Sister trouble

He thought he had the upper hand. He had the gun, after all. He was only eight years old, but he had been trained all too well by his father and uncles. Women were to obey men, no matter what. If they didn’t, they had to be forced to, or killed.

His elders hadn’t told him exactly when he need this knowledge, but he figured now was as good as any. His younger sister was annoyingly taller than he was, and annoyingly got better grades to0. Their parents seemed to like her better, as well. He was sure it couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that she never caused any trouble, never talked back, always gave more than she took. Because if any of that were the case, then he’d have to change his own behavior and that wasn’t going to happen.

So he decided today was the day he would make his sister pay for his mistreatment. She had to understand that he was in charge, simply because he was male and he was older than her. Somehow talent and ability were irrelevant. Somehow the fact that their parents were actually in charge escaped him too. Now was the time to assert his dominance, and if she didn’t accept it, he’d be forced to kill her. It was for her own good, after all. If she wouldn’t submit to her brother, then how would she act around her future boyfriends? Best to get that train headed in the right direction early or else there was no telling what trouble could happen. It would be an embarrassment to the family name.

Little Susie smiled at Bobby when he pulled out the gun that Sunday afternoon in their backyard. She’d just gotten through cleaning out the birdcage for Mr. Peepers, their three-year-old budgie. She was the primary caretaker of the bird, even though it was Bobby who’d demanded the pet. After a week of owning it, when the novelty wore off, their parents realized he wasn’t taking care of the bird so they assigned the chore to her. For some unknown reason they didn’t insist on Bobby picking up the slack. It was his pet, after all, the one he’d begged and pleaded for all those months. They could have told him he’d have to care for it or they’d give it away to another family, but that never crossed their minds.

This injustice never crossed Bobby’s mind either. It told him he could do whatever he wanted with no repercussions. If only their parents could have looked into the future and seen how this lesson would warp him, resulting in a string of divorces and bankruptcies and get-rich-quick schemes that never quite seemed to work.

That Sunday was the final straw. Susie had gotten a gold star in Sunday school, while he got nothing. He’d not done the worksheet, so of course he got nothing, but the truth didn’t phase him. He was angry at her because he hadn’t gotten a gold star and she had.

So when he pulled a gun on her, she wasn’t surprised. She laughed at him, as she had learned to do. It wouldn’t do to get upset or frightened. That was what he wanted after all. Or so she thought. This time, he didn’t want the upper hand. He wanted all the cards. He wanted her dead. Only then will he reign supreme. No more being compared to his sister, always unfavorably. There would be no more competition because there would be no more her. Today was the day where he would prove he was better than her once and for all and no longer would he have to look at her smirk.

And then it happened. He pulled the trigger. And just like that she was dead. For once in his life he’d done something right the first time instead of halfway. There was no trip to the emergency room here. This was a one-way trip to the morgue.

Bobby thought all his troubles were over. Turns out they had just begun. Of course he had to go through counseling. Jail wasn’t even considered, since he was so young and the family assumed it was an accident since he was so feckless in every other situation. There was no way this was intentional in their minds – he wasn’t clever or determined enough.

But even though he was never punished physically he was punished metaphysically. Susie came back, but only for him. She first appeared in his dreams, with the same gunshot wound to the chest that had killed her. He could see right through her. Every night she appeared, and every night she looked a little more sallow, the blood around the wound a little more crusty and black. He never told anyone about this. On the year anniversary of her death she began to appear in front of him while he was awake as well, but only he could see her. She never left his side. Instead of being rid of her, he saw her more in death than he ever had in life. He ended up having to be institutionalized. Everyone felt sorry for him. Well, everyone except Susie, who knew better.

(Finished October 28, 2019)

The league ladies

The ladies of the 32nd St. Temperance League knew it was time to do something. No longer could they trust in just leading by example, it was time to take their show on the road. People weren’t taking charge of their lives, weren’t connecting the dots. They knew better, but they didn’t act better.

Simply calling people out on unhealthy actions didn’t work and they knew it. They’d not participated in such activities themselves, but they’d watched and learned. It was helpful that others had made their mistakes for them.

But this was their flaw, or even their Catch-22. They didn’t know what it was like to feel the temptation and not yield to it, or more – to yield and then learn how to recover. It was easy to tell folks to stay on the straight and narrow if you’ve never strayed. But it meant more if you’d wandered off the path, got lost, and then found your way back. Who wanted a tour guide who had never visited the country they were touting?

But there was the rub – people didn’t trust people who had taken a trip through crazy-land. Whether it was just garden-variety mental illness or that with a side of substance abuse, they didn’t feel easy around those folks, even if they’d recovered. There was always an unspoken fear they’d relapse. It was the same old problem that had plagued Mary Magdalene – the woman who had seven demons cast out of her. Everybody focused on the past – that she used to have seven demons tormenting her – and not the present – they are gone. Her present wholeness was discounted while her past troubles were highlighted.

It wasn’t fair, but it was human nature, and these ladies needed every advantage they could, no matter how unreasonable. Because it was serious now, no time for talk. Lives were on the line. The only trouble was nobody knew. It was just like with Noah, building an ark in dry weather, on dry land. People mocked him the same way they mocked these ladies. It didn’t deter them. They had to share their message but the people didn’t have to listen.

That was the deal. In fact, nobody had to be rescued at all. Nobody had to be saved. The ladies had to tell the story, but the people didn’t have to listen. It was hard, of course, knowing so many folks would perish in the upcoming tribulation, but that couldn’t be helped. In fact, that was part of the test. If they were mature enough to heed the instructions and follow them, they were ready for the evolution. Otherwise? Who needed them? Layabouts and slackers who refused to be responsible for their lives didn’t need to be rescued. Everybody as a whole was better off without them. The tribulation (nobody was sure whether it was going to be with a bang or a whisper) would weed out the blamers, the entitled, the arrogant. All those who expected others to take care of them – or blamed others for their situation – would be wiped off the map.

For the ladies, that day needed to come soon. They were exhausted with the laziness that surrounded them.

(Written early October 2019)

A thousand widgits

He had to keep at it, Even though it was turning him into a monster. The years of the 12 ounce curls had transformed him into something and someone unrecognizable. Was he even human anymore? He had the basic shape, but his skin was more reptile than recognizably human. Green and bumpy, he looked alien, foreign, and in reality he was. He has transformed himself into a creature that existed to feed its ego only. Anything he wanted he got – begged, borrowed, or stole. He wasn’t ashamed to guilt trip or manipulate. He used every trick in the book, and even added a few pages of his own.

Now he had gotten the council to give him an assistant to follow him around to cater to his every whim. Sometimes that was walking him to the pub and holding up his pint for him since he could no longer see for himself.

His eyes had swollen shut in a vain attempt to protect him from further harm. They figured if he couldn’t see, he wouldn’t want. So much of human “need” comes from what pours into the eyes. It is why people who give up watching TV (either voluntarily or not) end up saving money. It wasn’t just the cable bill they were doing without. They were doing without all the ads telling them what they were missing out on, telling them they would find love and acceptance and community if only they bought this thing that they didn’t even want or knew existed 10 minutes earlier.

And now he was part of that industry, that machine, cranking out 1000 widgets a minute, creating the supply first and then the demand. He was a spokesman for these fellow monsters, who weren’t yet ugly on the outside but were certainly ugly on the inside.

(Written early August 2019)

True health.

The air raids continued, but so did the entertainment. When the war had finally crawled to their shores, finally climbed in fits and starts over their borders, the citizens knew that life as they knew it was over. The first few weeks they stayed inside, huddled around the television for news of where the riots were. They planned excursions based on these reports. It wouldn’t do to go to the grocery store or church and run into a firefight.

Work was quietly canceled for the first week. Who could be expected to even try? Work then was all about staying alive in the moment. Who could take the time to worry about spreadsheets or stockrooms? But then the reality set in that this wasn’t a temporary thing. The invaders had settled in for the long haul. They planned to take this land no matter what – even if that meant destroying everything and everyone on it.

After a month of living under siege, the citizens knew they had to keep on going with their lives. They had resumed going to work – they had to once the paychecks stopped coming – but it was only now that they understood there was more to life than work. Entertainment wasn’t simply a distraction or diversion – it enriched life. Perhaps it could be said that they worked so they could afford to play.

And play they did! Movie theaters were re-opened, converted into cabarets and live theater And symphony halls. Colleges were converted into lecture halls for everyone, not just the paying students. All were welcome, and there were no tests or papers to write. People carried on with their lives, not in spite of, but perhaps because of the violence in the streets. They had no control over that, so they celebrated even more when they were able to make it through a complete performance. Many were the shows they got cut in half, with the cast or audience having to disperse because of insurgents coming too close. Rarely would the violence spill inside but it wouldn’t do to risk it. So the people left rather than draw the attention of the fighters to their secret.

And it was a secret, these diversions and entertainment. They were carefully curated and prized. They weren’t random. They had to be planned for and scheduled. It wouldn’t do to go a week without a gathering of some sort so it was important to make them good.

The people had come to understand that the source of their joy wasn’t how much money they made, or what football team they rooted for. It was in being together. Groups of like-minded people together – united by a common interest – were happier and healthier. Something about simply being together made them whole in a way they could never be alone.

But the gas masks still needed to be worn. It wouldn’t do to undergo a chemical assault while they were communing. Because that is what was happening – communion, union-with. Only together, with others, could they feel the peace of union, where they were no longer torn in two, fragmented. They needed each other in a symbiotic, inter-dependent way.

That was why all the mass murders from the past had happened in densely populated arenas. Those who felt alienated, excluded knew down in their core that the people who were gathered together had something they missed. Jealousy clouded their hearts to the point that they couldn’t see that they didn’t have to kill anything – except their “need” to be alone. Their cure would have taken place if only they had sat down with all these people and joined the group. Instead they had swallowed the poison of the message of independence, which taught them to be lone wolves, leaderless, a pack of one.

This message was taught to them by billboards and television and magazines, and stories and in songs, because the pushers of this drug also sold their version of the cure – to be found in pills, or alcohol, or retreats, or yoga, or a diet, or a religion or even spirituality. They caused the dis-ease in order to sell their “cure”, because true health was free and that wouldn’t do in a culture that saw money as its God.

So in a way, the war had healed this community. It had showed them what really mattered.

(Written late July 2019)

Little Ben

Little Ben shimmied into his man suit to go to the arena. He”d learned the hard way that he had to or people would step on him – sometimes literally. They just didn’t take him seriously most of the time.

Maybe it was his age. Maybe it was his joyful spirit. They just didn’t like being around someone who refused to get drawn into their glum gravity. His cheeriness in the face of their crankiness was disconcerting. It reminded them that they had a choice to be cranky, that it wasn’t automatic, or fate.

It was like sobriety – drunks don’t like to hang around those in recovery. It reminded them that there was a way out. They felt embarrassed, or shamed, by his presence. And while it would be easy to go along to get along, he chose not to. It had taken too much work to get where he was to fall back into bad habits again.

Short and Strange volume 2 is now available!

The link to the print version.
The link to the Kindle version.

This is a collection of 21 stories that were written from December 17th, 2017 to October 15th, 2019. They are all based on unusual black and white photos that I found. Some themes will become apparent – monkeys, alligators, names, citizenship. Who is “in” and who is “out”? What is “normal” – and who decides?The photo is the basis of every story. I select pictures that are odd, that seem to have a backstory. Yet, none exists. The human brain needs completion to feel at rest, even if the completion to the narrative isn’t necessarily true. So I write what the picture tells me to write. It is a little like being a detective, and a lot like being an artist. What would you create with limited ingredients or information? Sometimes a limit can be helpful. It forces you to focus on what you have. These stories might disturb you. They might make you think. Both can be useful. It is up to you to decide. These were initially posted on my blog, betsybeadhead.com. Many have been polished up for this book. If there is a difference between the version on my blog and the one here, the printed version is preferred.

Papa and the gun

Papa brought his gun everywhere he went. It wasn’t a small gun, either, no sir. It was a shotgun, meant for bears and the like. Gardening or the grocery store made no difference. He toted it all over Grandville, in the elbow-carry position most of the time. Sure, he got some strange looks when he was off his property, but everybody knew he was a retired Colonel (full bird, not Lieutenant) and cut him some slack. He’d never shot anything or anyone his whole service career, but that didn’t matter now. He’d been an electrical engineer before the World War started and he signed up as soon as he could. He wanted to do his part to help out his country. Maybe deep down he also wanted to make right the shame his father had brought to the family all those years ago when he left his family the permanent way.

But now he was at his new home, his two children (the requisite boy and girl) waving at the edge of the forest. They had just moved there, the 3 bedroom, 2-and-a-half bath, 2288 square-foot house they came from just wasn’t enough for him anymore. Maybe he was like a hermit crab and had outgrown his shell. He’d had to find a new one and fast or he’d die. That unsettledness was his inheritance from his Pa.

Papa was a tender soul in a hard world. Deep down he would have preferred to walk in the woods, without a care or obligation. He married out of social expectation, but had requested they have no children, but his wife had snuck two in on him before he’d insisted on separate rooms. He didn’t want children because he couldn’t bear to think of a child having to undergo what he and his sister had – the hardship, the skimping, the growing up fast after their dad died at his own hand. The family story was that it was during the Depression.  It was a depression alright, but not the capital-D kind. More of a personal kind than a public one.

Yes, that was why he carried a rifle. His father had used a revolver. And while you could kill yourself with a rifle, it was a lot harder.

You’d think he wouldn’t carry a gun at all, but he needed a reminder of the weakness that might affect him. He wanted to never succumb to weakness – whether inside or out. He needed a reminder to never forget how easy it was to go astray. Some former cigarette smokers kept their favorite ashtray, while some ex-drinkers kept empty bottles on display. It was all for the same reason. They kept their old sin before them so it wouldn’t become their new sin all over again. He never knew if suicide would sneak up on him like it had his father, but he was determined to not let it get a chance.