Really Happy For You
The embers of their words surround you and pull you into a warm embrace. The sticks and stones they throw feel like flower petals being sprinkled onto your skin as they pelt you with the truth. You’ve known it all along, and you never had any intention of denying it. The fire you spew back at them burns hotter and brighter than they ever could have imagined. Their attempts to drag you down fuel you, as the insults and attacks they hurl at you only make you more inclined to retaliate and put them in their place. They’ve lit a dragon on fire and have no way of controlling the flame. Your silver tongue forms sounds that only you could produce. The crowd of spectators cheers, the executioners jeer, but the one thing you know is that you’ll escape these chains that tether you to the ground - rip them from the earth and fly away, holding onto the red hot flames furnished with fiery speech. You’ve only ever learned to grow from others pinning you to the ground, and your glorious escape from the stake will give way to your greatest counterattack yet - the sly peppering of pomposity in your speech, the twisted tune of phony flattery, both acrid and honeyed. They will all know you’re winning, but they won’t know how.
I already know how many leaves are on the tree. I planted the tree. I know everything about the tree. You don’t need to give me useless information about my own tree, but you continue to record in your little black notebook how many leaves hang from the branches, and there is nothing I can do to stop you.
You act as though your death will be the worst moment of your life, but I think it will be the best - spectacular, even. I always imagined fireworks and trumpets. Your entire life has been about death, therefore your death should be full of life.
When you were a child you had fainting spells. Every time you felt one coming on, you were convinced you were about to die. Standing in your kitchen all of a sudden your ears would ring, everything would go dark, and minutes later you’d wake up on the ground covered in marks. You fell so much your skin was tinged gray, as if all of the bruises with which you were adorned had melded together to form a completely new layer of skin, blood right at the surface, as if ready to spring a leak if you ever didn’t count something that needed to be counted.
Your mother had bought you a collection of little black notebooks to encourage your habit. I don’t know if she believed that your counting really would ward off your own death or if she was just trying to give you peace-of-mind. She gave them to you right before she died in what the police called a murder-suicide. She had set her car on fire with herself and your father inside. All they found of your parents were a few of your mother’s teeth and your father’s singed hand melted onto the steering wheel. She had left you a letter that morning and the police deemed it a suicide note.
You thought your fainting spells would have gotten worse after your parents died but they seemed to stop altogether. You attributed that to the fact that the notebooks your mother had given you worked. As long as you wrote down what you counted, you would be safe.
The notebooks were numbered, and the last book in the bunch had revealed on its final page that your mother had left you something buried underneath the lone patch of daffodils on the outskirts of the local cemetery.
You hear a clang as your shovel lifts its fourteenth pile of dirt from the earth and find a metal trunk haphazardly buried not even six feet below the ground.
Before opening the trunk, you take the package of peanut butter cups out of your pocket. You and your mother used to go to the gas station four times a week to buy tickets for the Silver Dollar Lotto and would split a package of peanut butter cups while you each took turns scratching off the little dollar signs.
All that was ever revealed on the cards were pennies and dimes - no silver dollars, not even a quarter. Ironically, your mother could have had the 20,000 dollars within a few years had she just saved her money instead of buying flimsy cardboard dream-crushers every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
You can’t bring yourself to eat the second peanut butter cup, although you haven’t had one in years. Your boyfriend is deathly allergic to peanuts, which you learned one night when you kissed him five hours after eating some peanut butter crackers. He had nearly died, and you had counted his teeth while calling 911 to make sure he didn’t stop breathing. But the second peanut butter cup was for your mother. You tuck it in your back pocket, wrapped in its orange packaging.
You open the latch to the trunk and unhinge the lid. Inside is a pile of little black notebooks just like the ones your mother had gotten you so many years ago. You flip open the notebook on top and brace yourself, as if your mother’s spirt is going to escape from the pages and tell you her unfinished business.
Beneath the words is a drawing of a flower inside a square - a perfect circle with four even petals surrounding it. You know you’ve seen this symbol before but you can’t place exactly where.
You count the notebooks just to be sure there are really 25, and there are. You find that beneath the notebooks is a large paper bag stuffed with stacks and stacks of cash. You shouldn’t need to count all of the money since it’s written down in the notebook, but I know you will anyway, and you do.
You finish counting and reach into the bag for one last surprise - a winning Silver Dollar Lotto ticket. Before your mother’s death, she had won 20,000 dollars in the Silver Dollar Lottery and had left it for you.
You pack up the trunk and lug it home to yours and your boyfriend’s apartment. On the way, you count the gnats that make up the cloud above your head in the humid air and report it back to me.
When you arrive home, your boyfriend is asleep on the couch, snoring with the gruffness of a wild boar being restrained. He awakes himself with a particularly violent snort and finds you standing in the doorway, trunk in hand, face as if you’d seen a ghost. He asks what is in the trunk and you answer with the truth.
“Notebooks,” you say.
Your boyfriend doesn’t like your counting habit and never supported it. He always thought the best thing to do was to quit cold turkey. He had thrown all of your notebooks into the dumpster once, but you had dived into the sea of grimy banana peels and leftover lo mein and had found all 457 by the grace of somebody other than me.
He chastises you for buying more notebooks and reaches for the trunk. You scream a bloodcurdling shriek and realize your mistake right away; no amount of notebooks would cause anyone to scream with the desperation and horror that just escaped your lips.
Suspicious, he grabs the trunk from you as you are sidetracked counting his freckles. He breaks the latch off of it, throwing the top to the side, empties the trunk of the notebooks, and finds the bag of cash at the bottom. His face lights up like he just saw a small child slip on the ice, something he laughed at frequently in the frigid winters of New York, and clutches the money to his chest.
Before he is able to collect his thoughts or absorb the fact that the woman who barely made minimum wage as a cashier at a grocery store just brought home the most money he had ever seen in his life, you kick him in the stomach. He’s a solid man, but between your electric energy and him being taken off-guard, he falls straight back onto the ground and you snatch the bag of money from him.
You run down the stairs and he is not far behind. He tackles you and you both tumble down the steps as he pulls your hair and rips a clump out. You look up at him and blink as it is no longer your boyfriend’s face that you see but your father’s.
As he fights you for the money, you find yourself in your childhood home. Your ears ring and you begin to blackout but you fight it as your father makes his way towards you, a quiet yet deadly anger on his face. You shake your head and find yourself back in your apartment building, ripping a paper bag full of cash nearly in half as your boyfriend unrelentingly beats you down.
He grabs the money and runs, and as you dizzily chase him you realize the fainting spells you always thought would send you six feet under as a child must have been some kind of panic attack that came over you before your father attacked you. The bruises that decorated your alabaster skin were not from falling but from the repeated blows to your delicate body.
Your boyfriend reaches his car and pulls out his keys. Before you realize you’ve even thought of a plan, you find yourself pulling the second peanut butter cup out of your pocket and shoving it in his mouth. He begins spitting and retching and you know the damage is done. He falls to the ground and you grab the money and keys and climb into his car.
You don’t know where you’re going, but as you begin to drive you think that I might exact revenge on you for murdering one of my kids, and you pull out the book of matches you keep with you to count when you’re nervous. The money in the passenger seat beside you, you pull out matches one at a time and toss them on top of the bag, counting as you go. You think back on what you saw in the notebook - the picture of the flower - and try to discern what it means.
You hear sirens in the distance and realize that someone must have found your boyfriend and called an ambulance. You press on the gas a little harder to get farther away from the scene. Your mind flashes back to you in your grandmother’s kitchen, your father yelling at you, your grandmother beating him with a ladle as he threatens to break your finger. You look down and see the flower that had been drawn in the notebook etched within the tiles on the floor.
Panot flower. It was the Barcelona flower. The tiles that lined the streets of Barcelona were adorned with this perfectly petaled symbol. Your mother is alive. She was in Barcelona. She had killed your father and thrown her own teeth in the car, left a suicide note, and escaped so she wouldn’t get caught, and she had left you a message in your last notebook so you could go find her.
Tears streaming down your face as you turn left to begin to head for the airport, you accidentally strike one of the matches and toss it onto the bag full of money on the passenger seat.
The bag begins to burn. The money begins to burn. You frantically try to put the fire out, but it’s burning too quickly. As you start to pull over you hear sirens behind you and realize someone must have seen you attempt to kill your boyfriend and the police are after you. You can’t pull over or you’ll be arrested.
Your mother is sitting behind you telling you to calm down and count the clouds in the sky. Your father is sitting next to her screaming at you to pull over and get out. Your father shakes your seat and demands that you stop counting. Your mother sings a soft song she learned from your grandmother in Catalan.
The fire burns, but you keep driving. The police catch up to you. The car crashes into a tree and sets the tree on fire, making the electrical wires spark and cutting off power to half of the city. Police sirens echo, your body is engulfed in flames, and it’s like a beautiful fireworks display.
I always knew your death would be spectacular.
The final level of an obligatory adventure approached once again. Jarseh had faced the great challenge countless times before - a slimy scaly dragon with glowing eyes and fiery breath that had singed him silly since the season’s start - a summer that seemed to last longer than it wanted to.
He had used every tool in his arsenal to defeat this maniac, but no matter what he did he was only ever able to strike the dragon twice at most, and it seemed like three might have been the magic number. Jarseh swore whomever dreamt up this scenario must not have given him the proper tools to win. There was nothing he could do but die, come back, travel through his hometown defeating lesser rivals until he met the dragon once more and then attempt to cause him enough bodily harm to declare himself the winner.
He had tried stabbing him, shooting him, setting him on fire, tricking him, hiding from him, even reasoning with him, but there was no winning with this green-eyed beast whose favorite meal was pan-seared warrior.
This whole situation had depressed him beyond belief and as he entered the cavern where the dragon lurked, the wannabe slayer couldn’t help but begin to feel down on himself. What kind of warrior was he if he couldn’t beat a dragon after what must have been hundreds of tries? What kind of life was this - returning to this cavern time and time again only to be killed, revived, killed, revived, killed, revived - wash, rinse, repeat.
He knocked on the rock that served as a door to the cavern to give the dragon a little heads-up. He had learned that sneaking up on him only made things worse.
“You’re back,” the dragon said, choking on a clump of hair left by what must have been his last victim. “That was pretty quick.”
“Yeah, well it gets easier each time you do it. I know where all the weapons are hidden and how to destroy everything.”
“Except me,” the dragon said as he smiled, hair caught between his teeth like a piece of floss massaging his gums.
“Let’s get this over with,” Jarseh mumbled and pulled out his sword.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “It’s no fun if you’re gonna be like that.”
“I have nothing left to give - wait, what’s your name?”
“Ted,” the dragon formerly known as “the dragon” said.
“I have nothing left to give, Ted. I’ve been here so many times and there is no way for me to beat you. I’ve beaten myself up about it enough times, so I’m just accepting it now. My life is an endless loop of losing, dying, then losing and dying again. I still don’t understand why I come back as a girl sometimes.”
“It has to do with the character the player chooses,” Ted said, pulling the hair out from between his teeth only to pop it back in his mouth and gulp it down. “I need a drink. Where did I put the blood of those hikers?”
“What are you talking about?”
"Some hikers came up here so I ate them. I always save the blood for a little cocktail later.”
“No, I mean, what player?”
“The player of the game,” he said, mixing his drink with the bone of some poor dead human’s finger.
“What game?” he asked, wondering if he was about to find out the key to finally beating this dragon, ending this time warp and coming out the other side a champion ready for a new life.
“We’re in a video game,” Ted said and licked the side of the skull he was using as a glass with his black tongue, burnt from all of that absentminded fire breathing. “You have no control over your actions. Some kid in Tucson does.”
“Are you serious?” he asked, finally connecting the dots. It did make a lot of sense after all. He had never picked out his own outfit or weapon. Somehow those things always just appeared, as if by magic.
“So I’m at the mercy of this kid who clearly doesn’t know how to win the game?” he asked Ted.
“Basically. Have you seen a small intestine around here? I like to use it as a crazy straw.”
“Well, just kill me I guess. There’s nothing I can do.”
“What are you talking about?” Ted asked sucking down a very bloody Bloody Mary through a vital organ.
“There’s nothing I can do. This kid is never going to win and I’m going to be stuck here forever. There’s no reason to live, so just kill me. I don’t want to fight anymore. The kid can pull out my sword but he can’t make me fight.”
“Actually, he can.”
“Well, why isn’t he doing it right now?”
“We’re on pause,” Ted said, draining his skull and slurping down the intestine.
“Okay, so kill me really fast before he gets back.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure if I can do that.”
“Try it. Anything’s better than suffering through this kid’s futile attempts. I’m tired of fighting. I just want to die.”
“Oh, come on now. Things aren’t that bad. Do you want some roasted fingernails? I’m about to take them off the fire. If I leave them too long they’ll start popping.”
“No, just kill me please or else I’ll do it myself.”
“Hey, that’s no way to be. You have lots of good things going on for you. You always make it to the cavern, that’s pretty good. You can beat everyone else in the game except for me.”
“Yeah, after battling them hundreds of times I’ve gotten that down pat, but what’s the point of life if it’s always going to end in me exerting all this energy, wasting my time trying to kill something that’s just not killable?”
“Listen, I’m killable. The kid just isn’t that good. How many tries did it take you to even get to me?”
Jarseh thought for a moment before coming to the conclusion that he had gone through the village somewhere around 27 times before reaching the dragon’s cavern.
“See? It took a long time but the kid eventually got the hang of it, and he’ll get the hang of this too. Come here.” Ted outstretched his arms and the wounded warrior made his way to the deadly reptile. He wouldn’t mind a swift and merciful death; maybe that was Ted’s plan. Instead, Ted embraced him, patting him on your back with his garbage-can-lid-sized nostrils exhaling a warm moist breath on his neck.
Before Jarseh even knew he was even doing it, he drew his sword and stabbed Ted three times.
“How could you…?” Ted cried as he fell to the ground.
“It’s not me! I didn’t do it! It’s the kid!”
“Well, congratulations,” he said as he took his last breath and a tear escaped his eye. He lay there, dead, bleeding, a shriveled up version of what was once his greatest fear and foe.
“What now?” He looked around as confetti rained down on him and the princess the dragon was hiding emerged from the depths of the cavern.
“You saved me!” She kissed him on the cheek and gave him a pat on the back. “Now we can live happily ever after!”
“Really?” he asked, hopeful that his life was about to move forward, even though it meant he had had to kill a new friend.
“Smile!” she said to him and he did. The two of them stood there and smiled for what could have been minutes, hours, or days. Jarseh’s arm grew tired and he looked at his betrothed.
“What’s going on?” he asked the former shut-in through his teeth.
“The kid paused the game so he could show his friends that he won. I don’t know how long we’ll be here.”
“What happens after he ends the game?”
“No one knows.”
They began moving again, waving, and the princess blew kisses for a few moments until both of their shoulders scrunched and hunched and they sat on the ground, unsure of what to do.
“So what now?” he asked.
The princess peered out of the cavern. “There’s nothing out there,” she said. “It’s just black.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, rushing to step outside into what was the sunlight just five minutes before. There was nothing outside of the cavern, and he couldn’t step foot into the darkness.
“What are we supposed to do?” he asked in the hopes that she would somehow magically know the answer.
“I guess just stay here,” she said.
A week and a half later as the princess languished on the ground next to him, both hungry and thirsty with nothing to eat or drink but dragon blubber and green dragon blood, Jarseh wished he had never killed that dragon. He wondered how long it would take for him to die. He resolved to lie on the ground until death took him, and this time it would take him for good. Just as he felt the life leaving his body, there was a surge of energy and Jarseh found himself on the outskirts of the town he had saved just weeks ago.
He started from the beginning, he thought. At least Ted’s not dead.
But this time around he didn’t seem to be doing anything right. Jarseh didn’t remember where anything was or what he was supposed to do.
He reached a townsperson and after asking her for help finding the Flask of Redemption, he asked her what was going on.
“He sold the game,” the townsperson said. “He brought it back to the store and returned it as used and got some money back. This is a new kid playing. It’s going to be a while until you make it through to the end.”
Jarseh thought enviously of himself a lifetime ago, decomposing on the cavern floor, so close to death. As he made his way through the village town square he wondered if Ted would be mad at him and how long it would take to defeat him again - if he even wanted to after all of this. He prayed for this new kid to hit the pause button so that he could be himself and have just a moment of peace, but those pauses were few and far between. He was stuck in a life he had no way of escaping except to kill his friend and deteriorate with a dead dragon leaking green goo and a princess withering next to him.
There’s no way out, he thought as he pulled a sword from a bush. Jarseh was simply a vehicle, a pre-programmed two-dimensional pixelated character living his life for other people’s enjoyment. He had no reason to exist except to appease a player and fulfill a destiny that he cared nothing about.
Ten feet away from Jarseh sat 17-year-old Jillian Marks from Tucson, who felt the same way.
End of the World
Flicking the encrusted snot off of her fingertip, a 20-something daycare worker sat down in her too-small chair and observed the 3-and-4-year olds packing up their unnecessary but cute backpacks with the projects they had created that day. She couldn’t recall what the project was, but as she studied one child’s oversized piece of paper she was able to make out some sort of finger-painting masterpiece that any new parent would treasure until their next two children were born and began bringing home cardboard picture frames and popsicle stick ornaments. There was no museum on earth that could hold all the artwork that children bring home over the years, and this novice teacher guessed these finger paintings would be lining black trash bags in just a few years.
She stoop up and realized the chair she had been sitting in wasn’t too small after all. Everything must have just seemed small in this room with low-hanging paper snowflakes and nap pads the size of boogie boards. There were some oversized elements that stood out in the room as well, like the triangular crayons that couldn’t roll away when the kids colored and the microwave-sized beehive in the back of the classroom.
Interestingly enough, she hadn’t noticed the beehive until just now, and it seemed like a strange thing to be in a classroom. She closed her eyes and shook her head. After a deep breath, she set her gaze to the back of the classroom and realized it was just a model of the sun that was hanging from the ceiling.
Being a daycare teacher must have been more work than she had expected, and the young newbie told herself she would have to go home and go right to sleep. She reiterated this to herself when a hawk flew in through the window and picked up one of the children, grasping it in its claws until the child was taken away never to be seen again.
None of the other children reacted. She shook her head again but this time when she opened her eyes the entire class was made up of hawks. They cawed as one of them raised his wing.
“Yes?” she asked, wondering if the tea she had just drunk was drugged and she was experiencing some type of hallucination.
The hawk put his wing to his side and began flapping frantically. The other hawks joined him. They began cawing in unison, as if they were chanting, and the teacher was lifted up into the air. Their incantation was turning her into a hawk, and she reached for her phone to call 911 before her arms turned into wings.
Her phone began buzzing and the words “End of the World Countdown” flashed on the screen with numbers ticking by. The caws got louder, the numbers went by quicker, and her arms turned to wings
She blinked and there was darkness. She was alone and the world had ended in a single second. She sat for hours, uninterrupted, waiting for some kind of sign that she wouldn’t spend the rest of her existence abandoned in what amounted to be an endless void of silence. She tried calling out to someone but her voice didn’t work. She tried reaching for her phone but it was out of reach and she couldn’t stand up and walk over to it.
Her phone chimed again and from a few feet away she saw a text on the screen notifying her that the world was about to begin once again.
Once more, she blinked, and she was back in the daycare. Parents came through the door, cooing over their children, one dad swinging his son back and forth in a way that only a parent could without getting arrested.
“Is everyone okay?” she asked him, hoping someone had some kind of explanation.
“Of course,” the dad with the pendulum kid stated. “Oh, you’re new aren’t you?”
She thought about this question and tried to place her past, but she couldn’t. She didn’t remember anything happening before yesterday morning when the parents dropped off their kids at daycare. Somehow she knew all of the kids and parents. Somehow she knew how to run a daycare, but she didn’t have any memory of ever getting the job.
Besides that, she had no memory of existing before yesterday. She didn’t recall a childhood or a family, she didn’t know anyone outside of the classroom. She couldn’t even recall if she had a name, but somehow knew the names of all the fuzzy puppets that sang about letters and numbers on television, and she had only seen that show once the day before.
“What’s going on?” she asked, wondering if she was in her own version of a horror story that was somehow terrifying without any one element that was traditionally scary.
“Yeah, I guess you are new. I’ve been around for a long time. The kid got here a few weeks ago. Shelly’s been here for years.”
She turned and looked at the woman in the green pantsuit and suddenly realized she has a beak.
“None of us are real. Pinch yourself.”
She did. She felt nothing.
“This is all a dream.”
“You mean I’m dreaming right now?”
“No, not your dream,” he said impatiently as if he’d had to explain this many times before. “You are the dream. I don’t know much about the person whose head we live in, but it seems like she must have just gotten a job at a daycare or something. Or she’s having a baby? I’m not sure. We have a pool going around betting on what it might be. She used to have dreams about ice cream trucks set on fire. Stan wasn’t a big fan of those.”
Stan, an ice cream man with a young girl perched on his back, licked his ice cream cone and scratched an itch above his eye where his eyebrows used to be.
“A little while ago she started dreaming about kids. Wanna guess why?”
“So this is a dream right now?” she asked, more confused than she was when the day - or night - began.
“Not yet. She just fell asleep. It takes a little while to get to REM. Once her brain reaches that state, we all just go with the flow. You don’t really have to think about it; things just kind of happen. But make sure you have a fire extinguisher just in case. There aren’t many things you can fight in a dream, but saving yourself is something you should definitely try and do. You might not feel any pain, but the damage can be long-lasting; you could wind up looking like a permanently surprised baked ham like Stan.”
“I can control the dream?”
“Only to an extent,” he said. “She thinks she’s lucid dreaming when that happens. She thinks she’s making it happen. Although, I guess she is, considering we’re just invincible beings that live in her temporal lobe. Us choosing what to do with the dream is her choosing what to do with the dream, because we’re a part of her.”
“Don’t sweat it kid,” he said and plopped his kid in a tiny seat. “You’ll get used to it.”
She looked around and wondered what her life would entail as a being trapped in someone’s subconscious, bending to their will and only living as herself in a black hole for the hours her host’s brain was awake.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” she said as she picked up the book of matches that suddenly appeared on her desk. She felt the insatiable urge to flick one in the trash can and burn the daycare to the ground, but she grabbed her coat and ventured out into the world, determined to destroy anything that got in her way. She was going to find her way out of this brain. There had to be an exit through an ear canal or something. She couldn’t live as a pawn in a person’s dreams for the rest of her life, and this could be her only shot. She didn’t know if she would ever be dreamt of again.
She had about eight hours to find her way out. She pushed the parents aside and ran through the door, ready to be released from this pillowy prison.
Time for some lucid dreaming.
Alphabet Short Story
After Breakfast, Caffeine-Drinkers Entertain Four-year-olds, Gut Hampers, Infantilize Jellied Kids. Longingly, Moms Nearly Overthrow Patriarchal Quagmires, Releasing Seasick Toddlers, Upending Various Xebecs. Youngsters Zip Around Boats; Confused Dads, Ebbing, Flustered, Guarantee Hunches, Insinuating Jobs Kings Like, Manifestly Nautical, Only Pants-Quality Rovers Share. The Ultimate Victory Won, Xenopus Yammering, Zealots Alone Bring. Carrying Dears, Exhausted Fathers Grow Hormonal. Imbibed Jocks, Kneeling Like Monks, Nonsensically Operate. Pretty Queens Relish Such Thoughts. Unending Vindication, Wilting Xenogamy, Yogurt-Eating Zillionaires.