The card game (a very short story with pictures)

cards 1

The card game was rigged, Pat was sure of it. Even the cards didn’t look right. How could Pat know anything anymore? The queen of diamonds – was that a queen? Pat was sure there was a shadow of a mustache. Was that a crown or a helmet? Was this an omen of a fight?

The dealer smiled and shrugged.

“Them’s the cards. You gonna study them or play them? ‘Cause I don’t have time for art dealers.”

Of course, he didn’t say any of this in English. But even Mandarin has dialects like backwoods Alabama does. Every language does. It doesn’t matter what the phrasebooks say – there’s always a casual under-language, a side-speech. People use it when they get comfortable, switching into it the same way they switch into pajamas when they get home. Just like the pajamas, they don’t do it around strangers or those they want to impress. You have to be in, like family or a close friend to see people’s real side.

Pat wasn’t sure why the dealer was talking like this. They’d only known each other a week. This dialect that was meant to make someone feel more comfortable was making Pat feel more and more nervous instead. This wasn’t a good way to start. It could very well be the end.

“It’s just that I don’t recognize the cards, that’s all. I’m distracted. Do you have others?”

Pat didn’t want to be distracted. Return-home money was riding on this game. Play it well and Pat was gone. Play it badly and Pat stayed, a slave. Sure they treat their “visitors” well here, but certain freedoms would disappear, along with Pat’s identity cards. Only the spirits knew what can happen when someone has no name, no birthdate, and they weren’t telling, as usual.

“Sure. I saved these. I found them in an old junk store a dozen years ago. See? I’m helping you out.” He fanned out the new cards on the battered wooden table.

card 3

Pat studied the new deck. The images were familiar, but the shape wasn’t. Round? The image on the back looked ancient too.

cards 2

Surely these were telltale cards with all those petals and leaves. A dot here and a missing petal there, and the dealer would know at a glance whether you were bluffing or winning. Best to try and conceal them as much as possible. Pat was grateful for large hands. It was the only advantage now. The dealer wouldn’t change the deck again, that was for sure. It was best not to push him.

(This story was inspired by a pack of ephemera I bought from the Etsy craft site. It was limited by the size of the page I glued the ephemera to. I didn’t use pronouns with the main character because I wanted the gender to be ambiguous.)

Waiting.

waiting

 

It wasn’t long now. They said they were coming back. Only problem was that they didn’t say when. So every day at 3 o’clock she went outside and looked towards the horizon, wearing her best clothes. Every day she stood in the same spot near the plain gray house, waiting.

The first day she waited three whole hours. She stood most of that time, wanting to appear as eager and ready on the outside and she felt inside. It wouldn’t do to look ungrateful for the gift they promised. Wouldn’t do to seem indifferent or casual about such an opportunity. After a while her legs got tired, so she sat on the Adirondack chair even though it was almost as uncomfortable as sitting on a pew. She had plenty enough of that kind of sitting. That was why she was so eager to go.

Still she waited, and still they made her wait. Maybe they forgot? Maybe this was a test? Maybe they reckoned time differently than earthlings did?

She kept the Visitation secret from Paw and her brother. They’d wonder about her if she told. If Maw was still around she’d have been sent down the river to the State Hospital, like how all the other rejects and misfits were sent, those who heard voices and saw people who weren’t there to everybody else. They were trash as far as the village saw it, so down they went, along with the barges of other broken and forgotten things. They took the Bible seriously when it said “You must purge the evil from among you.” Too bad their definition of evil was very wide.

She was safe now in part because she was female. The men-folk didn’t want to have to do all the cleaning and cooking. So even if they suspected something was amiss they’d be reluctant to send her away because they’d have to take up her chores. It didn’t mean they wouldn’t send her anyway, because harboring a defective was grounds for being sent downriver along with. Better to sacrifice your child or your spouse than to go yourself. A lifetime of building up the homestead wasted, and for nothing.

So still she waited, every day hopeful that would be the day. This was the 438th day, a Wednesday. She had waiting down to an art, if not a science, by now. She’d learned to finish her chores an hour before, and then to change into Church clothes at least 20 minutes before the time to go outside. Once, early on, she’d left it too late and didn’t have time to put her shoes on. Barefoot was better than left behind, so out into the prickly grass she went. She’d learned to do better from then on.

It took a while for Paw to get used to her going outside and waiting every day. At first she took a book with her as a cover, saying it was better for her eyes to read in natural light. He didn’t argue with that, thinking maybe it would save money on glasses in the future. He wasn’t keen on spending money at all, but much less so when it came to his daughter. He had no use for her. She wasn’t going to inherit the farm or the family name, so why bother? She was just another mouth to feed, and after that a dowry to pay. Made no sense to have to pay a man to marry his daughter, but that was how it was and no changing it.

Yet another reason to get away.  She had no plans on marrying, of having to have some other man tell her what to do and when to do it. The ones who came promised her she’d never have to get married because they didn’t marry where they came from.  Didn’t have a need of it.  There, people were able to take care of themselves once they were grown up.  They didn’t need to live with another person like a child would. They had partnerships, sure, but making legal commitments to each other just complicated things.  They had understandings and agreements, without the need for a piece of paper or a judicial system.  To complicate something as sacred as a partnership of any sort with the law meant that you were planning on trouble.  If you didn’t think it was going to work out, it was best not to make a partnership at all.

They promised her a lot, more than she believed or could imagine. But everything else they had promised and delivered on was truer than true, and lasting. She knew they were good to their word because they’d already shown her miracles. They’d given her a locket that told the future.  It showed her some of what would happen the next day, choices she could make to change things.  Just small things, but small was better than nothing.  All she had to do was open it and she’d have an edge on everyone else.  She kept it closed most of the time, but it was good to know she had this small advantage, this small proof that the Visitation was real.  She had a hard time believing it after so many days of waiting.

She kept the locket they gave her secret, under her clothes. Wouldn’t do to have it visible, or lost, wouldn’t do to leave it in her jewelry box, to be stolen like every other special thing she’d ever had. Her brother felt no guilt about coming in her room, going through her drawers and treasure boxes, taking whatever caught his fancy. He needed money for a new baseball mitt or the latest style of shoes, he’d take it from her, no asking. It took her a while to realize that things went missing. At first she thought maybe she’d spent some of it and hadn’t remembered to write it down. After a few weeks of money going missing, she had her suspicions and started keeping the tally in a separate place. When she showed the proof to Paw he just shrugged, saying “Boys will be boys”, like stealing was normal for boys. The part he didn’t say was that it meant being robbed was normal for girls. Too bad that being family meant nothing. No protection from thievery, of having your possessions, yourself, violated.

They promised that there she’d never have to worry about anything being stolen, not ever again. Never have to worry about being sick neither. Her personal safety was assured, and life would not only be better, but longer. Not immortal, mind you. Plenty others had promised that and couldn’t deliver. The trick there was simply living longer than anyone around you. They died, thinking you were immortal, when really you were just slowed down. There’s a reason hummingbirds have such short lives and turtles such long ones. Slow the heart rate down, slow the breathing down, and it seems like you are on the fast track to a long life.

She didn’t have to worry about taking medicine to slow her heart rate where she was going. They’d take out her human heart entirely, replace it with one they’d grown just for her, a better one. That would be the first thing replaced. They’d taken samples to grow a whole set of organs for her with plenty of cells to spare if something wore out sooner than expected. Lungs, pancreas, eyes, the lot. Grown as needed, one by one.

When they first started they had cloned people. Not just the organs, but the whole kit and caboodle, stem to stern. Seemed a good idea until it came time to harvest and it turned out the clones weren’t too willing to part with their parts. Whole new kinds of laws were developed then, saying these were now people, with rights, and not a collection of replacement bits to be switched out like a used fan belt or alternator you’d pick up at the local auto yard. Once they figured out how to grow the organs separately there weren’t any problems. A liver can’t complain with no mouth to talk with.

They promised painless surgery too.  The organs would be exchanged by a form of highly localized teleportation. Beam the old one out and the new one in at the same time, like a kind of cross-fade, like in music. Hurt less than getting a shot, they said.

She was still waiting. Maybe she’d stay a little longer outside today, just in case, what with the time change and all.

(Photo found in the “Adopt a relative” box in an antique mall on King Street in Boone, NC.)

Tilly and the lawn.

Tilly and the lawn

 

It was a big yard, and somebody had to mow it. 82° in the shade, and there wasn’t much of that to be had, but the grass still needed mowing.

Tilly was pleased with herself. All 7 acres in one day! Maurice said it couldn’t be done, but she did it. All week long he doubted her and it only egged her on. It was years later before she suspected that was his plan – to fire her up to do it by saying she couldn’t.

He was forever getting out of doing things one way or another. He thought he was so clever, but she was the real winner. He spent his whole life making others do everything for him and had never learned how to do anything for himself. Now he was a manager at a forgotten branch office of a small appliance outlet. Upper management had been fooled for years, thinking he did all the work.

When employee after employee quit, the house of cards tumbled down. They’d held it together for a very long time, but there was only so much they could take, watching him get the praise, the bonuses, the requests for motivational speeches. They couldn’t get why nobody else could see through his lies. Finally they left, one by one, and he was left by himself to run the shop. He didn’t even know how to run the cash register. It took the corporate office a week to suspect something was wrong. It took them a month to find an out-of-the-way office where he couldn’t do the company a lot of damage.

They couldn’t fire him, no, that wouldn’t do. Nobody really knew why. It wasn’t like he had tenure, not officially. This wasn’t a college after all. Plenty of half-rate incompetents had slid under the wire in that field. He was likable, in an odd kind of way. Perhaps that was how he could cajole everyone – employees, family, neighbors, into doing things for him.

He wasn’t pushy in an obvious kind of way. He just knew how to put a little pressure here and a little finesse there and before you knew it you’d agree to give up your one day off to work his shift. Somehow, at the time, you forgot you had plans you made weeks ago with friends you’d not seen since September. Somehow, it took several hours into your shift – his shift – to remember, and get angry and even a little resentful.

He was far away by then, and maybe that was part of his magic. The closer he was to you, the more you couldn’t resist, the more you couldn’t say no. Even 30-some-odd feet away at the other end of the building, his influence could still be felt. When he was at home he didn’t have the same power over them. But he sure had it over his wife.

Tilly made less than Maurice, always had. She was fine with that, because she had something he’d never have, something more than money. She had respect. She was respected by her coworkers and her family – people who had to be around her. Her friends didn’t just respect her – they adored her. They were drawn to her charm like a child is drawn to fireflies. They all did what she asked joyfully because she rarely asked – asked only when absolutely necessary, and even then she always said “You can say no”. They never did. Doing for her was like doing for a saint. You felt better after doing it, whatever the task.

Years later Tilly saw the picture of her standing on the front porch and laughed. If she’d only known just a few years later there’d be gas powered motors to speed things up. Just a few years later and there’d be tennis shoes, not loafers, for better grip. Just a few years later and she could have worn a T-shirt and shorts to do this chore, free to choose to wear a dress rather then it be the only option. All these advancements made her mowing accomplishment at the time all the more impressive because she did it without them.

She’d always thought that handicaps were advantages in disguise. They made you work harder, not take anything for granted. They handicapped the athletes who were stronger, didn’t they? Or was it horses? Something about making it a fair match. So being handicapped meant something good to her, meant that she secretly was better, stronger, more capable. Like she had secret powers and had to figure out what they were, hidden under that handicap. She always said that the more you focus on what you don’t have, the more you miss what you do.

Maurice was her handicap, so he was her blessing. Because of him she learned how not to treat others. He gave her so many examples of how not to act that she had a clear road in front of her showing her the way. It was like he’d gone through the test book of life and crossed out all the wrong answers, leaving her with all the right ones. It was an odd way of learning but it was learning nonetheless. It took her years to understand the gift that he given her by teaching her backwards.

Hilda in the snow.

Hilda

Hilda was shivering. Cousin Tom insisted on taking her picture.  She protested, mildly. “You can’t take my picture – it can’t even be given away.” She mentioned an old tale she’d read in one of the many folktale books she’d found to while away the time in these cold winter months. “Some cultures say that taking pictures takes the soul, others say that it is making a graven image, and that’s a sin.”  When pressed, she couldn’t remember what culture said it, or if there were more than one that had this belief.

Tom was having none of it. “The sooner you let me take this picture, the sooner you can be inside,” he retorted. That was enough for Hilda. 10 feet away, stock still, she stood. The moment she heard the metallic click of the shutter release she was free. She trudged back inside, her duty done.

He said he was going to take a picture of all his relatives, save them up in an album. He’d include labels too, with history, birthdate, the lot. Maybe even accomplishments. She thought he should include that she’d won first prize in typing at the local career college.

Typing wasn’t her thing.  It was her parent’s idea. She’d always wanted to be a cellist for some big symphony in some city – anywhere away from here. The sound of the cello reached down to her bones with its warmth, all golden-honey smooth. Her parents thought this was poppycock, wasteful, a dreamer’s fantasy, and told her often, even if she hadn’t brought the subject up that week. She was going to be a secretary and that was that. They paid good money for those typing classes and weren’t going to have her waste it with some fool idea of playing an instrument they’d never even seen in real life.

They decided they had to do something to prepare for her future. That was the reason for the classes.  They had no ambitions she’d ever get married, so she’d have to support herself after they’d passed on.

They would never say she was ugly, at least not out loud. Homely. Plain, even. “She has a great personality,” they’d chirp to new acquaintances, in the off chance they might have a son in a similar predicament. Even if a date did come of it, there never was a second one. The boys all said “You think too much,” and that was that. The guy didn’t want her, and she didn’t want him.

“Like thinking too much is a bad thing,” she’d say to herself. She wasn’t one to dumb herself down to their level. They’d either have to rise to hers or she do without a man in her life. That suited her just fine.

Meanwhile, she was cold, and her party shoes were now ruined from that snow.

 

(Photo purchased October 2015, from the three-story antique mall on West King Street in Boone, NC. It was in the “adopt a relative” box and cost $0.50)

The bramble-bush baby

bramble 3

He found the feral child on Wednesday, under the bramble-bush. Hank had meant to cut that bush down six weeks ago, after that toad-strangling thunderstorm.  Said it would loosen up the roots, make it easier to get out, to do it then.  He forgot, or put it by, maybe hoping Ellie wouldn’t remember she’d asked.

She hadn’t. That was all he heard about.  She left him notes.  She asked him after he came home from work.  She suggested that today looked like a good day.  It started off once a week that she’d remind him, but then it was twice a week.  Then it was more. At 8 that Wednesday morning he finally got tired of her reminding him, so out he went, hoe in hand.

He thought he saw something odd the moment he stepped out the back door.  A bit of laundry blown over from Mrs. Whipple’s house? A piece of paper from a torn-open bag of trash? The wind was forever driving things into their yard.

The wind drove a baby into their yard this time.

The moment Hank saw it, dark-eyed and brooding, with a narrow-eyed stare that thinly hid years of malice and hate behind them, he knew this was a baby in size only.  Knew right then and there it wasn’t human, neither.  He ran back inside, more afraid of that child than of the ribbing he’d get from Ellie at bein’ a’feared of anything.  First off he’d have to explain how he wasn’t shirking the bramble-bush chore.  That alone was enough to make him think twice about going all the way back inside.

He stood a bit in the mud-room, on that peeling linoleum floor, trying to decide.  He’d known Ellie for 18 years.  He just met that baby, if a baby it really was.  He decided he was better off going back outside.  He knew how Ellie got when she was angry.  He’d take his chances with the baby.

(Photo purchased October 2015, from the three-story antique mall on West King Street in Boone, NC. It was in the “adopt a relative” box and cost $1.50)

The Cold 3 (an ephemera story)

bank 3

The banks were next. Zeke got another Message, just two days later. Zeke got most of the Messages, but anybody could. It wasn’t a special thing that just one person got. The community was suspicious of any group that only had one prophet, one person who Heard. The goal was for everybody to hear. How could they be one Body if they didn’t all work together in harmony?

Marsha and Donald went first. They took some of the cash the community had saved up from sales of produce and booklets, tens and twenties. They got it broken into ones. They had hundreds of them. Then they went to the shops and bought everything with ones, but not until they’d dosed them up good first. The money would spread around, and so would the viruses. They didn’t even need to use any of their precious pamphlets this way. Those cost a lot to print. They didn’t have much money, what with all the missions work they were doing.

They thought about a way to get the people who used credit cards, but they couldn’t. Not yet. Hopefully a Message would come about that.

On the whole, they liked it when people used cash. Cash was best, if you had to use money. Cash wasn’t traceable. The government didn’t have to know what you spent every penny on with cash. They only took cash at their corner stand where they sold what little they did to support themselves, for that very reason. Sure, they lost some business, but that was OK. What did those people do before plastic, anyway? What will they do when the crash hits and the grid falls? No electricity then. Those fancy machines won’t work. If the Ranch had its way, no machines would work, ever.

People didn’t need to trust in banks or money, said the Message. Putting your trust in money was the same as idolatry. Thinking you could shore up your future by saving up pieces of paper? That’s crazy-talk. Only God can protect you, not paper. Sure, it says “In God we trust” on it, but if they really believed it, they’d not use it.

Remember the lilies in the valley? They didn’t work, and they had beautiful clothes. Remember the ravens? They didn’t save up, and they had plenty. The community thought the same way. No worries about material things. Worry made you sick. Worry drew away your focus on the LORD.

Soon it was going to be time to deliver the big Message to the world. Soon everybody would know the Way, the Truth, and the Light of the LORD. That, or be dead. Made no difference.

The Cold 2 (an ephemera story)

parking pass

They left the car with James, so his namebadge said. 20? 17? Young, with just a handful of years of driving to his credit, to be sure. Maybe he likes getting paid to drive lots of fancy cars. Only fancy cars got valets. Poor people couldn’t afford going to places that needed valets. They had to park their cars on their own, just like every other thing they had to do in their lives.

Janice and Bill didn’t have a fancy car. It wasn’t even theirs. A 1987 Ford Festiva, faded brown. The rust spots blended in well, and they were small. It belonged to the community, same as everything else. Share and share alike. Even their clothes were community property. Everybody gave what they could and borrowed what they needed.

There was a truck, and a van, and a handful of sedans in the parking lot at the Ranch along with some smaller cars. The keys were in the ignition of every one, ready for anyone who needed them. There was no fence, or a gate around the lot. If any neighbor, not officially part of their community, wanted to borrow one, they could. They never did. They were always invited to Friday supper at sundown, and Sabbath morning services in the barn, but they never came.

The car was just enough for the mission. Not too big, not showy. It was reliable and didn’t call attention to them. That was important right now. They needed to blend in, invisible.

Tonight was the opening of The Nutcracker. Plenty of people, plenty of excitement. It wouldn’t take long to do what they came for. High emotions made the viruses act faster. Calm people didn’t get sick. Everybody at the Ranch prayed for at least four hours of every day just to keep their spirits in the right place. Well, that, and to get the Messages.

A Message came to Zeke last week. They were to focus on public performances next, no more hospitals. They had to send a Message that such goings-on were sinful because it took away from studying the Word. What would the LORD think if He came and found them all laughing and going on, not on their knees in prayer, but giving standing ovations to some singer or actor? Who of them had ever healed a blind man or raised to girl from death? Not a one. Why did they deserve applause for their “work”? The LORD never got applause. He got ridicule and death. It was time to reset all their priorities, give them all a mental adjustment.

Two by two they went out, some to the ballet, some to the movie theater, some to a play. They had their pamphlets and their plagues. Sure, they prayed for everyone there, that they would turn from their sinful, self-serving ways. They would die either way, saved or not.