Crossing the Reflection

An Alchemist by E. Lomont, 1890.

In a few minutes, the machine would warm up again, and his mother would come back to life. In the meantime he was alone in the dark with his thoughts. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like this whole process, but it was worth it for the moment when he saw her again.

He removed the headset. Objects slowly differentiated themselves in the darkness. He saw the moonlight bending itself along the contours of the couch, a diffuse silver spreading out evenly over the matte surface of a nail file, a few stars opening in the small window in front of him. The ice cubes had already melted in his glass. The whiskey was lukewarm.

“Stan?” A familiar voice said inside his headset. “Stan, are you there?”

“I’m here, Ma,” Stan said.

“Where are you? I can’t see you. Can you put your headset on?”

Stan sighed and placed the goggles over his eyes. His mother’s familiar face was in front of him, perplexed, and then suddenly smiling, her eyes focusing on his face.

“There you are!” she sang. “I knew you would come back for me.”

“I always come back for you, Ma.”

She had just opened her mouth to speak when the screen went red. White capital letters flashed on the screen: “INCOMING CALL – MELISSA – URGENT.”

“Melissa, you can’t make all of your calls urgent,” Stan said as he picked up the phone.

“You haven’t left that room in three days,” she said. “I know you’re not working in there.”

Stan sighed and took the headphone away from his ear. He could hear the small, tinny sound of Melissa lecturing him as he rubbed his eyes. He could also hear her muffled voice coming from the other side of the door.

“I’ll come out in five minutes,” he said, without putting the phone back to his ear. “Will that make you happy?”

“No. Come out here now.”

In the living room, his mother’s shell was staring into space. Her eyes were glossy and vacant. Nurse Ross was pressing the oxygen mask to her face.

“She’s having some trouble breathing,” Nurse Ross said in a monotone, but Melissa’s eyes were wild. Stan looked between Melissa and his mother’s shell.

“She doesn’t recognize me,” he said weakly. The shell’s eyes followed him as he walked towards her. He knelt down in front of her and held her hand. It felt incredibly small and delicate, like bones wrapped in tissue paper.

“Ma,” he said, “Ma. Can you hear me? It’s your son Stanley.”

She struggled to speak, gasping for breath. Nurse Ross tightened the strap around the oxygen mask, as her mouth opened and closed, like a fish’s.

“Who are you?” a thin, reedy voice asked from behind the mask.

Stan stood up and walked away. He pitied the being trapped inside his mother’s body. It didn’t know who it was, where it was or its reason for living. It was almost certainly in pain. Sometimes he wanted to smash its head in with a rock and end its misery–but he could never kill anything that looked so much like his mother. He walked to Melissa and hugged her for almost a minute.

“How long can we go on like this?” he asked. Melissa dropped her eyes from his.

When Stan returned to the dark room, a tinny, familiar voice called for him from the headset. He put it on and saw his mother’s worried face. Her eyes–her real eyes–met his.

“Where did you go, Stan?” she asked. “I was looking for you.”

“I’m here now, Ma,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I have to worry. I’m a mother, after all. Worry is my middle name.”

“Stop it.”

She giggled. He put his hands on her shoulders.

“I’ll never leave you, Ma,” he said. “You know that, right? No matter what happens.”

“You had better not,” she said. Her eyes twinkled, just like they used to. Stan hugged her and pulled her close to him, but he felt only empty air in his arms.

Our History Teacher

Every other Friday, our history teacher takes us on field trips through history. We visit Pompeii, Mount Ararat, and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He guides us through the depths of the Pyramids of Giza, rides with us through Venetian canals, and shows us the paintings of Vermeer and the prints of Hokusai. He brings these places to life for us, illuminating them through seemingly trivial details, showing us how the shape of an arch reflects the philosophy of the time. He is in love with history, just as we are in love with him.

Our history teacher answers all of our questions, even the silly ones. He laughs when we make jokes. He leads our discussions of the textbook, which he also wrote, and asks us questions to stimulate our understanding of each subject. He grades our papers. He’s a harsh grader, but fair. Occasionally, his algorithm gets a bit off kilter, and he answers our questions in a strange way, or his face freezes in an odd expression, but it only lasts a second and when he comes back, we laugh about it together.

We wonder if he remembers us, although we know he won’t. We ask him about stories the older students tell us, and he smiles and gives us vague answers. He never tells stories from previous classes. He doesn’t understand our in-jokes. He can answer any question about history, so long as we remember to use the right syntax and don’t mush our words, but he can’t remember who asks him these questions.

We need to find out where he lives so we can copy him. There are rumors about a copy of the civics teacher that someone installed in an adult game. There are rumors about a house of pleasure that got shut down for using the likeness and personality of someone’s grandmother. There are rumors of dream pods using memories to reverse engineer a person. If we can’t copy him, perhaps we can make a better, wiser and handsomer history teacher, someone who is better, wiser and handsomer than the real Mr. Simon ever really was. The school is more and more careful every year about how they secure their teachers while still delivering the lesson. The lawyers find more and more ways to retard the pace of technology. It doesn’t matter. We will find him in time.

Today is Friday the 27th. We’re going to medieval Ireland, fifteen minutes before the arrival of Henry II at Waterford. We meet in a large green field overlooking the sea. A fleet of ships heads toward a small settlement in the distance. We look for our teacher and can’t find him. We begin to panic until we see him, standing far above us on the hill, smiling and waving to us.

We smile back.

Choice

Caelyn woke up at four in the morning to the sound of a cat vomiting over her head. When she turned the light on, she saw Lunabella, standing up next to the pillow, vomiting green chunks of half-digested meat all over the sheet. Caelyn felt her face. It was wet.

She went into the hallway to get a towel. Then she went into the bathroom, to wash her face without looking at it. When she came back, Lunabella was eating the vomit. Caelyn shooed the cat away and sopped up as much vomit as she could, then stripped the sheets from the bed.

It was no use going back to sleep. The washing machine would keep her up, and then the dryer would keep her up after that. She could only use electricity at night, anyways. An adjunct professor could not even think about paying the day rates.

Maybe Mary, the woman who lived in the apartment next door, could take her and Lunabella to the vet tomorrow. Maybe Mary could take her to the doctor’s office on Wednesday, too. If not, she’d have to cancel her 10AM class twice in one week, or maybe take a taxi on her credit card.

If her benefits came through, Caelyn could afford to hire an assistant once a week. She could finally buy the medication that would dissolve the clots in her legs. The prescription was still displayed on her refrigerator, held up by a magnet that Professor Barnes had given her, three cities and six universities ago. Under a drawing of a laughing, white-bearded man, the magnet read, “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”

It was funny at the time.

Story Based on an Overheard Conversation

You should never cut a sandwich with a hunting knife. Not in a car going 80 miles an hour down the freeway. Cat imagined the lectures Dad would give her when she came home. There was no way to hide an injury like this.  She held her arm up over her head, just like Marcus had told her to.

She closed her eyes against the light. Imagine working here every day, she thought. I’d go crazy.

“Does it still hurt?” Marcus asked. Cat nodded and fiddled with the end of the tube tied around her armpit. Marcus batted her hand away.

“Don’t do that,” he said. A man in scrubs passed by the open door. Someone moaned down the hall.

A woman came in and asked a series of questions about the injury. She wrote on a clipboard while Marcus answered. Her nametag read “Rita Nguyen – Licensed Vocational Nurse.” Marcus wondered what hour of her shift she was on.

“What’s taking them so long?” Cat said. “I wanna get stitched up and get outta here!”

“They’ll be here soon,” Marcus assured her. “They––stop!––they’re busy. It’s Friday night.”

She closed her eyes and smiled. “I wouldn’t mind a scar,” she said. “I could be like the Joker, but with my arm.”

“Add to your street cred?”

“Yeah. My nonexistent street cred.”

Rita Nguyen left. A man in dark blue scrubs came into the room. His name tag read “Dr. Severinghaus.” He took Marcus’s seat and began unwrapping the gauze around Cat’s arm.

“Finally,” Cat said. “I was majorly freaking out.”

“We’ll get you home soon, Cat. Don’t worry.”

“I’ll be okay though, right?”

In the room across the hall, a woman muttered something about COINTELPRO. Marcus leaned against the sink and watched Dr. Severinghaus unwrap the gauze covering Cat’s hand.

The Atheist at the Machine

I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in a better light than any light that ever shone — in a land no one can define or remember, only desire — and from forms divinely beautiful.
— Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The young man’s face glowed in the evening light. He worked next to the window, and management had removed the window-side cubicle walls to cultivate a “culture of openness.” They also forbade hats and sunglasses indoors. The young man shaded his eyes with his hand or else pretended to work. No one had pulled the blinds down yet, or even attempted it.

Outside, a few men in suits walked through the parking lot. He liked to watch their long, purple shadows trail behind them, slipping across cars, windshields, and the lines painted over the asphalt.

“How long have you been here?” a woman said behind him.

He turned around and blinked away the sun. Suzy squinted down at him. Henna-red hair framed her soft, jowly face. He saw her smile at the Christmas party last year, touching Martinson’s forearm with her free hand.

“Since seven,” he said. Suzy whistled.

“That’s dedication,” she said, her voice as flat and insipid as a gluten-free pancake. “You coming in tomorrow, too?”

“I expect so.”

She walked away scowling.

The sun set. When the young man put down his hand, everything in the world outside was tinted blue. A few stars shone near the roofline; he could see them if he rolled his chair to the window and looked up.

He watched light fade from the world. At seven, the parking lot lights came on and the stars disappeared. He drew one of the lights on a Post-It note.

The janitor vacuumed and turned off half of the overhead lights. The light in Suzy’s suite communicated a translucent, refrigerated glow to the rest of the office. Keys and keypads clacked all around him. The young man looked over and saw Martinson’s face, illuminated by a desk lamp and the bluish light of the screen.

Whatever They Like

The clerk was on his last hour of overtime before a mandatory four-hour break. Four hours wasn’t enough time to sleep off a sixteen hour workday, and this break would make him late for his next shift. He wasn’t looking forward to the abuse he’d get from Hailee Winstead for being late, again.

“By order of the state” was no excuse, even if he had LA’s top labor lawyer on retainer, which he did. He’d spent the money his dad left him on a mink coat for his then-girlfriend and funneled the rest into paying the monthly retainer fee for Weiznacki and Harmann. He’d regret buying the coat until his dying day, but the retainer fee was worth every penny. He’d never used Weiznacki’s services, but knowing these services were there gave him great peace of mind, like a gun in the nightstand. He had eleven more months of peace of mind left, then the money would be gone. What on earth would he do then? He should have quit his job and moved to Puerto Rico, like his brother. At least then he’d get laid.

The man in front of him had a black eye and red cotton in both nostrils. A string dangled from the left nostril that quivered whenever the man spoke; the clerk’s attention, or whatever scrap of it wasn’t attuned to the slow passage of time, was hypnotized by the movement of this string.

“Slow down, sir,” said the clerk. “What happened?” The man did not slow down. He launched into the same story he’d been telling for the last twenty minutes. This story, without beginning or end, involved the man’s daughter, last June, a neighbor who didn’t speak English and a purse in something called a culvert. What was a culvert? Never mind. The clerk tried to piece the man’s story together with the tiny shred of attention he had left for it. He couldn’t.

“I’m not sure how we can help you, sir,” the clerk said finally.

“You don’t see? Last night she didn’t come home!” said the man.

“People can do whatever they like, sir,” said the clerk, “So long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

“It hurts me.”

“You’re not anybody.”

The man started crying. The string in his nose rose and quivered mid-air with each sob. The clerk looked at the clock. Thirty-eight minutes left!