Unravelling Future Ghosts

Flash Fiction July, 25

There’s potential here.

It’s your favourite saying, whether you’re staring at a blank canvas or a plain white bedroom, a page in a novel just waiting for fresh new marginalia or sculpting a person into shape. The last is so easy because half the time all it takes is the power of suggestion before they’re following the subliminal little messages you’re putting in place and they don’t even notice it.

And you watch from the wings as a singer totters on stage, her heels are too tall for standing comfortably and her lipstick is too red. It won’t show up well on camera, she stands there graceless and stiff as a board. Her voice though – that’s the best of the lot. Despite the tiny stage she’s on, her voice owns it. Provincial girl in a provincial little town where the best she’ll get is weddings and birthdays; such a waste.

You swoop in, quick. There’s no other shark around right now to poach her, to spy the talent and sweep her off to a better world than you can offer. Within a fortnight she’s standing in front of you, dazed and still awkward in her darkly-red lipstick and low heels. Heels take training, you tell her, take her hand and adjust her hair while she relaxes her spine.

If she doesn’t do well, it’s not difficult to find a new one.

She does well.

The crowds love her and you bask in it, know where to hit weak spots so she wants to do this again. Two-inch heels give way for three and then four, stages growing wider and taking longer for her to cross them to the lines where she’s supposed to stand. She learns all her lines by rote and learns to give them enough inflection that it sounds like she gives a damn.

(It takes you longer than it should to realize: she doesn’t)

(Here is the secret that she never tells you: she hates this. Hates that she trails around the world in a pile of glossy silken dresses and talks to others of her own ilk, hates interviews and how it took her away from comfort)

There’s still potential. So far she’s meeting your every goal for the cities and sometimes has to hop planes to cross an ocean but she’s not made all the goals.

You give her compliments for every performance and gifts for the big ones; lavish her with enough glitter that she can easily forget the tarnishing. She says she doesn’t take compliments well, but you see the way she flutters her eyelashes, lets her voice go soft and shy as she stammers – an artful affectation on her part, because now people think she’s just charmingly modest.

There begins a race against the clock: she’s counting down the time before her contract with you runs out and you’re counting down the time before you can renew the contract. Every performance she gives now is laced with a sort of eagerness, the kind of eagerness that (backstage) reads like this: one more down, another day done.You see it in the way she carries a calendar everywhere and crosses it off day by day.Tears off each month as it’s done, carries a day planner and rips page by page.

(The latter, you know, is the really effective one. The book thins out week by week, you only need to look at it to see the dwindling pages)

In the third year she dedicates a performance, cryptically, to you. She whispers a short lyric of red lipstick and then opens her mouth, tears into the song as if it personally has offended her. It’s spellbinding; the next day, everyone is all over the dedication and tearing it apart to find out what it means. Neither of you break the silence on it. Let them wonder.

The arguments started long ago, with you pushing bundles of dresses into her hands for her to wear, resculpting her hair and supplying her with a rubber-banded stack of notecards for her stories and interviews; she always has to be evolving, always has to appear to be changing daily. This unpredictability is something that they all love, wondering who she will be or what she will do next.

(So you pile up the compliments, day after day, and ensure she never hears a bad word. Criticism is all good, as long as it’s the good variety)

Anyway. You and she argue over the littlest things, and silk dresses come back to you with frayed hems; vital makeup goes missing and she forgets her lines, makes up something on the spot even as you hiss lines from your backup cards through the little Bluetooth in her ear. There’s a sly grin on ruby lips and you think vaguely that expression shouldn’t be there. That shouldn’t be an expression she knows how to make, and when her interviewers ask she changes the subject.

The public still takes it all hungrily though and she learns what you never told her: she can do anything now, because she’s out of her tiny little hometown and there’s enough money for her to coast the next thirty years. A song goes wrong; the musicians behind her hit a wrong note when she sings too slowly and throws off the rhythm of the song.

She stomps off stage and cuts a path, furious, through the private exit provided. What good is it, being given the world, if you’re still going to mess up?

(She ignores, rather petulantly, the fact that it was her who caused it in the first place)

And finally, her end scene: she’s fed up, impulsive, reckless. She pitches the microphone at the ground and thousands cringe at the feedback. The press loves it, but the rest of them don’t. They don’t buy the explanations, and so she walks away, resigned.

It’s not difficult to find another, after all.

Illogical

Flash Fiction July, 23

The letter skims through the slot in the door, drifts to the ground with barely a whisper. It’ll stay there all day, and easily for the rest of the night; its intended recipient is out, working late and then going on out to dinner.

This is where things have come to: letters sent from a thousand miles, because the internet is down and phone calls are too expensive. Tonight, it’ll be midnight in one city and one of them will stay up for a 2am wake-up just for the sake of a conversation that’ll happen through mediocre internet. If they’re lucky, the connection will last ten minutes before it drops off – just long enough for the normal smiles, the blown kisses and the queries about how things have been going.

When this began, they joked about it being an epic love story, one sprawled out over three books and five movies, epilogue added later and new add-on stories coming a decade later.

Only now, this isn’t working. They try to balance it so they’re each up at all hours of the night, always pausing in dialling to do a quick mental calculation of the time difference, what time it is there and how long they can talk. Now, they set up conversations with a meter running, a phone in the background counting down the minutes before things like sleep and food become absolutely vital.

They’re both so stubborn that they’ll wear themselves out trying to make this work.

(They’re already well on their way)

“You look like crap,” she says. Eyes him critically over her teacup, but she doesn’t have much room to talk. If she looks decently human, it’s because of the concealer dabbed on, toning down the appearance of dark circles and the tiny fine lines beginning to form from stress. He grins, raises a can of Sprite in a toast to her.

He doesn’t look so bad, she concedes. Tired, but then again that’s not unusual.

They hang up twelve minutes later, neither of them all that good at staying awake tonight. She remembers the envelope she picked up when she came in, shoved it to one side even after reading the name and address on the sender details. Probably not the best thing to do, but she pads back downstairs, hunts the envelope out and makes a new cup of tea.

It takes her a week to collect a few things together for a care package and two more weeks before she remembers to send the damn thing.

This is how things are going and she’s revived failing businesses easier than she is reviving their relationship. She doesn’t like to think of it as failing, prefers to instead say “having a difficult patch”, but an indefinite separation period before they might be able to get together in person again is more than just difficult.

It’s been seven months and she barely remembers to keep in touch now; they both make the effort but now it’s at the point of being scheduled in, post-it notes taped to the edge of the screen with a little chart detailing time differences and the best time to call, where to send a text to be sure it’ll be quickly read.

She bites the guilt down of spending money when she was trying to stick to a tight budget, and buys a ticket clear across the country. Neither of them have discussed trying to meet up in the middle, she too anxious to say it and he choking on the words every time he tried to get them out. In the end she loses half her savings, wears red lipstick and coordinated ballet flats, puts her hair into a French twist, reads poetry at the airport in a pretty sundress.

If they’re going to hash things out then she can at least look good.

The flight is long, she sleeps and wakes to find her hair unravelled, the lipstick worn half away but still managing to stain her lips.

In the taxi she reads out an unfamiliar street name, stumbling over the strange word, and the driver is silent as he pulls away. The streets are different, tiny compared to the skyscrapers she sees every morning from her kitchen and every night when she comes home. She couldn’t live here, it’s a beautiful place but so quiet. In the hour-long drive, she doesn’t hear one siren.

She makes it a game to count the people out walking as she goes by and doesn’t lose count of the number.

They pull up to the house and it’s her habit to tip well, so she pays double what she needs to, lugs her duffel bag to the door.

The reunion is warm and surprising and doesn’t feel anywhere at all like she thought it might. After the pleasantries are over the arguing starts, they loop around and around in circles debating what has gone wrong and how they could have fixed it.

She leaves the same night, scoops up the bag and hurries out. He doesn’t follow her, and she knows because she sits at the nearest bus stop she finds, waits. This isn’t done yet – she waits ten minutes, then twenty. Reads a new poem or two, combs out her hair and restyles it. An hour passes and there’s no new missed calls, no messages that have suddenly shown up while she was holding onto her phone and just didn’t notice.

At the airport she changes her flight to the earliest she can and flies right home. It’s not home now, of course, it’s just a shell of a house, no real personality to it.

Overwhelmed, exhausted, she collapses into sleep.

(The next morning she goes apartment shopping.)

Theorizing

Flash Fiction July, 23

A theory: that time is a malfunctioning reset option.

She writes, stops. Already she’s working on proving the theory, catching up to herself as her mind slowly, ideas barely catching sparks. This is the worst time of working, when her mind fails to make connections and doesn’t take things into account. Times like this, she makes various connection boards and adds to them over weeks of thinking.

Proof: She stops, formulates a new thought. Continues working.

She scribbles notes, taps a few things into her phone’s memo pad and jots down other things on paper; the back of a shopping receipt is the closest to hand.

Side note: She has reset her work mode.

She repeats the process, writes down extra notes and pauses, pours a fresh cup of tea and makes toast. Comes back to the paper, keeps writing. There’s really no logic to it, this isn’t for any form of study. This has no degree waiting at the end of it, no letter grade telling her how well her theory works.

Conclusion: She’s right. So far she has caused several resets just by virtue of being awake and human, watching the clock tick away minute after minute. By the time she turns her attention back to the work, it’s been two hours ten minutes and she’s lost her train of thought five times. Had several ideas, lost some of them almost as soon as she’d thought them and written some of them down only to find that they don’t actually mean anything to her.

Another reset takes place. She picks up her books, balances the laptop on one arm and moves to the library, converted from the smallest bedroom. Setting reset and restored; she works on for another seventeen minutes before starting a new reset: this time the work is mostly done, she’s all finished with it and feels like today she has proved something to herself.

Resets herself: changes clothes, swaps them for something warmer and heavier – the temperature is dipping and that itself is another form of a reset that she’s seeing happen. This one she can’t control, so she works with it and keeps a record of it in a new journal.

Tracking change and reset becomes an obsession, so she carries a journal and phone with her every day so she can monitor even the most minute of changes.

New theory: that she’s not created any kind of new theory. One day she tells someone about it, waxes philosophical and they’re not interested. It’s hardly an original thought, he tells her sniffily, haven’t you ever heard the analogy of time being treated as money which is deposited in a bank account every night and runs out at midnight?

She has.

Proof: She tests it out on others, and none of them are impressed. Instead of feeling like she’s come up with something interesting to think about, she leaves her conversations feeling like she’s somewhat out of place. (Sometimes, surrounded by people who make intelligent discourse a habit, she does feel out of place.)

Now, she makes a point of collecting words and thoughts, borrows them all from others and tries to spin them to be something she understands, relates to, keeps in her pocket for a rainy day. (They’re not, but she never mentions this and no-one ever guesses it)

Side note: she erases all her notes, burns the written form of her essay and deletes all the files from her hard drive. It’s too embarrassing a theory to keep around, especially the time when another girl comments that her brand of pseudo-philosophy is unoriginal, derivative, tedious.

It becomes common practice for her to study, borrow thick tomes from the library and read one a week, pile up Serious Fiction to read on the bus and is always at least a week behind her return dates with the library. The librarian frowns at her when she sheepishly whispers a request for a renewal, yes the seventh time this month, but does it anyway. Saves her a bit of money on late fees.

Conclusion: She tracks her changes one day, looks at how things have changed in between this time last year and today. Calls it a total reset, because now she knows a lot more than she used to and has forgotten just a bit more than she probably knows.

Amendment to conclusion: she has come up with something valid. She no longer has the piles of notes and essays handy, but she gets it now. Time resets life for everyone, not just her half-baked theory.

She finds her old journal, stuffed into the back of a desk drawer, and flips through, coughing at the dust the pages stir up. The notes are still here, intact, it was the one thing she couldn’t bear to destroy when she went destructive on all her work.

Pausing in her reading, she rips the pages. They’re a little dryer for wear, no doubt the result of heavy dehumidifier use, and they tear easily. Each page falls easily from the staples, tears into a dozen jagged scraps and she feeds them into a fireplace where they light up easily.

In her reading one day she comes across a new theory, one that has been placed into the world by someone with a lot more study than she has ever done, and she peruses it intently. Focuses on it, absorbs it into her fingertips until she recites it verbatim as a trick. All the long words are so impressive, aren’t they?

Final reset: time to go out and chase this new theory.

Over Coffee (8)

If we were having coffee, it’d be an after-dinner lark. You had dinner early, and I had dinner late. I didn’t have the time today for a proper meet-up, because I worked an eight-hour shift. I’ve worked Monday – Saturday this week, so please excuse the yawning. I’m honestly not bored.

I also might leave early because it’s been a long week, but I wanted to catch up.

Tonight I was on the bus and I wrote down ideas for more poetry, this time a vaguely-meta one and also another one for the grand plan I have in mind. Okay, it’s not earth-shattering but it’s a foot in the door.

(It’s also a foot on the ladder. I’m wearing sneakers today, battered canvas things that were a really bad choice when I went out in the rain to get my lunch.)

I’ve dropped by because you were still up and there’s not much on TV that interests you. This afternoon I was watching something on TV and wondering what on earth it was; someone else called it reality TV and… yeah. Maybe that answered a few things.

How has your week been? Did you spend today working, or did you have a sort of lazy day? Any plans for tomorrow?

The Call

Flash Fiction July, 22

They say that when you feel the call, you answer it. I’ve known people to go travelling at a moment’s notice, packing up whatever few possessions will fit into a tiny shoulder bag or backpack and quit their jobs informally by not showing up the next day. By the next week it’s been pretty well agreed they won’t be returning to work at this company.

Over time I’ve made it a habit to study and survey the people who say they have felt the call. As the stories go, they all feel some near-magnetic pull to a place, an inexplicable urge to go there right away, dropping everything and wandering off on the trip of a lifetime. This sort of carefree behaviour isn’t something I understand, preferring to live by rules and schedules.

Others tell me that one day soon I’ll feel it, feel the desperation to get going right away. I’ve learnt that this tends to happen most commonly aged around twenty-six, which maybe means I’m not such an anomaly after all. At twenty-two, I still have four years before I’m supposed to hear it.

So far, I haven’t come across one person aged over thirty who hasn’t felt it.

They tell vague stories, bold embellishments on some aspect and barest detail on the others. It’s the latter category I want to know all about, of course, and so it’s the one where I learn the least. Each one of them says it’s an irresistible pull, somehow managing to defy logic and money and language and time.

This is where the details become spotty, as if they don’t remember. Out of all the people I interview, filming the interviews to analyse later, none of them seem to remember why they went or what they were going for. A girl tells me she was looking for something; a boy tells me he searched for someone he knew once, long ago. “Like it was another lifetime,” he says.

The girl agrees with him, later, in her own tape. Worries at a spot on her neck, as if it’s got something significant to her. When I ask, she wiggles uncomfortably, changes the topic. Next meeting, she wears a big infinity scarf looped around her neck.

One day, it looks like they all have a way of recognizing each other. Two of my new interviewees are coming and going in the office, overlapping by just a few minutes. As I watch, they nod at each other, and something tiny, metallic flashes as it passes between them. It’s gone before I can register any of what it was. My new subject crosses into my room, half-turning back to watch the other girl disappear. The shiny metallic item has gone, a neat sleight-of-hand disappearing it into a pocket.

She doesn’t tell me anything new. The researchers and people funding me expect results; they’ve rented out office space in a small townhouse, paid out for expensive equipment and pay me a full-time salary. There needs to be results.

I usher her out, decide the metallic item was a trick of the light and leave.

Locking up, I feel the first unease. I’m tired, I tell myself. I just need a cup of tea at home. It’ll help to surround myself with familiar objects. Being around people all day who have stories to tell and only partially tell them is taking its toll.

The phenomenon isn’t all that new. People first reported it about five years ago, and before long there were others reporting it. Then came the copycats, the ones who were looking for attention and it was decided something needed to be done to establish what was going on.

The next morning the townhouse is colder than I remember, even when I snap on the heater in my office and settle in to review my footage, transcribing interviews and taking notes. All I’ve noticed so far is the interviews follow all the same pattern; when asked the same questions everyone seems to have the same blank memories, or the same way of fabricating a story. They all seem to be focusing elsewhere as they speak, as if they have to work to retrieve the memory, and some of them hold onto something – some kind of little talisman, not that I’m ever able to see it. If I ask about it, the response is a short sharp shutdown.

My twenty-third birthday arrives, and with it, a much colder office. I can see my breath when I exhale, and the heater is slow to kick in. Today, I cancel my appointments and spend the day searching for common links. They’re few and far between, but there are a few to be found.

This time I’m shaking, wishing I was somewhere else – so go somewhere. Somewhere warm, sunny day-long and where there’s plenty of beach space.

The thought has come from nowhere but I’m already logging onto my computer and booking a new flight, barely noticing where the destination is. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m worrying about learning a language and finding maps and a place to stay.

My flight is the same afternoon, and I barely pack anything – just passport, phone and some basic clothing.

The flight is a blank; so is arriving at the airport and finding somewhere to stay, but after a few hours I wake in what appears to be a guest room, opulently decorated and sprawled out with all the amenities a person could ever need. On the nightstand is a small envelope – inside, a tiny silver-and-purple pin. There’s a note telling me to always wear it, so I hook it through the chain of a necklace and wrap it around my wrist.

Dizziness overcomes me, and the last thing I feel is a chill, a slow-burning fever coming on and my vision goes spotty, my ears ringing.

When I awake, I’m back in my own bed – there’s a bandage on my neck.

Elucidation

Flash Fiction July, 21

How things work, according to her: You are a genius. You can do anything you set your mind towards, and ignore all the trivialities. They aren’t useful. Pretend they don’t exist, and they will not.

How things work, according to me: Realism.

She tells me all this with the depth and wisdom of someone who is convicted in what she is saying. Watch the bones in my fingers illusion white as I work and crosses the conviction into the sinews of her brain. There’s a whole pattern of it, of how I can bend invisible rules to my will and work miracles in the face of impossible.

She doesn’t believe in minor technicalities for me, doesn’t believe in a variety of thoughts where I’m as mortal as any other person and cannot (will not) try to bend the rules. To her I am immortal, a creature of magic and sparkling intelligence and creation. I’m a walking mosaic, one brought to life by some goddess who is in love with a tender plight.

(So many tiny little shards and pieces just to make up one whole; why would you put in all that effort? someone once asked her.

For the sake of art, creation, she replied. You’d think it was the most obvious thing in the world.)

I know how her mind works because I used to be her. Used to believe in stomping down every obstacle and creating new opportunity for myself, chasing a series of a thousand goals and not minding if I missed a couple on the way.

She writes in bronze, earth under her nails from digging up a reservoir of courage. All that strong belief needs to come from somewhere, needs a steady supply of fuel to keep going – though I have my doubts about this, and that even if there were no such fuel left it may still run on.

(How is she like the earth? They spin on and on endlessly, immeasurable and immutable)

This is not how things work, I tell her over and over. They are not immortal, not unyielding in the wind. Sometimes they are soft, thistle in the breeze – ethereal, almost unreal if you didn’t know it was there and where to look. You have to look for it first, look for the reason and then the justification, otherwise you are presenting an argument that is a house of cards.

One sigh is all the gust needed to bring down the house; it falls, and she becomes tetchy, presents new sloppy debates which throw fallacies around and are easily deconstructed with just a few words. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that.

She builds her own mosaic, puts in gems and crystal, shatters fine crockery and doesn’t mind it. The mosaic is too stunning, people don’t want to look at it, ever, and so they seek to destroy it. They paint over it with dull tones, rip out the finery and replace it with stained glass. It becomes averaged, dulled and people don’t look at it.

(They are smug, they have their own little perceived victory and they call it preservation)

(Others tear into them for destruction and she calls it a victory)

This is how the world works, I tell her, and set about forming my belief system for her.

Stage one: watch and observe. Cynicism helps above all else. This is already where she stumbles, because she doesn’t lend herself well to sarcastic and cynical; she is still too much the eternal optimist.

Stage two: create a path. Follow it closely, and then deviate from it. Give others no justification.

Already she is dwelling on how the path can be left so easily, when it was recently-created. She doesn’t follow how to abandon it, and instead focuses on the positives. It always circles back, somehow, to bending the rules of the world and having others create monuments as homages. (It always circles back to unrealism)

She scribbles out the blueprints, forms her own in Sharpie on the desktop – as though that makes it all the more tangible, when it’s only that little bit harder to erase. Writes in belief and strength of conviction – so her belief system is belief.

Belief is her belief system, and I mull this over later with a pot of tea. The weather is too bad to consider any drink other than tea, and I turn her words over. I’ve practiced realism for too long; I stopped being able to believe in things, and when I see her next I tell her this is how the world works, this is the belief system we are looking for.

She is skeptical, and brings me a dictionary later with a post-it note attached, an arrow indicating the text I need to see. The columns of tiny print make my head buzz and my eyes hurt, but I read on to see her sticky-note annotations: belief and faith and magic, art and creation. This is her new system for how things work, a reason to cause chemistry and defy physics and rewrite philosophy, in the name of finding something new to believe in.

I rewrite my own belief system, scratch it together with stray words and hold it all together with tape on a corkboard. Study it, memorize it, learn it by heart and then rewrite it again, scribble in Sharpie and smooth it over with pencil, until it makes no sense.

This is how the world works, I decide: unpredictable, wild, making no sense. Neither of us should be trying to categorize it.

(It stopped making sense a long time ago)