fiction

The Other Son

His cigarette smoke joined the dull morning sky. The sun shined from some imperceptible point behind the clouds and mist as the light refracted evenly across the dullness. Mornings in Palm Bay  were usually like this: gray and quiet. And at the diner, they were always quiet of customers.

Chop the fruit. Chop the vegetables. Turn on the ovens. Cross his fingers and hope that the warmer would survive another day. Unlock the front door. Write a new special. This used to be Cal’s job. This used to be Cal’s job.

He went to light another cigarette until he heard the rusted bell at the door and hastened to put it away.

“Mornin’!” Andy remarked with a half-toothed smile. He was late. As usual.

“Morning.” Micah growled. “Just go get the grill prepped, okay? And be here at 10:00 tomorrow!

“Sure thing, Mikey.” Andy laughed. Micah rolled his eye and balled his hand into a fist. But he didn’t even bother to correct Andy regarding his name anymore. He just stepped outside and lit another cigarette.

It certainly wasn’t as though Micah missed his brother. Just like Andy, Cal had been late for shifts, showed up wasted on a few occasions, and back-talked and disrespected Micah’s authority. But… even Micah couldn’t deny that Cal at least had known the business. Andy just straight-up had no sense of timeliness.

That’s what happens when you hire someone out of retirement, Dad. Micah thought bitterly. It was going to be another ten hour day for him, until they could hire extra help. But a town of 1,000 had a pretty limited labor market. He lit a new cigarette off the smoldering one between his lips.

They only had one car now, thanks to Cal’s little excursion. So his dad had to walk few miles (Ubers were in short supply in Palm Bay) and probably wouldn’t be there for another half hour. So be it. If Micah was going to open and close, then he thought he at least deserved to take the car. He carried the weight of this place, after all. He kept the place from closing down after Cal…

Micah desperately needed another smoke thinking about the whole thing but he heard the bell on the door and didn’t trust Andy to pay attention to it. And, as Micah had expected, Andy was still lazily prepping the grill.

“Morning,” Micah said gruffly to the old fisherman. “Just the usual, Isaac?”

“You got it! To go today, though,” he said. Micah wrote up a ticket for him.

“Andy! A number four to go!” He yelled behind him. “That’ll be $8.75.”

“Jacking your prices on me again?” Isaac said it good-naturedly, but Micah’s eyes flared.

He’s a customer. He told himself. Keep cool. Keep cool. 

“Gotta do whatcha gotta do to stay in business, Isaac,” Micah replied, forcing the change into his hand. Thank God there wasn’t much competition for them. Micah and his dad knew they probably wouldn’t have lasted if there had been. By the time Andy finally finished, Micah was quite relieved to give Isaac his food and send him on his way.

Micah checked the time periodically. 11:00. 11:30. 12:00. Usually, Dad was here by around 11:00.

He tried calling his dad several times, but nothing. Thankfully (or unthankfully, based on the limited revenue they would get for the day) few enough customers came that he and Andy managed to keep things going at a moderately reasonable speed through lunch. Micah took over the grill, and for once, Andy’s inability to move through things quickly proved an asset in keeping Micah from becoming too overwhelmed.

4:00. 4:30. 5:00. Dinnertime was starting; things were getting busier again. Where the hell was Dad?

“Micah,” Andy had left the front.

“What?” Micah responded, vigorously chopping some avocado.

“Your dad just called,” Andy sounded speechless.

It was just one too many points of irritation. Micah slammed down his knife. “Well he’d better be sitting in a fucking hospital bed if he’s not on his way!”

Andy continued, a little shaken but an inexplicable excitement still swelling in his eyes. “He said to close up for the rest of the day and to come home for a party. Your… well… Cal came back!”

***

“He said he doesn’t wanna come,” Andy took another drink out of his Corona.

Abe looked hesitant. “You… well… what did he say… exactly?” There wasn’t much of a point of asking. If Abe had been honest, he hadn’t been expecting an entirely different reaction from Micah

“He said that he can’t lose a day’s business and that he just doesn’t have time, or something.” Andy left out a few of Micah’s other more colorful descriptions as to why he didn’t want to attend the festivities.

“I think I can be the judge of whether or not we can lose a day’s business,” Abe replied sternly. He glanced over at Cal, who was talking to his Aunt and working on his third burger. “I’ll… I’ll go talk to him. Let Cal know I’ll be back soon, okay?”

***

Sweat poured down his neck as he stood over the grill. He’d already burned himself a few times trying to keep pace between the customers in the restaurant and the take-out orders. Finally, he packaged up a few that he was sure were not correct but couldn’t care less and walked back to the counter to check for new customers.

His dad was standing in front of the register.

Micah took a deep breath and dug his fingers into his palms as he approached. “What can I get for you, Sir?”

“Micah, please – “

“Sir, I’m in a rather unfortunate position. You see, all of my employees decided not to come to work today, so I’m running a diner on my own,” Micah took a tone of aloofness and didn’t meet his father’s eyes. “I’m pretty slammed so I suggest you order and I will have it ready for you as soon as possible. I’m really quite busy.”

“Can we please talk outside?” Abe asked calmly.

“I have a diner to run,” Micah snarled. “Which no one else in this family seems to realize. Now what would you like, Sir?!

Abe turned around to face the small group of locals who were still waiting. “Folks, we’re closing up early tonight. Your food is on us and if you want more, come to 6330 Alvarado Way.” He turned back to Micah. “Now, after we finish theirs, we need to talk.”

Micah had already almost caught by then, but he was now wishing he hadn’t gone as quickly. With Dad’s help, it only took them ten minutes to churn out the rest of the out-standing orders.

“I have to go,” Micah growled, lighting up a cigarette as he locked the back door.

“Micah, please come celebrate with us,” Abe allowed himself a smile. Micah maintained immense focus on the smoke pouring in and out of his lungs. Abe continued. “Cal wants to see you. I know you’re still angry at him.”

Micah stopped and looked his Dad up and down. The corner of Micah’s lip curled upward slightly and he felt a desperate urge to extinguish his cigarette against his father’s neck.

“What the fuck do you want from me, Dad?!” He finally burst out. “I’m not understanding. What about all this shit could I possibly be angry about?!”

“I just want you to be with us, and – ”

“$10,000 and a Jeep…” Micah chuckled spitefully, blowing the smoke in his father’s direction before lighting a fresh cigarette off the smoldering one between his teeth. “And you let him go. You let the dirty, thieving son-of-a-bitch go.”

“Micah, listen…”Abe replied gently.

“No!” Micah burst out. “Don’t you get it?! That’s all I’ve ever done is listen! Well I’m not gonna fucking listen anymore!” He paused only to relish in the dismay spreading across his dad’s features. “All these years… Ever since I was a kid… All I ever do is slave away for your damn business! ‘Oh yes, Dad! I’ll work tonight, Dad!’ Every day I work my fucking ass off for you! And what do I get for it?!”

Abe closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly. He looked as though he was about to respond, but Micah continued.

“But then… then that little son-of-bitch comes home, after doing God knows what and going God knows where, and you decide you’re gonna shut down business for a day and throw him a fucking party?!” Micah shook and balled his hands into a fists. “Well you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t wanna take part in this little celebration, when frankly, that bastard oughta be arrested!”

“Micah, please listen to me for a moment,” Abe spoke quietly, and Micah saw a glisten in his father’s eyes. Micah felt another wave of rage pushing him to extinguish the cigarette against his dad’s skin, but Abe kept talking. “I’m so proud of you. Do you know that?”

“Oh please spare me your fucking compliments,” Micah snarled.

“Micah, everything I’ve built, everything that this is,” he indicated the silent diner, “it’s all yours. It’s all for you. I’ve been training you because… well, because I want you to be able to have it.”

Abe sighed as his son lit up yet another cigarette. “Micah, I love you so much. Anything you ask for – anything you want, you have everything! If you want something else, just ask! And you’ve felt like you’re slaving for it?”

Micah began to walk towards the car. “I really have to go,” he snarled, but his dad still followed him.

“Micah… please. He’s your brother, and he’s finally back.” A tear slipped down Abe’s cheek. “We’re a family again. Won’t you please be part of it, too?”

 

*Inspired by Luke 15:25-32.

fiction

Imaginary Friends

It took me 489 miles to realize that leaving California might not be the best way to deal with everything.

And it only took me driving one mile back towards home to realize I didn’t actually give a shit that it was a bad idea.

My plan was sound: get out of Oakland and just go live in some rural town in some other state. Or country. I really didn’t care which. Rent a room. Work as a waitress for a year or two. Then pick up and start over in the the next unplugged rural town over. And as long as I kept doing that… maybe if I just kept a move on… maybe if I went somewhere without a lot of people to begin with… I could trick myself into thinking that those people on the street were just people. Maybe I could pretend they were just like everyone else, just with weird, pale complexions and out-of-place clothes. Yeah. That makes, sense right? That’s a reasonably sane plan, right?

Well, whatever. It sounds a hell of a lot more sane than “I can see dead people.”

I looked down at my gas gage and found it hovering just above Empty so I decided that the next town I saw would be the one I stayed in. I wasn’t sure where I was, just that I was in Nevada. And I only knew that because driving at 95 miles an hour still felt like driving at 40.

I pulled off the road into a little town called Elko. I guess this is where I would make my life for the next year or so. Because why not? I mean, besides the fact that I had no job or place to live or money to live off of. Okay, so I didn’t think it out. Sue me. But I had to do something.

Tomorrow, I would look for jobs but it was almost one in the morning by the time I rolled up so I didn’t really have time to do it right then. And since this whole thing had been pretty impulsive, I didn’t have a whole lot of food, either, so I went to the nearest gas station. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in my car all night and never leave. Especially not at night, because that’s when I see them the most. I guess you don’t have to sleep at night when you’re dead. But I needed gas and I was hungry.

I looked around. It was a little jarring seeing an am/pm with a card table and slot machines. I saw an old guy playing at one of the slot machines, over and over again. I mean, it was like he was glued to the seat. For a moment, I thought nothing of it, but then I noticed his his opaque skin and ’50s style clothing.

Was this what it’d be like when I died? Would I just sit around and use my eternity in limbo to play slot machines?

I felt a strange urge to go talk to him and tell him break a gambling addiction he probably developed in life and go see the world. But I knew he wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t notice me. He would just stare at his slot machine no matter how many times I yelled at him and then he would turn around and I’d think it was because he could hear me but it wouldn’t be. He’d just be going about his night as a miserable ghost, and I’d be going about my night as a miserable 18 year-old girl, marching towards the same fate.

You see, we can’t see them. And they can’t see us. That’s how it’s supposed to be, at least. Not for me. It started when I was little and kept telling my mom there was a little two year old boy who liked to hang out in my room and he just wouldn’t leave. I told her I didn’t like the way that the kid cried so much. It annoyed me. I didn’t like how he would never respond when I tried to tell him to go. After all, Mommy had told me that that was rude. She had told me you should listen to other people when they talk, and this little boy would never listen to me. And did I mention how much he cried?

I think my mom was convinced I’d suffered some kind of massive trauma. She kept poking around like she was trying to get me to say something and tried to get me to go see counselors. But I kept telling her I hadn’t had anything like that. I said that everything was fine except for not being able to sleep because of that kid’s crying and I couldn’t understand why she was so bothered by this. I just wanted her to get this kid to pay attention to me and shut up.

But instead, I was the one who learned to shut up. I learned how to lie, to my parents, to my friends, to myself. I told them that I didn’t see anything, that it was just my imaginary friends. I mean, in my own defense, that’s kind of what I assumed they were when I was that little. But my imaginary friends were mean. They never listened to me.

I picked up a pack of cheap granola bars and walked over to the counter. The cashier looked about 15 years old and was definitely not in a cheery mood. But then again, I probably wouldn’t be too cheery if I was working graveyard shift, either.

“That’ll be $5.25,” she said. She was looking somewhere past me, though. She looked… scared? That was kind of weird.

I turned around to see what she was looking at and she quickly darted her eyes down.

She had been looking at the ghost at the slot machine.

No. No she couldn’t have been. That wouldn’t make any sense. She was looking at the slot machine. Because they can’t see us. We can’t see them. Except for me.

But something held me there. Slowly, I got some cash out of my wallet. Her eyes kept darting back and forth between me and the slot machine behind me.

I mean… she couldn’t possibly. She couldn’t… that wouldn’t make any sense…

“Slot machines are fascinating,” I don’t know what compelled me to say that… but… I had to. If there was even a hope – even a chance –

She went bright red. “Oh it’s… it’s nothing… sorry, I’m just exhausted. 75 cents is your change,” she shoved it into my hands like she was trying to get me to go away. But the thought had seized me and I could not stop until I knew for sure. 

“You know, we don’t have slot machines in our gas stations in California.”

She nodded, again seeming as if she wanted me to go away.

“Can I ask you a weird question?” I said. I never would have done it. But I supposed that, if I wanted to, if I came off sounding like a nutjob, I could just leave Elko and head to a different town. This place seemed pretty miserable anyway.

She looked confused. “Um, yeah I guess.”

“Do you…” But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. The last time I had asked anything like that was when I was little. My throat tightened and I felt my heart beat faster. This was bullshit. I was crazy. It was nothing. She saw nothing. Just like everyone else. I had to be overanalyzing the situation.

Then her eyes darted back to the ghost at the slot machine.

“You… you can see too?” I whispered, still afraid of sounding like a crazy person (and believe me, I’ve wondered on more than a few occasions if I actually am crazy).

Her eyes widened. “I… I don’t know what you mean…” But all the while, she tapped her fingers on the counter at an alarming rate.

We just stood there in suspended silence for awhile, neither of us really knowing how to keep the conversation going. Thankfully, aside from the ghost, there was only one other person in the gas station, an employee who was just shuffling stuff around on the shelves, not paying us any attention.

“Can… can you…?” She stuttered, seeming unable to continue.

“Old guy?” I finally forced out, quickly so I didn’t stop myself. “With ’50s clothes?”

Her eyes were so wide I thought they might pop out of their sockets. She nodded almost imperceptibly. I thought I might cry. But I don’t do that, so instead, I gave an awkward kind of laugh.

There was something crazy about it. Something crazy about, for the first time, knowing that there someone else, someone else who understood, someone else to validate that I actually wasn’t totally insane.

“I’m Emma,” I said, smiling.

“Sarah,” she replied, sounding shaky.

“Hey, when do you get off your shift?” I asked.

“20 minutes,” she said excitedly. “There’s a Denny’s a little ways up the road.”

I looked around. Elko wasn’t going to be such a bad place to live, after all.

fiction

Upon Their Arrival

They didn’t come as we expected, in gravity-defying ships from the sky.

Their first Sputnik-like apparatus fell out of the heavens like a meteor. No crop circles. No muffled radio signals. No stars that swelled at alarming rates until we realized they weren’t stars. It crashed down near our town in Nebraska, a suburb of Lincoln. Eyewitnesses – who somehow found their way into existence only after the first news crews noticed the ship – stuttered to explain it. Some said it was a light like the sun which flashed into spontaneous being. Others swore they saw little green men in spacesuits come waltzing out with alien machine guns.

They sent the last remaining SEAL Team to investigate it. When they banged on the capsule and no one answered, they destroyed it best they could. And found there was nothing inside.

It was space debris. It had to be. Some idiotic invention of our forefathers gone awry.

Were we not Man? Remolding the world in our own image, peeling away layer by layer the legacy of our simple-minded ancestors? Were we not in every way superior, in mind, in intellect, in society?

“Scientists are confident that the spacecraft was unmanned,” came the crackling voice of the news anchor, his image, pixelated. “It seems to – ” We never found out anything else from that broadcast because the one working TV in the town square cut out. Like it always did.

Our town found the first one a week a later. A little girl came crying to her mother one day that a “lightening doggy” had shocked her. More and more began to congregate around our homes, darting in and out of visibility. But it wasn’t until one – which seemed to be the master of the group – made us aware of its presence, publicly, that we began to think of them as aliens at all.

They weren’t humanoids. They were nothing like us, we thought. Animalistic bodies. And yet… they were strangely beautiful, in their own way. Pale, iridescent fur, slicked back like a black cat. It shimmied and rippled and exploded with color. Small sparks danced across it every few seconds. We all stared in wonder. They were so sweet, so unassuming.

But so powerful.

We assumed they were incapable of higher intelligence. Assumed we were in every way superior. Until one shimmied its way up to the power lines.

“– sightings of these apparatuses in Phoenix as well.” We stared at the creature. We stared at the town television, now functioning perfectly. We couldn’t decide which direction to wonder at.

The mayor soon sent a telegram to the office of the President that these creatures were not only unthreatening, but able to help us. And though we could not speak their language, strangely, they seemed to have a certain understanding of us; of our needs, of our habits, of even our words. And we loved them for it. Loved what they gave us, loved that they gifted us. Solving our energy crisis one town at a time.

More of their spacecrafts came, slowly. They crashed down at random, we thought. But they always landed outside of cities in crisis. They’d done their research on us, it seemed. But we didn’t notice. We didn’t ask why. Because we accepted their gifts that could save us. The more that came, the more we knew of their presence.

Then at some point, they brought with them something that could translate their language for us. But we didn’t notice. We didn’t ask why. Because they whispered all that which we wished to hear. And their voices echoed. They informed us that, if we could only put our faith in them, they could save us. Save us. Save us.

They came without guns and came without bombs. How could we fear them? Fear such beauty, fear such benevolence, fear such lovely creatures, over whom we – as man – were still in every way superior? Surely, were these creatures a threat, we would crush them.

To us, we were in complete control of the electric creatures.

To them, we were but frogs in pots. And they had patience when we did not.

Someone at the edge of town lost his mind and screamed that the water was getting hotter. We fixed his unbalanced brain with a shotgun. But we all envy him these days.

Because now… now the water is boiling.

*Inspired by The Twilight Zone and the soundtrack for Arrival