Welcome to another addition of TNBBC's Tell Me A Story.
Tell Me a Story is a monthly series that features previously unpublished short stories from debut and Indie authors. The request was simple: Stories can be any format, any genre, and any length. And many amazing writers signed up for the challenge.
This month's story comes to you a little late.. but better late than never. If it wasn't for James Goertel coming to our rescue, we may not have had a December installment of Tell Me a Story at all, so we are extremely grateful to him!
Born in North Dakota, James Goertel spent twenty years working in television for ABC, NBC, and ESPN, among others. He currently teaches writing at Penn State Erie and lives on Lake Erie in Western New York, south of Buffalo proper. 'Carry Each His Burden' is his debut fiction collection and was published in September of 2011.
She Just Wants to Be
SHE was becoming something else: like the mutable sky, she a cloud; like the chameleon water, she the diamond light dancing. He had become something quite other than the man from a score ago, long ago: once white teeth, yellowed by the nicotine from fifty-thousand snuck cigarettes beyond their vows and his to quit; thick brown coif turned a scatter of grey strand inconvenience; soft fumbling hands now a palsy of fists of put-upon threatening to pummel the little left of his once good nature and unclenching only for unannounced, uninvited trespasses upon her flesh. Her own beauty once apparent, now nearly transparent, his face merely a nervous tick she could not seem to shake.
No more mirrors in this un-funhouse. She’d gotten rid of them all in the space of this last year. One by one – a compact into the bathroom trash, a full-length from the bedroom relegated to the attic and quietly reflecting for these past six months a two decade accumulation of who they were, had been, were not now – the slow capitulation of their personalities in the reverse images of unmarked cardboard boxes standing vigil over a discard of memories and mementos alike.
She read somewhere in the insomnia of the literature that filled her waking hours, that sleep comes when one imagines herself as the river, the stars, the eagle gliding thermals with no need for the uncertainty of the ground. Night was a refuge for her, from the predators of day, its unflinching white light, its landscape of faces she painted over with the waves she imagined herself as, until sleep finally breached her earthbound senses, erasing sands even time could not seem to touch. She read almost anything, the pile of year old magazines in any doctor’s office as worthy and welcome as the entire contents of the Vatican Library; the words within the pages of People Magazine, of prophets, poets, and priests, anything to drown out the sound of his voice, a dissonance of claws tearing skin, its screech scratching bones, gouging marrow, leaving scar tissue for tears she kept to herself.
She just wants to be. This recurring third person thought becoming a redundant dialogue between whom she was and whom she had not yet become. He was the rattle of a train against the wind and rails. She was the mute lightning across the panorama of a fog horizon. But something was giving way, a shift in long-held beliefs, a manifesto taking form behind her kidnapped smile, within her nocturnal spirit and magnifying the dim light left inside her, brightening the corners of her opaque and odalisque soul. Her days had slowed to a trickle in this year she refused to name, no longer willing to even recognize a calendar that was unable to count accurately the inert hours between a lifetime abandoned and the one not yet embraced.
And so she painted the blank canvas of days away with unwarranted reverie for a life beyond her grasp, one that might have been filled with a profession she’d attained both undergraduate and graduate diplomas for, if he had allowed her to work. So much though for her degrees in psychology and what good were they anyway considering she could not even understand, much less budge toward resolution, her own ambivalent thoughts. She awoke dutifully each morning during the week, dressed and brought him his coffee and toast to their once table for two as he pawed at the newspaper like a feral cat in a litter box. Even the most mundane, perfunctory actions by him now reviled her. He had become an animal to her. But she too had become an animal, a primal thing wanting only to howl at the moon with a call of the wild to keep her remaining sanity, to keep her safe from his stalking and the heat of desire still burning beneath his hairy limbs, within his canis lupus heart.
Five days a week he left by 7A.M. and by 7:05A.M. she had stripped herself naked and had gone back to bed where she dreamed of herself as the bird no longer willing to alight, the stream beyond its banks, the wind moving deftly around the immovable. She was beyond the sexual being of her college days, their early years of marriage. Her breasts were excess baggage, her lips held their reservoir of kisses in a safe house beyond the lipstick she used as a shaded shadow play in place of an exiled smile, and her eyes no longer held the fire that had once made effigies of suitors, lovers, and a line of men who still stood waiting for a wink, a batting lash, a laughing brow in the decades she’d left behind and which it seemed to her had passed in a dry blink, for she found that she could no longer even cry.
As she slipped further away from herself she turned to photographic evidence she found while looking for black and white clues, Kodachrome reminders and scrapbook testimonials of who she had been before him. Within drawers, the folds of paperback books, and turn of yellow paged binders, she tried to divine the before in search of the after. Across the hundreds of photos she ran fingers hoping to find something more than the flat, one dimensional, but factual image of a single captured moment that in their totality would not have given a complete picture, even if animated across the white expanse of a wasted lifetime and with the benefit of her own memory to make the jump cuts somewhat less jarring. If somehow this picture parade, this pageant of nostalgia could miraculously fill in the missing pieces it would be but a foothold and so much less than the solid foundation she felt she needed to stand upon going forward. Her waking life precluded any connection to the past and her dream life connected her only to the now – she the sea upon the palisades, she the soil beneath the permafrost, she the tree no longer shooting roots but in pursuit of only sky.
She could remember when one hunger ceased and the other began. He was there, she was happy; he was there, she was unhappy. Happy, sad, angry, frustrated, and elated had all congealed into a lump as continually mutable as cancer cells that leap from skin to lymph to lung to breast showing no particular preference, the perfect opportunist. But her condition was far from terminal, so she had instead become her own best anesthetist, her imagination the chloroform against both reality and denial; an anodyne far more predictable than chemotherapy.
At least there was no longer any reason for either one of them to talk. He grunted, she sighed. His coughing and gagging often broke her attention from her own heart’s beating recital or from the rhythm of her breath barely audible through nasal passages, for to separate her lips even minutely might intimate the impending resumption of a conversation long since abandoned by both, but to her dismay recently replaced by something far worse than banal, mutual discourse.
He started with outbursts and vomiting diatribes here and there, their bile sculpted innuendos and castigations left in uneven puddles around her feet which just this past week had begun to lift, float, elevate just ever so slightly as to be unnoticeable to him, unmentionable by her. Who could she speak to? The fox, the flower, the grass she imagined herself waiting on the wind to whisper the dew away? Friends had been few over the years and now were none at all – a small number of fortunate souls who had slipped away from the suffocation of her anaerobic marital condition to join a material world she had always found elusive, a world of superficially put-together, confident people walking malls, driving cars, and going to dinner, blissfully unaware of the beauty of their transfigurations not through self-actualization, but through solipsism so perfectly shimmering it was blinding to someone as self-aware and sensitive as she.
The sanctuary of sleep was her only refuge, but he had begun unwittingly to invade that as well in a series of dreams that left the bedroom smelling of accelerant, her face flushed, a sense of aerial topography where the floor had once been, a shroud of smoke where the bedroom ceiling she knew intimately had once hovered. The river she gave herself to so long ago now flooded beyond its collapsing banks, the broken-wing crow she imagined herself before sleep now spread both wide in anticipation of flight, and the sound of wind through the trees beyond the house now replaced the communion of letters pronouncing her own name.
She counted down the hours of her last day by spending it idly identifying songbirds that came and went outside the kitchen window. The last thing she may have remembered before she saw him approaching the house, if things such as this mattered in the aftermath of things that no longer mattered at all, was the sudden large shadow of an unseen flock of birds darting this way, then that way across the lawn, beneath the fading strength of an autumn noon’s sun. And in that near illusion’s wake only pure instinct remained replacing the whole of her biology, an ethereal adrenaline where bone, breath, blood, and skin had been just a moment before.
Leaves rattled upon the wind that rushed in on a barometer heading down. The sad, long strands of what was left of his hair moved back and forth like delirious tentacles as he made his way up the sidewalk, hand gripping gun-metal within a pocket of his soiled tan and torn trench coat, his knowing smile residing firmly in his mind, not bothering to make its way to his lips. He stopped at the front door, peered in through one of the panes of glass adorning either side and into the mudroom leading into the small kitchen. Empty. And so too now was he, completely, at last, the animal within void of all human emotion; for him as for her, only instinct remained.
But her instinct, honed over time through both attention and inattention to his rut worn habits, anticipated his dark intentions today and so found her walking out the back porch door as he entered the front. She walked with singular purpose to the north corner of the house. She uncapped the red, plastic, five gallon gas container sitting there, tilted it ninety degrees and followed the outline of the structure back toward the front door, pouring a steady stream as she went. Her nostrils winced, flared in the vapor trail of its fumes. Her eyes began to water, but these were not tears, merely residual biology. At the front door she looked in through the house sensing his shadow going from room to room in search of her, though she could not spy his figure. Gas now lapping at the lip of the container and splashing up onto her hand, she continued on and made her way from the southwest corner up and around until she stood at the north corner again.
The old, shingled house caught fire quickly, so quickly in fact that she immediately made her way across the property, moving briskly in between the tall dead birch trees and a variety of robust maples that covered the lawn until she reached the edge of a large stand of old growth oaks. The front of the house was on its way to being engulfed and flames throwing white-hot debris began to lap at the dry dead leaves of autumn still hanging from many of the trees. The windy day carried burning leaves, ash, smoke, and heat toward her. It was from this new perspective, at a distance from the house now, that she noted one of the windows opening and before his frame was fully through it, she turned on a heel and headed into the waiting arms of the woods, life and limb hanging in the balance between him, the hunter, and her, the hunted.
Flight, after running only a short distance, gave way to fascination, an inexplicable fascination with a sudden sense of something beyond mortal fear. She stood behind an oak among many, her back leaned in against it, head tilted toward the remaining and reluctant canopy of broad, brittle leaves and up into the sky and its shift of grey smoke, its dance of black ash. She closed her eyes. She could feel the waves of heat here and there across her face as she breathed in deeply the last dream awaiting only sleep. She could hear his distant voice calling her name; hear his wolf heart beating as he stalked the large stand for her, his voice a blood-stained razor cutting across sharp teeth. She turned toward the towering oak and put her arms as far around it as she could in a warm, surrendering embrace.
She felt her feet take root, running the soil, encountering moisture. Her arms seemed to rise along the bark and then were inside it and she could feel the damp cool of the oak’s true flesh. Her hair stood on end and smelled of burning leaves, smoke, and scorching wood pulp. She felt her feet, now roots, begin to pull away from the very dirt they were mining and her head became woozy as she began lifting, slightly at first, upward.
She, now the tree, growing, adding to the last ring an epitaph while reaching with branches for the open sky, propelled by what seemed a hundred years worth of spontaneous growth; her roots pulling free from the ground, her limbs of leaves now feathers and taking wing, leaving behind the oak to be consumed in the conflagration below, feathers finding thermals and catching the drafts that plucked away at them until she found herself loosed from gravity itself.
And she is at last the wind she just wants to be, moving freely, deftly around all that is immovable.
I want to thank James for participating in TNBBC's Tell Me a Story. If you like what you've read, please support James by checking out his book and website. Help spread the word by sharing this post through your blog, tumblr page, twitter and facebook accounts. Every link counts! And be sure to check back with us next month for the next installment....
If you are interested in submitting your short story for consideration for this series, please contact me firstname.lastname@example.org.