Click on the titles to link to the stories below.
Click on the titles to link to the stories below.
Place: This Is How You Lose Yourself
L.S. Johnson, San Leandro, CA
This is how you lose yourself: by letting your foot shift from gas to brake as you pass the road. The road has no asphalt and no signs; it is nothing more than a dark line of rutted earth running into a stand of bleak pines. You are already lost when you park at the corner and walk the mile back, your mind a howling darkness, your name left with the keys in the car.
You know darkness. You know the darkness of an open mouth and the gleaming things it unleashes. You know what comes out of the darkness and you know your own darkness and you have honed your darkness for right now, this moment, when you put your foot on the brake and you park the car and you walk the mile back to enter the road for the first time, again, at last.
The road is as it always is: autumn muck grabbing at your feet, the smell of wet pine needles rotting. There was another road and another forest where you walked high and screaming, surrounded by open mouths, but that time is now, this road, these trees, the smell and the wet muck and your own damp flesh ready to open in a roar of darkness.
This is how you lost yourself.
There was another forest that is this forest, now. There was another road that is this road, leading to the same gloomy clearing where the same little shed stands. There is the same darkness of its open doorway and the thing inside waiting to be unleashed. You know what lives in the shed and you know what will come howling and roaring out of the darkness, bright and gleaming. Above you the last birds flit past, calling, calling, and the clouded sky descends into twilight. You know this darkness. There was another evening that is this evening, when you looked at the sky and opened your mouth high and screaming. There was another you that is this you kneeling in the soft wet muck. The open mouths around you. The gleam in the darkness of the little shed's doorway.
There has never been anyplace else to run to.
You crouch inside, listening. Anytime now. Above you the last birds cry out. A sudden wind shakes the pines, raining needles down onto the soft earth. You hear the sound of a car braking.
Somewhere there is a you who never braked, who never stopped, a you who went far into the future and will look in a mirror and see not a vast screaming darkness but a woman named Marion.
All your selves, lost, now.
Anytime. You hear the first footsteps on the rutted road, the sound of shoes sticking in ripe autumn muck. You ready yourself. You have honed your own darkness until it gleamed. You wait and wait for now to arrive, feeling the thing rising out of you, its brightness held back by your tightly closed lips.
Place: The Real Time Machine
Sumayyah Uddin, West Babylon, NY
The old man claimed he was a scientist. The way he talked, the serious sharpness of his eyes, was more like a magician---he had the crackling charisma around him that came from real magic.
"Do you believe in time machines?" was the question.
He felt like Jack, trading his sensibilities for magic beans, but he agreed. The old man nodded. "Then listen carefully to what I say."
The old man's instructions were simple, his list of materials odd. A piece from a lost childhood. A dried flower from his daughter, answering the door of her dorm half-asleep: "If you manage to create a time machine, take me back with you. I'm failing chemistry."
A piece from a forsaken friendship. They'd fought before the car accident, and had never made up. He added the baseball from the grave to his collection, holding it tightly.
A piece from a romance spurned. The once familiar driveway looked foreign. He knocked anyway.
She recognized him instantly. "What is it?" she said, then hesitantly, "It's been so long."
"I need something," he said.
She sighed. "You always do, don't you? What do you want?" She didn't invite him in.
She looked at him before she ducked inside, handing him a Christmas ornament.
"I was going to throw it out anyway," she said, shutting the door.
He took his time back home. You would think possibly altering life's mistakes would make a man hurry, but he took long routes, his heart beating faster and faster, a hesitant hope lighting inside him.
At home, he took out the small orb he'd been given. It was transparent, whirring ever so slightly. Held up to the light, little see-through gears and cogs moved slowly inside. He put the items inside.
The ball grew. The world seemed to spin and break all at once. He clutched for the table, but instead brushed smooth surface, and realized he was inside the orb when the baseball hit him.
A fuzzy vision appeared, clearing as he watched; his daughter, four years old, running to him with the flower. He watched himself rebuke and blatantly ignore her. He fumbled for the door---a time machine had to have a door, some way to correct himself. His fingers scraped--there was no purchase.
The ball tumbled. He was watching that stupid fight with his friend. He was still looking for the door---the ball was smooth. He was becoming panicked.
The ball tumbled. He fell forward, cursing in panic as the screen changed. The blank expression on his face as he told her he didn't love her made him scream, searching for the door so he could correct himself, do what a time machine was supposed to; CHANGE things, not repeat mistakes again and again and again----
And while he panicked, and the ball tumbled, the Christmas ornament smashed against the floor and shattered, and the picture in front of him continued playing even as it too shattered into a thousand pieces.
Place: The Life I Had in Mind
Geri Lipschultz, Huntington Station, NY
The day finally came when the dead rose, the dead in their various guises. Many of them appeared inthe shrouds they were buried in, but none took on the tangible substance of the third dimension that each had relinquished upon dying.
Everybody saw them, not just psychics, children, the dying and deranged. They were an entity with which even the most conservative businessman had to contend. The planet was inundated. No smells accompanied the dead, and that was considered a boon. Nor were the sounds that issued forth anything to engender fear: no hoots, whistles, screams, hot and heavy breaths. Theirs were sounds most approximating falling water, whirring fire, trembling of earth, swoosh of air, perhaps most closely resembling the vibe, but smothered or muffled, as if by felt, and highly translatable. Speakers of every language understood. Given a chance, the dead might have been a most civilized band of invaders.
During this cataclysmic period in the earth's history, religious leaders of all persuasions wracked their souls. Some went on hunger strikes; some went into seclusion. Some resigned their posts. Parishoners died of fright on the spot, only to re-emerge in the very clothes they were wearing--speaking a new language, donning a new form, perfectly happy, most of them, in their transformations. True wide-scale communication would take time. The new vision had yet to find its warm welcome. Engineers and scientists collaborated on containment devices. Priests and psychics gathered for mass exorcisms. Governments of the larger countries sent out feelers to the smaller countries, where there was still contact with the ancestors. With no obvious method of eliminating the dead, governments distributed pills to deaden the senses of hearing and sight, so people could sleep naturally and eat naturally.
Everywhere, the living spoke among themselves as never before. People came face to face with fears and self-doubts. Some believed it was not the dead at all but hallucinations created by the pollution which had been wildly out of control for generations. Others thought the hallucinations were drug-induced from germ warfare. These people advocated out and out war, but they couldn't say with whom.
To put it gently, it was not the second coming the religions had anticipated. A group of churches organized a massive search for Jesus. After all, he did die. He must be among the dead. Finding Jesus was touted everywhere to be as difficult as threading a camel through a needle's eye. Then a reward was offered greater than the kingdom of heaven.
"Find Jesus," read the posters, "and the world is yours. Name your price." Under the proclamation were signed the names of the great world leaders. For a while this put the ministers and psychics--everybody back in business. Everybody felt called upon. Even those of other faiths began looking for Jesus.
Someone found him writing graffiti in a public bathroom. In big, bold, jazzed-out letters, it read: "Not the life I had in mind."
Place: Gathering Stones
Rebecca Rosenthal, Ridgewood NJ
And Jacob knelt down to grab the round, white stone that scuttled past him. His backpack lay on the pavement before him and a shoebox with the lid jostled askew a few feet beyond. The ground trembled and he knew who was coming with their heavy footsteps. When their feet pressed into the small of his back, he made no sound. He had grown oblivious to the insults and accustomed to the jeers.
The palms and heels wedged into his body were not familiar. He had promised Mother that he would learn to be stronger for her; she blithely smiled over the newspaper, nodded and intoned that if one did not show one's pain, one would not feel it either.
And so each day Jacob pocketed the stones lazily kicked towards him. He picked them up and ran his soft fingertips over their jagged edges. For these mementos made him stronger, like Mother had insisted. He emptied his pockets each morning, laid stone upon stone in an old shoebox and continued on.
On this day, he staggered to his feet as the school bell rang. Jacob turned left where he should have turned right and dragged his palms across each bar of a wrought iron fence. He slipped through the gate and followed the short path his feet had learned to walk without guidance to the grave marker. He brushed off its top with the threadbare hem of his coat, took a stone from his pocket and placed it neatly on the gravestone's surface.
He reached into his pockets and placed the rest of the stones on top of the grave in an uneven halo. He opened his bag, opened the shoebox. Circling the gravestone, he stacked each stone from the box around his feet. But there were no more left in the shoebox.
This could not be. The stones only rose to his ankles.
With the sun setting behind him, he fell to his knees, digging in his pockets, tearing at the ground. He traced the rough letters etched in the smooth marble. Jacob's eyes felt warm, his fingers cold. The stone mirrored his quickening pulse as he felt for the words so comforting and familiar.
He paused. A fragment of pink light reflected off the gleaming marble and pierced his glistening eyes.
In memory of a loving mother.
He could hardly muster the strength to move his fingers anymore. He closed his eyes and leaned forward. His chest felt as though it was made from marble, but he felt the tombstone throbbing as though it were breathing for him. He gasped, flexed his shoulders and found them met by a layer of icy rock.
In memory of a loving mother...
He was not concerned with breathing any more. As Mother had promised, nothing could get to him now.
Place: When I Sleep, I Pretend it's the Turn of the 21st Century
Katie Ippolito, River Edge, NJ
The theatre was on the other side of town, wedged between an abandoned Laundromat, and a school for the underprivileged (who could only afford books in print and flesh-and-blood teachers). I would have to take the bullet train, if I wanted to make it.
I wanted to make it.
The theatre played films on a huge screen, sometimes in 3-D. It was nice to actually see a film outside of your head, in front of your eyes, every now and again.
I walked to the station--a glassy labyrinth, its walls a polite balance of false transparency and independence (lest you feel trapped, lest you be forced to interact with--God forbid!--another human). In the streets, at this forsaken hour, people stood in clumps. Music spilled from their phones, the styles mingling and never clashing (as they should). The skies would be dark, the shops would be quiet, but for this unending clatter. For one minute, cut that chain of fluorescent light that binds you to your phones and watches and web-platform spectacles and just look at each other.
You think your vapid conversations about telepathic books and mental films, your vast virtual concertos and your idioms, can be validated when shared over a mug of tea? As if one anachronism the questions about love, the quiet laughter, the discussions of philosophy-- might blot out its context?
Times have changed.
And it's no use pretending otherwise.
With a wry "Beam me up, Scotty" I stepped into the compartment for one, and as the train set off silently, I watched the seconds flick by on my analogue watch more slowly then they had outside the door. Travel at the speed of light. You'd think something like light would make you feel cleaner, more pure. But as I took a breath of recycled air I felt the technology stopping up my throat, as if I were breathing into a plastic bag, as if all the switches and pixels choked out the last genuine life on our planet. I squinted as I watched out my window, and pretended that the blurs I saw were trees that still grew along streets. Trees and people, who watched the stars through leaves instead of power lines.
I stepped off the train. Beside me, a line of a hundred others did the same. All stared at the ground before them, with rehearsed politic as if by refusing to recognize what was around them they might construct a world that was to their liking. My phone read 3:32 AM. This mandated distance, this unspoken pact of non-interaction, was accompanied by humming. Every person that stepped off the train was humming a tune. It was off key, but unmistakable.
Must have been that damn radio playing on the train.
As if individual compartments were not enough to dissuade conversation, they thought they'd add one more thing to focus on besides each other. As if anybody so constantly plugged in would have anything of interest to say.
Place: The Cloud People
Nicole Steinberg, Upper Saddle River, NJ
Sometimes at night, when I should be dissipating, I tumble from our stretch of clouds and onto the tallest rooftop. It's usually quite a fall - and no easy feat to find the right gust of wind to blow me back again in the morning. But it's worth it to escape the nothingness of dissipation.
Instead, I clamber into the realm of the corporeal. I drift past the windows of warm, breathing, human children dreaming in their beds. I watch the sturdy structures that have stood for centuries in the very same place, the way the ones up there never could, and I find a guilty thrill in how, on the rare occasion of a fire, they burn, leaving behind smoke and tears. The sorrow in such a loss! Buildings fall down every day where I live and no one gives it a second thought.
In the morning, when everyone rematerializes and I return, we'll fashion masterpieces out of the cloud beneath our feet, we'll create whole cities, we'll paint the sky with fleeting beauty, and the children I see sleeping will look up and admire my work. And when the sun goes down, my work will tear itself apart.
No one understands the tragedy in this. They say the evanescence makes it that much more beautiful, that if they don't fade away, we'd get bored of them. It's better this way.
"But what about stability?" I argue. "Don't you find it beautiful how steadfast a human building stands, how sure? It waits there for years, never wavering! It's always there!"
They narrow their translucent eyes, suddenly suspicious. "What do you know about human buildings?"
I quickly change the subject and they forget my case for constancy.
The people come back, though. If you sculpt a person, they'll come back in the morning the same as when they left. My maker took a full day with me, whittling my limbs to the perfect widths, shaping my face the best one can without fingers, blowing sentience into my being. Everyone thought my devotion to stability would make me a sculptor of life, but the living make me saddest of all.
With every gust of wind, we change. Just a few wisps missing, just a small shift in shape - but over time, we change into completely different people. Most of us don't notice, but that's because we don't have mirrors.
When I descend into the human world, I catch sight of my reflection and see just how much I've changed since my last visit. My consistency resembles bleached cotton candy, sugary strands twisting together, shaping the head into a tentative spire so it resembles a tufted teardrop. My arms and legs narrow to pillowy points. My eyes swirl with rainsoaked cirrus, dark against feathery white cumulus, above the sad bow of my altostratus mouth. Each new glance shows a new arrangement of vapors. Next time I see a mirror, I won't recognize myself. There is nothing beautiful about being ephemeral.