Welcome to the Phoenix Nest

I stepped out of my quarters, the familiar weight of the place pressing down on me. The scope of my assignment here was being expanded dramatically alongside the director’s growing regret of having me here. He was giving me free room and board in exchange for my expertise in criminal investigations; so far my service had been tested by a single case of stolen identity when one of our older guests had mistakenly ordered meal service using another’s account number. My pager was ringing more frequently and I was becoming more of a problem solver and less of an investigator. To be honest, I didn’t mind the extra work. I couldn’t very well sit in my quarters for the rest of eternity waiting for one of us to become a murder victim. Even if that did happen, the pool of potential suspects would already be artificially limited to the 144 souls who lived down here in the Nest. It gave me a chance to meet everyone here, as well as find out how many doors my neat little swipe card would really open in this place. I had a feeling it wouldn’t open them all.

My Grandfather’s Ears

I have my grandfather’s ears.  I was sitting in the barber’s chair when I noticed this today. He had enormous ears.  I remember his massive ear lobes hanging from the sides of his head next to his gray hair that he still styled like he was a young soldier.  High and tight, short sides faded up to a waxed and parted top.

My ears look like my head is shrinking.  Apparently my ears keep growing while my head stays the same size.  I remember learning something like this in science class in high school.  Your epidermis will always continue to grow as you get older.  It’s the only part of us that does this.  That’s why old people are covered in wrinkles and hanging jowls (which I’m also lucky enough to inherit from my grandfather).  Sort of like the opposite of your eyes when you’re born.  You eyes are the same size when you pop out of your mom as they will be when you’re forty.

He was my father’s dad.  He used to pull quarters from behind my ears.  I remember at family reunions he would be sitting at the piano (every house I remember visiting as a kid had a piano in the living room) and playing old tunes.  Tunes that I never recognized but all the older people would sing along to as they drank their manhattans and whisky sours and vodka tonics.  If he wasn’t playing the piano and leading singalongs he was blowing solos on his chromatic harmonic while my grandmother accompanied him on the keys.

One night my grandmother called the police for help.  My grandfather had run out of the house in the middle of the night.  He was wearing pajama shorts and a t-shirt.  He was screaming about the people who were in his house.  There were several of them and he didn’t recognize any them.  The police arrived and spoke with my grandmother.  They all gently walked my grandfather back inside and showed him that he and his wife were the only ones in the house.  He went back to bed and forgot about it all.

I have my grandfather’s harmonicas now.  They sit in a small pile in a cabinet that I keep next to my piano.  I know the keys and the notes of the piano, but I never learned how to caress the keys like he did.  I also don’t have the same charisma that my grandfather had.   He was always able to convince even the most reluctant of aunts and uncles, cousins and kids to sing songs to which they barely knew the words.  Often we just needed to be reminded that there’s comfort in company, that there’s an instant bond that can be formed when we all join in the shared discomfort of singing out loud.  When you look around, awkward and unsure, and see that everyone has the same apprehension in their eyes, the shy smiles as the words come out in whispers at first before building in a crescendo of laughter and love.  My grandfather could bring out that love in a room.

I remember going to their house for a barbecue as a little boy.  I was a nervous and shy kid.  I was cursed with sweaty silence at every social function.  On that day my grandfather strode across the lawn to our Buick.  I climbed out of the back seat and watched him coming over, a big goofy grin on his face.  He wore a pastel polo shirt tucked into plaid shorts.  They must not have sold athletic socks where he shopped because he always wore black dress socks which he paired with white leather loafers.  When he reached up and pulled that big old coin from behind my ear he cut right through my anxiety and I knew I was going to make it through that visit.

Soon after that he would start to get angry.  We stopped going to their house and I only saw him at my aunt and uncle’s house down the block.  He would sit quietly on the sofa.  Everyone would hover around him, watching him, waiting for something to happen, whispering to each other.  He would sit there for hours with a confused scowl, his eyes darting around from face to face as he wondered who we all were.

Eventually my grandmother would show up pushing him in a wheelchair.  He would be wearing gray pants and a sweater hastily buttoned.  Brown shoes that fastened with velcro.  His hair would be too long and unkempt.  His hands shook constantly.  I was terrified when my parents forced me to introduce myself to him.

My cousins took his place at the piano.  Every so often my grandmother would play a tune or sing a duet with one of her sisters.  The songs were different, from a younger era, and people stopped singing.

I have my grandfather’s ears and  I’ve inherited his harmonicas.  I’ve never mastered his charm though.

Why She Left

“You’re a fucking lush, Daddy.”  Lydia stood at the front door, the spare key in her hand.  Candace stood behind her sister, watching me with her big sad eyes.  I wanted to disagree with Lydia but the mostly-gone bottle of gin in front of me wouldn’t have helped my case.  Shame rose through my gut like a scalding steam.  I stood up from my spot at the dining room table and walked towards the kitchen before the tears started.   Lydia pursued me as I left.

“Did you even look for work today?   Or yesterday?  Or any day this week?”  I dropped the bottle in the kitchen sink as I passed and kept walking.  Candace took a small step into the house and closed the door behind her.

“Christ, Lyd.   Give me a break please,” I pleaded over my shoulder.  “This hasn’t been easy for me.”  I wiped my eyes and stopped at the stairs.  It hadn’t been easy.  It had been goddamned hard, in fact.  Who was she to scold me?  She and Candace still had each other.  And they both hated me.

“No shit it’s hard for you.  But it’s been hard for Candace and me too.”

“That’s not right, Lyd,” I said as I turned to face her.  She had her mother’s fierce eyes and my stubborn determination.

“Do you realize how hard you make life,” she said.  “It doesn’t have to be this – this complex.”

“I don’t see it as complex, Lyd,” I replied.  “I get up in the morning.   I drink a bottle of gin.  Then you and Candace ambush me in my pajamas at four in the afternoon and bring me dinner.  Seems simple enough to me.  Candace, please come in and sit down.”  She didn’t.  

“Really, I don’t know what you want from me, girls,” I continued.  

Lydia furrowed her brow as she gazed at me in a way that I had gotten to know very well since her mother left.  Today’s look had a different shade to it though.  

Candace spoke from the living room.  Her voice was rushed, like she hadn’t used it in a long time.  

“We’re leaving,” she said.  “We’re going to live near mom.”  She shared a look with Lydia and I knew immediately they were serious.  

“And Lydia is right,” she said.  “You are a fucking lush.”  Candace turned and walked out the front door.  

“Goodbye, daddy.”  Lydia kissed me on the cheek and left.  Jesus.  Jesus fucking Christ.  What the fuck just happened.  I walked to the kitchen sink and pulled out my bottle of gin.  I sat down at my spot at the dining room table.  I filled my glass, emptied it, and filled it again.  

daily prompt: Lush

The Red Machine

She gazes up at the red machine towering over her. Her mouth agape.  Eyes unblinking.  Ponytail hanging over her shoulders.  Between trembling fingers she grips her quarter, careful not to let it slip.  She holds it tightly to her chest.  She watches the clear globe sitting atop the red machine.  It is filled with smaller but to her still enormous globes of pink and blue and green and yellow and red.  For only a moment she lowers her eyes to find that mysterious contraption she knows she must surrender her quarter to.  Slowly she raises the quarter to the opening above the big silver dial and drops it into the slot.  It fits perfectly.

Her eyes dart back up to the clear globe full of those colorful globes. She grips the dial and turns.  She is hesitant at first, hoping that the pink one will fall, pleading to whatever god she knows, whatever power of will she can summon to find that pink ball of sweetness and beauty and let it fall away from all the others that just won’t do.  She turns until she can’t turn any further.  She resets her hand and finds a new grip and turns that dial with a renewed fervor and determination, passing through the clicks until there are no more clicks to pass.  She clasps her hands together at the waist of her dress.  Rattles and clicks echo from inside the machine, the heavy drop of the gumball as it is released from the clear globe and into the belly of the great red machine and navigates the mysterious course of tubes and turns and slides.  She can hear the rolling gumball rolling towards her on that last ramp like a great shiny boulder down to the bottom of the machine.  It bangs the inside of the metal trapdoor with a delicious weight.

The machine stands silent. She glances quickly up at me with wonder-filled eyes as she steps close to the machine.  She cups one hand lightly underneath the trapdoor, lifts the little door with her other hand, and lets the sweetest, most beautiful little globe she has ever seen fall into her hand.

Daily Prompt: Tremble

A First Kill

The third sun had set and the night was cooling.  The sand had been absorbing the warming light of the day and it would glow a gentle fuscia until the suns came up again.  Yousef stood up and dusted off his robes.  He looked up at the night sky and silently named the constellations he knew.  How quiet and peaceful it seemed up there.  Then he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and began walking towards his village.

Yousef could feel the excitement coursing hot through his veins.  He knew he decision was the right one, and to hell with what Father thought.  Grandfather came here in search of a new start, and he almost lost his life with that new start barely in sight.  The Zhukin saved Grandfather’s life, and by extension gave Yousef his life.  Yousef owed his very existence to a race of beings that must have seemed very strange to Grandfather.

The Zhukin are very much like humans, but they are so much more advanced.  Humans and Zhukins look almost identical, with eyes for seeing and a nose for breathing, but a Zhukin has neither ears nor a mouth.  He doesn’t need them because they have evolved with the ability to communicate using brainwaves alone.  They make no sounds at all.  Grandfather must have found it quite bizarre the first time he walked into a Zhukin hall and found it to be absolutely silent.

The Zhukin had welcomed Grandfather and his companions as if they were Zhukin themselves.  They were given care and food, homes and opportunity, and protection from the Zukhani.

For all the empathy and peaceful nature of the Zhukin, the Zukhani had none of these.  Zhukin and Zukhani had been closely related, but generations of evolution and the Zukhani’s own genetic alterations of their DNA had created stark differences.  The Zukhani were a violent and dominating people, and would have either killed Grandfather’s group or forced them into slavery.

Yousef was deep in thought when he noticed movement on the other side of the road.  It was a figure walking towards him, but it didn’t seem to have noticed Yousef.  Yousef was always quiet in his mannerisms and kept his movements to only those necessary.  He was well-obscured by the night.  Yousef stopped completely.

The figure continued walking and passed Yousef.  Yousef watched and saw that the man was a Zukhani.  He was also alone.  Yousef picked up a rock and silently crossed the road.  The Zukhani must have sensed Yousef’s presence because he wheeled around in one fluid motion.  He threw off his robes, revealing a pale torso and long, reedy arms.  His mouth gaped open, his teeth short and pointy, his eyes nearly closed in slits.  He held a long knife in his right hand.

Yousef cocked his arm back and smashed the rock with enthusiasm into the Zukhani’s face.  They both fell to the ground and Yousef raised the rock and brought it down in the Zukhani’s face over and over.  Dark blood, first a trickle, now exploded out of his head as Yousef broke through his skull.

Yousef sat on top of the motionless body next to the road.  He dropped the rock and wiped his face with his robe.  He stood up and looked down at the man he just killed.  It has begun, thought Yousef, and he continued walking home.

Enthusiasm

My Rubik’s Cube

Every so often I’ll take a break from my bedtime book and pick up the Rubik’s Cube that shares the couch cushion with me.  I turn it over and around in my hands, feeling the corners and edges, rubbing my thumbs along the tiny cubes that make up the bigger one, making sure the edges line up just so perfectly.  When my examination is complete, I pick one color to work on and determine my best strategy for success.

Some nights I have two blues already lined up on one side leaving only seven squares to work on.  If I’m lucky I’ll have the remainder of an unfinished campaign from the night before when I managed to line up all but one or two squares.  Most nights though my cube just looks like a broken Lite-Brite.

Some nights I spin with a purpose.  I try to find a method to the madness that is a Rubik’s Cube.  If I turn this side up, then the middle twice to the left, then move that side back down, that should do it!  Sometimes it does do it, sometimes not, but almost always it carries unintended consequences someplace else on the cube.  Other nights I turn randomly, hoping that somehow the colors will line themselves up.  Still other nights, I find myself noticing that some of the stickers are so off-center on their square and wondering who put these things on anyway?

Eventually the Rubik’s Cube break will end the way every break has since I bought the thing.  I put the cube down and pick up my book, my mind satiated and calm, and I begin to read again.

Yousef At the Ruby Sea

Yousef found a spot on the beach near the water and sat down.  His father’s words echoed in his mind.  He picked up one of the small, purple crystals – millions of them dotted the pink sand – rolled it between his palms, and looked out at the sea.

The ruby-colored water was calm today.  Small waves crashed onto the shore.  Yousef thought that they must have looked like giant tidal waves to the tiny creatures that scurried away as the water chased them up the sand.  The  three moons crossed the blush sky and dim stars blinked behind them.

Grandfather was the first of his family to come.  Yousef remembered a photo that Grandfather had hanging on his wall.  Grandfather told him it was of a place called the Red Sea.  Grandfather would stare into the distance as he told stories of his childhood summers spent at the beach.  Grandfather had loved the beach, but had not lived long enough on this world to see the Great Ruby Sea.

To his right, in the distance, Yousef could see the violet mountains and the low-hanging clouds that never left, floating just below their peaks.  He wondered if his father was right – maybe it wasn’t his fight.  The Zukhani had dominated life here for as long as anyone could remember.  They controlled the lion’s share of natural resources, and were quick to violence to silence even the slightest breath of dissent.

A cool breeze pushed through the humid twilight.  Yousef lifted his face to catch the sweet scent from the fruit trees that pushed their way through the sand behind him.  If Grandfather loved the beach at the Red Sea, then Yousef was sure that he would have loved this place as well.  Grandfather told him of the small boat that he kept moored outside his house.  He would spend the day casting and retrieving his nets.  After a long day on the sea he would return with dinner for his family and with extra fish to sell at market.

Yousef had never seen a boat or a fish.  Father had told him that the Inferites had great vessels they took to sea, and said they could catch the massive rubicons that lived in the dark corners of the ocean.  Yousef didn’t believe it.

The Zhukin had welcomed Grandfather and his companions when they had first arrived from Earth.  It was a long a difficult journey; only a single battered craft had survived the event horizon before hobbling through the atmosphere of Zukhanim and crash landing in the Meadows.  The Zhukins’ search and rescue team had saved all the souls who survived the crash.

A black crab raced past Yousef’s thigh.  Yousef’s arm shot down like a spear and scooped up the crab.  He held it close to his face and smiled as the creature’s tiny legs moved like it was still running.  Yousef popped the crab into his mouth, bit down through the soft shell, and tasted the sweet flesh.  Yes, he thought, if the Zhukin must fight, then I will fight beside them.

Relax

Everyone You Meet

A steel gust of frigid air cut down 7th Avenue.  The scattered tourists leaned against it as they smiled up at the massive digital signs that hung like sirens, tempting them to buy a new pair of designer jeans and order a Big Mac.  The lights created a flashing, false twilight at the crossroads of the world.

Alan stood at his post on the corner of 7th and 43rd Street.  He leaned his back against the corner of a storefront.  He could feel the cold sidewalk seeping throught the soles of his boots.  His blue uniform hid a layer of thermal underwear he kept in his locker for nights like this.  Christmas was only a week away and he needed the overtime to cover his mother’s hospital bill.

Two women laughed as they walked arm in arm towards Alan.  He turned a friendly face to them.  One of the women whispered something to the other.  She turned stone-faced and glared at Alan as they passed.

This would be the first night Alan would not be staying with his mother in her hospital room since she was admitted and he was feeling guilty.  She told him she understood, that he spends too much time there anyway.  He should be going out and trying to meet someone.  Alan had smiled at her and told her he would be back in the morning as soon as his shift was over.  She was dozing in her bed.  He pulled her covers up to her chin, careful not to disturb the tubes running under the sheets.

A young boy ran down the sidewalk and stopped at the edge of the curb in front of Alan. He wore a heavy winter parka and a wool cap pulled crooked over his eyes.  The boy looked Alan up and down, a mischievious grin on his face.  The boy’s eyes stopped on Alan’s gun, then went back up to his face.  Alan smiled.  “Hi there,” Alan said.

A woman quickly appeared and grabbed the boy by the arm.  “We don’t talk to no police, boy, you know that,” she yelled at the boy.  She dragged the boy down the block without looking at Alan.

Alan adjusted his cap and shifted his weight, folding his hands on his belt buckle.  It had been a year ago today that he and his mother had sat together across the desk from the oncologist.  The doctor sat down and looked at them in a way that told Alan everything he was about to say.  Alan had barely been able to hold it together in the car on the drive down, but kept himself from crying for his mom’s sake.  She needed to know that Alan thought she was going to be okay, that she didn’t have cancer.  When the doctor was explained it, Alan found himself weeping uncontrollably while his mother pressed her fist to her mouth and stared at the office window.

A man hurried past Alan.  He wore earbuds and held his phone.  He started rapping along to the music in his ears.  The man mumbled a few lines of the song then said, “racist fuckin’ pig,” as he walked past.  He didn’t look at Alan.

Alan pulled his gloves tighter and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets.  Alan looked into Times Square and scanned the interscection for parked vans.  In a few hours he would walk to the hospital to see his mother.

Conundrum

From Here, Where

“Think about your family, Yousef.  This is not just about you.”  Father had been pleading with him for an hour and Yousef was having trouble stifling his frustration.

“I realize what I have,” Yousef replied.  “God has blessed me with a wife and our daughters but a family is not a reason to run.  It is the reason to stay and fight, if it is anything!”   Yousef crossed the room and closed the door.  He knew his daughters would be listening anxiously in the next room.  He lowered his voice.  “This is not the time to run away, father.  Please understand.”

His father stood up.  “I would understand if it were just you, Yousef.  You would stand alone and fight the entire world.  But this is not the case.  If you choose to fight now, you will having three girls fighting alongside of you.  Remember that, Yousef.”

Yousef walked to his father and stood before him.  “But not you, father?  I would not have my father and mother standing beside me as well?”

His father turned away.  “No, Yousef,” he whispered.  “You would not.  I cannot stay and watch you kill yourself.  Your mother…  your mother would do whatever you ask of her but this is something that you cannot ask her to do.”

Yousef remembered growing up in a bright and crowded house, full of the love and support that only a mother and father in love can give to a child.  He knew that his mother would wish to stay.

“I won’t ask her to stay,” Yousef said.  “But I didn’t think that I would have to ask you.”

“This is not my fight, Yousef.  Nor is it yours.  I just don’t understand why you believe that it is.”  His father walked to the window and looked out at the brilliant persimmon landscape.  “When my father – your grandfather – came here, this was a planet filled with promise and opportunity and potential.  The land was a blank canvass on which to imagine and create, to wonder what a clean and peaceful life could be, and to make that life where before there was none.  Now look at us.  We are fleeing already.  First we fled Earth, and now we are forced to leave here.”

“That is precisely where you are wrong, Father.”  Yousef was accustomed to his father’s proselytizing.  “This is still our planet, and this is my fight.  It’s your fight and mother’s fight.  It is my daughters’ fight.  I will not allow this to become just another Earth where warring factions murder each other over land and beliefs and the garbage in the air.  We must not let one man take from us what Grandfather sacrificed so much for!”

Flee

The Zealot

Vigor, fervor, emotion.  Play like a zealot!  The boy knew that these words he had heard in his class sounded like they should mean something.  But until this moment, as he stood in a dark corner in the back of the darker club, watching the stage bright with the lights and the energy of men playing with what it is that those words were created to describe – until now, this very instant of his existence he had not known what it was to have vigor, fervor, emotion.  He knew when the air swelled and  crested, pulling him like a riptide, that he was forever changed by the man on stage who played like a zealot.