

“Splendid. Wonderful. Exciting,” the doctor said, without sounding excited. “Now get a good night’s rest my boy,” and with that, he hung up and Israel passed out in his apron.

Israel usually went to sleep right after work, but this was different, a prescribed sleep.

The phone’s discordant tune woke Israel the next morning. The tone had wormed its way into his dreams, but these were forgotten as soon as Israel opened his eyes to see his morning ceiling: stretched eggshell or bathroom floors, washed and re-washed. There were no outside windows, and for the first time, he wanted one.

Lights buzzed to life in the mornings, glowing the way to the floor’s bathroom. He wondered what time it was, and if he should shower.

Like any other place one could live in the city, Israel’s apartment building had a guilty kind of clean, always smelling like something was bleached out the night before. Every floor and every room smelled like that, haunted by uncounted…what’s?… whited out in time. Israel lived in the best and the worst apartment; they were all the same: one room, bed with sheets in a thick shade of yellow, mini-fridge that doubled as a table, mini-kitchenette that doubled as a foyer. Just enough space of your own to call a home and little else.

The ceiling lights went on and off according to a timer. The shower cut off the supply of chlorine-water after about eight hundred heartbeats, and the sinks after three. Israel counted today. He had never timed them before, because he had never owned a watch. The only clocks were in the shared restrooms. Neon red numbers that changed depending on when Israel looked at them. But the red-on-black was constant as the wall.

It read ten o’clock: time to shave.

Israel carefully avoided his reflected eyes in the mirror, trying to watch the odd show of floating hands shaving someone else’s chin.

On his way to his appointment, Israel had to post a note on the door to the coffee shop, “sorry, closed for today,” because he had no sick days to take. Israel’s eyes bounced from his cuff to his shoes to the pleat in his pants whenever he came across another living body, checking lint and ties over catching their eyes. Walking this way, he took a few wrong turns, but thankfully the office was near the coffee shop, and Israel found himself outside the building that should hold his answers.

Looking at the blank wall, Israel felt as though he were staring down the dark alley again; the closed doorway kept…what?…in secret.

The door to the doctor’s office was white as latte froth, with the words “Doctor’s Office” stenciled in sharp black across the frosted window. Israel tried to do as little thinking as possible as his badly shaking hand gripped the doorknob, a patient ache for answers settling in his fists. He registered nothing about the door, office, or building itself beyond the letters sprayed in black on frosted glass, not even his own vaporous reflection. With his eyes locked onto that paint, Israel’s one cohesive thought was a wonder at exactly how old that sharp black paint was, how long it had been on the door, how many times those words had been painted over themselves again and again and again. He did not know why he wondered that. Then the wonder was lost forever, without so much as a wake to wish for, as his thoughts became actions with his first step through the only true threshold in the city.

The steam of Israel’s thought dissipated quickly as he lost his footing, stepping on a pile of something slick. His spine landed on something incredibly hard and uncomfortable.

Lying on the floor, with spurts of twitches trickling down his back, Israel took advantage of his perspective and studied the room, looking bottoms-up through the fog of mold at the stranger’s ceiling.

Lit by a lone bulb, the ceiling was patched and bruised with mold and water stains keeping a slow track of time as they grew. Cracks split the walls, more mold and stains metastasizing from them all the way down to the piles and piles of wet books on the floor. Drips formed puddles on their covers, flowing down their sides to the floor, thick with loose pages.

Having read only Shakespeare, Israel was amazed that so many books existed at all, let alone that they could have all ended up lining the floors. Only those books which were near the tops of their piles were clear and mold-free enough to read, but Israel could recognize none of their titles.

His curiosity overwhelmed his desire to see the doctor, and, lying prone, Israel reached out at the nearest book he could find. The binding cracked as he pried the pages open, puffing a cloud of mildew into Israel’s face. His consequent sneeze brushed the page clean of dust. Israel could not distill meaning from the words, but there were scribbles all along the margins, filling every page with thoughts in black, blue, purple, and black ink again, changing from owner to owner to owner. Sometimes the notes crossed out what others had written previously, sometimes those notes were crossed out as well. The notes themselves were often legible like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.

Israel rolled up onto his knees, slowly, crushing mouse scat on his way. He saw the book he landed on, titled “Essays,” and there was a bookmark in it. The bookmark stood out as the only new, clean-looking thing in the room other than Israel. Bowed on his knees, Israel opened to the saved page. It was an essay titled “Walden, or Life in the Woods.” The foreign name of the playwrite only sparked his curiosity more.

There were no cast in this play, and where there should have been a list of roles there was only an aside. The whole play seemed to be one long soliloquy. Though it read far more like common speaking than did Shakespeare, there were many strange words in the first two paragraphs.

Israel had no questions about the words he did not know; it was the words he did know that started fires in his thoughts: What is it like to live a mile away from anyone, in a house one builds alone? What is life in the woods? Where is Connecticut?

Israel wasn’t past the second paragraph when he heard movement in the rooms around him: soft footsteps of shoeless feet. Getting close.

“You’re not supposed to be reading that. Put it down,” a limp voice from directly behind Israel.

Israel dropped the book and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s my first time here. I have an appointment with the doctor,” as he turned around to face what he did not expect.

What he saw was more clear an image than any mirror Israel had ever encountered before.

It was a large boy, or a small man maybe, staring back at Israel from the doorway of a well-lit room. Everything about the lad floated between manhood and boyhood. His skin, for instance, was pudgy to its limits and yet somehow still creased with years of smile-lines around his eyes. His bath-fresh skin glowed pink in the dank room, and stopped abruptly at his calves, where he wore clean, white socks. They stood out almost holy against the moldy books that served as a floor here. He was completely nude except for those white socks. He seemed not to be aware of his nakedness, as if no one ever told him to wear more than socks.

Stay tuned for more!

Israel’s adventure continues…

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“Are you aware you’re naked?” was all Israel could muster as greeting. The man-boy’s only response was the slight rising of one eyebrow, which sent Israel’s reality spiraling in chaos. The eyebrow shot the question back at him.

The man-boy walked over and picked up the book Israel hadn’t noticed he dropped, soundlessly stepping around him. Israel was stunned. How on earth could he be the naked one? He’s wearing an apron. Then why does he feel so vulnerable, as blind as if he’d never seen before, whenever he was looking at the chubby boy?

It was as if the boy were mocking Israel by his very presence. Israel told the boy “I can see just fine. I’m not the naked one here,” without response. The pudgy man-boy continued stepping back into the room from which he came, and disappeared behind a corner, leaving with curiosity peaked and teased raw. How much of this is real? Is this such stuff as dreams are made of?

Footprints in the grime led Israel’s wonder on, and without word, breath, or thought, Israel followed their lead into the next room, in sleep or wakefulness.

The page-layered floorboards creaked and sagged with every step Israel took, but he trudged on gingerly, searching out support beams in the floor.

This went on for a while, with the naked man-boy stringing him taut in chase and Israel keeping his patience for fear of a wrong step and an undefinable fall, until the boy’s footsteps led directly to a closed door. The wood on the door was bloated, and appeared to be darker and filthier than anything else in the house. Still, it hung loose on its joints, swaying slightly from the boy’s passing through its threshold.

Opening the door, Israel stared down an unlit stairwell. A vapor of sound rose from the basement while Israel allowed himself his first cohesive thought in days.

He questioned his stupidity. Israel wondered just how dumb he would have to be to wander down into the basement of an already clearly unclean and hazardous house, which is supposedly belonging to the doctor, but whose only resident is a chubby man-boy. He knew it wouldn’t be clean down there, most likely overflowing with poisonous lakes, infected needles, or the like. There might only be books down there. Or there might be kidnappers, rapists, killers, or bored and lonely madmen. Israel just didn’t have many options. It was either go forward, or retreat to his apartment for days on end, afraid to look directly at anybody. It was only a matter of time before he’d just end up back at the dark steps, sick of life without answers or options, just circles.

Girding his loins, Israel took his first brave step into a dark new world.

The stairs were solid enough to have been carved straight from the earth. A cold, dry breeze pushed his shudder into a shiver as he realized that he was in some massive underground cavern. Israel, determined to not turn back, continued his abysmal descent.

He couldn’t tell how long it was before he reached the end of the stairs, but he couldn’t see the open door from which he entered any more. There was a new light, however, just ahead. A doorway with the pudgy silhouette of the man-boy framed in light. They made eye contact, then the boy vanished behind the doorway.

Israel followed, dimly aware of colossal machines sleeping all around him in the black, waiting to be turned on. His feet slid on soot or ash or the collected dust of eons. Israel was focused on this last door, begging that it would not be a fatal portal, so great was his fear. Of what? He did not know.

“Here he is,” the boy said as Israel stepped through the final door. A man was sitting by a fireplace, his face and hands lined with time; miscellaneous dirt, grim, and age filling the folds of his wrinkles. The man’s bulk left an infinite shadow on the wall behind him. The boy stood at his side, still naked except for the socks.

The room was cluttered with all sorts of oddities, including the book Israel read in the entryway. All of it was bathed in a thin layer of gold, cast from the fire.

“Ah, good,” the old man looked up from the fire, “you may go, my boy,” and the boy left, passing by close enough that his body heat dripped onto Israel’s arm hair. “Israel, I’m the doctor. How may I help you?”

For the first time since it happened, Israel thought about his problem. “I’m not sure how you, or anyone else can really help me, to be honest.” Israel’s response was pulled up from a level of thought far below his own reach.

“How about: ‘how did it come that you should be in my office?’ Can you answer that?” the doctor was bothered, but he spoke as though he’d gone through this runaround before with his patients; he seemed to be used to having to ask the right question to get a useful answer.

“My friends, Rawley and Daniel, told me to come here. They were worried about me. About what I saw. I came so they would stop worrying.” Israel responded without thinking.

“Tell me what you saw.”

“I saw me… in another person’s face.” Israel’s words lacked both confidence and doubt; he was reporting. “I saw some other man using my body like it was his own. I saw this from the outside, from my body. I saw a man who looked, talked, and acted exactly like me.” Then Israel added, “I’m not crazy, am I?”

The doctor easily kept up pace with Israel,“You saw a double, then. You encountered a person who was you in all the ways that you could see? Tell me, did he see himself in you, or was this all on your end?”

“He didn’t seem to notice anything odd. Neither did my friends.” Israel added, “…must have been a double…” just at the end, trailing in afterthought.

“Work at the coffee shop is strenuous, even if you didn’t notice it until just now, Israel,” the doctor said. “You just need a good night’s rest.” He stood up and started leading Israel out of the room, back into the ashen antechamber.

“It is hard,” Israel followed. He hadn’t noticed how much work was entailed in making coffee before. “All I need is a little deep sleep.”

“And you’ll get that right here, my boy,” the doctor said, laying Israel down onto a hard couch to the left, invisible beyond a vague red light.

Israel’s “Thank you, Doctor” was lost in the dark as he was enclosed in his metal resting case. Light and air stopped moving, suffocating sound. There was a strange smell on the tip of Israel’s tongue.

There was a find, thick dust coating everything in the makeshift container in which he sat, which was just a couch and now Israel. The doctor clanged on the steel walls around Israel, and a dim “Good night, Israel” shook its way through the iron.

It was just then that Israel had the first epiphany of his life: Where did the doctor learn his name? Was it the boy? There’s something going on here… “Wait! Wait a minute! How do you know my name?”

There was no pause of movement as the doctor reversed his actions, pulling levers he pushed seconds ago, and opened Israel’s dark cage. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear you there,” the doctor said, a little too quickly.

“I asked how you knew my name. I never told it to you, or the boy.”

“Oh, that is strange, isn’t it?” the doctor said. “My boy! I put you in the wrong chair! Come this way, the other machine is the one we want here, not this one!”

“You put me in the wrong chair?” Israel had trouble believing that the doctor would make such a mistake, and for the first time, he started to doubt the man’s credibility. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing, it just doesn’t work, that’s all,” the doctor said as he sat Israel down in an identical mechanistic couch in the dark. Israel doubted that there would be two identical machines in the basement of the doctor’s office, one working and one not, but he complied wordlessly as he was sealed in place once more: Israel wanted to see then end of the doctor’s play.

The doctor pounded once again on the wall of Israel’s cage, “Count down from three, Israel! And call me first thing in the morning!”

Israel had barely enough time to decipher the words through the walls before his consciousness faded to brown.

Israel had dreams in that sleep, but none stayed with him past the image of the eggshell ceiling that greeted him daily. Halogen lights flickered above at the normal pace. His bedspread was the same deep yellow as every morning. His first thoughts were the same as every day: What time is it? and Should he shower?

As he rolled over, Israel saw the book on the nightstand, and the one of the two questions was answered immediately as his arm left a shadow of dust on the sheets. Dust. Gray, fine dust. Ash. From the night before! From the doctor’s office! He does need a shower, and badly!

Israel sprang from bed, still wearing the clothes from his visit with the doctor, ready to face his mirror image at last. Israel showered in his kitchenette’s sink as best he could; he would get looks if people saw him covered in filth on his way to shower, and it was time to fit back into normal society. He felt like a new man, washing off a past, defective self to find a fitting one underneath the grit. With dirty water dripping off his nose and his hands muddy, Israel grabbed the book from the doctor and had his hand on the doorknob. Somebody knocked.

A stranger or a friend, neither made sense to be coming to Israel’s home.

He opened the door and fell backwards to the floor. A panic attack, a fainting spell, a conniption fit, whatever; his little dream of normalcy snapped into ash with the opening of his door: Israel was floored by the sight of the three men on his threshold.

Himself, times three. One looked annoyed and two looked relieved. All three had Israel’s cowlick. Two more doubles, or three, or more past his open door.

“See? He’s fine. He just owes me rent for this past month he’s been locked up in his room!” the annoyed one said. “You hear me, dead boy?” he shouted, kicking Israel’s numb legs before trudging away, acting furious down the hallway.

“Yeesh, your landlord’s a dick, man,” one of the remaining two said, “no wonder you locked yourself up for forty days; I wouldn’t pay him either.”

Forty days? That didn’t make any sense. Israel could only remember sitting in the doctor’s machine and then…then, waking up. At home. Five eventful minutes ago.

Israel saw himself lean down in front of himself and ask, “Are you alright, Iz? How many fingers do you see?” He held up two. Seeing too many fingers was not the problem.

“The hell the doctor do to you? All covered in powder, like that.” The other-other Israel said. “Stay calm and just take a few breaths, Iz; we’re here for you. Heterosexually.”

Israel ran. Not toward anything in particular.

Like filthy lightning, he bolted down the hallway, through a dozen doorways, down flights of stairs in single steps and city blocks in bounds, leaving his two friends behind with the book of life in the woods and a cloud of soot.

Concludes soon!

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Israel’s adventure of self-discovery continues…..

He pushed through crowds of bouncing cowlicks, waves of himself, charged down badly cracked streets. He was panicking too much to be surprised. The others were just annoyed with Israel’s rudeness in passing.

While the buildings all looked familiar—he was still in the same city as always—there was something wrong about them. It was as if he were an awake man running down a dreamscape, the only real person in an unreal setting, as if all his life had been a dream, and he woke up to find himself awake in his inescapable delusion. His revelation showed only the cage of his dreamscape.

And yet he felt the sharpness of his reality more clearly than ever before in his life. He felt the aching wrongness of such a truth.

Half the buildings were empty, lightless caves, facades acting like buildings. The air was abominably stale as he ran, gagging on each inhale of generations of exhales.

There was no wind but for his wake.

It was not until Israel looked up, into the sky, that his gut shook with fear, though. What he remembered as a vaguely limitless nothing had become, in his waking sight, a low, pale ceiling of faded green. Not even painted to mimic cloud cover, it was evenly oppressive. Bulbs hung from the sky.

The sky, the ceiling, was cracked and dangerously close to collapse. There were massive rifts all along it, with dark earth and roots seeping through. Israel stopped in his track at the alleyway next to the coffee shop, the one he stopped at two nights ago—wait, forty-two nights ago.

It ended abruptly in a pile. Dirt poured in from the ceiling, the walls. Thick, hard roots knotted their way through an abandoned building, and dragged along sections of walls with them into the mix. This was the nothing the shadows kept from him in his waking dream a month ago. The city was underground. All of it.

Two Israels stopped behind Israel. One was holding the book.

“What’s going on, Iz? Where did you get this play?”

Israel turned around, faced himself and guessed, “Dan?”

He was wrong, “I’m Rawley. What’s wrong, Iz?”

Daniel said, “What, how sick are you, man? You can’t tell us apart? I’m not the fudge-packer here. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Israel was sick of dealing with the two idiots, “How blind are you two? Can’t you see that we all look the same? Including you two and me? It’s like you’re all copies of me.”

“I don’t exactly like the idea of looking like your ugly butt, man”

“But Iz, that doesn’t make sense. Are you sure you went to the right place? I mean, the doctor isn’t supposed to make people go crazy.”

“Wait, Iz, does that mean there aren’t any women around here?”

“That would explain your difficulty in getting one, Dan. Just go gay already.”

“Shut the fuck up, I swear I saw one. ‘By heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare.’”

“I don’t think you used that quote right, Dan.”

“Well you get the damn point!”

Why hadn’t Israel seen how annoying the two were before? They were so thick and predictable, it was like they were reading from a script. Enough of this; Israel had an idea. “Tell me, what’s down that alleyway?” he interrupted, pointing toward the pile of root and dirt.

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, nothing.”

“Not even an end to the alleyway? Just nothing at all?”

“Yeah…nothing.”

They paused, and in that quiet the air had voice.

“Iz, what is it like to live a mile away from everybody else? To live in the woods? Where did you get this book?”

“the doctor.” Israel stood up and ordered his friends, “Come on, we’re going to go to the doctor’s office. Bring the book.”

Israel didn’t notice that they plowed through an elderly himself with a gray cowlick. They were blitzing to the doctor’s office, to the only person with answers, and answers, they only mattered because they lead to escape.

The door to the doctor’s office was as white as it was forty days ago, but this time Israel rushed through it without caring. He had problems bigger than that door. His friends followed him through, cautiously.

He knocked over a pillar of old books, making too much noise not to be noticed. Good. The little freak boy would show up.

And he did, as quiet and as naked as before, and from just behind Israel again. This time, however, Israel rushed him.

“Where’s the doctor? Bring me to him!” Israel shouted, grabbing at the chubby, naked man-child. The plump frame eluded his grasp, however, and he split through an open doorway. Though it went to an end of the office that Israel had not gone down before, he followed through headlong, tearing at the stacks of books on his way for a little extra momentum in the uncertain footing.

“Hey, Iz, maybe you should calm down a bit,” one of his friends said as they followed his rush.

The chase was quicker this time, and went through a narrow, rotted stairway to the upstairs kitchen. Full sized, not a kitchenette. The boy disappeared and the doctor was standing at the table. It was covered in layers of dried up foodstuffs, but he was making sandwiches anyway.

He looked up, “I thought I told you to call me, Israel. Would you like a sandwich? I made one for you.”

Something about the doctor set Israel on his heels. He didn’t know how to respond to such a simple question. Daniel and Rawley were quiet, too, and stopped at the edge of the room.

“I’m sorry I didn’t make any for your friends, they’ll just have to be quiet while we talk. You don’t know how to respond to my question, do you, my boy?”

Israel didn’t know how to respond to that. Eating was not remotely on his mind.

“You’re seeing many, many copies of yourself, aren’t you?

“Look, I really don’t care. I just know I can’t stay here. In the city. I feel so trapped…” Israel said.

“I know, my boy, but it’s a long way to the top, so I might as well tell a story on our way. Indulge an old man.” They came to a new stairwell, and the man-boy was sitting at it, bare ass on the concrete doormat. “Why don’t you send Israel’s friends downstairs, boy? And give me that book I lent Israel, he may want a more practical read.”

The boy nodded and grabbed the book from Rawley’s quiet grasp. He handed it to the doctor and led the two men downstairs to the dark machines.

The door Israel stood at wasn’t like any other door in the city. It was made of heavy, dark steel, and led to a yellow-light concrete stairwell. It went up a thousand bent flights as far as Israel could see. Though the doctor led the way, Israel wasn’t following him; the exit was his inspiration. Nothing else.

The old man’s voice echoed in the narrow walls as he spun an epic about “catastrophic firestorms” on “the surface world,” forcing one man underground to survive, and then copy himself to propagate the species. Then the copies had to copy themselves. Repeat for generations until the surface was safe. Israel wanted an escape, not a lecture, but he had little choice but to listen during his ascension.

Israel was not the first to leave; it’s the books that do it. They remind clones of surface life, show them the shortcomings of city life. Israel agreed. That’s why the doctor had so many books in his office, to keep the clones from reading them. Israel would not be the last to leave, either, as long as the facility was still working.

But only some clones found their way to enlightenment these days, with only Shakespeare to read, and the barista, Israel, was the first ever to leave the city. That’s where his name came from: the name of one person, the name of a nation.

The lecture was interrupted as the stairs below echoed hasty steps. “Might that be your friends? You think they may have hurt my apprentice?”

“Maybe, I don’t know. Nobody else would, I guess.” The stairs stopped at a ladder going vertical through a pipe labeled “Emergency Exit” in bold red and yellow.

“This is my stop, my boy. Through this shaft is a hatch. That hatch leads to the surface. Up there, I’m useless; I can’t follow you, I can’t even tell you what’s up there but the exit. Take the book with you, it may help more than Shakespeare.” He handed Israel the book, and listened to rushing feet beneath them. “I’d say that you could turn back, but none ever have. You can’t, after enlightenment.”

“I won’t,” Israel said, gripping the first rung with force. He pulled himself up with the bag of sandwiches and the book hanging off his elbow and biting the half-full glass of milk. There were no lights in the escape shaft; Israel climbed with a tenacious blindness.

The doctor’s voice rose soft from far below him, “With any luck, you’ll see your two friends in forty or so days! If you live that long up there! You’re only forty-two days old! Did I tell you that? It’s a record!”

Israel did not respond. Israel wasn’t listening. He was climbing. To what? Maybe not liberation, maybe only escape into death, but it would be his death. Of his life.

Israel reached the hatch that opened to the surface. The last door in the city.

There could be anything up there; there was everything up there, the whole world, not just a city of recycling copies of copies of copies living to stall their own destruction. There may be nothing up there. Deserts and hollow houses abandoned for empty generations. Then at least Israel wouldn’t run into himself. He laughed at this idea, with his hand resting on the latch.

Pushing with all the might of a barista, Israel ascended into the world he had never known and could no longer neglect. The first thing he saw was light. Light so blinding and encompassing that it exhausted everything Israel had known about light before. Every word Shakespeare ever used was flattened by this first real vision beyond mortal sight; the light singed his tongue with the guttural scream of an exploding espresso machine. As he ascended, Israel shed the ashes of his ancestors behind him in the city.

He was alone.

The sunlight blistered his knuckles but still he climbed through the gateway, straight into the breath of a true life bearing down at him and into a world of insatiable unknowns.

__–__

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Below is a story I wrote about six months ago, more or less. It feels pretty far from polished, but I must stick to the weekly posting thing! Try to enjoi it, and I apologize for all its suckiness. Any help here would be hot.

_Small Victories, or A Real Baby_

With epinephrine running in its mother’s veins, the fetus sensed urgency.

*

Carrie’s father parked in the alleyway she didn’t plan for, across from the hospital she had planned for the delivery of the baby she hadn’t planned for. He called her “kiddo” and he called the car “Bullitt.” Her dad called his unborn grandchild “the baby.” He wondered out loud why she had to “spring the leak” on the one weekend that month she had with him and why her mother wasn’t answering her phone. After a few flat and sudden steps on hospital floors, he told her the story of where he was when she was born: gone.

Carrie looked at her father. She gave him a look that made him stop telling the damn story. “Are you going to call Derrick?” came out of her mouth in between breaths.

“Why bother?” The boy hadn’t answered his phone in seven months, just before he changed school districts.

Carrie breathed and the fetus breathed and its grandfather called and looked for a nurse.

“Mom should be here.”

*

Robin jumped across an alleyway. Just like in…Spider-Man?

But he remembered that, in the movie, Spider-Man missed, and just like that, so did Robin. On his way down to the street, Robin didn’t think about looking before he leaped next time, all he thought about was how he’d never been afraid of heights. Because he always landed fine; there was always a last-second pipe or rope to grab, or a pile of circus peanuts to stop his fall.

He fell with a peaceful faith, arms and legs outstretched, the wind pulling in minute detail on his hair as if the Universe itself cradled him.

Robin landed with a soft thud on a pile of cardboard boxes filled with packaging peanuts and bubble-wrap. He watched the clouds roll by until he was hungry. When he rolled over he saw a value meal sitting all alone on a bench down the alley right across from a 1968 390 CID V8 Ford Mustang. Highland Green.

How the rigid steel made that car look so sleek filled Robin with faith in a divine creator. The only thing wrong with the image was the key in the ignition and the unlocked doors. That was downright unappetizing.

*

“Kiddo, do you have the keys?” Carrie’s dad was checking his pockets, panicking.

Carrie thought about the pain, though she tried not to. The nurse showed up to help get things rolling, grabbing Carrie’s arm to go to the shower. Her dad said he’d be right back, he was going to check on the car.

Leading Carrie to the shower, the nurse’s hand was cold and rigid; her only option for human contact now. This and many other thoughts cascaded down Carrie, none clinging more than water from a shower-head.

*

The Mustang was fun to drive, but after a block Robin got bored and crashed it in the hospital’s employee parking lot doing cheerios. Robin was fine, he sat in the driver’s seat for a few minutes, admiring the waves of steel wrapped around concrete, the mysterious beauty of such flexible destruction. The only sounds in the empty lot were his calm breathing and harmless fluid leaking from the car somewhere.

Leaving the keys in the ignition, Robin followed behind a nursing assistant through the employee’s entrance, straight into the locker room. The assistant was arguing with someone on the phone all the way to his locker.

Robin walked around the room, his progress invisible by the fortunate squeamishness of the workers’ downcast eyes. He thought about how much fun it would be to play doctor for the day.

*

Waiting for something to happen in the shower, her dad still looking for his car, Carrie recalled how much nine months can change your life.

How her mom should have let her take birth control.

How drinking seemed like a good idea at the time, and Derrick too. How her mom told her neither were. How college disappeared, and with that any chance of leaving her mom.

How fast he could disappear, how her mom said he would.

How quickly she could eat, how much her feet hurt, and how that pain spread everywhere else eventually.

How she forgot to tell her dad until she was showing. How little he reacted.

How her mom was more excited than she was, bought the baby’s first blanket, threw her a surprise shower, and wouldn’t consent adoption or abortion. How her mom already had names in mind. Emilia if it’s a girl, and Victor if it’s a boy.

How she had kept her mother from knowing the gender.

She focused on gathering those small victories. They add up like raindrops.

*

Being a doctor was easy: grab a clipboard, walk around, peek in, peek out, avoid the bloodier patients. And keep the mask on no matter how hard it is to breathe through.

The first patient Robin visited had something unpronounceable wrong with him, and Robin grabbed what he could from the room and left without him waking up.

The second patient was on another floor. Robin just poked around the machinery a bit, looked him in his starved eyes, and told him he was cured. He walked out and grabbed a vile of epinephrine.

A nurse gave him some trouble down the hall; Robin disappeared and ended up in maternity with a gift-package of prescription drugs and medical equipment stuffing his pockets.

*

The mother drove out the fetus in a flash of pain and hatred and envy and pity for this world and the baby being born into it.

*

Somewhere during the labor, Carrie’s mother showed up; said her father left, wouldn’t be in the same room as her. The prick. Said he’s probably looking for his car, and that she’s sorry she missed the delivery, how are “we” doing, was “our” baby a boy or a girl?

Carrie looked at the hungry image her mother’s face contorted, a smile expecting cooperation, with eyes open for any answer they may receive, and noticed that her mother had used her lipstick again. She shook her head, heavy from the sweat and drugs.

The new grandmother stood up and started asking for the baby. In a few minutes’ time, she was shaking down physicians up the hospital food chain until a Senior Resident apologized for having misplaced the baby.

*

Robin’s a daddy! A real one, with a real baby!

In a rush and a blur of scrubs, someone handed Robin the baby. Nobody saw him as he walked out of the hospital, and his stolen newborn didn’t make a noise as he changed clothes or even as he walked down the city streets.

All along the way complete strangers stopped to take peeks at his baby, say how cute it was, ask where its mother was. Excited about all the attention, Robin once again felt that familiar security of the universe cradling him. He stopped at a dive on their way home, wanting to show off his new heir to all the people he knew only by sight.

However, about to be brought into its first seedy strip club, the baby gave a hideous screech that echoed down the city streets, stopping pedestrians and commuters alike. The moment smoke poured out the door, Robin became visible to everyone on the block, completely without his permission.

That soft cradle of wind that guided him down the side of a building hours ago was gone, only a rigid gale of stranger’s stares of disapproval remained. Robin’s little world burst when all those people saw him, and no matter how much he wished it, he could not disappear and they would not look away so long as his hand gripped the doorknob to the bar. Judgment was in their eyes, and for the first time in his life, Robin was to be held responsible.

So he let go. The baby’s echoes replaced with a peace only newborns can know, the door shut, and the world moved on, ignorant of Robin and his near mistreatment of his child.

Although life was back to normal and nobody could see him on his way home, Robin kept a close watch on his baby all the way home. Unsure for the first time in his life as to where his feet were placed, Robin’s flight home was spent stumbling through alleyways he thought familiar.

*

The drive home. Carrie’s mom recklessly dodged traffic as she threw promises at her daughter: There will be an investigation, the hospital will be sued, every doctor she saw will be reprimanded, every doctor who saw her grandchild will be fired, that special doctor who gave him or her away will be killed, why was Carrie just staring through the window? Doesn’t she care at all about her own kid?

A future meant more to Carrie than that kid. College, a career, a real family meant more to her than her mother’s grandchild. That and the chance that maybe the baby was better off, that maybe she could make mistakes.

Looking away from her mother, all she said was “I don’t know,” with a smile that didn’t make it to her lips. But it was there with all her small victories.

*

The rugged landlord was there outside Robin’s room when he arrived with the baby. She finished screwing in a new number and nameplate to his door with her dry, chapped hands. “So you’re Mr. Almonson. I didn’t know you had a wife.”

Playing house was fun only so far as Robin didn’t have to talk to his landlord, neighbors, or anybody else in the building. This was an outrage, but Robin continued playing. “I don’t, but I have a baby. Look!” he said, holding up his baby to his playmate.

It started crying again as Robin walked into his apartment, set it on the table, and turned on the TV. First of all, there was never anything on, second of all, what was on was static. That didn’t matter so much. Robin just wanted something on in the background to drown out the baby, and static would be okay if not quite good enough. He crossed his room to get some milk, stubbed his toe on a book he didn’t know he owned, landed on his keys, and when he got up the milk was curdled. It was a slight comfort to him that at least the noise machine wouldn’t be getting any of it. Then the sink wouldn’t stop going and when Robin tried cooking on the stove smoke poured out. He ran to the window and it wouldn’t open, so he just pulled harder. And harder. And harder until he tore off a chunk of wood and flew across the room.

Laying on the floor, wondering how long it took the baby to ruin his life and listening to static and the screaming, Robin somehow heard a knocking on his door. It was his landlord. People complained about the static and baby’s wailing. She let herself in around him. “You know, two years you’ve been here, always payed rent on time, so I don’t ask when I don’t know anything about you. I’m a professional,” she said, looking around the room, at the baby. “But if you keep on damaging this place I’m going to have to kick you out. And for God’s sake, take care of that baby! Don’t you know anything?” Robin looked at his shoes. “Here, you hold your baby on your shoulder like this and pat his back until he burps, if you don’t know how to do that,” she had to know he didn’t, somehow, “I’ll get to work on this sink and then we’ll talk about how much you want to live here.”

Robin did as she said and, in less than a minute there was a mild burp and no screeching, just static in the background. Shaky and unsure of itself, Robin’s rare voice came through quietly, “How did you know that would work?”

His landlord stopped pulling at the stove for a minute, wiped her brow and said, “I almost had a baby daughter once. Years ago, now. Her name was gonna be Anabelle. I learned everything I could about motherhood, but it didn’t matter after all,” she paused. “You don’t have that chance I had, to learn about raising your kid ahead of time, Mr. Almonson; but you do have a baby, and that’s the kind of responsibility no one can be ready for.”

She looked him in the eyes once more before turning back to the stove. Robin looked at the baby, his baby in the eyes for the first time in its life. He wondered if it was a boy or a girl, and through about all the names he could give him or her.

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