The Smell of Burning

Simon pushed himself. He pushed himself down the stairs. He didn’t know it yet but he subconsciously tried to kill himself.

He awoke to the beeping of the oven timer. He had tried to make a pizza from scratch. Peppers, Onions, and Olive oil base covered in a bed of Provolone cheese.

He felt his head. He moaned. He tried to lift himself. He failed.

He laid there thinking. What happened before this?

He thought of his pet goldfish; how silly it is. He thought of how his pizza will probably burn now. He thought of his job; how he never imagined being a public accountant. He thought of his wife.

His wife.

He thought of her brown hair, her green eyes, curvy shape. He thought of their history. First date at that restaurant he can’t ever remember the name of with great cajun fries, the first time they kissed by the lake late one night, their wedding day and how awful the cake was. Their cramped first apartment. He thought of her laugh, her eyes, tears in her eyes, they stream. Why was she crying?

He kept thinking.

He mustered air in and out of his raspy lungs.

He thought of the tears she shed when they had their first child.

“I have a child.” he thought.

He thought of how she cried when this child went to school for the first time. How she cried when this child gave her a surprise birthday macaroni necklace with flowers from the garden. He thought of the days she cried when this child said “I don’t love you.” He thought of how she cried when this child left their home for good. He thought of her eyes.

The oven stopped beeping.

Knives stabbed his nervous system as he tried to push with his legs.

He thought of the vacations they took. How the child smiled when they got ice cream and made jokes. He thought of how the child felt alone when they moved. He thought of his wife’s eyes. How they cried when he refused. He thought of how he always made excuses about money, time, and energy. He thought of how she never listened to him. One was enough.

“Idiot.” He thought.

One of his eyes was blurry when he opened it. His face felt numb.

He thought of his wife’s eyes, looking downward, arms crossed. He thought of her sitting on a sofa, not saying a word. He thought of how he berrated and yelled because she would not.

He thought of his wife’s eyes, full of tears, in a courtroom. He thought of how odd it is that someone else had to speak for her in front of a judge. He thought of how much it hurt his child.

He could smell smoke.

He thought of how he can’t move. How the pizza could burn, and perhaps catch fire. How no one could help him.

He thought of his ex-wife’s eyes. How they don’t cry anymore. He thought of how he never sees his child anymore. He thought of how he never has conversations anymore. He thought of how he never feels warm in his bed anymore. He thought of how he doesn’t dance anymore. He thought of how he he misses the clothes she would strew about. He won’t see that anymore.

He thought of how he wishes he didn’t have an ex-wife. He thought of how he never wanted an ex-wife. He thought of his wife’s eyes, bright and beautifully green, smiling.

He feels a sharp pain in his left arm. His breathing strained.

“Where is she?”

He thought of how he hurt her. How he always used his words to stab her heart. He thought of how she never pleased him sexually. He thought how he would think of ways to cut her with as little words as possible. He thought of how terrible he was to do that. He thought of how he so desperately wants to go back in time.

The smoke alarm sounds.

He grasps his shoulder. He strains his eyes. He thinks he sees something.

He can’t quite make it out. It’s a figure moving towards him. He thinks they’re clothed in black. He thinks of how strange it is. He thinks of how he didn’t imagine death looking like this. He thinks of how he certainly never thought an angel, or demon would escort him either.

“Simon?”
“Yes?”
“Are you okay?”
“No.”

He blinks a few times. His vision returns. This figure has a bulge on their abdomen.

He blinks a few more times.

“Did you burn the pizza?”
“Yes.”

His vision becomes clear. He looks at the figure, clearly a woman. A pregnant woman.

“Did you hit your head?”
“I don’t know.”

He blinks, and looks into the eyes of this pregnant woman. The beautifully deep concerned green eyes of the woman.

“Do you know what happened?”

The ease of breathing returns, and feeling in his legs return.
He props himself up with the help of the woman, he looks up at her and says,

“I thought… you were gone.”

But she wasn’t. Neither was he.

Seven Months Since

It’s been seven months since I last heard from her. To be fair, there wasn’t anything particularly impressive about the jowl of a woman whose irritability could be metrically weighed in relation to the volume of smoke she inhaled daily. Nothing handsome in an ironic smile. No, but when she spoke there was reason for even Heaven to defer its judgment.

Why it’s been so long since I’ve had to decipher one of those cryptic messages sent in that ancient time of night—the kind of writing you expect etched on the limestone of some great Egyptian sarcophagus, not egregiously parceled out by the hands of a tremoring alcoholic—is peculiar. By now we should have solicited unwarranted justificatory premises to support our syllogistic love in the face of current relational commitments. In fact, there never were such commitments. Just faux representations of passionate endearment manipulatively used to suppress the void for however long it convinced a fool.

We knew the limits of each other’s emotional affect. We knew the morning light would dispel the revisionist history only ecstasy can proffer. We made need, not love. But in that last week my light-cones showered her from the spigot of obsession.

It’s been seven months since I held her reassuring hand like a reaper while we walked through the thicket of our conversational past; though now silent because she’d tucked away the branches of her mind below a canopy of grandiosity. She alone had worn the grooves in the self-deprecating understory of her cystic existence. But I knew the path out.

No one seems to grasp why. They’re too consumed by life’s petty futilities to be able to harness the sense of self-awareness required to see their remarkable alienation. She would talk like that. Like I said, cryptic. But now it’s been seven months since I last saw her. I want to tell her that I’m getting better. That’s it’s been that long since I’ve dissociated from myself.

I want to go back to that morning. Back to that moment. I remember it was the seventh hour when she realized—when I completed her.

They don’t understand. I didn’t murder you. I freed you! So why has it been seven months since?

“Wound-Colored Light” – An Excerpt from Author ML Candelario

The following is an excerpt from ML Candelario’s upcoming collection of short stories. This particular short story excerpt is from the piece “Wound-Colored Light”.

The man shall remain faceless and nameless, but you can see him. See him there in the darkness of his bedroom, the light of the moon peering through closed blinds. A greenish light, and blue. The color of an old bruise on the verge of healing. Wound-light. See him there, naked, his feet skritching at the neglected carpet, a carpet he knows he should have vacuumed weeks ago but he has never found the time [and he won’t. not for a week and a half yet]. See the sleeping forms in front of him, prone on his marital bed. Two of them, curled together against the doctors’ better judgment, their snores only ever so slightly above the decibel level of a whisper and yet he hears them. You see him hear them, see the face go soft and gentle, the stress of his day rising like steam from his shoulders as muscles unclench.
Yet it is there. It is there in the space just below the Adam’s apple. In the small cleft above where the bones meet under his skin. A throbbing. A pulse. And it is far too fast for a man becalmed. You know this. You can sense the tension there in the space beneath his skin, tucked away where few can see [only those with eyes like yours. ink-eyes peering at the man through paper]. Yet still you watch him. You are watching him still.
See him move, this man. See the too-calm manner in which he slips beneath the sheet [for it is summer, and winter’s blankets have been stored in the attic until next year, next winter, a never-ending cycle of housekeeping that, you sense, is part of the reason the vein is throbbing in the man’s neck] and slots himself next to his wife and child. You see him slip beneath the covers, curl up beside his wife in a position you know as The Big Spoon. You do nothing to stop him, though you can feel that something is coming. Something is changing. You feel it. The color of the light: an old bruise. It is not the color of healing, you know. It is the color of the almost-healed, and therefore of the never-healed. So close, and yet so far. That is the phrase you think of as you stare between the lines at this man trying to will himself to sleep. So close and yet so far. It is a cliché, but it is a useful one. So you use it. Linger for a moment in the dim room. Let your eyes adjust. You want to say something to this man, to warn him of the thing that is coming—the terrible thing you know approaches just around the bend, perhaps in the next paragraph or the one after that. You want to warn him, for he is innocent. Not innocent, no. He is guilty. But so are you. So are we all, you think. Us. You want to warn him, but you don’t. You can’t. The narrative does not allow for it. Instead it pulls you out of the room, gradually accelerating, out through the slits in the closed blinds, out through the glass [you marvel at not breaking it, at slipping seamlessly through a closed window, but why should you? you have done this before], out into the night air where the light is more natural, the air less toxic with expectation. You linger here instead, in the trees outside the man’s window, knowing you could fly if you wanted to—could climb an invisible stair right up to the moon and yank it down, if you wanted—but you don’t want to. Maybe you used to. But not anymore. Now you just want to sit in the topmost branches and let the silver moon, bright and big as a newly minted quarter, wash over you. So you do. You want the still air to calm you, so it does. You want it all to wash away the dread you felt at seeing the naked man there, faceless and nameless though you know him. So it does.
Sit here for a while and catch your breath. Go to sleep, if you want. This night doesn’t change to day until you want it to.
Want it to.

Small Sample Size – “The One and Only Witness to This Collision” by ML Candelario

Thump and groove of saxophonic jazz music.

Click and whirr of electric lights and OPEN sign.

Jingle of automated electronic bells as the door opens and burps out the two women, above average height, both bleached blond and wearing sunglasses that make their eyes buggish. Far too much jewelry that tinkles and clinks. Handbags—not purses.

colors

As the two walk into the dying electronic flicker-light of the café, they slip the glasses up their heads, resting their insect eyes on blonde coifs in unison. Sequential movements like part of some dance you don’t know. You go back to studying your laptop.

“Melodie, I’m telling you. Simon has a gift. A gift. I took one of his pieces to Mark—Mark Ellis, from down at The Red Swan Gallery. He’s not the curator there, but he’s, well, his eye for quality is just absolutely unbelievable. I mean, you wouldn’t believe it. Anyway, I took Simon’s work over to Mark and he just absolutely went ecstatic over it. Just absolutely adored it.”

“That’s fantastic, hon. I was just telling Steffie that Lindsay’s boy was beginning to be quite the artist. I was just telling her that.”

“Mm. Mark was just ecstatic. Went on talking about the ‘curls of color’ and the way the arrangement of Simon’s ‘phalanges’ were splayed perfectly ‘for letting the light play on the surface of the work itself.’ He called it akin to some of your modernists or ‘anti-orderists.’ Like a new Pollock in the making, he said. Early stages, of course.”

“Of course.”

 

Commercial sounds of orders and transactions.

Slide of plastic card through plastic reader. The click of register’s keys.

Steam and bubbles. The chocolate sound of water poured through coffee grounds, the metallic drip.

 

“Isabelle has expressed some interest in the artistic realm, did I tell you?”

“No, hon, but it sounds absolutely grand.”

“I think our playdates are really starting to bring out the healthy development you need to see in the children. What they say about them, you know. Growing their little brains into beautiful, well-rounded people. She started talking to me about Simon’s paintings the other day.”

“You know, I haven’t even thought about it before. I’m sure Mark could arrange something….”

“What are you thinking, Linds?”

“Let’s have them do it together. Yes.”

“You mean paint?”

“Yes. All of them. The Gregor twins. The Brewers’ kids. Hell, even Steffie’s little troublemaker. Did I tell you he pushed Simon the other day?”

“No!”

“He did. And all because Simon was playing with five toys and he only had one. I mean, it was in Simon’s house. Those are his things. He’s lucky I let him keep the one, if you ask me. But Steffie was there, so.”

“Of course.”

“But so it would be absolutely incredible to get them all together—even Steffie’s—and have them create. Just create. Get their hands in the paint, spread it all around. We could do an exhibition at Mark’s gallery. I think I could make sure that could be arranged…”

 

Bellish laughter. Tinkle and clink of too much jewelry.

The soft squish-rub of leather handbags brushing up against one another.

 

You glance up from your laptop, see the two women, bug-eyes atop primped hair. Their faces are locked in aggressive smiles. Something unspoken hangs between them like a ghost. You can smell it, practically. Almost. Their smiles don’t reach their own eyes’ creases. They have produced from, presumably, their handbags identical iPhones—held at the ready, bayonets against the warm café air. You move your eyes back to your laptop. Stay out of this.

“Who knows what other latent artists we have in our group, Mel. I mean, really.”

“Of course.”

“That’s what Mark called him, did I tell you? A ‘latent artist.’”

“Of course.”

 

Slide of papery cups across glass countertop. Cordial goodbye. Polite-yet-aloof returns.

Jingle of automated electronic bells as the door closes behind them.

Click and whirr of electric lights and OPEN sign.

Thump and groove of saxophonic jazz music.

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This is a short story for the series “Small Sample Size.” If you have a short story to share, contact us! 

Small Sample Size – “Transmutation” by Lakin Easterling

She hummed a simple tune, walking down the road, with a light step to match the breeze, and a daisy in her hand. She never questioned where she was going, or how long the road would last. She only cared that she was moving. And so, in her glittering eyes she held the sun, and walked through glen and valley and river just the same, all the while singing:

Happenstance upon the hill,
happenstance underneath,
where all good things remain unseen
until the Spring, when Evergreen
shall call to every tender leaf,
“Arise, alive! Break Earth’s bastille!”

Sing tra-la-la-day,
the Winter’s heart is laid
far and deep in Autumn’s home
and Summer’s on her way
hey!
Summer’s on her way!

Upon such a stanza she let her voice hover, spying a figure in the shadow of afternoon. Drawing her mantle close, she flits from shaded patch to shaded patch, barely a glimmer in the sun. Nearing the figure, she pauses behind a tree, stifling a giggle with a golden hand.

“If you’re trying to be clever, you needn’t bother,” the figure muses softly, unfolding from the shadows, seeming to peel part of the darkness into the air. “I heard you singing three ages ago.” He bends to pick up a boot, hitting it upside down against a tree, causing a cascade of spiders, cobwebs, and dried rose petals loose from the inside. “Quite a song, Wanderlust. Even if I don’t particularly care for the fact that you put me in it. And not in a timely spot, either,” he mutters, placing the boot back on his foot, his sky blue tunic twinkling in the sun.gs2

She laughs in response, twirling away from the bark. “It’s not my fault everyone wants to stuff you away. It might help your case if you could act a bit less surly every so often.” She reaches to plant a kiss on his cheek, which he accepts, but the daisy she snuck in his shirt collar he plucks off, holding it in his hand. In a moment, or maybe an eternity, the slender white petals begin to mist over, then shimmer, having slowly become encased in ice. He places the fossil behind her ear. “Then why come so far, if I’m such company? You could have just stayed with the others.”

Wanderlust, jumping to the top of a nearby pine, bends backwards and pulls the tree with her. Hanging upside down, she looks him squarely in the face for eternity, or maybe a moment, and places crown of roses on his head. “There’s a very good reason why I came here, Withershins, and you know what it is. I’m not the one trying to be clever. You think you outsmarted us all when you slept yourself all the way out here, but you didn’t. All you did was get dusty.” To emphasize her point, she gives his chest a hard thwap!, causing a storm of dirt and misuse to float high up into the air. He sighs, thinking of how many dust bowls and desert storms he’ll get blamed for now. She drops to the ground, sending the pine tree into a frenzy of flying pine needles and a case of severe tremors. A million pine cones, or maybe it was one, end up covering the grove. Withershins turns away, stepping just above the bottom of the ocean. His hair stands up around his head, giving him the appearance of someone suspended in the air. Wanderlust floats along the surface, shimmering identically to the tiny wave-tops, leisurely soaking in the sky. A gull lands on her foot. She gives a happy sigh, flicking her foot to shake off the bird, then flips over to dive into the sea. The water rushes behind her, thundering, and they find themselves seated on a bench in a downpour, overlooking the Thames. She doesn’t say a word, but quietly begins to hum, reaching for his hand.

desert life 2He sighs, tracing a patch of orange trees and mangroves along the inside of her wrist. His finger tingles, and the blue of his tunic ripples into a deep violet red. “I suppose I wouldn’t mind the journey back,” he says, the truth forming space within his words. She smiles, her eyes dimming to match the grey landscape. “I don’t suppose you would, my dear.” Standing, she pulls Witherskins towards a green breeze and a soft dirt road. They walk along a ways, or maybe just a step, under mountains and over valleys, until they reach the midnight hour. He stops, counting constellations, reordering a few, and with a satisfied sound resumes walking just before dawn. He keeps on, turning clouds pink then magenta then orange, than the welcoming yellow that spreads over top of many coffee cups, inhaling the aroma of steam. Turning to Wanderlust, he finds her dropped by a tundra, a lotus flower cupped in her hands.

“You continue on ahead,” she says, taking a long draught from the petals. She arranges herself cross-legged, her sky blue tunic settling like a grief on her skin. He bends to place a hand on her shoulder, planting a kiss atop her head. He makes to move away, then to place a crown of roses on her head. “I won’t be long,” he whispers. He sets off, towards the meadows. She bends her head to her knees, for a moment or an eternity, then pulls a boot slowly off her foot, wiggling her toes in the snow. She arranges herself in the shadows, leaning back against a tree. She reaches up for the flowers on her head, removes it, and slowly begins to pluck the petals loose, dropping them one by one into the empty shoe.

Far off in the distance, or maybe nearby, the sound of a song floats on the breeze. Withershins waits in a grove as Wanderlust draws near, a daisy in her hand.

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This is a short story for the series “Small Sample Size.” If you have a short story to share, contact us! 

Small Sample Size – “Funny Things” by ML Candelario

Funny thing is, my daddy was right there with me when I died. He knelt next to the tub, wetting his oilstained overalls at the knees. The overalls had his name stitched in red on a white oval, but the oval itself had a few threads pulled. It hung off the fabric a bit on the left side, sort of wrinkled up from where momma would hang daddy’s overalls on the line to let the sun dry them. The oilstains were old and incorrigible. That’s what momma called ‘em. Incorrigible. Said nothing she ever tried fully got the stains out. They were worked into the fabric itself, got under and into the denim. She would tell me this idly in that way most adults talk to babies. She would tell me lots of things in the lonely morning hours after daddy’d gone to the shop to work and she’d hung the laundry out to dry. Usually she talked about her schedule, or daddy’s boss who always chewed on a nasty-smelling cigar, or what she planned on cooking for supper. More just her talking to herself while she spooned me some oatmeal. She always looked at me, though. Not like daddy, who only glanced. That was the difference. Daddy never really looked at me ‘til after I’d died. I think if it’d been her that was with me when I died I wouldn’t have died. I’m not blaming, though. It wasn’t daddy’s fault.Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 7.25.47 PM

Another funny thing is that daddy cried. The last image I saw with my own two corporeal eyes was of daddy’s wet face, his arms extended down to try to pick me up, I think, and all of this ripply from where his tears hit the water above me. He loved me, daddy did. I know he was sad to see me go. I knew it then and I know it now. There’s lots of things that get clearer when you die. Lots of things you know. I know daddy loved me. Still does. Momma too.

And I know that it was a funny death—not in the way I used to think it funny when momma would make that silly face at me with her cheeks puffed up, but rather in the way that momma used to say there was something funny with daddy’s boss. Something off, she meant. I don’t have to survey the others here to know that having your daddy there with you when you die isn’t common. I just know it.

I didn’t splash much. That I remember from back then when I was alive. The image of daddy crying—my last image—doesn’t have any splashing water in it. I didn’t strain against his arms. I just drifted off peacefully. Maybe that was God that did that. Momma used to tell me, spoon to my mouth, that I had the colic and kept her and daddy up at night something awful. And not just so’s she could breastfeed me, but because my body wouldn’t let me sleep. So it might have been God what made me so peaceful when I drifted off in the tub.

Daddy rubbed soap on me all over. Under the arms, behind the ears. All over. He rubbed some on my head to make sure I didn’t get the cradle cap, even though I didn’t have much hair at all to clean. Ain’t that funny? I cried a bit then, like I usually did. I never liked it when the soap on my head got washed off. The water in my eyes scared me a little, though it didn’t ever hurt. But daddy shushed me and leaned in over the tubwater and kissed me on the head. He was smiling and his cologne was strong against the oil-smell of old rusty cars. He told me everything was okay, that he was there with me. His breath smelled like whiskey. I didn’t know it was called whiskey then. I just knew it as the drink that daddy would sometimes get into and cause momma to tut at him like a bird. But like I said, there are lots of things that you know once you’re here on the other side.

I’ll list some more things I know now. I know that daddy didn’t really want to be there when I died. He didn’t want that. I know that he’d been fired by his boss at the auto shop—the boss with the really bad smelling cigar that he always chewed the end of. And I know that dreckly after that daddy went and took his final paycheck to the bar and got drunk on five glasses of whiskey until he couldn’t see straight. And then he’d come home and, putting together some clues that had been simmering in the back of his mind for a long time, he’d rummaged through the trash momma had set outside. And I know that when he’d found it momma happened to come outside to see what all the commotion was about—thinking it was a ‘coon got into our trash again—and he’d showed it to her without saying anything, just the fumes of whiskey coming out his mouth. I know she’d scolded daddy a bit for making so much noise when she’d just got me down for a nap, and then she’d looked at the cigar end daddy had taken out the trash and she’d started crying, saying that she’d had to or else his boss said he would fire daddy and they couldn’t afford for daddy not to have a job with the baby being a part of their lives now and there wasn’t another auto shop in the town—leastwise not one that would take daddy in with his record and his alcoholism—and so what was she supposed to do. I know daddy was there with her when she died too, out in the backyard next to where we put the trash.

Another funny thing about it all is that daddy let me finish my nap. I think it was nice of him to do it. Thoughtful. I didn’t get much sleep at night, like I told you, and so he let me nap in peace and quiet. He sat on the couch looking at a newspaper without really reading it until he heard me stir in my crib. The crib was walled with white—white sheets and white bumpers to keep me from knocking my head on the thick wood out of which daddy himself had carved and bolted the crib together. I know this because I saw it later, here on the other side, in my memories. Daddy reached in and picked me up and smeared a little streak of oil on one of the bumpers. He looked at it for a moment, averting his eyes from me like he sometimes did. But then his eyes turned to mine and he smiled and carried me to the bathroom, where he took off my diaper and onesie. The water was lukewarm. Room temperature. Just the way I used to like it. This was another thoughtful thing daddy did for me when I died. I died in perfect water having slept away all my exhaustion, content to the point of not struggling. It was the best way I could have died, I know. That’s one of the things I know now.

Some of the kids over here died in car crashes, or from any of a number of diseases and infections. I met a boy a while ago who died from something called SIDS where he just didn’t wake up one day. I thought that awful strange and sad, to just die with no warning for his momma and daddy. I got lucky. My daddy was right there with me when I died, smiling and crying through ripply water. Not many over here can say that.

I guess that’s the last of the funny things I’ve learned over here on this side of the curtain. (That’s a phrase I learned back when I was alive, from momma. ‘This side of the curtain.’ She used it when she talked about my papa who’d died before I was born.) But anyway that’s the last of the things I’ve learned so far: we don’t have any control at all, really, over how we come over here to the other side. Not one bit, mister. And there’s two sides to every story. It’s all in how we take it in. I know what it means to have daddy there when I died. I’m not stupid, mister. Not by a long shot. I’ve learned these things. Some would tell me it was bad—that it should have scarred my spirit beyond reckoning. Or his. But it’s not, really. I didn’t even cry. It was peaceful when I went. And daddy was there. How many of you can say your last image is of your daddy being there smiling at you and crying over your death? Not many, that’s how many. I was lucky.

That’s a strange way of looking at it, ain’t it?

Ain’t that funny?

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This is a short story for the series “Small Sample Size.” If you have a short story to share, contact us!