Caution: Proceed Quickly
April hated going to gas stations at night. She watches movies; she knows what happens. A young innocent girl walks inside the store looking for every favorite bag of chips. The fridge lights would flicker menacingly, making the large chocolate milk bottle look like an omen rather than a delightful beverage. The cashier would come up behind her, scaring her slightly before asking if she needed help. She would say no; he would not move. Then he would begin questioning her, asking if she was alone, or why she was on the road so late at night. The girl would answer each question—gas station cashiers never gave her any trouble before—and his grin would widen increasingly. She was all alone in a gas station at night, weighing a small 110 pounds and standing a good six inches shorter than him.
Next thing you know, a lovely picture of a girl pops up in the obituary section of the newspaper.
So, yes, April hated visiting gas stations at night with a feverish passion. While she was alone, most of the time she traveled with her fiancé, George. Work had him traveling ten hours away for a business meeting. With Thanksgiving being tomorrow, George decided to drive straight from the meeting to his parent’s house, which was another hour away, leaving April to drive eleven hours to meet them there. After getting off work at five, she started driving. Her bags were already packed for the trip and were stuffed in the backseat of her Prius.
George told her to stop at a hotel halfway through the trip. What he didn’t realize was the amount of open road she would be sifting through at eleven o’clock. The next town was thirty minutes away, and she was running on empty. Much to her dismay, lights from a gas station appeared ahead surrounded by fields of nothing by dust. Warily, she pulled up, remembering what not to do if she was approached by a strange man.
The gas station was not empty when she pulled up, though. Inside, a woman walked through the aisles while the cashier hummed along to the music sounding from his cheap headphones. Outside, three teenage boys stood staring at the car parked next to them, whistling and nodding appreciatively at the paint job and rims. Their paint-chipped bikes rested on the large ice machine in front of the store.
The car they were staring at was a mint-green Ford Mustang, probably mid-sixties, with a yellow caution sticker on the back reading “Baby on Board.” The car was in great condition, washed recently, and sporting a set of new rims.
April climbed out of her own car, hit the button three times to lock the doors, and walked toward the sketchy store. As she passed by the Mustang, April noticed that the driver’s door was propped open, strange for being parked at a gas station at midnight. The lights were shining dimly from inside. April went to shut the door, surprised that the teenagers hadn’t tried to steal it already, when a pair of sharp blue eyes caught her attention. She opened the door instead of closing it, turning her head to the small baby in the back seat. When the bumper said baby on board, April assumed it meant while driving.
Now inside the car, she could immediately smell baby powder; the scent littered the air as if used recently. The mother must have changed the baby before going inside. Small traces of the powder were splattered against the backseat. Looking to the left, she noticed car keys sitting in the ignition, a plastic surfboard hanging from its keychain. Above the radio, an engagement ring hung from the rearview mirror, attached to a ribbon of blue silk.
She looked at the baby again. His eyes didn’t wander. Instead, they were fixated on April, watching the various emotions fly across her face. His sharp blue eyes seemed to contain secrets, withheld by infancy, and answers that could unravel the questions hidden between the seats of the Mustang’s leather interior.
April picked her head up from the car. The woman from inside was running towards the car, throwing the convenience store’s glass doors open with a frantic fervor. She had long, blonde hair and blue eyes. The same blue as the baby sitting in the backseat. She was completely terrified that her child might be abducted by a stranger.
April took a step away from the car, now realizing what she must look like.
“I’m sorry, your door was open and I was worried.”
The woman got between the car and April. She was tall and must have been wearing heels. April didn’t have a chance to look down.
“Just get away from us,” she whispered, her voice trembling and lost. April nodded and started to turn away, but first her eyes connected with the baby again. She held his stare for a single second before turning away.
Once inside the store, April watched the mother console her baby. Before she drove off, she lightly brushed the dangling engagement ring with the tips of her fingers. With a soft sigh of relief, she left the gas station, thanking the Lord for saving her from the supposed “baby thief.”
April walked over to the cashier after the taillights were gone. He gave her an odd, cautious look, to which April replied:
“She left a door open, keys in the ignition, and a baby in the back seat.”
Her actions excused, the young cashier, now that she could see him clearly, nodded and swiped her card for gas. “She left this, too. You must have scared her pretty good.”
He took the mother’s purchase and stowed it behind the counter, but not before April could see the name of a pregnancy test written in pink letters on the box. She thanked the cashier before walking back out to her car. As it filled up, April leaned against her car with a heavy sigh. Everyone has their demons; everyone has their fears. Sometimes, a person’s demons are worse than others.
A Long Time Burning
I thought about torching the place. Finally just burning the house, the barn, and the field to the ground. I longed to hear the old wooden beams crumble to a hot crisp as the embers continued to chew at the knees of what was once a strong home. The past would no longer be anything but a sky of smoke, chilled with the dark clouds of regret. I would watch the flames engulf every painful memory that singed the corners of my heart.
I’d been close to the fire before, the one I wanted to make. I had the matches in my hand and the will in my mind, but no courage in my heart. I never had the courage, and now I’m worried I never will.
I’ve thought about getting someone to torch it for me. Pay them if I had to, tell them to make it look like an accident. Then all I would have to worry about is the guilt of not doing it myself. I’d rather slay the beast than face the taunting the rest of my life.
I thought about going down with it, letting the fire eat me too. I imagine it would be pleasurable at first, like someone nibbling my toes and pecking my neck. I would close my eyes and kneel, probably outstretch my arms like some saintly figure. Only at the point of acceptance would I feel the pain I deserve, maybe even want. The nibbling and pecking would become tearing and clawing, something I’ve been expecting. I hope at that moment I discover the difference between pain and penance.
I’ve tried burning other things. I’ve burned photographs, figurines, and letters. After that I tried liquor, which still burns.
But as I stare at the emptiness of my old home, I realize it’s exactly that: empty. It’s a frame for all the destruction and madness that took place inside, never influencing or taking sides. It’s not like we were prisoners, even though that’s how I imagined it. Not once were we unable to open the door and walk out. The door was always there.
I now felt silly for buying a ninety-nine cent box of matches. I became a stranger to the blackened history, clinging to the unhinged shutters and chipped siding. I no longer was a part of the broken dreams dripping out of the attic window or the singsong melody trapped inside the cellar. It’s like I dreamt that all the hate I ever felt flowed through the bowing clothes line, bounced off the falling shingles, and back into my clouded heart, a vicious cycle I created and never allowed myself to change.
Maybe, after all this time, I had gotten it all wrong. I’ve never choked on the words until now, but maybe home welcomed my excuses for not facing the fire.
I was bathing in the past when I should’ve been soaking in the present, even the future. I didn’t have any gasoline to pour over the creaky steps. Nor have I ever dropped a cigarette on a patch of crisp grass. Not once did I ever let the flame of burning candle kiss a silky, flowing curtain. I never needed to. In fact, I couldn’t.
My home was fireproof and so was I.
It was to be my last visit. Ever. That may be a difficult concept to grasp for a human, but bear with me. I need to get this off my chest.
The ticking started while I was pouring my morning coffee and I knew the day had come. Probably, I was the only one who knew, except perhaps the poor fanatic souls who brewed their coffee in apocalypse bunkers. I must say that’s not exactly what I’d had in mind when I sent you whispers of Armageddon all those years ago. I just thought you’d enjoy the challenge, puzzling about the “end.” But instead, you chose to obsess with zombies and super volcanoes… I must say, I’m truly impressed with your imagination, but these theories have wandered away from the point. Albeit, I used to love hearing the Ragnarök story and the Mayans were quick to develop their calendar, but after a while it all became monotonous. Suddenly, you no longer cared about the sun and sky exploding or a giant snake eating Gods alive, but about your kind simply getting wiped out by some disease. But who am I to judge? Every world has its end and embraces it differently. Embraces me differently. But you humans fight over names—my name, no less! Didn’t that playwright remind you that a rose will always smell like a rose, no matter what it was called? Did you listen?
Sorry. There’s no point in trying to singlehandedly disprove centuries of theological argument. Besides, my coffee is getting cold. I should finish my story before I lose all of you to boredom.
After a year or so of studying your popular predictions, I concluded that most theories began in and/or pivoted around the smoggy capital of America’s New York. If I wanted to see the end of the world up close and personal, I figured this would be the place to camp out.
I’d been in town for about a week. Watching. Feeling. Existing for the last time on Earth. I had made several trips to the earth in various forms I believed would best suit the area visited, but, like a tourist, I always looked just a tad bit too foreign. This time, though, I wandered without much destination, interacting with fewer people than I’m used to when I visit, but the solitude was a pleasant change of pace. I narrowly dodged a biker as he steered single-handedly, balancing a recycled drink holder unsteadily next to his head. I didn’t bother saying anything, but watched as his brown-black fedora flickered in the tinted windows crowding the streets. The pavement was already warm from the morning hustle and bustle. I imagined it was a pretty pleasant day as far as they go.
For a moment, I considered heading for the coast, but it didn’t feel like quite the right thing to do. I meandered, therefore, one hand in my pocket the other warmed by the coffee, through the various avenues gridding the city. Colors, lights, music overloaded my senses as stores portrayed assortments of material items meant to increase pleasure and life satisfaction. I wondered briefly how people like the New Yorkers could have so much access to pleasure and yet be so miserable and rude. I glanced at a price tag and understood. All work and no play, I chanted silently, hiding a smile. Maybe it was good for the world to end now…
Boarding the subway, the rhythmic, pressurized hiss of the closing door tangoed with the murmurs of crammed travelers too afraid to mingle with each other. I imagined how mechanized a person must feel to be welcomed by that sound every day to go to work. I suppressed a shudder.
Next to me, a person laughed. I looked at him. Covering a grin, he waved his hand dismissively. “Sorry! Sorry, I don’t know what’s so funny!” I smiled back and shrugged. On the other side of the train, a woman standing sighed gleefully, holding the overhead handles hanging for overfill. The man next to me laughed again. “I know! Right?” More heads turned to the two smiling passengers. Chuckles sounded slowly at first, growing steadily into a roaring eruption of sheer bliss. The passengers instinctively left their seats and began embracing each other. There were no words and no introductions. I’m certain they were all strangers. It was like a flash mob of smiles. I was glad, but just on the verge of being entirely weirded out.
The subway slid to a smooth halt and the doors retracted to release the passengers. Outside, laughter was continuing. Some voices were singing.
I stepped off the train and made my way for the exit. A tug at my pant leg stopped me in my tracks. A girl, no older than six, in a white dress with splashes of red was grinning at me, a ragdoll held bashfully behind her back, where an even younger boy hid.
I smiled at her and kneeled down.
She leaned in.
“I love you,” she whispered, planting a feather light kiss on my five-o’clock shadow. My heart was melting. It’d been so long since I’d heard that whisper. So long. She handed me the ragdoll, her limp head falling forward with the weight of the braided yellow hair. The young boy peeked a little further from behind his sister and pointed, grinning, infected by the joy echoing through the station. A businessman gave a beggar his suit jacket. They shook hands and embraced like brothers. The consuming glee tickled, brushing like pastel music through their souls. I loved them, all of them. This was how I wanted it. This was what I had wanted man to become! This, this—
The laughter silenced. A few echoes rattled down the tube. No. No, no, no. Not yet. I turned around. The girl was gone. Her brother’s grin disappeared. The bench was absent, beggar and businessman lost together.
Condensation clouded my eyes. Somewhere, a popular song came to an end, a gaping pause blared where a radio announcer was supposed to introduce the next tune. A tear traced my grimace. They were gone. All of them. In the midst of beauty and peace and perfection - gone.
I trudged my return into the city daylight. A clock read 2:29 momentarily and ticked to the half-hour. Vague whispers of distant car alarms spoke of abandoned pileups in the gridded intersections. An LED advertisement wrapped around a building. Victoria’s Secret was having a swim sale. It was so empty. Everything was so utterly empty.
None of it mattered. I had given the humans a chance to live and this is what they chose.
A dog barked from an apartment above me. Did he see his master disappear? His hoarse whine stabbed me in the gut. I miss them too, I thought. But this was the end they had chosen. The end the Earth had chosen.
I’m in the park now. It’s cold, lonely; quiet. Today’s coffee is long gone and even the pigeons don’t know what to do with themselves. I thought about visiting all of the empty civilization hubs around the world. Considered looking for artifacts of true value. But, examining the ragdoll in my hand, I know I will never find what I seek. Value is not a thing. Value is not even in a thing, but in what you do with that thing. There is no value in life but what you do with it. No value in words but what you say with them. So, I think I’ll leave this priceless little thing on the bench with her yellow woolen braids and her plastic grinning eyes. She can keep these words, too, if she doesn’t throw them to the wind.
A ragdoll with the same options as a human. What a concept.
Perhaps I’ll recycle the Earth someday. Give it another go. As for me, I think there’s a bridge nearby. And the humans? The children here believed in lore of heaven and hell. For some reason it gave them comfort. But they have not gone anywhere, really. I must be glad about that. They have become existence. Consciousness. They have become what I will soon return to being.
So, little ragdoll. I leave you with this. Heed it, if anything. Love life and live it as a gift. Be proud of your soul and make it valuable. Openness can heal this perpetual emptiness. And, when you’re older, go ahead and research the golden rule. It might just serve you well. … I let the world choose its end; I must respect that. But I don’t think this world is ready to give up yet…
Goodbye, little ragdoll.
I love you.
The snow falls in soft blankets, covering everyone and everything that braved the cold
wind outside. It was beautiful to observe, watching the individual snowflakes through the vast wall made of glass panes. These windows allowed my mother and I to observe the various types of people outside, but it was easy to do that from the inside as well. The subway tunnels allow for all types of people to walk from one building to the next, all without walking outdoors. The patients have come from far and wide, all with hope of getting better. They were old, young, foreign, and American. While we were different, we all had the same goal: good health.
Various patients would walk up and play the sleek, black baby grand piano that rested by the windows. The dark finish deeply contrasted the pure white snow outside. It was beautifully tuned; I remember watching an elderly gentleman play famous jazz tunes by memory. His old, arthritis-riddled fingers were still a pristine engine after seventy years or so. He made no mistakes. I wanted to follow his lead, but my shyness got the better of me instead.
The elevator climbed eighteen floors. My ears popped a little on the way up; mom must have felt it too, because we both laughed. From the top, the beautiful snow was now just a dreary haze that swept across the city, obscuring it from view. We walk down endless hallways, finally finding ourselves at our destination: Mayo Desk 18 East. We wait our turn in line, and I check in with the receptionist. She asks me questions, and I hand her various files which she enters into the system. She hands me a buzzer in return; it was like a buzzer you would find at a restaurant. I could see why they were necessary. The waiting room for this one desk was vast, and packed to its very brim. Mom and I found it amusing to continue watching the patients. I remember watching an Arabic man translating for his wife who was in a wheelchair. They seemed young—maybe only late 20s or early 30s at most. I admired their language, and tried to imagine their story. I couldn’t. However, I could empathize to a degree; I thought about how cruel it is to be young and sick. It’s our job to be warriors who fight for more than just life.
I’m called by the buzzer which both vibrates and emits a foul, high-pitched shriek. A young nurse took my vitals and asked me some preliminary questions. While we waited on my blood pressure cuff to deflate, she asked me:
“So, are you enjoying the blizzard?”
“It’s pretty, but I think I would go into shock if I went outside. I’m so thankful for the subway tunnels.”
“Oh yeah, this is a night and day difference in comparison to Texas I’m sure.”
As soon as my blood pressure cuff was deflated, I was escorted back to the waiting room for another 30-something minute wait. I’m starving this whole time, by the way. My stomach is gurgling and grumbling, protesting against the fifteen-hour fast I had to endure. I had not eaten since 5 o’clock the previous evening. I prayed that the wait would be shorter. I prayed that the appointment wouldn’t take forever. I prayed that the lab technicians had an inkling about what they were doing so that I wouldn’t have to become a human pin cushion (again).
I was finally called into a small room. I attempted to carry my various belongings into the room without dropping them. Once I had the chance to inspect the area, it didn’t look like a doctor’s office. It was beautifully decorated; everything down to the chairs we sat on matched. The atmosphere was the perfect blend between ancient and modern. I heard the clock say “tick-tock” as we waited. The doctor was running about fifteen minutes behind. The silence in the room was immense while we sat.
Dr. Neena Natt finally came to meet us. She was not wearing a white coat as I would have expected; she wore a light brown sweater with a purple skirt. Her wardrobe accentuated her lovely brown skin nicely. Her curly black hair was pinned out of her face so she could work efficiently. My mother and I greeted her with our hellos, and her beautiful English accent caught me off guard.
“What seems to be the problem?” she asked me. Automatically I became a shy five-year-old again. I turned back to look at my mom, trying to figure out how to start. “She’s been having a lot of fatigue and pain,” my mother began. I hand Dr. Natt my two-inch thick dossier which wouldn’t even close. Basically, this notebook was my life in its entirety—well, in medical records. There were transcriptions from doctors, various lab results, and other notes and bobbles that my doctors had written for me. I had sat down and tabbed these papers, by year, about two weeks previously.
She takes a long look at the records in front of her, speaking to us all the while. She takes notes on her findings. Ultimately, she says the worst words I could have heard (at least in my opinion): “Your symptoms are completely unrelated to your Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. In fact, I think we need to decrease some of your medications.” In other words, there was no answer as to why I am always in crippling pain—why I can’t even get out of bed some mornings. This was the final straw: I’m condemned to living the life of a 20 year-old who feels like a 70 year- old. There was nothing doctors could do anymore. Since it was completely unrelated to CAH, she recommended that I see a rheumatologist in Texas so that I could be checked for Fibromyalgia, a disorder that tampered with nerves. Therefore, people with this disorder are more sensitive to pain than normal. While women especially are given this disorder all the time, there is no magic pill for it. Therefore, there are only ways of coping with the chronic pain; there’s no way to cure it.
I don’t remember too much after that, honestly. They took my blood tests, finally. How- ever, they were more for protocol than anything else. After about six vials of blood, I was released. While we had one more visit to discuss test results, the decision was final: there was no diagnosis that the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Endocrinology could give me. We descended back to the subway in order to walk back to our hotel. I took one more look at the snow. At the time, it buried my hope like it was beginning to bury figures and objects that had to brave the storm. It had turned my emotions cold and icy; however, I knew I had a choice to make by the time I walked through the door. I could either let my maladies defeat me, or I could continue to battle for my quality of life.
Sins Ahead: Proceed with Caution
If there’s anything that I remember about Chuck, it’s that he was tall, he drank beer constantly, and he had large hands. Granted, I was barely ten years old at the time I knew him he seemed like a massive giant of a man. I don’t remember his face, his voice, or any miniscule details like that, but I’m sure that I would recognize him in an instant if I saw him again. Honestly, I don’t even know how or why he fit into our unconventional mess of a family, but I do know that he brutally tore our family apart with his presence.
Chuck came to be in our lives because my mother felt sorry for him and “rescued” his poor soul from jail. Seriously, how does it not set up red flags when a man goes to jail for supposedly going after his wife with a knife? I don’t blame my mom for anything that happened because Chuck was a long-time friend before this incident, and she was easily swayed during this time. If you never see this person without a drink in their hand, it may be a sign that they have psychological problems, causing them to grovel at the feet of an addiction. This was the biggest contribution to the turmoil that Chuck left us in. Lastly, it might be a good idea to stay away from the ones who are particularly attracted to children after they’ve drank their weight in booze.
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, you read that right. Chuck was a nice man up until his eighth beer, then his interest in children, especially kids my age, shot up like a rocket. Again, I don’t blame anything that Chuck did to me on my mother. She had no idea what happened and I was too afraid to tell her. I was not too afraid to tell my stepmom because, at that time, I knew that I could trust her. But to my dismay, she told my father who called the police. At the time, I felt completely betrayed by my stepmom for telling my dad, but now that I’m older I’m glad that she did. That was probably the last time that I saw Chuck, but the disturbances that he left on my family lingered for many years to come.
The day, I was called to the elementary school office and taken by a police officer to Child Protective Services. My brother, Josh, and I were taken from our mother and forced to live with my father for over six months in a small RV with his current wife. During that time, I was put into counseling, Chuck was arrested, and my mother was questioned about the incident. Our happy family was torn apart and it would take years to repair.
I didn’t realize the severity of the situation at the time. I knew that what Chuck did was bad, but I couldn’t wrap my tiny mind around the immense size of the issue. I remember retelling the same story to several people and dealing with the courts on several occasions. It’s funny because, at the time, I wasn’t afraid of the situation that I was put into. I didn’t mind telling people what happened, and the counseling sessions didn’t pose any threat that would break me in such a way that I would become mentally scarred. But now it terrifies me to know that I was violated in such a way by a man who was probably forty years older than me. I feel disgusting and tainted, like a bloodstain on a white shirt that just won’t come out. And even though I have grown from this experience, I don’t think that it is something that will leave anyone unscathed. The years of anxiety that Chuck caused my family made death look blissful, because living in such a broken way was as painful as being shot with a bullet of deception and self-inflicted hatred.
Hands were meant to be a tool for creating and building, but Chuck exploited his tools and only used them for destruction. Cutting his hands off would have been a justifiable punishment, but the truth is that we couldn’t even put him in jail. That’s right. Despite my going to numerous court appointments and counseling sessions, he was, somehow, able to avoid going to jail. I was only ten years old, but I knew that I had been cheated by the law and was now vulnerable to all sorts of ridicule, looks of disgust, and mental insecurities that made me believe that it was not his fault but mine. Even now, I’m disturbed by the fact that he was allowed to roam free and, given the opportunity, to repeat his offences on another little girl. I was tortured by the thought of him finding my family and exacting his revenge on us. Nightmares of him haunted me and I became exhausted from the series of bad events that took place during our endeavors with the courts. My family needed relief. And we got it.
Three years after the incident, my mother and I were finally given good news. My brother and I moved back in with her, and we were starting to return to a somewhat normal family. The night that the officer came to our door, we were both fearful of what terrible news he brought us. My mother stood outside with him, talking for what seemed like an eternity. She came back inside, tears rolling down her cheeks. Chuck was gone. He had a heart attack, probably from excessive drinking. We both cried for hours that night, for relief had finally found us.
Karma’s a bitch.
"Letters from the Soul"
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think there is a big difference between creative writing and academic or business writing. I was blessed years ago with the ability to effectively write a business letter. And I do pretty well with staying in the boundary lines of the right tone and style for academic papers. I’m actually pretty good at formal writing. But I really struggle with how to write something personal and “creative.” That word just freaks me out. To me, “creative” goes with “art,” as in creative arts classes from the fifth grade, when I had absolutely no artistic abilities. For some reason, “creative” comes with a lot of pressure, pressure that I do not feel when I get to write within the confines and structures of academic writing. (But, I have to admit, I am kind of having fun breaking all of those rules right now.)
Lately I’ve been hearing and reading a lot of advice about both creating and writing, and of course the statement “write what you know” has come up. So, I’m sitting here staring at my laptop, and wondering, “What do I know?” It reminds me that yesterday I was introduced to someone as, “This is Janie, and she likes Texas and history.” That is a true statement, so I’m trying to figure out what can I write that is original and creative about Texas? Well, last week was the 180th anniversary of Texas Independence Day, and I read an article that listed 180 things that were great about Texas. I could rip that idea off and create my own list of what I like about Texas. But then I think that would be ripping of the Dairy Queen commercial, and I can’t do that. I would be stealing two ideas. Not very original. And besides that, does anyone really want to read a list of what Janie likes about Texas? Probably not.
So… Last week I heard a really great poet recite some of her original work. I really liked a line that said “Letters from the Soul,” and I thought, wow, that would be a great thing to try and figure out. What would my soul write to me? Or better yet, what would it write about me? Hopefully, it would say more than, “She likes Texas”. Maybe it would say:
She likes spring because that is when the bluebonnets bloom.
She likes to take long road trips on out-of-the-way, not-busy highways, to out- of-the-way, not-busy towns.
She likes going to dances under the stars on hot summer nights, but she doesn’t even dance. She just likes being there, under the stars, with the man she loves, listening to the live music, enjoying life and the breeze, and the stars. Did I mention the stars?
She likes to see the stars because someone special to her once said that the stars come out on special occasions. Okay, so he said it as a cheesy line on one of their first dates while they were out under the stars, but she fell for it anyway.
She is faithful, and strong, and honest.
She is reserved. She is quiet, because she is listening, and learning, and observing.
If my soul could write a letter, I hope it would be able to say some of those things about me. I hope my soul would not be freaked out by “creative writing.” Oh, and by the way, those are a few of the things I like about Texas.