Sequentials

What Did You Expect?

As far as first impressions go, Debra was not impressed.

The guy seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. He waited for her shocked reaction which never came, and frowned in obvious disappointment when her eyes merely flicked in his direction before returning to her novel. The fluff of white hair on his head looked to have the consistency of a truffula tree. His skin was almost the same color, a translucent hue that made Debra think of vampires and basement dwellers.

He blurted out something about being the moon and how they were destined to be together. When she didn’t respond he continued. “Haven’t you felt like you’re just waiting for the right person to meet? I mean, let’s face it. Greg didn’t turn out to be much of a keeper, did he?”

Debra set her book down. “You’ve been spying on me.” It wasn’t a question. Lunar deity or not, it was an invasion of privacy.

“Well, spying is a bit harsh, I’d say. I’d prefer ‘hidden admiring’.”

You’re the one that’s been watching me. “You’re the one that’s been giving me goosebumps for no reason.” She jabbed a finger at him with each accusation. Nearby conversations fell to a whisper, ears hoping to get their daily dose of drama.

“Er, well. Isn’t that sort of, you know, old-fashioned and charming?” He gave a weak smile.

Debra stood up. “No. It’s creepy and weird. Stop watching me and get a life.” She scooped up her book and turned to leave.

“Wait!” the moon said, pushing back his chair. “Aren’t you even, like, a little curious?”

When she looked him in the eyes she saw right through him, and he didn’t look like the moon at all. Just a sad and lonely man desperate for companionship.

“No,” she said, and walked away, leaving the moon as it will always be.

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Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Man in the Moon

For years, many have held on to the belief that the moon is deeply connected with woman, and the sun with man. Yes, those early misogynist shapers of the world. What else could man be associated with, if not the sun that gives life? Hubris blinded them, as is its nature. How they would toss and turn in their graves if I were to but whisper the truth to them.

For I am the moon. And I am man.

In the swirling blackness of night, once my sister has retired from the world, I lift my chambers high and view the Earth from the heavens. I sit right here in my chair and I watch and shine my light down, peeking from behind a waning crescent.

I watch as Debra Lemming slides a dress over her delicate frame. She takes a bus downtown and meets a man at a bar. It is the first time they have met in person, but they have talked online for two weeks. She feels as if she knows him. The man smiles a lot. He wears a beige Henley and dark expensive jeans. I cannot hear what they say to one another, but he buys drink after drink for her. Her head lolls and her eyes droop slightly, and the man rests his hand on Debra Lemming’s lower back. He whispers something in her ear and she giggles.

I watch them take a taxi back to Debra Lemming’s studio apartment. The lights do not turn on and I watch as they commit an act of spontaneous love. As I observe, I wonder what it would be like to grasp at another being with such desperate fervor. To twist and turn and entwine until two becomes one. Foolishly, I imagine that I am the man with the dark expensive jeans clutching at Debra Lemming. I allow myself this one small moment of impossible fantasy. One moment when I can pretend to not be alone.

One moment, perfect and fleeting.

Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise Rises

Howard strode out to where the tortoise lay on the lawn. It looked up at him with pathetically dull, half-closed eyes and wiggled its feet in the air. Kneeling down in a low squat, Howard reached his hands into the gap between grass and shell. His feet pushed off the ground hard. In a colossal effort, muscles bunched and straining, Howard eased the tortoise up off its back. The thing was so heavy that when gravity took over the shell slipped from Howard’s grasp, and it landed with a reverberating thud.

Howard shook out his arms. The physical work had felt good. It woke him up, made his thoughts a little clearer. If the tortoise was here to stay, he thought, he’d better adapt to it.

In the garage was his grandfather’s workbench, with tools and lumber a plenty. Howard had never been much of a handyman, but he did have a fondness for carving and woodworking, though he was lousy at it. He supposed that was better than nothing, and got to work immediately, selecting two-by-fours and trimming them down to the proper length with his grandfather’s miter saw. He fashioned the planks into stakes and placed them around the perimeter of the garden. Howard enjoyed the physical labor. As a kid, it seemed he was always doing some type of yardwork whether it be raking leaves, mowing the lawn, or cleaning out the gutters. There was something satisfying about doing that kind of work. It was empowering, completing tasks with your body, by yourself, that he had found nothing else could quite capture. After rummaging around in the garage, Howard found some old chicken wire that he wrapped around the stakes. It wouldn’t stop something as crafty as a raccoon, but Howard thought it should be enough to protect his precious flowers from the tortoise.

Drenched in sweat and sticky from the heat, Howard took shelter inside and hopped in a cold shower. He wasn’t sure whether it had been the physical activity, or the rescuing of the tortoise, but it felt as if a veil had lifted over Howard’s head. What had once been shrouded in sulking self-doubt was now pure and clear as a mountain spring.

After his shower Howard immediately phoned Grace and told her he wanted her to move in. It took some convincing to prove he was serious, but in the end she agreed.

Over the next month Howard’s life went through a radical change. He gave away a lot of his grandfather’s old things to family members. What he couldn’t give away he sold in a yard sale. Grace moved in, and brought with her a vibrant new life to the old house. She came in with her notebook and jotted down idea after idea for what they could do with all the space. They would repaint some rooms, move furniture.

When they had unpacked the last of the boxes and the move was final, they shared a bottle of pinot on the back patio and watched the tortoise roam the lawn. Howard had taken seeds from the community garden and grown a vegetable patch exclusively for the tortoise, full of cabbages and tomatoes and onions. He’d started in his spare time to construct it a shelter for the oncoming storms and winter months ahead. It kept him busy, and he liked the work. Most of all, Howard reveled in the current of life that seemed to propel him forward these days. The constant doing felt good, natural.

The two watched the tortoise make its slow, deliberate way toward its private patch. And in the fading light they sat and drank, happy for now, in an act of simple observation, and the pleasure of each other’s company.

Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise Remembers

Howard grabbed a banana from his fruit basket and broke it in two. He had just bought a bunch from the farmer’s market on a whim, as he hadn’t had one in a while. The tortoise was still on its back outside, legs feeling for the ground. Howard peeled each half of the banana individually, leaving the connecting strand in the middle, which made them resemble primitive nun chucks. He held the two pieces of fruit in either hand, taking intermittent bites so they stayed at an even height. The meat of the banana was pulpy and slightly wet, and the bruised bits were sweeter and softer than the usual firmness he preferred.

As he watched the tortoise from his window, his thoughts drifted to when he and Grace had an impromptu picnic on the lake. The one that went wrong.

It had been a perfect day. The sun was high overhead, giving off enough heat to keep them in their summer wear, but not so much that it was unbearable. Everything on the lake pulsed with life. The trees on the far bank lush and green, leaves rustling in the breeze. The water itself was cloudy with mud and clay, but still reflected a near-perfect image of the tree line on its glassy surface.

“You’re so weird. You know that right?” Grace said, popping another grape into her mouth. She sat across from him on the canoe as they drifted on the open water.

Howard shrugged and took a huge bite of the banana, finishing one of the halves. He puffed out his cheeks and drooped his jaw in perfect imitation of a baboon. Grace laughed, dunking her hand in the water and flicking her fingers so that droplets splashed on him. “You know I hate that face,” she said.

Howard finished his banana, and was just about to comment on what a great idea this all had been, when his phone vibrated in his pocket.

“Hello?” he said. “Yes.” He looked at Grace. “Yes, I understand.” A flock of geese passed nearby, and Howard watched the fuzzy goslings follow their parents among the reeds. A gust of wind rushed past and he put a finger to his ear. “What? No, no. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Love you too.”

“Who was that?” Grace asked after he had hung up.

The phone hung limp in one hand. “My mom. My grandfather had a heart attack. Said she found him on the couch a few hours ago.” His voice was calm, unwavering.

“Oh my god.”

“So.” Howard looked down at the empty banana peel still in his hands. “We should probably go then,” he said.

The funeral was that weekend. When he was asked to be a pallbearer he excused himself to the bathroom and stifled sobs in one of the stalls. It was strange. He and his grandfather had never been close, but for some reason the death seemed more real than he thought it would. Perhaps because it was so unexpected. His grandmother was in a home, and they had all expected her to go first. And his grandfather had been young. Just sixty-five. His big belly and silver hair had never changed.

Howard didn’t finish the service with the rest of his family. Didn’t watch his grandfather be lowered six-feet-under in a wooden box. Instead he smoked a cigarette and walked among the other tombstones, wondering if one day someone would pass by his grandfather’s in a similar way.

A well-dressed lawyer with a thin, receding hairline and a thin receding voice went over the particulars of his grandfather’s will with them. Howard had somehow gotten the house, and what possessions they had left in it. A few things went to his mother and uncle: the car, the money, and the collection of family videos and photo albums, but for the most part they were left out. His uncle hadn’t been happy about that, feeling as though he deserved more, he stormed out. Howard hadn’t talked to him since.

That had been close to six months ago, and Howard still didn’t feel at home. It was strange, living alone in a place that he had once only visited for family cookouts and get-togethers. Sometimes his mother would leave him for a weekend, which he would spend watching television until he was ushered outside by his grandmother, where he climbed trees and collected interesting rocks before having a dinner of bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches. Now he did crosswords and fussed over the roses, and ate frozen pizzas and cold cereal.

The tortoise was still out there. He had left it lying on its back for a whole day now. Would the thing remember how cruel he was being to it? He wondered if he could leave it like that until it died. But as soon as the thought entered his mind Howard knew he would never go through with it. Even though the tortoise had given him a world of grief, he couldn’t bring himself to let the old, pathetic creature go like that.

But he’d still leave it there one more day. Just to teach it a lesson.

Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise Falls

Howard’s foot sank into the welcome mat on his way to get the paper.

No. That was wrong.

Looking down, he saw that the tortoise had left a stinking present for him. Howard smeared the greenish excrement on the front step. Looking back up, he saw that it hadn’t stopped there.

There were bare patches of brown in the once-uniform sea of grass that was his front lawn. Several neat piles of feces that looked to have come from a family of tortoises lay carefully placed. Clumps of loose dirt and grass were strewn about as well, and Howard had to wonder how such a slow moving creature could manage to make such a great mess of it all. Part of Howard didn’t even believe that a tortoise was capable of all this. It looked like someone had taken a pickaxe to some parts by how much loose soil had been upturned.

At this point Howard began to take it somewhat personally. His gaze flitted about the lawn. But the tortoise was nowhere in sight.

Flipping out his cell, Howard texted Grace, letting her know that he wouldn’t be meeting her at church this morning after all. Something just came up. Then he walked through the yard, searching for the abominable tortoise. It wasn’t on the driveway, or anywhere in the front yard, so he circled around back. It wasn’t by the bird bath, or in the bushes, or even back at the rhododendrons, which were looking sad and bare. He wondered whether or not it had moved on.

But no. There, in the back by the pines, Howard could just make out its domed form as it paused next to a tree.

In an effort of herculean strength, the tortoise righted itself on its hind legs and reached its long neck out to grasp at a branch. With a mouthful of leaves and branches, the tortoise reared back, trying to rip away the next portion of its meal. It thrashed its head side to side, fraying the thin, whip-like limb. The branch snapped and the tortoise teetered, unbalanced. It looked as if it would regain its composure a split second before it toppled backward onto its shell.

Howard let out an unexpected whoop, and sauntered over to the disoriented tortoise, stopping to smell how fresh and intact the lilacs were this morning. He skipped the last couple steps until he was looking down on his reptilian oppressor. Thick, scaly legs gripped for purchase in the air while the head wobbled to and fro. A low fluctuating groan filled the air like a lover’s lament.

Howard smiled and leaned down until his face was inches away from the cold-blooded eyes.

“Ball’s in my court now,” he said.

Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise Remains

“I’m telling you, it was eating the plants in my garden. The rhododendrons, specifically. You should see it too, easily a couple hundred pounds.”

Grace nodded, fork picking at the half-eaten quesadilla. Her curly brown hair was pulled back tight in a bun and she wore cat eye glasses in lieu of her usual contacts, giving her a fierce librarian look. The raised eyebrows told Howard everything, and he knew what would come next.

“That’s why you’re late?” she said. “Cause you saw a turtle in your garden? I mean seriously, Howie, come on. What was it really this time?”

“Crosswords.”

“How many did you do?”

“Two and a half.”

“Jesus, Howie. You know, if we’re gonna make this work, you can’t be so obsessive about your hobbies. First it was gardening, then online poker, now crosswords. What’s next? You’ve had the whole day ahead of you and done what with it? Two and a half crosswords and turtle watching? At some point you need to start evaluating your life choices, hon.” At this Grace reached over and gave Howard’s hand a little pat, returning to her quesadilla as if the matter was settled.

“Yeah, but you’re not listening. I mean, this thing was huge. Aren’t you curious at all about how a giant tortoise found its way to 7th and Washington? There aren’t any woods, or parks. It’d have had to crawl through yards, or under fences or something.”

Grace put her fork down and took a deep breath. “Look, I really don’t mind that you’re so passionate about what you like to do. It’s one of the reasons we started dating. But you can’t let it affect the time we spend together. It’s becoming a problem.”

“Yeah, but —”

“That’s just how I feel, Howie.”

Howard ran through that conversation a dozen times on his drive home, taking the long winding boulevard because he liked the roundabouts. It was exactly like she hadn’t listen to the words coming out of his mouth. Her ears had just seemed to turn off at the slightest mention of the tortoise. Though he had been quite late, having to skirt around the stagnant shell outside his door. It hissed and swiveled its head as he passed, pushing back against folds of leathery skin, and showed no sign of moving. When Howard had finally arrived at La Casa, Grace had been on her third cup of salsa and second basket of greasy tortilla chips. He could understand why she had been upset.

What he couldn’t understand, however, was her complete lack of interest in the tortoise. It was such an odd occurrence, and she had hardly even merited it a response. It just didn’t make any sense.

When Howard pulled up to his house the tortoise was sitting in his driveway, huddled in its shell. He parked on the side of the road and walked past it on his way inside.

“Hope you’re happy,” he mumbled at it.

The tortoise said nothing, but Howard heard it shift in its shell, content.

Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise

There was a tortoise grazing in Howard Scythe’s garden. It was big and it was gray and it was eating his rhododendrons. It was Saturday morning and Howard stood in his kitchen, bathrobe on, jaw hanging. He watched the rather large creature through the back window. It reached out its strong, leathery neck for another bite and ripped away a tangle of branches.

Howard banged on the glass pane. “Hey!”

The dull-eyed thing stopped, turned its head and regarded Howard, churning the leafy greens in its complacent maw like a cow would cud. The reptilian gaze held no pity. With a dismissive gesture, the tortoise turned its back on Howard, ignoring his continuing objections.

“Hey…Um. Hmm.” Howard was not entirely sure how to deal with this situation. The tortoise’s presence was confusing. He was almost certain that this particular species was not native to the Midwest.  Its size alone indicated that. The shell a massive dome, an oversized laundry basket sitting upturned on its back.

Howard watched the tortoise eat away at his rhododendrons for a while before it moved on to the lilacs. He tapped a finger on the counter as he watched, chewing the corner of his lip.

Perhaps the beast would become bored and move on to other gardens or vegetable patches. The Robinsons down the road hosted the community vegetable garden. It was quite nice, with full, juicy tomatoes and peppers and carrots and lettuce. Yes, it would no doubt catch a whiff of the wafting, veggie aroma and soon leave his flowers in peace.

Having settled all that, Howard started a pot of coffee and took a nice hot shower.

When he returned to pour himself a mug the tortoise was gone. He smirked and smiled to himself, pleased that he hadn’t let his indignation get the better of him. Logic and reason, that which separated man from beast, had proved their worth in the end. Howard spent the remainder of the morning filling out crossword after crossword on his laptop, every so often casting a sidelong glance out the window. He recently discovered that he could access the database for every New York Times crossword ever, and had done little else for the past few days. The hours wiled away.

On his third crossword of the day Howard read the clue for 12 Down: Fruity Engagement. Date.

Shit.

Howard sprang from his chair and scrambled around the house for a fresh pair of socks. It was 12:52. He was supposed to meet Grace at La Casa, that new Mexican place in eight minutes. But it was all the way downtown, a twenty minute drive, and that was only if he hit every green light. Howard cursed again as he fumbled for his car keys, putting his shoes on as he hopped around. He grabbed his phone and wallet and opened the front door.

The path was blocked by an immovable carapace. The tortoise had returned.

(To be continued)