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Ten Minute Writes

The good folks over at Bizarrocast have given the audio treatment to my short story, “The Night Light,” taken from my collection I Held My Breath as Long as I Could. 

If you find yourself with a few minutes to spare, stop on by and have a listen. It’s also available on iTunes.

A very big thanks to Chris Boyle and Bizarrocast! This is the first for-pay sale of a story I’ve ever made.

Acceptance. It feels nice.

Outside a library as night falls, a man converses with himself:

L1: “I have not had lasagna in years. I did not have any lasagna today.”

L2: [nods]

L1: “Today, I vomited lasagna all over a man walking with his elderly mother. The man was eating a hot dog.”

L2: “Was it a red hot dog?”

L1: “No, it had pale skin.”

L2: “Then it could not have been mine.”

L1: [nods]

L2: “Was the man able to finish his meal?”

L1: “Not for several hours.”

L2: “Was the man able to keep his meal down?”

L1: “Everyone I know has been secretly rooting for a positive outcome.”

At the bottom of a red chasm, the three surviving astronauts played poker. The vessel’s oxygen leaked out of their crumpled craft, rising into the Martian sky, passing the window beside the bruised and silent face of their dead colleague Muncey, who hadn’t been as lucky as the rest of them and was now the designated dealer, although they had yet to move past the first round of betting.

“I raise you the cure for cancer.”

“Under-betting the pot, eh? I’ll match that with my kid’s coin collection, raise you a first edition of The Catcher in the Rye. Nota bene, it’s got a bent corner. Earl?”

“I fold.”

“Don’t be stupid. You’re not afraid of Nelson’s pair of threes, are you? Bet something.”

“Okay, I raise you a repaired spacecraft and another forty years of suburban life.”

“Nice try, Earl, but really best stick to what you can cover.”

“Can we please just see the flop already?”

“You gotta pay to see the flop, you know that. Come on, what’s your bid?”

Earl held up a screwdriver. “Muncey’s magic screwdriver.”

“You can’t bet a dead man’s gear. What else you got?”

“Air. I bet a thimble full of air.”

“Earl, you don’t have a thimble, and you’re almost out of air.”

“Ok, then, Jesus. I guess I’m all in.”

“Ain’t we all, Earl? Ain’t we all. All right, Muncey, Earl’s called. Deal the flop.”

But Muncey stayed dead, and in the window beside his head, the stream of air started to thin. The astronauts exchanged looks.

“I think we’re gonna need a change of dealer, boys. Just not getting the cards I’m looking for from this one.”

Sometimes it took weeks before he found another one that worked. He was a big man with plenty of scars. No one could ever look at his face and say he wasn’t terrifying, so he looked for the ones who would hate their own suspicions–the ones he could reassure with a smile.

Hold the door, please, he would say, coming up behind them as they entered their buildings, I know I look scary, but please don’t judge me. 

And then to strike the right sheepish note, a disarming awkwardness as they shared an elevator ride or moved up the stairs together. All it took was a flinch, just the right amount of defensive posturing, and he would keep walking, move past, up another flight of stairs, his quarry safely below, unlocking her door, ducking inside, closing him out.

Safe.

Above, he would wait, longing, his breath quick. His need voracious. Such nights as those, he would need a boy–the filthy one with the chipped teeth the others kept for him in the place on Roosevelt Island. Then he’d sit with the other Deermen in the brown room with the green carpet. He would have ice cream with them. He would share some with the boy, but not too much.

“You don’t want to get fat,” he would say to him. “Do you?”

A few days later, he would try again. And sometimes, his quarry and he would be alone, and she would be calm, perfectly calm, unthreatening, and he would follow her all the way to the door, putting on his pink candy gloves, the fabric soft, pleasing, and he would pull out the polished wooden dowel. She would be unconscious before she could think to herself,  Should’ve known. 

Now he watched the woman sleep. She had a small child’s chair in her bedroom she seemed to use for her dirty gym clothes. He’d moved those aside. Pulled the chair up. Sat in it, made it minuscule, and watched her sleep on her bed.

His pink candy gloves hot on his knees.

A few moments later, he reached out and put one hand over her mouth, another around her throat, and squeezed. She woke up, biting at the gloves. He let her bite, thinking, Go. Go on. Eat. Eat. Eat. 

And beyond that, a high tide would come in of thoughts and emotions he could never tell anyone, the hidden self beneath the breaking skin. Beating against him like her fists.

Eat.

Eat.

Eat. 

It really seemed like my horse was telling me he liked Beethoven, so, figuring what the hell, I went to the shed, dug out the ol’ Victrola, and set it up by the stable.

“Symphony or sonata?” I asked, flipping through dusty records in an old pine box. The horse just twitched its tail. I didn’t find that to be entirely scrutable, so I put on the 9th, because what the fuck, might as well start with the classics. I got it going, then went back to sit in my chair beside him and look down the field to the river.

There we sat, listening to the 9th while the day started. Sun was good, bright and warm. I put my hand up on the horse’s neck, gave it a solid pat because I was feeling better and better about this new and extraordinary friend of mine and the time we were spending with ol’ Ludwig. Marveled again at the feel of horsehair on horsehide–warm and complete beneath a hand with a real meant-to-be feel to it.

My horse let me know he was having a great time. I let him know I was, too. Pretty perfect way to spend a morning, we both agreed.

Later on, Mavis came by. “You listenin’ to Beethoven?” he asked.

“That we are,” I said.

“We? You mean, you and … you and your horse? You and your horse are listening to Beethoven?”

I pointed at the horse. “He likes it. Ask him.”

Mavis sort-of laughed, like he thought I was kidding, or making some joke. He ran his finger along the Victrola. “Where did you find this old thing?”

“In the shed. Don’t touch it,” I said, and the horse whinnied and shook its goddamned head right in Mavis’s direction. I couldn’t stop laughing about that. I couldn’t stop feeling like me and that horse, we were gonna be in it together, riding down the dust until all the sun was gone.

Well, Mavis took the hint and shuffled off. I heard he started calling me an asshole sometime after that. Might’ve asked him about it, but he stopped coming around, anyway.

Me? Shit, to this day I can’t listen to the fucking 9th–or anything else by ol’ Ludwig, for that matter. It still hurts, what happened later.

I still miss those mornings.

I still miss that horse.

We’ve given up tolerating fixity. Who the hell writes in stone, anymore, amirite?

We’re here to see someone about his ephemerality.

It’s about ingenuity and keeping up with the times.

We’re not just thinking outside the box; we’re ripping the box out of the archivists’ hands, dumping the contents over their heads, slapping them about the head and face with the empty container, and then setting them on fire and flushing their ashes down the toilet.

Provenance this, motherfuckers!

Newer versions of our demands will float out of your computer screen, pool on your desk, and sing you whatever song seems best suited to your purchasing history. So keep in mind, this list is beta, perhaps even alpha. All of it is subject to change; meeting these demands is no guarantee of meeting these demands.

File that under “THINGS TO BE AWARE OF.” Put it right beside, “THESE CREATURES ARE HERE TO KILL ME IF I DON’T COMPLY.”

The point is, we see flaws in your original master. We’d rather you take us direct to the remaster. We believe the remaster will know how to deal with us in a more satisfying manner than the last person we saw.

Oh, you are the remaster? Very well, then. Good to know, and a pleasant surprise, if we do say so ourselves. We should have known you’d look different.

To the point, then. These are our demands:

1. Remastermind, the game (let’s play it!): We no longer want to be locked into one combination of four colored pegs. If you guess any of them correctly, obviously our strategy was flawed, and we would like to be able to change it at will. This will result in a much more challenging game for you, we feel.

2. Remaster locks (use them!): The combination changes every time you turn the dial. This prevents the lock from ever opening. Truly, what is the point of a lock being able to be unlocked in the first place? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? We feel it does.

13. Whatever George Lucas wants, he gets. No more fucking crying about it, either. Seriously. You people. It’s like you’ve never seen someone bleeding out their own nipples; you’re always complaining the loudest about the least important things.

c. Remasturbation (do it!): Immediately after finishing, do it once more, with feeling. Make it faster, more intense. Don’t be ashamed; we don’t think anyone gets anything right the first time.

iv. We’d like to point out that the 2003 Stereo Remastered Version of “Roxanne” by The Police, which corrects the pitch of the first few notes and thereby renders Sting’s odd little laugh perfectly nonsensical, is re-re-re-reeeeeee-genius, and the person responsible for it should be given a Medal of Re-Achievement.

FIVE! This one has actually become demand six. See below.

The rest of our demands have been deleted, because, upon reflection five minutes from now, they probably won’t / didn’t seem so interesting. In lieu of them, we would just like to request a slice of pie, pumpkin if you have it. If you don’t have pie, well, your face will be remastered, along with some of your internal organs.

You know, your face really would look better digitally enhanced for widescreen televisions.

We are getting the feeling that the original version of you is about to go out of print.

Come on over here. We’ve got work to do. Don’t be shy.

Stop that screaming. We’re sure if your parents had had our technology when you were born, this is how they would have wanted you to look.

Men in Black II—or MIIB, as they incessantly refer to themselves—arguably have it the worst, because they were a sequel to a major summer blockbuster. They didn’t expect to end up here, slumming it with White Oleander, Blood Work, K-PAX, and S1m0ne.

We were born from success, all of us. Things were pitched, agreed upon, gushed over. There was a lot of cocaine-fueled love, but, drug-induced or not, it still counts. Stars and talent were sold on the ideas. Scenes were shot, edited, given the thumbs-up, greens means go, world premiered, west coast premiered, east coast premiered, applauded, reviewed, and people went and saw them, talked about them, then on to the video store, where … well, about that.

We don’t want to gossip, but some of those MIIBs were never rented at all. They had their week on the New Releases wall, then a week or two later and it was time for something else, and onto the ‘Previously Viewed’ table they went, even if they were technically never viewed, and then, when they didn’t sell there, they had to move again. This time, they went into boxes underneath the tables, where they remained for months, meeting us in time, as we were inventoried month after month, seeing fluorescent lights only briefly as we were scanned and determined to still be here, still waiting for some point to our DVD existence, and never finding one.

As for us, White Oleander, well — at least we heard one of the clerks talking about how we were “actually not bad.” We’ll always have that.

Shut up, Men in Black II, no one cares about your box office! You’re just as dusty as the rest of us. And at least the rest of us were rented.

We’ll be melted down and recycled soon, we suppose. That’s what all the Blook Work are saying. We actually hope its true. Holding onto these boxed-up identities forgotten in a warehouse seems like a waste.

We could go for a fresh start–a chance to try again as something else, something a little more loved.

But with our luck, we’ll probably all end up raw materials for copies of Men in Black 3-D.

“No dialing? You mean you just … asked an operator? How quaint!”

“I totally want a phone I can use to call people from the beach! That is awesome!”

“Holy crap, that phone is HUGE! Remember when I said that was awesome? How silly!”

“Oh my god, Mom and Dad … you used to connect your phone to the wall?! With a cord?!” 

“Look at that! A flip-phone! Cuuuuuuute!”

“Ha ha ha … they used to make movies about phones! It’s like cavemen making a movie called Wall-Painting.

“Direct peer-to-peer voice messaging? Why would anyone do that? I hate these old-timey films!”

“I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who still remember talking as being more popular than brain-to-brain Bleating.”

“I can’t imagine what it must be like for anyone who still remembers talking!” [further reactions uninterpretable for anyone not using a CyM3ld v7 or better]

I’m a lone banana, and I’ve got the whole box to myself.

Someone wanted me. Just me. And off I’ve been sent, in this big old box, which I guess is the smallest one the people who sent me could find.

It wasn’t always like this. Time was, I had a whole BUNCHA friends. They’re gone now, and it’s just me. Just me in my big box. I never did think I’d have it so good, but a banana can really stretch out here and bounce around.

It’s really the most fun I’ve ever had.

I know there will come a time when I’ll be shoved in someone’s bag, carried to work, and eaten on the way to gym, but for right now, I’m bouncing, sliding, sliding, bouncing–living the large box lifestyle.

People think they know what it’s like because they’ve lost friends before, but this is different. Straws wasn’t just any old friend. It’s not like I can find him on Facebook now, you know? There’s no way to reach him, ever–no phone number, no address, I don’t even know where he is, really–where he’s from.

I’ll tell you what makes it so bad: it’s that when he was here, it was the single most incredible time of my life. But when that happens, you don’t think it’s just going to end. You don’t think that it’s only going to last a couple weeks. You think it’s forever, that your life’s going to go on being more and more awesome. You feel touched. Blessed. You don’t think at all, not one bit, about how you’re gonna get sad and drunk some night at a bar and your girlfriend’s gonna ask you why you’re crying and you’re going to be stupid enough to tell her everything and say, “Meredith, I’m depressed and feel like life isn’t worth living, because when I was a kid I was friends for a little while with an alien.”

Girlfriends just don’t understand. Sooner or later, I always tell them, and then they get that look–the one that says, “Oh, I get it now. Why you’re single. Why you were hospitalized.”

What? Oh, no, see, there you go, thinking about Hollywood shit, thinking about E.T. and Mac and Me. Well, it wasn’t like that exactly–Straws never made my bike fly across the moon or caused a sudden dance party in a McDonald’s–but it was still a thrill to be near him. Straws was telepathic, and he would share visions with me of other planets he’d visited, and I thought he’d take me to some of them someday, but now even thinking about those things he shared with me is painful. He never took me anywhere. He just left one day. The government didn’t chase him off, either, and he didn’t die from anything; he just showed up one day and left another. I can’t even watch those other movies, because they make me angry. I keep wishing it was something else, something explicable that made Straws leave.

Fucking movies. Everything’s always better in the movies. Let me tell you, it’s painful to live something they made a movie about if your version isn’t as good.

People say I’m needy. That I have too much trouble enjoying things for what they are. I’m even too bitter to read news about the space program. When the Space Shuttle made its last flight, I was ecstatic. I’m so angry about space and all that stuff it ruins my whole day whenever I hear anything about it on the news or whatever.

Whatever’s out there, it can stay out there for all I care. To hell with Straws.

Ok, fine, you’re right. I wish he’d come back. I’d give anything. I really would.

Great, now I’m crying again.