Pandora’s Box

“What’s your favorite constellation?”

Lek was baffled. “I never thought about it. What’s yours?”

“It’s probably cliché but Orion.”

He laughed; he often found himself laughing at her. “Why is that cliché?”

“Because I feel like everyone would say that.” Dory leaned close, whispering, “You have to keep an eye on his belt. The gremlins will move the stars.”

He slid his hand into hers. He had always imagined what it would be like to walk with her on the beach, as they were now doing. The beach was so open, so public, at contrast with their secret relationship. “Why do the gremlins move the stars?”

She cocked an eyebrow before answering, “To make planes crash.”

He loved how she treated every topic with equal seriousness. Her response to the recent terminations at work had been parallel to this discussion of gremlins. She had a passion for the mundane and could make an emergency trivial.

“Gremlins are killers,” she said decisively, squeezing his hand for emphasis. A thrill ran through him as he imagined her hand squeezing other parts of him. He could smell her above the ocean, the sour smell of her sweat that brought him to life. The first time he had been close enough to smell her, that first time on the factory floor, he had known that she would change his life forever.

Dory felt so new but familiar. She felt right. It was as if he had been hungering for something his entire life but the banquet that had been laid before him had never been adequate. Then he had tasted her. And now he could feast on her daily. He had seen to it.

“It’s something we should know about each other…favorite constellations and things like that,” she continued. “I want to know things about you and trust that I truly know you.”

He smiled in a way that he believed she found charming. “I am happy to tell you anything you want. I don’t have secrets from you.”

“We are the secret,” she said and dropped his hand.

Her voice sounded funny. He tried to remember how it had sounded on that first day, when she had been brought around by the supervisor and introduced to everyone. She had smiled at him, and he had known the smile was just for him, but now he couldn’t remember her saying anything. It vexed him that he couldn’t remember.

“Look.” She pointed to the water where two dark figures were creating arcs along the surface.

He smiled. “Dolphins.”

“One for each of us.” She sighed. “Spirit animals.”

“And what do dolphins represent?”

She smiled mischievously. “Lust.”

“That is not true. Our relationship—”

“—is based on what?”

He wanted to argue that lust was a type of love and there were many ways to show love. He leaned in to sniff her hair. It didn’t smell like anything this time. He closed his eyes and forced the memory of her scent to become real.

“Sometimes I feel like I live only inside your mind.”

He stopped and looked at her, really looked at her. He loved the small freckle on the right side of her nose. He loved the way her hair curled over her ears, and the shiny star earrings that dangled from her lobes. He loved that her eyes were a sparking green…or were they a deep brown?

“That makes me sound crazy. Do you think I am crazy?”

She didn’t answer. She kept watching the dolphins. He envied how free the dolphins were. They could frolic as they wished. They could hide in the depths or bask in the sun when desired. They basically lived in two worlds, something he had been unsuccessfully doing.

When the layoffs had been announced, he stopped caring about keeping her a secret. He realized how transient everything was, how temporary.  He wanted the world to know everything. He wanted for their love to be remembered.

He took her hand again. The warmth surged through him. He felt it everywhere, radiating out from their conjoined hands. He wanted to make a joke about their burning love but thought the better of it. He didn’t want to say anything that would cause her to pull her hand away again.

“The gremlins never get in trouble,” she mused.

“For moving the stars?”

“For causing fatalities. It wouldn’t be a crime to simply move the stars. It is the impact on human life.”

“Some lives are more important than others. If the layoffs taught us anything—” He noticed a small drop of blood on her earlobe.

“Did you scratch yourself?” he asked but she ignored him. She was looking at the dolphins again and smiling as if they were the only things that mattered. Her happiness legitimized what they were doing. It justified what he had done.

He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. He reminded himself of how he had tasted every part of her. He repeated words inside his head that described the way she tasted. If he said the words enough times, they became real.

The water was glowing, and the dolphins were oddly stationary. Usually, they hunted at dusk.

“Dory?” He loved saying her name. It reminded him of the word “adore.” He squeezed her hand and another shock of warmth surged through him. “I don’t think the dolphins are playing anymore.”

“You made them stop.” Her voice was different again, a new voice. She wiped the blood from her earlobe with her free hand. “Why did you do it? Why do you make everyone hurt?”

He looked at the sky. He couldn’t understand why the stars weren’t visible yet. The sun should have set. The iridescent pinks and purples appeared as a frozen streaming video, like time was standing still. The water was an explosion of oranges and red.

She frowned. “You want to hide in the darkness. You can’t hide anymore.”

“I am not hiding,” he protested, “I am doing the opposite of hiding. I made a declaration. I made things right.”

As he said this, the sun dipped below the horizon, yet there was an extraordinary brightness to the sky. And smoke. He looked at Orion’s belt and a star seemed to be missing. He turned his head to warn Dory, but she wasn’t there. She had never been there.

The sun crawled up the sky like an alpinist climbing the sheer face of a mountain. This was not a sunrise; this was a reversal. The dolphins swam back into frame from left to right. They slapped the water with their tails and Lek realized that it was a firehose slapping the concrete that was making the noise.

He wasn’t on the beach; he was sitting on a gritty curb and the brightness was the flames engulfing the factory.

He looked down to his hand that was covered with second degree burns. It radiated with warmth. In his other hand, he held an earring that dangled a silver star from its hook. He turned the earring over, puncturing his thumb with the hook, hoping to draw blood to mingle with the drops that were encrusted on the jewelry.

“How many people were inside?” The police officer was asking the floor supervisor. They were close enough to Lek for him to overhear. He had been told to stay where he was. He was in no condition to move. The hand that held the earring was cuffed to a pole, and he had been hit by his own shrapnel. They would take him in after they made sure that they had not missed any survivors.

“Twenty-four. The ones unaccounted for…” The supervisor began listing names for the officer. Lek perked up when he mentioned Dory. “Those last three: Dory, Rodrigo, and Esteban, they didn’t really speak English. I don’t think they have family here to notify, anyway. They came together, like left their country and came here. They kept to themselves.”

“And what part of the building were they in at the time of the explosion?”

“The basement, near the boiler.”

“And him?” The officer was pointing at Lek.

“He wasn’t working. He…had been fired. Misconduct. He must have snuck in; security had been told to keep him off the premises. We had reason to believe…” The supervisor ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “It’s like we knew something like this would happen.”

“You can confirm he was inside the building?”

“Yes. He was seen; he was identified. Someone said they saw him…grab that woman’s, grab Dory’s earring, and then run out. And then the explosion.”

“He went straight to the woman and then the explosion?”

The supervisor nodded.

“Were they in a relationship? Was there any chance they were in a relationship?”

The supervisor turned his head to meet Lek’s eyes. “I don’t think she had any clue who he was.”

A Rash of Karens

“You should have your nametag in clear view where we can see it. “

Captain Rick untucked his nametag knowingly. He understood that this type of passenger liked to collect names for complaints. The fan on the airboat was not quite loud enough to cover the women’s conversation, which was an obnoxious combination of denigration of the local culture and denigration of him.

To drown them out—and the idea of drowning them was appealing—Captain Rick began his speech. As he discussed his native Florida, the women continued to speak to each other, acting as if his words did not matter. As if he did not matter.

These two were absolutely perfect.

As he knew his speech by rote, he was able to observe the invasive species in front of him. Both women were wearing dresses and shoes that were impractical and incompatible with an airboat ride. Their arms were laden with bracelets, their hands heavy with rings. But he was not interested in robbing them; he was interested in them for another purpose.

Captain Rick knew how to get their attention. He was confident he would be able to get them to say the things that would confirm his choice with the warden. The women did not know about the cameras that recorded each trip. They did not know that certain passengers were selected for a higher purpose.

They would never know.

Captain Rick began to cover the topic of the negative impact that humans have on the Everglades, especially relating to the introduction of invasive species.

Some invasive species are better than others, he thought. He knew that the foreign reptiles still had something to offer in the way of tourism and trading. Soon, these women would also have something to offer.

He continued, “Some of the alien species include Burmese pythons, several types of boas, and Nile crocodiles.”

“Aliens?” The woman on the left, who he heard the other call “Brenda,” asked.

“No, ma’am, alien species.”

Brenda’s friend leaned toward her but spoke loudly enough that the leaning was unnecessary. “Like that man we saw fishing at the marina. You know right away if someone is alien.”

“He definitely did not belong,” Brenda agreed.

“And boat slips are for boats, not fishing.” The friend turned to Captain Rick, suddenly wanting to include him. “How do we report that? Can you reach the sheriff or constable or whatever you call them down here? You have one of those.” She pointed to his belt. “Walkies.”

“These are for official communication and emergencies only, ma’am.” And for other types of communication that these women did not need to be privy to.

“You don’t think this should be escalated up the ranks to ‘official’?” She turned to Brenda. “He is disregarding my right as a concerned citizen.”

Brenda pulled herself up, looking like a hen stretching. “Citizenship confers power, sir.” The word “sir” was venom-soaked. “We are citizens.” She wiggled her hand back and forth between her friend and herself. “Those…men…the ones we saw fishing on the boat slip, obviously are not. If they were to ask for the walkies, then it would only make sense that those types are denied.”

He nodded. Not because he agreed with the sentiment, but because these two were so perfect. The last few tourist groups had not taken the bait. Thus, they had not been treated as bait. He peered over his shoulder to make sure that the camouflaged camera was capturing this exchange.

“You know, my husband—” the friend began, but Captain Rick cut her off by pointing toward the water.

“If we are quiet, we might be able to get up close to those crocs,” he instructed.

“Why would we want to do that?” Brenda asked, wrinkling her nose as if confronting a bad scent.

“So, you can tell your friends back home,” Captain Rick suggested.

The ladies laughed. “This was more of a…lark,” the friend explained, “we would never tell anyone that we climbed onto this…old boat to skim along some smelly water. We didn’t even tell our husbands.”

Brenda laughed louder. “Our friends think we are in Turks and Caicos. I mean, Florida? Who vacations here?”

“Rednecks.” her friend told her. “It’s the redneck Riviera or something.” She turned her attention back to Captain Rick. “We only came because our husbands had business.”

“I understand. But since you are on the boat anyway, you might want to see some of these species up close.”

“Not really.” Brenda sniffed. “We can go back. We had our fun…I guess.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. Captain Rick was thrilled; she was looking directly toward the camera. The warden would love this.

“I shouldn’t mention this…” If only the women had known that Captain Rick had been trained in the theater long before he retired and dedicated his time and energy to protecting wildlife and helping the state of Florida. “I guess…no…it wouldn’t be right…”

The women were only half-interested. He continued regardless.

“I had a group of ladies on this same boat earlier this morning. When we got to this same spot, this very spot…”

Brenda scratched her shoulder where a mosquito had been snacking earlier. The thought of her being snacked on made Captain Rick smile. He lowered his smile when she asked, “What is it?”

“The one lady leaned right there.” He pointed to a sand bank a few feet to the left of where they were currently idling. “She wanted to see the wildlife.”
Brenda rolled her eyes again. “So?”

“Well, she…it really is the funniest thing, but she didn’t find it funny, of course…”

“Listen, either you tell us what happened, or you turn this boat around right now—” He was no longer sure which one was speaking as they both whined at the same frequency and his mind was already a few steps ahead.

“She had been wearing a bracelet. A real pretty one, and fancy too…it had all these diamonds on it. Her friend said it was a…Carter?”

The women gasped in unison. “Cartier?”

“That’s it. That’s the one. By gum if it didn’t come loose right when she was leaning and plop into the water below us. We tried to find it with no luck.” He winked at the ladies. “I was hoping to come back and find it without her. You know, a secret.” He winked again.

“That’s disgusting,” the friend chastised him. “You are basically robbing the woman.” She looked around the boat while Brenda’s eyes tried to bore beneath the surface of the murky water. “I will be using that net.” She pointed to the implements behind him. He had nets and hooks and many other useful items.

He feigned surprise. He was delighted that all was going according to plan. “You want to find it?”

“Of course. You wouldn’t even know what to do with something like that. But I—” She glanced at Brenda. “I mean, we…we know what to do with that sort of thing.”

Brenda nodded. “Of course, we will look at your passenger log and see if we can track her down.”

“Of course,” the friend agreed, and Captain Rick did not have to know them well to know they were both lying. But their lies only solidified how the rest of this cruise would go.

He handed the friend the net and watched as they both leaned over the side, scooping the water uselessly. As the women teetered precariously, Captain Rick could see the water parting on both sides of the boat. The crocs were used to this by now. They knew what to do, which absolved Captain Rick of having to lift a finger.

He remembered the camera and raised his hands behind the ladies’ backs, gesturing wordlessly, as if he were warning them away from the end of the boat. The women did not notice the snouts breaking the surface, but he did.

The first few times, he had needed to chum the water to get the crocs in a frenzy. They were now conditioned, and they knew exactly how to grab the women and pull them into the water. As if they had been trained.

The women screamed for help but there was nothing Captain Rick could do, not once they were being subjected to the death rolls. And the camera captured it all in case anyone came with questions.

But no one would.

Captain Rick had been right, the warden happily watched the film and agreed with the decision that had been made on the water. The warden slapped Captain Rick on the back and said, “That’s what tourists are good for, making our reptilian visitors feel at home.”

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Supernova

“I am a ticking time bomb,” Penny announced earnestly at dinner.

“That is what the doctor said?” her husband asked, “He literally told you that you were like a bomb, ready to explode at any time?” He stirred his mashed potatoes. She had made them the way she liked: clumpy and with skin. He hated them that way.

She ignored his question. She was not going to answer if it destroyed her narrative. “I am ripe, is what I mean. I could conceive at any moment. We need to be prepared.” She fashioned a few mountains of potatoes onto her plate, adding rivulets of gravy. She topped the potatoes with several large pieces of fried chicken. “I just wish my health were important to you.”

He eyed her plate but said nothing.

She loved to eat. Always had. She ate until it hurt, and she craved that painfully full feeling more than she craved food. If she weren’t in pain from overeating, she felt empty.

“Empty” might be extreme. She was often accused of being dramatic, of exaggerating. It was just that she believed in telling her story, her truth. Once she had a narrative, she stuck to it. The current narrative was that, at nearly 320 pounds, every ounce of her ached with love. And she wanted to give that love to something that was hers. Something that belonged to her.

Her own marriage did not belong to her. It had been constructed by her mother. Penny and her boyfriend had been at a flea market with her mother who had spied a jewelry stand. “This one is perfect, don’t you agree?” Her mother had pointed to a small diamond ring.  “And you won’t find another like it for that price,” she continued, putting him on the spot. There had been no proposal, no celebration, only a pre-worn ring thrust onto her finger, witnessed by tables of tchotchkes, unwanted dolls, and fabrics.

But a baby would be hers by choice and by design. She would lavish affection; she would nurture. She would give this baby the attention she had never received. Her mother could not celebrate others because she was the star of her own movie. While Penny craved food, her mother craved notice. Her mother had been a child actress, scoring a national commercial with a tagline that had been reproduced on t-shirts. She had been the picky eater whose parents found magical pancakes fortified with vitamins and minerals. The girl had eaten so many pancakes she exclaimed (with a syrup-lined mouth), “Imma ‘bout to explode!”

Sometimes people still recognized Penny’s mother. She went to conventions and sat at a table, waiting to autograph old shirts and pancake boxes for $5.00 a pop. She had always told Penny that her career had been about to hit a resurgence when she had become pregnant. She never failed to remind Penny that she was the reason she was seated at folded tables instead of being paraded across red carpets.

Penny knew this was not true and it certainly was not part of her narrative. What was true was she wanted a baby. That had been the impetus for the appointments with teams of doctors. And while she was not conceiving, her waist expanded. Her narrative told her that she was in the second trimester based on the last time her husband had managed to remain sober enough to finish.

“You are not pregnant,” her husband said.

“You are not pregnant,” the doctor confirmed. But her body told a different story. Something was definitely growing inside her. This was proven by an internal ultrasound that showed tiny, glowing specks orbiting her uterus.

“He said they look like stars,” she told her mom proudly.

“What did you expect” her mom asked, bored. “You were on the pill forever and that causes all kinds of problems.” She knew her mother was jealous because Penny had taken some control over her reproductive life.

“Stars are bad?”

“Anything that was not there originally is bad,” her mother sneered, “even a baby. Will the doctor be removing these ‘stars’ and how much will that cost? You know I was planning a cruise.”

Penny’s face burned with anger, a burn slightly less intense than the one she had begun feeling in her lower abdomen. “We have money.”

Her mother scoffed and Penny attributed this to more jealousy.

Tests could not determine the nature of the stars, nor could they ascertain where the distressing abdominal cramps were coming from. “Imma ‘bout to explode,” Penny murmured. She found it difficult to take more than a few steps without having to sit and wait, in agony, for the pain to pass.

When she could no longer pull her elastic-waist pants over her growing abdomen, Penny returned to the doctor.

“Are there more stars?” she asked as he scanned her latest ultrasounds.

“Penny, there is something…a tumor. I am going to take a biopsy and have it sent to pathology.”

“A tumor? Not a baby?” She couldn’t understand what the doctor was saying as it did not support her narrative.

“Penny, we discussed that your difficulty conceiving may be attributed to your weight, which increases each time we see you. At your size it would be dangerous and irresponsible…” she didn’t listen to the rest of his words and instead reminded herself that she would be finishing her third trimester and ready to give birth at any time, like a ticking time bomb.

The pain inside of her made Penny truly feel like a ticking time bomb. She felt full all the time even though her appetite was nonexistent. Despite eating limited bites of food here and there, the scale continued to herald higher and higher numbers. This feeling of fullness was less pleasurable than the one derived from a surplus of food. She reminded herself that there was a growing person inside of her and that the pain was worth it.

She spent most of her time in bed until she was called back to the doctor to discuss the results from pathology. She was to report to the hospital instead of the medical offices and when she arrived there were two doctors in the room. She knew this was unusual but assumed the new doctor would oversee delivery.

Her regular doctor sat on a stool that allowed for sustained eye contact. He spoke slowly and asked her to verify that she understood that the tumor was not made from her tissue or cells, that it was completely foreign.

She repeated the words obediently but had no concept of what they meant, and they were not what she wanted to hear.

The doctors nodded at each other as if working up the courage to continue. “We will be keeping you here. We want to remove the tumor surgically.”

“A c-section?” she gasped.

“No, Penny.” The other doctor approached her and laid a gentle hand on her arm. “There is no baby, only a tumor. I am afraid it is dangerous to your health to not remove it immediately.”

“You’re saying the baby is in danger, or I am in danger, or both?” she asked incredulously.

The doctors exchanged equally incredulous glances. “No baby, Penny. It is only you and you are in danger.”

She allowed them to admit her to the hospital and had them call her mother and husband to see if someone could keep her company. They found a gown large enough to cover her and left her lying on a very narrow bed, waiting for the baby that she knew to be there.

Her pain escalated. “This must be contractions,” she whispered, “the baby may come before the c-section can be performed.” The pain moved down into her bowels, and she hoisted herself out of the bed to enter the very tiny bathroom. She crouched over the toilet, feeling the worst cramps of her life. She simultaneously wanted to push and wanted to avoid the pain of pushing. She groaned and pushed as that aligned with her narrative.

Something wet slid from inside her and she looked down to see a great blob, the size of a pancake, stuck to her thigh. It was bloody and pulsating and it looked to be riddled with stars.

“Oh my…” Penny lifted the blob to her chest and cradled it. She wept and rocked the shimmering sphere in her arms. She carried it with her back to the bed, snuggling it and murmuring to it until it cracked open.

“This isn’t…what is this?” she asked the empty room, as the shell of the sphere crumbled away, exposing tiny, moving spider-like creatures.

Penny reached for her purse and retrieved the magnifying glass she had purchased at the flea market when her husband had been strong-armed into proposing. The creatures crawled over her lap and appeared to be trying to burrow into her flesh.

She heard a gasp and looked up to see her mother. “I am nursing,” Penny said proudly, while the creatures’ miniscule jaws tore into a roll of abdominal flesh.

Her mother screamed and once Penny’s condition was noted, her room became packed with medical personnel. They talked to Penny and took notes and photographs of the strange phenomenon. Penny saw her mother, backed into the corner, red with anger that Penny was now the center of attention.

And this was Penny’s new, happy narrative.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

The Sidewalk Artist

The city is my canvas. The city sidewalk in particular.

I live in a high rise, on the twelfth floor in a tiny studio condo that my parents had purchased for me. This arrangement was made so that I could remain true to my calling.

I had been stuck in a creative draught until I experienced an accident, an accident so infinitesimal that only a true artist could conceive of its significance.

I had been leaning on my windowsill, letting my condensed breath mingle with the exhaust ascending from the cars so many feet below. A large spider—he would have been more at home amongst jungle palms than on some slab of cement—unwittingly, or purposefully (one never knows with spiders), tickled the back of my hand with one of his eight legs. I swatted and he fell, turning and twisting in the air until I lost sight of him. His fall, while shorter lived than an arachnid’s already abbreviated life, was more elegant and coordinated than a professional Paso Doble: the building’s wall being his final dancing partner. Now this was art!

I dashed down the back stairwell in the hopes of finding some representation of this performance on the street below. As I bent to examine concrete, not only did I realize that any number of common stains could belong to my spider, I also noticed that no one, not one single person, had witnessed the elaborate fall and subsequent squish of the spider. I had run down twelve dizzying flights for nothing. That could not happen again.

I have always been the type to dabble in an assortment of mediums. While the large spider had been satisfying, the body mass was not adequate for the expected performance. I knew that I needed something larger, something I could watch the entire way to the bottom. The resolution is often the most important part of a performance. I also needed something that would attract attention…and fans. I needed a rat.

The performance of the rat was much greater than that of the spider. First and foremost, sidewalk voyeurs notice falling and splattering rats. It surprised me that some should simply step aside and keep walking when I provided them with such a fascinating tableau. I experimented with sending two or three rats at a time. The result was brown/yellow/red tie-dyed concrete: masterful! Yet, the pedestrians most often failed to assume their role as voyeurs and I was, as always, disappointed.

It never ceases to amaze me, what garners attention in this age. It is a mystery that billboards filled with overpaid newscasters or carcinogenic soft drinks are more eye-catching than art. TikTok videos of super mommies dancing is considered entertainment. People spend more time looking at fuzzy conspiracy shots on the internet than in museums. Consumers are starving, yet unaware that they are creatively malnourished.

I spent months with mice and rats. Snow was always a disappointment. The body shape melts, shifts, or is partially obscured before the elevator can deposit me on the street; and there is never as much blood. Sidewalk voyeurs had their vision blocked by umbrellas and hats and scarves. Like horses wearing blinders, they sloshed right through my art in their unrelenting hurry. No one ever bothered to look up and I grew bored with rodents; and, honestly, I grew lonely. What was the purpose of a creation if no one takes notice of the creator?  I had a captive audience, but they refused to assume position. I needed to shake things up.

Thankfully, true artists always experience evolution. I was no exception to this cosmic rule.

Cities are full of starving and pathetic animals. As a picture is worth a thousand words, I simply cannot begin to describe the various scenes I painted on the sidewalk so many stories below. I can confirm that, at that height, it no longer matters that cats always land on their feet.

Yet, no one noticed.

I still was not a famous artist in this big city. I have seen the most depraved things pass as art: photographs of swollen private parts, pedestrian performance art of the most vulgar sorts, mimes. It is true that we no longer appreciate great culture, our taste buds have de-evolved and man is a mindless critic. But, like any virtuoso, my compulsion to create propelled me. I would rise above the desperation of the unsatisfying blood stains, the disappointment, the lack of art.

I realized that I need a showstopper, something so large it could not be ignored. Not large in the sense of elephants and killer whales; big in terms of psychological splash. I am talking about a sacrifice so high up on the evolutionary scale that the loss will resound and be on the lips of everyone.

It has taken me months to reach this point. I produced countless experiments with dogs, cats, raccoons, gophers (I had to travel considerable distances to accumulate some of these materials), but all to no great effect. Even the law ignored me. I contemplated shoving my sun worshiping neighbor, who bakes on her patio the floor above me, but she could hardly be called a prime specimen. Years of drinking and sunbathing have taken their toll and, as an artist, I must consider all aspects of the medium involved. I wanted a powerful obituary piece to accompany the art, not a shriveled shell of a specimen. I had been relatively selective with the animals, so I must be entirely selective about the human.

There was the obvious choice. I would finally have my name in the papers and on the internet. I would be noticed; I would receive the recognition I deserved. I will plan the jump according to the proper weather, the proper velocity, most importantly, the proper passerby beneath me. I will land on one (hopefully more than one) and the voyeurs will no longer be able to pass blindly. If my trajectory proves perfect, I may even be able to land on a car driving below, thereby causing gridlock. Radios will announce the accident as will the television stations.

While my manifesto (another piece of art!) will not be read until after the act, I feel obliged to warn in retrospect. If I had been noticed, lives would not have been lost. In the meantime, I will make the most of those living or working in the city who keep their eyes down. I will take advantage of those distracted drivers, focusing on cell phones and food and applying makeup instead of being at the ready to apply foot to brake. I will exploit (for artistic purposes) those walking the sidewalks who walk briskly but not alertly.

The title of this final masterpiece: “Look up!”

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

By Proxy

“Remember how we act when we see a cross?” She was glancing at him, or at the reflection of him in her mirror as she applied her makeup. 

He nodded nervously. He looked so tiny and frail and she hoped he never got big. If he appeared strong, it would defeat her purpose.

“And if they sprinkle the water on you?”

He nodded again and mimicked convulsions.

“Good. Now come over here so I can look you over.”

She was lucky that he was so clumsy and bruised easily. He definitely appeared to be on the receiving end of something bad.  She had lavished in the attention from doctors and medical staff, but she was now after bigger game. 

She shooed the boy away and returned to her makeup. “I am having a hard time seeing…eyes all blurry.” She had been feeling strangely lately but was not going to let anything come between her and her big opportunity.

Even though the boy would be the star of the episode, she had to get her look just right. She felt that single-mother faced with a parent’s worse-case-scenario would endear her to Brent Carson. She had stalked his social media for nearly two years; he was very supportive of women’s causes and children’s charities. He was crazy about his dog, too, and she wished she had thought to adopt one to appear sympatico. Applying to be on the show had taken most of her energy and fabricating the back story with the garage sale music box had drained her of any creative impulses.

She wore a dress that was casual enough for an “everyday mom” but that showed off her assets. The boy was in his bed, thermostat turned down in his room, water strategically applied to his hairline and clothing to create the appearance of sweat. She was fighting her jitters when the doorbell rang.

Brent Carson blew past her, instructing the camera operators of how they should set up once they were in the boy’s room. She began to interrupt when Carson told her to wait where she was and that he would be back to debrief her.

She waited, as told, and listened to the sound of equipment being set up in her son’s room. She wondered if she appeared less attentive waiting downstairs while her son, her “whole world” as she had told producers, was upstairs with strange television people in his room. Then again, Carson had told her to wait in place and she wanted to convey to him that she was ready to do anything he asked.

Her uncertainty was put to rest by the sight of Carson descending the stairs. He was tall and broad shouldered with spiky hair that gave the appearance of tousled bed-head, but that she knew took time and consideration to craft. 

“You have traveled such a long way…can I offer you something?” She gestured to the table she had set up with fruit, crackers, tartare, and sushi.

Carson appeared baffled. “Do you normally eat…a lot of raw foods?”

She giggled in a way that she felt was charming. “Animal urges, you know.” She shrugged and batted her eyes, not to clear their blurriness, but in a flirtatious manner. “I was once told I was too pretty to cook.”

“Maybe later,” he mumbled and made his way back to the stairs. “You can stay here, or you can come to the bedroom, but you will have to promise not to intervene, no matter how bad it gets.”

“I will do anything you say,” she replied in what she thought was a seductive, throaty voice.

He stopped mid-climb. “Say that again…” 

“What?”

He paused. “Nothing. Might just be my imagination but you sounded…” He climbed the rest of the steps in silence without finishing his thought. She followed into the bedroom where her son was lying perfectly still on top of the sheets. A priest, or an actor dressed like a priest, was talking to the boy. She felt herself becoming irrationally angry at the sight of this exchange. A low growl escaped her throat.

Carson approached her. “You will have to be silent when we are filming.”

She mimed zipping her lips and slid back into the shadows of the room. The priest read some scripture and the boy laughed demonically, or maybe theatrically. She wished they had practiced that a bit more. The priest then took a small bottle from his vest and began sprinkling the boy. On cue, the boy cringed and convulsed; he writhed and hissed. Carson rolled his eyes at the camera man. 

“Good boy,” she whispered and gave her child the thumbs up. He was so good at following directions, it was his most endearing quality. That, and his willingness to please her. When he had been a baby, he had been quiet and compliant—the perfect wingman for a single-mom on the prowl for some male sympathy. When he had first begun school, he had followed her scripts to a “T.” He perfectly mimicked the excuses she had given him for the bumps and bruises that sometimes appeared on him. She couldn’t always control her temper, or that of the men she brought home, but her son was continuously willing to do whatever it took to defend her. 

Carson took the bottle from the priest and showed it to her. “It is fake…tap water…has he been to a therapist or received any other type of help?”

She tilted her head coyly. “I have moved heaven and earth to help him. I have left absolutely no stone unturned. There is not a moment that goes by that I am not researching how to help him, or making calls, or taking him to appointments.” She stepped closer to Carson, invading his personal space. “Please, you are our last hope.”

Carson recoiled and pointed at her. “You…your nose is bleeding and there is…it looks like blood coming from your eyes.”

The priest, or actor/priest, heard what Carson said and he turned toward her with a crucifix in his hand. The boy was watching intently, forgetting that he should react to the relic. His mother had a large enough reaction for them both. 

Words came from her mouth that she could not recognize. Then clearly, in English, she said, “I know how and when you will die, but you are better off not knowing.”

Carson looked to the camera man and said excitedly, “I think we have a real one…after all this time, we finally have a real possession.”

They pushed the boy aside and strapped his mom to the bed.  As the “holy water” was useless, they used prayers and other relics on her. The actor/priest had been able to obtain communion wafers, and those paper-thin discs provided photogenic evidence as they seared on her skin. 

Brent Carson was salivating at the thought of the ratings for this episode.

The boy knew he should try to help his mother but watching her struggle beneath the ties that lashed her to the bed was pleasing to him. Welts and bruises appeared on her flesh, and he knew how that felt. He also knew that his mother wanted the attention of Brent Carson. He had been ordered to not interrupt the two if they were interacting, and he had been trained to follow orders.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

The Drop Ceiling

“Someone took my ceiling.”

He said this sincerely despite how ludicrous it sounded.

“Someone…took…your…ceiling?” My cautious approach was attributed to his prior periods of paranoia and psychosis. My brother is schizophrenic and, at times, has a tenuous relationship with reality.

“Yes.”

“There is a hole in the top of your house?” I suggested.

He rolled his eyes. “They didn’t steal my roof, only my ceiling. In my living room.”

I had been hinting around for a visit lately, but our Facetime calls always ended before I could get him to agree. Seeing the state of his house helped to clue me into the state of his mind and I always felt better after I had stocked his freezer with casseroles and stews. “Could I see it?”

He nodded. “It’s not bad, actually. I think I like it. Opens the room up a bit.”

***

He had been describing the truth; his ceiling appeared to be gone.

Standing in his living room, I had a view into the attic above, but it was a distorted one, as if I were looking through a window streaked with rain drops.

“How long has it been like this, Leon?”

He scratched his head, a nervous tick he had developed in childhood. “Since yesterday. I saw it right before I told you about it. I saw it, and then I told you.”

“I am glad you did,” I said. My heart was pounding, but I put on a brave face for him. I went to retrieve a step ladder from his garage. Back in the living room, I climbed it and reached up. My hand sunk into a gelatinous plasma. It was warm, like the inside of a mouth or other orifice. When I withdrew my hand, my fingers appeared webbed with a translucent substance. It pulsed and I was repulsed. I ran to the bathroom to disinfect my hands.

“You need to leave.” I insisted when my fingers finally felt like my own again.

He shook his head. “But they are watching me.”

“Who?”

“The ones who caused the accident.”

Two decades prior, we had been involved in a car accident with our family. A light, maybe oncoming headlights, had temporarily blinded our dad. Next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. My parents were fine, but my brother’s head had been shaved and he had a long scar above his left ear that ran from the end of his eyebrow to the back of his head.

The accident had gifted me with a matching scar on my pelvic region. We called ourselves “the twins of the lesions of power” and we made up fantastical stories about the origin of the scars and their supernatural gifts. Leon mostly told the same story, about a spaceship that had been in the area where we were driving. At times, he claimed having seen it right before the crash, and of seeing beings who took his brain to better understand earth. He used to tell me that the beings had left him with the brain of someone else.

Because of this story, he had shown no surprise when he had been diagnosed with mental health issues years later.

He insisted that because he had witnessed the exchange of his brain, he was able to remember it. He complained that the new brain was problematic. He would also tell me that my scar was related to a reproductive study. He would tease me and tell me that when the beings returned, they might insert a tenant into my vacant womb.

I was having a difficult time gathering my thoughts and I was concerned that I had just touched some contaminant. “You need to come home with me.”

“I am fine,” he assured me.

“Leon, there is something…very wrong here. I am scared and I want you with me.” I rolled down the top of my sweatpants to where my scar had faded to a faint pale line. “I need the twin powers to help me deal with this.”

This had no effect on him. He tapped his skull and said, “I have been dealing with this alone for a long time.”

***

The next day, I called my lawyer friend to see if I could legally force my brother to live with me. I could not leave him in that house with whatever was throbbing on the ceiling.

“It may be possible with a mental health power of attorney. Has he been incapacitated?”

I was not sure how to answer that. I would sound as if my mental health were in jeopardy if I reported what I had seen or felt.

After gathering some sage advice and doing a little research, I went to Leon’s. I was thinking I could maybe convince him to come for a night and then we would move forward from there.

He seemed unsure about letting me in.

“Can I see your ceiling again?” I asked, trying to keep my tone natural.

“I don’t think you need to.” He looked over his shoulder, as if there were someone else in the house.

I also peered over his shoulder and saw that the ceiling was now covered with short, red, swaying stalks that looked like seaweed being swept about by waves.

“Leon—”

“Let’s go to the park.” He shut the door behind him and took my elbow, directing me away from his door.

In the park, I tried to reason with him. “There is something really wrong with your house, Leon.”

“There is always something wrong.” He scratched his head, his fingers lingering in the mass of hair covering his scar.

“Not with you, Leon, there is nothing wrong with you, but I am worried about what I am seeing.” I took his chin in my hand and forced him to make eye contact. “I see it too, Leon. It is very real, and I am very scared. If you come to my house, maybe we can have someone come look at it. Maybe it is some kind of mold or something—”

He leaned away from me. “You know exactly what it is, and it isn’t mold. If you just tried, you would remember, too. You would remember what they did to us…they’re back.”

I went along with this reasoning, hoping to get him to see that I was on his side. “Why would they be back?”

“To collect more data. I was only a child then, so my brain told them childish things. I have an adult brain now…and you…you have adult…”

I rubbed my temples. My fear was turning into frustration. I felt a loss over how to help him and I was the only one left who could help him. “Can you just come to my house for one night? Tonight?”

He considered this. “I will come tomorrow night. There is a show on Encounter Plus I want to watch but I forgot your login information. I will watch it at your place.”

I was relieved. I would go home and see what paperwork I could draw up. I told him I would pick him up the next morning.

***

After I had spent some minutes knocking, he answered the door and looked at me blankly. His head had been shaved. The scar from childhood boasted a fresh crimson line.

“Leon?”


He shook his head. “I think you have the wrong house.” He scratched his scar and winced.

“No. Leon. It’s me. I want to come in.”

He looked at me sadly. “I don’t know you, lady. I am sorry.”

I peeked over his shoulder to see that his living room now had a ceiling. It was as if it had never been gone.

“Leon. I am your sister. You had promised you would come home with me today.”

His face grew cold. “My sister died twenty years ago in a car accident.” He slammed the door shut.

I rubbed my lower abdomen absentmindedly. I was blinking back tears and forcing myself to remain calm. I wanted to beat down his door; I also wanted to run away and never look at this door again. I was sure that I was about to lose my mind. This was his most extreme episode yet. Even at the most extreme, he always recognized me.

I decided to take some space and determine a plan. I went home and flung myself on my bed. Before I could entertain any rational thought, I dissolved into tears, crying until I fell asleep from exhaustion.

***

When I woke, I felt something was different about my room. I expected to see my ceiling fan in motion when I opened my eyes. Instead, I was able to see directly into the crawlspace that used to inhabit the other side of my now absent bedroom ceiling.

While stifling a scream, I realized that it did open up the room a bit.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Heart of Stone

“She ruined you,” the voices hissed.

The voices were always there; their reptilian cadence was unavoidable. They were not made-up voices. They were not imaginary friends. Sthenno and Euryale could not escape the voices because they were connected to their heads.

There is something to be said for multiple slithering ids, writhing with the weight of a dozen demi-demons, tempting a Gorgon by cooing her darkest thoughts. The snakes were like Sirens, and they made the sisters want to bash their brains out with sharp rocks.

The snakes’ red eyes lit the night, making sleep elusive. Their warm bodies added a cumbersome burden to the days, forcing the former maidens into abject inertia. The captive Gorgons were defenseless to the heft of their slinky bodies and the gravitas of their suggestions.

She needs to be punished,” the snakes commanded, and Sthenno could not help but agree.

It had not always been this way. The girls had been beautiful, famous, and desirable. Their faces had appeared on vases and plates and parchment. Everyone had wanted to gaze at them and they had adored being the object of gazes.

Too soon they would find that infatuated regards were a thing of the past. “She cut you off from the world, from all that you love,” the snakes reminded them. “She is the betrayer.”

“The curse?” Euryale mouthed. Sthenno nodded, “If something were to happen to her, would the curse be lifted?”

The snakes sighed happily, as if tasting ambrosia in the air. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

#

Many moons before, the gods had blessed the girls with love and adoration. The sisters had fans and those fans craved viewing the three of them together. The people desired glimpses of the beautiful faces, and the special attributes that made the Gorgons seem better than everyone else. Euryale had a speaking voice that would shame any Siren. Sthenno had a magical left eye that could show her the past and predict the future. And Medusa had an extremely enviable, voluptuous figure.

The girls had been promised to Athena. Their public personas were of purity, and the sisters worked very hard to maintain that reputation. Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa spent as much time at the temple as they did sleeping, bathing, and eating combined. At the temple, they performed their duties; they practiced to become priestesses. According to law, they cleaned at night, draped in cloth that was no more beguiling than the rags that wiped the stone and bronze clean. They sacrificed their time and many days of their youth, and they sacrificed the very purist as tributes to the Goddess. No one sacrificed more than Medusa, the mortal one.

No one sought to fill her limited days with delight more than the sole ephemeral Gorgon. At night, Medusa would sneak out, her long rows of braids trailing behind her in the moonlight. Sthenno would pretend not to notice. “Because we are immortal, we have all of eternity to salvage what she might do to our reputation,” Euryale would whisper, her voice like soft notes plucked on a lyre, “because she is mortal, we can outrun the damage she does.”

Euryale had been right, up to a point. She had not foreseen Medusa becoming involved with the Minotaur. She had not forecast that Medusa would bring the muscled and musty bull-man back to their home and flaunt him in their faces. Euryale had not predicted that Sthenno’s knack for sibling rivalry would lead her directly into the arms of Nessus, the Centaur. Even Sthenno’s oracular eye had not predicted that her game would backfire and that she would fall in love.

Love in the time of Athena meant secrecy and fear, yet it was worth the risk. Sthenno had the warmth of her centaur which was more than the equivalent of thousands of adoring fans. She had the lingering nibbled kisses from his bearded face to see her through her chores. She had him to confide in when she wanted to complain about Medusa; his very existence lessened her need for competition with her siblings. A complex maze, rivaling the one in Crete, metaphorically stood between Sthenno and Medusa; yet, she held no ill will for her mortal sister. Sthenno would love Medusa, as long as love loomed large in her heart.

Then, Medusa had to go and cross the line with Poseidon.

“He forced himself on me!” Medusa had cried and Sthenno had felt the need to protect her sister. Sthenno had believed Medusa, had wanted to believe in her fidelity to the extent of nearly ignoring her illuminating eye. But the eye won out. It showed a seductive Medusa, clinging to the sea rocks, weathering waves and ocean spray, for the opportunity to be with a god.

Crying rape, lying about rape was a sin. Medusa, cursed with a short life, had always been the most concerned with damage control. The gods did not look very kindly upon lying; Athena was even less sympathetic toward broken vows.

The temple witnessed an act of violence far worse than any swift sacrifice. Athena grabbed Medusa by her enviable braids and threw her to the ground. The sisters were forced to share the wrath of the goddess. Euryale’s voice was transformed into an ear-splitting shriek, and Sthenno’s prophetic eye was darkened. The following day, the Gorgons’ bruised and sore bodies told tales of assault. The wounds would heal; an extra violation had taken place that would impair them for all time. Euryale and Sthenno awoke with serpent crowns, sealed to their scalps. Medusa, also plagued with snakes, remained in a permanent sleep.

Euryale moaned and her voice was nearly deafening. Sthenno shushed her, keeping her raised finger out of reach of the snakes. All the while, Medusa slept on, blissfully unaware of their state.

Sthenno’s scalp was crawling, slithering, coiling and recoiling. Inside her head, she was screaming. Outside, the snakes had begun talking. “She ruined you,” they repeated: a mantra meant to incite hatred.

Sthenno would not hate until she knew the true condition of her love. She needed to find him. She needed to see if Nessus would still have her.

She found herself running, but she could not outrun the snakes. Their unreasonable weight was much less of a burden than their words. “He will reject you,” they warned. “And it is all her fault.”

Rejection would have been easier to bear than what transpired when Nessus laid eyes on his lover.

Being newly cursed, the Gorgons had not been warned about the result of their gazes. Nessus dropped to his knees, quivering in pain. Being part equine, he did not turn immediately to stone.

She stood over him. “Do you love me?” she gasped, praying to any god available for confirmation. His body twitched and his eyes rolled back in his head, but he did not answer. He also did not die.

Being a merciful Gorgon, Sthenno snatched the satchel that her lover had dropped. She pierced his heart with a poison arrow; breaking his heart so it now matched her own.

#

“The weight,” Euryale mouthed to Sthenno and rolled her eyes in the direction of the toiling scales that wound and entangled on top of her head. She mouthed her words, not to keep secrets from the snakes—they were reptilian mind-readers—but because her voice was so destructive.

For Sthenno, the weight was nothing in comparison to her murderous rage.

“There is a way,” the snakes whispered to Sthenno, “A king is seeking a challenge for a young man. He wants it to be deadly and dangerous. We will convince him that Medusa is awake. We will convince him to force this Perseus to return with her head.”

While she knew that Euryale would be devastated at the death of their sister, Sthenno felt no emotion at all.

The snakes were as smart as they were silky. They helped Sthenno to convince Euryale that she would have no blood on her hands. “She deserves it,” they hissed, “So focused on her fame, her figure, her lovers. And she sleeps through the worst days of your life! You can get rid of her, end it all, simply by doing nothing—

Euryale cut them off and addressed Sthenno, as if they were the only two within hearing distance. “We always knew we would have to live without her…at some point.”

Sthenno, made of stone, readily agreed, “It’s just sooner than we expected. That is all.”

#

The days crept as they always did when your days have no end, until the snakes began excitedly announcing that Perseus was near.

Sthenno crept to Euryale’s side and stroked her cheek. “Here,” she handed her a drink she had made. They would both sleep soundly. They would both be unable to hear Perseus’ approach; they would both be unable to help their mortal sister. Their consciences, if not their scalps, would be free of snakes.

They would rebuild their status: they had forever to salvage their reputations.

Sthenno drank her concoction and slept as if dead. When she and Euryale awoke, Medusa was gone. Precisely, Medusa’s head was gone.

And the snakes fell silent.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.