Underground Initiation

The Northern Line has become my line. Every day I board in Earls’ Court, where I live, and ride its cranky elevators deep into the earth. Then I follow the black Northern Line signs and take my train. I stand swaying with the masses of other commuters until the train whirls into Russel Square where I emerge for a brisk, I think cleansing, walk to our office in Bedford Square. Sometimes the crowds throw me back five years to the time when I was a nineteen-year-old student riding this same line. Only then things were very different. On that occasion, it was night. I rode from Earl’s Court where I had been at a late-night get-together to Russel Square the closest station to my student digs on Bedford Way. As I doze off in my wedged upright stance, I relive every moment of that ride………

It is late, there are no standing room only crowds, indeed, my coach is empty except for me and a noisy threesome of young men. I select a seat a reasonable distance away from them and am pleased that they exit at South Kensington. I am now alone rattling through space. He boards at Hyde Park, the next stop. I am surprised when he selects to sit in the seat beside me even though he has the choice of the whole empty coach. I am penned in with a seat in front and this man on my right.

I pretend that he isn’t there. I can feel the warmth of his body as his presence rubs my right shoulder. I smell his body odors, smoke mixed with unwashed human, sweat. He grunts, and I quiver. Green Park passes we are still alone as we run through Piccadilly. His body odor becomes more oppressive. I consider trying to get off. At each station I hope that someone, anyone will board. No-one does, we continue to be alone. He is fidgeting with something in his lap, I turn and see what I have never seen before. I react with a quiver and start shaking; Leicester Square, Covent Gard, Holborn, the stations take an eternity to pass. I stare and try to turn away. I make a futile attempt to ignore what he is doing. As we roll into Russel Square, I stand and say,

“Excuse me, this is my stop.”

“Mine too” he gives a toothy grin.

He lets me pass, my body rubs against his. He touches me with his hands but I wriggle and am free. I run down the platform and vault up the escalator. I think that I can hear him behind me, but I’m not sure. I am too terrified to turn and look as this might slow me down. At the top, I am thankful to see that the ticket booth is still manned. I rush up and whisper,

“Help! A man! He exposed himself to me,” I turn “he’s…….” but he wasn’t – he had disappeared.

The ticket clerk jumps up and opens his door. He invites me inside. He tells me to sit down while he calls his station manager. The manager arrives. He is an elderly, old enough to be my father. He puts a kindly hand on my right shoulder I try to make it erase the memory of the touch during my ride, but it doesn’t. He and another man usher me into a very warm inner office. They offer me tea. It arrives hot and strong. I warm my trembling hands on the surface of the mug. Although I never add sugar, I do so now as the brew is strong. They want me to make a police report. I am calmer now. I let the glow of the tea permeate my body. Once we have got past the easy questions, name, age, residence et cetera we get down to specifics. I am so flustered that I can’t describe him. His smell maybe and his noises but these men are not interested in this information, they want specifics.

“Circumcised or not?”

“I don’t know”

“Did he ejaculate?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well,” they shrug,” describe the size. Describe what you did see.”

I look at their anxious faces, and notice their leaning-in body language. I realize that they are deriving as much pleasure in this debrief as he took in sitting next to me. I stand and thank them. I say that I must go now; maybe another time. Yes, I’ll complete the report tomorrow. I rush out and, with a renewed spate of energy, run home to my apartment. I lock the door.

The incident still haunts, even though I am beyond that fear. I handle things differently. Recently I rode a late tube home and found myself in an empty car with a man wearing an expensive Burberry raincoat. Like the other, he sits next to me. I know the routine, he starts fiddling and opens his coat to reveal his goods. I turn to him and remark, in a bored, matter-of-fact voice of irony,

“Put that thing away. I am not interested.”

He does just that. He gets off at the next station.

THE CAMPING TRIP

This one is under 300 words, and  so I classify it as  flash fiction.

Amanda listened, wide-eyed, to her elder brother’s report about his Boy Scout’s camping trip. He spoke of s’mores, ghost stories, flickering flames, camp-fire cooking, the aroma of wood smoke and the beauty of the stars. His discourse gave Amanda and her younger sister images of a cozy home-from-home, little wonder that Amanda begged her parents to give her a tent for her tenth birthday. 

When the tent arrived, Amanda requested a camping trip. Her parents weren’t excited by the thought of an out-of-town excursion, and hit on the idea of a camping trip in their premises. The weather forecast was good, no rain predicted.

Their father arrived home on the day of their camp to find that his daughters had already managed to erect their tent. They were blissfully playing house with an assortment of dolls and stuffed animals. He and their brother set up an adjacent tent. They cooked hot dogs on a portable BBQ and roasted marshmallows before a chimaera.

When it was time to sleep their mother kissed the children and told them that she was going inside to her very own comfortable bed. She invited anyone who wished to follow her indoors. An hour later, her son joined her. He explained that night sounds of coyotes, and distant traffic was eclipsed by his loud snoring father.

“Two fifths,” said his mother “Three to go.”

At midnight, the girls woke up with a shock for it was raining and wet inside their tent. They gathered up their wet toys and ran into the house.

“Four fifths,’ said their mother, “One to go.”

Before joining the family inside, their father, woken by the kafuffle, ran to the garage to turn off the irrigation system for the girls had pitched their tent on top of a lawn sprinkler.

 

Nose

At a cocktail party, a middle-aged gentleman told his fishing story. It was about a snake; not about the colossus that got away. He said that the incident had happened years ago but was one of those life moments, which haunts forever. Apparently, he was doing some deep-water wading when he felt a long slimy body slither between his legs. He instinctively knew that this was not a fish. Then, his eyes agog, he told of his subsequent horror when a six-foot-long water snake reared out of the water to stare at him with cold unblinking eyes. Its head was a few inches from his nose. Thoughts flashed through his mind, “If it bites me on the nose, and I survive will I have a deformed face with no nose?” and “What should I do to survive even if I do lose my nose?”

The man paused to take a sip, and I looked at him skeptically. His nose was intact. I wondered whether he was exaggerating the size of the snake, for most do in an attempt to validate fear. A snake enthusiast in our group commented this was probably a benign water snake; easily distinguished, he said, because the poisonous Cottonmouths are aggressive and have fatter bodies. The gentleman looked at us, gauging our disbelief and went on to tell how he managed to keep his cool demeanor and slowly raise his hand to cover his vulnerable nose while he gently blew in the snake’s face. To his relief, the snake took his suggestion. It backed off and swam away almost as though it were as scared as he. As for the type, he said that he was too frightened to be able to distinguish what kind of snake it was. I don’t blame him.

Jane Stansfeld 296 words

GRIM REAPER

Aimee was with Peter the whole time. She sat by the hospital window and watched while the doctors administered to him. They explained that they hoped to prevent his minor TIA from morphing into a deadly stroke. When they kept him overnight  she moved beside his bed and held his hand. By 2:00 am, she was exhausted and let her eyes close to catch a brief nap.

Peter moaned; Aimee opened her eyes to see a dark figure looming over the bed. She recognized him and tried to thrust him away.

“Go.” she ordered, “It is not time.”

“You are wrong.” countered the figure.

“You don’t understand.” she replied, “We two are soul mates. We found each other late in life, we haven’t been married long. We must have more time together.”

“Time together?”

“Yes, we are together. You must not separate us!”

The figure nodded and disappeared.

By 4:00 am the ward was humming with action. The man in the adjacent room had died. Aimee knew that this was a result of her conversation.  She did not discuss her suspicions. The the next morning she was delighted when the doctor told her that Peter could go home. She brought her car round to the door of the hospital and watched the nurse wheel Peter out. He climbed into the passenger seat with ease. She loosened her seat belt and leaned over to kiss him on the lips. She turned on the radio and they laughed as she drove away. The dog appeared at the first intersection. She swerved to avoid it. In that prolonged awful second that they slammed, out of control, toward a concrete wall she saw the nocturnal visitor again.

“Wish granted,” he said “You are together!”

The Puppy

I’ve been reading the recently published book “New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction”. The forward informs me that “a good micro hangs in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke,” and that it needs to be under 300 words. The following is my first attempt at this literary form. I hope that my readers enjoy it!

The eighty-year-old man’s hands trembled. He gripped his chair making his veins stand out against his aging thin skin. He turned to his wife, his eyes tearing, “They shoot a horse with a broken leg, don’t they?” he asked. She heard his question as she had heard it before, and nodded in affirmation. She watched him cast his thoughts back to his childhood.

He went back over seventy years to himself as an eight-year-old boy on a farm in South Dakota. He stood and looked north the flatness stretched seemingly unending through Canada to the north pole, or south to the Rio Grande and beyond into Mexico. East and west were the same thing from sea to shining sea even though logic told of the Black Hills three hundred miles to the west. He remembered how you knew that a vehicle was approaching on the dirt road by the cloud of dust seen above the standing corn. You heard the engine about the time that the dogs on the adjacent farm started barking, then it passed and the whole sequence occurred in reverse.

He was doing his chores and being responsible, feeding chickens, gathering eggs, slopping the pigs; while his parents worked in a distant field. He could hear their voices, mingled with the sound of a nearby yelping puppy. He found it in the dairy limping miserably on three legs. He picked it up and stroked its soft fur. As he did so he reminded himself of the sentence for a farm animal with broken leg. He fetched a pail of water and a gunny sack. Then, he knelt beside the bucket. He didn’t cry through the ordeal even as he realized that doing the right thing carries a heavy burden.

294 words

The Face at the Window

My earliest memory is of the face looking at me through my bedroom window. I remember immediately feigning slumber because I deduced the face was there to make sure I went to sleep rather than get up to any shenanigans. I recall I was a strong-willed mischievous child who fought going to bed, especially when I believed interesting things to be happening in the adjacent rooms. Often, one of my maternal grand-parents would quietly sit on a chair in my room to ensure that I didn’t get up and engage in non-sleep activities. Looking back, I now find it strange that, even when she was around, my mother never took part in the ritual. However, the face, yes, the face, with its black hair and barely distinguishable dark features obscured by shadow, was often there. The street lights in the road beyond gave the head a halo-like silhouette. Far from fearing such an apparition, I found comfort in its demeanor and regularity. I regarded it a welcome watcher.

At that time, I lived in a small house with my grandparents, Mimi and Pop. I say, “I lived with my grandparents” for although my mother also technically domiciled with us, she frequently disappeared for weeks on end. How I loved the times when she was in residence. Her vivacity was contagious. We all felt it as she thrust our quiet home into temporary chaos. Often, she would spend entire days dedicated to me transporting me into a world full of fun and delight. Over time I became wary of these seductive times for they served to make her sudden absences more difficult to handle.

I remember one visit. I must have been about five or six years-old at the time, when Mama took to reading bed-time stories to me. She moved one of the living-room easy chairs into my bedroom so that we could cuddle together in its embrace. She smelled sweet and her long wildly luxuriant blond hair caressed my shoulders as I nestled my shock of straight black locks against her warm breast. I let her voice, which was always tinged with laughter, wash over me like the waters of a gurgling stream. It was heaven. The day everything got spoiled was when she was reading me a story about angels. As she turned the page I interrupted her to ask,

“Is the face at my window my guardian angel?”

“What face?” My mother’s voice sounded angry, and I instinctively knew she disapproved. I thought quickly,

“Oh, I sometimes imagine an angel. Is that bad?”

“Yes, my darling, faces at windows, real or imagined, are not good. I want you to tell me if you ever see one again.”

“But Mama after I’ve gone to bed I can’t get back up!”

“This is different. You have permission to get out of bed to come and get me.”

The next day she installed a black felt black-out over my bedroom window. I complained bitterly about my dismal windowless room, but Mama was emphatic. A week later, she packed up her nurse’s uniform and clothes into her back-pack and left on another of her jaunts. Mimi and Pop let me move into her bedroom. It was a second-floor room which looked out into the crown of a huge oak. Now there was no possibility of a face at that window. I don’t know for sure, but from time to time I thought that I saw the face looking at me from the sidelines of a playground, through the fence around the school play yard, or across the street as I boarded the school bus.

Mama continued her comings, and goings and sometimes sad men appeared looking for her. They were a mixed group from around the world; the English doctor who had served with her during an African Ebola crisis, the Thai, who knew her from the 2004 tsunami; the Pakistani from the 2005 earthquake. They kept coming. Their stories carried a repetitive theme, how her presence had brought hope, and even happiness, to a group of people struggling under dire circumstances. It was obvious that each was hopelessly in love with her and wanted to re-connect. Mimi and Pop let them stay a few days and then gently ushered them back to their lives without her, much as we were doing.

When I was about twelve Pop died, and Mimi sold the house and bought a smaller bungalow in the same neighborhood. She said that it was better suited to her advancing rheumatism. I was thrilled by the house, especially my bedroom which had a large window overlooking a manicured front yard. After we had been living there a few weeks, I saw the face again. It was partially in shadow again illuminated from behind by the street lights. I was happy for I liked the face which seemed to smile at me with a friendly grin. I decided that it would be best not to mention anything to either Mimi or my mother when she came to visit.

Time passed. The face continued to appear periodically even though it immediately disappeared if I moved in an attempt to make contact. Like the strangers who came looking for Mama, I knew the face to be a masculine one. I clung to the belief that he was my guardian angel and didn’t want me to acknowledge his presence. Sometimes I made up stories for myself to the tune that he was my guardian angel sent as a substitute for my missing father. Things might have gone on in this way except when my English teacher gave our class an assignment to write about their fathers I decided to write about the face in my window.

The resultant uproar was unexpected and immediate. The school called Mimi and together we were sent for a session with a visiting school counselor. We met in the tiny nurse’s office. The counselor was an attractive young woman who seemed to me to be not much older than I. She told us that my story fascinated and worried her, for, she explained, children are not supposed to see faces at their windows, real or imagined. Mimi said nothing; she just sat there, while I instinctively knew my story was a mistake. I liked my face and didn’t want to give him up. The counselor’s demeanor was quietly reassuring, but I was wary, determined not to be seduced by friendly good looks. On the spur of the moment, I decided to add voices to the face in the hope that the package would convince everyone that it was all my vivid imagination.

That backfired, a second session was scheduled with a doctor who was called in to assist. His large portly body with strained buttons across his chest changed the tone of our meeting. I was given an extensive barrage of tests. I thought that I was doing well until he leaned toward me and began to ask questions about the voices. I kept quiet for I realized that my fabrication was back-firing. He asked,

“How many voices?”

“Can you tell if they are male or female?”

“What is said, what message?”

I stared at him, acting dumb while my mind raced. I didn’t know what people’s inner voices said to them. I knew that I ‘d have to say something or my ruse might be discovered. Keeping my voice very low, I whispered,

“Sexual suggestions!”

A great hush descended over the room. The young councilor twisted her fingers together and looked down at the floor. The doctor leaned forward with a smirk on his face; I sensed he was enjoying this. I turned to Mimi and pleaded with my eyes. I think that she understood, for she announced,

“That’s enough: can’t you see that you’re distressing the child?”

I hid my face in her chest to further reinforce her statement. I thought to myself that maybe, one day, I’d become an actress.

By this time, I think even Mimi was becoming convinced the professionals were right, and I was having delusions. I was prescribed a medication. I managed to convey my unquestioning, obedient, acceptance of both their diagnosis and recommended treatment. Mimi and I picked up their prescription at the pharmacy. I carefully read the drug company description attached to my bottle of pills and systematically flushed a pill a day down the toilet.

At my next appointment, I reported experiencing nausea when I began the treatment but told them this had worn off in a week. I hoped that this additional fabrication would help to convince my audience that I was obediently taking my meds. The doctor nodded approvingly and delicately inquired about the voices and face at the window.

“Oh those,” I waved my arm dismissively, “gradually faded and are gone!”

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, believing my problem solved. I joined them, elated that my ruse had hoodwinked them. The consultation room hummed with the vibes of content people.

When I got home that evening, I decided that enough was enough, the face needed to unveil himself. I created a large sign on the back of an old science fair project. It read, “Who are You?” I propped it up against my bed in full view of the window. I went outside and looked in as the face did to make sure my writing was clear. It was, I knew he couldn’t miss it. A couple of weeks later, I got my answer. His message was written in bold letters on a similar piece of foam-core. I read “You KNOW who I am!” I leapt out of bed and ran to the window, when I got there he was gone leaving the board propped on the window sill. Early the next morning I retrieved it and stored it standing against my initial message.

When Mimi died, Mama appeared out of nowhere. She arranged an intimate memorial service. He came to the funeral home standing at the back his face, for the first time ever, fully illuminated. I was tormented by a plethora of mixed emotions; a deep sadness at Mimi’s death, coupled with a sense of completion as I watched my mother greet the face. I surreptitiously watched them, and realized she recognized and knew him. When she got ready to depart on her next jaunt, I was formally introduced and went to live with him; the most stable person in my life.

Kent and Helen – short story

On 2/6/2013, I posted a story “A Dip With Helen” in which I introduced Kent, his mother’s erudite cat Mack, and his niece Helen. Due to Kent’s father’s two marriages Kent is about the same age as Helen. Kent is attracted to Helen and is thwarted by their uncle / niece relationship and society’s mores associated with unions between such close relatives. On 2/26/2018, I posted “The Hidden Treasure”which is another story about Kent. This story doesn’t mention Helen and doesn’t completely jibe with the 2013 story, although minor edits could make the two stories fit together. From this you can tell that I rather like Kent and so write this story about him.

KENT HELEN TREE 

Kent had been cleaning out his mother’s house for several hours before he came to her photograph albums. He took them to the dining room table to study carefully. He paused to enjoy every image of his niece Helen and book marked the pages on which her image appeared. There were only a few: the one of them sharing a bath as children: the one taken at his father’s funeral and the one of them in 2008 standing wet-haired under a “NO SWIMMING” sign at Pedernales Falls. He gathered the albums up and set them by the front door to take to his car. He would look at them again when he returned to his apartment. He didn’t need the photographs for his memory of her was vivid, but somehow having pictures and being able to touch them gave him a thrill. He stroked her luxuriant hair and outlined the curve of her lips. He traced her teasing eyes and blushed as he fondled the curves of her shapely body, as if the contact brought her closer. He shut his eyes and could see things not recorded in the albums. He saw the hidden pool at Pedernales Falls. He saw her seductive naked body slicing through the water. He felt the cool clear water against his body. He heard her voice.

He shook himself out of his reverie and spoke to Mack, his recently deceased mother’s cat, “It is such a shame that, although we are the same age, I am her uncle.” The cat meowed back, and Kent continued his monologue, “Yes. I know that an uncle / niece union is legal in Texas, but not in all States, but wouldn’t she and her parents frown on our having children?” Kent reached and stroked the cat who arched his back in response, “She is so beautiful, and I mean spiritually as well as physically. Humanity needs her to have children. She has to have children!”

Mack stood on the table and looked at Kent. He locked Kent’s eyes into glass-eyed cat stare. When Kent turned away he noticed a small snippet of paper torn from a newspaper lurking under Mack’s paw. He lifted the cat’s soft paw and looked at the paper. On it, he read the word ‘Helen’ accompanied by an e-mail address. It was written in his mother’s unmistakable hand. The newspaper date was a few days before her death. Kent’s mind flooded with questions. What was his mother doing with Helen’s phone number? If she hadn’t died suddenly might she have given it to him or did she intend to use it herself and if so why? He stroked the cat and as he did so he concluded that this was a subliminal message from his mother that a liaison with Helen was acceptable. As he thought about it he became increasingly convinced that this was maternal encouragement from the grave. He decided that he should waste no time, he shoved Mack off the table and opened his computer. He began to type.

His e-mail was a rambling affair in which he alluded to the fact that they hadn’t seen each other for several years, gave a brief outline of his activities and finally asked for her news. After he pressed “send” he re-read it again and wished that he hadn’t sent it for it seemed too brash. How surprised he was to get an almost immediate response. He learned that, yes indeed, she did remember him, and no, she was not in a relationship. Kent stood up, raised his arms in the air, shouted “Halleluiah” and danced around the table. He snatched up Mack to join in his jubilation. The cat did not appreciate this familiarity. He added meows to the halleluiahs until Kent set him down.

There is only so much that you can cover by e-mail and after a few weeks of daily exchanges, Kent suggested that they advanced to the telephone. They talked every evening, discussing the news, books, art, life, religion, and philosophy. They never alluded to their uncle / niece relationship and didn’t meet as Helen lived in Houston and Kent in Austin. There came a day when Helen, now a licensed architect running her own projects, informed Kent that her office had landed a project in Austin, and that she would be making a few business trips to Austin. Did Kent want to get together?

For their first date, for Kent regarded this business trip of hers a date, Kent took the day off work and met Helen at the airport. While he stood at the bottom of the escalator bearing down the incoming travelers, he worried that he might miss her but when she appeared, he had no doubt. His heart raced. He greeted her with a hug. He wanted to kiss her on lips right there on the concourse but restrained himself. He escorted her to the Magnolia Café on Lake Austin Boulevard where they ordered pancakes and coffee. Perhaps the excitement of their meeting or the day’s schedule stole their appetites for they drank their coffee but didn’t eat much. Kent drove her to her meeting, and late afternoon picked her up. She said that she had a busy day scheduled for the morrow, and so he took her to Mozart’s for a light supper overlooking the lake. When he dropped her off, he snatched a quick curb-side hug and a promise that she would be back. He sat mesmerized in his car watching her retreating figure until she disappeared, and he lost himself in dreaming about the impossibility of a real relationship with this love of his life. A uniformed airport police person broke through his reverie by tapping on his windshield with the admonition that he “move along please.” If only I could, he thought, as he drove slowly away.

Helen made a few more visits to Austin, and Kent managed to persuade her to spend a week-end. He talked one of his married female colleagues into letting Helen sleep in her spare room, for he still worried about where this seemingly doomed romance was going. On the one hand, he worried about their blood relationship and on the other, he was so addicted to the joy of her presence that he couldn’t give her up. He escorted her to Pedernales Falls, and they ate a picnic overlooking the waterway. Then they scrambled gazelle-like down over the smooth rock and crystal-clear pools. Their ‘secret’ pool was still there glittering in the sunlight. Kent wanted to relive that moment when they had slipped naked into the waters for an illicit swim, but this time, there were other visitors around and swimming was out of the question. They sat upon a rock and dabbled their feet in the water. Kent reached for her hand and held it. She turned and smiled at him “Yes. I remember” she said. He drew her into his arms and kissed her. She responded with equal longing.

“What shall we do?” he asked, and seeing her sad smile went on “I want to see you every day. I want to marry you. Oh Helen, how I love you!” He paused.

She didn’t move or draw away but looked at him with tears in her eyes. “Kent, I love you too; but what shall we do about this uncle / niece thing? I know that we could get married but would either of us be content with adopted children?”

“My Helen, my beautiful darling Helen, will you marry me and adopt children?” Kent was now on his knees before her. The bare rock surface cut into his patella but he hardly noticed.

Suddenly Helen was her usual bubbly self. “Get up. You fool,” she chided “Of course I’ll marry you, let’s talk to my parents.”

Kent and Helen arranged a weekend in Dallas with Helen’s parents. On Saturday afternoon, Kent found himself alone with them. He found it strange to be sitting there thinking of ways to ask his brother become his father-in-law. It took him half an hour to get to his point, but eventually he asked them to bless a union between himself and Helen. He bravely went on to admit that he knew their blood relationship gave such a marriage restrictions. He explained they had agreed to adopt children. At this point, Helen’s parents looked at each other and nodded.

“We have to tell him.” Said her mom.

“What, tell me what?”

“Well, Kent, your mother wanted this kept a secret, although just before she died, she told me that she was thinking about telling you. The truth is that the man we both knew as father was not your biological father.”

“What do you mean? Dad was not my dad?” Kent’s mind was in turmoil.

“Your Dad was your dad, just not your biological parent.”

“So, Mom had an affair, and they stayed married?” Kent was getting increasingly unhappy.

“No, your Mom did not have an affair. Let me explain, before they got married our father had a vasectomy because he felt that he was too old for any more children. However, as you know, your mother was a licensed practicing mid-wife and eventually told our father that she desperately wanted a child. Out of his devotion for her, he agreed to let her be artificially inseminated, and you were the result. Your biological father is some medical student somewhere.”

“So,” Kent’s head was spinning, “Helen and I are not related biologically – we can get married and have children!” He stood, hugged his brother and future father-in-law, raised his arms, and shouted “Halleluiah!”