Musical Release

She often missed the sepia-toned days of having a cassette player. There’d been something soothing about listening to a rewinding tape, with the occasional crackle after she’d pressed play with a stubby finger, releasing rhythmic waves of catharsis.

There’d been magic to music then and there was still nothing that could compare, in the way it always knew how to find her through a thrashing deluge or guide her back from a precarious plateau.

It was her only therapy, because it nursed the wounds festering within the secret kerfs of her bones. Because it understood how to deftly untangle her emotions from the burs and knots that often made her lungs snag on a breath.

It gave warmth to her most frigid places and took her mind on a frolic along its glittering staves. And there were moments too, when the music took her hands and led her into a giddy jig down the street. Its phantom lead like the pied piper, with her following after each beat; her giggles drawing curious eyes regarding her with open disapproval. But she didn’t care. All she wanted was to follow the grooving silhouette of quavers and musical notes into the halcyon haven, where there was no pain. Only sweet release.

***

Russian Roulette

She was stuck in the bowels of a nightmare. It was as if her skull splintered open as she jolted awake, choking on the sensation of her heart squeezing down her throat.

She was back where she’d first found herself: in a barely lit room, sitting across from some stranger at a table. Between them was a gun, its apathetic glint offering no explanations or hints as to how she came to be here. With a nameless somebody, playing this never-ending game of Russian Roulette.

She was sure she’d lost a few times, yet her consciousness and memories kept warping back to this moment. Bound within what had to be a time loop with some nuanced variables. She knew this because the number of bullets on the table changed each time she came to. She could barely see through the dense darkness smothering the thin source of light, but she could smell death — taste her own acrid fear.

There’d been no rules. No Jigsaw to break down this puzzling situation. Just her and a nameless stranger. But she understood that the only way out of this loop had to be playing until something changed. What that was, she didn’t know.

Bamboo-thin and ashen hands slowly emerged from the shadows to grip the gun and load a bullet into the revolver. The silhouette shifted. Grating the silence was a quaver of terror as the cylinder spun. She watched the stranger lift the gun to the side of their head with ratted tresses like a barbed crown and squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to see the impending gore.

Click!

A serrated sob of relief echoed as the gun clattered to the table. The sound was oddly familiar, but she couldn’t dwell on that fact. It was her turn.

She licked her lips and drew the pistol to herself, almost unable to lift its weight boring into her palm.

Her fingers felt pricked through with a million needles. The bullet slipped her grasp and almost bounced away to escape her grabbing hand. With a nervous lick of her lips, she loaded the gun — the cylinder almost sounded like a sympathetic hiss. She pressed the muzzle to her temple and flexed her clammy grip.

When she lifted her gaze to the stranger, she gasped at the pallid face finally stripped of shadows, staring back at her in mute shock.

She watched herself pull the trigger.

***

Breaking Routine

What do you see, through the looking glass? Fingers part threadbare blinds of faded scarlet. Eyes wary of the world spinning on apathetic hums; familiar notes of a known pantomime.

Phantom arachnids crawl over the senses with itching persuasion. What’s the point of going out today? Hang the mask back on the shelf. Pour a bowl of cereal. Let the radio fill the quiet spaces. Today, we won’t hang ourselves on the puppet master’s strings.

***

Photo credit: Avogado6

Beautiful Eyes

He appeared to her through thin feathers of smoke from her lips. She would have ignored him, but her gaze had already, unwittingly, acknowledged his presence.

Over the soft jazz playing from the speakers in the bar, he asked if he could join her. Without much of an answer, shoulders lifted in a casual shrug, she watched him take the stool next to her – his expression one of unabashed relief to have company.

She stubbed out her cigarette in a metal ashtray while he stuck a hand out, signaling the bartender whom sidled over with a broad smile as he inquired what they’d have to drink.

Without asking her what she wanted, he ordered two glasses of rum and coke. He caught the way she blinked, lips pressed together in wordless intrigue, and sheepishly admitted he didn’t have the guts for the harder stuff. He was sure he caught the first glimpses of a smile through her nonchalance.

They clinked their glasses together and his curiosities about her were met with a demure vagueness.  Most women didn’t often waltz into bars alone, unless in search of carnal indulgence. But she was only here for the music and ambience. That was all she gave him, which he didn’t mind. He liked the types that weren’t so easy to figure out.  

When she said nothing more, he offered his first name as a gesture of familiarity. But as her eyes pulled him within its russet rippling, he gave her more than just his name.

He told her of his job as an accountant and how things had started falling apart since his divorce from his wife. How she was fighting him for full-custody of their kids. Jamie and Alex; a twin boy and girl. He pulled their picture from his wallet and she could almost see where his thumbprint had engraved affectionate traces over their sweet faces.

His eyes smoked over with emotion and she touched his arm, cutting in gently to ask if he’d like to go somewhere else. Without his lips shaping the obvious answer, she saw his willingness in the smooth lick of his lips.

He followed her from the bar, apologizing that he didn’t have a car. She waved aside his apology, spinning her own car key around her index finger as she winked at him and led him to her vehicle parked on the side of the road where the streetlight flickered. 

Her home bore her reflection. Alluring in its simplicity and odd mystery. She didn’t have much furniture and unlike his home, strewn with hints of his family life, her only interest was hung in frames of abstract art.

In her bedroom, she offered him a can of beer and they talked for a bit more until she finally seduced him with a deep kiss and climbed atop him.

He was in the throes of orgasm when he tasted blood in his mouth, eyes flashing open to see her smiling through splashes of scarlet. He grabbed at the gashed flesh of his throat, desperate to stop the bleeding. Choked on confusion and fear. And all she did was lean down, small breasts pressed to his chest as she cooed that everything was okay. She kissed the corner of his mouth then pressed her lips to his eyes.

Such beautiful eyes of verdant sorrow that were now all hers.

***

The Roper’s House

The last house on Elmers Road was like a hideous scab that wouldn’t go away. But for whatever reason, it was a hoarded relic attracting intrigue and scorn. Weathered strips of yellow tape still hung around the property with its unkempt hem of browning foliage. Five years ago, Mr. Roper had slaughtered his family within those brick walls before slotting the shotgun between his teeth.

Adriana had been at school the day it happened. She’d returned home to chaotic flashes of red and blue, screeching sirens and the banshee wails of neighbors. Her mother had rushed her upstairs with an urgent instruction not to leave her room. From her window, she had watched wildfires of grief and shock rage below; had felt panic flood her chest and mouth with a metallic bitterness.

But time had boxed away the nausea associated with those memories and now, her gaze lingered on the looming scar that wouldn’t allow any of them to forget what had happened. Back then, she’d thought the house was beautiful and pristine, its walls colored in a deep, eternal blush. And the flowerpots lining the porch had always blossomed with such lovely flowers. The two upper windows, too, had seemed like smiling eyes.

She craned her neck to look at the twin frames of glass now; they didn’t gleam with transparent pride — caked over in years of dust.

Adriana had heard several rumors about the Ropers since then. Of the boring sort. How Mr. Roper had been involved in the occult. That the family had partaken in blood rituals. That malevolent spirits roamed the empty halls. But there was no suffocating tension she could feel, standing this close to the house.

Without thinking, Adriana had already covered the weedy walkway to the Roper’s porch. She glanced over her shoulder, saw her house roof eyeing her from a block away. It wouldn’t hurt to take a look inside, after all this time. No-one could hurt her and it was still only a little after five in the afternoon.

The door winked at her and with the toe of her boot, she pushed it open further. She looked over her shoulder again. The wind ambled the empty street. She slipped inside and looked around the hallway, cast in a dim shadow, almost emptied of all its furniture.

A low and heavy breath whispered from her lips, gaze swinging from one side of the corridor to the next as she walked further into the house. Now the silence was unsettling. There was a family portrait on the wall leading to the kitchen and she stopped in front of it. Mr. and Mrs. Roper were standing with their twin girls between them, relaxed smiles on their faces. A normal family, as far as the picture told, but there were always secrets tucked in the seam of every smile.

She walked around the corner and stopped dead in her tracks when she caught the shift of something from the corner of her eye. Like a blurred motion she caught the tail-end of. There was nowhere the figure could have gone, except inside the kitchen wall. And Adriana was sure she wasn’t seeing things.

She licked her lips and took a breath. Probably it was just in her head. An uneasy bout of paranoia that she shook off with another deep sigh. It was better to go home now. She turned to retrace her steps. A scream exploded from her throat as a monstrous figure barreled towards her. The front door slammed shut.

There was no-one on the street. Just the wind and the fading glow of sunlight on Elmers Road.

***

Monochrome World

A look through Jared’s photo albums revealed endless spreads of monochrome. A world rinsed in gray undertones as if they were ancient stills he’d collected from old newspapers.

Megan knew all his photos were recent, part of some personal project he’d mentioned to her briefly, but the beauty of his shots was subdued by the absence of colors. Even the photos which captured candid glitters of mirth could have been breathtaking, if they weren’t misted in colorless light.

She’d never been the type to criticize his artistic choices, but she did think his photos would’ve been better as he’d captured them. In the raw colors that bled all around them. This had nothing to do with her own aesthetic biases (perhaps a little, she admitted to herself) but life was meant to be seen as it was.

That was art in its most natural sense – a variegated mess that oftentimes merged and contrasted to create a striking blend of colors that had yet to be named. The world had given them that special magic and Jared had removed it completely from his work.

She was careful not to shuffle around too much in his darkroom as he developed his latest set of photographs. Within the soft red hues around them, she looked at the hung photos and trailed her finger along one’s edge. Two goats, surrounded by a stretch of pastureland, looked forward. She’d thought it prudent not to question him too much on the reasons for this new project, but the question already dove from her lips before she could restrain it.

“Why black and white?”

Jared was slightly bent over his workstation, voice low with his focus, “Huh?”

“Your pictures, why do you only do them in black and white?”

He glanced over his shoulder at her then, brows pinched as if the question was a bit odd, “I think the quality is better this way. What, you don’t like them?”

Megan shrugged, turning to face him, “They’re beautiful shots, but don’t you think they’re a bit dull?”

Jared smiled at how childlike she almost sounded in her curiosity, “Of course not. It’s a popular style of photography for a reason.” He started to shift back and forth from the table to the line where he hung the photos to dry.

“Colors aren’t bad, but sometimes you miss things in a picture bursting with them.” She gave him some space when he inched closer to her, pinning the last of his set. “Sometimes it’s distracting. When the colors are silent, you can focus properly on the whole. There are details you wouldn’t see otherwise. Layers that show you how complex and deep the natural world is and…I’ve lost you, haven’t I?”

Megan blinked up at him then. Into the sharp grey of his eyes, full of the same complexity she felt he was speaking of. She shook her head and closed the distance between them.

“I think I’m beginning to understand now.”

***

This story was inspired by My Black and White World ✨ Such beautiful pictures.

Stockholm Romance

He’d been gone for an eternity. Time had tumbled from its axis the second the latch clicked in place. But, as soon as he returned to her, her ragged pulse calmed with her quieting sobs. He undid the iron cuffs securing her to the bed and she flung herself against him. In his hand was an apple which she took after she kissed him. Just as he’d taught her. Her yellowed teeth sank into the plump fruit. Juice squirted over her scarred lips.

“Are you satisfied?”

It had taken her months to learn the right answer: “You’re all I need.”

Sleeping In

The dawn always came filled with memories. It would’ve been better if its bosom was only plump with new promises and a fresh expectancy, but the things that gave her bittersweet feelings always followed along. Like the pains she suffered from her pillows being soft in some places while poking her neck sore in others.

Her recollections often bruised over her skull and she could not escape those fleeting seconds that stretched beyond the drowsy timbre of her yawn. The memories could go on forever, tangling her mind in unbidden reels of her most mortifying moments, until the alarm clattered through her entrapment.

The jarring sound draped the front of her nightshirt and jerked her through her disorientation. But as uncomfortable as these moments were, between wakefulness and surly reluctance, she was reminded of the few things she was grateful for.

Her life wasn’t only riddled with regrets over the poor choices of her past, but there was some contentment interspersed throughout and that was more than enough. The only hard part now was rolling out of bed to get her day started for work.

But her body bowed in defiance to her alarm’s chastisement. She flopped back on the pillows and hit the snooze button.

“Just a few more minutes,” she mumbled to no-one as a forbearing breeze drifted through her white curtains.

Euphoria

The rain came, euphoria warm on its breath. It called to her from the kitchen, glistening rivulets winking at her like crystals against the thick glass. And, without a second thought, she dashed outside, bare feet sliding over wet grass, mud squelching between her yellow-painted toes. The rain clapped at her shoulders as the wind spun her about. She caught the dizzying rush of nostalgia bubbling up inside her — the thrill of childlike abandon.

She splashed from puddle to puddle until her lavender skirt bore the stains of giddy mischief. And when she turned around, she found him watching her in the open backdoor, a peculiar expression on his face. As if she were the biggest idiot he’d ever known. But there was something tender between his scrunched brows. She squinted through the rain at him as his lips slowly eased into a smile.

She ran up to him then, clasping his bearded jaw between her wet palms, mashing their mouths together. And she didn’t let go, hopeful he could taste the euphoric bliss still rich on her lips.

My Cousin Sunmar

Sunmar was supposed to be a kept secret. Tucked away like a miser’s treasure, safe from prying and greedy eyes. Sunmar was my cousin.

My brother, Jeff, and I would always go to Auntie Jackie’s and Uncle Vern’s house for winter break. We knew they had a son, but we’d never been introduced to him. He existed like a ghost pressed upon our memories and an awareness of him always prickled at my spine whenever I saw his baby pictures. It was odd that there were no photographs after his toddler years, only a mysterious gap that kept widening as we got older. But my brother and I knew better than to ask questions. We rolled curiosity beneath our tongues, grinded it between our teeth and swallowed back every bitter chunk.

My brother sometimes joked that Sunmar was a freak of nature with a grotesque abnormality that made him terrifying to look at. I thought that was stupid. Auntie Jackie and Uncle Vern were both perfectly normal people. In a lot of ways, the resemblance between her and my mother was eerily similar even though they weren’t twins. But Auntie Jackie’s age showed in the half-moon shadows beneath her eyes.

I didn’t like the way my brother always used such harsh words to describe Sunmar, because I was certain his voice dashed the halls and bounded up the steps to Sunmar’s room. And there were times, when the house fell still, that I could hear the quiet pitter-patter of footsteps. The timid rustle of quiet breaths. I was sure it was Sunmar. But for some reason, my heart would flail and heave against my ribcage and I’d hide beneath the covers as if to save myself from a monster lurking the thick shadows of the room – or prowling the corridors outside.

It was silly to be afraid. Sunmar was perhaps the same age as Jeff and twelve-year-old’s weren’t really that scary. But I hardly knew Sunmar and the unknown silhouette of him planted in my mind took on every terrifying projection of my imagination. I blamed Jeff for that; it was his fault such ugly ideas had rooted so deep in my thoughts. And then one night, I found out Jeff had been wrong all along.

Sunmar wasn’t anything horrific like the fabled Minotaur trapped in Daedalus’ labyrinth. He was a normal kid, like Jeff and I, with a slighter frame and an even more diminutive air. I saw him in the corridor as I darted from dark corners to get to the bathroom down the hall. We crashed into each other and before I could apologize, he tugged me into the bathroom and put his finger up to his lips.

Footsteps rippled through the silence toward the bathroom and Sunmar didn’t look away from me, only flinching at the sound of Auntie Jackie calling at the door.

“I’m sorry Auntie Jackie, I slipped on the way to the bathroom, but I’m okay.”

Auntie Jackie yawned around a sleepy rebuke that I shouldn’t have been running in the hallway. I apologized again and listened as she walked away. When I was sure she was gone, I offered Sunmar a smile. He did not smile back.

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Sunmar.”

He ignored my greeting, “You cannot tell your brother you saw me.”

The quiet urgency steeling his voice made me nervous. I crossed my hands at my midriff, frowning down at him. Did I look like a blabbermouth?

“Why not?”

He shook his head, eyes glistening with many things. His fear was the most palpable and I immediately felt my stomach sink like an anchor, clattering to the floor of my soul. Were Auntie Jackie and Uncle Vern hurting him? But that couldn’t be possible. They were such nice people.

“I promise I won’t tell.”

“You never saw me, okay?”

I had so many questions, but his frantic tone shook something inside me that became afraid for him. I swore to him that I would never tell anyone and then he was gone. I couldn’t hear his footsteps, but I knew he was running back to his room.

I went back to bed after washing my hands and buried myself beneath the sheets. Was it strange to feel victorious yet defeated at the same time? I knew what he looked like, but I couldn’t tell Jeff.

Sunmar had been like a doll. Porcelain face and eyes the color of a deep forest rich with morning dew. He had the reddest lips I’d ever seen. His hair, dark mahogany and curled, framed his cheeks perfectly. He was so beautiful. I wished we could have talked more, because I wanted him to be my friend. But my brother and I were going to leave in the morning, which meant I would have to wait until next winter.

And when the months finally settled into the chilling flurries of winter, we were packed into Dad’s truck and driven to Auntie Jackie’s and Uncle Vern’s for the winter break. Auntie Jackie and Uncle Verne were happy to see us as usual. They played with us and I could feel Sunmar’s eyes watching me from the photographs on the walls. It was when the final light of dusk had melted away into the horizon that I realized Sunmar was gone.

****