Invaluable

Self-esteem is a tricky little bugger.

I’ve always had issues with mine; I mean, with the small amount that I even allow to exist.

Perhaps it’s my childhood? My sometimes non-religious views? A realistic attitude about what I actually provide to the world?

After reading a very good article written from the perspective of an artist this morning, I attended a local Mothers Of Preschoolers group my neighbor told me about. The article, about devaluing, opened my mind. The MOPs, whereat a fellow mother honestly detailed her life with anxiety and depression (and OCD and body image issues and …well, you get the idea), opened my heart.

“I’m sure men and boys experience it too, I know they do, but in my personal experience it’s women who consistently undervalue their work, their time and their talent and it’s women who desperately seek approval by making themselves small,” Johanna (the artist I mentioned) notes.

Caroline, the brave MOPs woman with constant struggles, spoke of a lifetime of hiding. She thought others would only want to see the perfect her, the one she wasn’t ashamed of. She was flawed.

Although I have not been diagnosed with a specific condition (yet), I felt like these women were speaking to me, or even about me.

Woman Alone

“…I had subconsciously believed that valuing myself meant devaluing others which would make them feel bad which would make them not like me.” Johanna continued, “I had kept myself in a nice little box that would be no obvious threat to anyone.”

I feel my own box. Like a bad mime, I keep people away from the invisible walls with my facial expressions, body language, and comments. I push away, instead of invite in. Sometimes the box is literally my car, my house, or my closet.

Sadly, Caroline felt similarly. She spoke of assuming her own family wouldn’t want to know this dark side. She described herself thinking how her husband and child would be better off without her in their lives.

This is an extreme position to take, a sure sign that you need to talk to a counselor.

It is also one I understand, and have felt. Blearily, tiredly, I’ve looked around and seen the only problem is me. No self-esteem. The only logical parts able to stop anything remind me that death would screw up my children psychologically, or that I might fail and be stuck as a vegetable.

If I was truly logical, however, I would see that my thinking is, as Caroline said, twisted.

I have spoken with a therapist, a counselor. When I mentioned how deeply I’d allowed myself to sink into self-loathing, she agreed the thinking was wrong. “You need to see a doctor,” she said. “You need to test your hormone levels,” she said.

We wonderful, emotional women are extremely down on ourselves, and it’s often because of hormones.

In fact, hormones can be blamed for everything. Of course, despite my pleas to my husband, we cannot simply be rid of them. They are essential to other feelings, and to basic body functions.

Woman Sun

Aside from functionality or regulation, I would also like to applaud an approach Johanna details partway through her crafting article.

She wrote the post to talk about an art submission to Craft Town, and how she had mentored applicants for this event in the past. “(A)bout six years ago, I banned my students from saying the word sorry, and we did a little experiment. They had to present their work without saying a single negative word about it, and throughout the exercise they would have absolutely no encouragement or feedback from me whatsoever. So no negativity from them and no approval from me.”

The results? “What happened shocked me. Some students weren’t even able to begin speaking. They looked at the floor, they took deep breaths, they took several minutes just to find words to begin with that wouldn’t include any sort of apology. Some were even brought to tears by the sheer frustration of not being able to criticise themselves.”

Can you make something, gift an item, talk about yourself -without devaluing? I cannot.

Well, I can. But, I don’t. I believe I should try.

Why? Fabulous results. From Johanna, one last time:

There would be a change in tone and volume that was so moving, so utterly inspiring that I can’t even describe it to you. They would speak without apology, explanation or expectation, about what they loved about their own talent. Then they would realise that no one was laughing at them, no one was horrified, no one had stopped liking them, and that they weren’t in trouble, then their voice would get stronger and clearer and calmer.  And when they shone, something would happen to the other students in the room, and to me;  we’d feel just a little bit closer to our own value because we could see someone else connecting with theirs.

And, what about Caroline from the mothers’ group? She admits to still struggling. However, as a plug for the group, her help came from joining MOPs but also from opening up. Instead of apologizing, hiding, pretending, she wore herself on her sleeve.

We are valuable women, valuable people.

Self-esteem has to come from within, my paid friend tells me. Johanna and Caroline have given me some tools to begin with. I hope we’ve helped you as well.

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Writing Prompt: Badlands

Write a short story and it must contain the following words somewhere: downtown, graveyard, passenger, decoder, suave, badlands.

Photo

It was a typical late afternoon for K. Jones: dusty, dry, barren. Even when she wasn’t standing as she was then –hands folded across her chest surveying the badlands– K. never shook the feeling of orange. Bits and pieces of windblown world caught at the edges of her tied handkerchief and protective sunglasses. She’d find them in every crevice of her equipment later.

*Jones* her left hip crackled. *Jones, Bwishda gurb donet!*

Quickly unfolding from her stoic stance, K. grabbed at the radio hanging to her side. She deftly activated its decoder switch in time to translate the end of the garbled message to “…Station 5 at Sundown, over.” She waited for the message to repeat, and was rewarded with silence. K. rolled her eyes. How difficult did her team find simple tasks, exactly? –Tasks like following certain protocol so a person had time to grab her radio and get the whole message, for example?

K. brought the mouthpiece near her face, squeezed her thick gloves over Respond, and enunciated, “Jones here.” She waited the required five seconds before continuing, “Repeat full command, over.”

Static. Then, she heard an impatient, “Smith here.” Roughly three seconds followed, if K. counted generously. “Assigned rounds completed. Will meet at Station 5 at Sundown, over.”

The setting sun pierced through a cloudbreak and caught K.’s glasses at an annoying angle. She squinted, repositioned. Shading her eyes, she peered off toward the general direction of the station referenced. It was either past the butte, down the dirt path, and near a distant mountain; or she was experiencing miragelike imagery.

Shifting the radio from one bundled hand to another, she applied the Respond button once again. “Jones here.” Five seconds. “Request transport en route. Will wait at Camp Point One near butte, over.”

K. used her right boot to shift adobe-colored sand over the top of her left boot as she waited for an answer. “Smith here.” K. mentally counted to two before Smith immediately continued, “Will meet as requested. Watch your back. Over and out.”

Though no one could see her expressions, K. smiled a wry, experienced look. She wasn’t novice enough to laugh aloud at Smith’s suggestions, however. Confident and skilled she might be, but anything could change on the swirling sunset landscape of these uninhabited zones. –Of these usually uninhabited zones, K. mentally amended.

She glanced right, left, behind, up, down, forward. She carefully deactivated the decoder option on the radio and returned it, swinging, to the side of her ocher pant leg. Following protocol, she checked the readings on her instruments. They were set to alert her if any anomaly appeared. As such, K. would have to remember to tone her tracker down a bit once she reached Camp One. She didn’t want to impulsively vaporize her ride just because of nerves.

She hefted straps, instruments, and packs from one sore area to another and began walking. Fingers of moving sand sank in a circular divot around each of her carefully-placed footfalls. The oranged sky outlined her bulky frame as airborne copper dust pushed and pulled at her tired body. She was regretting the rash, confident decision she’d made to patrol on foot.

A shape suddenly shadowed the glaring natural light and K. automatically reacted. In less than a second, laden as she was, she’d assumed a fighting crouch facing the unknown risk from the West. She breathed heavily beneath the kerchief, fogging her vision with each exhalation.

It was only a landform. Her heartbeat slowed in much less time than it had accelerated.

In fact, she knew this rock. It was a sort of gateway to an area they’d nicknamed The Graveyard. Beyond the tall Stele lay a carefully silent sort of valley decorated with small, oddly-placed stones. When K. and her team had first encountered the area, outlining its features by swinging desert-dusted beams, they’d all been struck by a creepy cemetery familiarity.

Cutting through The Graveyard also shaved five minutes off her trek to the rendezvous butte. K. looked at its shady entrance, then glanced toward the area she could go in order to intentionally not walk through there. Up a scrambling red-rock slope and down through a very wide, open area of squat, wide rocks they’d named Downtown ran her longer option.

The sun seemed to sink more quickly. Graveyard it was.
Readjusting straps once again to cover for the unaccountable fluttering in her stomach, K. stalked determinedly into the tiny valley.

Red-yellow motes magically suspended among the headstone dirt and stoneforms K. suddenly remembered. The whole valley reminded her of an old toy her grandfather had let her play with decades ago. Whenever she had shaken the glass ball in a pudgy hand, swirling white pieces had danced and then floated slowly back down upon a small, smiling child on a sled.

The badlands were no winterscape, however. K. felt she was tiptoeing through the polar opposite of a cheerful, safe sledding holiday. The dead, hot air was oddly still in The Graveyard, but still omnipresent. The particles may have been suspended in this sudden wind shelter, but they never disappeared either.

K. felt a small pulse from her chest-mounted sensor. Her heartbeat increased once again as natural terror primed her body for action. That sensor could only activate when it sensed movement of a living thing –other than her and her team members. K. increased her pace, sweeping her view around and attempting to keep her back to the randomly-placed rocks.

The pulse grew stronger as she neared the center of The Graveyard. K. tried desperately to see what was triggering it. She peered from one shadow to another in the dimming evening red-orange that barely penetrated her current location. Her mind constantly tricked her in the unfamiliar crowd of stones and sweeping sands. Imagination aside, everything appeared empty.

She continued her slow, hyper-sensitive, circular tread to the opposite side of The Graveyard. The pulse grew faint, and died. If nighttime and her ride were not so imminent, K. would be required to search until the source had been found. Fortunately, she thought, the rules clearly stated that no parties were to be on The Badlands after sundown. She could thank P. Brown for that, if he had still been around to thank.

K. stalked up the sandy incline exit, trying to keep everywhere in sight –especially the area she’d just left. She still saw no movement. Another sensor, one near her wrist, began to vibrate instead. Looking up, she saw the butte just ahead and to the right. Her wrist sensor indicated that a vehicle was nearby, hopefully the one carrying J. Smith.

Despite the landscape and unnatural gravity, K. increased her pace. She came out into the buffeting wind and tinted sunlight once again. The sun really was dropping quickly, as it always did when teetering on the edge of night. She could hear an offroad motor rumbling, even over the overpowering shrillness of moving air.

The pulse on her chest began again, very faintly. Stumbling in surprise, K. turned back to The Graveyard. No, she told herself and her trained senses. No, she did not see light in that vale. And yet, something that was not orange, not the setting sun, and not just a rock was moving. In fact, it was moving nearer. Quickly.

Like dreams where she tried to run and felt instead like she was slogging through mud, K. tried desperately to sprint the few hundred feet to where she knew Smith was waiting. Sunset sand particles flew from her muted, skittering footsteps. Her view was again fogged and unfogged with her heavy breathing. The jeeplike transport was there around the bend; Smith turned her direction.

He stood suddenly; yelled in surprise. She knew better than to look behind, but real or imagined noises pursuing told her she wasn’t going to make it to that passenger seat.

She looked up at Smith again, noting his suave, steady figure. He was the only one she knew who didn’t resemble a rambling, bloated marshmallow in his desert suit. Tiredly, she saw he had raised something. She was nearly to the rear tire when she realized he held their one allowable defense since Command had limited firearms to lower ranks two years previously.

K. heard the small *fzzzz* noise of the tiny laser pistol and watched, distantly, from some other place, as it floated over her left shoulder and made contact with something directly behind her.

“Aiiieargghhhhhgggggguuggh!” Something inhuman reacted.

K. reached the side of the transport. Smith dropped his gun to drag her panting form onto the seat, then immediately sat and gunned the engine. They shot forward in the dying twilight, scattering badland sand and rock sharply outward from the squealing tires.

Bracing herself unsteadily against the jouncing framework, K. realized she’d made it. Still breathing heavily, she turned to the dark outline of her teammate. He stared ahead, his face determined.

“Thank you, Jim,” she said, though first names were against protocol. Rules were irrelevant now.

Inspector Mère

“Now let me get this straight,” Inspector Mère drawled, as she extracted a pencil and notepad from an inside pocket. “You say you were nowhere near the accused at the time?”

She peered down at the small man, her left ear raising as her left eyebrow lifted in a questioning expression. She pursed her lips and waited.

“Well, no, I didn’t say I wasn’t by him. I said he came up to me when I was working, and then he shoved me down and said I took his Lego piece.” Imploring eyes raised to Mère’s face, innocence emanating from the diminutive body.

“Hmmm,” Mère supplied. She made a note. “So, you were near the accused, yet you did nothing to provoke him?” The question wrote itself across her features yet again.

The accuser paused to consider. “Ye-e-e-es,” he slowly replied.

“Mmm-hmm,” the inspector noted aloud, as her pencil noted her observations on her pad. Scratch, scratch, scratch, it said.

“Thank you for your testimony. You may be dismissed,” she finally instructed, to excuse the fidgeting youth. He stopped kicking his own toes and ran out of the room.

“Next, please,” she announced to the door he had exited through. Another young man came in, adjusting his clothes and face.

“And, what testimony can you provide?” Inspector Mère inquired. On her paper, she wrote Accused, and underlined it. Then she stuck the end of the pencil barely between her lips and studied his face intently.

“I was playing downstairs and saw that he,” the accused paused, to point toward the open door, “That he had messed up my sets again. I came upstairs to talk to him, and he smiled at me and wouldn’t show me what was in his pocket.” He took a deep breath, then continued with, “And he stuck his tongue out at me.”

“I did not!” Piped a voice from the hall.

“Did so!” Retorted the youth in front of her.

“That’s enough,” Mère loudly stated, across their continued volley of accusations. An uncomfortable cease-fire silence fell. She looked at the accused, closely. He seemed to be intently working on a neutral facial expression.

“So, your statement reads that you attempted conversation with your accuser, that he refused to show you evidence, and that he mocked you.” The inspector looked at his face as she read and wrote, ensuring that all information was correct and met his approval.

He considered, then nodded.

“Accuser, please return. It is time for my report and judgment,” Mère called.

The first young man sidled back inside the room, evidently from a waiting place just outside the doorway. He walked forward hopefully, confidently. He stopped and stood near the other youth, just beyond his arm’s reach.

“I have listened to both accounts of the incident, and have made my decision,” Inspector Mère began. “Since descriptions varied, I have no choice but to assume error with each.”

The boys began complaining immediately; but she held up a hand, and a stern face. The noise eventually quieted; mutinous expressions waited for her to continue.

“Eric,” Mère addressed the accuser, “You were innocently working, then were physically assaulted by the accused.” She studied young Eric, who appeared slightly confused. “You were not doing anything, and Tom pushed you,” she translated, tapping the pencil against the open notepad. Eric’s face cleared and he nodded. Tom’s face clouded.

“Tom,” Mère turned to the accused, “You uncovered evidence of property damage, sought restitution, and were denied.” She studied her notes, then added, “And were insulted with a rude facial gesture.” Raising her gaze past the paper to meet Tom’s gaze, she was met with his somewhat suspicious nod.

“Therefore, Eric, you are instructed to turn out your pockets.” Inspector Mère said abruptly to the first boy. Surprised into action, he reached into the pockets of his jeans. Making an unreadable expression; he withdrew a blue rubber band, gum wrapper, half a plastic army man, two pennies, a smooth garden pebble, and two red Lego bricks attached by a blue hinge piece.

“That’s mine!” Exploded from Tom, who shot a hand out to take the Legos immediately. Mère was forced to intercede, stepping forward between them and retrieving the pieces herself.

“The evidence speaks, Eric,” she told Eric reprovingly. Lacking the sense to appear guilty, Eric pouted a glare in response.

“Now, Tom,” Mère said to the other, depositing three Legos into his hand, “You are required, by law, to make verbal restitution for injuring a family member.” She looked expectantly at Tom, waiting. Behind her back, Eric imitated her countenance, including the same raised eyebrows.

It was Eric’s turn to glower. He gladly did so, till he caught Inspector Mère’s eye. He looked down. “Sorry,” he mumbled to his hands.

Mère studied one child, then the other. “Both parties may be excused, on the condition that each promises to adhere to family guidelines of behavior,” she instructed to each disgruntled face. Quietly, tensely, the boys broke away and returned to their previous tasks.

Inspector Mère sighed, closed the notepad, and pocketed it with her pencil.

“Case closed,” she declared.

Cafeteria Plan

“Next!” An average-sized man of medium hue lifted his neutral expression from his clipboard to the never-ending line of anxious, excited, impatient adults. A woman shuffled eagerly past him, and he made a mark on his paper.

I was nearly there. I could read a few words on his data sheet whenever he absently swung the clipboard down to his side. The information wasn’t entirely intelligible to me, but was some distraction from the endless waiting. And this was the Express Line.

Soon, I counted three people in front. Then, two. Then, one. The man didn’t even need to say, “Next,” and I was at his elbow. His face may have finally registered a different expression, but it was almost too fleeting to tell for certain. His right hand pointed to the dark hallway, his left gripped the clipboard, his eyes scanned his list.

I moved forward, finally. The wait felt interminable, though I knew I had only stood for about eight months. I had watched others be directed to the Ten Year Line, or even be turned away with a dismissive, heartless shake of an administrative head. I had reminded myself of these facts whenever impatience had crept in.

The hallway opened into a large room. In here, the walls were bare and curved upwards to meet in a peak high above my head. The floor was a clean, nondescript, waxed laminate reminiscent of the kitchen floor of my childhood home. Glass-fronted serving areas lined the far wall, and the room was full of queuing people. Chattering, shuffling human noises were amplified in the reflective, unadorned space.

At least this line moved more quickly, I noticed. Perhaps that was due to more workers attending to everyone. As I watched, a man at the start of the counters took a carrier from the stack. Pushing it along the grooved metal track, he stopped briefly at each opening and spoke with a helper there. Soon, he had his order complete and was walking away peering closely at it. He had finished in roughly five minutes.

I stepped forward after the woman in front of me did. She kept bobbing up on her toes, though she was only a bit shorter than the man in front of her. Whenever a new person started his order, her eyes followed his progress closely, hungrily. I realized that she had to be at least fifteen years my senior, though I was not always good at guessing age. I did much better guessing which musical instrument someone had played. I studied the back of her head and her bouncing curls. Definitely in orchestra, I decided.

Very soon, it was Curly’s turn. She snatched a carrier and plunked it down eagerly on the metal. She moved as if someone might suddenly cut in front of her; her left hand gripped the handle such that Death himself would have difficulty prising it from her.

I could hear some of the words the workers asked her, but not her responses. Those string players are so soft-spoken! “Boy,” “blessing,” laughter, and something about “energy” was all I caught. She was nearing the end. I suddenly felt panic.

A woman sitting at the first opening turned my way. She looked vaguely like my favorite aunt, though without the sarcastic twist to her mouth. She nodded helpfully at the rack of baby carriers, then smiled warmly as my hands reached forward and removed one. I heard the clunk as I automatically placed it on the stainless steel track before her.

“Now, dear. This is where we decide if you get one or more. Most people get one, but you’ll need another carrier if that’s not the case.” She smiled as a slight concern settled over my features. Then, she looked at the display in front of her. A second later, she looked up and smiled again. “Just one, dear. Congratulations.” She nodded and I moved on to the left.

This space held an older man who didn’t look like anyone I knew, unless I’d seen a frog-sloth hybrid at a zoo in my youth. He smiled as well, his wide mouth nearly reaching his small ears. “Now, we get to see if you’re having a boy or a girl.” He tapped his screen, then added, “Do you have a preference?” I shook my head. I didn’t see the point of having a preference if I couldn’t actually choose. He smiled a smaller smile, then announced, “Boy! Congratulations.” He nodded and I pushed my carrier down the row.

“You get physical attributes here,” barked a woman, before I was even fully in front of her. She tapped her button and drummed the fingers of her left hand. “Small, slight build; brown eyes; brown hair-” She paused to glance up and note my dark eyes and hair, then read, “A bit pigeon-toed, attached earlobes, photoptarmosis, webbed toes, etc.” She ripped off a printed page and handed it to me. I was able to see a gray body outline with mapped notes before she snapped, “Next!”

“Here is your list of other attributes,” an airy voice said, at the next counter. The voice belonged to what had to have been the actress who played Glinda in “The Wizard of Oz.” She waved a dainty hand of sparkly nails toward my left, dismissing me as effectively as her grouchy neighbor -but somehow more politely and regally.

I barely had time to read “Precocious, indifferent, hyperactive, intelligent,” randomly from a long paragraph, before someone clearing his throat interrupted me. I looked up to see an older man, who looked like my husband’s Orthodox Mormon grandfather, looking at me sternly at about the top line of his glasses – just as my husband’s grandfather did.

His left finger ran across his display as he read along:
Congratulations on becoming a parent. Your child will now be assigned random quirks and foibles. 1. He will delight in challenge. 2. He will avoid uncomfortable situations. 3. He will finish a fight. 4. He will leave a trail wherever he goes. 5. He will be responsible. 6. He will get frustrated at correction. 7. He will seek deep relationships. 8. He will not be a picky eater. 9. He will doubt. 10. He will become hyperactive when happy, or after swallowing Benadryl. 11. He will sleep well, never for more than seven hours. 12. He will respond well to reason.

He handed another paper to me, which I numbly added to the first two. I was feeling overwhelmed. He cleared his throat again, dismissing me.

“Did you go ‘natural?'” a voice behind me asked. I turned to see a nurse holding some sort of machine.

“Um.. ” I began, taken aback. I gathered my thoughts, then said, “I was going to go as long as I could and then decide.”

“Right,” the nurse said. She had a sarcastic lift to her mouth.
“Here ya go, then,” she said, then quickly applied the end of her machine to my exposed forearm. I gasped as intense pain flashed across my midsection. Forever later, or maybe a few minutes, I straightened up and hobbled to the last window.

“Here you are, dear!” A nurse enthused, as she briskly deposited a new baby into my unencumbered right arm. “Have a nice day!” She clipped out like a perky robot, then turned to service the next customer.

I looked down at my sleeping child in disbelief.

“Exit’s over here, dear.” Another grandmother-type was pointing to the door beyond her. Sure enough, a green EXIT sign glowed over it.

I gathered my papers, carrier, and child more closely to my body. Stunned at the suddenness of responsibility, I stumbled forward, then out the door.

Mr. Right and Mrs. Wrong

“I like parks,” Tom cheerfully observed. He sat back, resting his hands supportively in the thick grass and closing his eyes in the warm spring sunshine.

“Mmm-hmmm,” Abigail responded, in a noncommittal way. She squinted into the bright light, feeling wetness seeping through the small blanket and into her jeans from the moist lawn. A slight breeze carried a tangible whiff of dog feces from somewhere nearby.

Tom turned to Abigail, opening his blue eyes to stare into her brown ones. Unfortunately, the angle of her face made the sun reflect off her glasses and he couldn’t quite see them. He shifted, then smiled as their eyes finally met and her face brightened.

“There are just so many things in life to be excited about,” Tom continued, confidently. He’d finished his first week at a new job, one he’d selected after all the companies he’d applied for offered him a position. “Like, today, for example,” he said. “It’s a beautiful Saturday, and I have you to spend all afternoon with.”

Abigail recoiled slightly at the sincere praise. She had spent that morning at yet another interview. A whole month had passed since the last company she’d worked for had decided to downsize. She found herself feeling unwanted lately after so much rejection. “Yeah,” she said, attempting to echo his positive tones. “I’m glad you planned this, Tom.”

Frowning somewhat, Tom amended, “Oh, I didn’t plan today. I just thought we could wing it.” He laughed. “We could do anything. The sky’s the limit, you know!”

The $20 bill Abigail had dusted her apartment for felt smaller in her pocket, as she considered how much sky might end up costing this afternoon.

“So what do you want to do?” Tom asked.

Oh, great, she thought, I need to say something fun and adventurous so I don’t sound like a stick in the mud. Sticks and mud were already poking at her ankles. She cast around for an idea.

She chickened out. “What do you think would be fun?” Hopefully, he’d keep it under $20.

“Well,” Tom began immediately, whipping out his cell phone, “I actually made a list.” Activating the screen, he scooted closer to Abigail so she might see the ideas he’d compiled. He still subconsciously managed to sit in a dry spot.

He read aloud as she did so silently, “Tubing down the river, going to the pier, spend the day at Six Flags, try paragliding, see a movie, ride a zipline, eating dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, rent bicycles…”

The list continued a few more lines. None of the options seemed inexpensive. None of them fit the mood Abigail was in, which was to simply sit somewhere and recuperate after an emotionally-stressful week.

She liked Tom, a lot. He was intelligent, capable, organized, and he liked her. He said he liked her. He’d truly seemed to after their last date, during that first, lingering kiss just outside her apartment building. Too bad it had been that time of the month, literally during dinner. She’d have been screwed without that spare pad in her purse.

Well, Abigail thoughtfully amended, I’d been screwed if it hadn’t been that time of the month.

Coming back to the present, Abigail realized Tom had stopped reading his list. He was looking at her expectantly.

Tom liked Abigail, a lot. She was thin, kind, laughed at his odd jokes, and seemed to like him in return. She had a great butt, and kissed well. He thought she might not feel the same as he did after they’d only kissed last time, but then she had texted him on Wednesday to ask if they were still on for Saturday. Despite his many great qualities, sometimes girls would not answer him back when he texted.

Tom waited for Abigail, his face betraying some impatience. The day was nice, but would pass quickly. They needed to make a decision and go.

He reached over casually and touched fingers. Their hearts fluttered as each intentionally shifted and held the other’s hand.

Ignoring memories of the catastrophic bicycle accident of their first date, Abigail decided to trust Tom. It could be fun.

She took a deep breath. “Scroll down your list, and I’ll point to one with my eyes closed.”

Tom looked ecstatic. “Great!” He said, activating his sleeping phone.

Abigail closed her eyes, her finger hovering over the screen. She jabbed her finger down before she could change her mind. Gingerly, she opened her eyes.

Tom peered around her nail, and read, “Paddle-boating on the lake.”

“Let’s go!” He enthused, stood, and bent to collect his shoes. Abigail stood as well, checking her backside discreetly to see how obviously the grass had affected it. Tom picked up the blanket, frowning slightly in confusion at the wet spots.

He waited for Abigail to collect her things, then held her hand once again as they headed toward the boat rental dock.

Tom had never been on a paddle boat before. This will be fun! He told himself, noting the bright orange of the boats and the warm glint of sunlight on the lake’s surface.

Abigail hadn’t been on a paddle boat since she was ten. Her father had accidentally shifted the boat too roughly and she’d fallen in. After two weeks of feeling sick, they’d taken her to the doctor and discovered she had Giardia. I won’t fall in, I won’t fall in, she repeated, in an odd sort of mantra.

They reached the sales office, and stood in line behind some giddy teenagers.

“Are you ready?” Tom asked Abigail.

“I think so,” she bravely replied.

Science has invented a pill… your spouse doesn’t want to die.

Writing Prompt:
Science has invented a pill that will cure any illness and prolong life for another twenty years, at the expense of your personality. Anyone who takes the drug will become an entirely different person, with a completely different set of interests and memories.

Your spouse is terminally ill and doesn’t want to die.

“As you can see,” Dr. Mortem concluded, “We don’t recommend Paraphenyloxomene for every layman.” He carefully cleared his throat with a polite medical cough, then continued in the same bored tone he’d been using for the past fifteen minute lecture, “I encourage you to look into the options we discussed at our last meeting before going this route.”

Finally turning his attention to Ken and I, the doctor stopped speaking. Given his tone, somewhat-slumped posture, and the fact that he was making eye contact with the wall art somewhere above our heads, I wasn’t certain Dr. Mortem actually expected a response. I began to wish the assistant was back. Then, at least, we’d have literal excuse for saying we felt like we were talking to a machine.

“Well,” I began, to help the doctor understand that we were still there, and able to speak, “We understand the risks. As I said when I first asked about it, we really wondered if you had any patients who had used it and if they thought it was worth taking.”

I saw Dr. Mortem animate slightly at my mention of “any patients” and cringed a bit inside. “I’m sorry, but we respect our patients’ privacy and I couldn’t tell you that information.” He slumped back to resting position and now studied the light switch.

I wondered why we would be charged the doctor visit for this, when I’d found out just as much doing my own research.

I looked over at Ken, who sat miserably slumped in his plastic chair that matched my own. I reached over and took his hand. As usual, he slowly, painfully rotated enough to look back. He gave me as much smile as he could muster: the effort and expression I’d always loved.

“Dr. Mortem,” I said clearly and slowly, “We understand the risks.” I turned from Ken and tried to get the doctor to meet my eye, then continued anyway, “We’re out of time, and we’ve decided to take Diversis.”

Sighing, Dr. Mortem stood and collected his tablet. He tapped the screen authoritatively a few times, frowning in the reflected glare of its filtered display. Soon, he held the device out to us. A lengthy page of legal agreement scrolled before me.

His hand shook slightly in the strain of the lightweight computer, so I relieved him of it and began reading.

“You’ll receive a copy to review at your leisure,” he intoned.

“Thank you,” I answered him, continuing to read. It was like any other medical disclaimer I’d read in my life, up until the Possible Side Effects section. I wished the researcher had livened things up a bit to alleviate the main, uncontested outcome of Diversis, but all prescriptions must have the same, dry author.

“Less common side effects include dizziness, lethargy, upset stomach, dry mouth, mild nerve pain, and weight loss.” I read first, out of interest. Everyone knew about the main effects, the ones I was avoiding even though Dr. Mortem all but tapped his foot as I tried to be thorough. I distracted myself in perusing these milder ones.

Like any human drawn to morbid news, however, my focus irresistibly pulled upward. “Main side effects include, but are not limited to: personality alteration, complete memory loss, mood swings, lack or loss of previous interests, and all effects associated with the aforementioned effects.”

“You’ll both need to sign, unless your husband has granted Power of Person to you,” Dr. Mortem supplied, nearly shifting forward with impatience. The man had lower body mass than Ken. I wondered if he ever went long distances unassisted.

Sighing, I allowed the text to scroll to the end. I hesitated, at the proverbial point of no return.

I felt a touch at my right elbow. Surprised, I turned to see Ken staring intently at me. His eyes shifted pointedly to the tablet. As wordlessly as he had been for about a month, I moved the device within his tenacious reach. If he’d had the muscle control, I was sure he would have put his tongue between his teeth the way he used to when concentrating, as Ken wrote his name as slowly and clearly as any kindergartener.

He made a slight noise as his hand dropped to his side, and I pulled the screen back. The consent for treatment line still held a space for my signature, but I stared at the blank space with dread.

I loved Ken, so much. Marriage wasn’t like the movies, though. Marriage was two people deciding to live together after initial attraction and the decision to make sharing your possessions easier. We’d had to reconnect and readjust every few years as goals, jobs, children, natural brain chemistry, and disease had sauntered in and shaken up our comfortable dynamics.

“I’ll need your signature, too, or we can’t move forward,” Dr. Mortem prompted.

Ken grunted.

Resisting my overwhelming urge to smash the whole thing to the floor, I signed my own name next to my husband’s. “Goodbye, Ken,” I whispered. I handed the tablet back to Dr. Mortem.

The demon who has haunted your family for generations…

Writing Prompt
The demon who has haunted your family for generations pays you a visit to tell you you’re next.

“Now, remember, children: Aunt Millie will be here in five minutes. No; don’t you give me that face! Robbie, don’t groan like that. You aren’t going to do that when she comes, are you? No, you’re not. Owen, get over here and let me tuck in your shirt.”

I pretended focused interest in my book as soon as Deb began talking. She always thought I couldn’t hear her, but my poor body automatically came to attention whenever her pinched nasal tone rang through the halls. If only she’d not decided to stand in the foyer to command the boys, then I could have slipped upstairs or out back.

Too late.

“Jim!” Footsteps.

“Jim, honey,” she paused behind me, gathering patience. She’d recently read a marriage book that recommended communicating in a way that made each of us feel acceptance. So far I’d had decreased yelling, but increased audible sighing.

“Jim, did you hear about your Aunt Mildred?” I heard her footsteps come around the couch, then hazily made out Deb’s body shape beyond my mystery novel. She had a hand on a hip.

“Yes?” I asked, neutrally. I shouldn’t have.

*Sigh* (That was Deb)

“I said Aunt Mildred would be here in five minutes. You’re the one who told me about it last night.” She gave me her stern face. “At eleven o’clock last night.”

My face betrayed my attempts at nonchalance as I felt it scrunch into a guilty expression. “Oh, yeah.”

I smiled sincerely up at Deb. “Thanks, Deb! I’ll go make sure the front porch looks inviting.” I got up and was outside before she could realize I had escaped. I heard another exasperated exhalation just before I pulled the door carefully closed.

A car noise nearby made me jump. I turned to look, but the offender was merely a passing VW. She wasn’t here yet.

Despite what assurances my wife gave us, I was with my boys: Aunt “Millie” was not an event to look forward to. I thought to run an errand or request an out of town convention from my boss, but knew that wouldn’t work.

My dad used to try avoiding her. But If he ran to the store, Aunt Mildred would wait. I still remembered her stiff, high-buttoned, lacy-collared form sitting disapprovingly straight in our front room chair, waiting with a stern frown for his return.

And no matter how impromptu my dad planned business trips, his dear aunt would always plan a surprise return visit the minute his car came home from the airport.

I realized now, upon reflection, that I had also heard my father ruefully exclaim, “I should have known better.” When pressed, he’d mumble something about Uncle Earl never being able to shake Mildred, either.

I frowned. Something wasn’t quite right.

A robin called to his friend from across the yard. Another bird answered cheerfully.

From inside the house, I heard a yell, scrambling feet, and “M-o-o-o-o-m!” Deb’s high tones soon followed, plus a smack that may have been something falling and not a love pat to some offender’s rear end.

Tuning it all out, I set my book on the front porch bench. I pulled my phone from my pocket and dialed.

“Hello?” My mother’s unsure voice asked, although I knew she would have seen my name on her screen.

“Hi, Mom!” I said brightly. “It’s Jim.” I paused, then joked, “Your son.”

“Oh, hi, Jim dear. How are you?” Mom said. I could hear her smile. She was always willing to play along, which made her a fun grandmother for my children.

“I’m good.” I studied the hideous flip-flop and water balloon wreath on our front door. “I was just calling to ask you a question, Mom.”

“Okay, dear. Shoot.” I could mentally picture my mother settling onto whatever chair she was near, even if she was out shopping.

I toyed with a stray balloon. “I just wondered if you could tell me about Aunt Mildred.” She didn’t respond, so I continued, “You know, is she my great aunt? Dad’s? Earl’s?” Nothing. “She’s been around for a while,” I added, teasing.

“Mom?” I asked, then frowned and looked at my phone screen. The call had dropped.

“Hello James,” a familiar female voice clearly enunciated behind me. I froze, then turned.

I hadn’t heard a car, but her suitcase sat by her feet. I hadn’t heard footsteps, though she still wore those black antique boots with the hard soles. I should have at least noticed the birds were no longer chirping.

“Au-Aunt Mildred,” I managed, pocketing my cell phone. She hated them and refused to have them in her presence.

“Yes,” she stated. Her ageless eyes bored into mine. “I’ve come, just as I promised, James. You’re next.”

Customer Service?

“And I-uh-I will all-ways love yooo-ooo-oou!” I belt out, then pause to strike a pose as the thrilling, albeit low-quality notes continue bravely on through the overhead speaker.

“Sharon, report to customer service. Customer waiting,” rudely cuts off the rest of Whitney’s (muted) boisterous tones.

I frown, and try to remember what I was doing on this aisle, before grabbing a random shelf item to sing into. I appear to be in the Clearance section. I am still holding my makeshift microphone.

“What the -” I think to myself, looking more carefully at my hand. It seems to be a tube full of glittering solution. I thought it was Princess-themed body lotion for girls or something, but now I see impossible phenomena: swirls of color float sporadically inside the bottle like miniature Northern Lights.

“Wow,” I breathe, a bit mesmerized.

“Dab. Da babba!” My infant son demands, smacking at the bottle awkwardly with his wet hands and breaking my concentration.

I smile at him. “Sorry, bub. We’re going now.” I notice I’ve picked up the crazy parent tendency to talk to my child, even though I am certain he doesn’t know what I say. I shrug. Maybe, I hope he does. Maybe I’m really just telling myself.

Absently, I allow him to pull the sparkle tube into his hands and I push the cart down the aisle.

“Squeee!” He excitedly screams, shaking his new toy. He tries to eat it.

“Now, Sam,” I begin, about to lecture a ten-month-old on the dangers of foreign paint.

“May I help you?” A man asks. I look up and see an oddly-dressed store associate. He looks as though he took his blue uniform vest home and embellished it with tassels at the corners. In fact, dangling fringe seem to be his thing; since there are also tassels on his slippers and his hat, and he sports a goatee.

“Whatever,” I think to myself. “They are scrambling for employees right now.” I smile at the strange man. Aloud, I answer, “No, thanks.”

He bows. “I was speaking to the Young Master,” Odd Associate clarifies, gesturing toward my son. “I didn’t understand his request.”

“Huh?” I ask, my face showing confusion. Perhaps this associate wasn’t all there. I mentally plan an exit strategy.

“Ah,” Odd One says. “I forgot to introduce myself.” He straightens up, smooths down his clothes and announces, “I am Amijd, Genie of Akmand. I am here,” he bows again, “to grant your wishes.”

If my face showed some concern with the confusion at first, I am certain concern -or, more accurately, alarm- is all I express now. I begin backing towards the other end of the aisle.

Amijd looks surprised. “I did try,” he hastily adds. He reaches behind him and pulls out a squeegee. I stop, and stare at it, and him.

He sees the look, and explains, “Young Master asked for a ‘squeee!'” Amijd looks apologetic. Sam gets excited. “Squeeee!” Sam squeals again, dropping the effervescent container and reaching slobbery hands out for the window tool instead.

Amijd steps forward a bit in reflex of the falling bottle, but it lands harmlessly next to Sam in the cart basket. Amijd appears relieved, and he instead places the squeegee into Sam’s hands.

I look at the overly-friendly Middle-Eastern man, standing expectantly near us and smiling. I look at Sam, trying to eat the corners of a black plastic sponge. I look at the swirling colors of the dropped toy.

Still eyeing “The Genie of Akmand,” I carefully pick up the bottle and wipe it off on my jeans. Amijd, if possible, looks even happier. He bows to me. “What wish do you command?” He asks.

“Well,” I begin. If there is any truth to this wish thing, it seems worth it to try. I look around the store, at the merchandise in my cart, and at Sam. “Well, how about, ‘I wish to have all of my purchases paid for today?'”

Amijd’s face clouds in concentration, then he waves his hands and says, “Done!” He looks hopeful. I look down at my basket. Nothing seems to have changed.

“Um. Okay,” I say. I decide to go to the checkouts, in case something looks different there. I turn and walk that way. The genie follows, his slippers softly shuffling across the waxed titles.

We reach the checkout, not without some odd looks from other shoppers. The checker seems unimpressed, though I’m sure she’s seen some odd getups working here. She scans my items in a bored manner. “That’ll be $65.83,” she says, looking out the window.

I glare at Amijd, who changes his pleased look for concern. I pull out my credit card and slide it through the machine. “I even had to pay for that squeegee,” I tell myself.

“Have a good day,” Checker automatically intones, as she hands me my receipt and starts scanning the next person’s items.

I gather up my bags and start walking to the doors. Amijd skips right along.

Once outside, I stop. I look at him. “What the heck?” I ask. “I still had to pay for everything -even Sam’s ‘wish’ you gave him!”

The genie is surprised. “I granted that everything was paid for,” he defends. I think about that. He is technically right. I groan. I didn’t want this kind of wishing, the kind where you might get dropped in an ocean if you don’t specify where you want to be when given a long-lost treasure.

“That’s not what I expected,” I tell the smiling tassel man. He looks thoughtful for a bit, then says, “Ah. I will try harder. But,” he adds, “I may only grant you two more wishes.”

“Of course,” I think. I look down at Sam, who has successfully gnawed a strip of the sponge away from the plastic. I try to think. “Any wishing for more wishes?” I ask. Amijd shakes his head, his tassel swaying across its hat and his head.

I think some more, hard. “Okay.” I pause. “I wish for our car to be paid off, but not by me, my husband, or any relative.” I look at Amijd as he does his frowning and hand-waving. He looks up. “Done!” He announces.

Just then, a crossover SUV peals into the parking lot. I catch a glimpse of a blonde woman applying lipstick, with a cell phone clenched between her cheek and shoulder. Half of a second later, she misjudges her turn into the stall and smashes into the side of my car.

I stand there, aghast. “Amijd!” I yell. “Damid!” Sam repeats, giggling. I watch the woman get out, still holding her phone. She looks at what remains of my car, from different angles. She seems to be trying to find a position at which the damaged vehicle does not look completely smashed in.

I might suspect coincidence, if not for the affably pleased oddity standing near me, and the fact that Blondie seems to have no damage to her car. I check the parking lot for any other random maniacs, and cross with my cart to the accident scene.

The blonde woman is still walking about, her black heels clicking loudly on the asphalt. “Hey!” I say. She stops, and looks up at me. I can see that she didn’t finish her makeup job.

“Oh my! I am so sorry!” She says, her apology fighting to show through the botox in her face. “I don’t know what happened, dear!” She finally detaches the cell phone, and flips her hair over a shoulder.

“You call the police, honey,” she points at me. Somehow she has already extricated her insurance information. “They always take a while to get here, so I’ll just pop in the store and be right back for my statement,” she says as she hands me her card.

“Thanks, dear. Sorry again.” I watch her blonde hair and black shawl walk away to the echoing sounds of her shoes. The store doors close behind her.

“One more wish, Master,” I hear near my elbow. I look from the toll-free phone number of Blondie’s car insurance company to the expectant, goateed man. I’m considering calling the police for two reasons now.

I have the feeling Amijd won’t leave till I’ve spoken my last wish, though -as tempting as arrest sounds right now. So, I try to think of a harmless wish as I dial the number to report accidents.

I’m put on hold.

“Okay, Amijd,” I say, holding my own phone with my shoulder. “I wish to lose twenty pounds.” He mumbles and waves his hands as the operator finally comes on the line.

“Hello. Yes, I’d like to report an accident,” I say. I glance around, happily noticing that Amijd is gone. I look back at my car and say, “Yes, we’d like an officer. It’s at- wait! Where’s Sam?!”

Hello, My Name Is

“Welcome to our little engagement.” A middle-aged woman smiled up at me. She was dressed like a 50’s commercial of a housewife at an evening ball. “Please, find your name tag and join the group.” She gestured to the table in front of her with a well-veined hand ending in Avon-pink fingernails. Her smile was practiced and her actions just slightly exaggerated.

I glanced over my shoulder, expecting to see a camera crew. But, no; there was just a normal wall, various potted artificial trees posted at two unobtrusive doors, and an empty, dark hallway beyond the open doors.

I turned back to the white tablecloth of name tags with their friendly hostess. She smiled graciously again, waiting. Looking down at the options, I was not certain which name was mine. What sort of party am I at? I wondered as I read over them.

“Perhaps,” the woman began, reaching forward and brushing slightly against her rose corsage, “This one, dear.” She picked up a sticker and proffered it to me in the light grip of those nails. I took it, read it, nodded slightly at her expectant look, and adhered it to my chest. She held out her hand for the backing, and smiled up at me as she disposed of it somewhere behind the rectangular table and her folding chair.

“Refreshments will be served in half an hour. Please enjoy yourself before then.” I had been dismissed. She stared at the doors behind me, where I could hear the sounds of more guests approaching. I took one last look at her vintage updo; large, starburst earrings; and rouged cheek. Then, I stepped around the table and into the room beyond.

Intentionally-dim lighting shadowed a small open area with more of those artificial ficus clumped artistically round the walls. A few other women were standing idly: one, drawing a drink near a white tableclothed food area; two chatting with feigned reactions of hilarity at the opposite end of the table; a final woman looking pensive as she meditated on the fine silk leaves of the east wall’s foliage.

I walked slowly toward the drink area as well, though I was not really thirsty. I tried to walk in a way that looked graceful and confident. I knew that I really looked barely-stable and uncertain. As if to make that point, my left toe caught on the floor and I stumbled somewhat. No one seemed to notice and I successfully drew closer.

I stopped and examined the table settings, using that as an excuse to also smooth down the cotton dress I seemed to be wearing. The punch and its drinker were to my left; the chatting women and plant-studier were to my right. A pile of clear plastic plates sat in front of me and various stratifications of empty cake plates, platters, and bowls led eventually to the conversing couple.

“Hi! I’m Confident in Public but Not in Intimate Relationships,” an unexpected voice to my left said. She was a perky and -yes- confident voice. I envied the self-assured tone and slight Southern drawl of her enunciations. Turning to see what face was associated with this introduction; I was greeted by a mid-length, auburn bob curling slightly around a friendly, open face. The hair and face were attached to a slender woman sporting a dress much like my own, in a bold shade of red instead of my pastel blue. The exact words she greeted me with were written boldly on the white square sticker attached above her left breast. She was the punch-drinking woman, and was standing next to me with a hand outstretched expectantly. Her other hand was holding a cup full of red drink.

Not having another obvious option, I took her hand. She applied just the right amount of pressure; a grip that was comfortably, confidently tight but also soft and gentle. “Ah,” she nodded, as I released her tight grip quickly, “I see.” She had read my name tag. I blushed and moved my eyes away from her direct gaze. I pretended interest in the laughing women, who took that exact moment to pause awkwardly in their falsely familiar exchange.

Confident took a sip from her cup, and studied the other women with me. She swallowed and nodded toward them. “That’s More Creative Than Logical and Talks Too Loud. They’re fun. You should go introduce yourself.” She studied my tag again, and generously added, “I’ll go with you.”

She started forward purposefully, and I trailed behind. I tried to imitate her gait without looking like the circus monkey I was certain I resembled.

“Hi, Creative. Hi, Loud,” Confident greeted the women. They smiled and turned to Confident expectantly. “Anything happen while I’ve been gone?” She teased. They laughed; Loud’s a noisy, irritating imitation of sincere gaiety.

“I’d like you to meet my new friend,” Confident gestured to me, standing hesitantly to her right. I saw their smiles fade a few levels as their focus turned on me, then a few more as they made out the words on my sticker.

“Hi,” I said, trying to sound like I hadn’t noticed the dimming effect I’d had. A bit too late, I held out my hand to shake theirs. They reciprocated, in turn. I knew my grip was not as perfect an act as my “friend’s,” but I attempted to imitate the feel of hers as I touched hands with silvery-clad Creative and orange-dressed Loud. Having completed this ritual, we all stood around idly wondering what to do next.

“Well,” Confident supplied finally, “Don’t let me interrupt you two.” She smiled and winked at them. “I know you were having a great chat just now.” The others looked relieved, smiled back at her, and nodded in agreement.

“Oh, yes,” Loud answered emphatically. I saw Creative step back very slightly though she still looked at her companion with pretended pleasure. “Creative here was just telling me about a very funny friend she met back on her first day of college.” She laughed annoyingly again; Creative joined in, more quietly and less annoyingly.

“Sounds great!” Confident responded, adding an assured giggle of her own. I smiled weakly. “We’ll go pop over to see Introvert. Then maybe you can tell us all about it when we come back.” They nodded agreeably (“Sounds good!” Loud exclaimed.) and we continued on to the artificial plant and a quiet brunette still appearing to examine it.

“Hello, again, Innie,” Confident said as we approached the last woman’s area. A petite, long-haired woman of some mid-age turned slowly to blink at us through round eyeglasses. She smiled slightly and intelligently at the space between us.

Confident failed to catch Introvert’s eye. Shrugging, she laid her punch-free hand on my shoulder in a friendly manner. “My friend here just arrived so I brought her over to meet you.”

The small woman turned her body to me, and I was able to read her label: Introverted Intellectual. I smiled. This was always a sort I could speak with, at least somewhat. The conversation depended on whether I had any experience with the topics she had, and how conversant she felt at the time.

As I mused, Introverted frowned and studied my name. I felt a compulsion to turn or hide it, and she was only the fourth person to be introduced to me.

Introverted’s small frame stayed slightly hunched forward, almost seeming to give to the weight of her hanging hairstyle. Her head and glasses pointed upwards to meet my eyes. “I’m pleased to meet you,” she told me softly, sincerely.

“Pleased to meet you,” I replied, pleasantly surprised but also cautious. I knew no one was actually pleased to meet me.

I caught an action from my peripheral vision: Confident taking another casual drink to fill the silence. “Ah,” she began. Introverted and I politely turned her direction. “I see some more ladies have arrived.” Confident nodded toward the door and we looked as well. A party of four or five newcomers was clumped around the hostess’ table, plus two more just through the door. The green, pink, gray, turquoise, brown, white, and yellow movement was a garden of blowing flower tops.

“I’ll just pop over and settle these folks in,” Confident continued. She smiled at me; I timidly returned it. She smiled at Introverted; she was still studying the entranceway. “Don’t worry, dear. I’ll be back again to introduce y’all later.” Confident walked off confidently, ready to bring her necessary order to those tangled weeds.

Introverted and I relaxed in the brief silence and shared solitude. I wondered how many more people I’d have to meet, and who would have to meet me, before the distraction of food.