Maybe I Waited

I suppose (maybe) I liked the way
You haunted the halls of my heart
Whispering your cold, dark pain
But maybe there are better places (now)
To find my inspiration.

I think (maybe) I’ve drawn that well dry
Coming back once too often
And it’s possible I kept searching those depths
Because I thought to leave it
Would kill a part of me.

It’s time for you to go
(let me be)
Because you’re already gone
A tortured ghost
Snatched by yesterday’s breeze.
-ijs

Familiar

ghost

I lean into the warm water, feeling it fill my ears with a soft whoompf, the tip of my nose and lips just breaking the surface. Slow, measured breaths. Quiet breaths. The ceiling shimmers and flexes as I open my eyes, the water stings for a second. I like the pain. I’ve always liked it. Razors with their warm shiny edges, beautiful wet blades. It connects me to a body I don’t quite own.

The light flickers, buzzes, blacks out, wavers back to life. The cold fluorescent echoing in shadows.

Warm waves flood my scalp as Mama’s fingers ripple through my hair. Hands move mechanically, massaging my head. I go limp.

Shall I braid it?

I slide up, nuzzling my neck into the edge of the porcelain tub. I nod. I’ve missed my braid. Wiggling my fingers, I check the mobility in my left hand. A little better.

Good girl.

She leans over me. The light pops zzzaaap, black splatters her face.

“Sing?” I mumble.

Her hands disappear for a second. I feel her shift behind me and then lean closer.

Rock-a-bye, baby

fingers trace the red welted scars on my wrist. My blood burns. An itch only a razor can scratch.

on a treetop

fingers press into the flesh, digging, searching.

when the wind blows

Zzzzaaaaazzzaaaap a cough of darkness.

the cradle will rock

Something is shifting, changing. Her arms elongate, thinning, a yellow foot hooks over the edge of the tub.

The door handle rattles. “Ava? You in there?”

Patrick? What’s he doing here? His flight gets back tomorrow.

Zzzzzaaaazzzzzz a chaotic symphony of shadows dance gleefully along the walls.

Mama perches on the edge of the tub, all elbows, knees, and bony edges, like she swallowed a bag of hammers. Emaciated skin sucked around jagged ribs.

I wonder why he doesn’t come in. I don’t remember locking the door.

when the bough breaks

Her eyes are gone. Just a white sloping emptiness distending from straggling ropes of hair down to a pocked nose. The cheeks pull into something resembling a grin. Part of her bottom jaw is gone.

“Ava, who are you talking to? Who’s in there?!” The rugged mahogany groans as he throws a shoulder into it. “OPEN THE DOOR! AVA!”

Mama turns and scuttles up the wall, her wet, hacking voice splattering around me.

the cradle will fall

I can’t pull my eyes away, fascinated by the ripples of her distended spine protruding through her back. Bony shoulder blades squirm and jerk.

ZZZZZZZZAAAAAAAAAAAA POP the light goes out leaving me with one last glimpse of her body splayed across the ceiling above me, small but impossibly large, her head rotating, black hair falling around a sightless face.

and down will come baby

BOOM!

“AVA!”

BOOOM!

“BABY! PLEASE! AVAAAAAA!!”

I reach up in the darkness, “MAMA! DON’T LEAVE ME AGAIN! DON’T LEAVE ME!”

cradle and all.

CRAAAAACKKK! The door splinters open, a beam of light catching Mama’s form as she launches herself toward me, all disjointed arms, knobby legs, hooked fingers.

“AVAAAA! NOOOO!”

And then I am awash in fire and blackness and rushing water. Patrick diving, reaching, but he’s late. He’s too late.

Mama takes me.

Down, down into wet, shiny nothingness.

Some random thoughts about when life punches you in the face

Isaiah Stratton

I was listening to an interview with Tim Roth, and he said something I rarely hear successful actors say—he said he knows great actors, actors who do amazing work, who’ve never gotten their break. They’ve never “made it.” He recognized that for whatever reason, their skill was not recognized. He said they should be working, they deserve to be working, but it just hadn’t happened for them.
.
That made me think. If you’re like me, you’ve heard the positive attitude stuff, the “want it hard enough and it’ll happen” stuff; shoot, I just finished reading “The Alchemist.” The entire theme of the book is that if you’re in tune with what your heart wants, and if you put that above all else, and you chase it with all the strength you’ve got, then the universe will come to your aid and actualize the realization of what you’re chasing.
.
I think there is great strength in identifying your passion and pursuing the thing that God has gifted you to do, but I also believe what I read in another book—that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Life has punched me in the mouth. And if you live long enough, it’ll do the same to you. The question is: what do you do when your plan doesn’t look like it’s working? like it may never work?
.
I was texting with a friend who—if you looked at his work and his online presence you’d think was “making it”—told me he’d hit a breaking point. I could hear the frustration in his words, and I understood. Watching jobs go to people who are “more connected.” Juggling and scrapping and fighting to produce quality work. All while figuring out how to keep your nose above water. It’s hard. The punches keep coming. Your nose gets broken. Your teeth hang loose. Your eyes swell. You wonder if it’s worth it. You wonder why you keep doing it.
.
When I did this shoot with Aña, she asked me what I wanted to see from the pictures, and I told her I wanted the truth—I wanted to see what I’m feeling right now. As I looked through what she got, I realized what I was seeing: a guy who’s closed off. The body language in almost every shot was turned away or inward. And that’s where I am now. I feel a little punch drunk. But I’m on my feet.
.
Aña asked me point blank if I’d ever give up—give up this career. And my answer was instantaneous—no. I will not. Both of my grandfathers died young. They were both great men, and should have lived longer. Much longer. I have no guarantees in this life. I’ve worked in a job for years that I detested. I wasted too much time during those years. And that’s on me. And it won’t happen again. I know what I love to do, and I don’t think I’ll ever be some “big-time actor,” but I do think I’ll find a way to make a living doing what I love to do. God gifted me for this, and He closed a whole lot of other doors that made way better sense. So here I am.
.
This past Sunday at church, we sang one of my favorite songs. The final lyrics say
“Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”
So I’m not gonna stay down. I’m gonna stand. I’m gonna keep getting back in the game. I’m gonna keep slugging back every time life punches me in the face. And I’m gonna grin while I do it.
Onward and upward, my friends.

Father’s Day

Dad, I need to say thanks for some things:
you taught me to throw a baseball,
you taught me the hook shot,
you taught me to ride a motorcycle,
you taught me to shoot a gun,
you taught me to polish shoes,
you made me learn to change the oil and change a tire,
you taught me that chivalry isn’t dead yet,
you taught me that if you wear something with confidence, it never goes out of style (those plaid pants though),
you gave me a love for literature (although hearing “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” at six years old is still seared in my brain),
you pushed, nay, demanded that I write (all my awards and scholarships, I owe to you),
you took me out in nature and acted like it was completely normal when I was a hundred feet up in a tree,
you held the ladder that time I grabbed a live wire, and–while I stared at the third degree electrical burns on my hands–calmly looked up and asked, “you okay?”
the first time a girl gave me her number you said “good job. you gonna call her?” then walked off,
you took my brothers and me on late night runs into town when you just had to have some pizza,
you cooked up burgers at midnight (if I die ten years early, it will have been worth every greasy minute).

You were the first person to make me stand up and perform,
you demanded excellence,
you didn’t complain,
and I know it’s been rocky,
and we’ve butted heads,
but things are better now, and I’m glad–
I’m glad that on this crazy ride of a life,
I get to call you Dad.
dad

Splinters

splinter tree

He collapsed onto the bench beside me.

“You’re early.”

I nodded.

He sat for a moment soaking in the last of the September sunset; away to our left the sun ignited the sky, washing everything with a warm, pulsing glow. The traffic down the hill below us flowed along with its undercurrent of beeps and the throttled thrum of downshifting tractor trailers.

“How are you today?”

He laughed—or at least something that passed for a laugh.

“You know, you’re about the only person who asks that. Normally it’s you good . . . how are you . . . I’m so sorry.” He shook his head, “I never really know what to say, so I don’t say anything much more than I’m okay . . . I’m fine . . . thanks for asking. It’s like they’re embarrassed to talk about it.”

“It’s tough to know what to say.”

I pulled my flask out of my jacket and offered it to him. He took it without looking, unscrewed the cap scree scree and took a pull.

“You know the hardest one I get? When they say you’ll meet someone else, don’t you worry, such a great guy like you, just you wait, when you least expect it. What if I don’t want to meet anyone else?”

He twisted the cap back and forth scree scree scree.

“Is that wrong?”

I shook my head, “No.”

“I mean, the people who say that, maybe they just experience love on a different plane from me.” He took another swallow, coughed. “I can still remember the first time I saw her. Fifteen years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday, and it wasn’t love at first sight—I don’t believe in that—but it was something. I knew there was something about her—this blonde, green eyed creature who’d stepped out of some fairy tale and cracked the foundation of everything I thought I knew about life. She didn’t even notice me—there were hundreds of people around—but I couldn’t stop staring at her. I knew I had no chance. And then she actually said yes . . .”

scree scree scree

“I remember what she wore on our first date, that green sweater . . . her favorite color . . . man, the way it made her eyes crack . . . I don’t think I tasted one thing I ate that night. I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was afraid it was a joke, like the maître d’ was going to come up during the middle of our appetizer, tap me on the shoulder, and say I’m so sorry, sir, but there’s been a mistake. The lady’s real date just arrived. It’s time for you to go. And then some James Bond deal would walk up, take my glass of wine, and smile while the hostess showed me out the door.

Do you know what it’s like to be so out of your league you feel like you’re drowning? all the time? That’s the way I felt with her. Always. Like I was drowning. It hurt to breathe sometimes.”

scree scree

“Still does.”

A big rig hit its jake brakes and grumbled down the hill, the rumble reverberating around us. He turned to look at it then looked down at the flask like he’d forgotten he was holding it. Passed it back to me. The bourbon was good, the warm bite crawled down my throat.

“I know that look, you’ve got something rolling around in that brain. You can say it.”

I took another swallow, “Okay, I see it this way: I don’t think we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses simply because of how good the past was, but rather because we think about all the pain we’ve been through in the interim, and we realize that that past version of ourself hasn’t experienced that pain yet. We want to keep them always as happy and unscarred as they were back then.

I know that doesn’t make you feel any better. She’s gone—it was out of your control, is what I’m trying to say—and unfortunately, life’s instruction manual is pretty cut and dried: Pain Included. No Refunds. Thanks for Playing.” I shrugged, “Whether we like it or not.”

His voice climbed, a hard edge tinging it, “But just because she’s not in my life anymore doesn’t mean she’s gone from here.” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “Just last week I was at the mall, I was gonna buy a watch. I was at the counter, you know, just looking and all of a sudden I felt like she was behind me. I smelled her. That perfume she wore— I knew if I turned around she’d be standing behind me looking at me with those eyes. I froze. It was so real. I just stood there waiting for her to slip up behind me and rest her chin on my shoulder and whisper hey you watcha doing . . . I knew it was her, but I knew it wasn’t at the same time. This girl steps up beside me and it’s all I can do not to fold in on myself and go to pieces right there in the middle of the damn store. That girl had no idea when she put on that perfume that morning . . . she had no idea what she’d do to me . . .”

He grabbed his head with both hands, “There’s this splinter of her in here.”

Of course there is. And it might take years before it works itself out to a place where you can finally grab it, pull it free. Put it to rest.”

He closed his eyes, whispered, “Dammit it hurts.”

“I know it does. Splinters always do.”

He rubbed his eyes, leaned back and looked across to the dying horizon before pulling a package out of his jacket. With a quiet exhale he unrolled it on his lap, the paper shaking in his hands.

“Can I get one more hit of that?”

He took the flask, rubbing the worn leather with numb fingertips.

scree scree scree

“Daisies.”

He nodded.

scree scree

“She loved those,” I said.

He knelt and laid them alongside the marble headstone.

“Yeah. She did.”

The Letter

The apple caught Bobby behind the left ear, dropping him in the dirt.

Cal spun around, only one person threw like that.

“Whatcha little dipshits up to, huh?” Brad sauntered out from behind a tree tossing another apple. His twin, Carver, trundled out after him. What Carver lacked in smarts he more than made up for in size.

Cal wished Little Pete were there, but he was off at his grandparents’ place for his annual week-long visit. Little Pete was the only buffer between them and the Terribles as they liked to refer to the twins.

Bobby wobbled to this feet rubbing his head. Cal steadied him.

“Aw, is the little guy hurt?” Brad said. Carver picked at a zit then wiped his sausage fingers on his stained dungarees.

“Go away,” Cal said.

“Or what?”

Cal stared at him.

“Just go away,” Bobby said, “we aren’t causing you guys any trouble.”

“Yeah, but that’s the rub, ain’t it, Bobby? We like trouble.”

Carver giggled, a fat pig getting his stomach rubbed.

Bobby stepped up, “You just wait ’til Little Pete gets back—“

“Yeah?” Brad shoved him, sending Bobby to the ground again. “That fat piece o’crap ain’t here now, is he? So whatcha gonna do about it?”

As Bobby struggled to his feet again a piece of paper fell from his pocket. Brad snatched it up.

Bobby made a grab for it, “Gimme that!”

“What’s the little boy been writin? Maybe it’s a looooove note,” Brad rolled his eyes unfolding the paper. Carver giggled again.

Bobby balled up his fists. Cal grabbed his shoulder, shook his head.

“Ho-ly hell, Carver, it is a love note. And it’s to Francine.”

Bobby sagged into Cal.

Carver pawed at his brother, “Read it! Read it!”

“Shut up,” he squinted at the paper, “you wouldn’t even understand half these words.”

He wheeled on Bobby, “Where’d you learn to use such big words?”

“Reading,” Bobby whispered, “maybe you should try it.”

“What’d you say, shrimp?”

“Nothing.”

“ ‘swhat I thought. Why don’t you just keep your little dreams of romance packed away in that little excuse for a brain you got stuck between those elephant ears of yours. Ain’t no girl gonna look twice at you, not even that fat cow Francine.”

“Fat cow!” yelped Carver.

“Shut your face, Carver, you ain’t got no room to talk, you sweaty meatball.”

Carver shut up.

They stood, the four of them squared off in the dusky summer heat. Sweat rolled in Cal’s eyes, but he never stopped staring at Brad. The quiet glare unnerved Brad for some reason. There was something off about the thin boy in front of him, the way he didn’t cower like the other kids, the way he just stood there staring.

“Ain’t got nothin to say, Cal?”

Silence.

Carver tugged on Brad’s shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“I’ll go when I’m damn-well ready to go,” Brad shrugged him off. He stepped towards Cal.
“You stay outta my way, freak. You and your pet runt.” He shoved his dirty finger into Cal’s chest.

Cal just stared.

It was wrong, Brad thought, to stand there like that. Wrong in some way his muddy mind couldn’t quite grab.

He slowly shoved the letter into his mouth, chewed it, then spit the globby mess into the dirt. “Hope she can still read it.”

The twins turned and lurched off into the trees.

Bobby sank to the ground and gingerly poked at the pulpy mess.

Cal laid a hand on his shoulder.

Bobby looked at him and sniffed, “I’m fine.”

Cal read the lie in his eyes.

“I jus’,” Bobby’s voice quivered, “I really worked hard on that letter. Been holding it for a week waiting for the right time to give it to her.”

He stood, swore, and kicked the wadded mess into the grass on the edge of the trail where it lay, broken roadkill left for the birds.

“I even wrote her a poem.”

Cal raised an eyebrow.

Bobby caught the look, shook his head. “I could maybe re-write it, but it’s not gonna be as good. It just had a . . . a magical feel, like I really got it right.”

He shrugged then started down the trail. Cal didn’t follow.

“You coming?”

Cal shook his head.

Bobby nodded, used to the mysterious ways of his silent friend.

“Swimming hole tomorrow?”

Cal nodded.

Bobby turned and shuffled away. Cal watched his little slumped shoulders until he rounded the bend in the trail and disappeared.

The trail was empty. Just the low summer afternoon and the grasshoppers singing in the shade of the forest.

Cal looked after him for a moment longer then turned and plunged into the woods.

***

“How do you eat that crap?” Bobby stared as Little Pete took another bite of black licorice.

“ ‘sgood.”

“False.”

“Whatever.”

Little Pete leaned back against the railing while Cal creaked back and forth in the old porch swing. Bobby gnawed his pencil and stared at the pad of paper in his lap.

“Heard you two had a run in with the Terribles last weekend.”

Bobby snorted.

“And I heard somethin else too, they done had some kinda run-in with some outta town punks. Leastwise that’s the story they’re tellin.”

Bobby perked up, “Say what?”

“Yep. Beat the everlovin piss outta ’em from what I heard,” he hocked a fat black wad into the yard, “done got their asses handed to ’em. Brad, he got one of the best lookin shiners I ever seen. Can’t believe you ain’t heard about it.”

Little Pete looked at Cal. “You sure you don’t know nothin about it?”

Cal opened one eye, stared at Little Pete, yawned, and went back to rocking.

“I sure would like to meet those fine gentlemen that delivered the beating and shake their hands,” Bobby sounded almost reverential.

Little Pete gnawed off another bite.

“Would you quit it with that? You’re making me sick. Smells like death on a stick.”

Little Pete sniffed the licorice, shrugged.

“It suits me.”

*Author’s note: This story falls into the world of “Move” and “The Swimming Hole.” I’ve gone back and forth on first and third person POV, and I think I’ll be sticking with third going forward.

A Taste of Hell

gas mask

Standing outside the squat concrete hut with the blistering afternoon sun beating down on my shaved head, sweat rolling into my eyes, I watched the group in front of me hustle in while the drill instructor at the door—looking like some zombie apocalypse survivor in full MOPP gear—shoved them. Muffled shouts began almost immediately.

“If you know what’s good for you when you go through that door,” my DI nonchalantly tightened the straps on his mask and double-checked the seal, “you go in, you stand with your back to the wall, and don’t you dare come off it.”

He grinned, “We had a recruit try to bust out earlier. He actually got out the door before they caught him. They sent him back through seven times. In a row. So, get in, do what your told, and get out. Believe me, you don’t wanna go more than once.”

He was right. I didn’t want to go more than once. I didn’t want to go at all, but this was Parris Island, and there were only three ways off this little island of paradise—graduate, refuse to train and get yourself bundled off for exit processing that would leave a mark on your record for your entire adult life, or kill yourself. The second week of training, a recruit in another platoon tried cutting his wrists. I had to help stand suicide watch for him until they could process him out. A few months before that, some poor soul took a header from the third floor stairwell onto the asphalt. Game over. I felt like graduating was my best decision; unfortunately, graduating also meant that I had to go through this introductory party with a riot control agent. The training is designed with two purposes in mind: to make sure we knew how to properly use our gas masks in the unfortunate event we actually encountered life-threatening nerve agents, and also to expose us to the effects of the gas so we’d know how to respond and adapt.

“Alright, ladies, don’t be idiots in there.” He donned his mask, not because he was going in with us, but because the clouds of gas escaping the door each time it opened were enough to start our eyes watering from thirty yards away.

“Put ’em on!”

My fingers slipped on the elastic bands as I ripped the mask over my face. I yanked the straps, slapped the heal of my hand over the filter, and sucked in a deep breath to seat it tightly.

The door opened and the ten of us were moving. My DI gave each of us a shove through the door before slamming it behind us. The room was barely bigger than a small bedroom, in the middle a burner pulsed, splashing everything in an eerie glow; the temperature hovered somewhere just south of Hades. A drill instructor in full gear dropped CS tablets into the burner and a white cloud bloomed upward sweeping around us. He hunched over the burner, a demon from the abyss come to claim the souls of the damned.

“YOU WILL STAY AGAINST THE WALL! YOU WILL NOT MOVE UNLESS I TELL YOU. WHEN I TELL YOU TO TAKE OFF YOUR MASKS, YOU’D BETTER DO IT. AND I SWEAR TO GOD IF ONE OF YOU TAKES A STEP TOWARD THAT DOOR YOU’LL WISH YOUR MOTHER HAD ABORTED YOU!”

You couldn’t have paid me to come off that wall. Already my sunburned skin around my jaw and sides of my head was on fire as the agent worked into the skin like rubbing alcohol in paper cuts. I slowed my breathing as much as possible. The fun was about to start.

“TAKE OFF YOUR MASKS!”

I sucked in a huge breath, closed my eyes, and pulled of my mask. Beside me I sensed my recruit buddies all stripping off their masks along with me.

“HOLD ‘EM STRAIGHT OUT IN FRONT OF YOU!”

My mask went straight out away from my body. My eyes were already burning. The gas was a living thing, leaching into me, sulfur fingers ramming up my nose, setting my mucous membranes on fire.

“COUNT OFF TO 10!”

Bastards. It didn’t matter how long you could hold your breath, they had their games.

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—“ I stopped to take a tiny, puffing breath through clenched lips.

“—8, 9, 10!” My saliva glands exploded in a waterfall of lava as the gas mixed in my mouth. I swallowed involuntarily and sent the the toxins straight down my esophagus. A racking cough exploded out of me. I could no more have controlled it than I could have parted the Red Sea. But the worst part was the following inhale. There was nothing I could do. My lungs sucked in a full dose of gas, and my body went into full melt down.

There’s something about pain that both clarifies and muddles time. I was somewhere in the middle—somewhere where disorientation meets burgeoning panic. My lungs were exploding, on fire, my eyeballs liquefying in their sockets while I whooped racking coughs, forcing myself back against the wall, willing back the spasms shuddering from my legs all the way up my spine. Around me, the others retched deep wet coughs into the darkness. Panic spiraled through me. It had to almost be over. It had to. I was nearing my limit as my oxygen levels dropped. Make it stop. Make it—

“DON AND CLEAR!”

I slammed my mask into my face, clearing it with one explosive exhale and dragging in a wondrous lungful of clean air. The inhale kicked off another round of coughing, and I retched and snotted into my mask, sucking in breath after breath of filtered oxygen.

“GET OUT OF MY CHAMBER!”

The pack of us, barking like chainsmoking seals, tumbled out the door.

“Get the masks off, ladies! Get ’em off. Arms straight out. Keep your grubby fingers outta your freakin’ mugs if you know what’s good for you—you’ll only make it worse.” My DI stood by the wash barrel as we stumbled toward him. My mask dangled from my hand, and I lurched toward the barrel while the snot dripped off my chin. It felt like someone had poured liquid fiberglass down my throat. Behind me one of my buddies retched and vomited into the grass.

“Let’s go! Let’s go, ladies, I don’t have all day!”

I tottered toward the barrel. One more tick in the requisite box. Almost there . . . only thirteen more sleeps and a wake up.
Just get through today . . . just get through today.
-ijs