Character Study

Warning: violence, mental health problems, swearing.

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The woman sits on the bus, like the rest of us. In strained silence, watching the sun leak out of the clouds and rehydrate our shadows as they flicker on the dirty rubber floor.

Then her phone rings. We all get to hear some terrible Billy Joel song I didn’t know existed, and will be very thankful to forget. Everyone like me who doesn’t have headphones blocking their vision scuffles their feet and looks around. Nasty looks. Nobody knows whose phone it is.

It keeps going. Jesus. It’s still going.

But it’s her phone. She answers it.

“You are a bad baby,” she says. No hello. Then, “You are a very bad baby.”

We’re wondering if this is just a warped term of endearment. I giggle a little, imagining a guilty baby calling his mom. “It happened again. The death brown, Ma. It happened. I’m sorry.” But we don’t get to hear the other side. She sits and listens for a while, and we sink into the mystery of it. A bad baby. Or a bad man.

“I’m very upset with you all right now,” she suddenly yells. And she does sound upset. Now we all think something the baby said made her very angry. Maybe the baby and his baby friends are all in trouble, now.

But she yells that so loud that the bus driver turns around and hollers, “Hey. No yellin’ on my bus this mornin’, alright?” And the alright manages to encapsulate the sound of a man working split shifts and eating cheap pre-packaged food to support his family. Maybe he has a bunch of bad babies, too, we think.

So she puts a hand over the phone, and very theatrically mouths a big “SORRY” to the people around her. Nobody looks her in the eye. We’re all still puzzling it out, and it’s about to get worse.

Before the woman puts the phone back to her ear, we hear a loud squawk from it. It sounds remarkably like a baby crying. But her voice goes into a parody of stern, like she’s heard on daytime TV maybe, and she tries to talk over what I still imagine is a crying baby, but can’t be. “Does your husband know about this? I said, does your HUSBAND KNOW ABOUT THIS?” And by the time she gets to the end of saying it the second time, she’s shrieking, holding the phone at arms length like it’s going to bite her, and her face is turning red.

We’re starting to get legitimately worried for her and the baby or whoever’s on the other end of the line, but the bus driver just doesn’t give a shit and pulls over to the side of the road. “Candy. Get out,” he orders. That must be her name, we realize. Even though it sounds like a curse when he says it.

Candy ignores him and the rest of us, fuming at the phone in her hand. “You are still a very bad baby.” Somehow it becomes clear to us that she’s somehow indicting the driver when she says it.

He stands up out of his seat, and sighs as he walks into view of the camera that’s recording all this for some poor person to have to watch back later. “I’m sick up to here with you riding on my bus trying to start shit. If you don’t hang up or get out the bus, I’ll have dispatch call the cops and have them at the transfer point.” The rest of us don’t have to watch it later. We’re all watching it now, missing our damn transfers because of Candy’s very bad baby.

So finally, Candy stands up. She looks me straight in the eye, and says, “I’m very upset with you all, you know.”

Then she walks past me and looks at some old woman across the way. “Does your husband know about this?”

As she steps off the bus, the driver lowers himself back into his seat gingerly, shaking his head. She turns around as the door closes, and points the phone at him, violently flipping him off with the other hand. “You are a very bad baby!”

“Sorry folks,” the driver says over the intercom. “I don’t know how Ma found out what route I drive. We’re gonna be late to the transfer point.”

Someone up front derisively yells, “You a bad baby!” We all laugh a little. Not a lot… just enough to try to forget that it all happened. But I can’t get that god damn Billy Joel song out of my head.


Boundary Condition

A woman whose hair looked to be trying to escape her orbit pushed her way out of the night, into the gas station. Glancing around the garish walls, she shook her head, sending her black curls vibrating. “Hey, kid. You mind if I plug in somewhere?”

The bored kid behind the counter set down his phone. “Wazzat? Oh, yeah, whatever lady. There’s an outlet behind the Twinkies and shit.”

Kristin muttered to herself as she raced to where he pointed, floundering in her purse. Out came the cord, and she bent down behind the display shelf, not even caring if the kid stared at her ass. But he was back to scrolling, past heavy lids, scrolling like his life depended on it.

She hunched down in a squat because the cord wouldn’t reach far enough to stand, and muttered nervously as her phone danced through its stupid waltz of powering on. “Don’t do something stupid, Chuck. Just don’t ruin our boy. Just don’t ruin his life, Chuck.”

Flipping through the pending texts, Kristin swore and then put the phone to her ear. “Come on come on…” She really wanted to pace around, but the short leash kept her staring at the sunflower seeds as she ground her teeth. “Hey, honey. Now what the heck is going on? What did you mean, you found something?”

As he began to talk, she sighed and looked at the dirty tiled floor with clear distaste. Shaking her head, she put a hand on the floor to lower herself down to sit against the Ding Dongs and Nutty Bars.

“We promised we wouldn’t snoop on his… No, Chuck. We promised him his messages were…” Running a hand through her hair as his voice grew louder, a wave of anger rolled through her, and her forehead flushed. “Don’t you dare. Do not shame him. Do not shame our son.”

Kristen pushed herself back on her haunches, and then suddenly stood up. The phone flew out of her hand and hit the floor with a clunk. “Dang it,” she muttered, picking it back up. “So now you’re the judge? How dare you?”

Her face reddening, she glanced up to see if the kid at the counter was paying attention. He appeared to be ignoring her, so she let some of the rage into her voice. “No, wait. What do you mean? Why would I care that much if our son is gay? Why do YOU care?”

Pulling the phone off of the wire, she stood up and began to pace, her shoes clacking on the tiles in an uneven beat. “Charles, do not even THINK about it. What do you mean? It’s not our place. Are you really going to love him less, now?”

An angry buzz came from the phone, and she held it away from her ear. “Calm down, Charles. Not until we talk. No, damn it. NO. Yes, I’m fucking swearing at you now. I’ll be home in ten.” Grimacing, she slung her purse over her shoulder and stomped to the doors.

“Wait. He’s pulling in NOW?” She slammed into the door handle, but it didn’t budge. “Don’t you even. No, Charles. God no…”

“Pull,” said the sleepy kid at the cash register.

Howling like an angry dog, Kristin yanked at the handle and stalked off.

The dude working there blinked, with a look on his face like he just woke up and was preferring the dream. He yelled, “Hey lady, you forgot…” but trailed off. She was already getting in her car. “Your charger. Whatever.” He looked over at the cable snaking out from under the Twinkies, took a step around, and then stopped. Then he leaned over the counter with a groan and put his face in his hands. Trying not to think about his dead dad, how he hadn’t talked to his mom in months, or the disaster that he still hadn’t dealt with in the men’s restroom. The muzak helpfully started up a horrifically bland cover of Here Comes the Sun. “And I say, it’s all right.”



I could write it like a horror story, the way the world ends, or I could write it like a beautiful dream. You could describe the awful shock of suddenly waking up to a world colored in radioactive glowing pinks and purples, sitting up to exclaim some profanity, and instead vomiting tiny colorful candies all over the bed. Or you could tell the truth about the end of the world, because I have to be honest here. It feels amazing when the candy pours out of my mouth unbidden. Even that first time, when my shock and horror gave way to supreme bliss, I knew that this was what my life was leading up to.

I know that sounds stupid when I write it down, like that. But it brings me great joy. It is a pleasure greater than orgasm, a wholesome gift of giving. It is what I am meant to do.

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Your Number

You’re in the kitchen making dinner, listening to one of your favorite albums in your headphones because the neighbor is out mowing the lawn yet again. Chopping up the potatoes, singing along because the house is empty, still, and then the music stops.

You frown, wipe your hands off quickly, and pull your phone out of your pocket. Oh, it’s a call. Your area code, but unknown number. You shrug and pick up. “Hello?”

A woman’s voice you don’t recognize says, “Is Sandy there?”

“No, sorry, you must have the wrong number.” For some reason you’ve been getting a lot of these lately. You rattle off your number.

“Oh, shoot, you’re right. I should have known! You don’t sound like a Sandy,” she says.

“Yup, have a nice day…” And you’re about to hang up when a moment of deja vu makes you stop and wait. Didn’t this exact conversation just happen recently? You could swear that ‘You don’t sound like a Sandy’ line is just too familiar. Where did you hear that?

Then her voice breaks your reverie. “Umm, sorry. You still there?” She says ‘still’ with a slight drawl, but you can’t place the accent.

“Yeah, uhh.” You blink. “You want something?”

“What… what’s the date? I mean I know this sounds like a prank call…” But it doesn’t. She sounds earnest, and a bit stressed out.

“Uhh, I’m not sure. It’s Sunday. Like the twentieth or something, maybe?”

“But it’s… it’s 2017 where you are, yeah?”

“Look lady–” And just as you’re about to yell at her for messing with you, a strange echoing series of clicks interrupt you, rhythmic and almost musical, but loud and getting louder. They get so loud that she’s saying something you can’t hear at all beneath the noise.

“Gah!” you yell, as you rip the earbuds from your ears. Your phone shouldn’t be even able to get that loud. You stand there, weirdly embarrassed, staring at the wires as they sit placidly on the waiting pile of chopped potatoes.

The mower next door buzzes. You can hear something coming out of the headphones. Oh, right… it’s the album you were listening to before. You pop the earbuds back in, pick up the knife, and slice the onion down the center.

And then the music stops again. Another call. Same number. You have to confess to yourself that you’re kind of curious. Even if it’s a prank, she’s at least entertaining.

So you answer it. “Hello?”

“Is Sandy there?” It’s the same woman.

“No, you still have the wrong number.”

“And you still don’t sound like a Sandy,” she says.

“Well, it’s 2017 still, if that’s what you’re after.”

“Who’s president? Trump, right?” Her voice sounds like she’s almost too nervous to ask it.

You sigh. “Yeah, sad as that is, right?” Your reply comes out of your mouth before you realize how strange her question is. Then a strange whooshing noise comes across the line, and you hear what sounds like an argument in the background.

“Listen, Frank,” a man’s voice says loudly. “It’s too late, the branch has grown too long after we cut the root.”

“No, I’m telling you, we can take this upstairs.” A different male voice.

“Forget upstairs. We’re talking about fundamental laws,” says Not-Frank.

A tiny click and then you hear the woman sigh. “I’m really sorry I involved you in this.” Then she breathes your name like she knows you. “I’m sorry.” In that moment, you could swear she’s a relative. Or an old friend. But you just can’t place her.

The clicks start overriding her just as she starts to say something else, and you yell “Bye!” as you rip the headphones out.

Standing there, staring at the cutting board still, you shake your head. Then you pull up your call log and call back.

A man with gravel in his voice answers. “Hello, this is Sandy.”

“Oh, uhh, sorry. Wrong number,” you find yourself saying, feeling slightly dizzy.

“Look, we’ll try to purge and reincorporate the branch you’re on, but it probably won’t work. Things have gotten too strange. We just clipped a root of Trump branches, but we must have missed one.”

“Branches? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Now your time is isolated. You have our apologies, but there’s nothing else we can do…” He trails off, like he’s waiting for you to say something.

“Okay. This is officially the weirdest prank I’ve ever been subjected to,” you say.

“Yes,” he says. “It sure is. A prank.” He doesn’t sound real sure of himself. It’s a pretty convincing act, you think. “Again, sorry. Goodbye,” he says.

The phone clicks, and your music starts back up. You poke at your phone to go save the number, but there’s nothing in your call log. No outgoing, no incoming. None from today, none at all. Just blank. That’s weird.

Oh well. You pick up the onion again and start mincing it. When the next song kicks in, you start to forget all about the calls. You love this song, so you start singing along.


The Yummy Ducklings

No, this is a different story. Nope, not the same one your mommy read to you. Exactly! Now you see, children, the ducks of the Fairy Kingdom are a bit different than the ones we have here, in the normal realm. While their ducks and our ducks both love bread, and at a glance seem to be identical… What, Sammy? No no, not all bumpy-lumpy. Identical means the same. While they seem the same at first sight, instead of going ‘Quack, quack!’ these ducks can talk. Just like you and me!

Well, at first, when they’re tiny, they’re just learning how to talk. You know, like how your baby brother can only say ‘mama’ and ‘dada’. The ducklings are just like that. They quack ‘mama’ and ‘feed me’ and learn as they go. Except in the Fairy Kingdom, the ducks might learn different things than you. Because it’s the Fairy Kingdom, and everything there is sprinkled with magic.

Now give me just a second, why they’re yummy is part of the story I’m trying to tell you!

The first little duckling’s name was Samij. Sort of like your name, Sammy! But he was silly, Samij was, and he decided that he would try to live life to the fullest. So he ate and ate and ate the gross little grubs and fishies that little ducklings like to eat. He ate and ate until he got all fat. Then he couldn’t run, he could only waddle around. Yes, ha ha, a waddling little baby duck. One day, he was out waddling around looking for food, and a wolf ran up and ate him. Just like that. Munch munch!

Don’t cry. Samij was born in the Fairy Kingdom, so he was reborn as a log or a fish or a spider, later. Yes, that’s how it works in the Fairy Kingdom. Probably not here, but who knows? No, I wouldn’t want to be a log either. But who knows? Maybe being a log is totally great! You should ask a log sometime.

Back to the story. The second little duckling’s name was Ashanda, and when she saw the fate that befell Samij, she became very fixated on being skinny, and fast. Ashanda ran everywhere, until her wings grew out, and then she flew way up in the sky. But she didn’t eat enough, and so she couldn’t fly very fast. And a hawk swooped out of nowhere and ate her up. Yum yum, he said, as he soared through the air with Ashanda in his belly. And for a brief moment, as he dove towards his nest, Ashanda was finally as lightning fast as she had wanted to be.

That’s right, Lanny. Ashanda died in the hawk tummy, but she was reborn later, having learned her lesson. We hope. But remember, children, we may not get that second chance, because we don’t live in the Fairy Kingdom. But you have to finish everything on your plate when your mommy and daddy say so, so you grow up big and strong.

The momma duck named her third little duckling Wilbur. Wilbur decided one day that since the Fairy Kingdom was a magical place, he sat there and decided the trees and the rivers and the sky and the sun were all watched over by invisible fairies. Because fairies are magic, you see. So he made little fires and burnt grubs and fishes for the fairies. Well, he didn’t see the fairies. Right, right. That’s right. He just assumed they were there, so Wilbur went and did his thing.

And sometimes his sacrifice and his constant beseeching of the fairies — well, beseeching is kind of like praying or begging. He was constantly shouting at the sky, stuff like, ‘O great fairies! Shine your lucky, pretty light on us ducks!’ And sometimes when Wilbur shouted at the sky, what he wanted to happen came true. And sometimes it didn’t. But the other ducklings started to join in with his fairy worship, even though their momma duck warned them that they couldn’t rely on fairies.

One day, as he was leading a sacrifice and was all weighed down by his wacky ceremonial robes, Wilbur was snatched up by a fox and carried off. Crunch, crunch, yum. As the fox hopped off with his dinner in his teeth, Wilbur yelled, “Save me oh great fairies of the forest! QUACK!” The other ducklings watched him get dragged off in horror, and then they all ran in every direction screaming. Well, quacking. Quack-screaming.

That’s true, the fox probably had to spit out the robes after, but it probably thought Wilbur himself made a delicious dinner. Now one of the other ducklings, named Felis, was inspired by Wilbur, and continued to worship the fairies of the forest and the fairies of the sky and the fairies of the rivers, even though they hadn’t saved Wilbur from being dinner.

But Felis had a dream one night, where the Great Fairy came to her and said, ‘There is only one Fairy in all of the Kingdom, and I am she! I have dominion over all ducks, over all the trees, over all the rivers, over all the sky, and over all the creatures that live in them. You must worship only the one true Fairy!’

So of course, Felis told all her brother and sister ducklings about this dream. And many of them began to worship the One True Great Fairy, instead of the many fairies of the kingdom they had praised before. And one day, it just so happened that a coyote came upon Felis as she slept, and even though she had begged the One True Great Fairy for protection that night before she drifted off, the coyote ate her up. Yum, the coyote said, as he hopped off through the valley.

And when the ducks all woke up in the morning, when Felis was gone, they praised the One True Great Fairy, because they thought she had taken Felis up to live with her in the Crystalline Castle, so high up in the sky that the ducklings couldn’t see it even if they flew up as high as their little wings would go. Well then.

By now the ducklings in the Fairy Kingdom had got quite advanced indeed, as their mother looked on, quite baffled by all of this, and saddened by how many of her brood had been eaten up so far. But she remembered her own mother’s sad, knowing smile, and understood that was the way of ducklings: they would try new ugly and pretty things, and eventually they would end up as food for the forest creatures of the Kingdom. She had been lucky to survive into a big duck, long enough to have alllllll of these ducklings, but even she would be dinner for a Fairy Kingdom dweller someday.

Sure, she was sad. That’s true, Jana… But the momma knew she couldn’t save them all, because she couldn’t make them any less yummy to the wolves and hawks and foxes and coyotes of the Fairy Kingdom. So she did the best she could to protect them as they had their various adventures.

One day, another duckling, named Bisho, had a brilliant idea. He said, ‘These shiny fairy coins that we find in the forest aren’t tasty. We can’t eat them. But they’re pretty and shiny and rare, let’s use these to trade each other for food and favors!’ Exactly, Sammy. Just like money. But for ducks!

They carried the golden coins under their wings, using them to pay for things, fearful that another duckling would take their shiny coins. Some of the ducklings dug pits in the forest, to hide their treasure piles. And Bisho, who’d been the smarty-pants to start the whole idea, had been very sneaky indeed. He only told everyone after he had amassed the biggest treasure pile of them all.

But soon, when Bisho was going to check on one of his secret gold stashes, a big old bear crashed through the branches and grabbed him up and… You guessed it. She ate him right up. ‘Mmm, mmm good,’ said the bear, as she chomped up little Bisho. Next, the bear saw the shiny golden coins, and she picked one up and chomped it, but it didn’t taste yummy like Bisho did. ‘Oh well,’ she said, stomping back through the forest. ‘That was one yummy duckling!’ she roared. Oh, now, don’t be so scared, that’s just my bear voice. I’m pretending, see? ‘YUM YUM! RAAARRR!”

It turned out that one of the other ducklings was hiding in the branches. The whole time, she sat there shivering, terrified. Yup, she had been sneaky; she was following Bisho to his treasure! But now, after watching him become a bear snack, Irsa had other ideas. She’d been convinced that the gold coins were not lucky, after all. She went back to the other ducklings, and filled with terror, she told them how their money was cursed.

Irsa stood on top of a stump so her voice would carry to all the gathered ducks, and explained to them that instead of hoarding money or worshipping The Great Fairy or any other thing, they should try to make their life in the Fairy Kingdom better by small strides, and help each other. ‘Let’s be nice to each other, and try to help each other not be eaten, instead of hoarding coins or shouting at the sky.’

Her mother duck said, ‘That sounds very sensible indeed, little Irsa.’ And as Irsa preened with satisfaction atop the trunk, a giant snake came out of nowhere, shoom! And he slid right up the stump she stood on and swallowed her whole, slithering and hissing off into the trees before any of the ducks could do anything more than blink.

And then, through her tears, with a quack in her voice, the mother duck told her ducklings that surely their sister would be reborn as something nice. ‘But you should all remember and think on Irsa’s wise words,’ she said. And as their momma’s quacking quavered, they huddled together all scared, and the remaining ducklings were not quite sure what to believe.

The end!

Yup, sorry, that’s the end of the story. Well, no, Bo… I guess you can’t say they lived happily ever after, really. All the ducklings were beautiful and ugly in their own way, but they were all yummy food for sneaky wolves, or yummy food for scary bears, or yummy food for speedy snakes.

Now it’s time for you all to go to bed. No no, don’t cry now, that was a fairy tale. Wolves and bears and snakes don’t eat human children in real life. The creatures of the Fairy Kingdom’s forests just eat tasty little ducklings.