flash fiction

OPENING

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It wasn’t until October of this year that I understood what happens on the other side. I never asked to know or even wanted to, but I’m not in charge of these things. I was waiting for the train on the Pine Avenue platform while freezing gusts of air cut through my clothes and seared my skin. It was not supposed to be this cold so early in the year, and my hands had already lost feeling. Wouldn’t be long-—another month or two of this—-and the rest of me would go the same way: nose, ears, heart. The train roared into the station with headlights like yellow eyes cutting through the afternoon gray, and I boarded.

A man of a certain age got on at the next stop. His trousers showed signs of wear, his loafers were scuffed, and his blazer ill-fitting, but he held himself upright with timeworn dignity. He was handsome despite the deep hollows of his eyes, and I made the mistake of catching his glance. He immediately engaged me in conversation.

“Do you like to gamble?” he asked. A brass ring shone on his knuckles as he sat down opposite me.

“Yes,” I said, unable to respond in any other way.

“I thought so,” he replied and rolled up the sleeves of his blazer. He took out a deck of cards, an ordinary deck of cards, and shuffled them without fanfare as I sat watching. The train sped along at a steady pace heading for a tunnel. “The game is called ‘Ashes,’” he said. “Have you played before?”

“I haven’t. Could you tell me the rules?”

“Of course. We each play a card at the same time, and whoever has the red card gets a strike. If you get a black card, you get nothing. If you reach three strikes, you lose.”

“That sounds simple enough.”

“It is. It goes very quickly. Clat! Clat! Clat! Like that. You see? Then at the end, the winner gets the deck of cards.”

“And the loser?”

“The loser sheds his skin, and his bones crumble to dust.”

“Is there any strategy?” I asked.

“None at all. It’s a game of chance. Will you play?”

Again, I was unable to say no.

“Yes, I’ll play.”

“Very good!”

I adjusted my knit cap over my ears while he dealt the cards into two piles. I wondered how many times he had won, but then scolded myself for my foolishness. All of them. All of the times before this he had won. I accepted my half of the deck.

“Ready?” We played the first hand. Clat! I put down a three of hearts, and he put down a five of spades. “You have one strike,” he said with no emotion, and I felt the train pick up speed as we squared off for the next round. Clat! We both put down red cards. Me: a queen of diamonds, and him: a seven of hearts. “You have two strikes, and I have one,” he said. “If you get one more strike you lose.”

I nodded and lay my fingers on the next card in my hand. Was it warm to the touch? Was it growing hotter as my fingers rested on it, demanding to be played? I would not give in, I decided, and as the man flipped over his next card I slid out the one underneath and played it, hoping he didn’t notice. His card was red. Mine was black.

“We each have two strikes. The next person to play a red card loses,” he said, again with no expression. Out the window the slats of the concrete tunnel whirred by, and I felt my seat rumble beneath me as the train continued its path, a path it had taken countless times before this, a path it was bound to. The other passengers in our car were either reading or listening to music, and none of them paid us the slightest bit of attention. We readied ourselves for the next card.

Clat! I put down a jack of clubs, and he put down a nine of diamonds.

“I have three strikes. You win,” he said. He handed me the rest of his cards, and I added them to my deck. He sat motionless for a second, his gaze fixed on something behind my head, and we both waited, scarcely a breath taken between the two of us. My apprehension turned to horror as I watched his eyes recede into their sockets until only black holes remained. His skin started to lose its color, becoming paler and paler until it was completely transparent and the bones of his body shone through. Gone were the blue veins and the brown sunspots and all that suggested human life.

The next moment a great peeling began. It started somewhere around his temples where patches of skin started to flake off and float to the ground. His cheekbones became exposed, then his chin, then the delicate disks of his spine, and so on. The garments he had been wearing shredded along with his skin, and soon all that was left of him was his skeleton, still sitting across from me in the upright position he had assumed all along. The remaining bones rattled at an alarming volume as the train roared on, but none of the others looked up from their books or turned their gazes in our direction. Soon even the skeleton began to crumble, and I watched his skull, ribs, arms, legs, and fingers all turn to a fine powder and fall to the floor.

By the time the train came to a halt at the next stop I was sitting across from an empty seat below which lay a pile of hoary dust. We had emerged from the tunnel and gray daylight flooded into the car. The doors opened, and a couple passengers got off while others got on. I packed the deck of cards neatly in its case and put it in my jacket pocket, swallowing hard. The train pulled away once more, and I took a deep breath to calm my trembling body. It was then I realized nothing had changed. I stood up at the next stop and exited the train, reminding myself to flip the page of the calendar when I got home.

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The Alien Plaza

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Finding oneself in a plaza at a strange time of night in a strange part of downtown is one of the most tenuous things. It is hard to know what is “actual” and what is “not.” The buildings shoot up from the concrete and stand with their lights burning up the dark. They leave nothing of the natural world except what men have painstakingly installed: flowers in the “right” colors and bushes of the “right” height. Tourists walk by on the way back to their hotels. Businessmen stumble home from happy hour. It is an alien place, and it is an alien time.

The only thing I had to accomplish that night was to go to the grocery store and buy something to soak up the coffee. That is all there was.

We arrived at the same time, but did not know it. The dusk was rolling on towards night, and black quickly filled in the gray spaces as I approached the door. My bag kept falling off my shoulders, and the blisters on my feet shrieked more loudly with each step. I was sorry, but only a little bit. You were walking towards the door from the other direction, and I happened to look up, something I rarely do. You were wearing a hat, and your eyes looked kind, but sort of afraid, which is how I feel most of the time. We did not know each other but for some reason we both stopped.

Are you getting something to eat?

I was going to.

Me too.

I was just going to put together something small. I’ve had a lot of coffee.

I just got out of work.

Ok, let’s go.

We picked out a container of sushi that they would have thrown away because it was the end of the night and took it outside with some miso soup that we drank from Styrofoam cups and a bag of assorted fruit. We didn’t know what to look at while we were eating because there weren’t any stars, and we both agreed we had seen the skyline enough times. We said a few words to get to know each other and felt pretty good afterwards, around the time the sky had accepted its new shape.

If only we knew that something was alive and moving inside the bag!

The Bus Stop, flash fiction

Ukrainian Village AugustThe worst is when the air is so light you cannot feel it around you. Nothing is breathing, and you get disoriented and try not to think of death. This happens to me as soon as I step out on the sidewalk. The neighborhood is quiet and fading today even though it is the ripe, middle part of summer when the greenery intrudes upon everything. I walk down the street alongside the promise of rain.

My plan is to go to a café and look for a job, the kind of job I told my sister I already had. Maybe a receptionist or an assistant of some sort. I don’t really know, but I have a hazy outline of what it will be, and that’s what I described to her when she came to visit yesterday. I told her about meetings and offices and working lunches so she would tell the family I am fine. I told her so everyone would know I am fine.

When I am a block from the bus stop I see it pull away. I watch this happen with no reaction, as if there’s a curtain drawn in my mind and I’m shielded from the reality of the world outside. I do not mind waiting, though, because I am in no rush. I have nowhere to be, and the red brick warehouse across the street from the bus stop is symmetrical and nice to look at. From this angle it appears to have no depth and is just a cut-out prop for paper dolls. I am pretty content with this view of the warehouse and of the cars going by, all peopled by little blurs of humanity. I think I just might be alright for a while until a moment later a girl rides by on a purple bike and I realize again how colorless my hair is.

A man joins me at the bus stop, and I immediately get the impression he is not waiting for the bus. Perhaps it is the duffle bag or the gallon of orange Kool-Aid he has with him. We stand there in silence for some time as a line of semi-trucks and work vans speeds past us on the double-lane road. Most people would have put on headphones, but I lost mine a few weeks ago. Besides, the weight of the sky makes up for the quiet. Will the rain start soon? I wonder if the man with the duffel bag is thinking the same thing. I wonder if anyone is thinking the same thing. When the bus finally comes I get on, but the man with the duffel bag stays behind. Perhaps he has not figured anything out about the rain yet.

On the bus I sit next to the window, towards the back, where I have a good view of the interior should I choose to look at it. A woman with a pink umbrella sits with her legs crossed, looking straight ahead. She is dressed too nicely for this bus and for this life, and I cannot bear the sadness of it so I opt instead to look out the window where a car is on fire amidst the weeds and the black top. The rain has just barely started.