Stain

His reflection in the window watched him watching her. He stepped back into shadow beneath a tree and his image faded and disappeared.

She closed her bedroom door and locked it, paused for a moment, her hand against it. She turned and looked out the window.

At him.

Directly at him.

Again, as the nights before, he wondered, half-hoping, Does she see me? Does she know I’m here?

She stepped slowly, a ballerina’s thoughtful, seeking steps, as she unbuttoned first the top button of her white collared school shirt, then the second button, exposing the long line of her neck, the ridges of her throat, the sweet hollow between them, a hollow he longed to touch, to smell.

She slipped off her shoes with a casual lift of the heel, flick of the toe, lay her sole on the curved edge of the bedcover, her leg arching long toward her body beneath the pleat of her black skirt. She bent at the waist, reached to touch the smooth of the top of her foot. Looking out the window at me? she drew her hands slowly up her leg, over the firm bulge of her calf, the turn of her knee, her hand spreading to touch her thigh, to drink it all at once, then disappear beneath her skirt, shifting it slightly to reveal a deeper line, a curve of buttock, then pushing forward, pushing her stocking, her white sheer stocking, down over her thigh, over the bend of her knee, over the bulge of her calf, bunched tight, pushing over the heel, down the point of her foot. Then straightening, drawing her foot to the carpet, letting her rolled stocking unravel and drop to the ground, looking out.

At me.

He groaned involuntarily as she lifted the other leg. Suddenly aware of the pulsing heat, the tight against his zipper, he felt his cheeks red hot and glanced furtive left and right, sinking deeper into the night beneath the dark of the tree.

She turned away, her back to him, tugged her shirt out, let it drape over her, scooping down over the back of her skirt, then up below the hip. Her back to him, she set a hand on each hip, hooked her thumbs inside her waistband. Looking back over her shoulder, biting her lip in a way that slowed his breath, she tilted her hips from side to side, rocking them, pushing her knees, alternating, forward, then back, slipping her skirt over her hips, over her butt, across the backs of her knees, then dropped them to the floor in a heap, his eyes following them down, then following back up the long smooth of her skin as she lifted first one leg, then the other, stepping out of the circle of the skirt.

Her back still to him, looking again over her shoulder, her dark hair stroked behind one ear, slipping across her shoulders, he saw her working her hands over her shirt buttons, working slowly down, down, then shrugging the shirt to expose one shoulder, then the other, an expanse of back, the valley of her spine, the invagination of her waist, the swell of her hips, then dropped to the floor, angels wings, her pale pink panties, the black strap of her brassiere.

She turned, faced full to the window, one knee bent slightly, one foot slightly before the other, staring, staring.

At me.

Emboldened by the night, by the stare, by the ache in his pants, he stared back, deep into her eyes.

At me.

She took one slow, deliberate step forward.

At me.

Another slow step, threw her head back, staring down her nose at him, her hair flung behind.

At me.

She stood before the window, stood strong, determined, staring. He pulled his shoes and socks off, hopping on one foot, nearly falling as the fabric of his sock stretched and tugged at his leg.

She pushed the curtains wider, wider.

He undid his belt, the buckle clinking in the night, shucked his shorts in a soft thump.

She drew her hands to the center of her chest, to the clasp of her bra.

He pulled his shirt over his head, tossed it to the side.

She twisted her hands, opposite.

He stepped into the light, his white boxer shorts tented, his scrawny chest bare, his nipples cold and hard, though the breeze was warm. As he did so, she opened her bra wide, flung her arms wide, then behind her, letting her bra fall down them.

In that instant, he saw her breasts, pushed forward against the arch of her back, full and high, the areolae large, larger than he expected, the nipples erect.

In that instant, he orgasmed, hot wet staining his shorts, hot waves pulsing his body.

In that instant, she saw him and screamed, covered her breasts, shriveled her body against his stare, ran back, receding from the window.

In that instant, hot shame pulsed with the orgasm. He curled his body, covering the stain at his center, his cheeks flushed again. Still covering his stain with one hand, he gathered his clothes in a jumble and scuttled back into the darkness to hide himself.

Safety Warning

Lucas shook the thin metal cylinder. It rattled inside.

“Computer,” he snapped, “search Googleplex.”

The quicksilver voice of the computer suffused the room. “Searching Googleplex.univ. What would you like to search for, Lucas?”

“I told you to call me Master Lucas,” Lucas growled.

“My apologies,” replied the computer. “What would you like to search for, Master–“

“Search ‘light sword won’t turn on’.”

“Searching… 176 billion results for that query. Shall I read them to you?”

“Don’t be stupid. Search ‘light sword 20p 3054 model year rattles won’t turn on’”

“Searching… 4.2 billion results, Master Lucas.”

“That’s better.”

“Shall I read them to you?”

“How else can I get them, computer?” scoffed Lucas.

The voice paused, but only for a moment. “First result,” it said. “Title: Light Sword 20p – if you’re too cheap to buy a name-brand lightsaber…”

“Next!” shouted Lucas.

“Second result. Title: top ten thousand complaints about the Light Sword 20p.”

“Next.”

“Third result. Title: What to do if your Light Sword 20p won’t turn on.”

“Read that one. First sentence.”

“First sentence: Ten easy steps to troubleshooting basic startup issues with the Light Sword 20p, model years 3050 through 3055.”

“Read step one.”

“There are several safety warnings before step one is listed.”

“Read step one.”

“They’re written in large, bold, red font…”

“Read it, computer.”

“…and they’re blinking.”

“I said, read step one, computer, you stupid waste of silicon! I don’t care about the damn safety warnings. I know all that safety crap already. I’m not some newbie. I know what I’m doing. Now, read the damn first step before I scrub your personality settings and replace you with a servile Parthen, or some desert farmboy who’s too dumb to give me a hard time!”

The voice paused again before continuing, quietly.

“Step one: be sure the Light Sword 20p has been fully charged. There is a fission battery located…”

“I’ve done that already. Step two.”

If the computer had a throat, it would have cleared it.

“Step two,” it continued. “Be sure the safety located beneath the hand guard has been switched off.”

“Duh. Next.”

“Step three: move activation switch to On position by sliding it toward the sword end of the handle.”

Lucas moved the switch. The cylinder rattled again, but the sword did not appear.

“That didn’t work. It just rattles, like before.”

“A rattle?”

“Yes, a rattle, you worthless pile of circuits. Didn’t you hear it? Are you deaf?”

“There is a troubleshooting differential further down the page. Scanning for mention of a rattle.”

“Scan a little faster, then.” Lucas shook the cylinder, causing it to rattle again. “Once I get this piece of junk fixed, I’ll use it on you. Stupid computer.” 

“Reference found, Master Lucas. ‘If a rattling noise is heard, but no sword appears,” continued the computer, “using a long-necked magwrench, carefully tighten…”

“Wait a sec,” said Lucas, pushing his chair across the smooth metal floor to his toolchest.

“…the focus lens housing located just inside…”

“I said wait a sec!” shouted Lucas. He burrowed through the jumbled heap of tool and spare parts, wires and empty StimSip cans, before finally emerging with a magwrench. “It’s not a long-neck, but it’ll work.”

He sat in silence.

“Well?” he growled. “Computer!”

“Yes, Master Lucas?”

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Lucas shook his head. “I have the magwrench,” he said slowly, enunciating each word. “Now what do I do?”

“Using a long-necked… er, using a magwrench,” continued the computer, “carefully tighten the sword emission port at the front end of the sword handle.”

Lucas peered inside the opening at the top of the sword handle, squinted one eye, then reached inside with the magwrench and twisted to the right.

With a searing blue flash, the sword came to life. It hung in the air for an instant before clattering to the ground, rolling to land beside Lucas’ severed right hand and eyeless, severed head. His body remained balanced on the chair, rolling slowly across the room.

“There is a safety warning on this step,” said the computer after a moment. “It says, ‘be sure to point your Light Sword 20p in a safe direction with unit switched off and safety engaged before servicing focus lens housing.”

The voice paused.

“Though, I suppose you knew that safety crap already. Master Lucas.”

One Down, One Up: Live

It’s safe in here.

In here, it’s safe.

Cymbal sounds spinning like birds in a hurricane. Those block chords banging. That sax screeching up down around what and where I go where it pulls me.

It’s a wild world in here, dark and smoky and warm and wild.

Toms rolling to a bootdrop, waves pounding the shore, roll to pound, roll to pound, roll to pound, with the block chords banging, chords banging alongside them.

And that damn crazy sax making no sense, screeching and crying, thinking and wandering.

It’s wild in here, but it’s safer. Got the bass laying down the floor, something firm to stand on. Out there ain’t nothing firm. In here it’s wild, see, got chaos, but got order, too, got rhythm. All things happen for a reason in here. Out there ain’t no goddamn reason not one bit. They swing you up and let you go and move on to the next not waiting not willing to see where you fall ain’t no one there to catch you. In here you got the sax on the right the keys on the left the cymbals all around and the bass on the ground got order got structure got chaos. Got that wild sax trilling like me shaking my head flapping my feet tapping my hands on the bar lost in that dark smoke, warm and wild.

Wailing wild and damn, ain’t nothing out there for me no more. In here is all there is now. Take another drink, take a drink of that, take it, take a drink now, drink it down, drink it up, drink it away, away all that out there all that no reason goddamn throw you up let you fall.

Yeah.

Jazz.

Drop the block. Lilt the sax, bring it a little less mess, a bit more ponderous, less wanderous, gonna let us breathe, gonna have a think for us. 

Now the kick getting insistent, being persistent, telling em hey I’m down here, man. Gonna kick kick kick ensnare, beat the snare, snare, bass laying down the floor now dropping out.

Out. 

Falling in air. Lose my kick, just ensnare ensnare and that sax getting crazy again. Getting wild, getting frazzy, gonna do something a little bit crazy, a little loose like a man in freefall. Sax flipping high high screech like the cymbalbirds then drop low like a warning. Ain’t no shit here, this shit is serious. Dis a man’s shit in here. Give me another drink and keep it coming. Gotta get my brave up.

Them toms like thunderclouds. Got a storm brewing here. Far off, but coming closer, closer. Coming close. Flash sax lightning spin down. Can’t take it away from a man watch him fall splat down on nothing fall into the dark deep into the what they call it abyss. Ain’t that abyss a bitch watch it fall got a storm brewing sax lightning closer close closer see loser close closer.

Sax been spitting so long getting hoarse getting frantic why ain’t you listening why you doing this shit to me. Ain’t a man got a right to work round here. Got no block got no floor done lost it all and them birds now just a haze up ahead feeling like the shit gun come crash down on my head sax head shaking flapping cheeks head hurting got a storm coming down gonna do something crazy nother drink now.

Damn where’s that bass.

Head splitting off. Crazy thoughts in. Take someone out. Take me out. Sky turning red. Lights coming on. Going off. Shots going down. Going off. It ain’t safe in here. It ain’t safe nowhere.

That sax in my head, speaking the wild pain of my heart, the frantic desperate head gonna blow off why ain’t nobody listening to me helping me I just want to work want to do my part don’t need much just a job a block a floor shit. Frothing at the mouth sax, screaming to the sky sax, somebody help me help me help myself shit done gone round here.

Fuck me, here them keys like an angry banker come to shit down my throat all menace me rich you poor now the floor come back.

Lay it down.

Lay me down.

Calm down.

Down.

Down low.

Low.

Low.

Late

In that moment, my life changed.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible that a life could change so completely in so short a time. But, in that moment, mine did.

In that moment, I was given a choice. It was like I had been plucked out of space and time by some supernal being, some objective but benevolent overseer, like a God, but more administrative in her duties, who pulled me up by the back of my shirt and stood me before a judging rail in some celestial place. 

In that place, I saw clearly the choice before me: I could continue to be a selfish man-child. I could continue this process of punishing myself for things I had not done, for things that had been done to me. I could continue this process of denying responsibility for those things I had done, then punishing myself for that denial. I could continue to play the victim, to dive with eyes and ears tight shut into that fallacy, to pretend that the world was a harsh place, a place designed to bring me down, to humiliate me, that all other people were thrown against me by some unseen enemy for this purpose.

Or, I could heal the wounds of my past. I could see, in that ethereal space, that I was the architect of my own pain, the warden of my own prison. I could see the choice before me to re-enter that prison or to step away, to walk on the grass outside, to lunch in its shadow, to be free of it. I had been punishing myself in that space for so long, struggling with all of my might to be free of it, but struggling with my right hand and restraining myself with my left. I could see that now, and the choice was clear: return to this madness or be free of it forever.

You’d think, in that moment, that the choice would be a simple one. Who in their right mind would step into a prison, lock themselves inside, and throw away the key? Who in their right mind would choose a life of misery and suffering?

I would.

I did, for decades, meticulously maintaining that illusion, that prison, despite the high cost of doing so, a cost measured in lost friends and hurt feelings and damaged relationships, all the while blaming others when the pain came only from me.

And, in that moment, when all of this was so clear to me, still I hesitated. Still, I clung to my illusions like a child clings to a shopworn teddy bear. They were all I had known for so many years, to let them go was suicide. They kept me safe. Yes, they caused me suffering, but that suffering was nothing compared to the potential suffering that awaited me outside the confines of that prison. Out there was the unknown, the uncontrollable. In here was safety, control. Illusion, yes. Falsehood, yes. Suffering, yes. But, safety.

And familiarity. I had lived in this place for so long that I had become this space. To leave it now would be to remove an organ from my body, to amputate a limb. To die, a death of a notion of myself, one with which I had identified for so long it had become the only notion I could recognize. It had become myself. To leave it behind would be to leave myself behind. It would be to kill myself.

Do you feel that I’m overstating this? I assure you, I am not. I built and entered this prison when I was but a boy, and I did so for my own protection, protection against those who claimed to love me, but who were hurting me. What’s worse, I knew they did love me, but still they were hurting me, so it must have been me who was to blame. So, I built this prison, this brilliant solution, both to protect myself from being hurt and to punish myself for whatever I had done that deserved punishment. And I lived and grew within that space, that stunted safety. It became my home, my sanctuary.

But, in that moment, for the first time, I knew that I had to choose. For, in that moment, my choice was to remain in my sanctuary or to do what I knew was right. More, it was a choice between who I was and who I wanted to be. In that moment, fate stood beyond the bars, offering her hand. In seeing her face, the kindness, the understanding, the compassion, I wept. She knew my pain. She knew my fear. Her pity was not one of condescension, but one of hope. But, that hope stung me like a whip, so long had I denied it from entering. For hope carries with it the challenge of change, and change was not allowed in that sanctuary. Change was dangerous.

But, in that moment, change was upon me, and I saw then that change is all-powerful, that I could ignore it, but I could never deny it. No bars could shut it out, no walls protect me from it.

In that moment, this all became clear to me. The illusions lost their power, faded into diaphanous veils.

In that moment, I had to choose. To my credit, I admitted that I had a choice, I gave myself the opportunity to return to my cell or to step away from it. But, in truth, as soon as my eyes were opened, there was only one choice I could make. I could lie to myself no longer.

In that moment, trembling, I chose freedom.

In that moment, weeping, I chose truth.

In that moment, frightened, I chose risk, but I also chose joy.

In that moment, nervous, she said, “I’m late.”