No good summonings happen after 2a.m.

“Nieselima vo’shikkarasu, beinturushi, sayedita guroro!” The black-haired boy in beige slacks and a sweater crouched passionately over the crumbled-chalk pentagram in the attic of the storm-torn house. His weak and mortal voice was almost lost in the wind battering the windows. A momentary calm allowed moonlight to flood the room and he glimpsed for an instant his own shadow stretched long and sharp against the musty floorboards. A shiver rattled up his spine, but he ignored it and focused on the incantation.

“Sarijyupa karetyo mayina, hebruntsu! Icarus!” Punctuating and fueling the magic of his words, lightning bolts dove into the charmed weather vane erected on the roof and sparked along the wires coursing beneath the pentagram. Gravity played tricks as the boy and the furniture floated one moment and crashed, anchor-like, the next. The scant support beams could take no more; stress fractures splintered and the top floor collapsed.

The boy coughed and waved a hand haphazardly through the thick, dust-clogged air to no avail. A dim light emanating from somewhere overhead pulsed strongly once before dissipating, followed by a sweeping breeze that sent whorls of dust spinning away. There was a light footfall.

“Icarus?” The boy coughed again and fumbled with an illuminating charm. “Who is that?”

“Icarus…” the echo floated dreamily out of the haze in man’s voice. “Aye, that’s what my name was. It feels so long ago that I was once Icarus, but I know no other time, nor another name.”

“Icarus, son of Daedalus, I have summoned you here because you alone possess the ability to assist mortals in the most revered task–to ascend directly to heaven!!” The boy gushed with clenched fists. In the silence that followed his declaration, the dust gradually settled to reveal first the tips of outstretched white wings, then where they fused with brown muscular shoulders, and then the crown of black hair that turned to meet the boy’s eager eyes with eyes of blue sky.

“Celestial bliss, eternal wealth, 72 virgins, what do you seek in heaven?”

“Does it matter? Will you take me there or not!?”

A laugh broke free merrily from the winged apparition. “What a testy little summoner. Ah, let’s quit this dank house. I fly best at night, but the ascension can only occur at high noon.”

“We don’t have to wait for high noon. Tonight is the lunar eclipse. In one hour, there should be almost no lunions in the atmosphere, so your flight gear should sustain minimal damage from anisotropic interference.”

“As exacting as a textbook! True, Artemis shoots lunions that jam the fiber optics in my anti-gravity tilters, or whatever my father blabbed on about. However, it is much more interesting to believe that, when the sun is highest, then, and only then, can the dreams that incubated in the crib of star and moonlight test their mettle against its wrath and rays!”

Psh, the romantic notions of the Greeks. It’s all science now. Even Athena’s birth has been attributed to a rare strain of syphilis. “Heheh, yeah…” the boy hastened to agree with the apparition.

“Little summoner, what era is this?” Icarus asked suddenly.

“Um, 2016. And my name’s Nick.”

“K, little summoner. Does that fall in the era of sunglasses? I love that particular invention. Didn’t think that up, did you, father?” He added with a touch of spite, glowering at nowhere in particular.

“Stow the daddy issues. I did my research and already bought you a pair.” The boy tossed him a $5 pair of aviators he’d nabbed at a gas station on the way to the house. Dank or not, the house had been vital to his summoning as powerful an apparition as the legendary Icarus. Beneath them lay buried one of the most powerful modern American witches to ever live. Her 200 year-old bones, imbued with the dark magic she’d performed during her lifetime, and the house’s position at the center of a rough pentagram of churches, depending on how straight one drew the lines, was a magical hotspot.

“Well, thank you! What was your reason for ascending, again?”

“That’s my business.”

“Then I’ll make a guess. Clients usually pick from the same set of reasons. Typically, it’s to be reunited with a lost lover or close friend. Some devout folk wish to see God with their own eyes, feel what Jesus Christ felt, etc. A few think they’ll become angels or obtain some great power. Sorcerers, paranoid kings, and desperate urchins fall into the latter category. I don’t judge.”

Nick watched as Icarus poked around the attic lazily. “Alright, I’ll tell you then. Don’t laugh though. Curiosity. I want to know what heaven means, if anything. There’s certainly nobody I wanna to see again up there.”

Icarus glanced up from the cracked teapot he was inspecting. “Are you sure that’s the only reason?”

“I…it’s the most important reason.”

“I’m not merely a express ticket to heaven. I’m also a guard. I don’t fly just anyone up. You’ve impressed me by picking the lunar eclipse, but I’m not satisfied.”

“What happens if you don’t approve of the summoner? A disobedience clause wasn’t in your contract and I’ve never heard of a failed Icarus summoning.”

“I was once a human. As an apparition, I have a little more free will than others, that’s all.”

“You didn’t answer my question, and we only have 30 minutes till the eclipse!”

“This one should be obvious. You die.”

 

 

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The convergence of confusion

I lifted my head from the comfortable nook of my elbow, wrenching my nose away from the familiar smell of my skin. I slowly unfurled from my tight ball. My legs askew and aching from pressing into the gravel, I raised my trembling hand out into the firework-lit night as if to seize each spark and capture it for my own. Another flare glinted on the smooth plane of my fingernail and I snatched my hand back away from the light. I rocked back and forth, moaning and clutching my confused head. In the silence between the booms and laughter of the spectators, their voices chattered on inside my head…

“Anyways, his mom said he could go to the store whenever he felt like it and buy them some milk. So, he tried to go be a proud adult but ran home screaming about a tiger in the middle of the street! Imagine that!”

“Did I tell you about the time when I fucked Madonna? Man she was dirrrrty.”

“Say I love you! Say it!”

“I am an arrow on the wind. My target lies far away, beyond the stars, unbeknownst to me.”

“It was back in the 90s, before she really started declining.”

“I recommended to his mother, what a strong woman, to check him into a clinic that specializes in these sorts of soured milk cases. Not her fault, who could’ve predicted that squealing babe would become a compulsive liar.”

“You know I can’t.”

“I don’t remember the moment I shot forth from some cruel bowman’s grasp.”

“Course I know the constellations. That’s the straight-line fisherman, the Spanish bull.”

“Cat ears were all the rage.”

“I know a good brain surgeon in Cuba. He can remove the chip.”

“I can’t remember the first time I lied, but I DO remember the first time I watched porn.”

“Only an eternity of cutting through solar winds and blackness.”

“My wife claims she’s Eskimo sisters with Madonna now.”

“It’ll short-circuit the split second it detaches from my Broca’s area, or when I say those words. And then–boom! Let my take your hand. Here, can you feel in this warmth what no mere words could communicate?”

“She has more Eskimo sisters than she knows.”

“Time can pass as slowly as raindrops racing on car windows, or as quickly as the galaxy spins.”

“Good job, son, you’ve made it three months. You should celebrate! Before you return to the real world.”

“Words lie anyways.”

“There are so many things I haven’t told her, so many things I’ll take to my grave.”

“My favorite movie, Catch Me If You Can, always left me sobbing.”

“I cannot guarantee that the me of the future will be better.”

“Please take care of me.”

“It’s better that way.”

“I build a world of magic because my real life is tragic.”

“Or that this goal is worth it.”

“Shit–they found us!”

“For the kids, for Shirley.”

“But Paramore’s a chick band.”

“But till then,”

“Alex, baby, noo, no…”

“Refill, please.”

“The green-haired lead is pretty hot.”

“I’ll fly on the wind.”

“I love you.”

 

An exhausted void reigned in my mental space. My fists were bloodstained and scabbed from digging into the gritty gravel and the spiky point of my keys to distract me. The car engine kicked, sputtered, and finally settled into a steady hum. Twisting to check my six, I backed out of the shadowed lot. Moments later, I merged with the smooth, sparse traffic of the highway. Moon, stars, and streetlights overhead and road before me, I drove on.

In a perfect world…

In a perfect world….

The video focuses on a smiling couple, a barking dog, then pans out. A sea of happy faces and hardworking bodies fills the—/sifhn \\D[F;[]F–FF mY CAT—sorry—my cat storms across the keyboard, scattering pens and crumbs everywhere. His claw snags on the placemat as he shoots to the ground, swiping it like a magician. Unfortunately, he’s utterly talentless and the coffee mug topples, oozing what’s good for me and very, very bad for my computer all over the table. I yank the laptop from harm’s way but, alas, it’s too late! Coffee sneaks in via the micro-SD card slot and creeps through the advanced thermal cooling system, sending fireworks through the flash memory system and leaving the hard drive as blank as the cloudy night sky, or so the Apple Genius sadly informs me later that day, a look of ultimate pity and kindness on his face as his left hand fans a brochure of the newest models.

Yup, this definitely isn’t a perfect world. I doubt it’s even the best of all possible worlds. So then why do so many of us feel such pressure to be perfect? The lure of the ideal of perfection is that it assuages all the nasty worries and concerns. For the many of us lacking complete confidence in ourselves, it is deliciously tempting to think of that amazing high school valedictorian or principal dancer who lands the main part every freaking time as perfect and worry-free. But perfection is an evil fairy godmother whose gift comes at a cost. Cinderella is eternally chasing that elusive goal at the expense of other more important things such as family, friends, fun, health, career goals. She can’t give up because that smacks of weakness.

I speak simply of perfection, but it comes in many flavors. I can seek to perfect myself, an artwork, home décor. However, for many women, trying to perfect themselves is the road to serious problems, such as anorexia and long-lasting metabolic damage.

As I grew up with two workaholic parents, our apartment tended to exist in a state of controlled chaos. Although my heart couldn’t completely grasp my mother’s eternal goal to have a flawless and beautiful home (her mother was and is a pathological hoarder, an uncomfortable legacy), neither could she ever understand the manifestation of my own strain of perfectionism. Achieving validation in one troubled area of our life certainly does not fix everything.

Perfection is such as weird concept. It really is impossible to be perfect on earth because the definition of perfect varies. A perfect woman here is not  a perfect woman there, and it’s foolish to claim that my perception of it must be right. We only shoot for what looks perfect to us and a few people whose opinion we value, relying on the belief in the existence of a universal perfect. Some religious people and Greek philosophers might argue that yes, there is a universal perfect, but, personally, I believe in a bottom-up order to the universe. The smallest particles that gradually coalesce into a beautiful image don’t follow a blue print laid down by God or the Forms. As long as you believe in yourself, you don’t need to worry about disappointing some other plan because the plan for you is still in the making.

The red-nosed time traveller

womb of darkness finalish

Inside a malicious womb of darkness crouched a crying child. Her dimly glowing spirit, strangled by the merciless hands of darkness, convulsed and spasmed like a butterfly pinned to a wall.

A brief knock resounded and subsequently a section of the womb peeled away to reveal the face of a man. He had full, ruddy cheeks and a red, doorknob-shaped nose. A smile spread across his face like a flock of sparrows ascending from a tree into the warmth of early dawn. What a lovely smile he had, wide and wrinkled with years of merriment.

“You’re gonna be OK!” He swore to the child inside the womb of darkness.

The child’s spirit bled hot tears that stung like acid even as the dying butterfly flapped its wings once, twice. “But how do you know?!” She wailed.

“I’ve been to the future of course. Your future.”

“But how did you know then? Slash, how will you know then?” She begged.

“It’s easy. Whenever anybody asked you how you were, you said, ‘I’m OK.’ You actually said ‘I’m good’ sometimes, too. See, the future ain’t so bad!”

But the spirit was flash frozen in liquid shock; it no longer listened. The butterfly dared not flutter a single, iridescent wing and the jealous shadows crept like hungry moss over the window, shutting out the time traveller’s red nose and white lies.

Healthy Hearts Never Die

Water Tower Place at Christmastime was a sight to behold. Green and red wreaths curled around every pillar. Shoppers glided down the escalators like greedy angels with halos of twinkling white stars that ascended all the way to Macy’s. The food court was louder than a high school cafeteria, and only slightly more respectful. Music, oh that unforgettable Christmas music, galloped from the speakers and infiltrated every corner of the building, weaving all these chaotic elements together in a symphony of joyous consumerism.

A man in his mid-thirties moved languidly through the  stream of people. A dim smile sat on his face, which was chapped and red from the cold Chicago wind, as if it had wandered there one day and, having lost its way, decided to stay. In the brightness and largesse of the central chamber of the mall, which spanned several floors, he was but a shadow.

A little girl in a striped jumper dragging a polka dot suitcase behind her and arguing in high-pitched tones with the imperious mother dragging her along passed closely by him. Her life flickered up against his like flame against an ice cube. Perturbed, her voice lowered to a hush, but he felt he could soar. The girl’s passion, her anger, they bubbled in the stagnant cesspool within him. Riding this wave, he entered the first store he encountered: Hollister.

The attractive store attendants laughed on cue and opened the doors for everyone. He flitted past the row of fathers and boyfriends slouched on stools and lingered at a group of teenagers deconstructing a manikin’s outfit. So many clothes, so much potential to change who you are, it’s not too late, she’ll like this sweater, didn’t you wear this last Saturday? He slowed as he breached the woman’s section, visibly labored by the effort of wading through scented memories of her. He spotted a knotted-yarn cardigan that suited her style, a flippantly bohemian evolution from a once-punk teenager. After a moment, he reached out to remove the stringy collar from the plastic hanger to which it clung; his grey-tinged fingers tumbled off like crumbling cubes of jello.

The smile fixed to his face suddenly remembered where it had to be and abandoned him. Delightful things always leave too quickly. Clutching his chest, he fled the store in terror, soon returning to the cold wind tunneling down Michigan Avenue. Pure, instinctive muscle memory guided his furious feet down rows of identical buildings till he arrived at his townhouse. His trembling hands struggled to open the door.

The gloom of the house proliferated unpierced by artificial light, barely kept at bay by the weak grey rays crawling they way in from the dusky sky outside. Stacks of books mingled with piles of sheets and clothes. Old furniture, accumulated from the neighbors who came and went, crowded in the entryway, elbowing each other and vying for air to breathe. He stepped into the kitchen and fell to his knees, a gasp strangled inside his throat.

He–the exact copy of him–lay stretched out on the carpet in front of the long-dead TV. The body’s thin frame was clothed in the same flannel, white shirt, and jeans that he now wore beneath his bulky coat. The supine body was stiff to the touch, the skin waxy and pale. Blood speckled the corners of his mouth and the edges of his unshaved face.

Fear made him stand again. Anxiety lured his gaze back to the body on the floor. He paced. The walls were lined with empty frames. Where’d the pictures gone? He found them quickly, torn from their frames and scattered on the floor besides crates of empty beer bottles. Beneath one lay a prescription for a trental-urso drug cocktail. Purpose: to treat liver disease. What treats a broken heart? Asked the ghost before he lay beside his body and said good night to the long-dead TV and paneled ceiling for the last time.

I dunno, but stay Healthy kids!

Children of the Paintings: Chapter 1

“The last time you saw your father was last Saturday the 12th?” The officer asked, a note of incredulity creeping into his voice.

“Well, yeah. He often left for long periods of time on archeology trips. Greece, Romania, South Africa.”

“Today is the 19th. You know it it’s illegal for your father to leave you two alone for so long.”

“I’m 18! And my father is missing for Christ’s sake, so skip the accusations please!” Sarah was normally very calm and collected in tough situations. At seven, wandering and lost in the San Diego zoo, she’d paid visits to all her favorite animals (the giraffes, the meerkats, the servals) without missing a beat, then negotiated with an employee for free ice cream before meeting her father and little brother at the Information Center, where for the past hour they’d frantically rushed about shouting her name and checking for strange gray vans offering candy to little girls. But this was different. Grey was gone. At the zoo, she’d reasoned that she was lost, not that her father was lost. Now, it was the other way around. At least, she hoped. There was the other possibility she and Dale had discussed.

After her outburst, conversation with the officer simmered down. Sarah bit her lip; Dale’s interview was lasting much longer. Finally, the door opened and he took his seat with a dignified air. He leaned his shoulder into Sarah’s, a silent show of offering strength. And patience, as it would turn out.

After a brief, hushed discussion, the two officers returned. “The mysterious circumstances of Grey Percy’s disappearance really go beyond our jurisdiction. His travels took him into foreign countries. You said he’s in Colombia, now?”

“Yep. He and his partner at the museum, Mark Sorrelike, were checking out this ancient clock. It was really interesting, actually.”

“Well, Mr. Sorrelike hasn’t left Manhattan. He said the trip was called off at the last minute because your father had an emergency. They talked at 9:30 last Saturday night. Although the trip was cancelled, your father still got on the plane, making it an international problem.” The siblings digested these facts for a moment. “We’ll make a few calls to get in contact with the Colombian embassy. It may be a little difficult considering the state of our relations with them, you know.”

Sarah fixed the other officer, whose name, if she remembered correctly, was Roger, with a glare. “Can I have my phone back? I’d like to make a call.”

Roger pursed his lips, but he’d already checked the SIM card for suspicious calls. He handed over the phone after Sarah finally let it slip that she intended only to call Mr. Sorrelike. When he didn’t pick up, she dropped her head into her hand and rubbed her forehead. Suddenly she felt incredibly lonely. It’s strange, she thought, that I’m all ready to up and live without a parent at college but this blows me over. For the first time since she was little, Sarah wished for the mother whose name and face she knew only from stories and pictures. The war in Iraq stole Anya’s life when the two were still young, but the loss hit her again from time to time.

Dale shuffled back from the other side of the stagnant room, his hands in his pockets. He nudged Sarah in the shin, smiling halfheartedly with half his mouth. Sarah mirrored his expression. The officer drove them home and then parked outside to play watchdog all night in case Grey showed up.

Once home, Dale collapsed on the sofa while Sarah perched her elbows on the kitchen table, as was her predatory, elder-sister habit. “Dale. Come. We have to talk about it. That officer out there is twiddling his thumbs. Let’s not kid ourselves. Dad won’t be coming back, not that way at least.”

“Okay, but don’t say too much. They could be listening!”

“If they were, they’d think we were crazy. That is, after they break down the door because you just said what you just said!” After a beat, they burst into tense laughter edged with panic.

“I concede the point. Let’s take a look.” Flicking on an extra light, they examined the object they’d hidden in plain sight from the officers’ scrutiny. The painting was mounted hastily on the turquoise wall. It comforted them. No matter how desperate their situation seemed, there was a canvas thread tying it all together. Somehow, this painting was the key. It had appeared on their wall the day after Grey missed his flight back. Its sudden, sly arrival planted a seed of suspicion that their father had smuggled it, so they’d pretended they’d had it for years. After hearing the news about Mr. Sorrelike, that seed took root.

Not that the tiny, depressed looking forensics team so busily scouring their apartment that day had asked anything about the painting, which was certainly banal, prima facie at least. There was beautiful Greek-looking woman in a long white dress floating above a mass of villagers celebrating her. Sarah ran her fingers down the sides of the frame and whistled, impressed. Angels and demons were carved into the wood with a chilling accuracy that shocked awake sleeping memories in her heart. Her fingernail accidentally chipped off a flake of the cheap gold paint, sending it spiraling to the floor. Watching its descent, she realized why the angels and demons were so familiar and gasped. “I’ve seen this before!”

“What, the painting?”

“No, the frame. That storybook. Hold on. I need to go look for something in the storage locker, so while I do that your job is to find out the history of the painting.”

“Already on it! What do you think the UV light is for – determining the age of oil paints or what?”

“Nerd,” Sarah retorted before disappearing into her room. With that, they were at work. Well, sort of. Dale doggedly combed through the painting using their Dad’s tools, occasionally emitting a hmmm or a huh, while Sarah leafed through childhood memories.

The Burden of Freedom

Sonya is unlike anyone I’ve ever known. The memory of the first time she looked at me clings to me like maple syrup to sticky fingers. Even though I’ve licked off the syrup many times before, there’s still a lingering sweetness. Gym class had just ended and the slow mob of students drifted across the hot, baked baseball diamond to the school.

In accordance with some ancient law, we all had gym buddies who tagged along to our sides, and us to theirs. Mine was Maria. I won’t bother describing her. It’s not even important. I don’t even remember. Everyone faded to a greyish brown blur when I saw Sonya. From a distance, she was a pink flame above a black candle with white adidas stripes and nike running shoes. Closer up, the pink shock of hair was streaked with black highlights. It was a Notice Me! haircut, one that belonged to an anime show protagonist or fan, not our cookie cutter high school’s star soccer player. Her eyes were emblazoned in black liner and a small metal loop was plunged through her nostril. Here she was, conspicuously walking to school two hours after the morning bell.

It struck me in that moment how unlike the rest of us she was. My fellow students in the gym class I could easily categorize into boxes even when in uniforms. I’ve seen Breakfast Club, and I know that people are complicated. Boxes aren’t real and people aren’t made in molds, but who has time to figure out who they really are? Sonya had no box and was thus relegated to the netherworld of interbox space. That’s how I always saw her. Until that day after gym class.

We all piled up at the crosswalk together, with Sonya somewhere in our midst, black headphones jammed into her ears, hands in her pockets. The sun lit half her face and I found myself absorbed in the way the division between light and dark crooked over her cheek and glinted on her nosering. Maria said something, and I nodded, as if brushing off a fly. Sonya’s eyes, such an ordinary brown, lifted from their fixation on some distant point to meet mine. Her black-rimmed, intense gaze drilled through all my layers. It pierced my illusory box, all the boxes I held claim to; like a crossbow bolt it flung me out into the interbox space. But I wasn’t lost, like a drifting astronaut. Rather, gravity hit me. An oppressive weight emanated from my chest and pinned me down. Despite all its screams to be released, I didn’t know how. My nails dug into the skin of my arm to eek out the pressure.

Her eyes flickered away, bored and casual, but the weight only intensified. Recognize me! My feet were a conveyer belt pulling the rest of my body towards her.

“What did you do?” I asked her. It probably sounded like nonsense, coming from a calm-looking brunette with folded arms. “What is this weight?”

I saw a slight, sympathetic smile in the corners of her mouth and the crinkles of her eyes.

“It’s freedom.”

The cars stopped at the line before the crosswalk and the bulbs of the flashing red hand switched positions, circuits chiming off in binary to light up the proper bulbs to form a white walking man. In the time it took me to swallow my next question, the uniform-clad bodies around us had spilled out onto the white crosswalk bars on the hot asphalt. The opposite of before, my mind directed my sullen body to turn after them, but she grabbed my wrist.

“See you around.”

She dropped it and slid forward to cross. I trailed a few meters behind her. As long as I kept my eyes glued to the scuffed tops of my converses, the weight wasn’t so enormous. If only I knew then how much heavier it could get, and how it burdened those black-clad shoulders ahead of me.