Ella

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Ella had been raised with humans since she was a wee calf, only two months old. She’d been abandoned by her mother, who simply walked away one afternoon while she was sleeping in the damp Savannah heat under a baobab tree.

Perhaps the mother forgot her? Perhaps she walked off to check on a sound or find something to eat. Perhaps she didn’t want to be a mother anymore. Perhaps she was too young for the experience, or it was more than she’d anticipated.

Regardless of the reasons why, the “what” was that Ella was by herself for a day and a night before she was found by a safari full of New Zealand tourists. That area wasn’t on their tour, but her bellows aroused their curiosity so they rerouted.

Ella was fine for a few hours after she awoke. It wasn’t unusual for Mama to go away. Calves had to learn to be independent early on, so mothers didn’t coddle them. But when sunset came and Mama still wasn’t there she started to get a little anxious. That hungry feeling in her tummy got more insistent, which only worsened her anxiety. It was a terrible self-reinforcing loop. Ella began to whine, quietly at first, feeling sad and alone. She didn’t want to call the wrong sort of attention to herself. There were plenty of animals in the Savannah who would love to make a meal of a young elephant left unguarded by her intimidating parents. But after a few hours alone under the stars, Ella started the bawl openly, no longer holding back. She no longer cared if some predatory animal was drawn to her cries. Death was better than this, this half-life of loneliness and fear.

What would she do? How would she care for herself? Her mama had been her world, her constant companion. And now as far as she looked across the flat scrubland, she saw nothing but thorn bushes and trees stripped of their leaves by the giraffes. She was still awake, red-eyed and hoarse from her keening in the early morning when the safari group found her.

A young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Eli Halverson, married just 6 1/2 months, decided to take her as their own. They’d agreed when they were engaged that they didn’t want children, both having been raised by abusive parents. They didn’t trust themselves to not repeat the pattern. It was as if they both chosen to be teetotalers after being raised by alcoholics. Safer for everyone all around if they didn’t even try. But an elephant was another matter entirely. And who couldn’t fail to fall in love with her? Her huge dark eyes with her long ashes locked into them like a tractor beam. There was no chance of escape.

However, there were a few obstacles to overcome. How to get her home? An airplane was out of the question. If airlines charge by the pound for luggage, there’s no way they can get her on board. Perhaps a combination of train and boat? It was the only way it seemed. However, the moment they put her on the train for the first time they knew there was going to be a problem. She began to bawl when Jake stepped out of the car. He and Margie quickly realized one of them would have to stay with her.

They hurried to get another ticket and had to pay extra for the “privilege” of riding in the animal car. It wasn’t meant for people, and Mr. Gruber, the engineer, had to pay off the station manager to keep him from grumbling. Fortunately the weather was good, because the animal cars were ventilated on the sides. No use wasting heat and air on them. But Jacob would have a hard time. Even though it was early summer, the speed of the train would mean it would be rather chilly while it was traveling. Margie gave him her mink coat that he’d given her as an engagement gift to soften the blow. The other animals kept away from him once they caught a whiff of it, unsure of what it, or he, was. It masked his aftershave, however, and that was good. He was grudgingly accepted as one of them at least long enough to get Ella to her new home.

Molly under cover

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The Eames children could not bear to be without their mother. Simply losing sight of her would set one, and then all of the children to wailing. Even after she returned to the room it took a good solid ten minutes to assuage them. Really, it was a worrisome thing. You’d expect it from babies. They are so helpless. Their every need has to be taken care of by an adult, and often that was their mother. It stood to reason they’d think she was God. Plenty of adults acted the same way come to think of it. When everything started to go sideways they forgot themselves and made it worse with all their worrying.

Perhaps it was because the children were so close in age that it kept happening, the self-reinforcing feedback loop. The boys were only a year apart. For Molly Eames it felt like she was pregnant two years running. She had no intention to make it three so she simply told Mr. Eames that there would be no sex for year (at least) until she felt like going through that ordeal again.

She’s not expected marriage to be like this. Her mother, either out of modesty or meanness, never told her where babies came from, or more accurately how they were created in the first place. She was horrified to learn the secret and was incredulous at first. How is that possible? Much of her life was a mystery to her. Her parents were conservative on many fronts and had homeschooled her to keep her from being “infected by the disease of the world” as they so often informed her. It was for her own good, they said. It was like she was a time capsule, a frozen moment in a fictional time when everything was safe. Their greatest hope was that she’d be a beacon of light in the dark times they knew were soon to come.

Her lack of education chafed at her once she realized it. If she could get pregnant from something as simple as a part of her husband’s body, then what else could happen? What else had been hidden from her? After her first check up at the obstetrician she went straight to the library and got every book they had on biology. Three weeks later she returned them all and decided to start at the beginning of the nonfiction section and work her way through the entire collection.

She told no one in her family what she was doing, least of whom her husband. She even made sure that her library record was private when she got her card. She figured if her family had hidden important knowledge from her, then they must think she wasn’t worthy of it, or that it wasn’t worth their time to tell her. So it wasn’t worth her time to tell them otherwise.

Molly Eames couldn’t hold off from sex indefinitely, however. Her husband was becoming insufferable, as if he was a prisoner of war in his own home. If he’d to endure months of nausea, none of his clothes fitting, and even his fingers and feet swelling, not to mention the painful and embarrassing ordeal of actually giving birth, he might think differently. Ten minutes of fun wasn’t worth nine months of feeling possessed by an alien being.

Giving birth was the most difficult thing Molly had ever been through. It wasn’t joyful at all. She simply didn’t understand the chittering from her neighbors and friends who gushed about how wonderful it all was. Maybe they were lying. Maybe they were insane. Maybe the whole experience had turned them permanently crazy with no hope of recovery. The worst part wasn’t even the pain, which was so bad it created a whole new category of suffering. It became her new ten on the pain chart, a place formerly occupied by having her arm set without anesthesia at 12 after she fell out of a tree.

She never climbed a tree again after that. Just like with sex, the risk wasn’t worth the fun. It’s not like her husband was any good at it anyway. He called it “making love”, never “having sex” but it wasn’t lovely at all. It was sweaty and awkward and strange. Perhaps other people were used to being naked in front of others, but Molly wasn’t. There was nothing exciting about it. She was always trying to cover up with the sheets. She wasn’t trying to hide how she looked so much as not be cold. Her husband wasn’t much to look at either, and he only took a bath once a week, and then only if she insisted.

The “being naked” part of being an adult was a great shock. Her parts most certainly weren’t private when she had to go to for her checkups when she was pregnant but at least that was just the doctor. When she gave birth, it seemed like the whole hospital was staring at her nether regions. She briefly considered selling tickets to offset the bill.

Even though her two children were very clingy, she had agreed to produce three when they had that discussion. It was important to work out such things. Children or not, standard of living expected, minimum expectations of signs of affection – all of these needed to be negotiated before you said “I do”. Too many folks didn’t see marriage as the legal contract that it was, hoping love would right all wrongs and mend all wounds. Without clear agreements it caused more trouble than it cured. There was nothing to it except to do it, so she determined her most fertile time from some of the research she had done and had sex once more to provide her end of the contract. Better get it out of the way, like ripping a Band-Aid off. To prolong the suffering was pointless.

Walter Eames wanted a picture of the children, but not of his wife. He was sick of who she had become – no longer meek or mild. She seemed more confident, more aware. She certainly wasn’t the person he had married – someone he could push around all day long with nary a peep. Not like he thought he was pushy or manipulative, no, never. Being assertive and decisive had gotten him to where he was at work, but it was getting him nowhere at home. Debate and compromise weren’t part of his repertoire.

But there was no way to photograph them without her. The moment she would walk away from them, they’d set up a wail worse than a tornado siren. It was nonsense. She couldn’t even go to the bathroom without them pitching a fit. It was embarrassing to go out in public with his family, so he didn’t. Far from being a source of pride as he had expected before he got married, he now frequently left them at home and went out by himself. Even though he’d worked all day and she stayed home with the children (that one attempt at day care changed any plans they’d had of her working outside of the home), he was happy to spend even more time away. This was not turning out to be the life he’d planned as an adult.

So when it came time to get a portrait made, he had to get creative. His parents had asked to see the kids for years. He refused to make the six hour drive with her, and they were too frail to make the drive themselves. A portrait would have to do. He looked around the studio and his eyes landed on a backdrop. “That’ll do!” he exclaimed, and snatching it up, pushed his wife into the chair, dropped the fabric over her, arranged the kids around her, and ordered the photographer to snap away. Other than the sound of the shutter release, the room was silent. Nobody other than him could believe it was happening.

Dolly dearest (part one)

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After nearly 5 years, Sara’s dolly had started to talk. Sure, she talked to it, dressed it, gave it a name. She even pretended to feed it cookies and tea on a weekly basis. She’d even thought she’d heard it answer her before, but it was always in her head or her heart. It was never out loud. That had all changed.

The first time she heard it out loud she thought she was imagining it. The second time, just a moment later, she thought her older sister Janey was playing a trick on her, throwing her voice. It was just like her to torment her little sister in ways that she could easily deny later to their busy and no-nonsense parents. Sara had learned early on that if she brought up charges, there had better be proof or the punishment she expected Janey to get would fall on her. She learned too that it was best to settle matters herself right away.

Sara jumped up off the bed, scattering her coloring pages and crayons and scrambled to her bedroom door. She jerked back the door, expecting to see her sister’s back as she ran away. But nobody was there. The hall was empty – not even the sound of bare feet dashing away. Stunned, Sara went to find her sister. After a few minutes she found her outside on the hammock reading some fantasy book about dragons. There was no way Janey could have gotten there that fast. Sara slowly walked back to her room via the kitchen, helping herself to a piece of banana bread and a glass of lime Kool-Aid. She did all her best thinking when she had a snack.

As soon as she sat down on her bed, with her dolly nestled in her lap, she heard it speak again.

“Won’t you give me some of your snack?” The voice was so soft and so sad, full of loss and longing. Sara held the doll out at arm’s length and stared at it, blinked her eyes. Then, with slow horror, she watched her doll blink her eyes too.

“You’re always pretending to feed me, but you never do. You’re such a tease. No wonder nobody plays with you.”

Sara was frozen with fear, yet managed to stammer out “How can you talk?”

Her dolly said “Silly! How do you think anybody learns how to talk? I listened. I listened to you blabbering on about how sad you are. I listened to your sister taunt you about being a scaredy-cat. I listened to your parents fight. I’ve listened to all of it. I’ve listened to the television announcers talk about pollution and war. I’ve heard the songs on the radio about getting even and how things were better back then. All I ever hear is sad sad sad, so that’s who I am. I’m everything you’ve ever cried about, because you’ve never shared your good days with me. My hair is matted from your tears. What did you expect? You made me this way.”

Sara threw her doll into the middle of the room and retreated to the furthest corner. It was nearly half an hour later before she realized her mistake – the doll was between her and the door. How could she escape? She put off the decision a little while longer, but soon she realized she had to pee and there was no ignoring that. It was either creep past that accursed doll or pee here in the corner. Even though she was young, she knew that would be a bad idea. Even if her Mom didn’t find out soon and punish her for it, Sara would smell the sickly sweet smell of her dried urine whenever she was in her room. Going to sleep would be terrible. She had to risk it.

Keeping her eyes on the doll, she slowly got up so as not to startle it. As slow as a cat stalking a cricket, she moved around the edge of the room as far away from her former best friend and confidant as she could.

She had told it everything. All the things she couldn’t say out loud to her Mom, her sister, her friends, she told the doll. All her fears, all her failings. Every little sneaky thing she’d done to get back at her sister without her knowing. She’d poured all of her darkness into this doll, and none of her joy.

The slow realization of what this meant descended upon her like an evening fog, clouding her vision, narrowing it to a pinpoint. She knew with dreadful certainty what she had to do next. She must destroy the doll.

So far, there was no movement from the accursed thing, but she couldn’t be sure this would continue. She’d thought it would stay silent for all those years, but that had changed. What other horrible changes what happened? Just because it wasn’t moving now didn’t mean it wouldn’t start, and soon. She had to destroy it as quickly as possible before it ruined her life.

She closed the bedroom door behind her and dragged a chair from the her sister’s room into the hall to jam up under the doorknob. That would buy her some time to think of her plan. She almost forgot her need to use the bathroom in her fright, but she tended to that need now. While in the calm and quiet space of the hall bathroom, she considered her options.

Burial wasn’t good. Her Mama would get mad about the mess she’d make, and how could she be sure the doll would stay buried? It might dig itself out. Perhaps she should chop it up first. Then she realized if she did that she could put all the pieces in separate places around town. The head could go under the drainpipe of the neighbor’s house at the end of the block, an arm in the trashcan in her school’s bathroom. There’s no way it could reassemble itself then. But maybe the head could still talk, she realized with a cold shudder. She’d better bury it, at least, to be sure.

Burning it was right out. Her Mama would whip her if she caught her playing with matches again. She’d gotten in trouble for that when she was three, having set a flip-flop on fire, wanting to see how the rubber melted. It melted alright, and so did the carpet it was on, and the curtains, and the entire bedroom. The whole family had to stay in a motel room for nearly 4 months until the insurance company got the restoration work done. While it was an adventure for the girls, it was a headache for the parents, so they made sure that Sara understood they were not kidding about fire safety. Janey used it as yet another way to torment her little sister, who she never wanted in the first place. Anything she could do to get her to leave her alone, or even leave, was fair game.

This was proving to be the hardest thing Sara had had to contend with in all her tender years.

Maybe she could preempt the doll and confess all her slights and sins to her mother before the doll did. Just thinking about that made her stomach go icy cold and wobbly. There were a lot of things.

You or I would consider them trivial, but Sara, with her limited experience, thought them worthy of eternal damnation. The perspective that comes with time downgrades childhood sins to summer showers instead of the tornadoes that they seem to be at the time. She had plenty of time to learn what real sins were about, but as for now, she felt damned.

But she didn’t have plenty of time to figure out what to do about the doll. So she did what she was taught to do in Sunday school. Not like she did a lot, but she figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

“God?” She murmured, on her knees on the cold porcelain tile on the bathroom floor, “I could use some help right now, if you’re not too busy and all.”

Sara wasn’t sure she had a good connection, because she couldn’t hear God’s reply. Was praying like talking on the telephone? Sometimes when she was talking to her grandmother in Canada the connection wasn’t that good. Also, often Gram’s hearing wasn’t that good either. Her mother always told her to keep on talking anyway, that Gram could make it out. Maybe God was the same way? It was worth a try. It wasn’t like she had anybody else she could call. This was some big stuff. She needed to go straight to the top.

“God? I hope you can hear me because I sure need some help here.”

The bear story

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The bear had moved in for good, and there wasn’t anything Alice could do about it. Not like she wanted to, not anymore. The first week had been more difficult than she had anticipated, but after that things had slowly improved. The bear agreed, in his sure, heavy way, that this was home, this sharing a space together.

Home was never about the building. Walls and a roof didn’t make a building into a home, any more than books made a library. Plenty of people have felt more at home at work in a warehouse then where they paid their mortgage. It’s the people that make the difference after all.

Alice always felt that animals were more human than those who claim to be so. Perhaps the utter guilelessness of them was the difference. Animals never had to prove who they were, never had to bother with such arbitrary things as status and striving. They never wore clothes, never owned cars, never had jobs. Their lives were free from all the distractions that humans had. Like children, they were given all they needed from Mother Earth and Father God. Like children, they learned at their own pace and trusted their senses. They slept when they were tired, ate when they were hungry. They never had to wonder or worry about such arbitrary and nebulous things as retirement funds or investment accounts. And as for in-laws? They never married, so that wasn’t an issue.

Alice had wanted to marry the bear as soon as he moved in, but he convinced her otherwise. He reminded her that marriage is a human invention, and subject to failure. If you never got married, you’ll never have a risk of divorce. You are free to come and go. Doesn’t it mean more if your partner stays out of love rather than obligation? Every day they stay is a gift rather than a duty.

The bear had no name as far as Alice knew. She had asked and he’d not said. He didn’t talk like humans did, of course. He made his thoughts known in the way all creatures did it first, with the spirit. He spoke with his whole being, resorting to sounds only as a last resort. Then they were usually snuffles and sighs and grunts. Only once had he growled, and that was when Alice had mistakenly opened a door onto his paw. After that they’d agreed to remove all of the doors inside the house. Doors just fostered separation and exclusion anyway. Plus, the knobs were hard to work with paws. The house had to work for both of them or it wouldn’t work at all.

The bear didn’t need a name, not really. He knew who he was. He was the only one Alice would be calling. Names meant very little when the group was small. She rarely had to call him anyway. He always knew in his slow sure way when she needed him. The same was not true for Alice, not yet. The bear often wanted to call her to look at a beautiful flower or sunset, but she was often so distracted by chores that she couldn’t hear him call to her heart. She spent a lot of time cleaning because wanted to keep the house just so, forgetting that the bear didn’t need to be impressed and nobody else who would come by would care.

Few people visited their home. Most of her family thought she was crazy for wanting to live with a bear. Her mother even talked about having her committed, but since she was an adult and seemed sane in all other respects, she let it drop, choosing to hold her judgment. She was prepared to shake her head and say “I told you so” while bandaging her daughter’s arms from the inevitable claw marks that surely would come, but they never did. Months went by and the bear and Alice got along like peanut butter and jelly, always together, and always good. Her mother still wasn’t one to concede the battle. Decades could’ve gone by and she still would not admit that perhaps Alice had chosen correctly. Little did she realize that Alice hadn’t done any choosing. The bear had. He knew Alice needed him as much as he needed her, knew that it wouldn’t be long before she’d hear him in her heart the way he heard her.

Their first meeting was as you’d expect. Bears aren’t normally sought after. Normally they are run from. Alice had decided to spend a week camping by herself in the Smoky Mountains. Her job wasn’t fulfilling, and she was estranged from her family in part because they felt she was wasting her talents. She decided week away to really listen was what she needed to get back on track.

Her family had paid for her college education, where she had studied veterinary science. But when she graduated and found a job at a local vet’s office as an assistant, she quickly learned that what you learned in the textbooks often doesn’t match with reality. It was far more visceral than she ever could have imagined. In her first week she saw more of animal’s insides than their outsides.

It wasn’t all physical. She’d always been a little empathic, able to feel how others were feeling even before they had words to express them. She was often able to help people before they even knew they needed it. Her friends liked her because they always felt at ease around her. She just made life easier. Meanwhile they never knew how much work this was for her.

When she was at the vet’s office, she was overwhelmed with the messages of hurt and pain that she received from the animals. She had not factored in that all of them would be constantly broadcasting their hurt and confusion and pain. It was an unrelenting onslaught, since even the healthy animals that were brought in were anxious and confused as to what was happening to them.

When she quit after a month, her family felt she was throwing away everything she had worked for. Worse, they felt she was throwing away everything they had paid for. They refused to support her any further, so she took a job selling perfume and cosmetics at a local mall to pay her bills until she could figure out what to do next.

It was not long after that that she went on her trip. While praying for guidance late one night around her campfire, she distinctly thought she heard a voice say “Take me in”. Usually she had perceived God’s voice as more of a feeling than actual words, but this was crystal-clear. It was so clear that she thought that perhaps it was an actual voice, so she looked around. Just outside the glow of the fire, she saw the distinctive gleam of eyes in the shadows. They were three feet from the ground, so she knew that it wasn’t an adult. She didn’t realize it was a bear until he stepped forward into the firelight and stared at her, saying again “Take me in”.

She ran, stumbling over tree roots and tent stakes to get away. She spent that night sleeping in the fetal position under a rhododendron bush about a mile away from her camp rather than risk being near that bear. Little did she realize but he followed her at a slow walk, and watched over her all night as she slept to make sure that no other creature could approach her. Not all forest creatures welcomed humans into their midst.

She awoke with the dawn, stiff from rocks and roots pressing into her side. Her first thought was to give up on her quest and walk back to her car, but her keys were in her tent. She hoped that the bear hadn’t savaged her camp, shredding everything in a quest for food. She’d heard stories of bears that tore through everything in a quest for sausage or Snicker’s bars. The idea of rummaging through her ripped-up belongings to find her keys was not appealing, but she had no other choice.

When she finally returned, she saw that everything was just as she’d left it. She had to use a hammer to re-secure the ropes from the tent pegs she’d tripped over on her midnight flight, but other than that, everything was the same. She started a small fire to cook her breakfast, and while drinking bitter coffee and eating oatmeal with blueberries she’d picked the day before, she heard the voice again. “Take me in”. She looked up with a start and saw the bear, but this time he was sitting twenty feet away, staring at her. This was enough distance that she felt she didn’t have to run. If she’d studied bears in college, she’d have known that no distance is a safe distance with bears. They may seem amiable and too large to run quickly, but looks are deceiving.

Alice stared at him (she assumed he was a he based on the sound of his voice in her head) and creaked out a tremulous “What?”
The bear repeated his request. “Take me in”.

“What? Why? Who are you?” Alice rambled on, picking up courage. She hadn’t had time to question that she was speaking with a bear. If she had, she would most likely have been silently staring at him, wondering if maybe her mind had finally cracked.

Over the course of half an hour the bear explained who he was and why he was speaking with her. He said things about being her protector, her teacher, her friend. He said he was her great-great-grandfather reincarnated. He said he had always known her and watched over her. He said that he could teach her to be the best veterinarian there ever was, or ever could be. He said that he would work with her, but first she had to let him into her life and into her heart and home.

They talked more over the course of the week she was at her campsite and worked out a plan. It was difficult for Alice to fully understand him because she still didn’t trust her abilities, but her natural empathic abilities went a long way. At the end of the week she went home, leaving the bear there, but she promised to return.

She quit her meaningless job as soon as she returned, not even bothering to go in to turn in her notice. She called the assistant manager at 7 on a Tuesday morning, waking him from his hangover from his one-person-party the night before. She told him that she had quit, and that was that. She hung up as he stuttered his questions at her, not believing. He’d never listened anyway.

She sold everything she had to make enough money to move to the woods and build a small cabin there for her and the bear. It was fortunate that she didn’t need much, because she didn’t have much. Her worldly possessions transformed from frilly dresses to sturdy cotton clothes, the better to work in. Her CD collection became an axe and a saw so she could cut down trees to make a home.

The bear worked with her, pushing trees down, dragging logs over, lifting them up. After a month they were both tired but there was a roof over their heads. They had no furniture but they didn’t care. The work was so exhausting that they didn’t need a fluffy bed to rest in. They both slept deeply, curled up on the earthen floor of their new home, the bear curled protectively around Alice. She loved the musky, earthy smell of his fur and how it was somehow soft yet bristly at the same time. At times she could smell pine sap and warm summer sun in his fur, traces of his adventures while away from her.

They spent much time working together, he teaching her about all the ways of the animals. He filled in all of the knowledge she’d missed in her classes. He introduced her to all the animals in the forest and taught her how to speak with them – but more importantly how to listen. He told her that she didn’t have to wonder what was wrong when they came to her – they would tell her if she asked.

Yet still there was a wall between them. She had learned the language of the birds and the deer, of all the animals that flew or walked or slithered. Yet she was never fully able to hear the bear, not as well as the other animals. Perhaps he was too different, too tame. Perhaps he’d given up part of his wildness for his ability to live with her. Perhaps there was still too much of his human spirit in him, buried deep down in his bear heart, for her to hear him like she could hear others. He wasn’t quite a bear, yet he wasn’t quite a person, but both, and neither, and something more.

Sam and the camera

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Sam never felt comfortable looking people in the eye. He’d look away to the side or at his feet rather than make direct eye contact. It was too personal, too painful, like the mixing of a raw nerve in a tooth and a bit of soft bread. His shoulders would curve inwards, trying to curl him into a ball like one of the hedgehogs he would see on his walk to school. It was all about protecting the sensitive bits, for both of them. Sam wished he had spikes or armor for his first few years of life. Everything was too close, too loud, too much. It was only when he received a camera for his sixth birthday that he began to feel normal, or as normal as he thought he should.

How should he know that his senses were aberrant? It was all he knew. Abnormal was his normal, and that was all there was to it. He thought it was normal to feel like ice was in his stomach and fire in his throat every time he had to experience something different from his usual routine. He thought it was normal to feel faint from fear or anxiety over half the day.

That all changed when he got the camera. It was a simple camera, easy to use. The film was a 110 cartridge – easy enough for a child to install. The buttons were large and simple to use. Sam’s father thought it would help him express himself, but he had no idea how helpful it was truly was.

Sam was wary of it at first, as he was of almost all new things, but he liked the shiny brown case and all the accessories that came with it so soon he was using it. The strap was fun to adjust and the flash cube was enticing with its shape and sparkle. He first took pictures by holding the camera out at arm’s length, not wanting to put this new thing so close to his face. After the first batch of pictures came back from the developer, his father strongly suggested he try holding the camera up to his eyes. There were simply too many wasted pictures the other way.

Something strange happened when Sam finally overcame his reluctance to put the camera to his face. Suddenly he realized he could see through the viewfinder, just as if it was a mask. He then realized that just like a mask, he too was hidden from view. Suddenly his whole world opened up. Sam started taking pictures of everything and everyone. Suddenly he had a reason to go outside and be around other people. Family gatherings no longer overwhelmed him as much as before. Sure, there was still some awkwardness. That would always be there. But now he had a way to be around people that he never had before. It was like finally getting a key to unlock doors that had always been locked to him.

His father hoped that Sam would become a famous photographer, but Sam had no such ambitions. Fame was never something he wanted, at least the kind of fame he was aware of. If he could become famous without even knowing about it, then he was okay with that. He could barely handle normal human interactions. The idea of having random strangers coming up to him on the street to get his autograph was enough to send him running to his room to grab his trusted teddy bear.

Fame was overrated, after all. It just meant that people were impressed that you were the best version of you there was. Meanwhile, they spent so much time focused on your achievements that they forgot to work on their own. They got jealous sometimes, forgetting that there was enough success to go around. Why be jealous of someone else’s skills? Your skills aren’t the same and that is the way it should be.

Abraham’s beard

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Abraham started growing a beard just like every other boy turning into a man. His Papa taught him to shave just like his Papa taught him. Every few days the razor came out of its leather pouch ready to do its job. In winter, when he got older, he let it grow out to keep his face warm in those biting Wisconsin winters. It didn’t matter if he had an outside job that year or not, even ten minutes outside putting groceries in his car was too much cold for him.

Abraham, (never Abe), had thought about moving to warmer climes many times, but that all changed when he became a monk.

His first vow was of stability – to stay right where he was and make the world right around him better instead of traveling to some far-off place where they might not speak his language or even have flush toilets. He figured that the good Lord put him here for a reason, so here was where he’d stay.

His second vow was to not cut any of his hair. Every day he washed and combed and oiled his beard and the hair in his head. This went fine until it all grew so long that he started sitting on it, or it got caught in dresser drawers. Then he started wrapping his hair up in a piece of linen, wound about and about until it was out of the way and safe.

He started tucking his beard into his shirt pocket, just like it was a pocket watch or a handkerchief. A decade later he took to putting it over his shoulder. Sometimes he’d wear an old military jacket with a shoulder strap. It was never anything so fancy as an epaulette, just a plain piece of cloth the same color as the jacket with a button to open and close it. While the button was helpful, it had caused a snag a time or two.

The only odd thing was that Abraham was a monastery of one. Nobody else even knew he was a monk. He never dropped so much as a hint to his friends, who never would’ve suspected and wouldn’t have believed him if he had said anything. The day after his parents died he made his vows and never swerved from them.

His third vow was to not speak about his spirituality unless he was asked. He agreed with the Lord that it was rude to brag about your holy walk, yet he also was certain to not want to be appear to be denying the Lord either. It was a tight spot to be in. It was only when the traveling photographer asked him about his beard that he told, and he was the first to ask in 20 years.

Sure, people wondered about his long hair and his refusal to travel even to the next town over, but they never asked him about it. They thought that was rude to ask. That didn’t prevent them from talking amongst themselves, however.

The vow of stability was a tough one. Abraham had a bear of a time getting good shoes until the Payless store opened up a franchise just three streets away from his house. His vow to stay in his town was not up for alteration. For nearly eight years he had to wear the same lone pair of brown Oxfords because there was no place to buy new ones – and he certainly wasn’t going to buy them used. Used shirts and pants, certainly, but shoes? Never. No amount of Lysol could convince him they were clean enough. Even a monk has standards.

The city of Two Creeks, Wisconsin had never seen a traveling photographer until that bitterly cold Thursday in May. Even if it hadn’t been so unusual for a photographer to appear almost overnight like a ring of mushrooms in the lawn, the cold snap would certainly have fixed the date in the minds of most of the nearly 450 people who lived there. Abraham had walked down Zander road where his house was and turned right along Lakeshore to get to the county park. Even though it wasn’t officially legal to fish there, it wasn’t actually illegal either, and Abraham often took advantage of these gray areas in life. It saved him a lot of money to fish for his supper.

He was just preparing his fishing lures when he heard a booming voice behind him. “Hello there, young man! Would you be interested in a free portrait of yourself this fine day?”

Abraham turned around and looked at the man for a full minute before he answered. The photographer thought maybe he was deaf, so he began his spiel again, but Abraham held up a hand to stop him. He was trying to figure out how to answer. His first problem was being hailed as “young man” since it was as clear as the silvery hairs on his head that he was far from being a spring chicken. Either the man was trying to butter him up or he was crazy. Neither one was good.

“Why would you want to do something like that?” Abraham asked. He liked a deal, same as the next person, but he knew that “free” meant that there was a cost down the line somewhere. Nothing was ever really free, it just meant that you didn’t pay for it. Someone did. That meant you were beholden, and beholden was a string. He was opposed to strings. They ended up being nooses more often than not.

The photographer explained that he worked for a national film developer who wanted to get more customers. Every person got a free 8 x 10 color glossy and eight wallet size portraits. The company figured that once folks saw how good the quality was, they’d order more. Suddenly the photographer stopped, looked at Abraham, and said “I never told anyone that before. That’s the company policy, but I was given a script and trained to recite it word for word as if it were mine. Why ever did I tell you all that? Come to think of it, why am I telling you this right now? Who are you?”

And Abraham told him his story, all of it. Truth for truth, since he asked. Told him how he was a born confessor. People all over, those he knew and those he just met, told him nothing but the truth all the live long day. They felt relieved, all their guilt and shame off their chests.

It started early on, as soon as he entered kindergarten. The other children just knew and came up to him. The teachers did too. It was overwhelming at first but he got used to it – well as used as you can get to people telling you all their secrets. Abraham thought this was normal, because it was normal to him. He had nothing to compare it to so he never told his parents about it.

Funny thing was though, it was like a superpower. The fact that people told him all their business meant that he could handle it. It was like God gave him extra strength to be able to carry all those secrets. Maybe he didn’t even carry them. Maybe it was more like he was a telephone booth, and people used him to speak to God. He figured that some people chose to dial direct, praying in their own words on their own, but then there were some who needed a person to be with them when they did it. Something about praying in an empty room made them feel like they were talking to themselves, and that bordered on crazy. Abraham was just the sort of safe person they needed. He never told, never even asked them later about what they said.

After he told his story, Abraham moved the very next day and left no forwarding address. It wouldn’t do to let it get out that this is who he was. Soon everybody would be beating a path to his door to unburden themselves. It was enough that people did it anyway, without even knowing that was what they were doing. It seemed honest, even pure, that way. This knowledge would turn that inside out. He might even have to set up office hours, maybe even go so far as to charge. Just the shock of thinking about the mess that would start as soon as it got out decided his mind for him.

So he shaved his beard and his head so nobody could identify him, and he started walking west, taking nothing with him. His neighbors didn’t suspect a thing because he walked all the time and he never caused a fuss. It was a week later that the word of his abilities got to them, and by then his mailbox was full and the grass needed cutting. By then he had found a new life for himself and started to regrow his hair again.

Merrick’s twin

experiment
He was a monster, but only on the outside. The real monsters were those who stared at him outright, or talked about him in hushed tones as he passed. He couldn’t help how he looked, but they could help how they acted – but never did. His various doctors over the years exercised cool detachment as one would expect from professionals, but then again they were under his employee. People can usually at least pretend to be nice if there is money involved.

The doctors were certain of the disease, but not so much on the cure or even the cause. They knew only the symptom but not the source. They took his money and made him feel special, but never once let on that there was no cure, only care. They could refer him to clothiers who would happily shape his clothes to fit his unusual frame. They knew of carpenters who could construct a bed that would allow him to sleep semi upright to relieve the pressure on his overworked neck.

Only one person knew the true cause of his deformity, and he wanted no money for the tale. Money wouldn’t cure him anyway, nothing would. John had crossed the wrong spirit one Tuesday night in October when he was 15, and he didn’t even know it.

Movies were a dime on Tuesdays at the downtown three screen theater, and a quarter all other days. Even though Tuesday was a school night, John was allowed out to see the latest film once a week as long as he kept his grades above a B. Even a B- wasn’t good enough and would make him lose this privilege for a whole quarter until the report cards came out again. So every other day he went alone to the library to study and every Tuesday he went to the movie theater. Sometimes he went with friends, but he was just as likely to go by himself, savoring the peace of being out of a house with five children. Five young mouths to feed and backs to clothe meant not a lot of spare money for extravagances like movie tickets, but John had convinced his parents that he wanted to be an actor when he grew up. Costly acting lessons were out of the question, so learning by watching the finished product would have to do. Even if they could have afforded private lessons, nobody in Palmyra was offering. Actors didn’t move to tiny towns unless they were close to big towns with big town amenities like airports to take them to where the jobs were. That was one reason John wanted to be an actor, to get out. Palmyra had nothing to offer anyone who was interested in something other than farming.

That fateful night he was thinking hard about how grand it would be to be an actor, where he could be himself and somebody else at the same time. It was like being a twin, he thought. He was so distracted that he tripped over the legs of Mr. Byron, the local eccentric. Mr. Byron wasn’t quite homeless, and he wasn’t quite crazy, but he wasn’t quite much of anything that usual people liked to associate with. Most steered a wide berth around his 5 foot eight frame, all angles and elbows. The hair on his head was jet black but it didn’t mean he was young. He got his hair color from a bottle of shoe polish, having realized a decade back that actual hair dye was four times as costly. Shoe polish did the trick just the same, and he didn’t mind the smell. Nobody else noticed either because they generally tried to avoid him.

He seemed normal when you first met him, and young ladies would take pity on him, try to befriend him. They thought that others in the town were unnecessarily rude to him, and they defended him at every opportunity, until he turned on them, like everyone else who had gotten close. The young ladies thought he was misunderstood. In reality he was just a misanthrope.

Mr. Byron often sat on the sidewalk near the movie theater with his legs splayed out, taking up half the lane. Usually John avoided him, but this night his head was in the clouds. Later, he thought that the scrape he’d gotten on his knee from when he fell after tripping over Mr. Byron was the extent of his injuries, but he was far mistaken.

It was a month later before he noticed the change. His right side had grown heavier, thicker, denser even. His arm wouldn’t stretch out like it used to. His hand started to curling in like a lobster’s claw. At first he thought nothing of it. There wasn’t spare money for a trip to the doctor anyway, so he did as his Mama had always taught him and drink a glass of water mixed with honey and apple cider vinegar. It was the best cure they knew and usually it worked a treat but not this time.

Mr. Byron always worked his revenge silently. His Mama taught him that “Revenge is a dish best served cold” and boy, howdy, did he love his Mama. Whatever she taught him, directly or not, he took to heart and made it his own. All of his Mama’s family had the second sight, could see right into you to know what your dreams and hopes were. Trouble was, they also knew your nightmares too. More than that, they knew how to take that raw stuff from deep in your mind and push it, shape it, like so much clay and build it up just like a mug or a vase, able to hold more than what it was before. The good ones in the family could make your dreams come true. The bad ones chose to do the same with your nightmares.

Mr. Byron was unique. He’d take your dreams, shaped them up up up, and turned them inside out, made them turn back on you so even though you got what you wished for, it wasn’t ever like how you wanted.

Normally he kept to himself about it and didn’t use his perverse talents. In years past some people would seek him out and try to get him to put a curse on another person in the town, someone who’d wronged them, either intentionally or not. At first Mr. Byron refused, but then came to enjoy the opportunity to practice and hone his craft. Even people who do bad like to be good at it. He felt it was important that the results matched his plan. It was a sad day when something that was to go wrong didn’t, or worse, turned darker and deeper than anticipated. Sometimes people needed a good scare, but ended up scarred instead. It wouldn’t do to make a molehill into a mountain.

All John did that fateful night was trip over Mr. Byron’s legs, so it didn’t seem right what happened next. But that night was just the cherry on the sundae of slights and snubs Mr. Byron had suffered, to his mind.

John had never noticed Mr. Byron, and that was his undoing. John never said hello or good evening to him. He never asked how he was doing, inquired about Mr. Byron’s family, never even invited him to see a show at the theater or out for dinner. Of course, nobody ever did any of these things, but that didn’t matter to Mr. Byron, because John was the one person who crossed his path every Tuesday night for years, so John was the focal point for his rage. There’s only so much being ignored a person can take after all. Rage is like sandstone, built up tiny layer by tiny layer, week by month by year, until it is larger than a mountain and just as hard to see around.

John’s dream of being an actor was turned on him that night, but it took a while before it showed. He’d been imagining how acting was like being himself and another person at the same time when he tripped over Mr. Byron. Mr. Byron caught that wish and shaped it, turned it, and made it true in the worst way possible. John became his own twin, shaped into a chimera of impossible belief. Slowly, so slowly that he didn’t realize the cause and effect, he turned into a monster, half of him crabbed and lumpy, some strange cross of an ancient gnarled oak tree and a mutant crustacean. His other half was in costume all the time, and he was powerless to make the scene end.