Rat Shuffle

That in-between time struck the city at the clock’s stroke of 4am.

It was still quiet. There wasn’t much traffic except for the very early morning shift, and a few rats shuffling down the sidewalks. Occasionally you could hear the click of the changing of the traffic lights.

Eric had grabbed his morning coffee before work. He stood at the corner and stood watch. He still had 20 minutes before he had to make his way to the train station. If he was lucky, there wouldn’t be any track fires, boozed up denizens, or any other mishaps on the train. He didn’t want to be late.

A woman suddenly caught his eye. She had runs in her stockings, and was wearing only one shoe. In her left hand, a shiny red leather pump was dangling like a dead plaything. The heel was broken.

He wondered if he should offer her a cigarette, but then changed his mind. She might want something else. Thoughts crossed his mind. Eric imagined scenarios for the stranger. Was she getting off of work, or headed home after partying? How did her heel break? Why did some women wear such footwear, knowing the risk of being caught shoeless in the streets.

Yelling broke Eric’s train of thought. A man stormed out of the deli. He didn’t have enough change for whatever he wanted, and soothed his wounded pride by shouting epithets at the store clerks tucked safely inside. He finished off his tirade, triumphantly sailing the leftover coffee in his cup at the window. It hit the window with a smack, and left the milky brown liquid streaming down the glass.

Eventually, something gnawed at Eric to check his watch. He had been too absorbed in people watching. He had 4 minutes to make it to the platform. Looking up at the traffic light, it was still red. It didn’t matter, because there were no cops or heavy traffic around.

Eric dashed for the train. He ran across the street, nearly bumped into an old woman scavenging the garbage can for aluminum cans to recycle, and headed up the stairs.

His lungs were burning as he hustled up the stairs. Two minutes to make it to the platform. He pushed passed the doors, pulled his metro card out of his back pocket, and slipped through the turnstiles. One minute to go.

Eric looked down the tracks, and was greeted with the oncoming lights of the train. Passengers were scattered about the platform. Some were checking their phones, while others were sipping coffee or gnoshing on bagels or breakfast fixings from the deli.

The train pulled up and Eric filed into one of the cars. It was still early enough, so he was able to grab a seat. The train pulled out of the station, and Eric began staring out of the windows. Reaching for his front right pocket, he fumbled about for his headphones.

Another day. Another dollar. 35 minutes until he would arrive at his destination. After arriving two stops before his, that’s when it happened. The brakes were pulled, and the train screeched to an abrupt stop. Track fire.

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The Outsider

The bird swooped down and landed at Laura’s feet.

She watched it, as it cautiously hopped toward the seeds that laid scattered about. Pecking furiously, the bird worked quickly to open the sunflower seeds, and greedily ate the contents inside.

Laura laughed to herself as she watched. Sometimes she wondered what it was like to be a bird. It seemed that they always managed to find their way, no matter what. Perhaps there were always people like herself, who would make it a point to occassionally feed them.

Life hadn’t been the kindest. Laura beared the scars to prove it. Her jeans, ripped at the knees, where peppered in paint, sewn-on patches, and an oddly placed zipper. Each embellishment was a memory and a testament to her life.

Laura had lived off the kindness of strangers for many a year. The day she sprang from her abusive alcoholic father’s house, the open road was her home from then on. It had been two years since her dog London had passed, and she had yet to pick up another travel companion.

She kept his collar around one of the straps of her backpack, worn from hopping trains, and hitchiking on highways. Occasionally she would find herself lovingly stroking London’s collar, when she found herself missing him.

Laura remembered one night sleeping huddled under a bridge. Luckily, London was by her side, and barked when some creep tried to steal her shoes in the night. She never slept well. Vigilance was her only security, in a merciless world hellbent on catching her in a careless moment.

Eventually, a few other birds gathered around, to enjoy the little feast that Laura had provided. Scrounging around her bag, she pulled out a soda that she lifted from a nearby drugstore. Popping off the cap with her lighter, she let the cap hit the ground unceremoniously. She tilted her head back, as the cool drink hit the back of her throat.

She let out a loud belch, followed with a laugh, and stretched out her arms. Life was hard, but she was free. The birds were almost done eating their meal, as Laura gathered her things. She was headed to see the river, one last time before she had to catch a train. The road was calling again.

 

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The Lake

Terri looked out on to the wide expanse of bright blue water.

She was shocked that this was only one of the Great Lakes. It had to be an ocean, but in the back of her mind, reality set in that she was land-locked.

She made her way down the path, so she get closer to the craggy rocks that cradled the water at its edge. The waves ebbed and flowed, while occasionally jumping up to lick at the rocks. A splash of water would leave behind droplets and small pools of water, which would eventually make their return to their source.

The air reeked of dead fish, but there was no salt to it. This was indeed a lake, despite its immense size. Terri carefully ambled over the rocks, as she didn’t want to slip out of her shoes. She chided herself silently for not wearing boots.

Terri looked around the rocks, to see if she could find anything of interest. Glass bottles poked their necks out between cracks, amid used condoms and torn wrappers, broken doll arms, and the occasional muddied newspaper. A rat scampered quickly past, in an effort not to be seen or caught.

Eventually, Terri spied the perfect rock for her to take a seat. The top surface was flat enough, with only a slight dip on one side. She took her place atop the rock, crossed her legs, and began to stare more deeply at the water.

Occasionally a sailboat or two would make an appearance, where it seemed the edges of the water were touching the sky. A lighthouse way off to the distance began to emerge. The sounds of passing traffic veering down the nearby highway faded off into the distance. Terri closed her eyes, absorbing all that was around her.

Passing gulls swooped in and out, while calling out to each other. The sound of the waves gently crashing into each other, or pounding against the rocks made a soothing rhythm. The chatter of occasional passerby was hushed to a whisper. It was just Terri and the lake. A moment of rare serenity was gleaned.

 

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Hoodies Don’t Last Forever

Darcy looked down at her hoodie, dismayed that the zipper had suddenly broken.

She muttered a curse to the air in frustration. This hoodie was her absolute favorite one to wear. It was black, with sturdily constructed pockets, that had pyramid studs on the edges. She loved to dip her hands into the pockets, when the autumn chill nipped at her fingertips.

The oversized sleeves of the hoodie, made a repeating pattern of black and white stripes, with thumb holes. It was perfect. It was her favorite. Now, it was broken beyond repair. She didn’t want to replace it just yet. Perhaps a funeral would be in order.

She could see it now. She pictured her friends Gabby and Eva at her side, joining her in a solemn tearful farewell, as they laid the hoodie to rest. Dramatics were a necessary order for this hoodie. She had survived 2 years of school, while wearing her signature and most perfect hoodie as her fashionable armor. Darcy fingered the pins attached to her hoodie lovingly.

There was a sweet little cartoon rabbit pin, from her favorite toy designer Carrot Ties. Another pin, she collected from a book signing by a graphic novel writer she adored. Lastly, at a punk art swap event, she scooped up a funny little pin with an adorable monster face on it. This hoodie was part of her life story. It contained a rich collection of memories, from dodging scrapes, sipping bubble tea with her friends, and curling up with comics and magazines in secret corners and on fire escapes.

Darcy sighed, as she folded the hoodie and placed it on the corner of her bed. Looking over the hoodie sadly, she was lost in thought until a knock at the door broke the silence.

“Hey Darcy, your mom said it was cool if we came by.” Gabby said smiling as she entered the room.

“Who died?” Eva asked with an air of concern? She always seemed to notice when something was up with Darcy, almost immediately.

“My precious hoodie is no more. The zipper broke.” Darcy replied, pointing weakly at the hoodie.

“Well, maybe we can find a way to upcycle it?” Gabby suggested warmly.

“Upcycle?” Darcy asked, with a mix of hopefulness and curiosity in her face.

“Yeah, Darcy.” Gabby continued.“I signed up to this art and green life workshop. We’re learning about using old things that are still precious to us, or found objects. It’s about giving them new life.”

Darcy perked up. “Is there still room in the workshop?”

“Yeah. You should come too Eva.” Gabby answered smiling coolly. “Let me show you something I’m working on now.” Gabby began rummaging through her backpack. She pulled out a thick block of wood with some splatters and stains on it.

“See look, I rescued this wood from an alleyway, and I’m using it to make a block print. Pretty wicked, huh?” Gabby held up the block so that Darcy and Eva could get a closer look.

Passing the block around, an idea struck Darcy. “When do they meet, people for the workshop?”

“It’s two times a week, on Thursday and Saturdays. Sometimes on Fridays, there’s open studio space too. That’s when there’s a community free-for-all for creating all sorts of stuff.” Gabby answered. “You want to show up around 3pm. You two will like it, I’m sure.”

“I’m in.” Eva replied. She had dreams of making some more bracelets to stack on her arms.

“Me too.” Darcy said with a smile. She was looking at the hoodie, now confident that she had a solution to her problems.

Thursday came around, and the girls all met up at the workshop. Darcy was excited. There were people of different ages around, but mostly students like themselves. Everyone had a very laid back vibe, and were very friendly. Only a few seriously older people looked a bit stern and possibly grouchy, but that was because they were deep in focus, carving or painting very large found items.

Darcy took a seat next to Eva, Gabby, and three other people at their table.

“Hi, I’m Julie.” A friendly girl with freckles, braces, and vibrant magenta bangs with a skull hair clip held out her hand for a shake.

“I’m Darcy, and these are my friends Eva and Gabby.” Darcy said as she gave Julie a handshake.

“Yeah, Gabby told us about you and Eva. These two are Donald and Sand.”

Donald was a quiet type, but smiled and gave a short wave. Sand looked like he was the brooding leader of the bunch. He just gave a head nod, without taking out his headphones.

Soon, the workshop began. Wynn, an amiable artist-in residence and instructor came to each table. As she introduced herself, Darcy explained to her what she wanted to accomplish.

Darcy pulled out her block of thick styrofoam padding. This had been rescued from the alley of the old electronics store, which she would pass on her way to school. She quickly got the hang of learning to carve out a design. When she was finished, she ended up with the image of a swallow tail bird. Encircling the bird, Darcy carved some flowers and lightening bolts, to give it more edge.

Everyone oohed over her emerging skill with carving. “I’m not done yet. Just wait.” Darcy picked out her inks, and rolled up the block carefully. Next, she pulled out a black piece of cloth. She placed the cloth lovingly on the table, and imprinted her print onto the fabric.

“What are you going to do with the patch?” Gabby asked excitedly.

“Yeah, it looks really cool.” Julie commented. Eva and Donald nodded in agreement. Even Sand seemed to look up from his work, to investigate.

“Well, this patch I made from my old favorite hoodie. I didn’t know what to do when the zipper broke. So, I decided to give it a new life as a patch.” Darcy answered proudly. She later stitched the patch to her backpack. The spirit of her hoodie lived on, never to be lost again.

 

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Our Town

The thought of an impending flood terrified Erin.

She imagined a tsunami like wave, created from the non-stop torrential downpour, rushing in and covering the town. Then again, maybe like a clogged bathtub, the water would just rise and rise, until everything was deluged.

She didn’t know what to expect. All able-bodied young people, women and men, gathered together to place sandbags at strategic places. On the news, their eyes bore a sense of fierce determination, trepidation, and hope. This was our home. This was our town.

Erin was too young to help, and she had to watch over her younger siblings. Sarah and Taylor played together happily, unaware of the danger that was coming. Erin thought of her earliest memory of water. She was stomping around in puddles, while wearing her green and white polka dot rain boots.

Water was something that filled pools and bathtubs. Water was for water balloon fights and water parks. Water was the ingredient that made running through sprinklers, or drinking from garden hoses into a magic summer.

With each passing minute, as the raindrops congealed into violent rivers, water was now a threat. It had only been raining two whole days, but that was enough to push the town to its limit. The dam was under strain, and the outlets and basins had reached their breaking point.

The people were not giving up. No one wanted to evacuate just yet. Something could be done. Sandbags, faith, and tenacity would pull the town through. “Bring it on flood,” seemed to be the underlying spirit of the people, as they tirelessly worked together. They would hold fast.

Erin continued to watch the news anxiously, until she fell asleep on the couch. She awakened to her siblings sleeping next to her, cuddled under the burnt orange comforter. She heard the key in the door, and smiled with relief, as her parents walked through the door.

Everyone was home now. They would pull through. No matter the weather, no matter how bad the storm. This was home. This was her family.

 

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The Meet

Dinah took a deep breath. She fixed her eyes on a point at the pool, bent down toward her toes with arms outstretched, and dove. The water was brittle and icy, as her body broke through the surface of the pool. She soon shook off the shock of the frigid temperature, as she was focused on the goal. She wanted gold. She wanted to win.

Quickly she moved into her learned rhythm. Right stroke. Left stroke. Right stroke. Her arms worked mechanically, as if they were attached to someone else, or perhaps even something else. She cut through the water like a steel knife. Seamlessly and effortlessly, it seemed like her body moved across the pool.

The nearest competitor was just a few seconds ahead of her. Her arms and legs had yet to start burning. She could press ahead, knowing that anaerobic respiration had not yet tried to get the best of her. Just a little faster, she thought to herself. Right stroke. Left stroke. She was almost at the wall.

Then her finger tips touched the tile. Bells and cheers resounded through the room, ricocheting and echoing off the water and walls. She had arrived victorious. She managed to beat her competitor by a sheer few seconds.

As she emerged out of the pool, a towel was draped around her shoulders. She looked out to the stands. Her eyes pored over the excited crowd, and stopped short at the empty seat where they should have been sitting. The accident had cut their life short, just a few months before the final meet. She didn’t know if she had it in her, until now.

“This is for you.” She whispered quietly, while still maintaining a smile for the onlookers.

 

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Marta

Marta woke up to the sound of birds chirping outside her windows. Her view was obstructed by the clippings of newspapers that covered half the window, and a security gate to keep out unwanted intruders. She never had any visitors. Sometimes she thought to do away with the gate, but living in a city, reminded her that was a foolish thought.

Sometimes she would wonder the streets, until she would find refuge at a park bench. She would pull out some bread that she picked up at the local baker. Often, she would set aside just one sweet bread. It was a tribute for the little birds that would be her only company, surrounding her feet. It was a nice diversion, to quiet the deafening loneliness that never paid rent to live with her.

She would forget about how she came into that ramshackle apartment twenty years ago. She didn’t think about the persistent leaky sink, that was a longstanding amenity to the neighboring rats and roaches. All that mattered was those few moments of peace, which she found at the park. Slowly, Marta would dip her hand into a paper sack, pinch off a piece of bread, and throw it to the ground.

The birds would swoop down and land in front of the bench. Sometimes one would be brave enough to land on her shoulder, or eat directly from her hand. Marta liked to think of the birds as little saints, who would fly to heaven, and whisper her prayers to God. She greatly enjoyed the comfort from their songs, their kindness, and how they looked past her shortcomings.

Perhaps, if there was such a thing as reincarnation, she could be reborn as a bird and return the favor. Sometimes, a dark thought came to her, that the birds were simply taking advantage of her having food. Then again, life was about give and take. What was the loss, to simply share a crust of bread with another living soul?