He looked up into the sunless sky and cursed the clouds for the darkness that shadowed his morning. He kicked an empty soda can down the street, hands in pockets and muttered nonsensical words under his breath.
Weeks of planning ruined by the weather. There was nothing he could do now, because the wheels were already in motion. His legs were eager to get there, but his guts danced with nervousness.
He looked into the sky again, whistling a jolly tune that he didn’t know the name of, smiled at the neighborhood kids and the clouds parted as he began to dance.
The butterflies flying out of his stomach like musical notes.
The blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds like a painting worthy of a museum wall.
His frown nothing more than a wisp of stress long forgotten and as he arrived at the train station twenty minutes early for her arrival, he thanked Mother Nature for holding out a bit longer.
Till he mustered the courage to finally say hello to the girl that made his coffee every morning.
She smiled, dismissed his dollars and took his number.
He knew today was going to be a very good day.
Karen sat at her computer, watching the birds fly by her window. She had something to do, but no matter how hard she tried, the something wasn’t happening.
The something was due tomorrow at 9am. Too early for her but everyone else seemed to make it there on time.
Her retinas burned thinking of the bright sunshine of the early morning hours. Tired and groggy, she cursed the California sunshine and wanted nothing more than to live in a sleepy New England cabin.
She typed a few words knowing they made no sense, but as the afternoon turned to evening, she knew she’d have to turn in something or face flunking her senior year.
Her teacher’s nearly purple complexion yelling at her face, pieces of food flying out of her lips, sticking to her glasses. There was no way she could risk repeating it all over again.
Her words nothing more than nonsense connected by periods and commas. She was citing total bullshit. She started to describe the scene outside her window. The eerie silence, the one star that she could see that was obscured by her favorite creepy tree and the man clawing at her window.
Her heart raced as his face appeared out of nowhere, withered and worn, he looked like her favorite dog-eared comic book. She kept typing and the more she did, the more he came alive. Watching her but nothing more.
She wanted to yell, but her mother would scold her for waking up the baby and her father would hit her for no other reason than she wasn’t his favorite.
He fogged up the window with his breath.
She wrote about his yellow teeth, long fingers and balding scalp.
She blinked but he was still there. She closed her eyes, wishing him away and just like that, she awoke in a puddle of drool with an empty white screen and no reason to even bother anymore.
So she walked to school forty-five minutes later with a typed version of last night.
Crossing her fingers that it would be enough to save her from him.
William and Samuel had been going out for three months, but Samuel always kept an eye out for someone new. It wasn’t that he didn’t like William, he had often said I love you without lying, but there were so many men and he always doubted his decisions.
William was always rolling his eyes and letting out exasperated sighs. “What are you doing, Sammy?”
“Please don’t call me that, okay?”
“Whatever,” William said, rolling his eyes again. “Are you checking that guy out? Aren’t I good enough for you?”
“Yes and yes.”
“Well, I’m not keen on sharing, so you’d better make up your mind.” William would say, sashaying away. Samuel rather enjoyed watching William slink away in his pink silk pajamas. He had bought them for his “girlfriend” on recommendation from the salesgirl at Macy’s. They were a perfect fit.
The thing about William is that he was imperfect. It wasn’t an ordinary human flaw, but many that kept piling up forcing Samuel to rent out several storage lockers.
“Why are you wearing your pajamas out in public?”
“You didn’t stop me? Plus, they’re comfortable, Sammy.”
It’s true that no one batted at eye in William’s direction anymore. He was no longer unusual. He was just weird. His weird was the usual.
“Why can’t you be normal?”
“Samuel, I’m normal for me. I thought you liked my pajamas.”
“Yes, I love them very much when you wear them for me in my own house. It’s something we do together. It’s not for everyone.”
“Well, you certainly seem to be interested in everyone lately, so I thought why bother?”
“I’m sorry, I’m distracted.”
William rolled his eyes again and drank his orange juice. William refused to drink anything but mimosas. He wardrobe was like a cartoon characters. He had one pair of pink pajamas but everything else was black stretch pants, black and white striped shirts and berets. People often referred to him as the “mime.” Samuel was not pleased. Even when he called his friends out on it, no one apologized.
“Guys, he’s my boyfriend. Stop it!”
“But haven’t you noticed?”
“Yes, of course, I’ve noticed!” Samuel shouted. “Everyone has flaws.”
“They’re not just flaws. We’d forgive that, but now he’s wearing his pajamas in public and…”
“Stop it. Just stop it. William is unusual.”
“No, he’s just weird.”
“He’s mine and that’s fine.” He’d waved his hand in the air to dismiss his friends and walked away.
Because of that, he no longer had many close friends.
In fact, Samuel often looked in awe at the other men having dinner with company. Why couldn’t he be more like them? Why couldn’t we just fit in?
Then it occurred to him that he should stop trying so hard. He’d just do whatever he felt like.
“Samuel, why are you wearing my clothes?”
“Why not? I like them.”
“Because you look like a fucking mime!”
Samuel bowed and said, “I go by Sammy now.”
Three weeks later, William was sitting at a table surrounded by his friends.
“I don’t know what happened to Samuel. He just went off the deep end. He wouldn’t stop dressing like a mime in public. It was pathetic. Look at him sitting all alone crying into his mimosa. It’s unbearable.”
Everyone nodded, causing their berets to shift on their heads, and they held up their glasses in silent toast to their crazy ex-friend, Samuel.
Never, ever write a love letter was the only advice my mother ever gave me.
I was six and couldn’t understand what I did wrong.
“What is this?” Mom asked, shaking a folded piece of construction paper under my nose.
I dragged my foot across the ground and started counting the squares
on the linoleum.
“Kenneth William Rogers, are you listening?”
“It’s a letter to Cindy.”
Mom opened the letter and I didn’t protest. It said I like you. Actually, I didn’t know how to spell, so it was just a bunch of hearts and the letter U. It was up to interpretation really.
“Is this a love letter?”
I shook my head yes.
“Never ever write a love letter! They’ll only get you in trouble.”
She crumpled the letter and threw it away.
My heart plummeted along with it. Cindy would never know my true feelings.
For years, I was cursed as the best friend. Middle school came and went and high school was a new beginning, but those words of advice echoed in my head.
Was Mom right?
I couldn’t see how a woman that wore jeans way past her belly button could ever be right about anything. She could make a mean meatloaf and her homemade Mac ‘N Cheese had won her an award, but she didn’t know anything about love.
My mom was a professional singleton.
The last time I had seen my father was the year the advice was thrown at me. He had walked out with not even a word. Years later, I’d find out he was shagging his secretary. The office cliche and I was ashamed of his behavior on behalf of all nice dudes everywhere.
A woman scorned for sure, but my Mom’s love life had nothing to do with mine.
I was my own man.
I wasn’t my father.
I wasn’t scum.
I was the good guy.
I wasn’t a hero, a jock or even all that good looking, but I could write.
The amount of love letters I had written in my notebook over the years was nearing 100.
They were usually to no one in particular. Sometimes there was a girl I liked and she’d end up in the notebook. We’d stay friends but in my head, we were steaming up the windows of my 1997 Dodge Ford.
Love letters were my girlfriend.
The very sad truth.
I was tired of pen and paper.
Too shy to admit anything. I held it in for so long, I didn’t know how to let it out. I didn’t know how to make my fantasy life a reality. It seemed so easy in the movies. Lloyd holding up the boombox. A chance meeting in Montauk. The unlikely pair attending a funeral. Testicular cancer sob stories.
Then Cindy showed up again.
Junior year, I was 17 and far too old to not even have had a first kiss.
Of course, in my notebook, I was a professional at this point.
The amount of girls I had tongue wrestled with was far too many.
I didn’t care about adding notches to my bed post
I just wanted one kiss and even if she slapped me, I’d die humiliated, but happy.
Cindy remembered me.
We’d sit together in the cafeteria cracking each other up.
We were kids again.
Nearly legal adults, but we didn’t care when people stared at our
homemade dream catchers, fortune tellers and coloring books.
I found myself turning to my notebook. Reinventing that first ever love letter.
Heart heart heart heart U. XOXOXOXOXO KEN
I almost went through with it, but instead of sticking it in her locker, I put it in my back pocket.
Four days later, I’d join her at the park, sitting on a swing. She was quiet.
She pulled out a crumpled piece of construction paper.
Where did she find it?
My note. My love letter. How dare she?
“Was this for me?”
I stared down at the wood chips bracing myself for the worst.
“I’m sorry. It was just a bit…”
“I like you too.”
My heart pounded so fast, I was sure it was going to rip a hole
through my shirt. Sweat pouring down my face, I felt hot and red.
I leaned over to kiss her, but she was gone.
Her swing squeaked as I watched her pink sneakers walk off into the
distance. My mother’s advice echoing in my head.
I followed him and he followed her and we marched and marched till we saw the checkered blanket and knew exactly what to do.
It wasn’t a plan.
It wasn’t a decision.
It was encoded in our DNA.
We worked together and piece by piece we dismantled their precious picnic right beneath their eyes.
We took it to our Queen and she ignored us.
So we ate her.
Piece by piece.
Our mouths watering, bite after bite, till she was nothing but a crown.
No one touched us.
Without her, no one knew right from wrong.
We walked in nobodies and walked out heroes.
We’re untouchable and we’re coming for you.
Ariel had the misfortune of being named after a Disney princess. She didn’t have red hair. She couldn’t sing a lick and all of her friends were trying to set her up with boys named Eric. No matter the stereotypes, Ariel could actually swim, but not as well as someone from under the sea. Her swim team never won medals, but they couldn’t blame it on her lack of fins, because she was never last but never first either. She was genuinely average.
As a girl, Ariel would ask if she was from the sea.
“Ariel, I’ve told you a million times, we found you on the beach looking for seashells. You were a beautiful pearl and suddenly you hatched into the world’s most beautiful baby. Our baby.”
“So you’re not my real Mommy?”
“Oh…um…yes, of course, I am.”
“So I’m a mermaid? You’re a mermaid, Mommy?”
“No dear, we were both born with legs, but if you practice hard, you could swim just as well as any mermaid out in the ocean.”
Ariel practiced and practiced and practiced and finally at age 16, she gave up. No matter how hard she pushed herself, she knew that she would never be any better. She did everything possible, but she was always looked over for one of the other girls. She was nothing special despite what her mother always told her.
“Ariel, remember you’re special because you’re you.”
“I know you don’t believe me now, but at some point, I know you’ll find the thing that makes you YOU and you’ll know exactly what it is once you find it.”
Ariel rolled her eyes. Her mom was always telling her that she could do anything, but she didn’t feel special. She didn’t look special. She was just Ariel. Not a little mermaid. Just a girl. A totally average girl.
She started thinking about becoming Ariel the milkmaid or even just a house maid. Practical jobs that would keep her out of the water and hopefully far away from men named Eric.
So Ariel stopped swimming.
Her hair grew long despite the years of chlorine abuse. She took up knitting. She quit knitting. She was no good at video games. Then she taught herself the guitar. Her fingers felt at home on the strings. Her voice average at best could still belt out the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Disarm.”
No longer part of the jock scene, she began to make new friends that taught her about zines, punk music and veganism.
She was no longer Ariel Not the Mermaid, she was Ariel the Guitarist and her mother smiled at her and said, “See, I told you so.”
I kept writing her name over and over. Big, curlicue letters that obscured the view of every passing airplane.
I couldn’t forget that night we kissed. She made me feel insecure, silly and a complete wreck. The situation was hopeless.
I didn’t even know her name.
It was over before I even knew what was happening.
She let out a small cough and descended back to her place. Floating, lingering a bit too long and not even a goodbye.
She was a lost balloon and I’m nothing but a cloud, confined to the air you don’t even breathe.
Nancy crept into Guy’s bedroom, slid under the covers and waited. He would be home any minute and she bought new lingerie.
She woke the next morning, but Guy wasn’t there. The bed still made on his side.
She tiptoed around the apartment, finally calling out, “Guy, are you here?”
No one answered.
The house was silent.
Worried, she checked the garage and found his car parked.
Guy’s head slumped forward over the wheel and she screamed.
“Honey, wake up, wake up. You’re dreaming again.”
“Huh?” Nancy’s heart raced and she could feel sweat on her back.
“You were dreaming. Are you okay?”
She looked over at Guy and stared at his glass eye, looked down at his missing three fingers and knew she’d never be the same.
She wished that dream was the reality. Maybe if she kept it up it would finally become the truth.
Mark died two weeks ago. It took me this long to even use that word. Die. Died. Dead. Mark is dead.
“He’s in a better place now, dear.”
What does even mean? What’s better than being alive? I don’t believe them, so I just cry and eat an entire package of Oreos without stopping. They’re soggy and I’m covered in crumbs.
I’m supposed to go back to work today. The bus is late as usual, but instead of being upset, I think about Mark and cry my way back to my apartment.
I call out sick.
My voice hoarse and it isn’t even fake.
Tomorrow is a no show and the next day after that one and finally it’s Friday.
I go in, feeling like a zombie, but there’s no way I look like one too. I applied so much makeup, I might be confused for a mime.
I’m so tired, I can’t be bothered by niceties.
Everyone says a polite hello but no one wants to ask about Mark. No one dares. I stare them down and just shake my head.
I cry at my desk. I sob. I return emails like nothing has happened but everything has happened.
It’s Saturday and I wake up at 6am, but Mark isn’t around to make pancakes anymore. I can’t even cry about it. I’m dried up like a desert.
Around noon, the doorbell rings but no one is there when I answer.
There’s a package.
I don’t care if I’m blown up, so I risk it. I cut the paper, remove the tape and inside is a glowing jar and it’s the first time I’ve smiled in two weeks.
There is an aged sticker on the front that reads “Ghost Heart” but nothing more.
It sounds like the name of a band.
Mark would have taken me to their show and made fun of me when I flirted with the bassist.
I watch Comedy Central because every other channel is showing something sappy and sad, and I can’t do sad right now.
I think about opening the jar and releasing the ghost heart in the living room. What does it do?
I think about the last time I saw Mark. Then I rewind because I’m thinking about him prettied up in that funeral home. He looked like he was just napping. It was so fucking perfect, but no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I pleaded, he kept on sleeping.
He’s not in the ground now. He’s on the way to a hot, hot oven to be baked like cookies. It wasn’t my choice. It was his because if it was left to me, I would have been his Juliet and flung myself on that baking sheet with him.
It’s a morbid thought. I push it down.
The ghost heart glows.
I start wondering if Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys are going to show up to take me to Never Never Land. I start thinking maybe that’s the better place.
The jar won’t open no matter what I do. I’m mad. I’m impatient. I want to smash it. Who would send me this perverse object?
I want it out of my house, so I set it on the front porch and go to sleep.
I dream about Mark. He’s making pancakes and telling me about his favorite movie when he was a kid and how he always wanted to learn karate.
It’s 3am and the tears are back and so is that fucking jar.
The room is lit brighter than the sun.
I twist the lid, half in a daze and one last time, I hear Mark’s voice.
It’s barely audible. Not even a true whisper.
Fuck! “WHAT?” I yell so loud, my cat stirs in the next room. “What did you say? What? What? What?”
The jar is empty now.
The glow is gone.
And the house smells like pancakes.
I see him in the elevator every morning.
He gets off on floor 10 and I go up-up-up to 17. This building is full of offices doing all sorts of things, but he always wears the kinds of ties that make me think that what he does isn’t that important. It’s some fancy, stuffy job, but something that would make for an interesting conversation.
One day, he scratches his ankle, revealing purple socks. I’m intrigued but I can’t follow him. I just smile politely.
We nod. We smile. But we never talk. Never ever.
Up-up-up every single day. He’s always there.
One morning he’s wearing a hat.
“Nice hat,” I nod.
“Thanks,” he replies, but nothing more.
I wear an antique brooch the next day. I catch him staring at it. Or maybe it’s my low-cut blouse. I catch his gaze and he smiles and walks out at the ding.
I’m not even insulted.
The next day I nod and he nods, his mouth opens but we’re on 10 already, so he pushes the door open button.
“I just wanted to ask you if you’d like to go out sometime?”
I nod my head yes and he gives me his business card.
Henry Scribner — Hot Air Balloon Enthusiast
There’s a phone number scribbled below that. Is that what he does here? I doubt it.
I call him when I get home, but no one answers.
I try one more time, but I’m so nervous, I hang up. I feel sweaty and nervous for the first time.
Maybe it’s better if we stay…what?
The phone rings — unknown number — so I let it go to voicemail.
“Hello, it’s Henry. From the elevator. Eleanor? What a nice name. I can’t wait to see you tomorrow. Let’s do lunch.”
I swoon. Feel embarrassed and swoon some more. Honestly, I feel like I could fly like one of Henry’s balloons.
The next morning, Henry isn’t there.
Nor the next day or the next.
Weeks pass, but all I have is a voicemail and nothing more.
I call and call but no one answers.
One day, a man in black rides the elevator with me.
“Did you know that this building is haunted? This very elevator is said to be the source. Have you ever seen anything? I haven’t but it can’t be all nonsense, right? Oh dear, are you okay? You seem flushed.”
The man in black hands me a handkerchief. I wipe my brow and he tells me to keep it.
“So you have seen him?”
The man in black nods back and gets out on Floor 10. My eyes follow him till the door closes.
I know I’ll never see Henry again.