Roses in the Trash

A bouquet of roses in a black trash can.

Fromr/promptoftheday

I sit on the hard plastic chair, the blue one with shiny legs that was clearly designed by someone who had never sat before in their lives, the front plastic digging uncomfortably into my bouncing thighs, the cold metal chilling my arms with an impersonal touch. I can’t stop shaking my legs, my heart is pounding and has no sign of slowing, my palms are damp. In my right hand I hold a bouquet of roses; in my left, a first edition Winnie the Pooh.

God, I hope I don’t throw up.

She’s pacing, she can’t sit even as still as me, her hands tight around each other, ringing, flapping, rubbing her head. She paces up and down the well worn carpet that has endured millions of such paces and will endure millions more. She hasn’t cried yet. She won’t, until she knows.

Then she will cry, regardless.

She turns to pace toward the opposite wall and the sunlight from the window bounces off her blonde hair, dirty and disheveled, and she reaches and rubs her head again and her messy hair falls in front of her face and she’s more beautiful than the day I met her and I can’t let myself think of what will happen to us if–

I shake my head and squeeze the book tighter.

I glance down to the roses, still bright, still happy, still alive, and my heart hurts and I don’t read the note I’ve written inside, the sloppy tear stained card, I always loved you, because I can’t, I can’t cry again, I’m going to run out of water soon. But I have to keep them. I have to remind myself of this possibility because if I hope too much and it’s taken away I will collapse and I will never get back up.

I blink and wipe away the single tear that slides down my cheek.

The small waiting room is filled with twelve other chairs but they are all empty at three o’clock in the morning. It smells like lemons and bleach and the walls are too bright, too cheery, for the number of terrible things that have happened here.

And good things, too. Good things too.

I close my eyes and try to remember what her little fingers felt like when they wrapped around mine. I don’t remember. I need to remember.

She’s sitting now, my wife, in the chair in the opposite side of the room. She looks at me and her eyes are red but dry and there’s desperation there, a begging, a plea that I can’t answer, and she glances at the flowers in my hand and stands and begins to pace again.

I always loved you, I’ll whisper to her, and I’ll lay the roses beside her tiny body, and they will be as long as she is, and I’ll hold her and sing to her and they will unplug everything and she will fall asleep and will never know anything but happiness in her entire life.

I always wanted to give my daughter roses on Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is two months away.

My left thumb rubs the hardcover spine of the book in my left hand and I’m going to vomit up my heart with desperation.

Jesus, I’m gonna pass out.

The door slides open and in walks her doctor, still scrubbed from surgery though he’s wearing a clean smock so it won’t be covered with her blood. His mask is hanging around his neck and he calls us over.

My wife stands in front of him, stands tall, with dry eyes, and holds my hand.

“Mr. and Mrs. Pierce, your daughter’s heart valve has been successfully replaced. The attack left her without oxygen for an indeterminate amount of time so we don’t yet know…well, we don’t know how much higher level function she’s maintained, but we remain hopeful, tiny brains are surprisingly resilient.”

I can’t hear him. Why can’t I hear him? Why can’t I make the words go into my brain?

“But we’ve taken her off all the machines. Her heart is doing fine, her lungs are doing fine, everything is fine and will continue to do fine. She’s going to live.”

I can’t feel my face.

My wife is sobbing. I knew she would.

She’s going to live.

I don’t hear another word the doctor says as he leads us down a hallway and through a set of double glass doors to a walkway that leads to pediatric surgery. Some bullshit about quality of life and they don’t know yet and bla bla bla and I don’t care. My wife is squeezing my hand so hard I’ve never been so glad to not be able to feel my fingers.

She’s going to live.

On the walkway is a black trash can, right before the sliding doors to her unit. I toss the roses in.

She can wait until Valentine’s Day.


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The Diamond Sky

Prompt: It has been five days and they still haven’t arrived.

Fromr/writingprompts

It has been five days and they still haven’t arrived.

I sit on the wraparound porch, weathered by decades of storms, spiral winds from the south and icy blasts from the north wreaking havoc on the flimsy shelter we call our home. I watch the horizon, past the fields of our farm that haven’t yielded a full crop in a decade, past the barn that collapsed into a pile of smoked and rotten wood after the fire, and am amazed at the shimmering beauty of the sunset as the warm light glides and dances through the diamond dust that has destroyed our atmosphere. The mines in the east have long since failed, the miners dead, the equipment buried in the collapse of the earth, but still the glistening dust from their ravaging of the planet suffocates the air and the people breathing it.

I watch the horizon in the direction they retreated, remembering them melting into the sunset, promising to return immediately with medicine far more capable and advanced than anything we have ever seen.

I rock, slowly, the creak from the old, wooden chair on the old, wooden porch making a slow, sleepy rhythm in my mind, and I remembered when they first came, first descended from the stars in their glowing machine, tall and pale and strong. They were peaceful, and took out a small box and when they spoke I could understand them, and I told them of her sickness, of her cough, and they looked sad and promised they could help. They said they had medicine. They said they could heal her. They said they would be right back.

That was five days ago.

There are so few of us left. We had resigned ourselves to die, here, in our homes, scattered, desolate, destroyed, the fading light of a smothered candle. But they came. They came with their spaceship and their medicine and their promises and they made me hope and if she dies I will kill every single one of them.

I wipe my face and stand and walk, my steps labored but not as labored as my breath, inside. She is lying on the couch where I have brought her to rest and to read. She is so tiny. Was she always so tiny?

“Papa,” she smiles, and coughs, and red stuff comes out of her mouth and she’s dying and I’m scared and being scared makes me angry but I smile and sit on the floor next to her and stroke her head.

“Did they come back?” she asks. I keep smiling, my heart on fire in my chest, their promises in my head.

“Not yet, love,” I say. “You can wait a little longer, you’re doing fine.”

“I don’t think I am,” she says, and smiles that little smile of children who know they are smarter than you think they are.

“Nonsense,” I say, and want to tickle her, but it will make her laugh, which will make her cough, and she’s lost half a lung already.

I don’t know why I blame them. I don’t know why I am more angry at them than the diamond miners who ruined the world, or the people who demanded the diamonds and encouraged the diamond miners to ruin the world, but I am. Perhaps it is because they are still alive. Perhaps it is because I was okay with dying and they took that away.

She only has one small, grey, limp antenna left, the one right in the middle of her forehead. It rises and waves a weak little wave and I laugh and it makes me sad because I know I will never laugh again.

“Tell me the story of the humans,” she says, and buries her face deeper into the pillow.

Humans, I think, and I know she is dying, and I know I am going to kill them.

“They came from a long, long ways away,” I say, stroking the one antenna down, down, letting it rest, as she closes her eyes and rests on my voice, “with their giant spaceship.”

“What did it look like?” she asks, and coughs again, and it’s violent and bloody and I cry but I don’t wipe away the tear or the blood.

“It was beautiful,” I say.

“Like me?” She grins.

“Oh, no, nothing like you,” I tease, and she whispers a little laugh. “You are far, far more beautiful.”

Her breathing is shallow and they still haven’t come back.

“It was big and shiny and glowing and….”

I can’t continue. Her breathing is so small. She is asleep.

I kiss her forehead and hold her hand for several minutes before the last antenna falls to the ground. I grit my teeth and kiss her again and pick it up and stand and walk outside to wait.

It has been five days.

When they return, I am going to kill them.


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The Hungry Ocean

Three old fishing boats on the shore of a beach.

Fromr/promptoftheday

Image Credit: Unknown

I like the lapping sound the water makes as it swishes around the boats, stuck in the sand, paint crumbling like icing off a stale cake. I crouch next to it, put my ear close, listen.

Lap, lap, lap, like that. The sea is licking the boats clean. She’s hungry.

Lap, lap, lap.

“Brandon, where are you?”

I hear my name but don’t answer for a moment. I want to hear the hungry ocean.

Lap. Lap. Lap.

“Brandon?”

“Here, Papa,” I say, and stand so he can see me over the old wreckage. I wave. He smiles.

“How is the sea today?” he asks.

“Good,” I say.

“Is she hungry?”

“Only a little.”

“Well then, I’ll warn the fishermen.”

“She wants something old,” I say.

“Something old?”

“Yes. She doesn’t like this paint. It makes her upset.”

“Hm. Okay. Come with me, son.”

I grab his hand and we walk up the beach. My feet are bare and my toes sink into the sand and the foamy water finds them and tickles them and I smile at the ocean and wish I could tickle her back.

Papa says I can’t remember back when I was a baby, but I do. He says I’m making it up. He says I’ve heard the stories so many times I think I remember, that I was too little.

I wasn’t too little. I do remember. I remember the boat, and the sun, hot. I remember the water flashing, warm on top, and I remember touching it. I remember falling over the side, and I remember the water being colder underneath than it had felt with my hand, and I remember trying to breathe and I breathed deep and the water was cold in my lungs and I kept breathing. I remember being scared, but I wasn’t scared of dying because I didn’t even know I was alive. I was scared because I wanted my father and he was on the boat and I wasn’t anymore.

I remember it getting colder and colder and colder and darker and darker and darker until it was warm again. And I was wet and warm and it was bright and I was breathing. And the sea gave me a hug, and a kiss, and told me it had missed me but that I had to go now and it would see me again, later, much later. And then I was on a beach, and the sand was hot and I was crying and I was there for a long time before someone found me.

Papa says I’m making it up, but I hear him talking sometimes. Hear him talking about how I need a real mother. That she’s not one. That she gave me up when I was born and so it doesn’t count.

“Biscuit!” Papa calls to his old friend, a dark skinned, wrinkled old man with white hair and big, rough hands.

Biscuit nods. “Boy say anything today?”

Papa nods back, and gently pushes me forward. Biscuit kneels down and leans in close. He smells like fish and salt and I like it. It smells familiar, and safe.

“Well, ocean boy?” he says, nudging me and smiling.

“She’s only a little hungry,” I say. “She was licking the paint off the boats but she doesn’t like it. She wants something old.”

Biscuit nodded. “Alright,” he says, and goes back into the little shack where he pretends to sell trinkets he makes from the presents she leaves me on the beach, refuse, they call it.

I hear him pick up the phone and rotate the dial four times and wait a minute. “Send out an old wreck,” he says, and then nods again as if the person on the other end can see it, and hangs up.

“Thanks, little man,” he says, and tousles my hair.

We go back to the beach. I think I’ll go swimming later. I lay on my belly in the cool water and let it hug me.

After a few minutes I look up and a derelict little fishing boat full of scrap wood and metal scrapings from the foundry is pushed off from a pier and drifts listlessly out to sea. I sit up and put my hand over my eyes to shield the glare so I can watch the tide grab it, pull it out, push it back, pull it out, push it back. And I watch as it glides toward freedom in the ocean, as she reaches up with a massive wave, as it capsizes and is ripped apart and slowly, quietly, sinks into her.

She laps at my feet and splashes me on the knees to say Thanks.

“You’re welcome, Mama,” I whisper, and lay back down in her tide.


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The Legend of The Lamppost

A lit post next to a path, the ground covered in snow.

Fromr/promptoftheday

Image CreditReddit User xeno_sapien

My mother used to tell me bedtime stories before I would fall asleep each night.

Sometimes they were good stories, about unicorns that flew over rainbows and sang songs made out of glitter. I liked those. They were good when I was sad or scared or lonely.

But sometimes I was happy, and content, and safe, and warm, and wanted a scary story. I wanted something to make my heart beat faster, to make the pulse race through my fingertips and turn my face warm. I wanted something to make me burrow deeper into the crook of her arm, to excite my imagination as I would drift off to worriless sleep.

It was then she would tell me stories of The Lamppost.

“Before the snow,” she would say, and I would draw my covers up tighter around my chin, and snuggle close, and pretend to be much braver than I was, for it was wonderful to be perfectly safe and yet feel terrified, there was something comforting in that, “there was the sun.”

“Tell me about the sun!” I would say, and she would laugh and say, “Hush, child, unless you want to tell the story.”

“No, no,” I would say. “You tell it.”

I could tell it by heart. But I did not want to.

“Before the snow,” she would continue, and pause a moment to watch me with a wary eye and raised eyebrows, but I would clasp my lips tight so she could continue, “there was the sun.

“The sun was a bright ball of yellow heat that lived in the sky. It burned and burned every day, and worked so hard that at night it was tired and would fall asleep. Then everything would get dark, and cold–”

“Like now?” I would say, and she would watch me with narrow eyes, and I would giggle, and she would say, “No, not like now. Not as cold. Not as dark.” Then she would kiss my forehead and sigh, but it wasn’t the sigh of someone remembering something they used to have, for the sun had died long before her, long before her parents and their parents; no, she was sighing like someone who wished for something she’d never seen.

“The sun would always wake up in the morning, and it would shine hot and hot and hot. But one day, it got sick.”

“What did it get sick with?” I would always ask, knowing the answer.

“No one knows,” she would say. “But it was very sick, and very sad, and lots of people tried to save the sun but they couldn’t. So instead, they tried to save her light. They took magic bottles and put them next to the sun and collected all the sun’s light.”

“But wouldn’t the sun want her light?”

“No, sweet child. She was dying. She didn’t need it anymore.”

I would nod, as if I understood, but I could not possibly have understood.

“Then one day, when the sun was dying, and almost dead, and it was dark and cold and snow piled high and crunched under people’s feet, your great-great-great grandfather was just a boy, and walked with his parents through the dark night, and he was cold, and hungry, and it was dark, and they didn’t know where they were going to go.”

“Were they going to die, too, mama?” I’d ask, and my eyes would be wide, my heart pounding in my chest, even though I knew the answer, for I wanted her to say it, I wanted to hear how close to death we came.

“Yes, son,” she would say. “He was definitely going to die.”

I would nod solemnly, as if I understood this too. I did not.

“He was walking with his brothers and sister and mother and father and they were walking because they had heard the legend of The Lamppost.” And I would grin and snuggle closer and this was my favorite part.

“See,” she would continue, her voice lower, and more dramatic, “they had heard tell of a lamppost that would glow bright in the darkness to show people the way to the rest of the sun’s light. It was said that they had hidden the light somewhere, and were keeping it safe until they could decide how to use it. And in the darkness they would let just a little bit of it out, a tiny, tiny bit of the sun’s light, so that people could find it, and find them, and be safe.”

Sometimes, here, I would be biting my fingernails in anticipation, and might squirm or even giggle.

“And they were walking, your great-great-great grandfather and his sister and brothers and mother and father, and they were so cold, and so tired, but he saw the light first! He saw it and pointed and ran to it and his brothers and sister and mother and father ran to it and when they arrived a door opened in the ground near the snow and they climbed down a ladder and found where the sun had been hidden.”

Though I am a grown man now, and used to stories such as these, I always close my eyes at this part, always close my eyes to imagine their excitement, their fear, as they stepped down an old metal railing into a massive spaceship, as they found a small, cramped room, as they were given canned rations and a warm shower and told to wait one week before all of humanity would head for the stars.

What an adventure that must have been.

I tuck my daughter into bed, click on the fan above her bunk, press the noise suppressor so she won’t be awoken in the night to jolts and dings and clashes from the bruised hull of a spaceship that’s lasted far too many generations, and she pulls the blanket up, close, around her neck. She feels happy, and content, and safe, and warm, and she smiles as I tuck her in tight.

“Daddy,” she whispers when I lean down to kiss her forehead, “tell me the story about The Lamppost.”


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The Lightning War

lightningstorm

Fromr/promptoftheday

Image CreditReddit User Muziklover

“Storm’s comin,” I say.

“Yep,” says Oak.

We are cold, but we won’t build a fire. We are hungry, but we won’t hunt.

“How long?” I say.

“No tellin’,” says Oak.

He sits on a wet log in the middle of a field, as far from trees and what used to be utility poles as he can get. I sit next to him. He’s older than me, and more experienced, and higher ranking, but at this point, it doesn’t fucking matter.

He has taken his rifle apart six times.

He’s nervous. I don’t like it when he’s nervous. I’m supposed to be nervous. I’m supposed to be green and pissing in my boots and getting advice. He’s supposed to be salty and seasoned and spitting tobacco in the face of danger.

He doesn’t.

He cleans nonexistent dirt out of his rifle, scrubbing the inside until I’m afraid he might affect the integrity of the barrel.

As if it could possibly make any difference.

I watch him, cleaning endlessly, just needing something to do, and wonder how long it will take for us to die.

A year ago I didn’t wonder shit like this. I didn’t wonder how long it would take to die because I didn’t think I would. We had a squad then, and platoons and battalions and brigades and an army. We had weapons and uniforms and training centers and we were winning.

We were winning.

What the fuck happened.

He puts the rifle back together. Scopes it. Puts it down. Sighs. Picks it up. Begins to disassemble.

“What if they get here and your weapon’s in twenty pieces?”

He ignored me.

It’d be faster, is what he’s thinking.

I’ll never forget the first time the sky opened up. I was stationed with Charlie-Seven-Two-Delta down south of the fringe line. We were piloting drones built by engineers trained at RireTech and Yars. They had robots that looked like a seventh grader’s science project. They just knew they would win, like toddlers playing hide and seek with their parents, sure we would pretend not to see them until they could run out and touch base.

We were a defensive position, so we waited. That’s all we did. We weren’t scared or even a little nervous. We were highly trained and highly equipped and they wouldn’t attack us. It would have been suicide. We drank cold beer and ate warm meat and slept whenever we wanted.

The post cried out late one evening. We scrambled out of bed and went outside and he was on fire. He screamed as he burned and fled from the camp and fell down in a field and died.

It was raining, big, heavy, needle like drops that stung as they came down.  Lightning struck a mile away, then half a mile, then in our camp. It hit a soldier next to me who shook and smoldered and fell down and didn’t get back up.

We scattered.

Some ran into the fields and the lightning found them.

Some ran into the trees and the lightning found them.

I ran into a tunnel with half the squad and the captain. The lightning didn’t find us.

How they managed to make the storm, we never found out. Whether they made the lightning or simply controlled it, we never knew. All we knew was that it took them less than six months to completely obliterate our entire army, without losing a single drone, without us ever seeing a single soldier.

The burned our country to the ground.

All we wanted was to make people happy. We had medicines and literacy and progress. We had real food and technology. We weren’t trying to ruin their lives, we were trying to help them.

Fucking savages.

His gun is back together.

He sets it in his lap this time, arm resting on it gently, and looks up at the sky.

Drops of rain hit his face. Soft, warm drops, the kind that make you want to open your mouth and drink the pure heavens.

He closes his eyes and breathes deep and knows that it’s over, but he will try. He will fire his gun into the clouds as if he can stop the lightning.

We have come above ground to die.

Six months before the war a group of settlers died on Pantoa. They said we poisoned their food. We were trying to help them not poison them. Of course we’re going to test vaccines before we distribute them to the entire population.

Seven hundred and fifty-two children died.

Eleven million took up arms.

How could we lose? We were superior in every way.

All it took was one, I suppose. One to figure out how to control the sky. One to figure out how to defeat an empire.

There are two of us left, now. They are hunting us with a vengeance that goes far beyond the desire for freedom. They are already free. They need retribution. They probably have their children’s photographs taped next to the button that controls the lightning and the storm. We are payment for the debt.

The drops are falling harder now, growing colder, beginning to burn.

I stand and drop my rifle into the mud. I am tired of running. I am tired of being chased. I am tired of paying for something I didn’t do.

I walk out into the field as the rain burns into my skin and a bolt of lightning strikes ground a mile away. I stretch my arms to the side, close my eyes, and raise my face to the heavens.

They have won their freedom.

I can hear it charging. I can feel the heat.

The fire is coming.


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I Can See Only Darkness

A demon monster stands over a deep glowing cavern, surrounded by other, bandaged monsters. A boy is in front of them and does not see them.

From: r/promptoftheday

Image Credit: Anton Semenov

I have traveled far. My journey has been neither relaxing nor pleasant but it has happened and that I cannot change. It has led me here, to this place, to the cavern at the end of the world, and now I must go down and meet him.

It is deep, this cavern, but it is not wide. It is dark but it is not unpleasant. It is a safe sort of darkness, the kind of darkness that curls up next to you when you bury your face in your mother’s arm and close your eyes. It is not a suffocating darkness, but a calming darkness, a filling darkness. This darkness, you can eat. Which is good. I am hungry.

I stare at the gaping hole in the earth and wonder how long I will fall.

I can feel breath on my neck. I know they are there, know they are waiting and watching but I don’t want to turn around, don’t want to see their emaciated faces, the life waning from their eyes, their desperate hunger.

I have traveled so long.

I don’t even know how long, now. It’s been ages. Eons. I stopped counting millenia ago. And for all that time my anger has sustained me. For all that time I have eaten hatred, devoured enmity, and it has kept me full and nourished. But fury does not provide much sustenance, and I have grown tired, and I have grown hungry, but now I am here.

I wonder if he thinks I have forgotten.

I wonder if he thought he could raise up an army to steal my children and eat them in front of me and behead my wife and eat her in front of me and take my throne and banish me to the outer reaches of another galaxy and that I would just forget. Perhaps he thinks I have made a new way for myself, taken up residence in some other kingdom, usurped some other’s throne.

I have not.

I have been coming.

And in however many thousands or millions of years it has been since he cast me out of my own domain, stole my family and my home, I have made more children. Oh yes. I have children again. And they have been raised from infancy on stories of The Evil, Apollyon, that he is a Liar and a Thief and must be Destroyed.

I lean over the cavern and stare into the blackness, take it deep breath, let darkness fill my lungs, that comforting dark that welcomes me back home. I wonder if he knows I am coming for him, if he knows I am coming to murder his children and eat them in front of him and murder his wives and eat them in front of them. I cannot murder him, for we are Infinite and Infinite cannot murder Infinite, but I also will not banish him. No. I will keep him. I will chain him and beat him and watch him every moment of every day for the next million million years and he will starve, just as I have, and grow gaunt, just as I have, and he will work and toil and slave, just as I have, but he will not make new children, and he will not take new wives. He will starve, and since he cannot die, will continue to starve for eternity.

I smell something.

I look up.

A human has wandered into the cave.

I lick my lips. I could use a snack.

I am so hungry.


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The Pop-Up Book

LwXVsR5

Fromr/promptoftheday

I was eight years old when my grandfather first strained his crooked back to reach to the top dusty shelf of the bookcase that stood between the fireplace and the wall in his little living room and pulled down a tome that looked like it may have weighed as much as he did. I sank back into the plush couch, ran my fingers along the velvety cover, and snuggled into his arm when he came and dropped the heavy thing in his lap.

I held my breath as he slowly opened the front cover, as a world revealed itself to me in three dimensions, intricate pieces of paper forming houses with real working doors and rooftops made of individual cuts and birds that bobbed from chimney to chimney with the twist of a paper dial. Grass and trees and bushes rose and fell across the landscape, and a clock tower in the middle had real working hands. A girl popped up and down in a window, a boy rode a bike along a river that flowed with blue shimmering paper, a dog caught a ball in a park. As his fingers flew over the page and moved and twisted life into the pages, he began to tell a story.

“This,” he said, pointing to the girl in the window. “Is Margaret. Say hello, Margaret.” He moved the dial next to her and she rose and fell behind the pane several times. “This is Margaret’s dog,” he said, and made the dog catch and drop the bone. “Margaret loves Timothy, this boy here,” he said, and made the bike run forward and backward next to the river.

“Now,” he said, moving his hands away, “tell me a story.”

I looked the book, then back at him, then back at the book, then, carefully, so as not to rip the delicate paper, turned the dial next to the boy on the river.

“Timothy was going to the store to get some milk,” I said.

“Good, good,” my grandfather said.

“But he was riding too fast, and he fell into the river!”

“Oh, goodness, that sounds serious.”

“It was!”

“Look, do you see him? Do you see him in the river?”

I laughed. “Grampa, it’s just a story.”

“No, look.” He grinned and winked at me. “Timothy is flapping his arms around. Look at him splashing. He can’t get a hold of anything. He must be so scared!”

“I need to rescue him.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

“So after TImothy fell in the river Margaret ran out of the house and the dog found a long stick and they stuck it in the water and Margaret pulled Timothy out.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“The end.”

“The end? Oh, no, that’s not the end, child. Timothy is cold. He is probably scared. You must make sure he is okay.”

“Well, yeah, but I mean, it’s just a story.”

He said nothing, only watched me with his eyebrows raised.

“Okay, okay, so…Margaret made Timothy some warm chicken noodle soup and he took a hot bath and sat by the fire and they read books and fell asleep in their chairs.”

“Well now,” my grandfather smiled. “Wasn’t that just lovely.”

I smiled back and reached to make the dog catch the bone.

“Do you see them, little one?”

“See who, Grampa?”

“Timothy and Margaret? By the fire.”

I laughed. “Sure, Grampa. They’re all warm and toasty.”

He kissed my forehead and chuckled and said nothing and returned the book to the highest shelf.

It was a rarity, even after that, to find Grampa in a mood willing to read to me from the popup book. It was by far my favorite of all the books we read together, but he seemed to reserve it for special occasions. Sometimes he would tell the stories, and sometimes it was me, but it seemed my imagination grew with each telling, the world we built and the little paper people made of just a little bit more magic than before.

Though my childhood waned and I eventually began to drift from youthful pursuits, Grampa never lost his fondness for the little world we’d created inside of that book. I would occasionally humor him and listen as he weaved new and complex tales, though as time went on it was with increased rarity I added to them myself, and when I did, it was with reluctance. His mind was taken captive by dementia by my thirtieth birthday, and by thirty-four, he had died.

I was the only child of my parents though my mother was not the only child of hers, so there were several others who staked a claim in his estates. I was busy with a new business and a new child and had no interest or need for any of his money, of which he had little. I gladly left it to my uncle and aunts to distribute and squabble over. However, about two weeks after his funeral, my mother’s oldest brother called and asked if I wouldn’t be willing to meet him for a cup of coffee.

Three days later we were sitting on a porch outside a bistro in the city, me sipping a hot cup of chai, my uncle a double espresso. He had produced the book and set it in front of me. It was nearly as big as the table.

“Your grandfather left this to you,” he said simply. “Any idea why?”

I shrugged. “Not really. I mean, it’s got some sentimental value, we used to love making up stories.”

“How much do you think it’s worth?”

“Oh, I can’t imagine it would be worth much. Grampa wasn’t exactly rich, he would have sold it if it were valuable.”

He watched me for a long time, then shrugged. “Well, it’s yours anyway, legally speaking. I’m just trying to figure out why he left it to you, out of all the things.”

“Sentiment,” I repeated, and took a sip of tea.

He grunted an acknowledgement. “Also, this came with it,” he said, and handed me an envelope with my name on the front.

“What’s this?” I took it and held it up to the light but could see nothing.

“Don’t know. But that’s yours. The book and the envelope.”

And that was all we discussed about that.

When I got home I plopped onto my bed on my stomach and opened the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of thick white paper, folded into thirds to fit into the envelope, with a single question handwritten in the middle:

Do you see them?

I read it a few more times then tossed it aside. Now with the book heavy in front of me I became overcome with nostalgia. I sat up, cross-legged, and moved it into my lap and cried. The smell of old paper and glue, the substantial feeling of it in my lap, made me eight years old again, curled up next to my grandfather, listening to his chest rattle as he spoke to compose delightful stories for my entertainment. I cried for some time, and decided then that I would pass on the tradition, that I would open this book for my own child and knit tales with him as my grandfather had knit them with me.

Drying my eyes, I opened the book in my lap, carefully, so the paper wouldn’t rip. The world unfolded itself as if I had never left, shrubs and towers and a dog catching a bone.

I looked for the familiar, tiny girl who could bob up and down in a window with a turn of a paper dial.

“Hello, Margaret,” I whispered to her.

Her head peaked out of the window, and I turned the dial, and it disappeared again.

“Margaret was feeling out of sorts that day,” I said. I smiled and closed my eyes and took a deep breath and it smelled like my grandfather, Old Spice and peppermint, and I opened my eyes. “She decided the best way to cure this was to go for a swim. So Margaret, Timothy, and Spiderman–” (I was eight when I named the dog) “–all met up at the river to cool off.”

And then, as I watched, and as I blinked and shook my head and crossed my eyes and stared, the little paper figures stood up from their little paper dials and made their way toward the little paper river.

I am ill, I thought, and wondered briefly if they would lock me up for hallucinations that didn’t make me want to kill people.

They aren’t hallucinations if you know they are hallucinations, the voice in my head said. I didn’t know whether or not to believe him.

But I opened my mouth, and spoke again.

“Timothy made a big splash that soaked Margaret.” And Timothy laughed wildly, and threw his arms up, and little paper water cascaded down on top of little paper Margaret, and she wiped her little paper face off with her little paper hands.

I caught a bit of movement out of the corner of my eye and turned my head and picked up the paper I had discarded. I flipped it over, but the words were no longer there. The paper was empty. As I stared at it, new words began to form. I mouthed them quietly until the sentence was done.

You are their god now.

I threw the paper down and jumped up from the bed, staring at the note and the book, terrified, terrified that this was happening to me, terrified of what it meant, terrified because I didn’t want to know what it felt like to go insane.

The front door opened and closed and my own son bounded through it and shouted for me. I heard my wife come in after him (they had doubtless been on a mall adventure) and head toward the kitchen. I called out to tell him where I was and he came into the bedroom, beaming, to show me a new scar he’d added to the collection on his knee. He was halfway through the story when he stopped and stared, entranced, at the little paper town.

“Cool, what’s that?”

“Just a, just a pop-up book,” I said, and came cautiously closer and sat on the edge. He sat on the bed and began turning the dials and laughing at the figures. “This is cool!”

Everytime he turned Margaret’s dial, she leapt in the water and splashed when she came back down.

“Whatcha doin’ there, buddy?” I asked warily.

“Look,” he said, pointing to the empty window. “She’s moving up and down!”

“That’s Margaret.” I picked him up and set him in my lap. “Tell me a story about her.”

“Oh, cool, okay. Um…okay, so, one day Margaret decided to run down to the post office. She thought it would be an uneventful trip…”

I watched as the little figures reenacted every word my son spoke, jumping when he told them to jump and running when he told them to run and falling and cutting their knees when he told them to fall and cut their knees.

When his story was over they were still in one piece, on the hill underneath the clock tower, having a picnic. I leaned down and whispered in his ear.

“Do…do you see them?”

“See what?”

“Margaret and Timothy. Under the clock tower. Having a picnic.”

He elbowed me.

“I’m not a baby.” He laughed and turned Margaret’s dial to watch her dance in the window. “It’s just a story.”


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