Dinner For Two

 

She jumps, imperceptibly, at the buzz from the stove timer. She scoffs at herself as she grabs the pot holders that match her floral dress. The heat from the oven blankets her face and she half closes her eyes as it washes across her. Grabbing the glass baking dish, she sets it on the waiting mat on top of the little island centered in her cozy kitchen. The sweet smell of teriyaki fills the bright room as the scent of the onion and peppers stuffed within the chicken breasts bite at her sinuses.

“Just another minute,” she calls out to the other room. 

He is waiting there, she knows. She cannot see him without moving to the other side of the island. She assumes he is perusing her bookshelf, assessing her personality from the various titles on the outward spines. She worries for a moment that she has left her mail on the tiny side table by the door. He might infer that she has lied about her name. Wendy but with an ‘i’ she had told him, and he had repeated it.

She scoffs again at herself; no need to worry about that anymore.

She dresses the chicken breasts on the plate with crushed pineapples and spoons a side of rice. She thinks of meeting him just the week before. There were a lot of loud people in that place and after several drinks, and even more dances, they exchanged numbers. They met for dinner the following day. 

It was a terrible restaurant that smelled of too much grease and tequila. They had shared jokes about the poor food, and she had gotten him to agree to call her later so she could make him a real meal. 

He had arrived the day before with flowers and a bottle of wine. Her dish had been inspired by the one the restaurant had failed so miserably at. They laughed, and enjoyed a few more drinks. While he relieved himself in the room with the pastel pink bath mat, she had slipped his phone from his coat. She removed the battery and broke the sim card and placed the pieces in the trash under the sink. 

She brings out the plates of chicken breasts and rice and pours a rich red wine into the glasses that had been standing guard at the table’s placemats. He is sitting there in the same blue and white shirt, with its starched collar, that he had been wearing when he arrived the evening before. He looks at her with his eyebrows slightly up. A bit forlorn of a look as she considers their deep brown. She takes her first bite congratulating herself on the chicken. 

She speaks light-heartedly to him while she eats. Talking about her mother and her father. She tells him about their controlling ways and how she hadn’t ventured outside her own backyard until she was nearly twelve. She explains that while he was waiting she had placed his car in the garage for him. She tells him it can stay there for now, but it too would eventually have to go. She smiles at him, the corners of her mouth moving high enough to squint her eyes; he is such a good listener.

Grabbing the last bite of chicken with her fingers she slides it around the plate, sloping up the juice from the pineapple. She licks her fingers with a smacking as she savors the final piece. She closes her eyes, feeling them flutter. I should really cook like this more often, she thinks.

She stands and picks the plates from the table, “Well, you’ve hardly touched yours. You don’t like it?” 

He looks up at her. His eyes even bigger than before, his mouth turned downward. He seems off to her. He seems so sad. But of course, she thinks, he had received some bad news when he woke up that morning. 

“I guess that could ruin anyone’s appetite,” she says and scoops up the dishes and deposits them into the porcelain sink. She makes only symbolic attempts at cleaning up. The kitchen can wait until morning, she decides. There is other work to do.

She turns, finding him standing there, his shoulders slumped and his eyes drifting to the floor. So sad, she thinks as she reaches behind her back and begins to draw the zipper of her dress down. Her bra and matching panties make contact with the cold tile floor a second after her dress. She steps free of them. He had said she was beautiful last night. She saunters her way down the short hallway to the room that holds the bed they had shared the night before. He trudges along behind. She doesn’t bother to glance back. 

She carries herself across the room, but he stops just inside the door. Her eyes find his. Her face hardens as she turns toward the bed, and then looks back at him. Her hands clenching and unclenching into fists. She sets them high on her hips to steady them.

“You see what you’ve left me to clean up! Will you look at this mess.”

She stares into his eyes and thinks he may cry, if only he could. She looks around the room. A blue and white shirt with a starch-stiffened collar lay to one side. On the other, a pair of pants, and some boxers with a strange green print to them. She doesn’t care for the boxers. On the bed, his body lay as naked and exposed as she left it. The knife was still in the sheath she had made of his chest. Hands still on her hips, she shakes her head as she gazes across the room at his vaporous form, “You only cried out once, but you were quite the bleeder.” 

 

Young Love, Old Earth

by M.D. Parker

The blue trimmed, off-white building came into view. The over-painted brick wouldn’t give up the textured detail of the stone underneath even if Calvin had been touching the side. A sign near the corner of the school said something about Building future minds since 1949. Calvin passed the sign with the hollow thump-thump of skateboard wheels over cement cracks. He guided himself in a long arc toward the entrance. Steering clear of the meat of the parking lot, where those who already had cars were pulling in to join the fray. He already had Dad on his side; even showed him which car he wanted. Tonight was the time to start working on convincing Mom.

Stepping off the board, he kick-stomped it into his hand. He paused, looking up at the school’s attempt to use the bright color to distract from its looming presence. Pleasant colors to hide the natural angst of every one of the future minds being built.

“Hey, Cal.”

He turned his head. He grinned as she strode the final few steps toward him. A clamminess slickened his palms as he readjusted the hold on his skateboard. He drew in a deep breath. She looked at him, glanced at the ground, and smiled as she lifted her head up. She knew. He knew she knew, but they both pretended that they didn’t.

“Hey. ‘Nother day of servitude at the day-prison. You ready, Mads?”

“Nope. But no one is giving me a choice, are they?” Madeline’s rhetorical sarcasm lofted through the air and she took her first step toward the doors.

As Calvin’s eyes fought a losing battle to not follow Madeline’s march away into the hub of social conformity, the world around him brightened. The sidewalk suddenly illuminated as if by an extra sun. The light gray of the cement reflected the glare as it grew to blinding proportions, joined by an array of brilliant color. The rapid increase of purples and oranges, of blues and greens, overtook the morning’s yellow-white hue. His head turned away from her and up to the sky. His mouth fell open as his vocal cords squeaked out one last word…

“Mads–”

Madeline had already turned to see it.

The sky ripped apart, like a tear in the middle of an overstretched vinyl seat cover. The rip was growing; a swirling mix of every color they ever had a name for poured through the wound in the sky and forced the gap even wider. No sound accompanied it, but in their minds Mads and Cal could hear a torrential ripping sound as it rattled their souls.

Every color spread out from the tear as a blackness filled the center of the growing rift like the iris of an eye; a cold dark nothingness of an iris. The gash filled the whole of the visible sky with the trailing end dropping below the horizon. The black opening slowly gained color of its own in the center of the center. A steel gray flecked with various greens shaped itself into a circle. And like the first pimple before the school dance, Calvin and Madeline watched as the circle became a sphere and started to bulge through the blackened center of the kaleidoscope.

The sphere grew in size and appearance of closeness. The green of a hundred variations splashed across a gun-metal gray surface. The prism of color that tore open the sky gave birth to a planetary orb as the sky cried in silent agony. The orb slipped through the great tear. The rip began to draw the colors back into itself as the hole shrank as the last of the orb was free from it.

Other students, and teachers populated the grass and front steps of the school building. Gasps could be heard, vulgar inquiries of the divine were made, and others remained frozen in the same mouth-agape silence as Mads and Calvin. Nearly the whole of the orb could be seen above the western horizon, and it filled the illuminated sky in glaring contrast to the morning sun on the eastern horizon.

Then, the Earth itself took its cue and groaned under their feet.

A great wrenching sound twisted itself from the miles below them. The world screamed with a voice born of breaking glass and snapping wood and crumbling brick. Some ran in every direction with unknown destinations. Calvin fell. His ass hitting the ground harder than he would have liked, if he cared enough to notice. Mads hollered, but he did not hear it. His own shock and the sound of the second level of the school lowering itself to the first floor, stopped her voice from reaching its target. Car alarms screeched. Buildings collapsed into rubble. Trees were ripped from their ancient roots. Calvin’s eyes turned away from the orb for a single moment to see the nearly two hundred year old tree in front of the school join the dying world around him.

Mads was still beside him. He realized she held his hand. Together they watched. He was reminded of a freight train as a new sound wormed its way into the world. The barreling, chugging, crunch of a sound grew and climbed to an octave a hundred times louder than anything else. The screams and whimpers of people scampering about were muted. Power polls and their exploding transformers could only be seen, not heard.

Mads and Cal turned away from the orb in time to see most of their beloved day-prison swallowed by the Earth as it opened in a jagged line that disappeared into the streets beyond the school. The freight train noise paused. A single moment of stillness before rising again in a crescendo that would claim Cal and Mads as they locked in their first, and last, embrace. With closed eyes, their young souls merged as they breathed each other in.

The Earth cried as it claimed them.

They never let go of each other.

 – 

 

THE CARETAKER

by M.D. Parker 

 

 

Chapter 1: YESTERDAY

 

He knew where to leave the trail. He had made the hike every week for years. The ageless canvas pack, with its sew marks from the multitude of repairs, rode over his left shoulder. It always felt awkward on his left, but the right shoulder ached more and more with each passing year. He wondered if old age might finally be catching up with him — if only a few decades late.

He paused for one last look behind, verifying that no one was within sight, before he stepped around the rock outcropping and dropped into the wash. The recent wind and rain had brushed the sandy wash smooth, leaving only a graveled whisper of his own tracks from the week before. The rains had been heavier this winter than anyone had expected, but the season was changing. Yet, he could still feel it in his shoulder and the ancient joints that bent his legs. He could smell the damp building in the air, though he didn’t expect a full rain. He felt the humidity crawl across his skin, dampening the pits under his arms. A line of sweat slid down his back and he felt the moistness building high in his crotch. He stopped, wiped his arm across his forehead, and pulled a water bottle from his little canvas sack. One large swallow rolled down his throat before he splashed some onto his thin gray hair. He drank a second time from the bottle before dropping it back into his sack, slinging the pack onto his shoulder, and sidestepping around the scraggly scrub brush.

His arm caught the spines of an acacia bush, and the bush refused to yield. He yanked free from the cat-like claws. He looked down and his eyes widened when he saw the thin drops of red popping through the long white line the thorns had drawn on his bare forearm. He dropped the pack and pulled the handkerchief from his back pocket in one motion. He dabbed his arm as his chest hauled in deep breaths. He sat himself on the dying gray-white log of a fallen Joshua Tree holding the rag tight on his arm. A clicking howl from some distant world met his ears. 

Knowing that the sound was borne of his imagination did little to comfort him as he lifted the rag and looked at the long scratch. He scanned the ground, searching, with frantic haste; no drops had made contact with the sand or rocks under him. He wet the cloth and dabbed it across his arm, wiping away any of the thin blood trails attempting to find a path down his arm to the sand below. The rapid breathing only subsided when he pulled back the rag and found no new droplets forming. He flexed his arms a few times and watched the cut. He had to be sure. Could not risk spilling any of his own blood this close to the boundary. He shoved the damp handkerchief into the front pouch of his knapsack, and waited a few more moments until his breathing had fully returned to normal. 

Following the path of his previous footsteps, he left the dry wash and stepped through a cluster of old rock formations. There, his tracks were joined by another set; prints shaped like the clubs on a deck of cards. It looked like more than one came through. He scanned the nearby tiny caves and crevices, but saw nothing. Coyotes hid well in the middle of the day. As he came through the cluster, the bottom half of the mountainous formation he’d been marching toward came ito full view. The large boulder pile looked more like a giant’s toy blocks kicked about in a temper tantrum, than a proper mountain. This way or that, he thought, jus’ glad I won’t be climbin’ over it. 

On the other side was the fence line. There he would find the posts set in place more than a hundred years ago. ‘No trespassing’ signs that were much younger than the fence, but ancient in their own right, would be tacked to him. Signs that were put there by people who knew not what they should fear trespassing against. His destination, however, was on this side of the mountain, for the signs were not enough to protect those who would disregard the fence’s purpose. He drank a third time from the water bottle.

He found the first stop quickly. Tucked up beside an stunted oak that was infested with the hanging piles of desert mistletoe. The mistletoe’s drab orange color stood in stark contrast to the decaying gray wood of the ancient desert sentry. He stepped around the tree. Careful to avoid a repeat, he reached around the needles of the cactus infested underbrush. Gently he stepped into a prickly pear, pushing it sideways, with his boot. It did not care how the blood was shed,nor its origin. 

Under the shadowed side, a dinner-plate sized flat rock lay embedded in the hard crust of graveled sand. He lowered himself to his knees. He opened the pack beside him and removed the small plastic quart of black paint. He set the container down. He reached in the bag and pulled free a small paintbrush. The bristled head was no bigger around than his pinky finger. He unscrewed the lid on the paint. He took the brush in his hand, and drew in a slow deep breath. A second deep breath followed. His hand steady, he dipped the brush in the paint, and began to trace over the remnants of the flaked color already on the stone. With each stroke he studied his work. His eyes squinted down to make sure each centimeter of the symbol was correct. The off-centered ‘J’ with what looked like fingers to him, hung down from the cross bar at the top. Inside the hook an extra swirl like the keys on those big brass horns he had seen marching bands carry. An additional flared line came off the right side, and he was done. It was perfect. It was exactly as it needed to be; exactly as he had done a hundred times before. He hoped he was right and the rain would be soft, or not come at all. He knew he’d have to change his schedule over the next few days to come back and check it. He knew better than to take chances.

He replaced the lid back on and dropped it back in the bag. His knees popped as he stood up. He carried the brush in his free hand as he walked to his next stop a few hundred yards away. There he knelt down and repeated the process on an oblong chunk of rock, with a new symbol. Beside the rock an old tin can sat pressed into the coarse sand, its rusted red as dark as venous blood. The metal was so thin he could nearly see through it; just another ghost of the past held to this place. Things die slower in the desert, like me, he thought.

With the touch up paint on what he thought of as the ‘squashed bug’ symbol completed, he tucked away the paint and brush into his canvas knapsack. The paint was nearly empty. He would have to make a drive to the store before he could venture through the eastside. A fresh can of paint would do all the ones he still had left to check and leave enough for touch ups if the rain came harder than expected. As he stood he was happy to only hear one knee pop. The paint had flaked more than he had hoped for. He knew the sigils on the rocks had probably not been doing their job. 

“All fixed up now though,” he said. 

With his water bottle in hand, he slung the bag back over his shoulder and reminded himself, again, that he’d have to deviate from his schedule and come check his work if it did rain hard. He had thought about waiting until after the rain, but he knew it had been too long since he’d checked on these two. He scolded himself for how long he had let them go without being checked. 

“Yup, you’re gettin’ old, Jack.” 

The trip back through the wash and around the rocks slowed him. The afternoon sun was bearing down. That time of the year in the high desert where the days got hot, the nights would freeze your bones, and the wind was as sharp against your skin as if a thousand shards of glass rode upon it. 

It was rare, but it did happen. Those moments in the middle of the day, when an animal more accustomed to the night, would make an appearance. As he rejoined the main trail he was greeted by one of the desert’s oldest residents. Its thin fur matted down. The gray and brown of its coat blended into the rocks and sand under its feet. It lifted its snout and Jack halted. It had found the remains of a hiker’s granola bar. The wrapper held down under one paw as it looked up at him. Its tongue swept across its snout, pulling a crumb between its jaws. Both man and coyote sized each other up.

“You stay back from there. You know better. You know what’s o’er them hills. Go back the way you came old fella, an’ I’ll be goin’ my way. Ain’t no reason for us to be botherin’ one another. Long as you stay away — don’t be disturbin’ him.” Jack held his eyes at a squint, his brow crinkled down. 

He changed up his grip on the water bottle. The coyote did not move. The wrapper under his paw was already coated in dust. Had to be around for a day or two before becoming the scavenger’s midday snack. Man and beast regarded each other for a minute, neither yielding any ground. Jack snapped his feet forward and hiked the bottle up.

“Go on, git outta here! And stay away from there,” he said, his voice raised to a shout. It came out gruff and graveled.

The coyote yielded. It snatched up the remains from the ground and took off at a trot down the path. It retraced its marks along the trail a few yards before darting sideways into the brush. It looked back every few feet until it disappeared into the rocks even farther to the west. Jack watched it until it was out of sight. Then, he drank the last of his water before heading back to the trailhead where the old pickup truck awaited his return. 

The door of the truck squalled in protest as he climbed in. Two turns of the key and it finally came to life. He forced the long granny-shifter into reverse and released the clutch. Jack watched the rearview as he drove away from the trailhead. 

Home tonight, town tomorrow, and check those wards I done as soon as I git the eastside all finished up, he thought. 

He caught the next gear and the fifty year old truck picked up speed. He stopped watching the rearview mirror, but he could still feel that guttural clicking sound echoing somewhere in his memory.

 

Joshua Tree National Park