Belinda’s Birthday by Petrea Burchard

Damn hot flashes.

Belinda Marvel rolled over onto the empty Cheetos bag, blowing orange dust in her face. Her pajama pants pinched at the waist. Her stomach growled.

She allowed her sock feet to flop to the floor. The motion propelled her to sit up. On the silent TV screen a skinny girl sat crying and eating take-out on the bed in a hotel room, in a rerun of a reality show. Belinda smacked the remote. The screen went black.

Crumbs in the cookie package on the coffee table would not suffice. Belinda heaved herself to her feet and slogged off in search of food.

At first she hadn’t been able to do even that much. Rising from the couch meant confronting the swelling pile of mail under the front door slot. She hadn’t opened a single envelope. Now, after six weeks, the heap of sympathy cards and legal-sized envelopes had stopped growing. Belinda had become accustomed to it, as if it were a batch of mending she’d get to one of these days.

She rarely went down the bedroom hall except to use the bathroom. She preferred to sleep on the couch with its crowding bolsters rather than face the king-sized bed alone.

The dining room had its obstacles, too, namely the pyramid of birthday gifts gathering dust on the table. Belinda scurried through the curtained room, jiggling her new fat, avoiding the sight of the packages. She didn’t want to know what he’d meant to give her for her fiftieth birthday.

The kitchen cabinets gaped. Why bother to close them when you’re just going to open them again?

She’d started with the vegetables and fruits from her last trip to the Farmers’ Market. She had once dreamt of a garden of her own in the back yard. Organic whole foods, that was her.

He was Cheetos and cookies. He adored sugar-coated cereals and salty chips. High calorie, high fat, high bad, that was him. She had begged him to change his eating habits. She had worried about his heart. He was over fifty. He had to take care of himself.

The perishables were gone by the end of the first week. Then she’d tucked into the canned goods: first peaches, mandarin oranges, kidney beans and organic diced tomatoes. Then the refried beans, canned chili, spaghetti and tamales. He’d stocked up to prepare for disaster, not knowing what form it might take.

He’d gone early on her birthday morning to a bakery in Eagle Rock to surprise her with her favorite flourless cake. A drunk driver had hit his car head-on in the middle of the Colorado Street Bridge. He hadn’t been wearing his seat belt because it was too tight. It wouldn’t have mattered.

Two lean, healthy Pasadena Police officers had come to the door, hanging their heads and bearing his belongings, including the bag of pastries he’d bought. As soon as they left she had eaten it all, even the frosted long johns.

Belinda kicked aside empty cans, their gaping throats crusted and molding. She tore through a lower cabinet, tossing away a sack of dry lentils. One last jumbo bag of barbecue flavored potato chips was hiding there. Belinda plopped to the floor, ripped open the bag and stuffed a handful of chips into her mouth, then another. She couldn’t eat them fast enough. Little bits broke off and tumbled down the front of her pajama top. She picked them up and ate them, too. She stuffed herself with handful after handful.

Finally she licked a finger and wiped it along the inside of the bottom of the bag. Red barbecue seasonings covered her pajama top and chin.

Her stomach roared. It wasn’t enough.

A long, low moan erupted from her, but not from her stomach.

Sobs hit like hunger pangs. She was insatiable. Between wails she gasped the fetid kitchen air. Air gave power to sobs of rage.

“I won’t go out!”

“How could you get so fat?”

“How could I get so fat?”

“God damn drunk driver!”

Belinda grabbed the sack of lentils and threw it against the wall. For a few seconds, it rained lentils in the kitchen.

Belinda sat. She shook the beans from her gray-brown curls. Grasping the countertop with pudgy fingers, she pulled herself up with a grunt. She waddled to the sink, splashed cool water on her face and dried herself with a kitchen towel. The towel came away red with barbecue seasonings.

She blew her nose on a paper napkin. The trash can was spilling over. It stank. She found a grocery bag in the cabinet and put the napkin in it. She added the potato chip bag.

Belinda stood still for a minute.

Bracing herself on the countertop, she shuffled through the debris to the dining room. The presents on the table were wrapped in bright colors. He was creative. He was generous. He had liked birthdays. There were a dozen packages, all sizes and shapes. She couldn’t open them all today.

Her finger stroked the topmost gift, a chartreuse envelope addressed to “Beautiful Belinda, garden of my heart.” Belinda smiled. Not much of a poet. Another hot flash came with its immediate, internal combustion.

The envelope rattled like maracas. She slid a dirty fingernail under the seal.

Inside were seed packets: tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce.

Belinda gasped. She clutched the packets to her chest. Her heart pounded.

She ran to the kitchen, kicking a path through the lentils to the back door. With shaking fingers she turned the deadbolt. Her heart whammed. She squeezed the seed packets to her lips and opened the door.

The sun rushed in with its cacophony of birdsong and fresh air. A lawnmower next door kicked up scents of cut grass, wet dirt and salvation. A fly buzzed past, a butterfly flitted through blossoms on the orange tree, a dog barked several yards away.

Grateful for the gift, Belinda breathed. In and out, in and out, in and out.

© Copyright 2009 Petrea Burchard All rights reserved.

petrea-burchardPetrea Burchard enjoyed a 30-year acting career before morphing into a writer. She is the author of the novel, Camelot & Vine, as well as Act As If: Stumbling Through Hollywood With Headshot in Hand, essays about the life of a journeyman actor in Hollywood.

She gained a following in the anime world as the original English voice of Ryoko, the sexy space pirate in the cult classic, Tenchi Muyo!, and continues to work in the voice-over field.

Jumping The Tracks by Lynn Nicholas

Claire tried hard not to fidget. She leaned against the paneled wall and shifted her weight to her left hip, arms folded, right foot crossed over left. Howard was scrunched on the floor, still tinkering with the track: checking electrical connections, adjusting couplers, aligning joints. There were, evidently, some major mechanical issues. Howard was engrossed. Claire was bored.

“How long to I have to just stand here, Howard?” Controlled breathing curbed the impatience in her voice. “Didn’t you say that model railroading is a great hobby for couples? Remember the ‘couples’ part?”

“Sure, Babe. Absolutely. Just give me a minute to figure this out.” Howard spoke without raising his eyes from the track. “Hand me that small Phillips, okay? It’s the one with the blue handle.”

“Here.” Claire slapped the screwdriver into Howard’s upturned palm with the efficiency of a surgical nurse. She was fed up with being a good sport.

“I think I’ll add another straight section of track; this layout isn’t right. The passenger cars derail every time…” Howard’s voice trailed off, his absorption total. He was lost in that single-minded focus indigenous to the males of the human species.

Caught somewhere between exasperation and bemusement, Claire stared darts at the back of Howard’s head. The man was impossible. For weeks she dropped hints big enough to trip an elephant, and this is what Mr. Romance gives her for their 20th wedding anniversary: an HO-scale, Pennsylvania Railroad model train set, complete with chuff-chuff steam engine sounds and lighted passenger cars. How obtuse could he be? Did she have to hit him over the head? Next time it would be with a club.

“Howard, remember how we used to talk about taking a cruise one day after the kids were grown?” No response. Deaf as well as obtuse.

Claire sighed. Loudly. Indiscreetly.

Being relegated to observer status added insult to injury after Howard’s big presentation and sales pitch just a few hours ago. Grinning like a kid on Christmas morning, he had half-pushed, half-pulled the unwieldy, unwrapped box out of hiding. Talking fast and selling hard, his words had tumbled over each other. “You’re gonna love it, Babe. I got this special for us so we can spend more quality time together. Isn’t what that you keep talking about? Quality time? We can even join the Pasadena Model Railroad Club.” Biting her lip, Claire had folded into silence.

Grimacing, she rubbed the ache out of her jaw. Clenching her teeth was becoming a bad habit. Her eyes closed with the release of tension. She drifted into a favorite fantasy. She was the women in the ‘tell her you love her all over again’ TV commercial: one of those Diamond Council ads where adoring husbands drape glowing wives with diamond anniversary jewelry. So, 20 years and what does she get? Something sparkly from her favorite store in the whole San Gabriel Valley? No. A toy train.

Reality sucked.

“Howard, what about—? She cut herself off. He wasn’t listening anyway. Claire switched her attention to the photo collage hanging above the fireplace: the kids’ baby portraits, Danny riding his skateboard, Linda’s dance recitals, one of herself huge with pregnancy, and a pre-baby Claire and Howard, toasting their future with dripping ice-cream cones.

“Wooo-WHOOOO! WOOOO.” The burst of sound ricocheted both itself and Claire off the wall.

“What the hell was that?” Claire’s eyes widened. “Howard?”

Howard managed a lopsided grin, working his words around the wooden train whistle clenched between his teeth. “Sounds like the real thing, doesn’t it? Bonus gift. Came with the set.”

Claire’s stare morphed into a full-blown glare. The intended impact was lost on her husband whose nose was already buried in a technical information sheet.

“The locomotive runs great alone, but the passenger cars still derail at the turnout.” Howard wasn’t speaking directly to Claire as much as mulling the problem over out loud. He was visibly enjoying himself, despite his frustration with the mechanics. “If I connect the engine behind the cars, so it pushes rather than pulls, everything holds. Maybe if I change the coupling on the back of the locomotive…” His
voice trailed off again.

Claire pulled up a barstool. There was no telling how long Howard planned to tinker with the wretched train. She studied her reflection in the mirror above the wet bar and grimaced. OK. She wasn’t exactly young anymore but she was still attractive, wasn’t she? Her skin was unlined and her chestnut hair was barely touched by gray. She wondered what Howard saw when he looked at her these days. Her life felt like a cliché.

“Here we go?” Howard stood up as he spoke. “Hey, Claire, are you watching?” He motioned with his head.

She nodded her attention, and Howard ceremoniously pushed the ‘forward’ control on the remote. The locomotive chugged to life and began its trek around the S-curve of the track. The stream engine whistled; the coal car lit up; the passenger cars stayed attached. The train clicked its way around the track.

“Well.” Howard boasted. “Got her running. I think I learned a couple of things too.”

“Me too.” Claire responded thoughtfully. “Sometimes you have to pull, sometimes you have to push, and sometimes you just have to change the coupling.”

© Copyright 2009 Lynn Nicholas. All rights reserved.

Lynn Nicholas, a retired technical editor, now writes just for the pure joy of writing. She won National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2007 and 2008; her story was chosen for the NaNoWriMo True-Life Tale in September 2009.When not writing, she can be found cooking for friends, gardening, or ballroom dancing. Lynn lives in Tucson with her husband and much-adored Australian Terrier

Watching Faye from BL by August

Editor’s note: This story was inspired by Margaret Finnegan’s “Slipping”, making it our first call-and-response story!

Damn, she’s in!

One unguarded moment and just as First said could happen, someone slips in. That’s the problem with Thought Streaming at yoga. The others are less aware, easier to penetrate, but so am I.

Who wouldn’t be, right behind Clarice while she’s in down dog? One minute sneaking looks and the next thing I know I feel her, what’s her name? Faye? My involuntary sigh as Clarice arched her white leotard back; that’s what did it. Letting out that much made me take in more and that was all Faye needed to enter me.

What did First tell me to do? Something about going to a second level? No, the Below Level. He called it BL.
“Get to BL quick enough” he said, “and while the intruder can still read your Thought Streams, they’ll be garbled.”

That won’t be hard to do. What’s hard is staying focused enough to Thought Stream at all, even more so when watching Clarice.

“Just let go Roy, you’ll drop down and can watch the intruder from BL.”

First is right. I feel like a voyeur. Faye is in but she doesn’t know where and as long as she stays I can watch her in a way not otherwise possible. Does she know that?

First said that Thought Streamers are everywhere but not all know how it works and what to do to protect themselves. I certainly didn’t at first; there is a learning curve to this.

As if yesterday, I remember Thought Streaming my Dad, learning how unhappy he was; that scotch was his way out of reality. At first it scared the hell out of me. A voice talking about my mom and brother and often me, but who’s voice? It took awhile before I connected it to my Dad and only after he thought how bad it was to be out of scotch while still sober.

I can see Faye is confused but I don’t know about what. She has the advantage of being in my Thought Stream and as long as she is, I can’t be in hers. But being on BL means that little I think will make sense to her. If she’s new it will be awhile if ever before she figures that out.

Hmm. I wonder if Dad Thought Streamed? I’ve never considered that before but I am now. What if he could and was good at it, possibly even capable of Thought Streaming someone while they were in him? First never said it couldn’t happen, only what to do when it did. God, what if Dad learned how to Thought Stream while in BL? If he could that would mean he could have worked me; leading me to whatever conclusion he wanted me to reach.

I did feel sorry for him, not at first but soon, the more I listened to his thoughts. Just like Willy Loman, Dad lived a declining existence even before he decided to put aside what little optimism he ever had. Before he knew that the good was past, that as bad as things were the present would soon be seen as better than the future.

Faye is not happy; I think she wishes she’d never entered me. She’s not relaxed and if you’re not relaxing in shava-asana, you’ll never release. She’s lying there but her muscles are tense, exactly the opposite of what should be happening.

“Let go Faye. Let go or get out of me.”

Did she just move? Could I Thought Stream her while she’s in me? If Dad weren’t dead I would ask him. Just call up and say, “Dad, are you a Thought Streamer? It’s OK Dad, you can tell me and if you are, can you show me how to Thought Stream someone while they’re in me?”

But he is dead and there’s no one else to ask so I either need to assume it’s impossible and give up, or try to Thought Stream Faye while she’s still in me.

Concentrating I only see Faye, only hear Faye, can all but feel Faye around me as well as in me. I can tell she’s feverishly attempting to make sense of my Thought Stream even as I think about hers. Will our thoughts meet and if they do what will happen? Maybe a God Particle Big Bang Pasadena mind meld, the outcome of which neither of us could ever fathom. I get chills, I’m scared without really knowing why and sad because I don’t, knowing I never will.

Just like Dad was sad. He never knew and it must have scared him. Day in and day out having to deal with the same old thing, all the things over which he had no control. Only more sadness made only temporarily less so when drinking scotch.

But if he Thought Streamed, if he knew what those around him were thinking about him, about ourselves, what affect would that have had? It wouldn’t have been good, it couldn’t have. We all circled each other in a never-ending stream of unspoken thoughts, my brother and me at first too young to know what was happening followed by all of us knowing, never admitting way too much.

Or did we only think we knew?

Faye is out and more that that, she’s leaving. Not the relaxed visage usually seen at the end of a yoga session. She’s tightly wound, her brow contorted, looking everywhere but at me.

We’re disconnected, I can no longer read her Thought Stream, thinking but unable to say the words:

“Faye please don’t go.”

© Copyright 2009 August. All rights reserved.

August is a man with many accomplishments, including winning 3rd place in the 1957 Emerson Elementary Kite Flying Contest, Novelty Division. This is his first foray into fiction.

The Fourth Possibility by Susan Carrier

Mushi-atsui. Miranda thought the Japanese word sounded like what it meant—hot and humid. She escaped the mushiatsui life when she moved from sultry South Carolina to Southern California, but there was no escaping the steamy, suffocating heat of Sado Island, Japan, in August.

She sat on a crowded bus dabbing the sweat off her brow with a hachimaki, a Japanese bandana that she wore during taiko drumming classes at the Pasadena Buddhist Church. Her sensei at that class was the one who encouraged her to venture to Sado for a week of beating drums among the best percussionists in the world.

After a two-hour bus ride, she arrived at a Japanese woodblock gallery. She planned to purchase a print for her small mid-century modern home in a funky area of Altadena, just north of Pasadena. Her friends thought it was austere, but she preferred to think of it as serene, almost Zen-like.

Miranda made her purchase—a stylized print of taiko drums by a local artist—and then sat drinking hot green tea while she contemplated the long ride home. She looked down at her rumpled shorts and dusty running shoes and then ran her fingers through her sweat-drenched hair. When she looked up, she caught the eye of a handsome Japanese stranger, who looked as cool and serene as the Sea of Japan. If the heat didn’t wilt her, then his smoldering look would.

She spoke to him in the limited Japanese she picked up from two semesters of language study at Pasadena City College. “O genki desuka?” she asked, the English equivalent of “How are you?” Miranda laughed and made a “time out” sign with her hands when his answer sounded like a 78 rpm record. He didn’t know that her ears only worked in 33.

He offered to drive her to the bus stop, one mile away, and she gratefully accepted. She figured she could make five minutes of slow-speed Japanese conversation. But the short lift to the bus stop turned into a five-hour island tour. They drove along the jagged Sado coast while listening to Japanese jazz. They explored secret coves on deserted beaches.

She felt a shiver when he put his hand into the small of her back as they walked up a flight of stairs to an old monastery. For a split second, their hands accidentally touched, and then for a few more seconds they held hands. It was long enough to convince her that her life in Pasadena was wrong, all wrong.

When they reached Miranda’s minshuku, a poor-man’s version of a Japanese Inn, he gave her a gift—two of the CDs that were the soundtrack of their afternoon adventure. They agreed to meet the next night at the final drumming concert.

She spent the night pining and plotting. Pining for Masahiro, the handsome Japanese man who showed her the beauty of Sado. Plotting a way to turn her weeklong visit into a lifelong adventure. Pining for a life of beating drums instead of beating her head against the wall of her cubicle at her dead-end job in Pasadena. Plotting a way to bring an end to the equally dead-end relationship with her fiancé, a Caltech physics boy wonder.

She couldn’t wait to see the object of her infatuation at the concert the next night, but the more she thought about him, the more she panicked. She saw three possibilities, and didn’t like any of them.

What if Masahiro was a no-show? Would she leave Sado Island in despair?

Or what if he showed up, and the spark was gone. What if the fairy dust from their magical evening evaporated? Could she bear it?

And, worst of all, what if he showed up and the spark was still there? What if the spark turned into a flame? What if she quit her dead-end job and relationship and pursued a fantasy relationship and life on Sado Island, an island so remote that it was once the Japanese version of Alcatraz? What if she returned to Pasadena and spent a lifetime considering what could have been?

She didn’t like any of the possibilities or what ifs, but she played each one over and over again the next day. She turned over possibility one as she ate her breakfast of grilled snapper, steamed r

ice and pickled cabbage. She pondered possibility two as she wrote in her journal while gazing at the tranquil Sea of Japan. She considered the third possibility as her calves ached from pumping up a steep hill on a rental bicycle.She reached the top, looked down and thought, “Ganbatte.” Go for it, as the Japanese say, and she did. She gave it everything she had as she raced down the steep hill. She felt airborne and, for at least 30 seconds, Miranda forgot about the three possibilities.

But then she hit a rock and lost control of the bike. Her face broke her fall when she flew over the handle bars. Hot tar from the black top road became embedded in her shoulders and knees. “Mushiatsui,” she mumbled as paramedics lifted her from the road into the ambulance. “I’m very uncomfortable. It must be because it’s so mushiatsui. Mushy-hot-sweaty.”

On the gurney, she went back to turning over the three possibilities while she listened to the siren. Should she pull over? Wait, no, the siren was too close for that. And then it struck her. The siren was coming from the ambulance and she was riding in that ambulance. She was hurt and was on her way to a hospital.

A smile spread across her aching, broken face. At that moment she knew that everything was going to be OK and that the three impossible possibilities no longer mattered.

It hadn’t occurred to her before then that there was also a fourth possibility. “I don’t have to go to the concert,” she whispered to the ambulance attendant. “I don’t have to go.”

© Copyright 2009 Susan Carrier. All rights reserved.

Susan Carrier is half Japanese, half Scottish and 100% hillbilly. She grew up in West Virginia, where she ate Ritz crackers instead of rice crackers. When she moved to California after college, she finally got in touch with her Japanese side. As a writer, she’s written everything from annual reports to first person essays and feature articles. She blogs about surviving cancer and enjoying food, and is the co-owner of The Orange Cat, a family events website. She’s also working on a one-woman show, but this is her first attempt at fiction.

Quicky by Désirée Zamorano

Inez Leon waited in the foyer of the Athenaeum. She resented the fact that she had had to cut short her krav maga workout, to shower, dress up, and then struggle for parking around the Caltech campus only to find Wallace was not ready. But what was the time of a full professor worth, contrasted to the lowly wages of a brown female PI? What really irritated her is she couldn’t order a damn drink while she waited because only Wallace could sign his chit…

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since submitting this story, the author has had a novel published and is pursuing  publication for her shorter works. Please visit her website for details on where to read the rest of “Quicky.” 

One Rainy Night by Karuna Sanghvi

The loud peals of thunder had stopped, but the rain continued to lash against the windows. My sole agenda for the evening was reading and sleep. I grabbed the latest Dianne Emley thriller and sank into a deep armchair with a mug of hot cocoa. In moments, I was lost in the mystery.

“Eeeeeeee!,” a scream pierced the air. The mug of cocoa fell out of my hands, staining the blanket over my feet. Was the scream real? I picked up the book to check. The book did not mention any scream. It must have been real.

“Eeeeeeee!” There it was again. I was galvanized into action. Someone needed help. I dropped my book, grabbed a torch, threw on a raincoat, and rushed out onto the tiny verandah.

Outside, everything was deadly quiet except for the pealing rain, which now hit my face with great force. I beamed the torch into the yard, but all I could see were raindrops, now fogging the thin glass covering the torch bulb.

I walked into yard. There was nothing, save sandy mud and the sea. The foamy white waves seemed dangerously high and bent on destroying the little beach. To the right, a trail of jagged rocks led upward to a cliff, but my humanitarian instincts were overcome by another instinct: fear.

As I turned back towards my cottage, I wondered who could have screamed. The beach was deserted and there were no neighbours for miles.

Who could have been foolish enough to venture out at such an unearthly hour on such an awful night? Someone contemplating suicide? Or murder? My imagination was now running wild, as nervousness clawed at my throat. The thriller was having its effect.

Wait, was that a footstep? I whirled around and beamed the torch in all directions. No, just rocks tumbling in the waves.

By now, I was certain someone was nearby. I felt the chilling sensation of being watched. I looked again towards the trail to the cliff. I was sure that the scream had come from that direction. Should I risk it?

My debate ended when—”Eeeeeeoooow!”—another scream ripped through the air. I rushed towards the trail and made my way up the slippery path. It leveled out at the halfway mark, and I paused to beam my torch all around.

No one. Nothing. Just wet black skies pounding me with rain. Still, I was now certain a murderer was lurking and that I would be his next target.

I wished that I had brought a knife or something to use to defend myself. The murderer could still be around. Maybe I was being watched right now. I again shone the torch upwards and all around, but there was…no one.

That’s when I heard a faint moan. The victim was alive! I must do something! I continued upwards, keeping my torch trained on jagged stones.

As I cautiously made my way towards the sound, the rain suddenly stopped. All I heard was waves crashing and my own pounding heart.

And then the low, terrified whimpers.

I rounded a boulder and came upon it. A sight that stunned me for a moment and had me laughing the next. It was a cat, the large tomcat who wandered in and out of my house several times each day. The victim was a soaking wet, scared cat.

I was so relieved that I nearly lost my footing on the trail. He offered no resistance when I picked him up, I carried him back to the cottage where we both settled in for the night.

The next morning, I went for my daily walk and breathed in the fresh salty sea breeze. The sands were still wet after last night’s double onslaught by rain and tide.

As I reached the cliff where I had found the cat—I’d named him “Pookie”—I looked up and shuddered. The cliff looked even more intimidating against the grey pallor of the sky. But now the trail was dotted with men.

“Hey you!”, shouted a voice. A portly woodentop descended the trail towards me.

He had many questions—and some answers. I learnt that last night a woman had been raped and killed. A jogger had discovered her body. I described what I had heard and even led him to the cat.

The police officer jotted down the details and mentioned that I had been lucky. Had the rapist seen me, perhaps there would have been two bodies. Who knows? I shuddered at the thought.

As I laid out some milk in a little dish, I wondered if the cat had saved my life after all. Or whether I would have been able to help that woman.

Two days later, a newspaper article reported the victim had been raped and killed in her house, and the killer had thrown the body off the cliff that rainy night, hoping that her death would appear to be an accident.

So it had been the cat after all, and not the woman. I still do not know whether to be relieved or worry about any future attacks.

Today, the cat—my Pookie—is still with me. He loves to curl up with me in the large armchair as I read yet another thriller. But when it rains, he hides under the chair.

© Copyright 2009 Karuna Sanghvi. All rights reserved.

Karuna Sanghvi has worked with design in e-learning, creative thinking, and general education for the last thirteen years. Each new project presents different challenges, and she has emerged from each with more experience and fresh understanding. This is her first flash fiction story.

Downsized by Janet Aird

I’d always thought of Albert as a fairly predictable person, so when I came home from work one evening and found the living room drapes missing, I assumed he’d taken them to the dry cleaner.

He’s been stressed these last few months, ever since he was laid off from his job as an engineer at Caltech in Pasadena. A loyal, if unimaginative, employee for nine years, he hadn’t seen it coming, although almost half of his department had already gone.

I hadn’t realized how much of a shock it had been, though, and what effect it would have on me.

I have to admit, at first I enjoyed his being home during the day. He did all the cooking, and when he cleaned the house, he swept the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. He even moved the furniture when he vacuumed. Except for our dwindling bank account, I’d have to say that the quality of my life had definitely improved.

Until I found out he’d sold the drapes on Craigslist.

“We can use the money,” he said. “Besides, I kept an extra set of sheets. I’ll hang them up instead.”

The next day he donated all the magazines I’d been meaning to read to the library. Then he went down to the thrift store with a load of clothing that I would have fit into as soon as I lost ten pounds.

One evening I came home to find pictures from our photograph albums scattered over the dining room table. “If we just keep the best ones we’ll only need one album,” he said, dropping a handful into the trash.

He gave away scraps of lumber we’d been saving for the day we might want to build something, and all the boxes we’d kept in case we ever moved. Then our furniture began to disappear. First, it was a few chairs we never used, then two ugly lamps, and then everything in the spare room. He threw out battered pots and pans, slightly worn clothing, shoes and sports equipment, anything scuffed, smudged, torn or loose. People from Craigslist were coming to the door at all hours of the day.

“You have to get out of the house,” I urged him, listening to my voice bounce against the bare walls. “You need to find a new job.”

He shrugged. “I can’t,” he said. “I’ve sold all my suits.”

I couldn’t leave the man I loved, although I had begun to dread coming home from work, wondering what else would be missing when I got there. I tried to talk him into seeing a therapist.

“I’m not the one who needs help,” he insisted. “I’m just trying to simplify our lives. It’s people like you, who need to be surrounded with clutter, who have a problem.”

A few days later as I pulled into the driveway after work, I noticed a rectangular shadow in the porch light. Wouldn’t you know it, he’d saved one last suitcase. And everything I owned fit inside.

© Copyright 2009 Janet Aird. All rights reserved.

Janet Aird writes technical and business articles about the environment for landscapers, arborists, farmers and professional water managers, but her true love is writing about relationships between people. Her articles, essays and short stories have been published in magazines and newspapers in the United States, Canada and England. “Downsized” was published in Stoneflower Literary Journal.

Slipping by Margaret Finnegan

Faye had been taking the meditation class at Yoga House for six months when she realized that she could slip undetected into the thought streams of her fellow class members. All she had to do was close her eyes, sit very tall and focus her energy on the tunnel of darkness that inevitably opened before her. Almost at once, she would glide into the rivers of consciousness that swirled throughout the room, traveling from one person to another as each wrestled with the difficult task of quieting the mind.

Although she never did more than smile at anyone in the small studio where the class met, her psychic wanderings gave Faye the sense of knowing her classmates. She knew that Patty liked television and replayed snippets of “30 Rock” in her head. Doug worried about his son. That one guy—the slim guy with glasses—seemed fixated on the breasts of teenage girls, but he realized that was creepy and that gave Faye hope. Then there were the others, none of whose minds were patently predictable, but who came to class every week and whose inner dialogs showed such despairing attachment to difficult relationships, financial worries, health woes, and pent-up desires that Faye couldn’t help but feel compassion.

There was only one stream of consciousness that Faye could never enter, and that was Roy’s. Roy was as nondescript a person as Faye could imagine. He was average height. Average weight. He had receding, sandy blonde hair that matched his khaki shorts. He never spoke. The only reason Faye knew his name was because she saw him write it on the sign-in sheet. All Faye knew about Roy was that his mind was locked tight. It was a black wall. Solid. Thick. Impenetrable, but for two words that hissed whenever her mind slipped towards his. “Go away. Go away.” It was like he knew she was there, lurking. It was like he had constructed an entire security system to evade her. But why?

Roy was a puzzle. And that bothered Faye. Puzzles bothered Faye. She couldn’t stop thinking about them. She couldn’t rest until she knew their secrets. It had always been that way. When she was a girl she became addicted to crossword puzzles. She wouldn’t stop playing even for meals; her mother thought she had an eating disorder. In her twenties, she moved on to tournament Scrabble. Then she changed to Jeopardy. She spent four years studying trivia to prepare for a tryout. She spent every spare moment cramming esoteric information into her head. She gave up dating and outings with friends. She made Jeopardy her life. And when she finally stood behind that podium and answered questions asked by Alex Trebek himself, she lost to a lawyer from Delaware who knew that migas was a Mexican dish with tortillas and eggs. It was the losing that sent Faye on a downward spiral that ended in an emergency room panic attack and a doctor’s recommendation that she take up meditation.

The meditation worked. It calmed her. It ended the panic attacks and neutralized her compulsion for puzzles, which her now wiser self realized represented an unhealthy attachment to an unknowable future. At least, meditation did all that until Roy decided to willfully keep her out of his head. Faye couldn’t help herself. Each week she slipped towards him and tested the barricades that kept his mind private. She looked for chinks in the black wall of nothingness that surrounded him, and one day she found an opening at the bottom of his exhale. She slipped in and when he inhaled she trailed behind him until she was in his mind and she could hear and see his every thought.

“Go away. Go away.” It was the voice, but it had changed. Where once it sounded condemnatory, now it seemed pitiful, like some fly-ridden beast in a third-world zoo. The voice belonged to a man. He sat in a dark room and held a half-filled bottle of scotch in one hand and a bottle of aspirin in the other. His face was puffy and red with small eyes and short, yellow lashes that matched his wide, disco-era tie.

A boy spoke. “Mom says it’s time for dinner.”

“Can’t you listen?” said the man. “Go away.”

The scene ended, and Faye felt herself sinking into a well of darkness unlike anything she had ever known. The darkness became a dense mass of incalculable weight. It bore down upon her. It crushed her and turned her steady, relaxed breaths into slow, choking gasps that seemed unworthy of existence. Everything about her seemed unworthy of existence, everything about her seemed inferior and insufficient and wrong and unpardonable. And—she knew now—she was. She was nothing. And she was sad. So sad. How could she bear this sadness? How could she go on knowing the truth: that sadness was a never-ending bolt of cloth that unfolded and unfolded and got wider and bigger until it covered the sky? That heartache was a virus spread by smiles and seeking fingertips? That life was a death sentence, nothing more, nothing less? And that, worst of all, it was her fault. She had ruined everything. She had listened to the voice. She had gone away.

Then, just as quickly, she was released. She slipped away from Roy’s mind. She was back in her body. She was breathing again. The weight was gone. The choking was gone. All of it—all of Roy—was gone. And she was Faye, only Faye. She opened her eyes. She blinked. Around her, men and women sat stone still, their eyes closed, their bodies relaxed, visions of tranquility, and there was Roy, a picture of calm. She got up. She left the room and made for her car, where she cranked the radio and headed home. She understood. Puzzles weren’t games. Puzzles were a serious, dangerous business. She decided to take up knitting instead.

© Copyright 2009 Margaret Finnegan. All rights reserved.

Margaret Finnegan does meditate, but she has enough problems of her own to want to go looking for more of them in other peoples’ heads. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The L.A. Times, FamilyFun, the literary journal WordRiver and the book Life As We Know It (Washington Square Press). She is also the author of Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (Columbia University Press). She blogs about wise women, demanding goddesses, and whatever she darn well feels like at Finnegan Begin Again.